A pastor named William McNamara once shared a fantasy about how he would like to respond to someone who asks, "Pastor, say a little prayer for us before we begin." This is what he'd like to say: "I will not! There are no little prayers! Prayer enters the lion's den, brings us before the holy where it is uncertain whether we will come back alive or sane, for it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living Lord."
As a minister myself, I sympathize with Rev. McNamara's fantasy. Yet I also think it must be acknowledged that when we pray for the health of another, for instance, the effects of these prayers may be elusive, making them seem quite "little."
Jesus taught his disciples that prayer is like a person calling to his friend over and over again in the middle of the night to get out of bed and lend him a few loaves of bread. "I tell you," says Jesus, "even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs." (Luke 11:5-8)
There may be no "little prayers," but apparently they need to be made repeatedly if they are to have much effect.
Years ago, a friend of mine who regularly speaks about religion around the world rejected all forms of intercessory prayer after his wife became the recipient of hundreds if not thousands of daily prayers following a terminal cancer diagnosis. The reason for his objection was not that he felt the prayers were ineffectual. Indeed, he became convinced that the prayers may have been responsible for extending his wife's life for several years beyond the original prediction. Yet it was for this very reason that he rejected prayer. "How is it fair," he asked, "that my wife's life should be extended when someone with the same condition, but without the prayer network, would die earlier?"
It's a fair question. If God is both good and omnipotent, why would God need to be persuaded by even a single prayer to heal someone? Shouldn't God just heal them without being asked, if God has the ability?
These objections, as logical and heartfelt as they are, are based on an assumption that prayer is about persuading God to act, as if God, like the man in Jesus' parable, is comfortably tucked in somewhere up in heaven and can't be bothered unless given strong reason for coming down and helping us. Yet the point of Jesus' parable was not about persuasion but persistence.
Prayer is a lot easier to understand and, I would maintain, accept, if we ask what it is about persistence that makes it work, rather than persuasion. In this regard, modern science may be instructive.
Quantum physics has taught us that we are 99.9999% empty space; that what we are really seeing when we look out at the material world is massive concentrations of energy, bonded together in ways we haven't even begun to understand. One day, I predict that prayer will seem a lot less "woo woo" than it does now; that we will see prayer as more organically related to the natural world - and therefore comprehensible within a scientific framework - than many presently realize.
In the realm of quantum physics we already have been able to measure a subtle effect known as quantum entanglement - the phenomenon where certain objects interact and become related to each other in such a way that even when separated by large distances they continue to share certain characteristics in common, even when those characteristics change. Einstein called it "Spooky Action At A Distance." When I think of praying for someone, I imagine it as a form of quantum entanglement. When we pray for each other, we become entangled with them, and them with us. Perhaps we all become entangled in God as well.
My hunch is that one day we will understand intercessory prayer as a mechanism by which we subtly move energy, or change its characteristics. Because these changes are small and imperceptible to our present instruments of measurement and observation, rather than large and forceful, intercessory prayer is by definition "little prayer." And because it is "little," its effectiveness depends on persistence, not persuasion. It depends on our determination to heal, not God's.
I'm not suggesting that everyone can be healed if only enough people pray. Just as the human body responds differently to different forms of medicine depending on a number of complex factors, so it is with prayer. Different forms of prayer move energy differently, and the body responds differently depending on its current state.
Where all this theoretical rubber hits to road for me is in the situation of my eldest daughter, Arianna, who was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor known as an astrocytoma in August of 2008, when she was 17 years old. Arianna underwent two brain surgeries to resect as much of the tumor as possible. During that time, Arianna and our family experienced what it is like to have thousands of people praying for us every day.
Even though I had been a minister for the better part of Arianna's life, I had been skeptical about its effectiveness. I was skeptical until our family experienced exactly what other families have consistently told me about over the course of my ministry: We experienced what it is like to be held. Held by an energy that clearly was not our own. Held in such a way that we could continue moving forward long after we exhausted whatever inner resources we had to do so ourselves.
While Arianna's tumor did not magically disappear as a result of prayer, the experience made us true believers in the power of "little prayers." We don't believe that people's prayers "persuaded" God to act on Arianna's behalf. Rather, those who cared about Arianna were persuaded to pray for her, and by praying persistently for her, they directed energies her way that God had been "persuaded" to make available to Creation since the very beginning.
While it is possible that those energies played a role in the success of Arianna's surgeries, and in keeping the tumor that remained dormant for the next seven years, what we are most certain of is that people's prayers got us through a terrifying and excruciatingly draining situation by upholding us when we could not hold ourselves up any longer. And they filled us with a very real and tangible sense that we weren't alone on our journey, but were being helped powerfully by those around us and by God.
I wrote about Arianna's tumor in my book, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). Then, just weeks before its publication last September, Arianna received the news that the tumor that remained in her brain had begun to grow again. Thus, in mid-February our family will journey to the Cleveland Clinic, where Arianna will undergo laser ablation therapy in an effort to remove the majority of the tumor that has grown back.
Once again, we expect that thousands will be offering prayers on her behalf. If you are one of these, we thank you in advance for your kindness. Whether you pray for Arianna in the coming weeks, or direct your prayers to someone else who could use your support, my next post will offer some guidelines for intercessory prayer. I do not claim to know exactly how prayer works, but I will offer some suggestions based on my best understanding and experience, and on the assumption that prayer moves energy very subtly, at a quantum level, entangling us with one another and with God.