The Paradox of Prayer: A Pilgrimage
Older Americans pray more often. Why do we keep gazing heavenward even when answers elude us?
En español | There's hubbub aplenty at this strip mall coffee shop in Irvine, Calif. A scrum of small children is being herded about by their barely-keeping-it-together moms and nannies, the sound system is playing Motown classics, and the espresso machine is hissing in one corner. Around Christina Levasheff, though, there is a palpable sense of quiet. She sits across a small table from me. Although she smiles softly, her eyes don't convey the same emotion. Pretty and vivacious, she nevertheless carries that vaguely haunted look you see in the faces of parents who have lost a child.
Around her neck, Christina wears a pendant bearing a photo of Judson, the little boy who was an active, exceptionally bright 2-year-old until, almost overnight, he developed symptoms of Krabbe disease, an untreatable condition that relentlessly destroys the brain. The best doctors in the country told Christina and her husband, Drake, to take Judson home to die.
But Drake, a Christian theologian, and Christina had other plans, and they came to believe that God did, too. They prayed for healing. So did their friends, relatives and a vast network of believers they didn't even know.
"We didn't plan a funeral," she tells me. "I had in mind this celebration-of-life party that we were going to have when Judson was healed. We talked about what that would look like, when everybody was expecting a funeral."
The funeral came before Judson turned 3. That was seven years ago.
"People come to me and say, 'Well, God did heal your son. He just healed him in heaven,' " says Christina.
She smiles again, but two tears slide down her cheeks. "My response to them is, 'That's not what I prayed for.' "
I sit there and, like those well-meaning friends, I don't know what to say. Then Christina — who runs a nonprofit organization for Krabbe disease research (JudsonsLegacy.org) — says something that would surprise a lot of people.
"I still believe in the power of prayer," she says firmly. "I'm conflicted, I'm angry, and I hurt. I tell God, 'I don't know how to reconcile what I'm feeling with who you say you are.' But I still believe that God wants us to meet him where we are."
It is that paradox of prayer — the belief that there is power even in prayers that seem to sail off into some cosmic dead letter file — that comforts and confounds believers and skeptics alike.
It seems that as long as humans have endured the cares of this world, they have been praying. Anthropologists say prayer is one of the earliest recorded behaviors of human beings — the cave paintings of Dordogne, France, may well embody a 16,000-year-old prayer ritual.
Aside from Buddhists, and even there you'll find exceptions, "I don't think there's any society on earth that doesn't interact with gods and spirits," says Tanya Luhrmann, a Stanford University professor who, in the course of writing one of the most influential books on the subject, has studied prayer internationally.
Luhrmann and I were sitting in a lunchroom on the Stanford campus. Outside, bright-as-anything students dodged raindrops from a late-afternoon shower, confident in their academic pursuit of absolute, calibrated truths. In books such as When God Talks Back, Luhrmann, soft-spoken and almost unnervingly serene, has made a career of measuring the immeasurable.
"As far back as we have writing to describe human behavior, where there is religion there is prayer," she says.
As for the disappointment that almost everyone encounters sooner or later from prayer, Luhrmann suggests it's actually an essential part of the prayer experience. "In fact," she says, "prayer may be more comforting when it is not answered, because, for many, prayer is about the relationship with God, not about the goodies. Christians sometimes say, 'Not getting what you need materially can lead you to understand that God wants you to depend on him more deeply.'
"Then again, Christians often say that God actually does answer all our prayers. He just doesn't give us the answer we want." But, as Luhrmann explains, "prayer is an action. It makes you feel like you're doing something, even if it hasn't yet helped."
Like lots of people, my earliest memories include prayers at bedtime: "God bless Mommy, God bless Daddy.…" (Happily, my parents never forced us to recite the terrifying "If I should die before I wake….") Raised Catholic, I learned by rote a lot of prayers that I can recite even today, 40 years after I abandoned Rome's liturgical prayers for the free-form riffs of the Baptists and, later, Presbyterians.
America is a praying country, and the older we get, the more we pray: An impressive 48 percent of Americans ages 18 through 29 pray every day, Pew reports, but for the 50-through-59 age group, the number grows to 61 percent — and the 70-plus crowd is downright pious, with 70 percent checking in on a daily basis. Among faith groups, 86 percent of Protestants say they pray every week, followed by 82 percent of Muslims, 79 percent of Catholics and 44 percent of Jews. Of those unaffiliated with any religion, 65 percent pray weekly.
The Pew statistics indicate that most prayers are simply letters from home — missives of praise and gratitude or casual requests for nonspecific blessings — that flutter upward in the course of day-to-day life. But then there are the S.O.S. signal flares: the rocket-powered petitions that demand the attention of a God who, depending on your belief system, may require serious cajoling or else is constantly on call, lovingly awaiting any such emergency alert.
Is anybody listening? We seem to think so; the numbers are consistent across generations. Among people 50 or older who pray, one-quarter report having received a specific answer to prayer in the past week (the Pew questioners did not differentiate between positive and negative answers to prayer). And another 35 percent or so say they received several such answers in the past year. In contrast, about 9 percent say they've never received an answer to prayer, pretty close to the 6 percent who report that they never pray at all.
Those inspiring stories about answered prayer — miraculous or humdrum — constitute the feel-good side of prayer. But every day the faithful must deal with the uncomfortable reality that an awful lot of the time, prayers go unanswered — or, worse, seem to receive a resounding "no."
Rounding a corner in Lower Manhattan one cold winter afternoon, I turned my face to a sharp wind and headed toward the World Trade Center site. As the new Freedom Tower rises and the barriers come down, they say this place will soon return to the efficient hum of commerce. But today there's a quiet solemnity on the crowded sidewalks. The taxi horns honk less; the pedestrians speak in muted voices.
I looked up at the empty space in the sky where those towers once stood. I thought about the 3,000 or so prayers that came crashing to earth that September morning — along with the tens of millions of prayers raised by those of us who witnessed the event on TV — and I wondered: What good did any of those prayers do? What is someone who believes in the power of prayer to make of a prayer that is so immediately, and so cataclysmically, ineffective?
A couple of blocks away, at the foot of Broadway, is the office of Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb. After a lifetime of serving congregations, Weinreb is now executive vice president emeritus at the Orthodox Union. Like many folks in this part of Manhattan, he knew people in the towers that day.
"Two of them actually had the opportunity to call their rabbis, knowing they were doomed," he recalled. "The rabbi of one told him the best mode of prayer at that moment would be to help others — and as it turned out, he was able to push several wheelchair occupants to safety just before he perished. The rabbi of the other man, who was on a floor above where the plane hit, counseled him not to pray at all — but to call his family and say goodbye.
"In desperate situations I tell people to do what I do: Pray that the Lord will do what he sees fit, hope that the outcome he decrees will be the one that we would like … but be prepared to accept whatever the outcome is."
For U.S. Christians, that relationship with God can be very personal. In fact, during our chat at Stanford, Luhrmann told me that among the world's Christians, those in the U.S. are the most likely to envision God as both high and mighty and as an intimate friend.
Just ask Todd Burpo. As a pastor and volunteer firefighter in Imperial, Neb., he made prayer a focus of his life long before a near tragedy drove him, his wife, Sonja, and their entire community to their knees in prayer.
In 2003, the Burpos' 3-year-old son, Colton, suffered a ruptured appendix and was rushed into surgery. "We knew that might be the last time we'd ever see him," remembers Sonja. By the time he was wheeled away, the Burpos had already summoned an army of prayer warriors.
"I believe in the power of prayer," said Sonja when I sat down with the couple at their church. "But I also believe in the power of numbers. So I was on the phone calling my parents, my sister, every prayer chain, every person I knew that could pray."
Todd went off on his own, and he prayed angry. "I wasn't very respectful," he confessed. "I said, 'God, this is too much. I've tried to be faithful. I need you to do something now. I can't wait on this.' "
In the end, Sonja said simply, "God was listening." Colton got better, but there was more to the story. In the months that followed, the child began to tell about his experiences, apparently in heaven, during the time he was near death. Besides describing an encounter with Jesus, Colton also recalled meeting his older sister — whom the Burpos had lost in a miscarriage years before, and about whom they'd never told Colton.
That miscarriage had exposed to the Burpos the raw nerve of unanswered prayer. But the sad experience of this loss did not prevent them from later praying fervently — and with confidence — for Colton's recovery.
"At the time of the miscarriage I thought, 'Did God even hear those prayers?' " says Todd. "Now, 10 years later, I know — yes, he did."
"We still hurt," explains Sonja, "but through our hurt, we've been able to help other people journey through their miscarriages."
And as for unanswered prayer, she shrugs and says, "Sometimes we tell God we want something and he says, 'Uh-uh. I've got something better.' "
Todd wrote a book about Colton's experience, and Heaven Is for Real became a runaway best-seller. In spring 2014 a movie version — starring Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly as Todd and Sonja, and directed by Oscar nominee Randall Wallace — was released in theaters. It's Colton's heavenly visit that gets most of the attention, but the Burpos firmly believe none of it would have happened without the power of prayer.
Sometimes, though, it's hard to sit on the other side of the chasm of prayer, watching others enjoy blessings that for some reason have eluded you.
One of the most difficult jobs any minister has is talking a traumatized believer through the wreckage of an unanswered prayer. Jack Graham has been on both sides of that task. In 1970, as a young preacher, he got a call to rush home to Fort Worth, Texas: His father, who worked in a hardware store, had been attacked by a shoplifter with a hammer. His skull was crushed.
I sat with Graham, now 64, in his cozy pastor's study at Prestonwood Baptist Church, north of Dallas — with 37,000 members, one of the largest churches in the country. The pain of that memory seemed to darken his face.
"We prayed for 10 days that he would recover," Graham said. "He didn't.
"And so as a young man, I had to come to grips with this question: Why should I pray? What's the point if God knows what he's going to do anyway? But that's fatalism. We're not fatalists. I do believe prayer changes things. But we trust God to do what is best for his children, even if I don't get what I want."
Most Americans are accustomed to our socially common forms of public prayer — the invocation at a town hall meeting, the blessing before a family meal. Many of us are old enough to remember the Lord's Prayer being recited each morning in public school, before the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1962 that prayer in such settings was unconstitutional.
But as I stood in the large assembly hall at Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in northern Virginia, I had to admit to myself that the call to afternoon prayer — a single, trumpetlike singing voice that filled the room — was distractingly exotic. At first it seemed like a random wail, but soon the almost miraculous artistry of the prayer leader's song was unmistakable. As he sang, about 30 men lined up and faced the eastern wall, toward Mecca, half a world away.
Prayer infuses the entire Muslim day. Besides five designated daily prayer times — "Like the five fingers on your hand," explained Johari Abdul-Malik, an imam at the mosque — Islam also encourages private prayer.
In fact, it was the Islamic passion for prayer that first attracted Abdul-Malik, who was born in Brooklyn and raised Episcopalian. As a child he was impressed by the prayerful attitudes of his Christian relatives in the Deep South, and later he found in Islam a similar immersive relationship between prayer and daily life.
With that kind of devotion, of course, comes the universal experience of disappointment in prayer. But Abdul-Malik says Islam teaches that every prayer is answered, without exception, in one of three ways.
"First, Allah gives you your du'a, or 'request,' " he says. "Or else Allah removes something equally bad from happening to you. Or he saves it until the Day of Judgment and gives it to you as a present.
"At that time," he adds, "we will wish that all of our du'as were answered this way!"
It would be hard to argue against the notion that the longest-unanswered prayer in this country was that of enslaved blacks. The tradition of gospel music was born in the cotton fields of the South, and it persists in glorious voice, every Sunday, in black churches across the country. It is music as prayer, and it rises, beautifully, from the lips of the faithful, who sway, dance and raise their hands in worship.
It is baptism Sunday at Greater Morning Star Apostolic Ministries in Largo, Md., and Bishop Charles E. Johnson stands at the pulpit, leading a rendition of "Take Me to the Water," an Old South spiritual song. When the church choir launches into its soaring harmonies and pounding rhythms, it's easy to believe that if the biblical accounts of an eternal heavenly choir are to be taken at face value, front-row center at Greater Morning Star Apostolic may be as close to heaven as you'll ever get on terra firma.
Johnson, who has been pastor here for 28 years, considers music to be an essential ingredient in preparation for prayer, and his rumbling voice betrays decades of putting his prayer/song theology into practice. The fact that the opposition strove so mightily for so long against the fruition of African Americans' centuries-old prayers for freedom, he believes, makes today's prayers of praise that much more powerful.
"Prayer is a time to reflect," Johnson told me in his modest office. "Music, like prayer, has a way of building our faith, and those songs have a way of taking us back and causing us to remember what the Lord has done, and what he's going to do, and what he's capable of doing. It's a way of saying thank you."
But can you really say a heartfelt thank-you in the face of unanswered prayer? I thought of Christina Levasheff in that Irvine coffee shop and remembered something she'd said while I was gathering my notes and reaching for my jacket.
"I prayed for your wife, you know," she said.
I stopped, momentarily confused. Cindy had died nearly four years earlier, after a long, torturous bout with ovarian cancer. Together, we, our children, and our friends and family had prayed through chemo, through surgeries, through a mounting series of bad outcomes. At the moment Cindy died late one Sunday, several hundred of our fellow church members were praying for her at an evening service.
Then I remembered: Christina is a friend of my son Ben and his wife, Bronwen. Of course they'd told her about Cindy, and of course Christina couldn't help but pray for her.
So we stood there, the two of us, two people who'd felt let down by prayer, who struggled to understand the meaning of it, yet who just could not bring themselves to give it up.
And maybe that's the greatest power of prayer: It winds around our world like a billion skeins of scarlet ribbon, binding people who have never met, linking cultures that otherwise have no hope of understanding one another — and then it shoots heavenward like a spiritual supernova, joining all of humanity in an instinctive reach for eternity.
I smiled at Christina. "Thank you," I said.
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