PRAYING FOR A MIRACLE
One of the reasons I stopped going to church was that, after 30 years of it, the point of intercessory prayer still defeated me. Each week we prayed for Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan and other ‘trouble spots’ in which innocent people were being needlessly slaughtered. Nobody escaped our vicarious pleas: people in earthquakes, floods, tsunamis: sick people, well people, people taking exams, people marrying, people going through what was always referred to as “the trauma of divorce,” the intercessor never knowing if it actually was a trauma or a blessed relief for all concerned. We prayed for the poor who had nothing and the rich who had a lot, pleading with God that the latter might share their great bounty. We prayed for soldiers as they went to war, for teachers as they started a new term, and for politicians that they might “have wisdom” and “work together for the good of all.” As far as I could see, people continued to die or get better quite randomly, natural disasters still claimed lives, the streets of Khabul and Baghdad, to name but two ‘trouble spots’ of thousands throughout the world, continued to run with the blood of innocents. Politicians still bawled at each other across the House of Commons or over the airwaves, showing a marked lack of wisdom and tolerance, and a lot less maturity than the average 14-year-old.
Personal prayers fared no better. My children passed or failed exams, were successful or otherwise in relationships, did or didn’t realise ambitions. Childhood traumas had me so frequently on my knees there were burn marks on the carpet. They survived the traumas. Yet my first husband died of cancer despite the prayers of me and entire congregations in various parts of the country. I’ve had friends who were “miraculously” cured of cancer thanks – or so they said – to the fervent prayers of friends, only to die several months or years later when the disease returned with a vengeance. Devout worshippers suffered random catastrophes as often as did atheists who at least were not burdened with the dreaded “why me?” question. Prayer, it seemed, changed nothing. And the odd thing was that I somehow never expected it to. I thanked God when things went right (just in case they started going wrong) but it never occurred to me to blame him when they didn’t. That’s just how things were: it was, we were told, “the mystery of God.” He got the credit for the good stuff, I blamed myself for the bad.
One of the most chilling Roald Dahl stories I ever read was ‘Genesis and Catastrophe,’ based on fact. It tells of Klara, an Austrian peasant woman who has just given birth to a son. She has already lost her first three children in infancy and is terrified the same fate will befall her fourth. “I have prayed so hard that he will live, Alois,” she tells her husband. “Every day for months I have gone to the church and begged on my knees that this one will be allowed to live . . . He must live, Alois, he must, he must. Oh God, be merciful unto him now,” she pleads, through choking sobs. Her prayer is answered, the baby lives. The woman is Mrs Hitler and the baby is Adolf. Thanks be to God . . .
A RESPONSE FROM ANN CHAPMAN, VICAR OF ASKRIGG AND HAWES
For me prayer and our expectations of it depend on your view of God. If God is all powerful then of course God will be responsible for everything and therefore fair game to blame or thank.
If God is love. then wherever love is that is where God is and therefore God is limited by humanity’s ability to let in love and let love do its work. The question is whether God is responsible for all, or does God hope for a relationship with us that is based in love? The picture of Christmas and Easter must tell us something about how God is involved in this world and if it does then that is the beginning of the wisdom of prayer and the understanding of God’s power.
If we see God as you have described then there will always be a time when prayers are not answered, but if we see God in partnership with the world through loving relationship then ‘prayer’ is something else and all the suffering and evil is based in something else. Ann Chapman.
AND FROM MALCOLM STONESTREET. . .
When I was Vicar of Askrigg – a phrase I continually use to preface some profound insight – the lay people were asked to offer the prayers of Intercession. We had distinguished lay people, amongst them Mary Wilson (the Bishop’s widow). Week on week I found them heading up their requests to the Almighty with the problems of Northern Ireland. This led me to pen a note and pin it to the church door. “There will be no more prayers in this Church for Northern Ireland until somebody does something about it.” There was criticism of this notice and of the pretentious style of its presentation.
The newly formed Wensleydale Rotary Club heard of the problem and invited me to arrange a visit to Northern Ireland to meet with young people of Protestant and Catholic tradition and see if we could arrange a holiday at the newly opened Low Mill outdoor centre for 30 young people. At that time visiting homes in downtown Belfast made one uneasy: I felt like praying for myself as well as the situation. When the young people came to Askrigg and visited our homes, farms and churches ( the Catholic priest kindly celebrated Mass in Saint Oswald’s for his half of the flock) I found there was no easy way; prayer was a first and last resort
As I have tried to find the structure and furniture to grasp my relationship with Eternal God I have found silence and suspense is useful but I have also found it helpful to formulate my concerns and place them before Him. What happens, happens; what is, is; what He will do, He will do; but I like to think I have at least mentioned it to Him.
My wife, Judith, and I think Oswald’s Outlook is great and we send love and greetings to you all.