Prayer And Popularity
10/27/2009 - 23:00

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

I have never prayed as hard or as often in my life as I have over the past few weeks.


As my mother’s condition worsens, I accept that it is probably unrealistic for her to have a complete recovery after 25 years of Parkinson’s and three months after a stroke. It even seems a stretch to ask God to return her to the condition she was in before July, when she was mostly paralyzed but could still eat and talk. Both of those hopes seem like miracles of the sort we just don’t see in post-biblical times. Should I pray, I wonder, for God just to keep her alive, or for Him to ease her suffering as He sees best?


While it can be difficult to know what to pray for, there is never any question about whether to pray.


Sometimes it surprises me how much I have clung to faith in God, not because I have had a bad life (I’ve been extremely lucky in many respects) but because, like most journalists, I am a naturally cynical and skeptical person. It’s all too easy to take the negative things in life and in the world and use see it to bolster atheism.


But in the end I have always concluded I simply don’t want to live in a world where immensely flawed human beings are solely responsible for their own destiny. The fact that we have, for more than 60 years, had the ability to destroy nearly all life on Earth and we are still here seems like pretty good proof that we don’t have the final say.


But the nature of prayer has always perplexed me. If we are to believe that God has a plan for everyone and everything, why would we believe He will alter that plan because of a few spoken words of Hebrew, impassioned as they may be, or even persistent, desperate pleas by multiple people on someone’s behalf.


There’s almost something about prayer that is antithetical to faith if we use it to try to change God’s mind about something rather than accept that what He has decided is for the best.


Still, it is common practice to organize tehillim groups for someone who is gravely ill or in danger, like the kidnapped Israeli soldiers. Today it is easier than ever to spread the word, via e-mail and listservs, Twitter and Facebook. At many shuls the names of people no one in the room has ever met are recited for mishuberach, the get-well prayer, because someone has taken it on themselves to send out those names to as many shuls as possible.


Human beings, it seems, are not programmed for inaction. When there is a crime we call the police, when there’s a pothole we call the local councilman. When there is an injustice we hire a lawyer. So why accept the inevitability of a tragedy? Why not file the ultimate petition?


I don’t begrudge this practice at all. In fact I asked my hundreds of Facebook friends, about 50 of which are total strangers, to pray for my mother.


But what is the underlying theory behind it? That prayer is some kind of spiritual version of “American Idol,” where those who get the most psalms recited on their behalf get to stick around, while the less popular lose? That a homeless man with no relatives or friends who is ht by a car is doomed, while the yeshiva girl in the same situation, with people around the world praying, will pull through?


In the Torah, after God gives the 10 commandments, He says ““Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been wrought in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among you shall see the work of the Lord.” The phrasing is all inclusive, and doesn’t suggest some will earn more marvels than others (although subsequent passages warn of God’s wrath upon evildoers).


So what I have found myself praying for is the only thing that makes sense: That God will give me the strength to handle whatever comes. And if the act of prayer is empowering, it becomes a request that fulfills itself.

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