Along the course of ministry you overhear tidbits of wisdom that, like stones against the wind and the sea, with the passage of time acquire the sheen of something like the absolute.
One such folk koan came to me by way of Fred Holly some 14 years ago.
Fred was an elderly parishioner at the tiny New Jersey church where I served part-time as pastor. It was the sort of church where the term ‘elderly parishioner’ was woefully redundant.
A curmudgeonly sort, Fred let it be known often that he only attended worship out of the habit enforced by his wife; nevermind, that the late Mrs. Holly had left the Earth around the same time Fred’s beloved Tricky Dick had left the White House.
Since then Fred had been unfailing in complaining about his Sunday obligation.
Similarly Fred was vocal in his assessment that my ‘only attribute worth a damn’ was my ‘sexy dame of a wife.’
In the first spring of my ministry I visited Fred in the ICU of a Bucks County Hospital. The day before he’d had a bypass done on more of a heart than I’d believed he’d possessed.
His hair was mussed and greasy. His eyes looked small and round- mole like- without their glasses. His gown hung down off his beefy shoulders like a cotton evening dress.
When I walked in he was sitting up in bed, a large teddy bear in his lap. Whenever he breathed or coughed, he clutched the teddy bear against the incision that ran from his groin to his collar. And every time he’d grimace, red-faced and veined- the agony in his expression in inverse proportion to the blank, serene visage of the bear.
After one painful coughing fit that ended, Fred seemed amused, with a long, thunderous yawp of a fart, Fred wiped the sweat from his forehead and said:
‘Jesus, God damn, Rev. I’ll tell you what:
Get all your prayin’ in when you’re healthy. It’s just too damn hard to pray when you’re busted up and sick.’
And right then and there it struck me as true and sound in the way of other sayings like ‘Never eat yellow snow’ or ‘Don’t play leapfrog with a unicorn’ or ‘Sharing your medical info is always more embarrassing when its shared with a moderately attractive nurse practitioner of your approximate age.’
‘Get all your prayin’ in when you’re healthy. It’s just too damn hard to pray when you’re busted up and sick.’
It had the ring of a proverb even though I’ve not heard it elsewhere and have not returned to it since.
Not until lately.
Conventional wisdom and all, you might just as easily expect it to be the opposite, but Fred is right: praying is hard when you’re busted up and sick.
During my first A Cycle of chemo-poison, after one of my several ‘walks’ with the earnest Licensed Clinical Social Worker, my slippered feet found their way to the hospital chapel. Having listened to the LCSW spout new-agey and not a little patronizing about mindfulness and Zen meditation, contrarian-me determined to do some old school, Holy Roman, hegemonic praying.
I knew the hospital had a chapel because I’d seen it- on a constant, 24 hour live camera stream on the hospital’s uppermost television channel, just after the porny Latin Soap Opera station.
It was like the National Zoo’s panda cam without the pandas; every time I flipped past it to get to Wolf Blitzer or PTI or 19 Kids and Counting, the chapel was always empty.
So I wasn’t surprised when I opened the chapel door, drug my drug pole in behind me, and found the little sanctuary empty. Like such spaces in airports and colleges and funeral homes everywhere, the chapel was so enthusiastically ecumenical as to be bland. It felt more like a little nook at a Courtyard Marriott.
Nonetheless, I sat down in the front row, my chemo my only companion, and attempted to pray in the manner of the saints and martyrs before me.
Later that evening, when the young Muslim woman from Food Services brought me my chicken soup and Ensure, her eyes brightened and, smiling, she said:
‘I saw you on the TV! In the chapel! A patient down the hall turned the channel when I picked up his lunch tray earlier today.’
‘You saw me?’
She nodded and smiled and then added:
‘Poor thing, you must be exhausted.’
I must’ve looked confused.
‘The Muslim way is better,’ she explained, ‘it’s harder to fall asleep when you’re on your knees.’
The little fact of stage-serious cancer notwithstanding- and I realize this is a bit like Larry Flynt confessing he’s just not that into women- the X-Rated truth of the matter is that I’ve never been very good at prayer.
In the same way that for a time in college I could participate in a conversation in French class about the meaninglessness of existence, Le Jazz, or American imperialism, I know how to pray. But prayer has never been anything like my first language.
Being a duly ordained Reverend (as in: ‘one to be revered’), I can pray. I can do it in a performative, professional manner, but in the same way I can summon something resembling etiquette for a formal dinner even this is not my natural or most comfortable posture. Honestly, even with the little self-awareness I possess, I know that I’m vain enough, despite being introverted, to lap up the approval and/or adoration of an audience; consequently, I’ve always maintained a healthy skepticism regarding public prayer. Both my own and others’.
But the bottom line is-
Healthy or very much not healthy (as the case now is), I’m a piss poor pray-er.
I get restless.
I get bored and, bored, I get distracted
If only God had an email address or a Twitter account or a regular coffee shop where he hung out because closed eyes and bowed head seldom works for me.
Really? ‘Quiet time’ sounds to me exactly like it sounds to my 9 year old: punishment. Or, at least, something to be endured.
Even worse than the boredom that makes you feel incompetent at prayer is the sudden rushing awareness of how superficial is most of your prayer- that leaves you feeling inauthentic.
Incomplete, as a human being.
And then there are those days- more frequent than most pastors will admit- when you’re convinced you’re mistaken about about God, about Christ, about everything else in the creed. On those days prayer especially can feel like 100 Proof Superstition, making you feel the fool.
Given my own dissatisfying experience with prayer, now that I’m sick and/or dying when people tell me they’re praying for me (which everyone does…and I’m grateful) I feel guilty- guilty that my cancer has laid this extra burden upon them that will only lead to them feeling restless or bored or distracted or superstitious and, thus, foolish.
My track record with and previous affections for prayer in no way cancel out the verities I heard in that Bucks County ICU. What was hard and unnatural for me before is damn near impossible since cancer staged a hostile takeover of my body, my blood and my family’s life.
Fred Holly’s teddy bear maxim is as true as Kenny Rogers’ about the relative importance of knowing when to hold ‘em and knowing when to fold ‘em.
I’ve walked away from more than a few prayers these past days and weeks because Fred is (surely he’s a was by now) dead-on:
When you’re busted up in body, mind and soul and sick enough you count it lucky you took out that life insurance policy when you did, praying is damn hard.
For my last CAT Scan, to see if I had any tumors in my upper body like the ones latched on to me all over my lower body (I do), I tried to pray the Lord’s Prayer as I grimaced against my stomach incision, raised my arms over my head and lay still as the camera spun around my chest.
I couldn’t remember all the words.
Daily bread and deliverance.
I kept getting the phrasing in the wrong order.
I’ve led the Lord’s Prayer at least 1,000 times on Sundays alone but, without the backing chorus of a congregation behind me, my rhythm was off.
I’ve tried many times since then to recite it, mostly in the gray hours when the night sweats or the urgent need to piss out the poisons, have left me wide away.
I always screw it up.
Likewise Psalm 23, another prayer that in my former life I knew by heart.
Speaking of the psalms, now that I have cancer and can’t pray worth a damn, I’m amazed that King David, what with his turbulent TMZ life and all, was able to compose as many prayers as he did.
David may be the exception that proves Fred’s rule.
Before my first CAT Scan, done at my GI doctor’s orders, I didn’t pray at all; I hadn’t thought there was a need to pray. I didn’t think there was anything, save a gallstone or two, wrong with me, certainly not the C-word.
I prayed DURING that first CAT Scan however.
The radiology tech had given me an injection of contrast which, as a side-effect, would give me a warm, wet sensation all over my body, none of which- AND THIS IS KEY- he told me beforehand.
So lying there, unsuspecting under a sheet, my pants pulled down around my ankles, an awareness suddenly and mercilessly washed over me:
‘Oh. My. God. I just shit my pants.’
In the same way there are no atheists in fox holes, this realization immediately gave way to supplication:
‘Please God, let it not be bad. Please God, let me get out here without too many people noticing- especially not the hot receptionist at the front desk.’
It was some kind of prayer to be sure.
Later that night when the GI doctor, who’d just read the results of the scan, called me and threw phrases at me like ‘Are you sitting down?’ and ‘…need to get you into surgery quickly’ and, the doozy, ‘I’ve set up an appointment for you in the morning with an oncologist…’ I was too scared to pray.
Jesus, facing death in the Garden in John’s Gospel, prays for pages upon pages upon pages. I suppose that’s the difference between being God incarnate and just being carnate.
Studying the Hebrew Bible, I learned the ‘proper’ form to prayer, beginning with a robust address to God, some name that hits at the highlights of his resume, and then moving on to praise God for his gracious acts in salvation history and then- and only then- beseeching God to do likewise for you today.
It’s a lesson I’ve reinforced with confirmation classes, organizing prayers like study notes, with the acronym P-T-A:
And only then: Ask.
Such niceties are just that, nice. But they’re all but impossible when you feel yourself salivating fear in the corners of your jaw or when you’re just bone-marrow tired.
Fred Holly is/was right.
And it’s not so much that God is absent that makes the praying hard.
Its that the pain and the fear and the fatigue are seemingly more present to you than God.
Most of my prayers now more closely resemble my adolescent, pre-Christian prayers:
Please let me get an A on this quiz.
Please may the Reds beat the A’s in the series.
Please makes these zits go away before the 8th grade dance.
My prayers now are just 1-sentence smoke signals:
Please let me keep the eyebrows and the pubes.
Please let me make it to the toilet in time.
Please let me keep a brave face in front of the boys.
Please keep my voice from cracking when I ask the doctor for my prognosis.
Please keep this from bankrupting us.
Please, if there’s a Hell, send every last insurance company there.
Please, if there’s not a Hell, create one and send every last insurance company there.
And, most recently:
Please don’t have the decently attractive nurse practitioner who’s about my age ask to see my hemorrhoids (an awesome chemo side-effect).
Lately, the closest I can muster anything near an actual prayer is for others.
Like the one I muttered under my breath for the old guy in the waiting room at the oncologist’s office. He wore a herringbone blazer, a pocket square and a boutonniere, and he was there, I overheard, by mistake.
The doctor had decided to discontinue his treatment.
The old man apparently didn’t get the message until he got it a few seats away from me.
And I managed a prayer for the kid with leukemia who rode the elevator up with me yesterday, both us to receive our Neulasta injections. His age (13? 16? 21?) was impossible to determine with no hair, facial or otherwise, to date him.
I know you likely expect a clergyman to confess that cancer, with its attendant aches and terrors, has deepened my prayer life.
Carrying my cross.
Belly of the whale.
Dark night of my soul.
In fact, the prayer I keep coming back to, the prayer I can say in sync with the pain and get through despite the cottony chemo-brain, is that silly prayer I learned as a small child:
‘Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.’
Fred Holly had a genuine hula girl inked on his forearm. He stockpiled for Y2K a year late and one Sunday in Advent he mistook my reading of Mary’s Magnificat for an original sermon. Fred met the final scripture verse for the day with an applause that echoed across the mostly empty pews and said out loud ‘Now that was a good sermon.’
Fred wasn’t what you’d call an intellectual guy; nonetheless, Fred’s bear-embracing maxim yields still deeper truths.
The real problem with prayer when you’re busted up and sick isn’t that you’re busted up and sick.
Being busted up makes the sheer act of prayer hard, sure, but the real problem with prayer when you’re stage-serious sick is a/the theological problem.
Cancer as voracious as it is rare brings to the fore questions so obvious and so omnipresent that we often don’t even see them:
What’s the Point of Prayer?
What’s Prayer Do?
Or, Does It Do Anything?
For What Should We Pray?
To put it more bluntly:
Isn’t it ridiculous to think of God up there in heaven to whom we can plead and who, if we’re lucky or faithful enough, will hear our prayers and provide us with help?
Isn’t it silly (and maybe even idolatrous) to think that through our supplications we can do something to God, incline God a particular way, ignite one of God’s passions, or persuade God into doing something God might otherwise not do?
Of course, I take it as self-evident that the answer to those last two questions is ‘Yes.’
I do so not because I have cancer but because I’m a Christian and, like the very first Christians, I believe that God is immutable.
God does not change.
For something to change, after all, there must be some potential in it which is not yet realized. But ‘God’ is the answer we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ so in God, obviously, there is no absence of anything, for God is not a being but Being itself.
God does not change (to be more loving, for example) because in God already is the perfection of love itself. Perfect Love is already eternally actual in God; therefore, there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and- good news- there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less.
To say that God does not change is also to say- it should be noted- that God is not affected.
Especially not by us.
To be changed is to be affected by another outside you. But God does not change because, in God- unlike in creatures- there is no potentiality only actuality. The perfection of all emotions (Love) is already always present, eternally, in God.
God subsists in all things that exist and holds all things in existence at every moment of their existence. God cannot be affected by anything outside God because there is nothing that is outside God.
Alright, but admittedly this all begs the question, a question that becomes more urgent when cancer casts a shadow over your long-term calendar:
If God is immutable, if God doesn’t change, if God by definition can’t change, then what exactly is prayer?
Isn’t prayer the spiritually-sanctioned means by which we attempt to manipulate god to do what we want, ask, or desire?
You see, the real problem with prayer- especially when you’re stage-serious sick- is a theological problem.
If God is immutable, then what does it mean to pray for God to work healing in my life now? What does it mean to pray (as so many put it and so many do for me now) for a miracle? Doesn’t such a prayer imply that God is now, and certainly was prior to cancer’s intrusion upon my life, distant or apart from me?
But I don’t believe God created long ago and is now hands-off unless beckoned or beseeched; I believe God is immutable and that necessarily entails believing that God, who is outside creation, subsists in all things in creation.
If God is immutable, what does it mean to pray for God to be with me through this inscrutable chapter of our lives? Isn’t God already with me? For that matter, if holds all things in existence at every moment of their existence, if God is, as Paul says, the One in whom we live and move and have our being then would there even be a ‘me’ if God was already with me?
And what would it mean to pray for God to forgive my sins, as so many negotiate when they look up to see the Damocles sword of disease hanging over them? If God is immutable, then God quite literally doesn’t give a damn about my sins. We’re the ones who damn.
Since God is immutable, I don’t believe that the Creator could be affected by a creature like me (or my sin) such that he’d be moved against me, to punish me with something like cancer, yet, conversely, what does that mean for all those prayers of all those many wonderful people now asking God to be affected in the other direction, to be moved for me?
That God does not change is, I believe, the only ground upon which Christians can claim with John that ‘God is love,’ which is but John’s way of securing our ability to say that ‘God is like (and always has been) Jesus.’
But if God is indeed unchanging and unchangeable exactly what am I doing- what’s going on- when I sit here sick and busted up and (attempt to) pray?
After stating the obvious (none of us knows how to pray), St. Paul writes that whenever we pray, no matter what it might look like, it’s not actually we who are praying. Rather the Holy Spirit prays in us and through us.
Prayer isn’t something we do.
It’s something God does- better yet, it’s something God shares with God.
When we pray to God, we’re prayed in by God.
Instead of a practice we perform for results we’ve predetermined, prayer is a kind of parable of the Trinity. All prayer is but an echo of the Son praying to the Father through the Spirit. Rather than hooking God into our internal conversation, prayer catches us up into the eternal conversation Christians call Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
God is the impetus behind our prayers as much (even more?) as the object of them. The very wants and desires we pray, runs Paul’s argument, are themselves the handiwork of the ever-present Triune God.
What’s this mean when you’re sick and busted-up and trying your damnedest to pray?
Thomas Aquinas doubles-down on Paul’s point when he writes:
‘We should not say ‘in accordance with my prayer, God wills that it should be a fine day’ we should say that ‘God wills it to be a fine day, in accordance with my prayer.’
God wills our prayers as much as God wills the fine day.
What does that mean?
It means, says Aquinas, that God wills it to be a fine day through my prayer; in other words, that it should be more than just a fine day. God wills through me that that particular fine day should be something more, a sacrament of God’s love.
Let me put Aquinas’ point a bit more personally:
‘We should not say ‘in accordance with my prayer, God wills that I should be healed of my cancer’ we should say that ‘God wills that I should be healed of my cancer, in accordance with my prayer.’
That’s no guarantee I’ll be healed.
It’s a guarantee that my desire to be healed, as well as the desire of all those praying for me, isn’t our desire alone or even originally. It’s one shared by- initiated by- the God who prays in us.
Which means maybe that ‘Now I Lay Me’ prayer I learned as a little child is actually the best prayer of all.
I’ve always considered it excessively grim, morbid even, and emblematic of everything I deplore about so much of Christianity: it’s soul-focused and death-obsessed and heaven-directed.
If all prayer is rooted in and catches us up into the Father’s love of the Son through the Spirit, then what could be better than to pray that we might be one day incorporated (‘…my soul to take…’) into that love?
Especially when you remember that it’s not really our prayer at all.