The Conversation

A recent post about surgical complications and their impact raised some interesting–and unexpected–discussion points. One of these which seemed to get a lot of attention–pro and con–was the topic of prayer. Some opined on their own experience with prayer, or proposed answers to the dilemma posed by unanswered prayer, or unexpected outcomes. Others dismissed prayer altogether as wishful thinking, illusion, or an example of an unfalsifiable belief.

Still others–while perhaps a bit skeptical–were more curious about my motives and rationale for pursuing prayer. One commenter, Dr. Rangle of the excellent Rangle, MD blog, phrased the following question:

I am curious. Why do you pray before each surgery? The obvious answer would be something along the lines of asking God to guide your hands and for her to give you the skill and wisdom to cure this patient and avoid badness etc. etc. etc. But you yourself admit that complications are inevitable no matter how skilled the surgeon. Why then pray for a skill that you already have and for a no serious complication rate that you know is impossible? … Do you pray for the strength and wisdom to admit your mistake(s) and to offer an apology and to ask for forgiveness? To ask for and to grant forgiveness is the most Christian of attributes. This is what I would pray for … if I prayed.

One of the things I enjoy most about blogging is the way a comment, or a post on another blog, can trigger a whole new area of thought and investigation. And since I’m a bit ADD in some ways, I find it interesting the manner in which this writing process seems almost self-perpetuating: just when I think I’ve had my last novel thought–my last creative or intuitive moment–something comes along to jog the process and prompt reflection on things which would have gone otherwise unheeded and unexamined. And thus it was with many of the comments from that post, exemplified by Dr. Rangel’s thoughts above: what is prayer really about? What is its nature, and why do I consider it important? How can a physician–a rational scientist by training and disposition– amalgamate the cold realm of reason–with its theory-test-evaluate-prove methodology–with the far more ephemeral, nebulous world of the spirit which prayer embodies? Man, I hate it when I think of questions even I can’t answer–which of course has never stopped me from waxing poetic and pontificating proudly on that about which I know little or nothing. So set your B.S. alarms to silent (so as not to wake the neighbors), hike up those hip boots, and let’s wade in.

Perhaps one of the most common questions asked when the topic of prayer is mentioned (after the cynics have finished chortling and the intellectuals politely excuse themselves for more Brie and Chardonnay) is this: Does prayer work?

To which I would respond: What a silly question! (You see why I don’t get invited to many cocktail parties).

Why silly? Not because I have assumed the answer–That of course it works!–but rather that the question itself approaches meaninglessness.

Consider this question in its stead: Does conversation work?

Hmmm–if you give that a moment’s thought, you will realize the answer is: it depends.

But of course it works!, you insist. Conversation is the means which people use to communicate ideas, desires, feelings, frustration, love–the entire spectrum of human thoughts and emotions. Nicely put, I must say. And, yes–ideally this may be true–but that is exactly my point. Ever have a conversation with a narcissist, for whom every twist of conversation returns to them, like a compass needle to a magnet? How about the strong, silent type (the stereotypical male, although teenagers of any gender also fit nicely into this genre), who grunts a response in one-word phrases, condensing hours of deep thought and profound insight into a concise “umm-hmm,” or “yeah”, or “nope”, or “dude!”? How about the pull-string doll: repeating the same lines, catchwords, and stale humor–endlessly–wearying all around them with trite phrases and tired truisms? Ever carry on a deep, soulful conversation with someone you despise, or who does not speak your language, or whom you find threatening? How about someone ruled by shame, avoiding eye contact, fearfully awkward, overly obsequious, self-effacing?

Get the idea?

Conversation is far more than the mere exchange of words–it is the sharing of mind and soul, to a greater or lesser degree. And it is not of necessity verbal: the deaf use sign language; the blind, braille. Lovers exchange a world of passion with their eyes, speak volumes with a caress. Your simple presence with one who is suffering or grieving, or a gentle touch, can communicate profoundly–far more powerfully than mere words, which prove shallow shoals in the treacherous rip tides of such emotional typhoons. The value of conversation hinges on the conversant parties far more than their words–on their individual natures, and especially on the nature of their relationship.

And thus, I believe, it is with prayer.

Prayer is–in the sense in which I understand and experience it–a conversation, with all that implies: two-sided, a melding of mind, soul and spirit, the communicative union of two personal beings, each probing the other’s inner thoughts and deepest feelings. But as conversations go, it is, well–unique, to say the least.

This uniqueness arises from the asymmetrical nature of the relationship in prayer. I am physical, God immaterial; I am bound and constrained by time and space, He by neither. Nor are we equals in any substantive way; it is a conversation between incommensurable beings–indeed, vastly so: differences so utterly vast as to make the whole endeavor implausible, unthinkable, preposterous, fantastic. Yet real, nevertheless–amazingly so.

The lingua franca which makes this quixotic discourse a tangible reality has a vocabulary comprised of but two words: love and trust. The love is God’s: not “love” in the mushy, emotional, exploitive, valueless, uncommitted “I’m OK, You’re OK” manner of contemporary culture, but rather in the passionate desire of Creator to commune with creation–not merely to pass the time in idle chit-chat, but to draw the desired closer to Himself through both attraction and correction, admiration and admonishment. The love of God does not merely desire our companionship and discourse–as love between any sentient and sensate beings must–but seeks the best for the beloved–always. But here the inequality of the relationship causes an enormous problem: God, being perfect in goodness, must draw man away from those things perceived as good and desirable in man’s limited, blinkered, self-centered vision, but which in reality are destructive to the beloved and enemies of the intimacy desired by Him. God, seeing the “big picture”–above time and space, infinite in knowledge and wisdom–must convince man of the desirability of such detachment–which likely will prove painful, confusing, irrational, pointless, and even harmful to the very one He desires to attract. And He must do so while preserving the autonomous free will of man–without which there can be no genuine love rendered in return. No small feat, this–given that the attributes which make man a desirable companion and friend–intellect, talents, passion, emotion, willfulness, independence–can work just as powerfully to drive man away from God as closer to Him.

And so the counterweight to the pursuing love of God is trust: without it there can be no relationship, no discourse, no movement, no restoration. The limited sight of oft-deceived man, cocky and overconfident in his own ability to control the world and all that is in it, must begin to trust that which is larger, that which is wiser, that which is stronger, that which is better than he. Without this trust, the relationship goes nowhere, the communication (if any) is empty and one-sided, and man is left to his own pathetic devices, flailing in a hostile, pointless, and meaningless world. But the trust in a God–well-intentioned, loving, powerful, wise, though His nature be otherwise mysterious and inscrutable–while difficult and fear-provoking, is the doorway to a universe far richer than our imagining, a purpose transcending life itself.

And so, to ask if prayer works is to ask a meaningless question, in a sense. Prayer without trust–formulaic, hoping to please some aloof deity by the right combination of words; self-centered, requesting that which will ultimately undermine or destroy the relationship; contractual, demanding a specific request while promising an empty generality in return; apologetic, yet with no real intent to change or conform to that which is better and higher–is prayer where we use God as our own personal stooge. Such prayers–while perhaps answered at times by a gracious God–do little to augment the relationship and bring the parties–man and God–into closer unity and deeper relationship. They are the idle chatter of spiritual superficiality, cocktail party patter avoiding matters of weight and substance.

But if prayer is indeed a conversation, how then shall we hear what needs to be heard, to perceive God’s thoughts and intent? This is where the limits of our nature–physical, time-and-space-bound, self-willed, and largely obtuse to the realm of spirit–pose significant roadblocks–but not insurmountable ones, fortunately, by grace. For we are possessed of spirit–not merely flesh and blood, intellect and emotion: we have, in some small measure, the very stuff of God, His essence, His means whereby deep speaks to deep, evanescent to corporeal. It is that which makes us human, rather than mere beasts. And thus the promptings and reproofs designed to draw us deeper come not in the spectacular–in healings and miracles, lightning bolts and beatific visions–but rather in the quiet realms of thought, desire, intuition, insight, and that inner sanctum where peace should dwell but fear often rules.

Such ephemeral communication is of course impossible to demonstrate to one whose parameters extend no further than the physical, or at most the metaphysical, for it has implications which extend far beyond these limited realms. To deny the practical existence of a personal, good, communicative God is to reject any accountability beyond ourselves. Intellectual accedence–grudgingly rendered–to a sterile, impersonal God-concept is not honesty, but rather evasion: the hope that such a deity, even if existent, requires no allegiance, no submission, no deference beyond cheap thought and intellectual smoke rings. We live in a world of good and evil; to relegate a deity to remote indifference and moral impartiality is to have no god, no rule, no restraints, no boundaries. To postulate a God of pure goodness, who takes no measure of, and offers no guidance and correction to, His own creation, is to make such a God not righteous but heinous, not omnipotent but rather impotent.

And so, to answer Dr. Rangel’s question, I pray before surgery–and at many other times–for many reasons: for the well-being and good outcomes of my patients, of course; for the sharpness of mind and acuity of spirit to put my skills to proper and best use; for the discernment to recognize that which is beyond my skills and control, and handle it wisely; for patience and the strength of character to avoid carelessness and the poor judgments borne of frustration, hurry, or fatigue; and yes, for the attitude of heart which recognizes my own shortcomings, forgives those of others, and seeks forgiveness and reconciliation when harm has been done. The reward thus obtained is not learned helplessness, but rather liberated hopefulness: the experience of being empowered to do that which is my skill and gift while relinquishing that beyond my power, control, wisdom and abilities. God will not rearrange the universe on my behalf because of my prayer: complications, failures, hard times and hardship are the bitter fruit of life in this world. But I can, through prayer, weave myself into a grander plan, in some small way, of one far wiser and more powerful than I.

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