Reading Rachel Held Evans‘ Evolving in Monkey Town the other night, my wife and I came to a passage about an 8-year-old boy in India, Kanakaraju, whose mother was dying of AIDS and father had already succumbed to the disease.
He had asked Evans, his akka, or “sister,” to pray for her, and she did, that day and every day after.
After my return to the States, when my pastor asked the congregation to pray for the funds to repave the church parking lot, I privately asked God to take care of Kanakaraju’s family first. It wasn’t that I thought god was incapable of doing both. I guess I just figured if prayer made any difference at all, it was more important that Kanakaraju have a mother than that my church have new blacktop.
But just a few weeks after I left India, I got an email from the missionary family saying that Kanakaraju’s mother had succumbed to her illness. They planned to take Kanakaraju in themselves and start training his older sisters for sewing jobs so they could earn a living. The email said Kanakaraju was struggling to accept his mother’s death, that he was crying for her every night.
Not long after I got the message from India, my pastor announced that God had provided the funds for the parking lot.
“Isn’t it amazing how God blesses his children?” he asked.
That last quote makes me feel a little icky, which I’m sure is exactly what Evans intended.
The truth is, my wife and I have been talking a lot lately about prayer: Why we do it, when it’s appropriate, and how it should be done. It comes up in the context of praying for rain, something people in our region do a lot, thanks to a horrible drought and record-breaking heat.
Neither of us is comfortable with the idea of praying for rain, and we’re not sure why. It’s not a particularly shallow request; rain would provide relief for thousands of farmers and ranchers who depend on it for their livelihood. And since I can live with my brown lawn and alarmingly yellow hedges, it’s not particularly selfish either.
But there’s something about it that seems off. Maybe it’s because there’s not much satisfaction that comes from it. It finally did rain here in a big way – three inches in one day – a couple of weeks ago. This was hailed as an answer to prayer. But it wasn’t an answer to everyone’s prayer. A storm cloud the size and shape of Texas did not park itself over the state and let loose for three straight days. We got rain, yes, but thousands of people praying for it have yet to see any.
And as it turns out, the rain wasn’t enough to make any difference in the conditions of the drought, or the state of the crops, or the need for many ranchers to sell off their cattle because they can’t find or afford the food for them. Further, years of reporting on West Texas farmers has taught me that hard rains like that in the late summer and early fall actually hurt the cotton crop because the raindrops splash dirt on the bowls and lower the value of the cotton.
So, after that huge outpouring of rain, the marquees on the small-town churches still say: PRAY FOR RAIN.
What was the point?
I’ve been following the cases of three children with whose parents I’m acquainted. They all have cancer, and they all went into remission around the same time after thousands of people from churches all over the city lifted them up in prayer. We all celebrated with them, and thanked God for helping them beat the cancer back.
Now two have relapsed, and the third is awaiting another MRI to see whether the spot found in his brain last month signifies that he, too, is no longer cancer-free.
What was the point?
We have these lists of requests we make to God, ranging from the deadly serious to the superficial, and how many of them are answered in a satisfactory way? Any more than would be resolved if we simply let chance and fate hold sway? If we pray for rain for three months, and we get a one-day rainstorm that does little to change the larger conditions causing the drought and covers only a small portion of the affected area, is that God? Or is it a cold front that happened to get a little bit of Gulf moisture over our region?
We have faith in an omnipotent God, one who can do anything he wants. We believe he spoke the world into existence, orchestrated the history of Israel to produce the Savior of the world, raised people from the dead. I personally believe, because he’s done it for me, that he changes lives in remarkable ways.
So why wouldn’t he nudge a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico a little closer to Texas and give it the good extended soaking the state really needs? Instead, it putters out on the border, delivering less than a half-inch of rain. Why wouldn’t he tell the cancer infecting these three children that they’ve fought hard and valiantly enough so it needed to leave? Instead, they are required to fight even more, in new hospitals, farther away from home and friends.
I believe God cares. And I believe he is unsurprised by our questions.
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
If that passage from John 11 teaches us anything, it’s that God’s been getting these type of questions for a long time, and that he cares much more than we could ever know. What amazes me about this story is that Jesus weeps even though he already knows he’s going to raise Lazarus from the dead. He is about to turn their mourning into dancing, but their present sorrow is too much for his humanity to bear. He breaks down.
This is the God in whom I trust. He cares.
So I’m forced back into this situation where I don’t have the answer for the questions I have. Why do some, usually the more charismatic, churches report numerous cases of miraculous healings. Why do some friends of mine believe fully in the name-it-and-claim-it approach to prayer, while I, no matter how hard I try otherwise, merely request that God do his will? Why does Kanakaraju’s mother die despite the fervent prayers of Rachel Held Evans and an 8-year-old boy while a church raises money for a parking lot on the strength of a few dozen halfhearted prayers murmured in church?
All I can do is have faith that we worship a loving, compassionate God who is working all things together for good. That no matter what happens in this life, we will all eventually be reconciled to the perfection God intended for us. It’s an uncomfortable place for me to be, and maybe that’s the point.
I have some other thoughts on this subject, but this post is long enough as it is, so I’ll try to tackle it another day. In other news, today is the first day of class! I’ve chosen my six-word memoir – “Learning to live with shades of gray” – have my notebook and pen (I’m old school that way), but no backpack yet. (Next week!) I’ll try to report tomorrow on how things went. I don’t want to start promising anything, but it makes sense to post about the previous class Thursday night or Friday morning before I forget too much.
Thanks to the few of you who check this out consistently. I really enjoy having a forum with which to work out my faith with fear and trembling, and I hope you enjoy reading it.