I’m looking at the latest news this morning, which says, “At least 16 dead after Sandy devastates New Jersey, swamps lower Manhattan.” Another headline reads: “50 homes destroyed as six-alarm blaze rips through Queens.”
It makes me feel even guiltier about the way I spent the day yesterday.
After making the decision to close the church offices I found myself with an unexpected day off. I dressed in my blue jeans and a warm sweater, lit a fire in the fireplace, poured another cup of coffee, put on some soothing Brazilian music, and began to read N. T. Wright’s latest book, Surprised by Hope, as the rain fell and the wind gusted outside. It was, as I confessed on Facebook, an “altogether pleasurable experience.”
But it didn’t last long.
The first pang of guilt stabbed me after only a few minutes. How could I be enjoying this day so much when some people were bracing for the worst, and fearing for their lives? And so I did the only thing I could think of to do in those circumstances: I prayed for them. Again and again throughout the day, whenever I felt a pang of guilt or looked at the latest news report, I prayed.
Did it do any good?
I believe that it did. I don’t mean that I believe my prayers changed the path of the storm or prevented the loss of life, but perhaps some of those who were fearful became a little less fearful. Maybe even in the midst of that storm they felt some of that peace that passes all understanding.
I’ve seen that happen.
When I offer to pray with someone who is about to undergo surgery I can often see the anxiety on his face. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen, doesn’t know if he’s going to pull through. But after the prayer that anxiety seems to have mostly disappeared. There may be tears on his cheeks, but his face is a picture of peace.
Clinical studies have proven that people who are prayed for recover more quickly than those who don’t, even if they don’t know anyone is praying for them. There is something to this business of prayer. As people often say, “It works.” But I want to make it clear that it’s not me or my prayers that work. It’s God. My prayers are only the hair-thin connection between my powerlessness and his power. And so I pray, “God, be with those people who are in the path of this storm. Keep them safe. Give them peace. Help them cope.” And then I leave it up to him to answer that prayer in the way he sees fit. My hope is that he answers it in such a way that those people who were terrified only moments before feel a sudden peace wash over them, that even those who lost their lives in this storm were fearless in that moment, trusting a God who is bigger than a hurricane.
But I don’t know that.
In this morning’s devotional reading I found a long paragraph by C. S. Lewis on prayer. At the end of it he said, “Even if all the things that people prayed for happened, which they do not, this would not prove what Christians mean by the efficacy of prayer. For prayer is request. The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted.”