Fifty years ago, my friend’s mother was in a bad car accident. She hung between life and death for several days. I remember begging God to heal her; I truly believed that God could do it. But she died. And I wondered.
Today, in the wake of the death of Rachel Held Evans, many people are wondering. On Facebook and other social media, I’m hearing the pain of those who had been praying so faithfully and diligently for her recovery. Some are expressing anger at God. Others are having a crisis of faith. And some are asking the question, “What’s the point of prayer?”
As painful as that question is right now, it is the right question.
Rachel Held Evans holds a particularly important place in the inter-Christian conversation. An evangelical Christian, who moved into a progressive-evangelical space, and then on to becoming a member off the Episcopal Church, she modeled for many the transition away from a constricting form of faith to one of openness and inclusion.
I’m not familiar with enough of her writings to know what she thought about prayer. But I do know that her death has brought the subject into the foreground for many people, especially those still in theological transition. And to be fair, it’s not an issue just for exvangelicals. Mainline Christianity hasn’t really grappled with it yet, either.
I began my own process of re-thinking the meaning of prayer when I first heard Bishop John Shelby Spong speak back in the late ’90s after the publication of Why Christianity Must Change or Die. A lot of what he said was new to me. Some of it really challenged my belief system. Some of it made so much sense, it was positively liberating.
One of his stories really hit me between the eyes. He talked about the time before death of his first wife. Because her husband was a bishop in the Episcopal Church, there was a sizable prayer chain in operation for her healing. When she lived 6 ½ years longer than had been expected, some people credited those prayers. But Bishop Spong began to question a God whose actions were influenced by social status. I remember him comparing the prayer chain for his wife and the small number of prayers for the woman dying in a village in Somalia (I don’t know if that’s correct, but it sticks in my mind as the country he named. I don’t think it matters; you get the point).
What kind of God listens to the prayers of hundreds and decides to act, yet ignores the plight of those who can’t muster up enough “prayer warriors”?
His question made sense. That wasn’t the kind of God I believed in any longer. But then, what is prayer? Why should we pray? How should we pray? After a book study at my church on Why Christianity Must Change or Die, a long-time member in her 70s came to me with a statement and a question: “I wish I had read this 50 years ago!” and “But then, what do we do about prayer?”
Exvangelicals and mainline Christians moving into progressive Christianity have the same responses. There is initial excitement in discovering a form of faith that makes much more sense. But then come some hard questions as we navigate away from old understandings into uncharted waters.
Thankfully, some have gone before us to do some of the charting. Bishop Spong is a great resource. Any writer or speaker coming from a process theology standpoint is good. Praying for Jennifer by John Cobb is great because it explores the different ways of thinking about prayer in story form. God Can’t, a new book by Thomas Jay Oord, is another helpful way to grapple with our question of why God allows bad things to happen to good people.
I still believe in prayer. In my next post, I’ll talk about my own take on the subject.