Skip to content

Why Pray

Dr. Jacoby came looking for me in the family waiting lounge at 10:18 am, a little over two hours after Sharon had gone into surgery.  I had been informed that the surgery would take anywhere from two and a half to three hours.  So I was relieved to see Dr. Jacoby so soon.  By her facial expression and tone of voice I had not a hint of what she was about to tell me.  “We found fibroids.  But that was not the problem.  We found ovarian cancer!  That was what was growing.”  My knees buckled and I teared up immediately.  I was shocked to hear this news.  The only other time I felt this level of shock was when I received news that my mother had died.

Dr. Jacoby left me in the waiting room because she had to go back to complete the surgery now that she discovered that it was much more complicated and dangerous.  Dr. Jacoby requested an oncologist to join her to continue with the surgery.  Fortunately, Dr. Alvarez was just completing another surgery in the next unit and was available.  Even after the surgery, we would not know what stage of cancer Sharon was dealing with until the pathology report was completed in about 2 weeks.  Dr. Jacoby and I decided that we would tell Sharon together when she had sufficient time to wake up in the recovery room.

I didn’t know whether I would be able to call her dad and her sister to give them the news.  It was going to be hard enough just to write to her friends and colleagues.  I felt a need to tell my children.  I wondered whether I should cancel immediately my two guest preaching assignments coming up in May and June.  What will happen to our family vacation plans this summer?

After 5 hours in the waiting room, the oncologist came to give me the latest report.  Dr. Alvarez sounded optimistic.  At this early stage, he labeled it borderline and possibly stage one cancer.  I liked him and his confidence was reassuring.  Dr. Jacoby was finishing up, meaning after 5 hours, Sharon technically was still in surgery.  Dr. Alvarez described what he did; I struggled to keep up with everything he said.

It had been a long day.  We got up at 4:45 am, left the house at 5:30, and arrived at the hospital at 6:00 am.  Sharon went into surgery at 8:00 am.  At 1:25 pm, 5 hours and 25 minutes after the start of surgery, Dr. Jacoby finally returned to the lounge to inform me that Sharon was waking up and had done very, very well in surgery.  Very little blood loss.  She was now in the recovery room.  It would be another hour, however, before I could see her.  By the time Dr. Jacoby informed Sharon about the discovery of cancer in her ovaries, it had been 9 hours since the start of surgery.

I was able to place a call to Sharon’s dad.  He took the news hard.  I was grateful when he offered to give the news to Sharon’s sister.  I wrote email notes to Sharon’s friends and colleagues, being selective about whom to tell about the cancer.  Well wishes started coming in almost immediately.

In my 50 plus years as a pastor, I have been with families on countless occasions to offer support and comfort and reassurance.  I have prayed with parishioners and their families.  And why did I pray?  What do people mean when they tell you that they are praying for you?  Does prayer work?  That is a question many people ask when they perceive that God is not answering their prayers.  Other questions surface too.  Is prayer worthwhile?  Does it change anything?   

The book of Job weighs in on our struggle to understand suffering even when we are helpless to make a difference.  All attempts to explain suffering get us nowhere.  Try explaining why bad things happen to good people; and good things to bad people.  So when we say, “I’m praying for you,” are we trying to persuade God to do something God might otherwise not do?  The God of Job isn’t a god we can manipulate–by spiritually sanctioned means like prayer–to do what we want.  Too often when people tell me they’ll pray for me, the implication left unsaid is that God is otherwise not already with me or at work in me and that if I’m not healed then somehow their prayers didn’t work.

Prayer isn’t about our making something happen.  Rather, it is the acknowledgment that God is already involved.  There is no guarantee that Sharon will not have cancer; and if she does have cancer, there’s no explanation behind it or the sort of explanations Job’s friends assumed.  However, it is a guarantee that my desire for Sharon to be healed, as well as the desire of family and friends praying for Sharon, isn’t our desire alone or even originally.  We are not the Creator; and if we got everything we prayed for, then God would not be God.  When we pray, we are making a conscious effort to participate with God who is already at work, making happen what will happen.  Just as Job said that he did what was right because it’s right, not because he expected a reward, prayer is not about getting what you want.

The experience with Sharon at UCCSF hospital was a reminder and further confirmation that my calling was not medicine, but ministry.  At that critical juncture in my life, when what hung in the balance was whether I should continue to pursue being a medical doctor or to accept that closed door of rejection as redirection to what God had in mind for me, the prayer that was answered was not what I expected much less asked for.

Thomas Moore, describes himself as a monk who dwells in daily life.  In his book of Meditations, he has an essay on prayer which I liked very much:

A billboard near an old house of mine displayed in six-foot type:  PRAY.  IT WORKS.  I always thought this was the ultimate in American pragmatism.  If it doesn’t work, do you stop praying?  What does it mean to say that prayer works?  You get what you want?  Life gets better?

My billboard would say:  PRAY.  IT MAY NOT WORK.  Prayer is an alternative to working hard to get what you want.  One discovers eventually that what you want is almost always what you don’t need.

Pray–period!  Don’t expect anything.  Or better, expect nothing.  Prayer cleanses us of expectations and allows holy will, providence, and life itself an entry.  What could be more worth the effort–or the non-effort?”

This crisis challenged me to contemplate with a new degree of intentionality what I want in my marriage and life.  What can I do to make the most of life, of the time I have with Sharon?  There is something about coming face to face with limits that forces one to want to optimize what one has.  Wanting more is irrelevant, whether it is time to live, material possession, or even happiness.  Accepting what one has is far more productive and meaningful because there is room for loss and disappointment.  I am far more curious about what the possibilities are in the future, than regretting what I have missed out on.  I am willing to tackle new challenges, to live as productively as possible.  I am at once excited and hopeful about the future even with all its uncertainty.

I take to heart the Lord’s question to Job:  “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge…and where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth”? (Job 38:1-4)  And I will endeavor to live a life in accordance with Job’s response to the Lord:  “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted…therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6)

1 thought on “Why Pray”

  1. “When you love someone, the best thing you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there?”
    ― Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *