Prayers and Protests

Talking to God was an everyday affair when I was growing up. We said a blessing before meals, had Bible reading and prayer before bed at night, and lived as though God was always on call. In our southern Baptist tradition, we believed as many do that we had direct access to God, a hotline, and that we should stay in touch, using our own words to ask for what we wanted and to express gratitude for what we had. Memorized, Church-approved prayer was a suspect ritual, even dishonest. I remember being disdainful when I had dinner with a friend and heard her father pray, "Lord, make us truly grateful for what we are about to receive." He mumbled the words quickly, through clenched teeth and sounded anything but grateful, like he certainly wouldn’t be grateful unless God forced him to be. I gave him a silent grade of F on his prayer.

At our meals, my sisters and I took turns saying the blessing, and only once did I try to get out of this. We were having green beans and some other foods I didn’t like. When my mother called on me, I said, "I can’t say the blessing because if God knows everything, he already knows I don’t like green beans. I can’t lie and thank him for food I don’t want to eat." Thinking I had a solid defense, I smiled smugly. But the silent stare from my mother that followed told me the argument was not good enough. She simply said, "Then you can thank God for the fact that you have food and are not starving." I had sense enough to do as I was told and to eat what was set before me.

In 1963, my father died of a heart attack at the age of 47, after four years of struggling to recover from his first coronary. I was a senior in high school and had prayed constantly with my family and others in our church community for his recovery. I began to question prayer and to wonder if there was a God or any Supreme Being who cared or heard our prayers. For a while, prayers would bubble to the surface of my thoughts as they always had, but I refused to consciously pray. I adopted the college student’s disdain for such superstitious behavior, thinking even if there were a God, I wanted to make it clear that I was angry. Still, the prayers were always there, like little notes to God that I could not send.

During my sophomore year in college, I heard Father Malcolm Boyd read prayers from a book he had written, Are You Running With Me, Jesus? Charlie Byrd, playing classical guitar music, accompanied his reading, and the prayers were like many of my own most desperate petitions to God. It was a moving and memorable experience. Here was a priest who prayed like I did, not only in his own words, but also often on the run and usually needing help. I now label these prayers my "foxhole pleas," from the saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. Most of us, I’ve concluded, pray out of sheer desperation when we need a miracle, even if we generally claim God doesn’t exist. Is it possible that airports, and even traffic jams, prompt more people to pray than all the religions and ministers ever did? Dietrich Bonhoffer uses the term "cheap grace" to describe this kind of desire we have for a quick fix by God as a miracle worker. I gradually realized that I had counted on my prayers to bring the miracle that would save my father; my faith had been shaken, but it was not destroyed.

The image of God as miracle worker is similar to another that prompted prayers in the past and still does. In this image God is a waiter and I am the favorite customer ordering from an unlimited menu. I order, sincerely believing that the order will be promptly and properly filled. When it’s not, I express outrage with a message like, "Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup," or, "This is not what I ordered; take it back!" Unfortunately, the rejoinder from God often seems to be like what my father said about flies at picnics: "Think of the fly as extra protein." The answer that is hardest to accept is "It may not be what you ordered, but I’ve decided it is what you need"—my mother’s usual answer to any menu objections. I learned early in life and keep relearning that with prayer there will be an answer, but to expect the unexpected. In her book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott describes a woman who begins her day with the one-word prayer, "Whatever," and in the evening says, "Oh well."

When I was a social worker for clients on welfare, I was given another lesson in prayer by a grandmother whose life read like the Book of Job. Disaster struck frequently and every kind of illness and tragedy had affected her life, yet her faith was strong. She radiated a joy that made me want to see her more for my own benefit than for any help I could give her. One day I asked her how she could be so strong and at peace. She replied that her grandmother told her, "Now honey, when you pray don’t ask God to take away your troubles. Just ask him to make your shoulders strong enough to carry them." I’m learning to pray as she did for the strength and faith to accept all that I can’t understand and don’t want to carry.

Gradually I’ve realized that my conversations with God come from a lifelong recognition of a source of light and life that is both within me and beyond me, transcendent and omnipresent. Daily prayer has been and will continue to be a part of my life. In the movie, Shadowlands, the words of C. S. Lewis express well what I’ve learned from all my protests and prayers: "I pray because I’m helpless. The need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me."

Mary Ann Downey

Mary Ann Downey is a member of Atlanta (Ga.) Meeting and of the board of trustees of Friends Journal. She is director of Decision Bridges, which promotes consensus decision making.