When I was in middle school, my Spanish teacher was diagnosed with cancer. Her husband was the Bible teacher. Both of her children were students. This was at a small, Christian school in Maryland, a close community of believers.
What was our response when we learned the terrible news of her illness? We prayed, of course. Not the typical prayers which had been a normal part of Bible class and Monday morning chapels, in which students took turns ticking off prayer requests from the general to the specific, but the real deal. A 24-hour prayer blanket was conceived, in which students, faculty, friends and family signed up for a block of time, all throughout the night, all throughout the next day, fervently pleading, imploring, fasting for weeks on end, for as long as it took.
Finally, the news came: The cancer was gone! She was healed! There was much rejoicing and outpouring of thanksgiving, hands were raised, hosannas were shouted. Those secular doctors with their secular science were completely befuddled! Yes, for all their highfalutin’ degrees and prestigious education, they could not account for this seeming miracle before their eyes, but we knew the score! Hallelujah, the God of Abraham had heard our prayers!
A week later the cancer returned with a vengeance and she was dead within 24 hours.
The idea of prayer had always caught in my maw as a Christian. I went through the motions because I felt I had no choice but to acknowledge its veracity, as it was a part of the package deal which came with salvation and eternal life, but there was nonetheless a logical component to it which always seemed lacking. Were we actually attempting tochange God’s mind about an outcome, and if so, how did that fit in with free will and God’s omnipotence and all the rest of it?
Following her death, it was explained that God had indeed heard our prayers, and that this was clearly a part of His orchestrated plan. Perhaps, somehow, her death might even lead others to Christ! Above all, we must continue to pray that God’s will be done.
In the decades following my deconversion and disbelief in God, what began as dissatisfaction with these pat answers to life’s tragedies turned to gilt-edged skepticism, followed by hostility for church-goers and church-elders.
However, now that I am an adult, after having assumed I was done with that holy enterprise, I now find myself sitting in the wooden chairs of a small, old Mennonite Church most Sunday mornings, taking part in the communal hymn-singing, the passing of the peace, the breaking of bread. My family and I bring food to share, ponder the sermons, and remain after service long into the afternoon.
Perhaps this anomaly can be explained with the cyclical shape that a life can take. Perhaps it is that I am married to a woman who is more spiritually-minded than I. Perhaps it is that there are just so many tropes which are familiar to me: the language, the rhythm, the underlying mythology of it.
It would be a mistake, however, to characterize my return to church as merely a return to what is familiar. Indeed, I often find myself outside of my comfort zone, listening to hard-hitting sermons about poverty, racial injustice and immigration rights. This is not the church I grew up in. Far from it. This is a church with a focus on social justice issues, seen primarily through the lens of Christ’s example. But that is not the fullest extent of the comfort zone which I find myself existing outside of.
The truth is, each Sunday that I attend, I must confront the fact that I simply do not believe in a God and probably never will.
The longer I’ve attended, the more at ease I’ve become with this realization about myself. Perhaps it’s being surrounded by people who are themselves comfortable with their beliefs which has made me more comfortable with my own. Or – more likely - it’s because the very real problems of the world as they are presented from the pulpit are larger than any mythology, more immediate than any supposition about the unknown.
There remains, however, the issue of prayer.
“It is now our time of sharing,” says the worship leader every Sunday, once the sermon has concluded. “Please share your joys, your concerns, your reflections on the sermon. When you are finished, say, ‘God of Grace,’ and we will respond with ‘Hear our prayer.’”
The congregation is small, and the wooden chairs arranged so that half the sanctuary faces the other half. One by one, individuals rise and speak of world events and local politics, money and violence, a conversation, a conundrum. The effects of the economy, the wages of war, all very real and immediate in a way I don’t get in the routine of my daily life
I now have a very humanist understanding of what is happening when people gather together to pray. I am no longer concerned with the logical implications of an omnipotent being’s mind being changed. Instead, I think about issues of human community. In real life, how often do we find a platform for expressing personal feelings so openly? How often are we able to express a terror, or a dream, not just with a spouse or a few close friends, but with an entire community?
There is solace in sharing personal burdens and personal joys. And there is responsibility in having the private lives of others opened up before you. This is what prayer has come to mean to me, and it is more meaningful to me than to suppose that an incorporeal entity is going to supernaturally intercede in our affairs.
I wish that I had appreciated this aspect when I had been younger, when my entire school hung on every bit of news concerning my cancer-stricken teacher, generously interpreting the slightest positive prognosis as something miraculous. Instead, I sat in the back of chapel, smug in my self-righteous certainty that I could see through this theistic illusion of prayer.
In many ways, I feel I was onto something. There was an illusory veil which I correctly saw through. My mistake, however, was that I stopped my introspection there, and did not consider that in life, there are veils behind veils, and truths behind illusions.