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Pray for me?

March 30, 2011

A few months ago, a cell divided. It happens constantly, a biochemical dance of enzymes unzipping and copying and stitching chromosomes, dividing the cellular contents up in a million miniature divorces a minute, you making you out of you, right under (and in) your nose.

Except this time there was a mistake. There are mistakes most times, of course, but generally they happen in the big chunks of DNA that don’t do anything, or they don’t actually change the protein that a gene is coded to make, or they don’t change it enough to affect anything. But this time, the gene they broke meant that the new cell wouldn’t shut off a sequence of reactions when it was supposed to, and instead of being a dutiful worker, it became a selfish monster.

Wait, I’m anthropomorphising. The cancer cells in the lining of my colon aren’t selfish any more than the normal cells in my stomach lining are hungry. But if they aren’t removed, they will eat me alive as surely as any real monster would. Just ask Henrietta Lacks, whose selfish monster has outlived her by six decades so far, or the Tasmanian devils, whose cancer leaps from face to face, taking advantage of their aggressive mating rituals to propagate itself instead.

I am told as I get ready to go into surgery today that many people are praying for me. Apparently a lot of people care about me, or at least about my wife and kids and their ability to remain clothed and fed. They will ask God to guide the surgeon’s hands, and to send quick healing, and to put a hedge of protection around me, and other things I’ve heard in so many prayers for so many others in my lifetime. And more likely than not, they’ll include a caveat, something like, “…but whatever is in Your will.”

Why do they do that? I think it’s because they’ve seen too many times when the things they prayed for so earnestly didn’t turn out “right.” Their prayers didn’t “work.” And studies show that, overall, they don’t. On the whole, people prayed for don’t do any better than people not prayed for. Bad things happen to good people. And sometimes the bad guys get away with it.

So prayer doesn’t work? Well, not the way we all act like it does. We often treat prayer as a kind of magic spell, a cosmic candy machine, trying to convince God to give us what we want, and we’ll love Him in return. Whole denominations are set up based on the logical fallacy that if we do not have because we do not ask, then if we DO ask, it means we WILL have. And even Christians who would never have anything to do with “name-it-and-claim-it” theology still end up treating prayer the same way.

And why? Because we want control. We feel powerless in a world where an earthquake can wipe out our town, where a drunk driver can take a loved one, where a botched mitosis can sprout a potentially deadly tumor. So we try to get God to do things our way. We stand there with the disciples saying, “Who sinned, Lord, this man or his parents, that this should happen to him?”

And I imagine He looks at us and shakes His head, and smiles a little at how we’ve missed the point again, that prayer isn’t about us taking control of an uncontrollable situation, but rather about accepting it, and giving it over to the One who has control, who knows the plans He has for us, and who has surrounded us with people to love and support and care for us, whatever the outcome.

So by all means, pray for me, and for the doctors, and for healing and comfort and peace of mind, both for me and for my family. Just remember, prayer was never intended to change God’s heart.

It’s meant to change ours.

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