The first time it happened I was standing in a shack raising money for the homeless. The two walked up to me–a man and a woman, maybe my age, smiling, too exuberant–and with their eyes attached longingly to mine, they introduced themselves and asked, “Can we pray for you?”
I’ll admit: I was taken aback. All my life the idea of “praying for others” was an insult to their identity and an affirmation of the prayer-maker’s superiority: “You’re Jewish? I’ll pray for you. You’re gay? I’ll pray for you. You’re a sinner. I’ll pray for you.”
And here were two and all they wanted to do
(an unnecessary line break for poetic emphasis)
was pray for me.
I’m not one to ask others to pray for me. I don’t believe it’s a right thing to do. Pray to God what you feel prayer is needed for. I believe–in my own world of philosophy–that prayer is how we speak to God. It’s not a commandment–“Here, God, do this!”–nor a plea–“Please, God, I beg of you!”–it’s only a prayer.
That’s not to say prayer is powerless.
I make an analogy to tutoring: In this classroom we call life, we’re all learning to live in every moment we’re still alive (and in that last moment, perhaps we’re learning to die). I was like God when I sat at the head of the math lab and all these students gathered were like my creations: In a instant I could reach each of them and solve their problems, make them successful, and take away their pain and suffering. Instead I sat there in silence, twiddling my thumbs for all that mattered to any of them.
But occasionally, occasionally they would pray. They would lift their heads to see who was around, they would raise their hands as if grasping for something higher, they would come to me quietly and ask for help, strained gazes not meeting mine. By then they recognized their own shortcomings–so they reached out for help.
Any moment earlier and equal help with equal intent would have meant nothing. And so is prayer from us unto God: It is the recognition of our current state of being, and only when we can be open to the help we need can that help be found–not by divine intervention, but by personal growth and soul evolution.
So I humored them. I felt it would be rude to simply say no, don’t pray for me. With only the faintest venom in my tongue, I said I was praying that we could sell all the remaining koozies we were selling for our fundraiser since it was the last day of sales and I wanted us to make as big a difference as we could for those we were here for.
“But is there anything we can pray for, for you?”
I wanted to say no. I really couldn’t think of anything I needed prayers for–let alone their prayers. Prayer is personal, I said, the prayers of another mean nothing for me–only my prayers can bring the kind of change that matters. But they were insistent. So finally I said I hadn’t been sleeping a lot and I really wanted a good night’s sleep.
“Dear Lord,” they said or something like it, “please help Darren sell all these koozies for a good cause and please grant him a good night’s rest.”
And then they thanked me, and I thanked them, and they left.
The second time it happened in my residence hall.
My residence hall.
With locked doors and limited access. The place where I live, where I find my peace and solitude. I wasn’t out in the middle of campus. I was in the protection of my home.
So when I opened the door and the two of them–different people, mind you–were standing there, asking to pray for me, I felt violated. My space had been intruded by people who were not welcome.
“Can we pray for you?”
I didn’t have time to humor them.
“No, thank you,” I said, “not today.”
And when they left, I closed the door behind them.
Today it happened the third time. I had just dropped off my final paper and picked up my HIV policy paper (which, as I’d imagined, earned me nothing more than a C) and now I was walking to the library to begin working on my final final project of the semester when I ran across two guys walking in my direction.
“Nice jacket,” the one said (but who doesn’t?), and then after I said thanks, the other replied, “Can we pray for you?”
I don’t really know what I said. “No, thank you”? It feels like there’s a missing line in this dialogue I just can’t recall. But it doesn’t matter. I remember what they said next.
“Do you have any finals we could pray for?”
Pray for finals? Seriously? Seriously? Excuse the indecency, but why the fuck would anybody pray for finals?
If by the time your finals come around you haven’t been a good student and studied enough to know the material and do well on the final, no miracle is going to help you–it’ll only hurt you, and no God wants that. Learn from your failure and do better next time. Don’t ask a for a divine break when you don’t deserve it.
See, there’s another difference about my philosophy of prayer: I don’t pray for things. I may from time pray for the health of my family and friends, but when I pray for me, I ask God for strength, for willpower, for focus–the tools I need to succeed, not the success itself. God doesn’t grant what we want; if we’re lucky, he gives what we need. I don’t need prayer for my final. I need prayers for the focus and determination I need to properly prepare and succeed. But that only means anything if I’ve worked enough to do well in the first place. God doesn’t forgive bad behavior: God only works wonders when we work equally with God to create them.
“I don’t have any finals left,” I told them, since it’s true in the sense they were asking.
“But isn’t there anything?”
“You know,” I said, “why don’t you pray for the people who don’t have the privilege to be here for you to ask them?”
They didn’t say anything as I continued walking toward the library. I don’t know if they understood what I meant. Perhaps they thought I meant the dead, those who cannot physically be here, but those I had in mind were the people in poverty who could never dream of attending even a public state university, the people dying of AIDS in Africa when we could defeat this disease in its entirety if only we moved the willpower to do so, those many who had to drop out due to bullying, harassment, and discrimination.
Pray for them. Pray for a cultural sea change in which the things we pray for aren’t petty like finals and koozies and a good night’s sleep, but things that matter, things that change the world, things that make us better people and closer to God.
For a moment afterwards I thought perhaps there are things I could pray for. The money I need to get to Alaska. The money I need to visit the man I love. The medication I need to fix my Vitamin D deficiency or the news that my family’s new house can finally be moved into or the strength and fortitude and energy I’ll need to survive what will most certainly be my hardest semester yet.
But I have faith in God that each of these things will happen. I will fundraise and work for the money I need. I will be thankful every day for the laws and policies that enable me to have health care to get seen by doctors and prescribed what I need. I’ll be thankful when the good news comes and I’ll begin planning ahead my extracurricular commitments now so that, when classes begin, I won’t have as much to do.
So why pray for any of these things when there are those who need prayers so much more–like those who go around asking to pray for petty things when instead they could be changing the world by advocating for polices that make change happen, for an end to poverty, the creation of peace and prosperity?
Don’t pray for me.