The uncertainty of prayer

Over the past several weeks, I've been busy finishing graduate school and trying to hold my life together. When you're so stressed that you can barely finish a coherent sentence, let alone your laundry, you find yourself saying many throw-away prayers.

"Oh dear God let me make this deadline."

"Please Lord let there be jobs open at the end of this."

"Sweet Jesus can I please sleep one night without dreaming about journalism?!"

Last week, though, I found myself praying for something much more important. A very close family member, my uncle, was suddenly hospitalized with a critical condition, and though he pulled through initial surgeries, every moment carries risks, and it will be a long, slow, fraught recovery period.

I, like most people who believe in any kind of higher power, have prayed for many things in my life, but the only other time I've prayed with such desperation and conviction was when my father died. Since I was away in London when it happened, my family decided that the best thing to do was tell me that he was very sick and wanted me home, but not that he was already gone. I am still grateful for that, because it was hard enough for me to pull myself together and get on a 7-hour flight home. I spent the plane ride alternating between praying, watching The 40-Year-Old Virgin three and a half times, and convincing myself that my dad would be perfectly fine. When I found out what really happened, I was later thankful that I didn't have to take that flight, alone, knowing the truth, but I felt so foolish petitioning God to prevent something that had already happened.

Now I am once again asking God to save a life, but this time I at least know there is a chance that my prayers will be answered. But I found myself not knowing what to pray for.

Of course, what I want is for my uncle to make a complete and swift recovery, but I have a hard time asking for that. The last time I asked for something so important to me, I didn't get it. I don't really believe that God steps in and lays his hands on people to live or die. The universe seems so much more complicated than that. I hate when well-intentioned people tell me that "everything happens for a reason." I don't really think so. I think that we deal with things as they happen to us, and I don't presume to understand or simplify God's plans. If He has any, I don't think they can be distilled into a saying that fits neatly crocheted onto a pillow.

So beyond the basic "Please God let him be OK" mantra running through my head constantly, I didn't make a serious, focused, one-on-one personal appeal to God until two days after my uncle landed in the hospital, and I was alone in the shower, with time to think.

It seems to me, I said to God, that asking for something I want so badly is a bad idea. It seems somehow small, and like I'm disregarding the power and vision of God to see the whole picture that I can't see. I tried asking for acceptance of whatever happens, but I couldn't. I don't want acceptance, I want my uncle to get better. So I asked God for that. But why would it work this time, this plea directly from my heart, from the deepest sense of my whole being, when it didn't work last time?

And then I realized something. It's hard to prove a negative.

There have been many times in my life when I've asked for things from God, and I have gotten them. I've prayed for the safety and health of many family members and friends, and most of them are doing just fine. Of course, bad things will happen in my life and everyone else's life. That doesn't mean that God doesn't exist or listen, and good things happen don't prove that he does. (That's what faith is for.) But it does mean that many, many of my prayers have indeed been answered.

So I dared to ask for what I really wanted, and I'm continuing to do that every day. I know that there are dozens of other people asking for the exact same thing, and I have to hope that volume and intensity counts for something.

I try to remember, in moments of extreme worry, what someone, somewhere along in my religious education, told me: God always answers prayers; you just might not always like the answer.

This is oddly comforting. I know that we can't always get what we ask for, but I believe that at the very least, God is listening. I might not know the plan, but the good things in my life are proof that sometimes, we do get what we ask for.

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