When I was a boy, church and baseball were the center of my life.
The son of a small town Baptist minister, I spent hours in the church following my Dad around after school and on Saturdays. I went to Sunday school and children’s choir, and got my first job, dumping trash from the Sunday school classrooms for a quarter a week – you see, in this small town church, the pastor often doubled as church sexton, responsible for maintaining the building as well as the souls of congregants.
I played a lot of baseball, on Little League teams and by myself, imagining I was playing in the big game, as I threw my rubber ball against the side of the house. Epic contests with the likes of Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal, Roberto Clemente, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Willie McCovey occurred in our backyard.
Often in these games, I threw the ball wildly or it took an odd bounce, and went into the bushes, and try as I might, I couldn’t find it. I looked and looked, and when I still couldn’t find it, I’d turn to prayer, “God help me find this ball” or if I got desperate, “God, if you exist, let me find this ball” or “I’ll serve you as a missionary if I find the ball.” Well, sometimes my prayers were answered, and the ball appeared; but other times, I went away empty handed, and in my childish way wondered, “God, are you listening? Do you care about what’s important to me? If your eye is on the sparrow, why not on baseballs, too?”
Over five decades later, I still pray, sometimes in words, other times in images or feelings of connection. For nearly seven years, I prayed for a dear friend, diagnosed with incurable cancer. These prayers began in Lancaster, PA, traveled for a year to DC, and concluded on Craigville Beach. I would focus my imagination, energy, and thoughts, asking that my friend would live and her family flourish. Alas, my friend died, the second summer I was on Cape Cod. Were my prayers answered, or was her death beyond the power of prayer and even God’s ability or desire?
Prayer is, as Ann Ulanov asserts, primal speech. It is built into our DNA as humans. From the very beginning, people cried out to powers greater than themselves in times of need. They constructed altars and sacrificed to insure survival for themselves and their loved ones.
Our scriptures make bold claims about prayer. “Ask, and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you.” The author of Psalm 139 asserts that God knows our deepest desires, that whether we are elated, in the heights of joy, or downcast, in the darkness of depression, God is with us, seeking our well-being. We can take everything to God in prayer because God is with us and seeks our healing. God has searched us and known us and knows what we truly need, beyond our passing desires.
Jesus tells a parable about an uncaring judge – today, we might compare it to sitting on the line to wait for a customer service representative who then tells us to call another department, where we receive an automated message; or the apparent indifference of large businesses and governmental agencies. Despite being put off time and again, the woman persists – she has skin in the game, her well-being depends on his positive response – and finally the judge relents simply because she’s worn him down. Jesus asks, “Isn’t God more attentive than this judge? Isn’t God more loving than an indifferent magistrate?” Then, he turns the question on us, God will provide, God will answer our prayers, but will we persist in faith, despite the apparent delay?
I believe that God hears our prayers. I believe that our prayers create a field of loving energy around ourselves and those for whom we pray. This force opens doors for God to be more active in our lives than if we hadn’t prayed. When we pray, we connect with God and those for whom we pray: we support God’s work of healing for us and the planet. As Leslie Weatherhead says, when I pray, coincidences happen; when I don’t, they don’t!
So, keep on praying, Jesus says. Persist in prayer. Let God move creatively in your life, for God loves you, hears your prayers, and responds with loving care, seeking our healing and the healing of the earth.
Years after I prayed for lost balls, now an adult, with son of my own, I flew back to California to help my Dad paint the family home. As I trimmed bushes in preparation, guess what I found? Ancient rubber balls, that I had lost as young boy. Were my prayers finally answered? Did God finally come through? I was no longer the child petitioning to find an errant ball; I was an adult, trying to give something back to the man who taught me how to play baseball and who had spent hours playing catch with me when I was a child. Prayer and old, useless balls – not much of an answer, it seems, but perhaps an important answer. In this rough and tumble world, where prayers are deferred and sometimes appear to stall before fulfillment, our ultimate prayers are heard and answered – that God will spiritually heal us and those we love, when a cure can’t be found; that our deepest desires will be fulfilled at the right moment; and that whether we are in heights or depths, God is with us, and that God will heal and embrace an anxious boy looking for baseballs, a close friend who dies and is received into eternal life, and a troubled child who finally experiences the peace that passes all understanding, welcome in God’s realm of joy and beauty.
Though prayers seem to br deferred and I often wonder what to pray for, I keep praying. For prayer connects us with God, those we love, and reminds us that we are the change we are seeking, the answer to another’s prayers, as we embrace God’s vision of healing for others and for this good Earth.