When I was growing up, my parents almost daily rounded up my four siblings and I for family prayer, the seven of us—albeit with differing degrees of attention—reciting out loud the Catholic prayers of the rosary, while meditating on different events in Jesus Christ’s life.
At the end of the rosary, after my dad had rattled off the oh, roughly 785 intentions he wanted the Lord to take some action on, it was the kids’ turn to announce to God what we’d like to see happen.
And so when one of my brothers was 2, he began to pray for a specific intention. At the time, he was a toddler who lost his mind and shrieked “Bu! Bu! BU!” (the “s” seemed to be beyond his ability to enunciate) every time we passed a school bus (and perhaps not coincidentally was very enthused about wearing the color yellow at all times).
When it was his turn, he took to asking quite ardently for a white car. He had spotted this glistening white model of a car at Toys R Us, one of those cars that kids could ride, and he evidently quite liked the thought of himself zipping through our backyard in this sporty car. Every night, he would pray with real fervor that he would get this white car.
After many, many, many days of praying for this white car (and not having it show up in his life), my brother approached my parents and inquired whether he would ever get this white car. My parents, who were supporting five children and saw Toys R Us kid-size cars as the kind of luxuries reserved for another class of people, gently informed him that no, he wouldn’t be getting the white car.
He, devastated, went on to inquire, I believe, whether he would get the white car in heaven and was told that yes, if he needed the white car to be happy, it would be there in heaven. But no, it would be not showing up in his life here at any point.
Welcome to life as a believer.
The terrible shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, which left 26 dead (including eight members of one family, and an 18-month-old) has launched another round of incredulity about prayer from non-believers.
Actor Wil Wheaton tweeted at House Speaker Paul Ryan, “The murdered victims were in a church. If prayers did anything, they’d still be alive, you worthless sack of s—.” (He later tweeted, “Hey, real and actual people of faith: I hear you. I apologise for insulting you, in my rage at Paul Ryan’s refusal to address gun violence.”)
The murdered victims were in a church. If prayers did anything, they'd still be alive, you worthless sack of shit. https://t.co/iGHxPrYrLN
— Wil Wheaton (@wilw) November 5, 2017
Wheaton wasn’t the only liberal rolling his eyes over prayers post-Texas: “Speaker Ryan, bluntly: shove your prayers up you’re ass AND DO SOMETHING WITH YOUR LIFE BESIDES PLATITUDES AND POWER GRABS,” tweeted good old Keith Olbermann. Liberal writer Lauren Duca, like Wheaton, took aim at Ryan, tweeting, “There were plenty of prayers in the church where 27 people were gunned down today. What we need is gun control, you spineless sack of s—.”
Speaker Ryan, bluntly: shove your prayers up your ass AND DO SOMETHING WITH YOUR LIFE BESIDES PLATITUDES AND POWER GRABS https://t.co/ZJkO0Pa5Vh
— Keith Olbermann (@KeithOlbermann) November 6, 2017
There were plenty of prayers in the church where 27 people were gunned down today. What we need is gun control, you spineless sack of shit. https://t.co/b07LXwjk0h
— Lauren Duca (@laurenduca) November 5, 2017
An MSNBC reporter, speaking to Paul Buford, a pastor of a church near where the shooting occurred, asked, “Anytime something like this happens in this country, we all feel so powerless. All we can really offer are thoughts and prayers. Are prayers enough?”
“I think, absolutely they are,” responded Buford, pastor of River Oaks Church. “It’s only our faith in God that’s going to get us through this.”
Of course, there’s no contradiction between praying and taking action. In this particular case, current laws already should have prevented the shooter, Devin Kelley, from obtaining a gun—and it certainly makes sense for Americans to demand the Air Force take action to ensure anyone else with a record like the shooter’s is entered in the correct databases so this doesn’t happen again.
But you can do that—and keep praying.
So if you’re slack-jawed with amazement that the massacre in Sutherland Springs hasn’t shaken people’s faith, hasn’t stopped them from praying, let me ‘splain.
For most people of faith, we don’t pray to God because we expect He’s the ultimate Santa Claus, or as my colleague Daniel Davis suggested in our podcast Monday, because we think He’s some dope genie who’s going to grant us everything we wish for.
As a person of faith, I’ve spent plenty of time silently praying and asking God why the heck He allowed one thing or another. I’ve watched a grandpa I dearly loved, and who I had fervently prayed would survive his heart problem, be lowered into a grave.
I’ve seen friends and families grapple with their own tragedies, and thinking of the Texas shooting, of all those people peacefully sitting in church and then being surrounded by the corpses of those who they loved, I’ve prayed—without understanding.
There is so, so, so much I don’t understand why God allows.
I’m hardly alone. While I’m mainly familiar with Christianity (and my own Catholic faith), there is no faith tradition that has expelled suffering. It’s part and parcel of the human condition, and for those of us who believe in a loving God, it is admittedly a hard thing to understand at times.
I think of Pope John Paul II, whose father, brother, and mother were all dead by the time he was 20, and who had to watch as his beloved Poland was taken over by Nazis, and then communists.
I think of the Catholic saint Gianna Molla, a doctor who died after she didn’t want to put her unborn baby at risk by having a certain medical treatment when she was pregnant (and whose death in 1962 left her four small children motherless).
— encuentra.com (@encuentra) September 11, 2017
And I recall Mother Teresa, who lived a long life, but who—as was revealed after her death—spent decades in an acute spiritual darkness that was no doubt psychological torture.
St. Teresa of Avila, a feisty woman who started an order of nuns in Spain in the 1500s, once said, after falling into a mud puddle while traveling, “God, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.”
It’s a sentiment that I’m sure many a person of faith could wryly relate to.
And yet, on Monday, when I went to mass and the priest asked us to spend a few silent moments in prayer for those hurt and killed in Texas, and for all those who harbored evil in their hearts and were tempted to do horrible things like this, I bowed my head and prayed.
At a mass this summer in London, a priest told a story that’s lingered with me. Once, the priest said, there was a king who went hunting, and in the process, injured one of his fingers. His doctor, who always attended him on hunts, did his best to save the finger, but it was to no avail: In the end, it had to be cut off to prevent infection from spreading.
The king was furious at the doctor, who had simply and casually said, “Good? Bad? Who knows?” regarding the loss of the king’s finger. So the king threw the doctor into a dungeon, and in response, the doctor said simply, “Good? Bad? Who knows?”
A little while later, the king was hunting again, and this time he was captured by some bandits or what not, who decided they would offer him as a human sacrifice to whatever gods they worshipped.
The bandits prepared the king to be killed, but then realized he had only nine fingers. They decided they needed to offer a “perfect” human sacrifice to their gods, and so they let the nine-fingered king go free.
When the king returned to his castle, he summoned the doctor, and told him that the loss of his finger had saved his life, and apologized to the doctor for throwing him in the dungeon.
But the doctor noted that if he had been out of the dungeon, he would have accompanied the king hunting, as was his habit—and as someone with 10 fingers, he would have been an acceptable human sacrifice.
The point, as I’m sure you get, is that our limited perspective sometimes makes things that will ultimately work for the greater good appear bad at the time.
And yet, of course, it is one thing to know that and an entirely different matter to feel it.
So when I pray after Texas, or after a personal tragedy, or after seeing another loved one be hurt, I don’t do so with an expectation that this prayer will finally break the cycle of evil and suffering, that never again will I or someone I love be devastated by suffering.
Instead, I try to trust. I remember that Jesus Himself, on the eve of his crucifixion, prayed that “may this cup be taken from me”—and yet He went on to be crucified.
I pray for faith, and for trust, and for understanding and for, if there must be more suffering in my life, that I be able to bear it well—but with a swift caveat that please, God, maybe just don’t make me suffer.
“There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us,” said John Paul II in 1995, speaking at the Orioles Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore. “There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not now bear with us.”
“And on the far side of every cross we find the newness of life in the Holy Spirit, that new life which will reach its fulfillment in the resurrection,” he added. “This is our faith. This is our witness before the world.”
Before God, I remember, too, that some prayers have been answered the way I wanted—that my mom’s heart condition was caught in time, and that she has made it through a series of surgeries; that I live in a time in which my rare eye condition can be treated, and I’m not blind as a bat; that so very many of my loved ones are doing well.
Prayer, at the end of the day, isn’t about trying to do that one simple trick to end human suffering. For me, it’s so often simply to be in the presence of God, to allow my own petty heart to be changed by being in His presence.
And my brother? Well, his prayer came true as well—in a way. When he was a teen, my parents bought a white Dodge Charger, and he got to zip around in it. And this May, 24 years after he prayed so hard for that white car, he was ordained a Catholic priest. (The photo above this article is from his ordination.)
The car he and another priest share today isn’t white, and it sure isn’t sporty, but he seems OK with it all.
So today, and tomorrow, and for many days after, I’m going to keep praying for the people in that church in Texas. I’ll pray for those who were gunned down, and for all their families and friends.
I’m going to pray for all those who are tempted to do evil, that they resist, and that we never again have a horrible mass shooting, whether in church or elsewhere. I’ll pray for the soul of the shooter, and for his loved ones. And sometimes I’ll just sit and ask: Why?
“The days ahead will be awful for the grieving community of Sutherland Springs,” wrote Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, in The Washington Post.
“But one thing is certain: Come Sunday, they will be gathered again, singing and praying and opening the Word. That church will bear witness to the truth that shaped them: Eternal life cannot be overcome by death.”