Tonight our hamster died, so I decided to tell a story about prayer.
When we first got our hamster, Zu-zu, my daughter was so excited. She was 6 at the time (now 7) and was just enamored with this little creature. We had seen her at the pet store that afternoon and gotten her on an impulse, as we tend to do. We go to the pet store because it cheers us up, and is something we can do for free, but sometimes we come home with a creature.
Not long after, Zu-zu escaped her cage in my daughter’s room right around bedtime (Zu-zu turned out to be an elite escape artist). We went through the entire upstairs part of our house, but to no avail – the hamster was nowhere to be found. My daughter was really upset at the loss of her new pet. Eventually, hours after bedtime, she fell asleep, still tearful. I felt a lot of sympathy, and also had my own situation to feel bad about – I had stood up two wonderful women from my church with whom I had a lunch date.
I tried all I could think of to contact the two of them and apologize, and try to find a way to make amends, but they weren’t responding. I felt miserable about it because these were two genuinely good people whom I had just failed. They were the kind of people who would be really hurt by this kind of thing, as well.
That night, upset on my daughter’s behalf, and on my own behalf, I prayed. Now, I have a well-documented ambivalence with regard to prayer. Suffering from depression and anxiety, I’d been told many times that I could just pray these things away. They were all in my mind, after all. If it wasn’t working, it was because I was a failure – not faithful enough, secretly evil, too full of doubt, whatever. And working in a hospital as a chaplain, I had seen plenty of good people pray and still suffer for no discernible moral or theological reason. Balance that with the many stories of answered prayers I’ve heard as a pastor and a Christian in general, as well as the painful stories of unanswered prayers.
But, anyway, I prayed. I prayed that we would find Zu-zu, and that my two friends from church would forgive me. I didn’t know what else to do, and even I pray when I’m desperate.
That night, my daughter had a dream. She woke my spouse and I up to tell us about it. In her dream, she found Zu-zu in her room, standing on her hind legs and cleaning her face and smiling at her. So I thought, OK. I went into her room, looked around for a while by the light of my cellphone, and there was Zu-zu, standing on her hind legs, cleaning her face with her little paws.
The next day, my two friends let me know that they forgave me, and we made new lunch plans.
Prayer is weird and doesn’t make any sense. When put to a rigorous test, it tends to fail, yet billions of people believe in its efficacy. I wrote a whole book about not praying, but there it is. I prayed, and that’s what happened.
I remember the flood of thankfulness that I felt, the wonder that things had turned out OK after all. And my 6 year old having a predictive dream about finding her hamster – that was genuinely weird. Yes, sure, she could have just seen her hamster while half-asleep, thought she dreamed what she had, and told us about it. The hamster was in the dark and behind a dresser, but sure. That’s what could have happened. And my two friends might have just chosen that day to let me know that they forgave me. Just a coincidence.
Prayer is like that. It’s frustrating.