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An Ill Wind 

It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

— Proverb

The forecast was dire. A full-fledged hurricane was barreling down on Connecticut. My town, some 30 miles inland, was directly in its path. Our electric utility, which had been criticized for its sluggish response to lesser storms, had mobilized 4,000 repair crews in advance from all over the U.S. and Canada. The utility warned that more than three-quarters of its customers could find themselves without power for up to three weeks. My wife and I had bought a backup generator after an ice storm 10 years earlier that had left us in the cold and dark for six days. Our biggest concern this time was the many tall trees on our property that could come crashing down on the house.

People at my church and elsewhere prayed that our community would be spared the worst effects of the storm. As it happened, the hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm shortly before it reached landfall. It veered east at the last minute so that Rhode Island, rather than Connecticut, bore the brunt of it. You might conclude that prayers had been answered — or had they? The good citizens of Rhode Island might beg to differ.

This example illustrates one of the chief pitfalls of prayer. Anxious about our own immediate situation, we are rarely in a position even to know what to pray for. If chess pieces could pray, there would be no doubt be many supplications about their next moves on the board, heedless of any strategy for playing the game. Although we don’t like to think of ourselves as mere pawns on the game board of life, we are rarely able to think more than a move or two ahead, and our view of the board is often limited to the space immediately in front of us.

As St. Paul expressed it long ago, “We do not know how to pray as we ought.” Leave it to that notorious freethinker Mark Twain to provide a clear-eyed assessment of our limitations in this regard. “If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time,” Twain wrote. “If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.”

Abraham Lincoln noted in his Second Inaugural Address that God could not possibly answer the prayers of both sides in the Civil War, with when each invoking his aid against the other. “The Almighty has His own purposes,” Lincoln concluded. Yet how often do we stop and ask what those purposes might be before praying for some particular outcome? Even on the brink of victory, fighting for an ostensibly just cause, Lincoln did not presume to know God’s intentions, much less conclude that the Lord was on the Union side.

So, if we don’t know what God is up to, how are we supposed to pray? Jesus of Nazareth addressed this issue in the Sermon on the Mount. He started by cautioning his listeners not to make a big show of praying or heaping up empty phrases, thinking they will be heard for all their bombast. He added, “…your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” If God knows what we need before we ask, what’s the point of asking?

With that as his introduction, Jesus gave an example of how to pray with words that have come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer. It’s all quite general: feed us…forgive us…deliver us from evil, just 48 words in the English translation. But tucked inside is a four-word petition that is really a prayer unto itself: “Thy will be done.” If you pray just those four words and nothing else, what remains to be said? They are the same words that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gesthemane, when he knew that he would shortly be taken away and killed. Unlike most of us, Jesus was able to see more than a move or two ahead, yet that did not prevent his chess piece from being removed from the board.

I did not pray that our community be spared when a hurricane was bearing down on us. Nor did I gave thanks that we did not suffer worse effects from the storm, knowing that others did. I had been concerned about the tall trees on our property that might come crashing down in a bad storm. I had no illusions that faith alone would shield us from harm. Faith is come what may, knowing that what comes will not always be to our liking. "Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish," Epictetus advised, "but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life."

It’s hard to picture how subjecting yourself to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (to borrow a phrase from the Bard) can lead to a tranquil flow of life. And yet I have found this to be true in practice. Bad things still happen, of course. But you find that you no longer fret so much about what might happen. Fear gradually recedes into the background, and with it the need to pray for deliverance from the things you are afraid of. How much of our prayer is merely fear addressed to a high power? Far better just to pray as we have been taught and leave it at that: Thy will be done.

Romans 8:26
Mark Twain, "The War Prayer"
Matthew 6:1-13
Epictetus,
Enchiridion

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