Went on my first hospital visit today, tagging along with one of the associate pastors. The visit went well. At the end, the pastor asked the church member if he would like to pray, and then asked him "What do you need?" He was hoping for a discharge today, and needed the anesthesiologist to come by to do something in order for that to happen. So we circled, held hands, and prayed for the anesthesiologist to come and take care of him soon.
Having spent almost no time in hospitals in my life, I don't have much of an idea of what it is people want from their pastor when they're not well. But that prayer in the hospital room made me wonder something else: should we be praying for God to deliver on immediate, specific requests in this way? The bottom line is that I don't have the same faith in intercessory prayer that I used to. Where I used to lay prayers before God, now I feel like I want to understand first why this is a Christian practice.
A couple different thoughts come to mind for me. One is something I heard Tony Campolo say not too long ago. He was poking light at the prayers we say. Paraphrasing: "We'll pray, 'Oh, Lord, please be with Mary this week, as she has had chest pains and has to have double bypass surgery.' As if God is sitting up in Heaven and jumps up out of his chair -- 'You're kidding! I should get on that. Which hospital is she in?'" That resonates with me. I can't decide what I think I am doing by praying for a particular person. God already knows. On the other hand, Thomas Merton said somewhere (probably in The Seven Storey Mountain) that it is a special kind of arrogance to think your concerns don't warrant fervent prayer to God: this is another way of saying, "We've got things under control down here, thank you very much."
Today was the first day I realized that my desire for theological integrity and intentionality is manifesting itself as skepticism of some fundamental, revered practices. In other words, while I was trying distill these questions on prayer this afternoon, the anesthesiologist made his/her way up to the sixth floor and enabled our friend to go home.