I believe in praying. Now before anybody brands me with the stereotypes of some religion that I am not, I would like to explain the evolution of my belief through a story. My tale begins with me, a hospital chaplain, visiting a patient whose bold words would rock my world. Our visit was going well, but I knew it wouldn’t last because I would inevitably ask the question I hated most to ask: “Is there anything I can do for you as a chaplain, such as offer a word of prayer?” I cringed as I spoke. To my discomfort, the patient gladly accepted my proposal; however, she took it to the next level. She didn’t want liturgical spew or a whimsical verse. No, she wanted me to pray because she had a request: “I want you to pray that I get a cheeseburger, fries, and ketchup,” she asked boldly. I thought, that’s not a kosher request of any religion. But I had to pray it; after all, I was a chaplain. Suddenly I became like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, a gigantic insect confused by its own identity and unable to make sense of its new role in the same world. Her request reduced me to a bug on its back, waving its thin, little legs in hopeless desperation. So I prayed. My divinity school didn’t prepare me for a request like this. I should have taken the course entitled Spirituality and Fast Food: A Match Made in Prayer, but I blew that opportunity when I opted for a class on Luther’s theology. Nevertheless, I found myself submersed in a prayer that contained some form of the quote, “Dear God, please give this woman a cheeseburger, fries, and ketchup.” And just as fast as it started, my prayer ended with a nice, neat amen-caboose. When we opened our eyes we paused and stared at each other. “Where is it?” she asked. “Where are my cheeseburger, fries, and ketchup?” I had nothing. I tried to think of something, some little tidbit of theology from Niebuhr or Aquinas or Tillich or the other Niebuhr, but the greatest minds I knew would have crumbled under this request. The only response I had was from Whitman’s Song of Myself: “I answer that I cannot answer.” Prayer—what is it good for? This patient’s unusual request caused me to examine my beliefs and ask critical questions concerning my god. Did I believe in a yes-god whom I controlled under my thumb? If I could dictate God’s will with the drop of a prayer, then I would be my god because I would be in control; however, I couldn’t even deliver this woman a happy meal, let alone bring an end to the War in Iraq, poverty, or American Idol. Then it hit me, like a quarter-pounder with cheese: I realized that prayer gave voice to the desire and love for life—even if that desire and love manifested itself in the form a cheeseburger, fries, and ketchup.
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