Prayer Won't Help
You don’t need to be told that everything is about the coronavirus. On the news, social media, standing in line at the grocery store, social distancing, hand sanitizer, toilet paper shortages, kids home from school, parents home from work, the market hitting new and newer lows, the coronavirus is between your teeth and no amount of flossing’s going get rid of it. And that is why it’s called a pandemic.
It is curious to see who emails me about the virus. They all want to tell me steps they’ve taken to protect me—they all want to be helpful. FedEx told me they no longer require signatures for most packages. My bank sent me an email talking about drive-thru banking. An exercise fitness thing I get is telling me how to avoid germs at the grocery store. A car dealer (can you believe it?) emailed me about corona, as did an alumni group from a university, the cable company, a charity group in Africa, my natural gas supplier, and on and on I could go.
Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I don’t think we are overreacting to this virus thing. In fact, it shouldn’t be the case that we are reacting at all. But since we didn’t prepare adequately, it makes a lot more sense to overreact. And if in three or four months we look back and say, “Wow, we overreacted to that,” then I think we reacted perfectly.
Besides telling you to sit on the sofa and binge on Netflix, I cannot help you. I don’t know whether or not you should take ibuprofen or Tylenol. I don’t know if the virus is airborne. I have no idea what the difference between the rhinovirus and the coronavirus is. For those of you reading this blog looking for help, you won’t find it here.
That’s why this blog isn’t about the coronavirus. As I was telling a friend this week, I’d hate to learn that what I write is helpful. I would go so far as to say the goal of this blog is to be impractical, nearly useless, and certainly not relevant.
Let’s face it, how many Christian gurus these past few days are telling us the same thing? In one form or another, the message is that we should pray our way out of this pandemic. For once, let’s acknowledge reality. If prayer is all you’ve got, if that’s the only answer, if you are fighting a disease with folded hands, bowed heads, and closed eyes…I’m not saying God doesn’t hear all prayers. I’m not saying that God doesn’t intercede. I’m just saying. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., prayer is a mystery that human efforts will never fully grasp. But prayer is a dangerous substitute for science, for medicine. To fight a medical event with nothing but spiritual prowess is a Christian heresy. Your body may be a temple of the Holy Spirit, but you need more than a priest after an earthquake. In other words, your corporeal body needs more than just spiritual answer.
That’s why this blog isn’t about the coronavirus. It’s not about flowers either but thank God it is springtime here in the northern hemisphere. The daffodils bloomed a bit ago. The tulips are already in full bloom. The grass is greening up and the trees are flowering.
You can show me the most astonishing and compositionally exact landscape photograph, but I am always more amazed by the beauty of a simple tulip. Part of the beauty of a tulip, as with all flowers, is their ephemeral life. They work their way through the soil, pushing and carving out channels in the dirt, driving their stems as high as possible, bloom and then wilt. The unsullied bloom is so transient that you can miss it by arriving a day late or less. It is here and then it is gone.
I’ve written before about the biblical allusions to flowers, like this one: As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone. When the wind blows, the flower has no defense. When the skies open and the fields flood over, the flower has no boat. When the sun parches the ground and soil cracks like dried riverbeds, flowers cannot travel to a nearby well. When blight leaps from petal to petal, ruining entire fields, flowers stand as helpless as blindfolded men awaiting execution.
We are powerless. We are helpless. We are not in control. The coronavirus is a novel disease, and we are no different than the flowers in the field. We can do some things about it. We can binge on Star Trek, grow couch potatoes, scrub our hands, dishes, floors, and this social-distance thing—stop shaking hands damn it! (I’m thinking about toilet papering my house to increase its value by thousands.) But by and large, we are helpless.
In AA it is often said that we are powerless over alcohol, and that saying quickly becomes an addict’s prayer. Prayer is exactly that sort of confession: we are helpless. Confessing that we are helpless in this time of uncertainty is not a statement of weakness, it’s a statement of self-awareness. And once you come to that awareness, the anxiety you feel, the anxiety that forces you to stock up on toilet paper, the anxiety of noticing the checkout clerk I had yesterday was sweating bullets, and the anxieties millions are facing over the loss of a job or diminished income, and all of those numberless anxieties coming from this pandemic are relieved. Anxiety is defeated by admitting there’s nothing we can do. We are no better off than the tulips in the field.
So yes, prayer is the answer. But prayer is not a tool to barter for magic elixirs and pixie dust. Prayer is not another last-ditch effort to control the uncontrollable. Prayer brings us into that place of peace where anxiety slips away because we know that we, like the beautiful flowers, can do nothing except experience God.
When there is nothing practical to do, when there is nothing helpful, when you are powerless over a contagion, embrace your powerlessness. You are feeble, tiny, and insignificant in this cosmos. Live into your powerlessness. Experience the liberation of insignificance. Enter the joy of helplessness, of frailty, of our collective dis-ability, this novel dis-ease. Become self-aware…that’s how pray helps. And this sort of prayer makes us as beautiful as a naked tulip.