On Prayer, Death, and Resurrection

God, give me an uncomplicated faith — if only for a moment.

That’s what I prayed this morning as I attended the annual Minnesota Prayer Breakfast, a now 59-year tradition whose participants “gather to work and pray for unity so that they can come to know [God] and have their lives transformed by his love.” Every spring it brings together dozens of prominent local figures from government, business, higher ed, and the church.

And, um, me.

While it was an honor to be invited to help represent Bethel, I have to confess that I had in mind my Anxious Bench colleague David Swartz’s critique of the National Prayer Breakfast. “Perhaps it is time retire the Breakfast,” he wrote earlier this year. Apart from Sen. Mark Hatfield’s rather prophetic remarks at the 1973 event, David found that “the general evangelical posture has been one of polite acquiescence to the Washington establishment, sycophantic cheerleading of one’s own party, and partisan critiques of the other party—all while eating a meal that costs $175 a plate.” I wondered what kind of event I had agreed to attend. I fretted that I might find myself tempted to repay the kindness behind my invitation with criticism.

God, give me an uncomplicated faith — if only for a moment.

Well, I’m happy to report that the Minnesota version (which has no official connection to the National Prayer Breakfast) could not possibly have been less partisan. Speakers included our Democratic governor and lieutenant governor (who referred to Jim Wallis — author of some of Hatfield’s comments in 1973 — as a mentor) and the Republican majority leader of our state senate (who quoted Micah 6:8). The prevailing themes were unity, peace, and reconciliation, with a special guest from Kenya’s parliament telling how that country’s prayer breakfast helped heal wounds left by years of political violence.

At the same time, the breakfast was about more than civil religion. “We are committed to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord,” explains the event’s FAQ. “In His name, we respect and welcome people of all religions and no religion to join us in learning how to pray and how to grow in faith.” So while Muslim guests were welcomed and applauded, many of the speakers cited passages from the New Testament and prayed in Jesus’ name.

Most notably, the keynote speakers shared an explicitly Christian testimony. Joyce Smith and her son John spoke of his miraculous recovery after having fallen through thin ice and been declared dead. Four years later, John is about to start his college career at Minneapolis’ North Central University, one of Bethel’s peers in the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities.

That story is the subject of a book (that we all received) and major motion picture (whose trailer we watched), and it was undeniably powerful.

I can’t imagine how many times Joyce Smith has told this story, but she narrated with raw emotion, tears trickling down her cheeks. And as she talked about how often she had prayed for her son, before and after his accident, tears began to well up in my eyes as well. I thought about all the times that I’ve prayed for my kids, that my parents have prayed for me.

“Prayer changes everything,” John concluded. His mom quoted familiar words from the prophet Jeremiah:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.” (29:11-12, NIV)

Truly, God will listen to those who come to him in prayer.


God, give me an uncomplicated faith — if only for a moment.

As I heard the Smiths’ story and thanked God for John’s life and Joyce’s love, I couldn’t help but remember that God does not always answer prayers in the ways that we would wish. I thought of people in the room whose loved ones were dying of cancer. I thought of my own nephew Benjamin, who was stillborn just a few days after I accepted the job at Bethel that ultimately brought me to this prayer breakfast.

And then I thought of the class I was going to teach three hours after the breakfast ended: HIS231L World War II. I thought of the 50+ million people who died in history’s most violent conflict, and all the parents who had prayed for them. And I thought of the six million Jews whose deaths I’ve been teaching this week.

Why would our powerful, loving, merciful, just God answer Joyce Smith’s prayer with life, while the response to so many other petitions was death? How can God’s word reassure her of his “plans to prosper you and not to harm you,” while the poet Yitzhak Katzenelson found no hope in the words of prophets: “Evoke not Ezekiel, evoke not Jeremiah!” (He and his son died at Auschwitz in May 1944.)

Alas, history can’t resolve the problem of evil. It can only remind us of it.

God, give me an uncomplicated faith — if only for a moment.

If I’m being honest, I’m not sure I really want God to give me an uncomplicated faith. It’s the complications that drive me back to him in prayer in the first place. And it’s the complications that energize much of my work as a historian who will always ask more questions than he answers.

But in the process, that work can also remind me that people can continue to believe in a God who doesn’t seem to answer prayers.

In one of the diaries hidden in the Oneg Shabbat archive, a man named Szlamek Winer did wonder of God, “Couldn’t He perform a miracle?” and save the inmates of Chelmno. But as he recounted evening conversations about theology with fellow grave diggers, he reported both that some had lost faith in God, while “others… myself included, were strengthened in our belief.” Though some “mocked us for our piety saying that there is certainly no God and that all attempts to console ourselves seemed childish,” Winer and his friends didn’t just pray every evening but recited the psalms every morning.

Surely one of those psalms was the one that Christians heard on Good Friday, the one that Jesus himself prayed from the cross:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?…

But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid!

Grünewald, Resurrection Matthias Grünewald, “Resurrection,” from the Isenheim Altarpiece

I don’t know why God didn’t hasten to Szlamek Winer’s aid and provide someone so faithful with the miracle he had requested. And teaching that history will always bring tears to my eyes — as quickly as thinking about my own kids’ safety does.

Nonetheless, God does answer improbable petitions with impossible interventions.

As the gospels and Apostle Paul testify from across the centuries, and as Joyce and John Smith testified this morning, God sometimes answers prayers as desperate as Psalm 22 in ways that defy our reasonable expectations of how living and dying works in this world.

Maybe it’s just that the light of the resurrection dawn shines all the more brightly when your eyes are so accustomed to the darkness of histories like World War II and the Holocaust. But I’ve never been more ready to affirm that the God who hears our prayers — and answers them in ways we can’t always understand — is a God who literally brings physical, non-metaphorical life out of death — something I can never understand, only believe.

God, give me an uncomplicated faith — if only for a moment.