A week before Ash Wednesday, I landed in the intensive care unit at St. John’s Hospital after losing more than a third of my blood from a lesion in my stomach aggravated by blood-thinning medication. At first I thought I might be coming down with the flu – I had awakened with nausea and general achiness – but the symptoms grew progressively worse and by evening, I had muscle cramps and dizziness so severe I found it nearly impossible to walk.
Fortunately, I decided to call an ambulance rather than try to tough it out and sleep off my “flu” symptoms. Emergency room staff told me I had dangerously low blood pressure, tachycardia and dehydration, and had already lost about 30 percent of my hemoglobin – which carries oxygen to my brain and other vital organs. Over the next 24 hours I received four units of blood. (Thanks to all you blood donors out there!)
To say I was scared would be an understatement. At one point, when I became increasingly worried about the mental confusion I was experiencing, staff sent for the hospital chaplain. Undeterred by my difficulty finding and forming words, the chaplain simply asked me to repeat after her: “Dear God, please help me.” We said this in unison several times, and I found the repetition amazingly calming.
Meanwhile, my husband alerted our pastor and church congregation, then got online and activated the Facebook prayer warriors. (I like to think of this as “crowd-sourced prayer.”) He even contacted our local Dominican Sisters community, which accepts prayer requests on their Web site – one doesn’t need to be Catholic to avail oneself of the service.
My hospital adventure capped a rough couple of months which saw my mother hospitalized twice, my husband and I both sick with viruses and even our two kitties both newly diagnosed with chronic illnesses. One might say I had plenty of opportunities to practice prayers of petition and intercession – that is, prayers on behalf of oneself or others – along with some good old-fashioned foxhole spirituality.
Now I understand some people get squeamish about asking God for things. There is legitimate concern about regarding God as a combination Santa Claus/magic genie to whom we bring our shopping lists. In fact, I must acknowledge my own impatience with people who say “it’s a God thing” when a parking space opens up for them. However, the Bible is chock full of prayers of petition and intercession – not to mention a heavy dose of foxhole spirituality.
Just a brief glance at the Psalms offers plenty of examples:
- Psalm 77:2 – In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.
- Psalm 27:12 – Give me not up to the will of my adversaries; for false witnesses have risen against me, and they breathe out violence.
- Psalm 69:1-2 – Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold.
Several Biblical passages actually invite us to pray for ourselves and others this way:
- Psalm 50:15 – Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.
- John 15:7 – If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
- Philippians 4:6 – Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
One could say the entire Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) qualifies as a prayer of petition:
9 Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread;
12 And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors;
13 And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
I have to admit at least half the prayers I write in my journal during my morning meditation sessions are prayers of petition/intercession – and that’s when I’m not facing a life-threatening emergency.
A 2017 Barna Group study of American adults indicates I have a lot of company. In a recent article for the magazine Living Lutheran (link HERE), Kurt Lamont and John Potter make this observation about the study: “Aside from ‘gratitude and thanksgiving’ at the top and ‘reciting scripture passages, meditation or liturgies’ and ‘other’ at the bottom, all other prayer topics are asking for help in some way.”
So … is it okay to ask God for things? Based on my reading of the Bible, extensive church practice and my own experience, I think I can confidently say, “Absolutely!”
Prayers of petition may encourage us to rely more on God and even rethink some of our priorities. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 1501), “Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. [But] it can also make a person more mature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is. Very often illness provokes a search for God and a return to him.”
Prayers of intercession may remind us to consider the needs of others. During Sunday services, our church offers up prayers of intercession for everything from world peace to comfort for a congregation member who has lost a loved one. Our church secretary keeps a prayer list of people facing illnesses or other crises, as well as a list of people serving in the military, and the entire congregation is asked to keep these people in our personal prayers. Those who participate in our weekly men’s and women’s prayer breakfasts also use these lists as the basis for their group prayers.
“Our praying does not change God. Instead, it is a way for God to change us,” Lamont and Potter point out in their Living Lutheran article Pray without ceasing: A Lutheran approach to prayer. “In prayer, we admit that we are in need and we ask God to help us with those needs.”
The good news: I’m healing. My mother now has someone staying with her at night. Even our kitties are doing better. And my husband deserves a gold medal for his unwavering support for all of us over the past couple of months.
But why is it that I often think to pray only when I’m in some kind of trouble? Foxhole spirituality has its place, but I would agree it should not be our sole motivation for prayer. That is why I’ve dedicated this Lenten season to experimenting with other kinds of prayer as well.
And when God does answer my prayers, I must remember to say, “Thank you!”