And why wouldn't he? While the doctor's impression is that the first test was simply mis-read, and nobody is freaking out over a "miraculous" healing, the simple truth for my guitar player is our prayer was answered. Ever the skeptic, I find myself wondering: if God was going to take the trouble to heal my friend's aorta, was it too much too ask for the blockage to be taken care of, too?
As we listen to this story, our accepted role is to affirm this narration of divine providence. "Yes," we say, "that's right." "Mm-hmm." There is a kind of gnostic quality to this exchange: we are in the know. It may look like a simple case of a misread MRI, but the doctor doesn't know that this man was prayed for. Doctors and others with their scientific, rational explanations don't know what's really going down. The story and our affirmations play a part in a larger system of mutual reinforcement. For me to bring up my aorta vs. blockage rejoinder would be a serious breach of linguistic ethics, a violation of code.
My guitar player's experience could be narrated a number of different ways, some of which might make more sense than others but none of which can claim the final say on the "really real." I can't claim with absolute certainty that, ultimately, this was mere coincidence and the prayer had nothing to with it. My friend can't prove that it was all a God thing. But how he narrates this to himself, and to his church family, must take into account both the shared belief of the group and the fact that he was prayed for. Attributing the outcome to the power of prayer makes perfect sense within that system.
So does prayer itself, of course. I had prayed earlier that night, as part of my duties in running the rehearsal. I actually enjoy praying out loud, because prayer is, for me, a kind of oral poetry. I don't say this dismissively or even all that cynically. Prayer, even if there is no discernable outcome (or one expected) is itself a part of that system. Praying to the Christian God (in Jesus' name, of course) marks us as Christians in much the same way that saying the Pledge of Allegiance marks us as Americans.
But there's more to it than that. The Pledge is more liturgy than discourse (which is not to deny that liturgy itself is discourse), resembling the Creed more than anything else, and mine was not a liturgical prayer. I declared our thankfulness for being called and being allowed to play music. I prayed that God would be pleased with the offering of our talent, time and effort. I prayed for a blessing on our rehearsal, and that our voices and instruments might join the saints and angels in a song begun before creation.
What I meant, beyond playing my prescribed role, is that I hoped we would settle down and not be scattered, that we might have a good and productive rehearsal, that we might have some sense of a greater purpose that impels us to do well. That we might listen to one another. If we were a sports team, and not a church music group, I might have given a pep talk. And I could have just said those things, or given a pep talk, but to do so would fail to take into account the collective belief of the group and our shared experience of faith. For me to invoke a common vocabulary of faith by praying is no more cynical, I submit, than ordering in French at a Paris café, especially if you happen to be fluent in French.
Of course that analogy breaks down. But I don't think it's as simple as thinking I'm just praying insincerely in order to not blow my cover, or as a mockery of Christian prayer, which is certainly not my intention. I pray because prayer is part of what makes us Christian. I pray because I genuinely desire the things I pray for. I pray because I don't claim to know, ultimately, what prayer does and doesn't do. I pray because I'm not in charge.
Still, I don't always know how to act when faced with the faith of others. And the sort of thing I just wrote is pretty much what goes through my head, which of course I can't say out loud.
"Well," I said eventually, genuinely happy for my friend's good news, "how about that."