1. God always answers my prayers…
…that’s what Pastor Price said. We’d been attending his church, Crenshaw Christian Center, a nondenominational, charismatic, word of faith, church in Los Angeles, for a few years. We’d recently moved to the old Pepperdine University Campus at 79th and Vermont, in south central Los Angeles, to accommodate the church’s growth. The Church had plans for a large auditorium but at that time we were meeting in an old theater style building on the campus, and having 3 services on Sunday mornings. We, Becky and I, were sitting a little towards the back of the middle, on the left hand side, when Pastor Price said, “God always answers my prayers.”
Pastor Price didn’t mean it in that trite, sanctimonious, ‘Sometimes he says yes, sometimes he says no, sometimes he says wait a while,’ way. He meant God always said “Yes,” to his prayers, God always gave him what he asked for when he prayed. When I heard it I thought, ‘I wish God always answered my prayers.’
I grew up in the Catholic church. I received my first communion at the Virgin of Guadalupe church on the east side of El Centro, California, and that’s where I learned what little I knew about prayer. Every night before I’d go to sleep, I’d pray an Our Father, a Hail Mary and a spanish prayer my dad taught us, Angel de mi guarda. Even in my wildest days at UCLA, they weren’t particularly wild though not from want of effort, I’d pray those three prayers before I went to sleep at night. I was very religious about it, so sometimes, even when I came in late and was very tired, I’d just race through them, cross myself, and go to sleep. The only thing I remember being taught about prayer as a kid, is what one of the catechism instructors told us, that the key to going to heaven when you die is praying enough Hail Marys.
When I was in Jr. High we went on a road trip to Mexico City, 1600 miles from our home in Holtville, California. We visited different tourist sites, the pyramids, the Anthropological Museum, the Zocalo etc. One day we drove out to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe north of Mexico City, to see the image of the Virgin Mary which, as the story goes, had been miraculously transferred to the cloak of the peasant Juan Diego. It is the most famous image in Mexico. But what I remember about our visit were the long lines of people, in my memory mostly old women, on their knees slowly crawling across the vast paved plaza in front of the Church, heading toward the altar where the image of the Virgin Mary was displayed, hoping for an answer to prayer, hoping that covering this long distance on their knees might get God’s attention, hoping that their suffering might move God to answer their prayers.
While I was still an undergraduate at UCLA, Eddie B., a high school friend of mine, got me into the University Lutheran Chapel as a sexton, which meant the church gave us a free room, in exchange for some janitorial work. I wasn’t a Lutheran, I wasn’t really much of anything, I was just interested in the free room, and they were kind enough to let me in. It was at The Chapel, as we called it, that I encountered a different type of Catholic prayer. There wasn’t a Catholic Church close to UCLA, so on Sunday nights the Catholics would meet at the chapel. While cleaning up after the Catholic services I’d sometimes find pieces of paper folded quite small, and left on the floor of the fellowship hall. These papers would contain prayer formulas. Something like, ‘Pray this prayer to Saint Anthony, at midnight, three days in a row, while standing on your left foot and holding a votive candle. It has never been known to fail…’ Okay, I’m exaggerating… but only a little bit.
And it’s not just Catholics. Evangelicals, pentecostals, charismatics, have their own formulas, strategies, and systems for getting God to answer prayers. Evangelicals love their prayer chains. Rather than asking a famous, historical, albeit long dead, Christian to pray, evangelicals focus on numbers. ‘If we can just get a million people to pray, God will have to hear us.’ Some, like the worshipers crawling on their knees to the image of the Virgen of Guadalupe, think self denial is the key, so they recommend fasting, as the key to answered prayer. Others suggest repetition, asking, and asking, and asking, like living Tibetan prayer wheels, over and over again, is their strategy for getting God to yes.
And it’s not just Christians. I once went on a field trip with a class from Pastor Price’s Bible School, to a Hindu Temple located in a rural area near Malibu California, where we were given a tour, followed by a question and answer session. The temple looked just like the Hindu temples you’d see in photographs of India. There was a large central structure, the temple of Shiva, surrounded by much smaller temples, apparently dedicated to other deities. In front of the smaller temples were offerings, a gallon of milk, a bunch of bananas, other things. We were told that to receive back a bit of the food that had been offered to the deity was a great blessing. Later we climbed up the steps to the temple of Shiva. The priests were bathing and dressing Shiva when we entered and they asked us to wait outside. While outside I witnessed a Hindu man, obviously distressed, pacing anxiously back and forth outside the temple, speaking, obviously praying, trying, just like us Christians, to figure out how to get his deity to answer prayer.
I wasn’t any better. When I prayed for something specific, like getting into law school, it involved begging, whining, bargaining, trying to emotionally manipulate God.
So when Pastor Price said God always answered his prayers I didn’t know what to think. I believed he was telling the truth, but it sure seemed to contradict everything I’d experienced about prayer.
It wasn’t until many years later, after much study, and meditation in the word of God, that I finally understood what Pastor Price was saying.