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Intercessory Prayer and
the Butterfly Effect

Intercessory Prayer and
the Butterfly Effect

by Maria L. Evans

Almighty and eternal God, ruler of all things in heaven and earth: Mercifully accept the prayers of your people, and strengthen us to do your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

–Collect at the Prayers of the People, p. 394, Book of Common Prayer

This is going to sound a little strange, but I had to understand quantum physics a little better in order to believe in intercessory prayer.

Here’s my sordid confession: When I returned to the institutional church after over two decades in the unchurched wilderness, I thought intercessory prayer was absolutely, completely bogus. I would just stand and grind my teeth during the Prayers of the People. In fact, it felt downright icky. In my mind at the time, it smelled of negotiating with God with all the schmooze of a Persian rug trader. “Hey, God, have I got a deal for you! I’ve got these friends here, and we’re all gonna pray about this thing hear and surely the sheer numbers of folks I have rounded up on this will swing you over to seeing this my way.” That just seemed to not work with why I thought I was back attending church.

I even avoided jumping in as a pinch-hit intercessor by fibbing to my priest at the time a bit. I claimed that I had “anxiety issues” about being an intercessor. Lector, no problem. I read what was in front of me at a lectern like teaching a class. I said I could do that, but I could not do the “stand in a middle of a group thing,” doing the Prayers of the People from the pews. I poured it on thick. It worked for quite a while, actually. But the truth was, I did not want to admit to someone with a collar that I didn’t believe in intercessory prayer. Over time, I stopped grinding my teeth, but I just more or less had come to a blank form of acceptance/non-acceptance that “Intercessory prayer is what we do in the liturgy and it doesn’t last very long, and if I just don’t think about it, it will be over soon enough.” Eventually, I could at least pinch-hit on the intercessions–mostly by imagining someone else was doing it in my voice.

Switch gears to another end of my parallel universe. I was growing ever-more curious about the strange weather and the weird seasons we were experiencing. Huge snowstorms. Hurricanes that dumped inches and inches of water on northeast Missouri, turning it into a sea of mud. Days on end of 100 plus degree heat and (by my account) 120 percent humidity. Clouds of bugs I was not used to seeing at certain times of the year (a patio full of June bugs in March seemed just wrong, somehow.)

These odd weather phenomena got me to reading a lot of lay press about meteorology, which led me to something we now call “the butterfly effect.” The short, highly distilled version is this: Meteorologists have been frustrated for decades that their most scientific methods still only allow the ability to predict the weather only a few days in advance with any significant reproducible accuracy. The phrase, coined by mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz, refers to the possibility that, in an atmospheric system, every single thing in the system and what it is doing has a very small effect on the initial conditions of that system. His catch phrase was “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”

Well, not exactly. The butterfly does not cause the tornado–but the butterfly flapping its wings is part of the initial conditions of the atmospheric state, and what it does, matters.

The idea that every single thing going on around me, matters, was a new concept. I’ve always felt so much of what I did in my life didn’t matter much at all. Who cares what I ate for breakfast? What does it matter to you if I get five hours of sleep or seven? Then again, how do these things affect my “best” day behind the microscope versus one of my more disjointed days? How do the actions of other people hold me up on those disjointed days? I thought of all the times my office staff has reminded me of meetings, or reminded me a case was still pending.

This led me to read another book, “How God Changes Your Brain,” by Andrew Newberg, M.D. It gave me pause. This guy was not some magic crystals and copper bracelets crackpot, he was (by my way of thinking,) a “real” neuroscientist with academic credentials that would be respectable in any large teaching hospital. He wasn’t trying to “prove” God by means of science. He was only saying that people who devote a certain amount of thought to God, no matter what their religious tradition, experience neurobiological changes in their brains that are visible on PET scans.

This led me to one simple thought–“What if I pray in intercessory fashion, if only for the purpose of changing my own brain with relationship to my understanding of God? What if I don’t even worry about whether I believe in it or not, but I merely concentrate on doing it?”

So I did. I did it in that way I learned to dribble a basketball with my off-hand or poke an outside pitch to the opposite field, or hit a golf ball out of a bunker. I just did it over and over and over with no thought to a single thing but to do it, do it repeatedly, and do it because I wanted to do it. (No obsessive-compulsive behavior in this house, nosiree Bob…) I would take the bulletin insert home from church on Sunday and pray that list of intercessions every day, sometimes two and three times a day, sometimes getting on one of those “light a virtual candle” sites and compulsively clicking on candle after candle and keying in name after name on the prayer list. Then I would go off about my business and not give it another thought.

Then one day, I heard the story of someone’s experience with being the object of intercessory prayer, and for the first time, I actually listened to it. Then I realized what had not happened. I had not felt that twinge of irritation. I did not feel the urge to prevent my upper lip from curling into a sneer. I did not fight rolling my eyes. I listened, and felt calm and realized I had accepted what was said, with no sense of needing to challenge it, somehow. I backtracked my thoughts–did I just do that?–and then got smacked in the nose with another epiphany–I had actually started to look forward to doing the intercessions, in the previous week or so, and had actually started to feel odd if too much time elapsed between sessions!

One could say it was my own brush with a very personal Butterfly Effect–and perhaps that is where the real message lies.

Is it possible that every single thing we’ve ever experienced, good or bad, wonderful or awful, has the potential to bring us not just individually closer to God, but brings us microns closer to bringing in the Reign of Christ? We are told in various places and a variety of ways in the Gospels that God and the Kingdom are here, now, within us, and among us. Are we caterpillars, smack in the middle of a Butterfly Effect beyond our wildest imaginations? I can’t answer for God, but it seems to me that quantum physics leaves that door wide open. All we have to do is choose to walk through it, believing or not believing–and let the butterflies do their thing.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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Maria L. Evans

Agreed, Bill. I have a feeling the Almighty understands "economy of scale" very nicely. I have come to doubt any change in myself as only being "all about me." I suspect there are other changes in the intitial conditions of the system at the same time.

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Maria L. Evans

I wonder about that too, Eric. In my own case, once I stopped worrying whether I "believed in it or not," I became more aware to the "us-ness" of it. Perhaps it is the cultivation of the "us-ness" that is part of "changing the conditions of the system in which prayer takes place."

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Bill Dilworth

I'm willing to bet that intercessory prayer can do several things at once - change our brains (and hearts), work towards the end for which it is offered, and remind us of our obligation to be God's hands in the world.

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E B

I wonder too if the real issue in intercessory prayer is that it is a ritualized way of meditating on the needs and suffering of others. If indeed God is omniscient, undoubtedly God already knows of the needs in question. But given our human nature, I am not always sure we recognize the needs of others, even when right in front of us.

Eric Bonetti

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