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Anecdote and research on prayer's clinical effectiveness has become big news of late. A 1997 Christianity Today cover story (preceding a Newsweek prayer cover story) explains "how the medical community is discovering the healing power of prayer." Although the magazine acknowledges that "petitionary prayer is not 100 percent effective" (imagine if it were), it welcomes the conclusion of Georgetown University internist and prayer researcher Dale Matthews, "that, scientifically, prayer is good for you. The medical effects of faith on health are not a matter of faith, but of science."
Is prayer good for you? No one argues that prayer by those who believe in prayer's healing power might indeed calm the soul, relieve stress, and lead to reduced hypertension, controlled headaches, and strengthened immune functioning. But a sugar pill, offered as if it were a real therapy, can do as much. Such is the power of positive belief (a fact of life that guarantees some successes for the devotees of alternative medicine gurus such as Deepak Chopra and Andrew Weil, regardless of whether their specific recommendations have any intrinsic healing power).
But modem advocates of prayer's power have something more in mind than a placebo effect. Prayers of intercession and petition can change reality, they believe. Did not Jesus say, "Ask, and it will be given you"? Why not, then, pray for health, wealth, parking places, better grades, safe air travel, and even a sunny day for the church picnic? One presumes that Pat Robertson had Jesus' promise in mind when he asked God to steer hurricane Gloria away from his Virginia Beach television headquarters: "I felt that if I couldn't move a hurricane, I could hardly move a nation." General George S. Patton held the same concept of prayer when he ordered that all chaplains pray for an end to the winter rains that in 1944 immobilized his troops:
General Patton: Chaplain, I want you to publish a prayer for good weather. I'm tired of these soldiers having to fight mud and floods as well as Germans. See if we can't get God to work on our side.
Chaplain O'Neill: Sir, it's going to take a pretty thick rug for that kind of praying.
General Patton: I don't care if it takes the flying carpet. I want the praying done.
The resulting prayer, which was distributed by the U.S. Army with Patton's Christmas greetings, called upon Godto restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies, and establish Thy justice among men and nations. Amen.
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