Answered Prayers

Garth Brooks, big time country song writer/singer and part time theologian wrote and sang, “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”

As an armchair philosopher of things spiritual I would like to comment. My observation is that when we say “unanswered prayer” what we really mean is, “I didn’t get the answer I wanted.” My experience has been that God always answers, but sometimes he says, “No,” or, “Not now,” or, “You go work on the problem some more, and get back to me.” One of his most generous but unappreciated answers is, “No, I have something better in store for you.” We are so often children who would sooner have a shiny bauble now than an unlimited treasure later.

My shortest prayer was answered in about seven seconds. I shouted it out without the usual formalities as my white knuckles gripped the useless steering wheel. At 75 miles an hour I hit black ice and immediately became a panicked passenger instead of the driver. The headlights swept the blackness as the truck slid semi sideways back and forth. Nothing I did with the steering wheel made any difference. If the ice ended while I was angle wise with the freeway the truck and my two singing buddies asleep in the camper and I would be splattered over the Salt Flats. I prayed with volume and gusto. The ice ended just as the truck was sliding back from a swerve. The wheels grabbed the dry pavement at exactly the right nano second. The truck was lined up straight away with the highway. My, “hallelujah” pierced the midnight sky. Answered prayers are pretty good gifts too.

My longest prayer was answered after about a year and a half. It was punctuated by night and morning pleadings with the Lord, but it was really one long prayer in my heart and mind no matter what else was also occupying the space. The prayer was that my beloved wife, the mother of our fifteen children would overcome the cancer that was destroying her from the inside. The answer was no with an asterisk. The asterisk was expressed beautifully by Phillips Brooks, a 19th century Episcopal bishop. “Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be the miracle.”

I am not a miracle, but I felt my Father in Heaven giving me strength for the burden I would bear. “God is not a cosmic bellboy waiting to bring us room service with our latest request,” my philosopher friend Truman Madsen once told me.

The most famous prayer in Christendom begins, “Our Father who art in heaven.” I appreciate knowing the Lord’s address and I’m convinced he knows mine. I’m also grateful to know my relationship to him.

I know a little bit about fathering. It’s a piece of cake when you are handing out pieces of cake. When you have to say, “Eat this it’s good for you,” you may drop a few notches on the popularity poll. Comes with the territory.

On the receiving end of my Father’s answers sometimes I am overjoyed to see my cup of blessings overflowing. Other times his gifts are more difficult, scary, discouraging or strenuous than I would have preferred. But always my prayers are heard and answered, and always they are the greatest gifts.

Young Brains, Old Brains

Children have an “executive function” in their minds. They easily compartmentalize their knowledge and have the ability to mentally go there and find it. Adults are not so good at this.

The bench mark for creativity is a two year old child. After that the capacity shrinks.

More children have photographic memories than do adults, and most children lose the ability as they grow.

My own experience seems to bear these findings out.

Learning the Tongan language was a challenge when I served as a missionary on those South Pacific islands. But after awhile it became natural to think and even dream in Tongan. I could switch from Tongan to English easily, and rarely used a word from the wrong language. This I suppose was because I was still young enough to have the remnants of my childhood “executive function.”

Decades later on a mission with my wife Sharon to the Caribbean Islands learning Spanish was another matter. I’m still at it. My brain executive partitions have been replaced by a pile of words from which I have to dig and struggle to determine which language they came from.

Two year old children don’t have to try and think out of the box. They haven’t even built the box yet. To them nothing is incongruous or impossible. When my brother Gordon and I defeated the Japanese and Germans in World War II we were still young enough to fly our parents’ ancient Chevrolet car into battle. We never lost a single aerial dogfight even though we often had a wing or tail shot off, and had to repair it before we hit the ground. “Fix, fix, fix, all fixed captain.”

“Good work, co-pilot.”

As for memory skill, my “old” friend Chris Poulos tells me, “I have a photographic mind, but I ran out of film.” (I have to hurry and use that joke before the digital photography age forgets what film is.)

Organization, creativity, and memory are three powerful brain functions. Being less effective at them than your grandchildren can be a humbling experience.

Does that seem fair to you? We work all our lives to improve our mental abilities, and for our trouble we get worse as we go. Excuse me. I’d like to talk with the manager about this deal.

But before I do something rash, my disorganized, locked-in-the-box, non photographic or photogenic brain incubates a thought, actually more than one.

Could it be that the compartmentalization of children’s knowledge is partly because they lack the ability to entertain subtle nuances at that age? The bad guys in the Roy Rogers cowboy movies I grew up on wore black hats so we had no trouble identifying them. My hero Roy (then and now) always wore a white hat. Nobody wore grey hats.

Uncontrolled creativity has its down side; sometimes literally. I read somewhere that when Sir James Berrie’s play Peter Pan opened on the stage in England, they had to make one hasty addition to the script. In the play Peter teaches the children that if they believe, they can fly. They believed, so the writers had to add the necessity of having fairy dust sprinkled on you. They made that change because creative, believing children were launching themselves out of the balcony. That story may be fictitious, but remembering my own childhood hallucinations it could be true. As adults we may have traded some of our creativity for practical analysis; not a bad idea.

The same line of reasoning may help explain the loss of photographic memory as we grow older. Children see like a camera, taking in every detail and giving all the information equal value. Adults may feel the need to be more discerning. We automatically pick out those parts of a scene or a printed page that are more important to us, and give less attention to other details. Have you noticed that when you buy a “new” car (make that a different car in our case) you see the same car more often in the traffic around you? Same scene, different focus.

And finally, while it would be less embarrassing if you hadn’t forgotten the name of your old girl friend when she popped up unexpectedly at a party, raw unedited permanently engraved memory has its dark side. The late Sidney Harris, one of my favorite newspaper columnists, once observed that considering the grudges, feuds, wars and prolonged hatred in the world, it is obvious that there is much more misery caused by remembering than by forgetting.

True Believers

“Show me,” said the skeptic.

“His works are all around you,” said the believer.

“In your opinion,” said the skeptic.

The conversation continued.

“Without him the universe as we know it would not exist.”

“Seeing is believing,”

“You cannot see him, but that does not mean he does not exist.”

“You ask me to believe on your word?”

“My word and thousands more who believe as I do.”

“History shows us that thousands, even millions can be wrong, I want hard facts not assumptions.”

“Assumptions can lead us to the truth if we pursue in faith.”

Thus did the age old contest between believers and sceptics continue, only with a twist.

The skeptic replied. You ask me to believe the incomprehensible. That every particle of every star and solar system in the universe was created in an instant; that all matter was once contained in the size of a pinhead. How can such things be.”

“It will all be made clear when he appears.”

“When who appears?”

“The organizer of all things.”

“Who is?”

‘Higgs boson, the God particle.”

As scientists continue their search for Higgs boson, people of faith may be permitted a demure smile. Higgs boson is nicknamed “the God particle” because virtually all of modern physics theory hangs on his actually existing. The stakes are high. If the elusive particle cannot be found, it must be assumed, taken on faith if you will. Otherwise the Standard Theory of Particle Physics reverts back to somewhere short of minus square one. Researchers at the ten billion dollar Large Hadron Collider near Geneva Switzerland have ramped up the power of their electronic racetrack to 466 billion electron volts. I don’t know what that means, but it’s a big number in any scenario.

Scientists were confident they would discover Higgs boson with the powerful new nanoparticle search machine. But no luck so far, and they’ve peeked down 95% of the possible cosmic rabbit holes where he could be hiding.

If in fact Higgs boson is just a figment of particle physicists’ imagination, then the Big Bang theory has wet powder, and all that goes with it trudges back to the drawing board.

For the scientists’ sake I hope this turns out like the search for Sadam Hussein, and Higgs is hiding in a hole somewhere. But if not, the scientists may find some encouragement in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

(See De Groote, Michael, “Creation theory may be wrong as particle continues to elude scientists,” Deseret News, September 2, 2011, p. A3)

Visions and Dreams

“Your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams,” the Bible says. (Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17) My birth certificate says I’m now relegated to the dreaming crowd. But hiding among the gray hairs and the wrinkles is an incorrigible spirit that wants to hang out with the visionaries.

I was talking with my young friend Cole Griffith, a university student majoring in neurocomputer engineering. I believe I have the name right. The concept is to develop hard and software computer programs that can interface with the human brain; combine the best of human think and computer do. The first iterations are for physically impaired people, hooking up prosthetics, mechanical arms, legs, hands, and other body parts that can be activated and guided by the wearer’s thoughts.

I told him to put me on the waiting list as soon as they come out with a guitar picking app. Every guitar player wants to improve his or her technique. “Technique” is really a code word for speed. I can play sort of like Pepe Romero or John Williams. It’s just they are floor boarding a Ferrari, and I’m chugging up hill in a cattle truck in need of a valve and ring job. If I had a 35 gigahertz CPU hooked up to my fingers, could I play three and a half billion notes per second?

Computer powered body parts are just the launching pad for today’s young visionaries. Beyond that, they envision hooking up thoughts to computer memory so that you can access the storage power of the computer, and direct it with your mind.

I’m thinking the next step might be to mentally tap in to Google and be king of the galaxy in trivial pursuit.

Cole recently returned from a church mission to Peru where he learned Spanish. “How would it be to have an interface to translate in real time any language to and from your English speaking brain,” he said.

I had an enjoyable few minutes with Cole, sharing young men visions and stretching the outer limits of my imagination.

Later my somewhat more aged brain kicked in and complicated the glorious visions. Certainly helping physically challenged people is a noble goal. Beyond that it gets fuzzier. Would I really like to perform a two hour concert that had to stop at an hour and a half because at my blazing speed I had already performed every piece of music ever composed plus my own ad hoc variations on every theme? Would the audiences need bionic ears to keep up with my flying fingers. Would the fingers themselves be fried, the picks melt and the guitar burst into flame at that speed?
If I could answer any question with my Google powered brain would I be genius brilliant or only smart enough to hit “search” and read off the answer on the screen in my head? Would my memory atrophy like an unused leg? Would I lose track of who I am; like a person on medication who seems happier, but is not sure if it is him or the Prozac smiling?

Our society is already drowning in a sea of data. But are we better human beings because of it?

I remembered (using my own feeble, fallible, but personal memory) the observation of the poet T.S. Elliot. (O.K. full disclosure: I Googled it to make sure I remembered it correctly.) According to Google, T.S. Elliot and me, “Where is the wisdom we lost in knowledge and where is the knowledge we lost in information?”

Would bigger databases and better interfaces turn us into nobler saints or more efficient sinners? Can we build an app for ethics? I will dream we can work through the hazards and enjoy the new horizons.

Meanwhile I will crank up my cattle truck and take on another up hill climb.