The Tale of Two Prayers


My friend was dying. When we met, she told me that she had cancer. Though, right now, I can’t recall why that was a part of our first conversation. “Hello. I have cancer.” I was speaking at an event that she attended and she wanted me to speak to the students at an area high school where she taught.

Hers was a familiar request as I often spoke to youth groups and nothing that she and I talked about suggested that we would maintain contact beyond “Career Day.” But, after speaking to the students about my profession as a preacher and writer, I was invited to serve as the school’s commencement speaker by the principal. This invitation seemed to confirm for her the need to keep in touch.

She would contact me again to serve as the leader of a women’s retreat at her church a couple of months later. This would lead to me serving as the young adult Bible study leader and to us spending a lot more time together. Some four years later, I am still speaking to the young women at her church.

But, she was not speaking at all. Another friend contacted me last week, though against her request, to inform me that things had taken a turn for the worst. I couldn’t catch my breath. She and I had talked a few weeks earlier. I had mostly cried on the phone so she thought that I needed to be protected from the inevitable.

Last weekend, she was sent home to die. There was nothing more that the doctors could do. Hospice care was now in place and I needed to come that day to see her. So, I did and the scene left me speechless.

Her parents and that close friend were standing on either side of her. Her face was sunken in, her body emaciated, the light in her eyes growing dimmer. I grabbed her hand and she squeezed mine. I ran my fingers through her hair and kissed her head.

Though she had told me that she had cancer some five years before, somehow we had managed to have a friendship that did not center around it. But, now I was being asked to respond to it. Her parents were praying for her transition from life to death, for the mysterious exchange of a perishable body for the imperishable spirit, while the friend was trusting God for a complete healing.

Ironically, I was standing in between them at the foot of her bed. Did they expect me to break the tie? Both were statements of faith. Both were requests made by believers. Both of them could point to Scriptures as proof that God answers these kinds of prayers. But, I had not come as a pastor but as her friend. Of course, I didn’t want her to die but I also did not want her to suffer.

On the ride home, I talked to God about it, explaining that I did not know the will for her life and thus, it seemed inappropriate for me to pray either way. I settled on a prayer that ended with the words “Thy will be done.” She died the next day.

Today, I wonder how her parents feel. It could be argued that God was faithful to them, that they had won the prayer battle. And what of the friend who prayed that this sickness would not lead to death (John 11:14)? Well, I’ll leave the interpretation up to you. I am writing as a friend.

smcneillReverend Starlette McNeill* is an associate pastor at Village Baptist Church in Bowie, Maryland and the Minister to Empower Congregations at the D.C. Baptist Convention. She writes on the social construct of race and the practice of faith at Her hobbies include reading, writing, and Starbucks.

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