Prayer or Street Corner Babble?


One of my closest friends called me the other day. He and his wife moved to Nashville about 6 or 7 years ago so we rarely get to see each other. We only talk on the phone about once a month, but each time it’s like we just picked up from the day before. This time he called to tell me that he has cancer.

The doctor’s are still running tests but the initial prognosis is good. They caught it pretty early. Nevertheless surgery, chemo and radiation are on his immediate horizon. He’s a brave guy, a pretty tough character and very realistic.

After we hung up, something struck me, not about what was said but about what was not said. I never told him that I would pray for him. Nor did he ask for prayers.

Of course I would have been surprised if he had asked for prayers. I don’t know what he believes, even after having known him for the past 20 years. We never got into any discussions about faith, deep or otherwise, even during those awkward years when I was a zealous born-again fundamentalist.

The thing is, during all those times I would tell people that I was praying for them, it never sounded quite right to me. I was (usually) sincere and did (usually) pray for those that I told. I’m certainly praying for my friend. But I have a vested interest there. I love him and don’t want to lose him. I wonder how important it is that I tell him that I’m praying for him. I’m afraid it might sound trite, and for some good reasons.

I’ve been a little conflicted about prayer ever since I was a kid. Whenever my family would be “Gowne downy ocean” and we would pray for blue skies and warm weather, I often wondered if, at that precise moment, there was a farmer’s family praying for rain instead. When we pray for personal good fortune we often forget that this can mean misfortune for others.

Does God love the prosperous more? Whenever someone died we would light a votive candle and buy mass cards in their name, to help them reach heaven. Or we would buy prayer cards for those who were sick. What about all those people who had no one to pray for them, or those families that couldn’t afford to buy mass cards?

Not too long ago I attended a very conservative evangelical congregation. At every service we would invite people to pray openly, either asking for intercession or giving thanks. I remember some very moving moments as people asked for help with their addictions, sensitive psychological problems, severe health issues, bankruptcies, marital concerns and spiritual struggles. Then others would stand and ask God for bigger raises or better cars or more vacation time. And of course, the ubiquitous travelling mercies for the aforementioned vacations.

I began to feel that there was a faintly discernible line being drawn between ‘meaningful’ prayer and ‘frivolous’ prayer. But who was I to make such a distinction? Even I had prayed to St. Anthony for help in finding my car keys. Yet I think it might be helpful to discuss the possibility that there are such distinctions. Prayer takes many forms. When we tell people that we are going to pray for them, what exactly do we mean?

Even in the more progressive church that I now attend there is a little bit of what I see as ‘magical prayer’. Recently our leadership exhorted the congregation to stop what they were doing at precisely 5:00 pm on Wednesday afternoon and pray for peace in the MIddle East. I did not to participate. Perhaps a lack consensual prayer is preventing a solution to that problem. Or maybe others are praying for the advent of Armageddon at the same time.

Do numbers really matter to God? Apparently many people think so. Here are some well meaning people at Counting who think they have a solution for poverty – a billion prayers. Once this number is reached….who knows? Anyway, they even have some helpful hints for those churches who want to participate:

Please consider further pledging that at least two persons before, after, but preferably during each worship service will briefly go out-of-doors and offer the Counting Prayer at least ten times. Then we all will be at least twenty prayers further along on the Billion Prayer March to end extreme poverty.

When a congregation of 100 goes out-of-doors, and says the prayer 50 times, we are all 5000 prayers further along on the Billion Prayer March, to praise the progress made, and bear witness to what is still left to be done to end extreme poverty.

And then of course there is the National Day of Prayer, something that I always seemed to just miss, even when I thought it was a good idea. Now I’m not so sure. I am reminded of Jesus’ injunction in Matthew to not make a big deal out of our prayers yet I can’t envision a bigger deal than this. I am not so sure that it does much to unite Americans either, as it is expressly a Christian day of prayer (in spite of a few words to the contrary on their web page).

There is even a fellow right here in Maryland, Rocky Twyman, who is encouraging folks to ask God for some relief at the pump. According to Twyman;

“We had a really big all night prayer vigil in Toledo, Ohio, one of the car capitals of the United States. It was a tremendous gathering of Baptists, Methodists and Anglicans. After that gathering, the press called me from Toledo and said that the prices had gone down 30 cents.”

And even though prayer is often said to be the personal heartfelt communication between us and God, I am constantly being bombarded with prayers that I am supposed to say and then send on to others. Sorry, but if you’ve ever sent me one of these e-mails I invariably delete them without reading them. The prayers don’t seem to be very… personal. And just a tad superstitious.

Apparently some people even have proprietary rights to certain prayers, as can be seen by the recent furor over the “Serenity Prayer” and others.

In May the Religion News Services ran a similar article about the devotional poem “Footprints” (“One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord…”). The RNS recorded that the son of a woman named Mary Stevenson brought suit in May against two women he claimed were inappropriately claiming authorship of the poem, which he said his mother had written in the 1930s and copyrighted in 1984. He asserted that the women had each received more than a million dollars in royalties for its use.,8599,1822133,00.html?xid=rss-nation

As I suggested earlier, so much of prayer seems to be either about money or requires the use of it. For many, prayer is big business. Bill Keller, Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland – there are millions to be made in the name of prayer.

Hopefully God will understand why I am hesitant to let people know that I am praying for them. Perhaps it is encouraging for some of my friends to hear me tell them, I don’t know. Some may believe that my prayers would be lacking in sufficient faith or perhaps even be going to the ‘wrong’ place. But for many I think it would only further confuse an already bewildering subject and perhaps give the wrong impression about my faith.


  1. #1 by deathtotheworld on July 22, 2008 - 12:15 am

    Oh – i’m sorry i misunderstood.

    Yeah i suppose the name isn’t exactly the most uplifting…

  2. #2 by akaGaGa on July 29, 2008 - 7:36 am

    Stray prayer thoughts:

    When I was 10 years old, I prayed every night for over 3 months that God wouldn’t let my beloved grandmother die after she had had a stroke. Then one night I forgot to say my prayers. When I woke up the next morning, she was dead. In retrospect, the amazing part of this story is that I wasn’t buried under a load of guilt for forgetting. Somehow, I knew that it was really her time to go home, but God had kept her alive to show me that He hears my prayers – a pretty big lesson to learn at 10.

    Then when I was in my twenties and had walked away from the Lord, my second child was born prematurely, and I was rushed to the “big” hospital an hour away. He’s 27 now, and got married last summer, so the story has a happy ending. While I was laying in that hospital bed, though, someone told me that the folks at my old church were praying for us. That always stayed with me, because I couldn’t imagine why they would bother. We hadn’t been to church in years. We have recently returned to that church. So I think sometimes it can be a good thing to tell someone you are praying for them.

    Although God’s word tells us to bring all our cares to Him, I, too, feel uncomfortable praying for certain things. If we err in our subject matter here in America, I have to believe we err by praying more for natural circumstances rather than spiritual. I shared a message at my church on this subject a couple weeks ago:

  3. #3 by Christian Beyer on July 29, 2008 - 12:34 pm

    Thanks for sharing GaGa.

    You reminded me of a time 16 years ago when I took my family to the beach. On one particular morning, my wife went into the surf first, to keep on eye on my 4 year daughter, my six year old son and a few generic nieces and nephews, while I lay on the beach napping. This was at “Castle in the Sand” at Ocean City, Maryland and they are one of the few, if not the only, establishments that owns their beach front. So I was surprised when a young bikini clad asked me if I would like to order a drink from the bar. 10:00 am is a little early, even for me.

    Around 11:00 my wife came in tired and perfunctorily told me that it was my turn to watch the kids. So I went out and stood up to my ankles in swirling water and watched the kids play. The scenery at the beach being what it is, I was occasionally distracted from my boring task and one time when I turned back little Dorothy was missing.

    After frantically looking around I ran up to tell my wife, who quickly told me that if anything had happened to her she would never forgive me. We ran up and down the crowded beach looking for a little pink bathing suit and asking dozens of people if they had seen her. At one point I even threatened a very young and fit life guard with physical punishment if he didn’t start waving his flags pretty damn quickly. I couldn’t help but keep looking towards the surf, dreading to see something small and pink floating in the shallows.

    Eventually a nice older woman asked if we were missing anything and handed us Dorothy. We could tell she had been crying but was all smiles just then. When we looked around the woman was gone. We never even had a chance to thank her. Back at our beach ‘camp’ I quickly flagged down one of the hotel’s bar maids and ordered a double scotch on the rocks.

    It was around 12 years later, in church, that I remembered having prayed fervently that morning to a God that I did not believe in at the time. After we found Dorothy I don’t even remember thanking Him. I later asked Dot if she remembered the incident and she said yes, but not too much. She did distinctly remember the lady who found her and said that for a long time she was convinced that she had been an ‘angel’.

    No doubt.

  4. #4 by akaGaGa on July 29, 2008 - 7:42 pm

    Which reminds me of another observation from my “pre-Jesus” days. My youngest has mild cerebral palsy, so spent a lot of time when he was a kid falling flat on his face. His favorite place to start this process was the top of the staircase. When he fell, he would silently stiffen up and literally bounce down the stairs, first on his head and then on his feet. I was always convinced he was going to break his neck – literally. No matter where I was in the house, upstairs or downstairs, I would always beat him to the bottom of the stairs, the whole time saying, “Dear God, Dear God.”

    Maybe He had hold of me before I knew it.

  5. #5 by Christian Beyer on July 29, 2008 - 10:03 pm

    Without a doubt. BTW – I like your blog. I just added it to my blogroll. Tally ho!

  1. If God’s Eye Is On the Sparrow, How Can He Be Watching Me? « SHARP IRON

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