Please, don’t bother calling me to prayer

Because I’m not likely to come. Oh, I might fake it a bit, if in a public setting like church. But when all heads are bowed and eyes closed, if you bothered to look up you probably  would see me, eyes wide open and looking right back at you.

I don’t get it.  Never really did, especially growing up Roman Catholic and having to endure the endless monotonous intoning of the priest’s scripted calls for intercession followed by the obligatory chorus of “Lord hear our prayer”.  Later, as an Evangelical, I actually did pray a lot, often alone on my knees but at other times holding hands in a circle, listening to my friends drone on about concerns as broad as world hunger and as pathetically specific as a set of lost car keys, all the while sweating over what I was going to say and how I could say it in a proper, godly fashion. Problem was, even though my life was filled with ‘prayer’, I was rarely at peace.

Today I belong to a much more progressive church – well, no, I actually don’t ‘belong’ to the church – I haven’t joined for a number of reasons.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the community, it’s very spiritual and intellectually stimulating.  It’s unencumbered  with a  lot  of the religious bullshit baggage that many other churches are full of.  But members must commit to a number of spiritual practices, one of which is prayer.  And I really don’t know what that means, being “committed to a life of prayer”.

What is prayer anyway? It’s a loaded topic that’s for sure. Right now, down in Bibleland, there is a big brew-ha-ha bubbling up out of Hamilton County, Tennessee and onto the wire services, Facebook and the blogoshpere ( I mean serious big time blogs, not my little hobby).  The local public high school is in the custom of kicking off every game with a prayer to Jesus over the PA system, which is clearly in violation of  a couple of laws. The superintendent ordered the school  to cease and desist (amazing it took this long) and now all (but really, it’s not all) of the people are peeved.  But why? It’s a no-brainer. Keep the  Christian prayers where they belong, in Christian venues (like one of the gazillion local churches). Keep your Muslim prayers in the mosques, your Jewish prayers in the synagogues and your Native American chants on the side lines during the game.

But  is this really prayer we are talking about?  Some principal or coach picks up a squealing mike and everyone bows their heads and we thank God for our new band uniforms and our pick-up trucks?  Shouldn’t we be led to prayer by our hearts and not a solemn  prompting sandwiched between rah-rah team fanaticism? How heartfelt can this be?  I reckon no more so than the grace-before-meals  my family used to toss off in 2.758236  seconds before chowing down.  Or the endless repetitious chants from the church of my childhood.  Is God really ‘listening’ to this?

I do believe in prayer, somehow, in some crazy way.  For a while now I haven’t been able to explain it, even to myself.  I can tell you what I don’t believe:  I don’t believe that God answers our prayers so that we get raises or promotions or sell our houses or win football games or wars. I don’t believe that God keeps the machinery from failing when it pulls miners out of the ground or prevents a cap from bursting on a submarine oil well. I don’t believe that we can pray away hurricanes, tornadoes or rainy days.  I don’t think God is  a genie.

But…I do think that there is something to it.  Maybe (and most importantly?) if the prayer is thoughtful, sincere and in the truly “good”spirit of God,  then it can help us  work out ways to make things better, for ourselves and for others.  And making things better is not about changing the situation but dealing with the situation through the softening of our hearts, the clearing of our minds and seeing the world  through the eyes of God, which means through the eyes of others.  I don’t imagine much of this is happening right before game time.  I could be wrong, but…

Hamilton County Board of Education member Rhonda Thurman, who represents Soddy-Daisy, said the prayers were part of the school’s tradition, and that anyone who didn’t want to hear could “put their fingers in their ears.”

And maybe there is something more, something a bit mystical about prayer. I started to understand this so a little last week in church.  On this particular Sunday I was praying like a Carmelite nun, fervently and spiritedly.  I was suffering the next-day intestinal side-effects of too many jalapenos in last night’s queso dip. My belly sounded like the timbers of an old frigate in high seas and I am sure that those sitting around me were nearly as alarmed as I was.  And, of course, that day’s service ran about 30 minutes longer than usual.

It suddenly stuck me: what was I doing?  I didn’t believe in this type of intercessory prayer. Or did I?  There are no atheists in foxholes and when I found myself in a foxhole (even one I dug myself) prayer suddenly was a viable option. And, it seemed that it was working, because my stomach was able to quiet down enough for me to make it home safely.  Of course, this could  simply be a matter of my mind being able to exert stronger and more efficient control over my body, but maybe this was only possible for me through  prayer.

Mystics throughout the world and throughout history have been able to do (much more)  amazing things with their bodies – impossible things – from walking on coals, sleeping on nails, levitating and performing miraculous healings.  If God is spirit, analogous to energy, then perhaps through prayer we can tap into that energy (whatever  that means).  Perhaps this spiritual energy is available to anyone – it just takes a certain knack to access it.  Perhaps this is why some say  that when “two or more are gathered in Jesus’ name” they can do wondrous things, maybe even, hopefully, heal people (though I find it hard to square this with the superstitious antics of Benny Hinn and the TBN crowd).  And I really don’t think this describes what happens when a crowd of people are saying Jesus’ name out loud at a civic event, especially if some members of that community are not Christian. That is not something that Jesus would do, or put his name on.

Everybody is offended by something,” she (Ms.Thurman) said. “I’m offended by a lot of those little girls running around with their thong panties showing, but I can’t make that go away.”

Maybe communal, public prayer works for some people.  Maybe prostrating yourself a number of  times a day gives you strength, comfort or peace.  Maybe chanting works for some and the rosary for others. Lectio divina, contemplative, meditative or in tongues….no thanks.  Been there, done that, tried it and found it wanting.  Maybe I just didn’t try hard enough, who knows?   But it seems to me that if you have to really work at it, if it really takes that much concentration, then maybe you’re paddling up the wrong stream of consciousness.

Anyway, as one Christian to another, do me a favor and keep the praying down a bit.  Maybe even consider praying in private or just among your close friends.  After all, there is some biblical precedent for this. Jesus is to have once said something like this:

And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?

Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.

“The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply.   – Matthew 6 (The Message)

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  1. #1 by logiopsychopath on October 22, 2010 - 5:56 pm

    So, what are you saying? Prayer ain’t a priority?

    How about gossip circles disguised as prayer chains?

  2. #2 by Cathy Garland on October 22, 2010 - 6:13 pm

    Well said, Otto! I believe we pray as a way of opening a channel to God who can inspire us through that channel. He will guide us if we ask him….he usually will not DO it for us (although being God, I am sure he could if he chose to).

  3. #4 by brianjgorman on October 22, 2010 - 11:38 pm

    While I do value intercessory prayer, I think generally prayer is less about what happens “out there” then what God does to us through prayer. Prayer changes us (it ought to, at least)–changes our perspectives, changes our behaviors, our attitudes, and our openness.

    I think true prayer opens our eyes: I’ve written a couple of posts about my experiences where prayer has done more to open to me to see Jesus in distressing disguises: http://brianjgorman.wordpress.com/2008/10/25/becoming-an-instrument-of-peace/ and http://brianjgorman.wordpress.com/2009/06/20/jesus-and-i-meet-yet-again/

    Lastly, I think you started to get at the heart of something when you talked about the 2 or 3 gathered in my name bit: I think prayer happens best in a community, and I think that’s where we learn to pray. We need to be in prayer with others who have prayed longer than us in order to see how it changes us.

    • #5 by Christian Beyer on October 24, 2010 - 7:39 pm

      Thanks Brian. On the road right now so I will check out your posts when comfortably encamped, and comment as needed.

      As for your last sentence: I think some people have been praying all their lives and didn’t even know it – they’ve been just connected in some sort of universally holistic way ala Brother Lawrence. I doubt if many believers today would make the pilgrimage to learn at the feet of a scullery worker.

  4. #6 by Vellum on October 23, 2010 - 11:47 am

    Two things. First, walking on coals and sleeping on nails both rely entirely on physics, not mysticism: for the coals it’s the preparation of the coals and the technique of walking that prevents enough heat from being transferred to the walker’s feet so that they can cool again before stepping down a second time. For the nails it’s to do with the decreasing of pressure by adding multiple points: one nail will go through skin easily, a hundred, and you need a hundred times the force. At a thousand, even the weight of a body isn’t enough to push the nails through the skin. But as for faith healing and levitation? Yeah. Yeah, I’d suggest prayer’s a better option than physics.

    Second, what version of Matthew 6 has box seats? O_o

    • #7 by Christian Beyer on October 24, 2010 - 7:37 pm

      Right, right, right. But… most people will assign these types of things of “mind over matter”, no matter what the scientific explanations. I’m not about to attempt any of them because I just don’t heave enough ‘faith’ in a positive outcome. These examples just came easily to hand for the sake of the articles tone.

      Box seats? I give up.

  5. #8 by anon on October 24, 2010 - 12:11 pm

    Is God a vending machine?

    • #9 by Christian Beyer on October 24, 2010 - 7:40 pm

      Yes. And he is guarenteed to give the right change. But not necessarily what you are expecting. 😉

  6. #10 by logiopsychopath on October 24, 2010 - 3:18 pm

    Some people believe this Anon–we have been in churches that teach the so-called principle of sowing and reaping–the more you tithe, the more God will return the increase to the church’s coffers.

    • #11 by Christian Beyer on October 24, 2010 - 7:41 pm

      Run across that a lot myself. I think this is one of the most dispicable of false doctrines. Sure, the more you give the more you will recieve, but you won’t be able to invest it in the stock market.

  7. #12 by logiopsychopath on October 24, 2010 - 8:03 pm

    Sit at the feet of a scullery worker?

    Like when I used to sit at YOUR feet, Mr. Scullery Manager.

  8. #13 by logiopsychopath on October 24, 2010 - 8:05 pm

    Oh, how I miss our arguments–my salient points, your not listening to my salient points; my proletarian angst, your defending company management.

    Ahh–Halcyon days, all.

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