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)