Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Problem with Prayer

Jokes aside (see "The Power of Prayer," March 13), I actually do believe in prayer and pray pretty often--not "constantly," as Paul exhorts, but pretty often. Granted, such prayer is often of the "Get me outta this, God!" variety, but still.

But I have some problems with prayer.

First, I get annoyed with myself for always asking God for something. I know there us a widespread belief in the religious community that God wants us to lay our problems, needs, and concerns before him, and I will grant you there is some logic in that. However, it also seems to me that, inasmuch as God has given me so much throughout my life, to be constantly asking for this or that thing, or outcome, or circumstance seems downright churlish. I mean, look at all I've gotten without asking...seems a bit ungrateful to be clamoring for more, more, more.

Second, I sometimes feel that it's a little bit disrespectful to God to be always petitioning. Do I not think that God already knows what I'm telling him? Do I honestly think that God will not, say, help my ailing relative to get better unless I specifically ask God to do so? Doesn't that bespeak a rather poor opinion of the Creator of the Universe and the Ground of All Being. ("Oh, you say your uncle is sick? What was his name again? Denny? Oh--Lenny. Okay, I'll see what I can do. What did you say your name was, kid? Sorry, but I got a lot on my mind.")

Third, what am I to make of it if my prayer goes (from my perspective) unfulfilled? Let's say I pray like crazy that my Uncle Lenny or Denny or whatever his name was gets better, and he doesn't. He dies. Am I to conclude that God didn't listen to me? Or that I didn't pray "right"? I have a couple of Evangelical acquaintances who would conclude the latter--that my faith wasn't strong enough and/or I was being punished for that or for some transgression...although it seems to me that in that case it's really Uncle Lenny who's getting the short end--which also doesn't say very much about one's opinion of the Almighty.

And what about competing prayers? Say I'm in the stands at my daughter's marching-band competition. Naturally I want her band to win. So I'm sitting there thinking, "Please, please, please, God, let my band win." Meanwhile one of the other dads is sitting down the way making exactly the same plea for his kid's band. And someone's mom is on the other side of the stadium doing likewise. What is it we expect God to do? They can't all win. So we run into much the same problem as above in re God playing favorites and what it means if God doesn't grant my prayer when I prayed it really really nice.

So what to do? Conclude that God knows what we need and/or want but, rather perversely, likes to sit back until we ask him for it? That God doesn't know what we need/want until we ask him? Or that it's all a big cosmic crap-shoot?

At various intervals I have tried to refocus my prayers into prayers of gratitude rather than prayers for stuff. A priest acquaintance once opined in my earshot that grateful people are peaceful people, and I think there's a lot of truth in that. Plus there's just a great satisfaction in expressing gratitude on occasion instead of always asking for something (even something noble, like wanting Uncle Lenny to get better).

And yet there's a problem with that too, a very similar problem to that expressed above. Let's say I express my gratitude to God for, say, delivering my family safely home after a road trip. On the surface, this would seem at least benign and possibly even, you know, nice. But what about the people who don't make it safely home? The old questions arise: Are they being punished for something? Am I being rewarded for something? Is my faith "better" than theirs?

And so the problem with prayer: What is it to be, what is my expectation and intention? How to form prayer without either aggrandizing myself or belittling God?

I come back to another priest acquaintance, a professor and residence-hall director back at Creighton University in bygone times, who asserted that prayer involves shutting up and listening to what God is trying to tell us. That makes sense to me--and it's very hard for me to do, if only because I am so caught up in the traditional asking/thanking mode. Especially during Lent, when I strive to be more reflective on spiritual matters (and not a lot of luck with that, I must confess, this year, when I feel a lot like George Jetson caught on the runaway treadmill at the end of The Jetsons cartoon show of my childhood), I generally make an effort to direct prayer to contemplation, to listening to what God may be saying.

And what about my getting or not getting what I ask for? What about other people who ask but do not receive? What does that say about us? About God? Well, as should be painfully obvious by now, I categorically reject the notion that God plays favorites, or that people who "pray right" or belong to the "right" religion or tithe or whatever have some kind of inside track to the Almighty's favor. In the main, I believe that the universe runs as the universe runs, and things happen. Good things, bad things, neutral things. I would never say God plays no direct role in these things (was it Descartes who posited the idea of God as the great watchmaker who winds up Creation and lets it run?), but I will say that it raineth on the just and the unjust alike, and that's just how it goes.

So I ask God for things, and maybe I get them and maybe I don't. And I thank God for things, and maybe it's self-serving and maybe it isn't. And I try to shut up and sit still long enough to listen to what God may have to say. And in the long run, it probably matters more that the conversation is happening than what the conversation contains.

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