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.

Making Sense of Senses

Except for Daredevil, with his Radar Sense, and Spider-Man, with his Spider-Sense, most people come equipped with five senses, each of which as a specific function. Thus my surprise at receiving the following, which appeared in a daily update I receive from the City of Sioux Falls:

Parks and Recreation News...
Sensory Class for the Senses
Use your five senses to smell, taste, touch, and feel. This class is for children ages 4 to 6 years old...

I forwarded the above to my friend Paul, with whom I served as a magazine editor back in the day, with the subject line Why Editors Weep. I'll tell you why:

First off, I'd be interested in knowing what besides the senses a "sensory class" could be for.

Second, I have been under the impression that, aside from the above-noted exceptions, human beings generally have five senses. And it appears that the Parks and Recreation Department agrees with me on that. Which makes it puzzling that only four senses are listed.

Third, of the four senses listed, two of them are the same: what, sensorially speaking, would be the difference between "touch" and "feel" ? The five senses are commonly accepted as sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. I can therefore do naught but conclude that these poor 4-to-6-year-olds will be blindfolded with cotton stuffed in their little ears as they are sent out to explore their sense of touch by bumping into things, unless they smell the danger first, after which they will use their sense of taste while they lick their wounds.

Try making any sense of that!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Power of Prayer

Collected somewhere on my travels:

A tale is told about a small town that had historically been "dry," but then a local businessman decided to build a tavern.

The congregation from a local church was concerned and organized an all-night prayer meeting to ask God to intervene. That very evening, lightning struck the bar and it burned to the ground.

The owner of the bar sued the church, claiming the prayers of the congregation were responsible, but the church hired a lawyer to argue in court that they were certainly not to blame.

The presiding judge, a man wiser than most, after his initial review of the case, stated that "No matter how this case comes out, one thing is obvious--it is evident that the tavern owner believes in prayer and the churchgoers do not."

Sunday, March 11, 2007

"A ________ Conservative"

Simultaneously amusing and intriguing are reports that Fred Dalton Thompson--former US Senator and currently District Attorney of New York County on Law and Order--is contemplating a run for the Republican nomination for president in 2008.

Setting aside for the moment any discussion of his viability as a candidate, I was struck by a quotation in The Politico in re Thompson:

A friend who’s close to Thompson from his Senate days called an ’08 campaign “a distinct possibility,” and said the lawyer-turned-actor would run as “a likable conservative” and “a consensus conservative.”

Not entirely sure what a "consensus conservative" might be, but I was more intrigued by "likable conservative." I was reminded of George W. Bush characterizing himself as a "compassionate conservative" back when he was pursuing the GOP nomination in 2000. It seemed to me then, and does still, that he stuck the adjective in there as a tacit acknowledgment of what I have always believed to be the fact that conservative are not, in the main, compassionate. Indeed, if conservative were noted for being compassionate people, there would have been no reason for Bush to have gone out of his way to paint himself a compassionate conservative.

It is much the same as my describing myself as a liberal Catholic. Were I not a liberal, it would hardly be worth the trouble to put an adjective in front of "Catholic," since I think it a fair assumption these days to say that the majority of us are conservatives.

And so I give some thought to Thompson's "friend" making some effort to assure us that Thompson would be a "likable" conservative. It seems an admission that conservative, in general, are not likable, so we have to distinguish Thompson as a member of the minority of "likable" ones.

Perhaps, for all I know, he is "compassionate" as well. Time, I suppose, will tell.

Hat Tricks

So last night we decamp at a franchise "family" restaurant that we have enjoyed in the past (although, considering that 50% didn't feel well later and my lasagna tasted like it had been in the freezer to long and then in the microwave too long, we may not be frequenting it so much in the future), and as I glance around the room I count no fewer than seven men sitting their with their idiotic caps glued to their heads. (The smoking section was behind me, and I didn't bother to run around and take a head count--or hat count--but I imagine there were a couple there as well.)

At the risk of revealing my Stone Age roots, I was always taught that a gentleman removes his hat or cap in a building, certainly in a restaurant, and particularly when dining.

Of course, my putting the word "gentleman" in the above sentence may serve to put the whole thing to rest.

Three of the offending caps were all to be found at one long table whose occupants appeared to be family, so perhaps it's hereditary. One of the men, who looked to be in his twenties, not only wore his stupid cap all through dinner, but also wore it backward. This I could not fathom. He wasn't wearing a catcher's mask, so why he turned his hat around is a mystery. And if he wants that "beanie look," why doesn't he go out and buy a beanie?

I was reminded of the scene in The Sopranos in which, annoyed by a doofus wearing his cap in a "nice" restaurant, Tony Soprano "inspires" the clod to remove it. Alas, I am no Tony Soprano.

I was reminded also of a student I had several years ago who was never to be seen without his painter's-style cap. Most peculiar. I did happen to see his graduation picture, so I know there was nothing wrong with his hair. I also know he didn't work as a painter. He did work for a vinyl-sign company, so maybe that was close enough. Nice enough fellow, but because of the cap he always put me in mind of Sylvester P. Smythe, the mascot of the Mad magazine imitator Cracked:
But of course all etiquette is arbitrary and subjective, and a lot of it downright strange. In Christian churches, men remove their hats as a sign of respect.* But in Muslim and some Jewish worship settings, men cover their heads as a sign of respect.

In that context, then, perhaps my fellow diners were mentally chiding me for not wearing a hat during dinner.

*Some years ago my son was invited to attend a Vacation Bible School at a friend's church. At the introductory night for parents, I was mentally tsk-tsking in one dipstick who not only failed to remove his stupid cap in the building, but kept it on even when we entered the Sanctuary for the "family worship" part of the evening. Imagine my surprise upon learning that the dipstick was one of the pastors.