Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Prayer

A few months ago someone gave a talk in Church about prayer. The speaker related a story about when their family was going on vacation they took their car to the mechanic to get it checked and ready for the trip. Shortly after driving out of town into the desert, their car stalled. The man tinkered with his engine and tried repeatedly to start the vehicle but had no luck. Then one of the family suggested that they have a prayer. The man was in no mood to pray but he quickly decided that he should not lose his composure in front of his family. Someone in the family offered a prayer after which the man tried one last time to start the motor...and it started, and they were on their way without another problem. Many months before this Sunday I heard this man’s wife tell a more brief version of this story, so I knew that it made a long-term impression on them.

On another Sunday this past year there was a young woman who said that by praying, her mother found her car keys. She said frankly that she didn't think people should be praying for such trivial reasons but she had to admit that this time it worked.

Recently while I was driving my truck in the hot desert summer sun, the engine stalled and I coasted to the side of the road. I remembered the stories that I had heard in church and wondered if I should say a prayer...but I didn't pray. Instead I left my car and walked about a mile to my home. I thought that I should give the truck (and the day) a chance to cool down. I would return and try to start the truck later. When I returned the truck started right up. Later I learned that I had a corroded battery cable (probably due to my high powered speakers).

I do not want to trivialize and disrespect other people's prayers and reasons for praying but I am not able to muster the faith to pray for these kinds of things.

At the beginning of this post is a picture of an old man praying. This picture caught my attention one day when I was a young man while shopping at the Deseret Bookstore. I find much of contemporary religious art to be kitschy but I remember standing for a long time in the store thinking about this painting. It was very simple, but I liked it. I did not see weakness in this man, nor ignorance. I did not think he was asking for too much, or anything at all. I saw a man who had not become hardened over the many years of his life. I saw humility, dignity, and gratitude. And I wanted to be like this man when I got older.

Some time ago I struck up a facebook conversation with a long lost friend who as it turned out was experiencing some troubles in her life. This friend asked me if I prayed. I was taken aback somewhat by this question and had no ready answer. So I started to reflect about what I believed about prayer. My mind hit upon on old hymn that is in many Christian hymnals. I could only remember the first two verses so I looked up the hymn and read all the versus; I still only liked the first two. I decided that these verses captured my feelings about prayer better than anything else I could think to say.
Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Unuttered or expressed;
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.

Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear
The upward glancing of an eye,
When none but God is near.

-James Montgomery, 1818
Hard-line atheists contend that there is nothing in the universe that listens and responds to prayers, and they might cite as examples the unanswered prayers of women being raped, or the mother losing grip of her baby in a tsunami, or the person dying of hypothermia, or the person suffering in Auschwitz. These atheists argue that prayer is a colossal waste of time since there is nothing that will ever respond to our prayers, and that prayer is a delusion of ignorant minds, etc.

My response to this argument would be to say that there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that people who talk to their plants have greener thumbs. I talk to my plants too sometimes and I commune with them on some level and they respond to my attention. I talk to my cats too and my cats purr back. The Buddhist in me, on occasion, likes to dwell on the interconnectedness of all things; mostly I dwell on the things around me, the things of which I am aware or conscious. Sometimes I’ll walk out into the desert night and look up into the heavens and talk to God and feel a moment of oneness with the cosmos. But I do not expect anything magical to result from my prayers. My prayers are more an expression of my gratitude and wonder for all the good things that I encounter in my life and I make this communion with God in the only way that I know how as a human being, by using words and my voice (or my thoughts), although other humans are known to use prayer wheels, candles, or other such symbols to express the same attitude.

The magic of prayer for me is not that I can make money fall from the sky or anything like that, but rather the magic is the effect that prayer has on me. Prayer helps me to align myself and my thinking with everything that is good in the universe.

I am of the opinion that monastic-style petitionary prayer that has the purpose of persuading the heavens to act differently than they were otherwise going to act, is probably a waste of time but perhaps there is something psychically powerful about prayers, something that exerts an influence outside of myself. I don’t know. Guys like Dean Radin are trying to answer that kind of question.

I have no objection to prayers in schools and in government meetings. Why not just observe a moment of silence like we do when someone dies? That never seems to be politically incorrect. During the period of silence persons would be able to offer their own silent prayers, or if they prefer, they could have a private moment of “gratitude.”

I was taught to pray in the Mormon tradition: 1. Address God, 2. Give thanks, 3. Ask for blessings, and 4. Close in the name of Jesus Christ. I realize that some feminists argue that it is sexist to suppose God is a male, nevertheless I was trained to address "Heavenly Father," and I confess that this issue has not concerned me much one way or the other. Mormons like to pray using the “language of prayer” which means, good-old King James style--thee, thou, thy, and thine. I am not concerned much about pronouns either.

In my family we kneel every morning and every night and say a family prayer. Pam is the most diligent in making sure that this custom does not become forgotten. We take turns each time. I think our custom of having family prayers is beautiful, meaningful, powerful, and useful. I want to preserve in writing a typical prayer that comes from my mouth on days when it is my turn. The following prayer is typical in both length and content:
Dear Heavenly Father,

We are kneeling in prayer to show reverence and to give thanks for all the blessings that we enjoy in our lives. We are thankful for our home in the country, and for the school bus that comes right to our door, and for good schools and jobs. We are thankful that Kristina is going to have a baby girl, and we pray that she will have the strength to keep up her busy schedule while she is pregnant. We are thankful that Shaun and Alison have found new jobs. Please bless Erik that he will be safe. And bless Grandpa Ted and Grandma Ellen that they will not be lonely. Please bless Natalie and Grant that they will learn as much as they can in school today and respect their teachers, and help them to remember to be kind to everyone they meet, and make good choices. Please help us all to be good people and to try to make the world a better place wherever we go.

In Jesus' name, Amen.