Prayer is a topic that has always fascinated me, so in reading Al-Baqara in the Koran, I was drawn to the words, “steadfast in prayer”. Different religions have different approaches to prayer, of course. Where Islam teaches that prayer should be performed at least five times each day, other religions set different standards. In the Bible (1st Thessalonians 5:17) we are counseled that we should “pray without ceasing”, which is a beautiful concept, yet not the sort of advice or instruction that can be easily followed at a literal level. At least, not in this world.
Reading about prayer has made me think a bit about my own personal experiences.
My earliest introduction to prayer came as a very young child when each night we would recite those well-known lines:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take
I shuddered every time I said those words. I didn’t like closing my eyes and falling asleep with thoughts of death uppermost in my mind. Rather than comfort me, this childhood prayer terrified me, making me aware of the possibility that if I shut my eyes, I might never open them again.
I didn’t fare much better with the “blesses”. That’s what I called the lengthy list of people for whom I should ask God‘s blessing at bedtime. You know…God bless Mother and Father… and on and on and on.
But what about me? Didn’t I deserve a blessing, too? Of course, we’re probably not supposed to ask God to bless us…are we? Maybe we’re supposed to trust that somebody else will include us in their “blesses”. But what if nobody does?
Clever little kid that I was — yeah, right — I devised a practical solution. At the end of my “blesses”, I tacked on an all-inclusive request, asking God to bless “everyone else in the whole, wide world”. I figured that included me, without the need of me asking directly. Just in case God might frown upon that sort of thing, you know.
Next came my questions about Psalms 23. Maybe not exactly a prayer, but a definite part of my early religious education.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
Now, of course, I’m old enough and smart enough to understand what this means. I shall not lack for anything I need, But for a silly little kid? My interpretation was that the Lord was a shepherd I didn’t want, so it made no sense to me as to why I’d even be reciting the Psalm.
And what of “The Lord’s Prayer“. Despite its variations about debts and trespasses, it’s probably the most-recited prayer in Christianity. That’s a guess on my part, and I’m not looking up statistics. Suffice it to say,you’ve heard it, you’ve probably said it, and so have most other people. I’ve heard it used not only in churches, but in other places, as well, although that was “back in the day” before Madalyn Murray O’Hare decided to put a stop to prayers in schools.
She was once known as “the most hated woman in America“, and she met with an unfortunate end. But not because of her atheism; merely because of her greed.
After O’Hare, compulsory prayers were ousted from school, and a lot of people began questioning the need for prayers in other public places. People began questioning a lot of things. Should we have religious icons and statues on government property? Isn’t that infringing upon our individual rights? Statues have been moved, lawsuits have been filed, and Barak Obama failed to include the words “under God” while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance during his second inauguration last January. Oh, my! What is the world coming to?
My question about The Lord’s Prayer — and others like it — is that it’s something to recite. The words come from our mind, from our memory…not from our heart. You could probably rattle it off in ten seconds flat without even stopping for breath. You can probably spew out the words without a second thought while you’re flipping pancakes for breakfast or polishing your shoes. Wait, does anyone still polish shoes?
A lot of beautiful prayers have been written, and one of my next experiences involving prayer was the discovery of entire books of prayers. The Episcopalians had their Book of Common Prayer — although I wasn’t sure what made a prayer “common” or “uncommon”. There was also Ernest Holmes, founder of The Science of Mind who wrote countless prayers. More recently, just a few days ago, in fact, I grabbed a book of prayers at Amazon. Books of prayers are available everywhere, and Madalyn Murray O’Hare is probably rolling in her grave at the thought.
There are books with prayers to rout demons, prayers to change your life forever, morning prayers, evening prayers, and prayers for the holy souls in purgatory. There are prayers to give hope, heal relationships, and bring financial freedom. Prayer, it seems, has gone mainstream. It’s big business, and maybe a few quick-thinking authors have actually found financial freedom through prayer, or at least, through writing about prayer. It looks like it could be lucrative.
But are any of these prayers really useful? To me, the idea of reading and reciting prayers seems akin to casting magical spells. Say a few words, make a few appropriate motions, and presto! Except that, in my experience, prayer doesn’t usually bring immediate results.
Sometimes, in fact, prayer doesn’t seem to bring any results at all. Oh, but wait! There’s a reason for that, my religious friends will quickly explain. There are a few reasons, actually.
- We say prayers in “our” time, but we have to remember that God works in “his own time”. In other words, there’s some huge time-zone change between us and heaven, and who knows! Maybe our prayer won’t show up in the big guy’s inbox for another few years. Don’t get discouraged. It’s part of the process.
- God hears our prayers, but instead of answering right away, he wants to give us a chance to work things out for ourselves. Huh? Sorry, but that one doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. If I’m praying about something, it’s probably a sign that I’ve tried working it out on my own. How about a little help here, you know?
- Sometimes, God says “no”. Well, all right, I can agree with this, but if he’s going to turn down a prayer request, I’d appreciate a more definite answer than stone, cold silence.
I suppose the thing about prayer that most bothers me is that it’s always likened to having a conversation with God. Let’s put aside those canned, pre-prepared prayers from books, and let’s talk about real prayer. Prayer that comes from the heart.
We’re supposed to go to God, talk to him, tell him how we’re feeling and let him know what’s troubling us. Of course, he already knows all of this, and I’ve never quite understood why we’re supposed to repeat it all, but maybe it’s for our benefit.
What bothers me is that God doesn’t talk back. It’s hard to have a conversation when you’re the only one doing any talking. Oh, I know. We’re supposed to be still and know that God is there. We’re supposed to shut up long enough to listen to what he’s saying. But how do we hear God’s words? Are we supposed to read them? Do they come from other people? Do we hear voices in our heads telling us to do things?
Don’t get me started on this. It was fine for Abraham to tie up his son and prepare to kill him because God said so, but let somebody today claim to be receiving instructions like that from God and…well, the results won’t be written as scripture and given as inspiration to the world.
In our prayers, we’re supposed to thank God, show our gratitude, praise him, and then express our needs. Of course, there are restrictions there, too. We shouldn’t really pray for the new car we need, and it’s probably very sinful to pray that we might win the lottery. It’s probably wrong to pray about the weather — after all, farmers need rain even if it spoils our picnics – and it’s definitely wrong to pray about anything immoral, like begging God to keep your wife from finding out you’re cheating on her.
Basically, we can’t pray for anything that might harm someone else, we can’t pray for anything that involves sin — other than praying for forgiveness, I guess — and we really shouldn’t be selfish and turn our prayers into “wish lists”. Those should be saved for Santa Claus. We’re admonished never to pray for something that would restrict another individual’s free will. Prayer is not meant as as tool to coerce others or force behavioral changes. So, it’s not right to pray that an abusive husband gets help, that an alcoholic stops drinking, or that a wayward soul gets help before he ODs on the latest designer drug. That, you see, would be infringing upon the individual’s right to make his or her own choices.
We’re supposed to pray that God’s will, not ours, be done. In which case, why bother praying at all? God’s will IS going to be done, with our without our prayers.
So, should we pray each night at bedtime, begging God to take our souls if we die? Should we begin each new day with a word or two of prayer? What about mealtimes? Do we recite familiar prayers or do we speak from the heart?
How do we truly become steadfast in our prayers?
- Is Prayer Your Steering Wheel Or Spare Tire? (lynleahz.com)
- Reflecting On The Lord’s Prayer (modernmanofthecloth.com)
- Prayer: intimate, persistent, confident prayer helps us all to reboot our lives (olwsm.wordpress.com)
- The Master of Prayer (hillsbiblechurch.org)
- Assurance Prayer (calvinistview.com)
- Share The Purpose Of “555 Days Of Prayer To Save America” With The Lost World, Say Epic Prayer Event’s Planners (prweb.com)
- Mean what you Pray, Pray for what you mean. (thungabanda.wordpress.com)
- Homily for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – Learning to Pray (emmanuelchatham.typepad.com)
- Shift (revandym.wordpress.com)
- Breathing Prayer: Devotions for Anxiety (goodtimestories.wordpress.com)