No crime to pray for me
I’d like you to pray for me.
This morning I was moved to ask my friends and loved ones on social media to say a prayer for me. I’m embarking on a big new project that involves going way out of my comfort zone, and having the focused energies of good hearted people directing the benevolence of the universe my way seems like it would be really helpful right now.
And then, before I even began to type my social media post, I thought about prayer, and the way it has recently come under fire.
In the midst of a rash of gun violence in America, the habitual reaction of public figures to respond with their “thoughts and prayers,” often followed by no other action, has marked this phrase as nothing but empty ceremony.
As the Bible says, “faith without works is dead.” Even if the prayers of certain public officials are sincere, and are moving to the Almighty, the failure to back them up with any tangible efforts to stop the violence does indeed make these prayers seem like an empty but hypocritical gesture.
Even with those who are adamantly against any form of gun control, who are quick to say we have a “heart problem,” not a gun problem, while pointing to a range of non-firearm-related violence from Cain’s murder of Abel with a rock to the knife violence we hear in the news from London, I want to ask, “Ok, what action are we taking to change those hearts, then?" Sitting in the insular comfort of our churches isn’t going to do it—particularly since even these sanctuaries aren’t safe any longer.
Action doesn't have to match my political preference (although it seems sane to me to do so.) But faith that animates us to action ought to amount to something.
Sitting back and resigning ourselves to the world being the way it is, is actually to opposite of what prayer is supposed to do. Prayer gives voice to our beliefs, which are embodied in our actions.
And prayer, as maligned as it has been, does work.
I have a hard time explaining exactly how prayer works, without sounding like a wacky mix of hippie and a televangelist.
I believe there’s a tremendous amount of energy in this universe, behind the scenes, and that this energy is harnessed and directed by our beliefs.
This works individually, such as when I pray for healing and all of my energies and those around me rally to the cause and healing happens—which I have seen, felt and known, even a miracle healing in my family before I was born that allowed me to be here.
It works corporately, just as when we as a people, full of media and rhetoric, believe the economy is strong and we spend to make it strong (or skimp when we believe the economy is weak and thus fulfill the prophecy), so it is when we invest our energies in any of many other beliefs. Are we rallying those energies around safety, aggression, peace, conflict? What are we praying for? What—or who—are we praying against?
Giving voice to our fears makes them real threats. Giving voice to what we cherish enshrines it as sacred.
Prayer works better for some things than others. There’s always the famous example of two football teams each praying that they will win. Do those prayers cancel each other out? Which prayer is honored? In the end, it is the team that plays the best that will win, whether this is an example of backing up prayer with action or simply evidence that prayer isn’t for the purpose of one tribe beating the other.
Although I’ve never seen more nonbelievers pray than at a football game.
And I will probably always harbor the secret belief that Notre Dame does have a slight edge in the prayer game.
But as in the example of the football game, prayer may not always do what we think it does. When I hear a minister praying that a hurricane will change its course, I have my doubts. I know Jesus famously calmed the storm, I also believe that literal storms in our lives are caused by immutable physical forces that God put into place billions of years ago and are the result of myriad factors of temperature, wind, topography, and that butterfly which flapped its wings half a world away.
But my prayer in the storm can change the way I look at it, and can give me peace and calm in the midst of the storm.
Sometimes the answer to prayer is no. Sometimes the healing doesn’t happen. Sometimes we don’t walk on water, but rather get our shoes wet in the trying.
Sometimes the answer is this is where you are supposed to be, and the circumstance that needs to change is within you.
This would all sound like hokem and confirmation bias to me if I hadn't experienced it at work.
And none of these means that prayer is merely idle, or hypocritical, or in the case of you praying for me, unwelcome.
A few weeks ago, I read about a celebrity who ended up in the hospital after a sudden heart attack. While he was recuperating, another celebrity went to Twitter to ask his followers to pray for this man whose work he admired so (a man who also has been publicly critical of religion).
The trolls were ravenous, sweeping down on this faithful prayer warrior about how it’s doctors and science who heal the sick, not God, and what an empty gesture his little Tweet was.
After several hours of this, a third celebrity swept in to defend the request for prayer, saying, in effect, that yes, prayer without action is empty, but that nobody expected one movie star to perform heart surgery on the other one in this case. He went on to offer that prayer and meditation had been effective tools in his own life, that public prayer is often meant as an acknowledgement that one cares, and that he himself would welcome prayers from a fan.
I agree with this. I know that prayer has been a help to me—both tangibly and inwardly. When I am in times of trouble or doubt, it steadies me and gives me courage to face the world despite my fears.
And when I’m trying something new, I could do worse than have a group of people who mean me well focusing the energy of the universe my way. (Or, if you’re not the praying type, a “Good luck” or “Break a leg” will also do.)
Particularly when the prayers come from people I know, I can see all the ways they are backed up with action, encouragement, and support—love made real.
I heard a song lyric on the radio the other day that typified the deepest feeling of despair and loneliness I could think of. The lyric and refrain of the song was, “Ain’t nobody praying for me.”
Despite the bad rap that prayer has been getting lately, I would much prefer to be on prayed for than not.
So if you have a moment, please, feel free to say a little prayer for me.
And I will be happy to say a prayer for you.