On Prayer

There was a prominent sign visible from the freeway near the on-ramp where I entered the flow of traffic. “Prayer Changes Things,” it stated. Black letters on a bright orange background, the sign mocked me. So I mocked back: “Like what, for example?”

I am a prayer skeptic. I do not say this to dissuade anyone from praying, because people I know – people I love, people I respect – pray in earnest. They value it. They believe in it. Prayer has purpose. So if you’re someone who prays, good for you. More power to you! Have at it, and I will not make fun of you for doing so… except it will seem from this point for a while that I am doing just that. I apologize preemptively.

As a prayer skeptic, I do not believe in an intervening God. I don’t believe God will grant my prayer request just because I attain an optimum level of sincerity, or because I pray in a manner that meets God’s standards, or because I met a population threshold of compatriots praying for the same thing I’m praying for. I know that in Matthew 18 it says that where two or more are gathered and are in agreement over anything they ask for, it will be done by “my Father in heaven.” Yes, it’s a red-letter passage. And yet, it rings false. God does not grant wishes just because a plurality asks for them. Sorry, but no. Go ahead and try to convince me otherwise.

Not to belabor the subject of my daughter’s death from brain cancer, but this is Exhibit A in my case against “Prayer Changes Things.” (In my defense, the event truly is a pervading element of my life.) There was no shortage of prayer on her behalf. People who knew and loved her prayed for her. People who had heard about her prayed for her. At churches, in homes, wherever people were, they prayed. We (yes, I prayed, too) certainly met the Matthew 18 criteria for numbers. The sincerity-level needle spiked in the red zone. She was beloved by many, many people. She was young, intelligent, kind… I could go on and on about what a wonderful young woman she was. And if there was something defective about our prayers, I can’t imagine what it might be. My wife and I even had a fallback prayer: that one of us would acquire the cancer in her place. Either one of us would have gladly made that trade. An intervening God had an ironclad case to consider.

So much for the power of that kind of prayer. God is not a wish-granting genie.

As a child, I grew up with prayer. I was taught to pray a bedtime prayer, naming family members both nuclear and extended, as well as friends and a kid in an Asian village who we supposedly sponsored through some organization or another. We recited a table grace that my father composed, a version of the Lord’s Prayer as it happens, and not really anything specifically having to do with food. I taught my own kids that prayer. And of course we prayed in church. There were the printed, chanted litanies and responsive prayers that sounded like so much blah, blah, blah….Come to think of it, they still sound somewhat like that to me today. If I’m reading someone else’s words, how sincere could it possibly be?

And then there’s the aforementioned Lord’s Prayer. I learned two versions. First I learned the King James version, then a more modern one. The church I’ve attended most recently uses the King James version even at the so-called ‘contemporary’ (as opposed to ‘traditional’) service. Why? Why say “Thy” and “Thine” when only a freak would use those pronouns in any other context? “Our Father who art in heaven….” He art? Really? I’m pretty sure that when Jesus taught that prayer to the disciples, he did not say it in 18th century English. So why should I sound like a doofus?

Some people in church close their eyes and raise their hands palms-up. Maybe that’s for better reception; I don’t know. But it seems showy to me and foreign to my perception of sincere communication with God. In short, I cannot imagine that God is impressed by it.

Now that you’ve read this far, I’m going to switch out of my prayer-bashing mode. I’m done with that now.

What role I acknowledge for prayer in people’s lives is a meditative, contemplative or focusing activity. I think that this kind of prayer can be beneficial to the persons who engage in it, not merely harmless. Furthermore, I think even some non-believers engage in a similarly purposeful exercise as a matter of routine even if they call it something other than prayer.

But the real benefit of prayer occurred to me in a way that surprised me. It was during the years of my daughter’s illness and death, and I would periodically send email messages to a group of friends and relatives about what she was going through. I would receive responses: “I’m (or we’re) praying for her.” “I’m praying for you and your family” Or, in the cases of non-believers, “I’m thinking of you.” The sentiments of believers praying for us and non-believers thinking of us were the same. I received messages of concern, sympathy, warmth, and love. Prayer skeptic that I was and am, I found these messages to be curiously comforting. I cannot rely on reason alone to explain how this made me feel.

Recently I heard a saying that instantly rang true for me due to my experience: “A joy shared is a joy multiplied, and a sorrow shared is a sorrow divided.” You might think that a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic such as myself would find that saying to be corny. And yet, I wish I’d heard it earlier. Maybe I wish I’d thought of it myself. Maybe that should be in scripture!

So yes, it turns out that prayer does change things after all. Curiously and surprisingly, prayers divided my sorrow and softened my heart.