Today I want to tackle what I often call the “p” word—otherwise known in religious circles as prayer.
This simple 6-letter word has caused me more trouble in my life than all the 4-letter words I was fond of using in my rebellious formative years. Before puberty, the word prayer caused me no issue. I recited the prayers we kids learned in Sunday school with my fellow frilly-dressed and tiny tie-wearing fellow students. Then when I became a “big girl”, I recited The Lord’s Prayer with the congregation, and tried to sit silently during the Silent Prayer. I knew to bow my head and not fidget. This was not the time to tickle your sister, as tempting as it may be. This was the time for reverence, to “talk to God”. But I couldn’t quite grasp it. I had tried to pray to get things I wanted, and when they didn’t appear, I fluctuated between sentiments of “praying is stupid” and “I’m stupid, I can’t pray right”. Plus, God never seemed to talk back. How rude! I totally would have been in trouble for not talking to someone who talked to me. But it seemed God had special rules...
Even though my father tried patiently to help me, I was in my theology-resistant phase, and he just couldn’t get through. Plus there was the Jesus barrier. In my teens, I was perplexed about Jesus. So, sometime around age thirteen, I stopped saying the word Jesus. This was an added quandary, because the word “Jesus” appeared in a lot of the prayers! So, I’d go ahead and read the prayers aloud at church with everyone else, but when the word “Jesus” appeared, I’d be silent.
Eventually, I approached my preacher father and said, “Dad, I can’t say ‘Jesus’ in prayers anymore.” He replied, “Well, that’s certainly an interesting development.” So I continued, “I don’t believe in Jesus, so I think it would be hypocritical to say his name in a prayer.” Never one to let me off the hook easily, my father asked, “What don’t you believe about Jesus?”
I don’t recall the rest of the conversation exactly. I probably mumbled something and tried to leave the room. I simply didn’t have the language to be able to describe my thoughts about Jesus nor my increasing difficulty with prayer. I do remember him telling me it was okay to question, and to talk with him anytime about it. But I was too embarrassed. I felt as if I were a doctor’s daughter saying, “Dad, I don’t believe in medicine.”
So I grinned and beared it through the prayers in church, and at weddings or funerals. And outside of church, prayer didn’t play a role in my life… except when others used it “on me”. Oh how I hated this. After describing to someone some difficulty in my life, they’d say “I’ll pray for you.” In my mind this was always said while their head was held high, and the words slid down towards me with contempt. What I heard was “you can’t solve it on your own, and I will step in with my mighty Jesus and we will fix your ineptitude”. And in most cases, they were likely just trying to bring me comfort.
I recently rewatched the 2004 teen flick Saved, a religious satire film that focuses on some teens in a fictitious Christian high school. In one scene, a main character calls a prayer circle with her friends to try and “pray away the gay” in her ex-boyfriend. It’s a well-written scene, and may be a comical one to teens in 2004, but is all too painful for gay men and women who were victims of conversion therapy to pray away their gay, even decades after the American Psychological Association concluded that homosexuality is not a disorder, and homosexuality was finally removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
In my head, this type of prayer is prayer used for the Dark Side, or at least used in ways that aren’t exactly helpful to people who live in community. Consider this story: In 2012, Mike O’Neal, speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives, sent an email to his colleagues stating “Pray for Obama: Psalm 109.8.” Sounds supportive, doesn’t it? Yeah, until you look up the psalm, and see “May his days be few; may another take his office.” If you continue reading, you’ll be faced with “May his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.” Ouch.
This kind of sentiment actually has a name, imprecatory prayer, which comes from the Latin, imprecate, “invoking evil or divine vengeance”. There are a whole bunch of imprecatory prayers nestled in among the prayers that appear in the Book of Psalms, which is in the canon of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. And we don’t have to look too far in most other religions to find similar words.
Scholars debate whether imprecatory prayers are truly meant as curses, or whether they are allegorical. To me, most seem to scream “My way is right, your way is wrong. And I am going to use my prayer to change you, dominate you, or get what I want.” Which sucks if we are talking about rigid anti-LGBTQ rights, but seems almost heroic if we are praying for world peace (after buying the world a Coke?).
And there comes my judgement. Pray-away-the-gay is bad. Pray-away-the-war is good.
So then… how should we pray?
Anthropologists have found written sources of prayer as early as 5000 years ago, and we find an incredibly large range of prayer practices in each religion in the world. I love this nutshell synopsis courtesy of Wikipedia: “Some Christians bow their heads and fold their hands. Some Native Americans regard dancing as a form of prayer. Some Sufis whirl. Hindus chant mantras. Jewish prayer may involve swaying back and forth and bowing. Muslims practice salat (kneeling and prostration) in their prayers. Quakers keep silent.”
Let’s narrow to Christianity for a bit, since it influences much of how we see prayer here in the US, where 71% percent of people identify as Christian. (According to a 2014 Religious Landscape Study by Pew Research)
When Jesus was asked the question “How should we pray” (as portrayed in Luke 11 of the Christian Bible), he set out what is referred to in churches as The Lord’s Prayer or The Our Father. This prayer was a little rebellious for the day—it removed the majestic adjectives about God that appeared in traditional prayer of the day, and replaced them with the casual word “Father”. (It’s often said in bible commentary that this was to bring people closer to a more approachable God, and implies that there was something wrong or lacking with the traditional Jewish way of praying at that time. I’m a fan of removing this bias, and looking it as an alternative option rather than a replacement.)
Further on in Matthew 21:22, it states. “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” But, is that really true? Take this quick example: An Arkansas layman once boasted to evangelist Charles Templeton that God had given him a Cadillac. Templeton answered him, “It’s interesting that God gave you a Cadillac. He gave his only begotten son a cross. And he gave Paul—one of his first and strongest disciples—stoning, shipwreck, imprisonment, and all the other thousand troubles he faced.” And, personally, I’ve yet to receive the pony, Barbie Malibu dreamhouse, or full-ride college scholarship I prayed for.
For centuries, though, petitionary prayer, where we ask for something, was the right way to pray. The influential theologian St Thomas Aquinas codified this in the 13th century when he insisted that petition was one of the three conditions required for prayer. (Thanking prayers were ok, if you first petitioned God for his attention in order to then thank God—nice loophole Thomas.)
Another leading theologian of his day, Hugh of Saint Victor (awesome name, huh?!) said in the 12th century: “some people were evidently quite disturbed by the fact that when we pray… we say a lot of things to God in which we do not ask for anything: it is a mockery rather than prayer to come before God as if to ask for something and then suddenly turn aside to other things which are quite irrelevant.”
But in the last few decades, petitionary prayer has fallen out of favor—and is in many circles even a “wrong” type of prayer.
Further, prayer itself is becoming a dicey word. Perhaps fueled by misuse of imprecatory prayer, fear of religion, or just general intolerance to religious practices, many of us find ourselves weary of using the “P word” in secular audiences. Author and speaker Alex McLellan, in his blog post “Don’t euphemize the P… word” addresses the result:
“Prayer hasn’t disappeared—yet, but the idea of sending ‘positive thoughts’ is preferable. In a secular culture, prayer is too closely aligned with religious types so a number of creative euphemisms are slowly being adopted… Positive thoughts avoid any religious baggage. You communicate your care and concern without offending anyone. We still tap into something powerful - beyond us, while leaving the door open to a natural explanation.”
In Matthew 6:6, we are told “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret.” Yup, Jesus recommended we pray in our closets – focusing on prayer needing to be personal, rather than for show. But are we going to now find ourselves only able to pray in closets?
So again I ask… how should we pray?
My answer? However the heck you want to. Prayer is a personal connection with the divine (for those who consider themselves spiritual or religious) or to something higher within yourself (for many who you don’t). I even read an excellent article on the validity of atheistic prayer last week in the Faith & Philosophy journal. I don’t think any of us should be demanding to write the rule book on what it right for someone else’s prayer life.
So whether you currently pray, or fervently refuse to pray, I’m going to challenge us all today to try something new. I call it praying outside the box. And we’re going to look at it from two perspectives—for both those of you in the audience who don’t pray, and then for those who do.
If you don’t currently don’t pray, I challenge you to try it.
Best-selling author Anne Lamott’s 2012 book Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers was the book that finally got me able to say the word prayer without it getting stuck in the back of my throat. The book is just as advertised in the title: a collection of simple prayers you can digest in no more than an hour. The humor and rawness that Lamott is well known for shine through in these prayers that even the staunchest atheist would have a hard time not finding use for, especially since these prayers can easily be “God-optional”.
Even without the book, the practice is an easy one to pick up from the title alone. Simply try uttering aloud or silently these words when they come up. A tough day? “Help” fits. Something surprisingly great just happened? Try “Thanks”. Happened to catch the most beautiful gold sunset? “Wow”.
It doesn’t matter if you know who or what exactly you are uttering these words to. It can be prayer. Forget all the historical theological descriptions. Just put it out there. Utter the words. See what happens.
And if words fail you… How about creating a painting as prayer? Hiking your prayer? It’s your prayer. You get to make the rules.
Now, what if you are already a seasoned prayer. You’ve got your memorized favorites. You can say them practically in your sleep. Or maybe you are the one who excels at giving the family prayer at holiday meals, you’re the resident prayer expert.
For you, here is the challenge: Try praying in a way that you haven’t before or think won’t work for you.
My father prayed for forty-five minutes every morning. How did he manage that in a busy schedule? He prayed while jogging.
I can’t jog, but last month I found myself breaking a sweat at a Jewish Retreat Center praying while singing nigunim in my elementary transliterated Hebrew. Yet, I felt a deep connection to God in a way I can barely still explain. It was visceral. It was in every fiber of my body. Yes, it was certainly prayer. And it seemed like the furthest I had been out from my childhood prayers. Until a few days ago when I was writing this sermon.
While at a conference at a Midwest airport hotel, I bumped into the folks from the room neighboring mine. They were dressed to the nines, and when I commented on their excellent attire, they announced they were in the hotel for a church conference. And we started chatting. Next thing I know, I’m sitting in the most excellent gospel testimony worship service I have ever seen. Full band. Huge shiny hats. Soaring voices. And they called it prayer.
Soon I’m moving just the tiniest bit in my chair. Then my foot starts to tap. I’m self-conscious of my skin color, and my worn blue jeans. But I try to relax. Next I’m swaying. I’m singing a bit. I can’t quite make it up on my feet, but I’m sortof almost clapping to the beat. And then it happens, I’m in tune with the room. I feel in the right place and I feel the music as if I am part of its actual beats. It happens only for a few minutes, then my foot catches the wrong beat, and I’m back into self-conscious land. But I felt it. For a minute I was connected to everyone in the room and everything outside of it. It was prayer.
So I challenge you. Go looking for prayer in what you think are all the wrong places. Don’t feel like you have to stick to the script. If you are a casual prayer, try on some pious scholarly prayers with lots of majestic adjectives. Pray out of the box. And then, notice the results. Mull them over.
What does it do to you? How do you feel? Is your connections growing? If you didn’t have a connection can you find one now? Do you feel any benefits in your life?
A few years ago, Psychology Today reported on some of the research scientists have done on the effects of prayer. They noted:
“Our species has probably been praying for as long as we have been able to contemplate our existence. And though we may never be able to establish evidence that a deity or spiritual force actually hears our prayers, in recent years, scientists have begun to consider the potential tangible (i.e., measurable) effects of prayer. And this research suggests that prayer may be very beneficial.”
So just what were these benefits? They cited five.
First, improved self-control: “Research participants who said a prayer prior to a mentally exhausting task were better able to exercise self-control following that task.”
Second, prayer can help reduce anger: “Researchers found that having people pray for those in need reduced the amount of aggression they expressed following an anger-inducing experience.”
Third, prayer can help create forgiveness: “Researchers found that having people pray for a romantic partner or friend made them more willing to forgive those individuals.”
Fourth, prayer can help create trust: “Recent studies found that having people pray together with a close friend increased feelings of unity and trust… Social prayer may thus help build close relationships.”
And lastly, prayer can help reduce negative health situations caused by stress: “Researchers found that people who prayed for others were less vulnerable to the negative physical health effects associated with financial stress.”
Psychology Today is not the only publication reporting on the positive effects of both prayer and meditation. But I’m not asking you to believe them outright. The challenge here again is to really dig into prayer and see what happens for you personally.
In closing, it seems perfectly apropos for me to end today with a prayer. And in the spirit of praying outside the box, I’m going to use one that I saw on my trip to the Cleveland Museum of Art. It was written by the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in tiny black uppercase letters in a dime-store composition notebook. And as odd as it is, to Basquiat, it is prayer:
NICOTINE WALK ON EGGSHELLS
THE EARTH WAS FORMLESS VOID
DARKNESS FACE OF THE DEEP
SPIRIT MOVED ACROSS THE
WATER AND THERE WAS LIGHT
“IT WAS GOOD”©
BREATHING INTO HIS LUNGS
2000 YEARS OF ASBESTOS
In the words of Anne Lamott: “Wow”.
Read more from Sarah Bowen in Void if Detached: Seeking Modern Spirituality Through My Father's Old Sermons.