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Sometimes there are coincidences that pull you out of what you'd intended to do and set you off on a new course of action. For instance, last week I'd written a quick two sentence post stating that I was taking a blogging holiday for the rest of the summer and that I'd be back in late September.
Then I received a post from my friend Elizabeth Harper at Gifts of the Journey.com. She wrote about prayer in a post entitled: Would God Send a Message in an Online Ad? When I went back to read the post again today, I scrolled down and was simply amazed at the lengthy and beautifully written comments by readers who felt compelled to share their own thoughts on prayer. I'm guessing that I'm not the only one who has since been inspired to use Elizabeth's post as a springboard for our own musings on prayer either in our own lives or as we've observed its impact in the lives of others.
Prayer, like much of our relationship with God, often feels very one-sided, lonely, mysterious, and perhaps like standing at the mouth of a cave and shouting into the darkness, hoping for a response. Relationship with God can seem like a lop-sided equation, a bet you make where you're not going to know the outcome until after death, and perhaps not even then.
So you pray and then pause to observe the outcome. If it comes, was it just a natural coincidence of timing and related to your own actions? Or was it divine intervention?
If you don't receive the answer you were looking for, was it God turning his back on you? God and the evil one engaged in some cosmic wager, as in the case of Job? Were you somehow undeserving or being punished for a sin you were or weren't aware of?
Why pray at all if the results are so uncertain?
I pray for the same reason that I've written in a journal since the age of eleven: a desperate need to get out of my head the thoughts that ramble around without ceasing or solution. Journaling and prayer become a pressure valve to release all those words that would otherwise drive me crazy.
But prayer becomes even more than that. It becomes the conversation that I can't have with anyone else. It is the flow of confession that I'd be embarrassed to admit, the fears that overwhelm me, the wisdom that I know is hiding right behind some obsessive thought, the clarity I need because I'm afraid I don't know what to do. It's my way of reaching out and asking for help from God because I believe that He is there even though I'm often met with silence so profound that it leaves me wondering why I even try.
And yet even in the depths of doubt, I can't help myself. I do believe that there is a greater wisdom at work in the world and that we can and should seek guidance just as we actively work toward solutions to our problems. Prayer does not absolve us of responsibility for our actions or outcomes, but I'd like to believe that it can provide gentle direction when we are lost.
Perhaps the greatest gift of prayer is discovering God's profound love for us. It's one thing to believe in an higher intelligence or universal mind. I think that's probably the easiest concept for an atheist to begin to accept. But to imagine a greater entity that actually loves us, is staggering. It requires us to believe that this entity must somehow know us as individuals, with all our foibles and fuck ups, and yet still find us worthy of love...love coming from a source of perfection, yet willing to love us in all of our imperfection. I suppose that is why Jesus Christ was necessary, to allow this perfect God to walk among us and experience us in all our glorious human-ness. And perhaps as a result of wallowing in all that human dust, God is even better equipped to love us more intensely than before. (Of course if you believe that God is Alpha and Omega, all-knowing and omnipotent, I suppose this is rhetorical.)
Because, yes, I do believe that God loves us deeply and infinitely more than we could ever imagine, especially when it seems as if we are standing alone and shouting into empty space. As someone who is well acquainted with that position, I will tell you that I cling desperately to my belief in God when I feel most alone and in need of some assurance.
If, like me, you're the gambling sort and decide to throw caution to the wind and pray at the mouth of the dark cave, where do you begin? Is there some magic ritual, such as saying the Lord's Prayer three times aloud each day as a friend once suggested, that will guarantee an audience with the Almighty?
The short answer is yes. And, of course, no.
The better answer is that prayer is most effective when it is authentic and comes from your heart. I started to write 'honest' as well, but I'm guessing that sometimes we're inclined to lie in our prayers, just as we lie to ourselves. And as I think God can see through those moments of self-deception, let's just say that we should be authentic.
Of course, prayer serves many functions in the course of our spiritual life. Praying together in church is sometimes all we need to feel part of a larger community, one of many voices lifting up praise or beseeching in one corporal voice. Other times, prayer is a private act of gratitude where we 'thank God' for the safe return of a loved one, or go through a daily recitation of all that we are grateful for, but which we don't want to take for granted.
As to the mechanics or setting for our more 'serious' prayers, I think the best way to pray is that which works best for you in that moment. I have prayed on my knees. I have prayed by speaking aloud in a one-sided conversation, as I walked with Henry, my Newfoundland, through the woods. I have prayed in a letter to God written in my journal. And most recently I have fallen asleep as I repeated incessantly, "Please God", in a whispered prayer that expressed so many fears of the future that only those two words were necessary, because God knew the rest.
And then what?
How do we know if God heard our prayers, or if He will do anything about them?
I guess we/I don't know. That's where the mystery or challenge of faith comes in. I hope that God will answer my prayers, that He does care, and will show his compassion in some tangible way. But I also feel that part of the strength of prayer is that it allows us a private communion with God that in and of itself is a comfort.
I believe that God loves each of us. And that when we go to Him in prayer, that He reaches out and communicates that love to us in such a way that it impacts our lives for the better. I believe that we can deepen our relationship with God through prayer. Perhaps that is one of its most important functions. Not asking for this or that, but to come closer to our Creator, and through that relationship to grow and live better lives than we would have without it, or without the experience of God in our lives.