Thursday, September 30, 2010

Prayer Shenanigans


I was reading the news today (Fox News), national news, not just local, and came across a bizarre story. City tax payers are seeing what their money goes toward in Vernon, Florida. The Holmes County Pee Wee Football Association is a private organization that has the players and coaches participate in a voluntary pregame prayer before each game. One of the coaches thinks this a violation of his son’s First Amendment right. The First Amendment (Amendment I) to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. The amendment prohibits the making of any law "respecting an establishment of religion", impeding the free exercise of religion, infringing on the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. I’m unaware of how this case will progress or what the outcome will be, nor is that the focal point of my concern. We’ve all heard cases of outrage and seen too much media attention paid to institutions and individuals battling over prayer, to a point where most people roll their eyes when reading the headlines. I know that I just smile and shake my head sometimes. Again, some people have great cases pro-prayer and some even have good anti-prayer arguments, but my mental appetite to critically think isn’t wetted by the politics behind the cases, but found at the core, within the entire ideology of prayer. Before allowing emotions, heritage, political or religious affiliation, or schools of thought to rule the day and away your opinion I’d ask first that a clear definition of prayer be established.


Simply, prayer is communication with a higher power, God.

Most recently I visited a catholic church for a wedding. The priest requests that everyone put their hands out towards the couple at the alter and pray with him. I like to do this sometimes in other settings, but I didn’t close my eyes and just looked around. I wasn’t the only one with that idea though. My friend standing…

…sitting…well, standing…no, now sitting…wait, now standing…my knees hurt now…sitting…now standing…

…you begin to think we sat and stood a lot right? If you’ve ever been to a Catholic Church service then you understand clearly what I am describing. I’m not bashing the Catholic Church either, there is some beauty to their traditions, but this is just an experience I had that helps me process this whole idea of prayer. Like I said, I wasn’t the only one who decided to keep my eyes open and look around. As I looked around my eyes met my friend’s who was sitting beside me. We shared a bewildered expression and went back to our observing. The priest was praying for this couple in a particularly odd fashion though. I suddenly began to think I may be dreaming or having some kind of uncanny hallucination because it seemed as if this wedding had become something right off the set of the hit series Glee! The priest was singing his prayer! I’d never experienced something like this before so out of discomfort laughter erupted as a natural reaction. I also noticed while we were “praying together” that my friend and I weren’t the only ones not caught up in a deeply intimate trance, but even the priest didn’t have his eyes shut. Have you ever tried to read with your eyes shut or closed? Unless reading brail I doubt that you could do it. There was an altar boy holding a huge book standing in front of the priest and the song/prayer he was singing was actually being read out of a book. This was a pretty long song/prayer so as I shifted arms to relieve shoulder fatigue I wondered if this was what prayer was meant to be.

A friend of mine was getting married and for his bachelor party we decided to do something simple that he’d enjoy; food and golf. After we’d, I should say they, finished 18 holes we met in the country club to discuss where we’d eat. I say they because I typically throw my clubs more than I actually hit the ball. Golf, to say the least, is not my game. We didn’t rent out the country club that day, so it was open to the public. We sat in the cafĂ© of the country club and had finally come to a decision on where we’d feed our appetites. As I was standing to leave one man just broke out in prayer. As you can imagine, this was an awkward feeling, me standing and trying to go, while they are praying. In those circumstances it’s not worth being disruptive so I sat down and didn’t close my eyes, I just looked around. Here sits a large group of men in a public place praying to God loud and lengthy. I watched as people awkwardly try to walk through the room or would take a peak in to see what was going on and felt my forehead rise in temperature which is a sure sign of me turning as red as a beat. I wondered if causing discomfort to others in a public place was a good thing, I wondered if this is what prayer was meant to be.

I moved to Indianapolis to start a church so naturally my environment was very religious. I constantly found myself within groups of fellow religious people so my environment shaped me and defined what “normal” was, at the time. Praying was something we did not something that defined us as beings though. It was an outward expression. Years after being involved in that church community my life began to take different shape and head in another direction. No, I wasn’t losing my faith, just growing and being lead in other directions, down a different path than I had been on. My circles of friends changed as we did not all share common places any longer. I now live 30 to 45 minutes North of where I used to. I do not feel like making a living within the church organization any longer. Things have changed. Although circumstances and lifestyles have changed and time has passed I still value several people from my past experiences and circles so I try to keep in touch and occasionally hang out. I called one friend and asked when the next time we could get together was and his response threw me off a bit and has actually changed our relationship a bit. “Let’s make sure we are intentional in our time together, what can we pray about together?” Well, I actually had no intentions of praying with him, nor do I have anything specific in mind that we need to pray about. I envisioned having a little fun, throwing around a football or laughing or something less intimate than prayer. Then again, I wonder if the understanding of prayer is intimate. Is this what prayer is meant to be?

Recently one of the shows I enjoy had an interesting plot and storyline. One girl has a pretty religious family and now attends a non-Christian affiliated school, or as the rest of the world sees it, a public college. She has a big event that has the weight of extending or ending her scholarship coming up on a Saturday. Her mother tells her that they are getting together to pray that day and quite nastily says that she has to essentially pick between her college career/scholarship and meeting them to pray. The girl practically chooses the big event and keeps her scholarship. Her mother sees her choosing over God because she did not pray. This girl personified what I will eventually reduce all these experiences and stories to. At the time her family is praying together she goes away by herself away from the event temporarily and prays to God. Later she sees her family and says she has been praying to which her mother gives a nasty facial expression in response.

Going back to the most simplistic definition of prayer as being communicating with God what does all this mean? Why do news stories of football coaches opposing team prayer, golf outings turned prayer vigils, friends only wanting to pray together instead of play catch, and dramatic family dilemmas capture my attention and get the wheels turning in my mind? They all carry a uniquely unifying theme, people’s expressions and understandings of prayer.

Most I know who practice prayer or live a lifestyle of prayer would call themselves Christians. As Christians, people who believe Jesus is God’s son and offers us reconciliation back to God, the book in which knowledge of God/Jesus is found in the Bible. This is where my mind spins a bit and ponders where all this stuff came from. Jesus teaches many things to his followers, including prayer. I am of the belief that Jesus’ teachings are still relevant, applicable, and powerful today. I think they should be handled with care and should be interpreted historically, within context, understood scholarly, and applied gracefully. This is what Jesus had to say about prayer:


"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. "This, then, is how you should pray: " 'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’(Matthew 6:5-13-NIV)”


A brief scan of this reveals several things to me about what Jesus taught about prayer, don’t do it for show, it is to be intimate and private, don’t be exhaustive in your words, acknowledge him as God, trust that he is in control, depend on him for guidance and forgiveness, and forgive others. I think that is pretty simple and can be worked out in simple ways. The culture in Jesus’ time of teaching was hyper religious and ultra-sensitive to opposition of respective religions. Sounds a lot like our culture don’t you think? I find it a bit baffling that of all the assumptions Christians make about themselves and the church one of the least made is that religion still looks a lot like the one Jesus stood against and called onto the carpet.

I’m not calling anyone’s expression of prayer evil or bad here. I’m not to judge anyone as I cannot maintain that capacity as flawed anyways. I do think that much of the hoopla surrounding prayer is misguided though. The complexity of what prayer has come to represent is actually simpler than many think. Maybe you have felt similar sentiments. Within small groups often times what takes the group well past the agreed upon ending time is prayer request time. You get this villain-like feeling as people pour their guts out as you watch the clock and become increasingly aggravated at the lack of punctuality. You play the game though, you sit there and listen as everyone around the room talks about what they need prayer for, which most of the time are genie-like wishes, and then it comes to you, or in my case me. “I’m fine,” I respond. This is not because I’m actually fine and have no needs or reasons to pray in my life, but more a statement of time awareness and difference in ideology. After the sharing session is over you all leave feeling like you are being prayed for. Maybe this hope is good for you, but realistically we all know and all are guilty of forgetting to pray for them or even remembering what their prayer request was. This is not to say praying for others is somehow not good or even something we should do. This is simply saying that the ideology behind prayer time and sharing space in groups like these typically is fruitless in the realm of actual prayer post-group. There are different ways people have done things in the past that help create authentic communities where prayer is actually very real and intimate, where members of the group actually go home and do it, but I’m just calling out the obvious and probably most frequently experienced case.

My question to the football association that prays publicly before each game is not the value of prayer; it is more the practice of public show. Does the priest actually believe that people are not thinking about what’s for dinner or the pain in their knees and shoulders form this sing-a-long prayer? Does the group of men in the middle of a public country club think about the people in the country club that may not hold the same belief? Is it so much to ask we reflect upon the teachings of Jesus to find the simplicity and beauty in all this? I think Jesus would say that prayer is a daily lifestyle and a private practice. Jesus actually spoke against those who publicly prayed and even said deep down they were truly putting on a show for others. Maybe something has been taught to you through heritage, political or religious affiliation, emotional dependence, or specific schools of thought that are more complicated than it needs to be. Maybe you are one of guys or gals not closing your eyes and feeling awkward while these prayer practices go on and feel it’s all so complicated. Accusations are not what I’m throwing around here and I only seek to lead or guide or challenge others to think about the reason you do what you do.

Simplicity is beautiful. It is not easy to unearth beneath layers upon layers of complication life, individuals, and institutions can bring. At the core their lies simple principles in which Jesus actually did pray for and teach that God intended for us to grasp. Maybe all the stuff is drowning out the essential idea; maybe simplicity is too complex right now. May you see the prayer for what Jesus taught. Simply be, simply live, and simply pray.


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