What Is Prayer?

On May 5th we had a double whammy of a day.  It was, for one thing, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  But it was also the National Day of Prayer.  I shared some thoughts about Holocaust or Shoah Remembrance in our monthly newsletter which, you may have perhaps read.  Today I wanted to turn our thoughts to prayer.

As many of you know, I’ve had an interesting past several weeks.  As it turns out, I’m recovering from pneumonia just in time to have my surgery to remove a cancer in my left kidney next week.  Something that a lot of caring friends have said is that they are praying for me.  Many used a phrase that I have often used, “You are in my thoughts and prayers.”  I think we all recognize that these words are said with compassion and caring.  But what do they actually mean?

It will come as no great shock to anyone here that I don’t propose to tell you what you should mean when you say this.  Nor am I going to try to define prayer for the ages.  Other people will see prayer differently and define prayer differently.  If you know me, you know that I respect that.  But I do think it’s worth some time and some pondering.  And the whole idea of what prayer is has been on my mind of late.  With the caution that I don’t speak in stone tablets, I’d like to share a bit.

Prayer, I think, can take many forms.  I tend to look at two very different ways of approaching prayer: magical and mystical.

I must confess that magical prayer bothers me.  Recently there has been some horrific storms and tornados around the country, and I happened to hear a woman being interviewed who said something to the effect that she and her husband were safe, as was their house.  God had answered her prayers, she said.  This while so many of their neighbor’s houses were destroyed and people injured, some seriously and some killed.

It reminded me of a service I attended some forty years ago, long enough ago that I really don’t remember where the service was or why I was even there.  Some teenagers had been in a terrible accident the Friday before.  At this Sunday service, as they passed the microphone for sharing, a woman shared that her daughter was in the hospital but had survived the crash.  It was an answer to her prayers, she said.  She declared clearly and proudly that God still had plans for her daughter.  Across the room there was this huge sob.  I learned later it was from the mother of one of the teenagers who didn’t survive.

So God didn’t have plans for the dead child?  Or perhaps one mother knew how to pray and the other didn’t so God just ignored her?  It made me wonder.  Do people truly believe in a God who will only answer your prayer if you pray just right?  That turned me off prayer for a long time.

I didn’t get back to prayer until I stopped looking at it as magical: “God, please negate the laws of physics for me.  Amen.”  Instead I began to see prayer from a mystical point of view.  Prayer as a form of communion with the sacred.  And that’s where I am today.

For me, prayer is a sacred act of humility.  I think our spiritual paths have continually been on our case to pray, and you know they have, because, well, we humans tend not to be the most humble of beings.  Or, in the current vernacular, humans tend to be humility-challenged.  I believe a commitment to prayer, can help us to change that.  And for me, when I pray, that’s what I’m after.

Prayer is a reminder to me that there is much not simply beyond our control or power but that is just flaming bigger than we are.

I believe when our spiritual paths remind us to pray, whether to God or simply to pray, we are being reminded to break out of our shells of self-declared superiority.  For me this is a good reason to be on our knees when we pray.  It helps us acknowledge that there is something greater than we are.  And whether we pray once a day, twice a day, seven times a day, I believe we are reminding ourselves to be humble – to approach life with humility.

When I say to someone, as I do when I care and that person is hurting, “I will hold you in my thoughts and prayers” I mean that I will hold them.  I won’t think about them for a moment and then drop them as I move on to something “more important.”  And I will hold them in prayer, which means that knowing how little I can do doesn’t stop me from caring deeply about the outcome.  Knowing in all humility that in so many ways I am powerless, doesn’t stop me from committing my hopes and my love for the best possible outcome.  Prayer reminds me, always, of how big the universe truly is and how very, very small I am, and yet … and this is truly the wonder of prayer … small as I am I can be committed to love, to compassion, to caring beyond my small self.  And to my mind, one of the great gifts we can give another person is for that person to know that we truly and deeply care.

A friend asked recently if a walk in nature can be a prayer.  My own response would be it depends on how you walk in nature.  Do you walk with arrogance?  Do you walk without regard to the sanctity of the trees, the streams, the animals?  “We humans rule.  Let’s cut that tree down.  Let’s dump our garbage in the stream.”  In that case, my opinion would be no.  That’s not prayer.  But if you walk in nature with humility.  If you walk with care and reverence for all that is natural, then yes.  I believe your walk in nature is indeed a prayer – a beautiful and important prayer.

Duality plays such a large role in our lives.  And for the moment I’d like to move to the duality of passive and active.  And I’ll tell you up front, I’m a big fan of active.

Love – both passive and active.  I can passively love the human race.  But to actively love humanity I have to get off my rear and do something: to address racism, sexism, homelessness, hunger.  It’s one thing to love.  It’s another to act on that love.

Anti-racism – both passive and active.  I can passively declare that racism is evil.  But to actively be anti-racism I have to get up, acknowledge and address the racism that remains embedded in our culture.

Interfaith – both passive and active.  If you want to define what we are about at Living Interfaith call it active Interfaith.  We’re not into passive.  That’s why we share our spiritual paths openly and respectfully, without attempting to convert or convince

Prayer – both passive and active.  Passive prayer: I pray about something, ok that’s done let’s move on.  Active prayer: means I’m involved, whether in terms of time and work or because I will keep in my mind and on my heart the reason for that prayer.

We have a full service today, so I’m going to end a little early.  Also, in all honesty, as I continue to recover from my pneumonia I don’t quite have my breath back.

I would remind you that I won’t be here for the next two services.  As I recover from my surgery, Cathy Merchant will lead us.  I know she’ll appreciate your support and your help…and perhaps your prayers.


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One Response to What Is Prayer?

  1. Chris says:

    Good Message! I have often felt the same about people who have survived a tragedy praising God for His care and feeling the void for those who have not survived the same tragedy.

    Last week I attended the funeral of a 22 year old man that I had taught in Sunday School. He and two friends were swimming and all struggled with the currents and his two friends were rescued but not Alex. It is so very hard to put into words how and why God might allow that to happen. My prayer is that lives were touched and will continue to be touched by this young man’s life and that will have more meaning in hearing the story of his short life than anything he might have accomplished.

    As I mature in life and my faith and as I realize how little I may understand the day to day workings of God, my prayer is often that through the day to day events of our lives that we continue to acknowledge our humility and our humanity.

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