I’m having a problem with prayer lately.
As for the act of prayer itself, I’m a big fan, but what troubles me are the current trappings of prayer – making a big noise about it in public, how we’re reporting on it, causing it to be a political litmus test of some sort and more and more, I’m coming to believe (interesting choice of words), that it’s wandered off from what it was meant to be.
Let me give you a couple of examples. Last week there was a scary story about a boy pulled from the surf off Long Beach, Wash., after 15 minutes or more underwater. He was resuscitated and, against the odds, survived to eventually return home with his parents, apparently no worse for the experience.
The Associated Press story noted that he appeared dead when brought out of the surf, followed by “Today, he’s alive. How? You could say prayers.” Seems the boy was at the beach with a church youth group, many of whom were at the ocean’s edge praying for their friend. The story continues that, oh yes, a team of rescuers worked on the boy and that the coldness of the water was a good thing, too.
This was a news story, not a faith and values piece nor a personal column nor an editorial. I in no way question the sincerity of the prayers of the youth group, but I seriously question how the story was reported. Sure, mention the praying going on in covering the story, but to suggest that it was prayer (and, oh yes, a little human intervention) that saved this boy – that’s not news reporting. At the very least, it’s editorializing. Or a manipulative ratcheting up of emotion or pandering to a certain demographic.
And suppose the prayers had been coming from Wiccans or Muslims? What would have been our response had those folks gotten the headline for saving the day?
Or how about the reverse? Had the Long Beach story not had a happy ending, would prayer still have gotten top billing? Would it have been written to suggest that the prayers of the faithful were ineffective or that they were indeed answered, but the answer was “no?” I don’t think so.
And how about all that public prayer our politicians are talking about and doing (with cameras rolling, of course)? By all means, let your faith inform your actions, but these big shows of communication with God seem like a lot of show biz to me – big on style, lacking in substance. The more I see a politician pray in public, the more certain I am that a sex scandal is lurking somewhere, soon to be revealed. And I am not at all pleased at how often I’ve been right about that.
But perhaps the most peeving to me is prayer in athletics – or at least some of it. I mean it’s probably OK to ask God to help you reach down deep to do your best in all your endeavors, but I really hate it when some guy crosses the goal line with the ball and points a finger up at the sky, a gesture of thanks for answering that particular prayer. I guess it’s important to get God involved in the touchdown business.
So where’s the finger to the sky when our prayerful athlete makes a great tackle so a teammate gets the touchdown catch? I guess the finger only goes up when you’re in the spotlight, not when you provide the assist that gets another guy there. What’s the point in pointing when no one’s watching you? Or where’s the finger pointing down – as in, the devil made me do it – when the pass is dropped in the end zone?
I was raised in the Lutheran church, and, in my younger years, the Missouri Synod – you know, the folks Garrison Keillor has gentle fun with in his “Prairie Home Companion” radio show. A staid and somewhat undemonstrative lot, we were schooled in private prayer, a subdued communication between us and our God. We could be praying like crazy inside our heads, but outwardly we’d look like a bunch of folks just standing there quietly. Not exactly a made-for-TV moment.
I concede that my own background probably colors my opinions on this subject, but I remain disturbed that our current obsession about prayer in the marketplace rewards the showy and seemingly arrogant and, of course, remains focused on good-news stories, when prayer seems to have paid off.
Cynical? Maybe, but I guess I’d believe in the sincerity of what I’m witnessing if it all had a lot less pomposity and air of smugness to it, if it all didn’t feel so political. Where’s the intimacy, the quiet center, the humility?
And that’s my problem with prayer these days – I’m not seeing any of that.