Jean Anderson wrote this piece on the meaning of prayer in her life. Thanks, Jean!
Every night, when I lay me down to sleep, I say a prayer. There’s not much to it; for myself, I ask only for strength, courage, confidence, and other qualities I need but do not possess. I often add prayers for the survivors of devastating natural disasters, or for friends and family members who are going through difficult times. No matter how sleepy I am, and no matter where I am, I don’t skip this small nightly ritual. It would feel strange not to pray before sleep.
And yet it also feels strange to admit that I pray. I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with prayer, even though I do it regularly. Maybe because it’s so personal, or maybe because I’m not sure what it’s all about. I don’t really feel like I’m talking to God when I pray; I’m pretty sure I’m just talking to myself. To be honest, I doubt the efficacy of prayer, at least in the traditional sense, as a means of communicating with God. When someone says that their prayers have been answered, all that means to me is that they got the outcome they wanted. I have trouble believing that God had a direct hand in that outcome. I don’t believe that God is out there somewhere, listening to our prayers and choosing to heal this person but not that one, or spare this family from suffering but not the other one. As Abby said in a recent sermon, “Many of us resist this image of the interventionist God because it just breaks down under the weight of random human suffering. It’s hard to keep faith in a God that would shepherd one soul through a snowstorm, yet abandon countless others every day.” That “interventionist God” doesn’t jibe with my idea of a just God, or a God who gave us free will. But while I doubt that prayer is a direct channel to God, I do not doubt the importance of praying – of bringing joys and concerns to the community, of being thankful, of focusing our minds on things that trouble our spirits.
What I do believe is that, when we pray, whether silently or out loud, whether by ourselves or in a group, we bring the things we’re praying for into awareness. When we voice our concerns in the form of a prayer, we acknowledge them, we become more aware of them. We can’t ignore them. If we pray for something regularly, we lock it into our consciousness, and in the process we can perhaps strengthen our own resolve, clarify our feelings, make difficult decisions, become more accepting of our own biases and failings and vulnerabilities. Maybe we can begin to come to terms with a death or a failed relationship, or be just a little more grateful for loved ones, or feel more connected to tragedies that occur half a world away. Perhaps, by praying nightly to have courage in everyday matters, I become the tiniest bit braver. And when I expand my prayers to include the world, I expand my awareness. My praying for the people of Japan isn’t going to help them in any material way, but it does take me out of myself, remind me that an entire nation thousands of miles away is suffering. It makes me step out of my own life and acknowledge my global neighbors.
Perhaps, then, that’s what prayer means to me – acknowledging. Noticing. Experiencing. Not just concerns, but the world around me. The red flash of a cardinal deep within the branches of a tree, a mallard’s sassy waddle as it heads to water, a red-winged blackbird’s chordal song, raspberries fresh from the garden – perhaps noticing and experiencing these things is a way to pray. Not marveling at the beauty of nature, not thanking God for the wonders of creation. Just noticing. Paying attention. And I think God’s okay with that.