Confessions of a Poor Prayer

An old friend of mine recently underwent major surgery. We hadn’t spoken in years for a variety of reasons but we recently connected – you guessed it – on Facebook. He has always struck me as a private, humble man and what was remarkable was how he asked for prayers beforehand, something he had never really done before, thinking that asking for prayers was selfish on his part.

The prayers and well wishes he received from family and friends from various parts of his life were plentiful, lifted his spirits, and carried him successfully through the surgery including a frightening episode about 24 hours post-operation. He admitted afterwards that he was grateful for everyone’s prayers as it truly helped him through.

Because we hadn’t spoken in years and the severity of the surgery caught me by surprise, I called him to catch up. The conversation eventually turned to my life and whether I was happy. I had to admit that no, I really wasn’t. There is something refreshing about my 50s that I’m more apt to tell it like it is.

I shared a little bit about why I am struggling with happiness, but after so many years of not talking to this friend, I still caught myself holding back. It didn’t seem appropriate to dump my whole life story in the span of a short conversation. Besides he had some physical healing to do, and I know times like that can bring on a sort of mental reconciliation as well. There was no need for me to burden him whatsoever with my story.

Anyone looking at my life from the outside in would think I had it made. However I would urge you to look around: do you really know what burden another carries in their heart or for how long? Do you really care to know? And can you be trusted with this information if you had it?

My friend asked me if I prayed about my troubles. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, and felt a lump in my throat before answering. Despite getting more and more frank as I age, I may have even held back on what was really in my heart when I responded.

I told him truthfully that I was 100% certain that God does not answer my prayers. Speaking from five decades of experience, of course.

I hate that that’s where my spirituality has evolved but it’s true. I can think of several concrete examples of the times I have fervently prayed to God, appealing to him for certain changes, outcomes, or relief that never came.

You’ve heard the arguments: God answers in his own time, in his own way. Maybe the things I’ve prayed for were not in my best interest.

And that’s where my head and my heart wonder: what’s the point?

As the conversation with my friend continued, I felt compelled to explain my position. I’m sure it surprised him that I didn’t give the most Christian of answers. In reality I’m really struggling with my faith. The older I get, the harder it is, too.

Yes, I believe a power greater than ourselves created everything including us. Our world, this universe? It’s all too complex and elegant and much of it beautiful to be purely random.

Yes, I believe in the power of good thoughts – that we literally send vibrations out into the world and they can be good or bad – and I’m a person who genuinely wishes well on my fellow man so I try hard to emit positive vibes all the time to everyone let alone to specific people and situations that warrant an extra flood of love.

I hear the Bible talk about how we all have talents we shouldn’t hide, and I interpret that to mean God gives us great means to care for ourselves and so we should, and we shouldn’t worry about whether we can do it – be like the lily in the field in that regard.

I’m well aware I do have so much going for me, and since God seems to ignore me when I do appeal to him (maybe because the lessons I’ve learned in life is that whatever I want is truly entirely up to me to go get), I don’t see the point of prayer other than to give thanks. Giving thanks is something I do. Prayers of thanks don’t do much to heal a broken heart, I’ve learned, but I give thanks anyway.

Over the years I’ve spoken to different priests about this. One of them has even agreed with my approach to not ask God for anything. He suggested that I simply engage in conversation with him by giving thanks and saying, “hi”. To be honest, that didn’t do much to help me grow closer to God.

My friend challenged me to answer the question, “What does Jesus mean to me?” and that’s when I truly bristled. I know what the “right” answer is. Yes, he is God’s son who died for our sins. But aren’t we all God’s children? And yes, he was innocent, but um…aren’t there hundreds of examples of innocents who die even more horrific deaths at the hands of evil? Examples that flood our smart phones on a daily basis? I’m really struggling with how the events of two millennia ago relate to me, today. I wonder what in the world is wrong with me that I don’t feel the connection that apparently every other Christian does.

It all feels so strange. In a year when my convert husband was elected president of our church, I find myself pulling away more and more. I have learned the hard way that some things are unknowable. This feels like one of them.

I’m ashamed to admit it. My sisters don’t have this crisis of faith. My old friend was likely very disheartened to hear my position – you see, he’s grown much closer to God over the years. I found myself unable to relate.

On one hand I admire people who are steadfast and strong in their faith but I really struggle – more than I should – to relate to them. You see, I put my trust in prayer and God for years, yet when I reflected on what came of it, I felt abandoned, not loved. I find myself reluctant to get stung like that again, especially when I have always tried to be a good person. Nowadays, I trust myself far more than an unseen, invisible, presumably benevolent force. The Bible even warns us about these very things, yet here I am. I guess that’s arrogance at its worst.

This isn’t to say I haven’t asked for prayers over the years. I can count on one hand how many times I have legitimately asked for prayers among my family and friends. One of those times, even my sister commented that it must be something weighing very heavy on my heart for me to ask for help. And you know what? I still struggled. I don’t know that it helped.

And maybe my current perspective is exactly why I’m struggling with happiness. The irony is not lost on me.

Strange, isn’t it? They say confession is good for the soul. Perhaps. I’m just baring mine so that others don’t feel quite so alone if they’re struggling with the same thing. Quite possibly this is what it means to be a broken Christian. I never claimed to be without sin.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Pitiful Prayer

Treading into some controversial territory today: fair warning.

My husband and I got on the topic of prayer the other night. Admittedly, neither of us have the strongest prayer life. We acknowledge we need to work on it but we don’t know how.

My father would be so ashamed! I distinctly recall how that big, grown man fell humbly to his knees bedside every single night and in church every Sunday, praying quietly, even when he was too frail to kneel. I never knew what he said. Maybe all he recited was the Lord’s Prayer. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was all.

And Jesus himself taught us how to pray with that passage. To be humble before God and to acknowledge His position. To ask for what we need – and notably, not for our wants. To ask for forgiveness as we should do for others, and to lead us from evil.

And maybe that’s really all there ought to be to it.

But here I am, conflicted about prayer, knowing full well I am not the greatest role model for my kids or anyone on this topic. So bear with me as I give a confession of sorts. I can’t imagine I’m alone with this.

nathan-dumlao-583574-unsplashI don’t see how or where prayer works for me personally. It’s been my experience that God doesn’t answer. I don’t think He pays any attention to me at all.

It’s not like I don’t pray: I do. I certainly pray on behalf of others. But when it comes to things that impact me directly – things I personally want or need – I have zero expectations, so I’ve stopped asking on my own, or stopped believing that asking does any good. My faith is weak. Still I try, but it feels a little like crossing my fingers in superstition more than anything.

Let me explain. So many of us learned as children to pray and offer our petitions to God, and He would provide for us. As a child, you believe He will give you what you fervently pray for.

As you grow older, you notice that doesn’t happen. Both my husband and believed when we were younger that God didn’t shower us with the blessings we wanted because we didn’t live a good and worthy enough life, so we tried harder to be good and worthy in His eyes.

Still it didn’t happen. I struggled to understand where I was falling short. My husband quickly learned God wasn’t going to magically grant him a good performance as a musician if he prayed for it. No, he learned he needed to practice himself to ensure that he had a good performance.

Now my faith coaches me almost exclusively to ask God’s mercy because I’m a sinner, full stop. I’ve done nothing to deserve blessings. I have blessings simply because God has shown mercy and given His grace. And well yes, I’m flawed… I’m a sinner, through and through.

Now am I grateful for my blessings? Every single day, for every good thing. I give my thanks to God for those. I also know that some of these blessings are sheer, dumb luck.

You could almost make an argument that I don’t believe in God, but I do. I absolutely believe in a higher power. I simply can’t imagine the universe and all of us materialized out of nothing for no reason at all, despite the prevalence of sheer, dumb luck noted above. I just can’t fathom that when we humans discover the beauty and elegance among ourselves, on earth, in the seas, and in the universe that it is purely the result of scientific law and nothing more.

Of course, it hurts my brain to ponder that for too long because it begs the question of why and what we’re here to do…and I don’t want to get into that for now because I’m still not sure what my calling is. But today, I want to focus on prayer.

In another example, we are parents trying to guide our own children in the faith. Their innocence is so very pure. It broke my heart to hear my young son cry to me one day, explaining that he prayed to God for a certain outcome, and it didn’t happen. He didn’t understand why God didn’t hear his prayer and answer in the affirmative. I don’t remember how I coached my son at the time. What I truly believed I kept to myself, because I don’t want to crush my son’s spirit and besides, I’m not sure I’ve got it all figured out. I suppose maybe we aren’t supposed to.

What I’ve come to believe is this:  I personally don’t think God answers prayers at all. It’s an awful thing to admit, but that’s been my experience. Maybe my eyes aren’t open wide enough. I just think it’s completely useless to ask God for something you have the power or influence to change yourself. So, so much of what happens to you is in your power, even though some things happen as a result of pure, dumb luck or its evil twin, misfortune. True, some events are tragic or very fortunate indeed, and absolutely nothing you did or could have done could have changed that fact. Stuff just happens, whether or not you deserve it.

When I’ve tried to make sense of why God doesn’t answer my prayers, I hear that He answers them in His time and His way. We may not get what we wanted because He knows that what we wanted isn’t ultimately right for us.

How I hate that answer. God’s time is all eternity and I can’t wrap my head around that. Because you see, I’m living in the here and now, and maybe it’s arrogant to say it, but I have a pretty good handle on what is good for me. So this excuse we’re given for “inaction” on God’s part…well, I don’t think that’s how that works. I’m not saying this is what the Bible has taught me. This is flawed, little old me struggling with faith.

It feels pointless to ask God for anything. If He answers however He wishes, what’s the point of praying? Besides, doesn’t He already know what’s in my heart before I open my mouth? I suppose there is something to having a dialogue with God, but I think that’s just a fancy way of having a dialogue with yourself.

In its purest form, that’s meditation, which is even scientifically proven to be beneficial. I particularly like the meditation practice, or prayer, where you think about and channel positive thoughts toward the people you love, the people who are sick, people who you don’t like or who are your enemy, etc. On a quantum physics level, that stuff is real, the energy waves do make a positive impact.

Not to mention how there were times when I was disappointed in God’s “response”, or lack thereof, when it turns out I held the power to change my circumstances and failed to do so. I was looking for miracles from the Almighty when all I really needed was effort of my own.

Bottom line, I am convinced that you hold most of the power.

If you love someone and you desperately want them to love you back? You need to take action, be courageous no matter how vulnerable and unworthy you may feel, seek them out, and tell them how you feel. Don’t wait for divine intervention to communicate your feelings on your behalf and move your beloved to find you. You must be the one to take the action. You fail to do that, you lose. No one’s fault but your own. Believe me, I have learned this lesson the hard way. And once those opportunities are gone, they are gone forever, at least in the “here and now” part of forever. No amount of praying reverses it.

You want to be healthy? You must be the one to take the steps to make that happen. Eat properly, exercise, get sleep, find better ways to cope with your stress, change jobs if need be, or limit your exposure to toxic people. God isn’t going to do that for you. You must do that for you. No amount of praying gets you up off your own butt, miraculously causes you to get strong and limber, or purges the toxic people from your life.

You want that job, that house, that car, that whatever? I could give endless examples of what I mean, but you get the idea.

Maybe the next logical conclusion is there is no point in praying at all. God will show mercy and grace if He chooses. His right. It’s not like I can control it.

I acknowledge that God granted me a family, which is something I prayed for long ago. For some crazy reason, I can’t think of any other examples, but this one blessing is definitely one that is over the top. Each child is an absolute miracle, more than I could have ever dreamed.

However my heart breaks over the many worthy people who hoped and prayed for children that never materialized. I don’t know what to make of that. There are no good answers for why that is. All I know is that my husband and I were both healthy enough and still young enough to have children and we did. However it took some effort on our part…no immaculate conception at Louie Lodge, or anything.

This leads me to my next point: haven’t we all seen enough pure dumb luck as often as we’ve seen random misfortune in people’s lives? I tried futilely for years to understand why that is. There is no reason or rationale. It just happens regardless of how you pray.

And then, when things do go wrong, people often repeat that phrase, “God doesn’t give you something you can’t handle”. I really don’t think God doles out blessings and curses that way. Misfortune is sometimes earned and sometimes not. This line is just a way for people to express hopefulness that you’ll get through the misfortune and not let it kill you or wear you down.

As I said earlier, I don’t mind praying for others. We do this in church with every service and I do this all of the time on my own. And true, I even had the gall to ask for prayers for myself from others but it is a rare occurrence. I can count only two times I deliberately, sincerely asked for help out loud. It was to overcome something I’ve struggled with my whole life. And the bottom line?  It’s ultimately up to me to fix, no one else.

Now all of this said, I have witnessed a certain power to prayer when a group of people come together and someone gives voice to what they hope will arise. I think that sort of prayer is very powerful. It’s really a call to action for the group. Someone articulates what needs to happen, and it moves each of us on a cellular level to take action, whether it is through kind words or hands-on deeds.

Sadly it’s become an insult to send nothing but “thoughts and prayers” these days when something horrific happens. I will admit that it bugs me if that’s all anyone does. I hope people are moved people to do something, send money, visit, share a resource, change a law, or connect people who can help one another. True, sometimes we are too far away to do anything but send thoughts and prayers, but we can call or write. We can do something, right? Shouldn’t we be moved to find something constructive we can do, too?

Otherwise we’re walking the proverbial road to hell, paved with good intentions.  Living this life with nothing else but good intentions.

Nevertheless, there is real power in group prayer. It’s casting a net for people to collectively be God and do His work. It’s reaching into the divine within each of us.

I realize that my personal experience here could be taken to be at odds with Christianity but I humbly disagree. Each and every one of us is the manifestation of God. We are collectively needed to demonstrate His power. Maybe that’s a little too heady for some people or too blasphemous for others, but if it drives good and positive results, real help or comfort for the people of our world, how is that bad or wrong?

Believe me, I wish praying was as simple as manifesting what you wanted and needed in your own mind and God was a genie granting your wishes. It just doesn’t work that way.

And it’s quite possible my life isn’t richer because my prayer life is pitiful.

Sigh….sometimes I envy people who quietly put their full faith in God. And other times, I roll my eyes at people who do that. I can’t articulate where I draw the line…I’m not proud of my skepticism. Maybe it’s the extreme or showy people who puzzle me. Maybe I’m jealous of those who give everything to God. Or maybe it’s the people with a quiet or absolutely unmoved, utterly positive faith in God that inspire me the most. I admire them, but I am not among them.

Lord, have mercy.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash