My brother Ethan has said an elaborate set of prayers since he was very young. I don’t know what his routine is like now, but when he was a boy it involved rituals, careful repetition, physical motions, and a section where he asked for the well-being of those around him. I don’t know if there was a part in his routine where he used to ask for Hot Wheels or to score a goal in soccer. I don’t know if he’s replaced that with grown-up requests. I mainly remember the part where he prayed for the safety of family, friends, and even those who had entered his consciousness from the news.
He called me a few weeks back on his way to the airport. We were both traveling and he was heading towards San Francisco just a couple of hours behind me. I had just picked up the rental car and was heading across 380 to 280. He had to hang up for a few minutes while he got out of the car, stopped at the ticket counter, went through security, and headed to his gate. By the time he called back I was driving north on Nineteenth Avenue towards the Golden Gate bridge.
I asked him if he still prayed.
He said yeah. He’d had difficulties after Elena had died but he now did.
“Why?” I asked.
He thought for a moment. Before he answered, I added that I wasn’t questioning his belief in God or how important his religion was.
“What I’m asking,” I explained, “is why you pray given that Elena died. What do you hope will come out of your prayers?”
I think there are a lot of good reasons to pray. I think Ethan’s prayers are a particularly nice expression. When you take time each day to ask for the safety of family and friends it means that you are taking time each day to remind yourself of those around you. You are pausing a moment to think outside yourself.
If you say a prayer like that because it is good for you, then I think that’s wonderful, If you say a prayer like that because you expect God to respond to your requests then I have many questions. Unfortunately, the answer is usually, “well, because he’s God.”
For example, “with all of the millions of people who say prayers every day wishing for everything from world peace to a new baseball bat, how does God hear our prayers?”
“Well, he’s God. He just does.”
“How does he decide which prayers to answer? A baseball player prays every time that he hit a homerun. How does God decide when to help him hit one?”
“He’s God. He just does.”
I think that that is the God of our childhood. That is the God who sits above us with a huge computer light years ahead of what we could produce who hears every prayer and decides what to do about each one of our lives.
I don’t think that’s the God of adulthood. It can’t be. We don’t expect a micromanaging God. If we believed in that sort of God then we would have some serious questions.
“Why,” we might ask, “didn’t God blow Katrina off course just a little bit. No one would have noticed if the path changed slightly and the hurricane went out to sea.”
There were certainly those in the potential path of Katrina who were praying for just that. “Please let Katrina blow into the Atlantic without hurting anyone.”
“Why,” we might ask, “when God saw the Tsunami rolling across the ocean didn’t he quietly dissipate the wave well before it hit land.”
Why do we pray.
I have friends who pause to say grace before every meal. I’ll be at a conference engaged in a discussion with one of them and the meal will come. He will quietly excuse himself, bow his head, and say a prayer of thanks.
I love that. No matter how busy you are in life’s tasks, you still take time to acknowledge the meal. You take a moment to think about the wonders that went into preparing even the most mediocre meal. You appreciate that you have food and pause to consider what it took to get to you.
Another friend emails me to say that someone we grew up with has cancer and that he is going in for an operation. She asks us to pray for him. Of course, I tell her, I will. And I do.
I know that this last part is optional but I’ve given her my word. This is a prayer to comfort a friend. This is a “just in case” prayer. I don’t know for sure that it can’t work so I join with others. Knowing that a community of people has pulled around him and is thinking about him may help my friend. It may give him strength. It certainly helps those of us in his circle as we all think of him and of each other.
This, to me, is why we pray. We don’t pray with an expectation that God will do what we ask. We pray because of the good it brings to us in the praying. We pray because of the connection it makes to those we pray for.
There is another kind of prayer. There’s the prayer we participate in at our houses of worship. Those who attend daily or weekly repeat the prayers they’ve said since their youth almost meditatively. We often don’t pause to think carefully of the words we are saying. When we attend someone else’s church it seems cultish and odd – but it is not really much different than our own customs.
These prayers form our connection to our past. They root us in a community. They provide a routine within a world that changes around us. They comfort us in their familiarity.
I watched my dad say the prayers in Hebrew for Elena at her funeral and at her grave side.
I can’t remember when the last time was that I saw him do this. It was a deep act of love for me and for my dead daughter. Maybe even for himself. He reached across a chasm and pulled himself back to the tradition he was raised in. Whether God heard his prayers or not, I did.
And that is why we pray.