Meandering thoughts on prayer

About a month ago, I found this article over at Alternet, "Is Prayer Selfish?" It made me think, and ponder, which is what I want articles to do-- I want to be challenged to think about things, perhaps in ways I have not before. It doesn't always work, of course, because some times, news is just news. But occasionally an article bounces around in my head for awhile, and germinates like a seed. This is one of those times.

I saved the link, to my "Blog List"-- a document I keep on my desktop for interesting links or ideas, things that I'm thinking of writing about. I do this, because there is always so much going on in my head. I don't want to forget something that struck me as odd, or weird, or made me think, "huh, I need to explore that idea a little bit". Most of the time, to be completely frank, the articles make me think of something in a completely different direction-- they are my jumping off points.

This one, is no different.

I don't want to rehash the article, it's very good, and if you have a few moments, take a look at it. I linked it with the pagination off-- because I hate pages-- give me one long article and I'll read it at my leisure; make me deal with page after page with three paragraphs on, and I'll be irritated for days.

The basic point was, do we pray, ask the Cosmos, God, the Higher Power, whomever, for things, and if so, is it selfish?

I've talked about this a little before, when I wrote on evangelical hypocrisy. I'm going to explore the ways in which I've seen prayer, or the offer/threat of prayer, used in my life, and the lives of those around me. Like I said above, that article was a jump off point, it made my brains tick over, and we'll see where we go from there.

My earliest memories of prayer, were of course, "Now I Lay Me," the quintessential children's prayer. It's also morbid as hell! Just the first part, though, the rest is very much your generic "bless everyone". Have you ever taken a good look at the first four lines?

"Now I lay me, down to sleep.
I pray the Lord, my soul to keep.
If I should die, before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take."

When I was very small, maybe four or five, I realised what those words actually meant. I had yet to experience the death of anyone in my family, but it hit me one night, that I was praying that God would take me to heaven if I died in my sleep! I was a little kid, and no kid should have to come to terms with that, especially like I did-- a thunderclap of understanding, in the dark, alone in my bed. I cried my way through, "And God bless Mommy, and Daddy, and [Sister and Brother]. Bless Granny and Grandpa, and..." I remember at the end of the blesses asking, "And please, don't let me die in my sleep!"

Sobering thought for a little bitty girl. It's a sobering thought for an adult. We humans generally don't think about our deaths. If we do, we're ill, someone we loves died, or is ill, or we're working our way through the metaphysical questions that pester every one. No when we're four, not generally.

For many years after that, I only prayed my bedtime prayer when my mother tucked me in-- which is to say very rarely. She wasn't much for tucking us in, that meant she'd have to walk up the stairs, and even then she was a pack a day smoker, so not healthy. She'd just kiss our cheeks, hug us and we'd go upstairs and into bed. [I stopped tucking my kids in bed when they were about six or seven, as well. I think it's a normal age for that. They brush their teeth and all that good stuff, and get hugs and kisses, and "I love you, sweet dreams!" Then they get fifteen minutes to change and wind down before "lights out!" Our bedtime routine is weird, I guess.]

I was half afraid if I asked God, still the loving Jesus kind, to take my soul if I died, I would die. I didn't have the logic circuits in place yet to tell me that people just die-- saying words weren't magic, they would make me die any faster, or slower. They just were.

The summer before I turned six, my younger brother got bacterial pneumonia. He was in hospital for several weeks; first, because the illness wouldn't respond to the anti-biotics. Then, because he had a reaction to the penicillin-- all at once of course, and was dying.* We all thought he'd die. I remember days would go by and I wouldn't see either of my parents. Dad worked swing, so he must have been on midnights; my mother was staying up in Kalamazoo. My grandmother took care of us, and she prayed all the time for my brother to get better.

She sat my sister and I down at the table and before every meal we had to say our "Grace" and thank God for the food; we also had to pray that our brother would get better. That "God wouldn't take him so soon."

When he started to get better, everyone said, "Oh, it's a miracle!" But it wasn't. It was Benadryl. That's what they give you when you're having a penicillin reaction. Mega-doses of Bendryl. It does it's amazing anti-histamine thing, and you feel like it's pushing the medicine out your pores! It's pretty shitty, the reaction is sped up, and you want to die, just to make the pain, and fever, and nausea stop... but it works. He was home by the end of the month. Now, he did have to learn to walk again, and all that-- normal stuff when a baby of a year gets that sick. But everyone hailed it as a miracle-- worthy of the resurrection, or water into wine.

So, for a time, I thought God, of Jesus, healed my brother. Literally, walked into the room and touched him, and took away the pneumonia.

My Grandpa died the next year-- my Dad's father. For three days I wept, and begged God to take that back! To give me back my Grandpa, to give Dad back his beloved Dad. I even, in my child-like love of this God, offered to take Grandpa's place... I'd to go heaven, I reasoned Jesus was there, and my parents had two other kids, but only one Dad. I wasn't even seven years old yet [I wouldn't be until that Autumn].

At seven, I saw my Dad cry, mourning his Dad... and I begged a God, the God of my parents and Grandparents, to kill me and bring back my Grandpa from the dead! I couldn't handle my Grandma's face, her stark sadness. I couldn't handle the pain I saw my aunts and uncles in. I was ready to die myself, a baby, to take that pain away.

I honestly thought it'd work! I mean, my mother and her mother, talked about how my brother's recovery was a miracle, right? And the Bible told me, that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and it'd be super easy for God to scoop me up instead. Right? And God answered us when we prayed! He listened.

So, I packed up my favourite books, and tried to make my bed all neat, and waited.

Nothing happened. God wasn't listening.

Over and over, throughout my childhood, I gave the God of my mother more chances to show me. To show me that he lived, that he did care, and actually paid attention to the shit that came pouring out of my broken spirit to heaven. To show me that I was loved, and there was a reason for things; to answer prayer-- which if this God was really so powerful, should have been so easy.

I can't remember one answered prayer, that didn't have science behind it.

Not one.

Now, I know that my son's recovery and release from hospital was hailed as a miracle from God.
My former friend's daughter, leaving the NICU with one kidney, but otherwise OK was also a "miracle".

There have been countless so-called miracles over the years that my mother has hailed as proof God listens to her prayer. But I've never seen prayers feed children in Darfur, or stop war in Somalia or Sudan. I've never seen prayer end war anywhere, or stop cruelty. Only feed the egos of the pray-er, as they claim God listens to them.

This led me to be pretty cynical about prayer from a pretty early age. I remember seeing award shows when I was living in Germany (we had one channel in English, and AFN plays tripe]. I remember people thanking Jesus for their awards, and thinking wasn't that strange. Their Jesus gave a shit about them getting some award for music or acting, or make up, or musical scores; but their Jesus didn't give a shit about the women in Bosnia being raped, or African women suffering as their children starved to death. Jesus cares about football, too-- I know you've seen all sorts of sports persons claiming their wins as proof Jesus loves them.**

One memory I have, where prayer figures heavily is haunting. My sister was an adult, in a bad relationship, and pregnant. She wasn't ready yet to leave the man who was abusing her, but she was getting close. I had told her that I would get her a bus ticket, and she could come stay with me in Texas, where he wouldn't find her. I left it there: I can help, I love you, let me know what I can do for you!

My mother, however, told her over and over, "I'm praying that God gets you. He listens to me. He will make you pay for what you've done to me, and your father, and that baby you're carrying."

What was that supposed to me, I never knew. It sounds so horrible! My sister never did anything bad enough that would warrant Divine Retribution. She stayed with that awful man for a year longer than she wanted to-- another year of beatings, and abuse, and him cheating on her, of her not eating right, so she could feed the baby, another year of hell-- because she honestly thought God was punishing her, because her mother told her so.

My mother sic-ed God on my sister! She did so on me, too, but I just shrugged and told her that had seen precious little Divine intercession, so I wasn't worried about it. My sister believed, and punished herself, because she honestly thought God was listening to the vengeful words of my mother.

When I read the article, "Is prayer selfish?" My first thought went back to my sister, living in that tiny trailer with that abusive, angry man, because she was suffering God's punishment, delivered at my mother's behest. So I said, "Oh, fuck yes! Prayer is selfish!"

I thought of the times I needed something as a child, like clothing, and my mother would treat it like wanting a new BMW. "Just pray for it, God will provide." I thought about the times I heard about people being hungry-- or was hungry as an adult-- and how christians don't help, they don't give, they just pray for that poor bastard who's skipping meals so his kids can have dinner while secreting believing he was asking for it, and not trusting God enough, otherwise he wouldn't be suffering. I thought about the sanctimonious prayers for people to "come back to God" and the many gossiping conversations I have heard in my life about this person who has "gone to the world!" All that meant, I thought, was they woke up. I was reminded of the way that prayer was wielded as a weapon by preachers, parents, teachers and even politicians!

But then I thought about my own tradition. Paganism does have prayer, of a kind. We do take time, to centre ourselves, and rather than asking things from the Cosmos, wishing that we'd get stuff, because we've been so good, we send good thoughts and wishes For the Cosmos. It's a "what can I do to make this better, let me take a moment to ponder it, and set my mind in that direction. If I ask anything from the Divine, it's for wisdom, and even then, I know I'm asking my own subconscious to be a little more awake, to let me dig in there for something I've forgotten.

So, prayer isn't always selfish, it's more what you want it to do.

If you're asking God to give you shit, or punish your enemies, or prove your point, you're a selfish fuck.

If you're asking God what can you give, then I guess your prayers are all right. Why you don't just write that cheque to the homeless shelter, or drop off soap and toothbrushes at the DV shelter, though, I don't know.

I guess, what I'm saying, is that prayer, as a way of clearing your mind, and finding a moment of peace in your spirit is fine. Anyone can do it-- it's taking a moment, and thanking the universe for the randomness that set you there. Being thankful and amazed and in awe is a lot like a prayer.

If you're looking at prayer as your hot line for stuff from God, then  you're wrong, though. Completely wrong. There is no proof, first off, but mostly, why are you wasting your time, and effort and energy? Why not take that energy, take a moment to think, to centre-- an important thing most Americans do not do-- and then take a step in the direction you want or need to go?

I will always consider christians who claim Jesus gave them a sports win to be hypocrites. I'll always blame christians for not doing enough to be like their Jesus, and then expecting everyone around them to fall in line because they prayed about it. I'll always look at "well, I prayed this, so you have to do/be/say/act/etc" as subtle blackmail.

But I think I can be a little nicer to people who pray for the homeless, and encourage them to be active, too. I think I can be loving and kind to those who pray while they serve and volunteer at shelters for domestic violence victims; I think I can respect the sentiment from people who pray for peace for those suffering illnesses.

I'm far from perfect, and I wish that I could ask something from the universe and get it *poof*! I won't lie! I'm also pragmatic enough to know that the universe doesn't grant wishes... and the best gift I could ever get from it, is life. I can handle that.




*I had a reaction to penicillin myself years later; it put me in hospital too. That one hits like a mac truck and lays you right out.

**In fairness I've never seen a baseball player do this-- because I don't pay attention to baseball. I've also never seen a hockey player claim victory was straight from Jesus. I have seen football, boxing and MMA, and the occasional basketball player quoted as saying things about Jesus guiding their arms.

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