Psalm 17 – Investigating Prayer

Hear me, Lord, my plea is just;
    listen to my cry.
Hear my prayer—
    it does not rise from deceitful lips.
Let my vindication come from you;
    may your eyes see what is right.
(Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

My personal attitude towards prayer

I mentioned in my last post that I’m not great at praying.  It’s part of my spiritual practice I would like to improve.  I imagine it’s a common enough predicament, especially in progressive Christian communities.  Some people are completely comfortable talking to God like an old friend, in their head or out loud.  Others are unembarrassed to publicly call on Jesus in praise or request. My favorite is how casually some people can attribute events to divine acts of intercession, in the middle of regular, secular conversation.

None of those things come naturally to me.  Quite frankly, I don’t think I’ll ever be someone who says something like “I was blessed to be born and American,” but mainly because these statements of “blessing” imply that God loves the bless-ee more than the non-bless-ees.  Does God love Americans more than the Syrians?  The Chinese?  I don’t think so.  Perhaps Xe did make certain individuals certain nationalities as part of Xyr divine plan, but I think saying we were lucky enough to be (fill in the blank here) is a more accurate statement, and by no means negates God’s divine will.  But I digress.  We were talking about prayer.

The documented benefits of prayer

For those that like solid facts, there are actually documented benefits of prayer.  And no, not anecdotal stories of “God answering my prayers” (though feel-good stories of that nature abound, too), but scientifically proven benefits.  Engaging in prayer reduces our heart rate and blood pressure, increases dopamine levels, and may even help to deactivate genes that trigger inflammation and prompt cell death.  (A wonderful overview of the effects of prayer are in this Huffpost article.)

The above-mentioned article says that the jury is still out on the efficacy of praying for other people; that only half the studies on the subject have documented a noticeable improvement in groups that are prayed for vs. those that are not.  But honestly, seeing positive differences in half the studies, is, I think, pretty encouraging.  In this scientific article on prayer and healing, co-authors Andrade and Radhakrisknan make some interesting points (both pro- and con-) regarding the limitations in scientifically studying the effects of remote prayer. For example, the overlap of first names (say, John) in both control and prayed-for groups.

So, if enough people are praying for the same thing, can it make a difference in the world?  A while ago, I would have said no, rather abashedly, because I feel as a Christian it’s something I should believe.  But there was another study, not specifically about prayer but about expectation, that changed my mind.  In this study, researchers were told some rats were incredibly smart while others were incredibly dumb (even though they were all, in fact, pretty average rats).  The expectations of the researchers impacted the performance of the rats: the ones expected to be smarter performed better, and the ones expected to be dumb performed worse.  This was explained through subtle shifts in the way the researchers handled the rats based on their perception of them.  So no, neither prayer or expectation opens the door to some sort of magical telekinesis or mind control, but it does change us.  Perhaps if we pray for healing, we will find more opportunities to heal.  Perhaps if we pray for peace, we will be more peaceful ourselves.  Perhaps if we pray for miracles, our eyes will be opened to the daily miracles happening around us.  And just perhaps, if enough people are united in prayer throughout the world, we will be agents of God’s divine plan of universal reconciliation.

In short, I think prayer should be our first – and last – resort.  Let me explain:  I think prayer should lead our actions, and then when all actions are exhausted, we can return to prayer.  I actually agree with a lot of critics of prayer when they say prayer can lead to inaction and dismissal.  “Thoughts and prayers” has become an empty phrase people mock (and rightfully so) after every new tragedy.  If praying is truly all you can do, then yes, please, pray away!  But if you are praying in a truly open, reflecting, and receptive way, I think that more often than not, you will be moved to seek more ways to participate in whatever challenge that’s gotten you to praying in the first place.

How to start praying

So great, I’ve sold you on the benefits of praying, but where to start?  As mentioned above, I’m no expert, so I’m hoping my advice makes up in authenticity what it lacks in experience.  There are two techniques for easy entry into praying:

  1. Gratitude prayers.  This can be as easy as saying thank you for….anything.  Or nothing at all, just a “thank you” in your head or out loud.  You don’t even have to start with “Dear God,” if you don’t want to.  I often quietly thank God when I’m outside on the daily walks I take with the girls or when I’m working in the garden, because that is when I am most likely to be struck by the beauty or abundance of creation.  I’ve thanked God for mild breezes, warm sunshine, pea shoots, rich compost, and a full rain barrel, among other things.  Also, if you’re in a dark place, gratitude praying can sometimes help you climb out of that hole because it forces you to find something to be grateful for.  A few weeks ago I stormed out of the house, mad as hell.  After walking a while I forced myself to say some thank you’s.  I was first thankful for the bracing cold air coming off the river.  Then I was thankful for an outside space to which I could run, then for the freedom to be able to move about that space….and soon enough there was more to be thankful for than mad about.
  2. Rote prayers.  I don’t know many rote prayers.  Honestly only the last verse of Psalm Four, and the Lord’s Prayer.  Oh, and I guess the Catholic, Anglican, and broader Protestant dinner blessings that all children of said faiths can rattle off by the time they are five.  I turn to the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm Four when I need to recenter, when I’m too distracted or anxious to come up with something original.  But if all you know is “God is great, God is good…” start with that.  It is a blessing, after all, and repeating a blessing over and over again to help calm yourself down can’t be bad, even if it is a bit out of context.

Today is Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week.  It commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and the beginning of his last days.  It was a time in which we see Jesus pray often – with his disciples at the Last Supper, privately the night he was arrested, and even when on the cross.  Jesus makes prayer look natural….but then again, he is Jesus.  Wherever, or however you start praying, just start. You’re not going to sound like Jesus, especially not at first.  But as with any other habits, practice makes perfect.  The important thing to remember is this: that praying (yes, your praying, however imperfect it may be) is making a difference in the world, even if that difference is “only” in yourself.

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4 Comments

  1. Raised a Catholic, one Lent I contemplated Mary by saying the Rosary once a day during my commutes (oddly and charmingly led by Vin Scully). It wasn’t so much praying *to* Mary as it was a meditation on the events of her life, her choices, and her role in Jesus’ life, repeated over and over and over again. I was surprised at how the calm produced by the repetition extended into the rest of my days and evenings. I was even more surprised at the very meaningful truths I discovered in prayers I’d been saying thoughtlessly for basically my whole life. People of different faiths use mantras like this, I think; even if it’s a trick of how our brains are wired, it’s beautiful just the same.

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    1. That sounds like a lovely Lenten practice! I think, in the Protestant distancing from Catholicism and the rush to get away from “idol worship,” poor Mary got the short end of the stick. I have often wished there was more emphasis on Mary in Protestant traditions (maybe not praying *to* Mary, but like you said, some meditations, or even just a deeper study of her role in Jesus’ life) and hope to incorporate some more time for Mary in this blog when I get to the appropriate passages. Stay tuned!

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  2. I have no idea how many people respond to you here. I hope there are many. I just want you to know that I read what you share regularly and I am always taken to deeper and wider thoughts because of what you write and say. I suspect you’d still do this if no one was listening and that of course is why we all write: first, to ourselves, a way of winnowing out just what it is that we believe and think and hold as our deepest convictions. How we see the world. How we see this life, and our participation in it. If others also see and come to greater depths of seeing, well, that’s a wonderful bonus. Bless you, and all you do. I’m still here, listening.

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    1. Thank you, Sharon! You hit the nail on the head: this project is a way for me to explore the Bible in thorough and personal way, searching for the God I love, who I think often gets forgotten by many of the Christians that have the biggest microphone. I’m glad you have gained from it, as well. Happy Easter.

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