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by ZweiBieren Prayer pens in a mug

Like religion itself, prayer is both ridiculous and essential. It all depends on how you pray and what you pray for.

Let's consider some common situations and the prayers that are offered:

  • We are on a field of battle. Artillery lands all around, its dull thuds grabbing our innards. Soldiers peep warily over the rims of the foxholes. Here we see a private praying silently that he get through the battle unharmed. And another loudly praying for victory. Across the way, a third prays that he may be valiant and rewarded. One prays that he be granted a death that qualifies for an everafter blessed with virgins.
  • We are in the locker room before a high school football game. The air still damp from yesterday's showers and fresh with the scent of today's clean towels. What should the parson pray for? And the other parson in the other locker room?
  • We walk through a hospital listening to the intercom seeing drab institutional colors, and smelling disinfectant and death. As we pass one room a father prays that his son recover. The patient in the next room prays for the soul of his just-passed wife.
  • We stroll deep in a forest. The sun filters through the tall pines; a bird trills. We find a woman praying in joyful wonder at the peace and tranquility all around. And another praying for vengeance on the man who ran over her puppy.

Whose prayers will be answered? What will be the effect on the one who prays, the one prayed about, or the outcome of events. We will never know.

The ridiculosity of prayer becomes apparent when we ask if prayers are answered. Every athletic team prays for success and precisely half are granted; the losers did not pray to lose. Some soldier die and others escape or become heros. The prayer for vengeance is unlikely to affect the transgressor, but likely to leave the supplicant more bitter and isolated.

Some will blithely assert that all prayers are answered, but that the answer may be no. Practically, this is meaningless. There is no way distinguish such an answer from the situation where alll events are completely random. However, if it helps you, you are entitled to believe anything you like. You can assert that a God has answered your prayer. You can believe what you like as long as you do not impose that belief on other people. They are equally entitled to their own beliefs.

Some will tell you that they will pray for you or that they will hold you in their prayers. Be grateful to both, but in your own prayer be cognizant otf the difference. Praying "for" someone implies that you expect them to do something or that something be done for them. Holding them in your prayers is like giving them a warm hug. Often this is better. A warm hug lets the other know you care without imposing on them a course of action.

Wikipeida notes in an article on the Efficacy of Prayer (italics added):

The largest study, from the 2006 STEP project, found no significant differences in patients recovering from heart surgery whether the patients were prayed for or not. The patients who knew they were receiving prayers did experience slightly higher recovery complications, possibly due to chance and to the added anxiety or pressure caused by expectations from the prayers. ...

Some studies on subjective well-being and personal effects of prayer have shown positive effects on the individual who prays.

So rather than helping the prayee, the knowledge of being prayed about was a little infelicitous.

Finally we come to the real and crucial value of prayer. It affects not the world. Produces no action from your chosen god. No, the proper use of prayer is for its effect on the one person who CAN do something about the question; you yourself, the one who makes the prayer. You can ask for vengeance or victory or winning the lottery. But these--even if granted--can ony leave a hollow aftertaste. Far better is it to pray that you yourself be a better person. Pray to do well, to be more loving, for acceptance of that which is

To whom or what should I pray?

Perhaps you have abandoned belief in the god you were taught in Sunday School. Does this make prayer an empty, foolish act? Not at all. Remember, you are praying about things you can do by or to yourself. It is a great help in such endeavors to share the load with someone, or something, else. Yes, you can and often should share with another person. But they can never understand everything exactly as you yourself do. Soyou must also converse with some deity beyond yourself. Call that deity Yahweh, God, Allah, the Great Spirit, or any of the thrity million Hindu gods; talking to the deity will help.

In Bruce Almighty, Jim Carrey is tasked with answering the prayers of a two block area. The power palls and he seeks out. God, at least the version presented by Morgan Freeman, lets him out only when he learns to pray for others. He finally comes to pray not that his grilfriend loves him more, but that she may find happiness and fortune in doing her own heart's desire. That is, it is not useful to pray for something to happen to your self, but rather to pray that good things happen to others.

I would go further. The best prayer are for gratitude, guidance, and strength.

In my childhood, my family began each meal with a blessing. When my wife and I began our own family, I proposed to continue the tradition. Not a fan of prayer, my wife agreed to this because "any chance to hold your hand is a blessing." Now we begin each meal by joining hands in vocal or silent prayer. I find that it gives a moment of respite. A moment to shed the tensions of the day for the joy of sharing a meal together.

Go now and pray in and for peace. It may not do anything for anybody else, but it will will certainly help you yourself.

Praying is valuable for her/m who prays..

See Harry Kemelman's Rabbi Small on Jewish prayer. "Baruch Atah Adonai" means "Blessed are you, Oh G".

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