Prayer: what is it good for?

I am a praying person. Well, kind of, although I imagine there are many who call my prayers—and my life as a whole—into question.

It is true that my concept of prayer has drastically changed over the years. As a young “born-again believer”—a term I now have great difficulty embracing—I prayed for God to protect me from injury during basketball games or track meets, I prayed for God to help me think clearly and quickly before exams and while writing papers (come to think of it, maybe I should begin this practice again to reduce the time it takes me to write these posts!), I prayed when people I loved were sick, constantly worrying over whether or not I had the faith necessary for my prayer to be answered and thus for their healing.

I also have been part of groups who assume prayers in restaurants are part of the Christian’s requirement to witness to others. The scene embarrasses me: several people spread across two or three tables all bow their heads in unison while someone at one end or the other speeds through some prayer trying to get in all the necessary components including “in Jesus name” before the waiter reappears to fill the water glasses or bring the bread basket. In these situations I always wonder what message the wait staff receives: how sometimes Christians can be the rudest customers, or how some Christians tip the least—unaware, apparently, of Jesus’ message of hospitality–, or how Christians can be so inwardly focused sometimes they hardly see those around them, especially restaurant servers? If it were me, I’d much prefer to treat the waiter with respect, provide a generous tip, and leave the person with a feeling that she or he had been appreciated. Somehow this seems to me a reasonable witness without all of the prayer-filled trappings.

Obviously my understanding of prayer has changed and in many ways it is because my view of and relationship to God has shifted as well. No longer expecting God to show up in miraculous fashion to get me out of a bind or to meet my latest self-focused desire, I now see prayer mostly as a way of helping me to see how I am to be the presence of God in the small part of the world I inhabit.

So when I recently read about a group who met to pray for men using prostitutes, the idea struck me as a little odd. On one hand I get it, I guess. If you pray for someone you deem to be sinful, maybe they will eventually come to see the error of their ways. But I don’t know that such eventuality is dependent upon such prayers nor do I think this targeted focus of changing others is the best use of prayer.

On the other hand, surely the reality of prostitution is something crucial to address. It is a social problem and Christians, of all people, should work to create a society where such a situation does not exist. I wonder, though, if this entails not so much gathering people in a room to pray for individuals seen as sinners, but a recognition that prostitution occurs in societies where women are viewed as objects and where structures perpetuate inequalities that usually result in the poor (mostly women) having no safety net. As a result, women resort to terrible ways of getting by. (I cannot but think of much of the current legislation today that aims to “balance” a budget by eliminating programs designed to provide assistance for poor women with no access to health care and limited means to acquire basic provisions.)

What if Christians concerned about prostitution began working to change this social reality with concrete action extending beyond a prayer-filled room?

For example, during the last Super Bowl in Indianapolis, Indiana, a group of nuns raised our awareness about underage prostitution surrounding this iconic American event. Their efforts to ensure that we realize our entertainment also creates additional opportunities for one group of people to use another group forces us to consider the ways in which we may—however indirectly—condone such acts, even if only through our silence. I know at least for me (an avid football watcher) because of the efforts of others to draw my attention to dramatic rise in domestic violence corresponding to the Super Bowl and now also its link to local prostitution surrounding the location of the Super Bowl, I have been forced to consider how my desire for entertainment may have an effect I certainly did not intend.

Now the decision for me becomes what will I do with this information? Will I continue to seek entertainment without consideration for how my entertainment may negatively impact other people or will I begin to explore more thoroughly the unintended results of my actions? If I take seriously the call of the gospel and the power of prayer, it seems to me that I can no longer live as if I am an isolated individual. Instead, I must take seriously the interconnectedness of our world, of all of our lives.

So this is precisely where I think prayer comes into play. It is through listening to God that I am invited to understand more of God’s character, more of what Marcus Borg calls God’s dream for this world. Prayer enables me to see the world as a living community where all of our actions impact others and environments all around the world and convicts me of my silence that condones social structures around the globe where real people are oppressed day after day.

Prayer challenges me to see where I can extend the hands and feet of Jesus in meaningful ways.

If praying for people who use prostitutes is a part of understanding this vision and then it leads me to action on behalf of those who are oppressed, then I’m all for it and this is exactly what a group called the new Christian abolition movement is doing. But if prayer is an avenue to identify a group of “others” who need to hear my message through disembodied prayers hurled at them, then I don’t understand the point.

So, you see, I do pray, asking God to help me love my neighbor and to work for justice in ways that extend well beyond prostitution into other areas like consumerism, environmentalism, and sexism.

And yes, this entry took me way too long to write. But I didn’t pray about that.