Some time ago, a friend was telling about the request she made for her 55th birthday. In lieu of cards or gifts, she asked her friends and relatives to celebrate her double nickels by doing five good deeds and praying for five other people. She said it made her feel good to think of all those kind actions and loving thoughts going out among so many people at her behest.
I thought that was not only a generous request for a birthday, but a thoroughly original one. Sometimes, I hear of an idea that I wish I had thought of first. A little poem, or a remark that is so apt and on the mark that I feel almost envious that it hadn’t come from me instead of somebody else. Usually what happens then is that I start thinking of ways to improve on it– to write an even more clever poem, or come up with a remark that is even more succinct and on target. So, quite naturally, I started plotting how I could request something even more generous and loving to celebrate my next birthday.
I didn’t have too much trouble with the first part– the good deeds. Since it’s been far too long since my own 55th birthday, I decided that waiting for my 80th was a good idea, and that I should try to get some mileage out of it. Eight good deeds didn’t sound too demanding, after all, just holding a door for someone or picking up a candy wrapper and disposing of it properly should qualify. It was the notion of the zero that had me stumped. How could I ask people to say zero prayers for other people? Sounded pretty stingy to me.
I mulled over this dilemma for several days (well, not every minute, but the problem did pop into my mind periodically for over a week) and I decided it had something to do with my attitude toward prayer in general. I don’t disbelieve in prayer or the power of prayer, but I don’t believe that a prayer is some magic incantation that will get you whatever you ask for, either. A wise man once explained that God does answer all prayers, and that sometimes the answer is no. That explains a lot, I guess, to people who complain that they don’t think their prayers are ever answered or even heard.
Personally, I don’t think God needs my advice, and it seems presumptuous for me to stuff his suggestion box with my personal requests. I guess I don’t truly believe in prayer in and of itself, but I do believe in the power of praying. That’s another matter altogether.
My first awareness of prayer was probably the same as just about everybody else’s. “Now I lay me down to sleep...” or it’s equivalent in whatever religion or church we were raised in. My parents never added on a long list of “and bless Aunt Agnes, and Grandma,”...and so on. I think it was enough that that little bedtime ritual served to remind me that I should be grateful for the care, comfort, and love that sheltered me in those early years, and that I should not grow up simply believing I was entitled to my fortunate circumstances. A little later, I began to suspect that my nice life was the result of the hard work of my parents, but I supposed I had to thank someone or some power for my good parents. All too complicated for a child to figure out. Later, Sunday school prayers were too much like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school, and frankly, I gave little thought to the meaning as I parroted those words in church. As with the hymns we sang in church, the meaning of the words sort of slipped past me, but what did stick was the realization that the two or three hundred people who attended on a typical Sunday formed a community of people who cared enough about each other to be there for that hour or more every week. The spirit of cooperation, sharing, mutual purpose seemed to be the real heart of the matter.
I’ve had people pray for me, or with me, during sad, perilous, or difficult times, and I still don’t think that God needed instructions from us, but there was comfort and encouragement in knowing that these kind people cared enough to take the time to listen to me, to express their concern and to share a hope that things might turn out well.
As for private prayer. Even though, technically, my faith in prayer may be a little shaky, I guess I do quite a bit of praying in the sense that I think things through, consider what is the right thing to do, and how I might be able to accomplish it. I try to convince myself that I can find the strength to get through an ordeal or find the wisdom to solve a problem. I think that may be what prayer is really all about. Things don’t always work out my way, but as the man said; sometimes the answer is. “No.”