Is true prayer about 'Choose me' or 'Use me'?

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, December 1, 2004

Coffee companion Jeff Perkins forwarded to me the other day an e-mail he'd received arguing that prayer is a waste of time.

"Precious time is wasted for prayer when it could be used to actually do something positive," the e-mail charged.

Over the 28 years Jeff and I have been friends, we've had many long debates on the relevance of prayer. President of the Society for Secular Humanists in Calgary, Jeff wondered what my reaction would be to the e-mail.

The writer proposed the following test for prayer:

"Spread out on your couch or bed and pray for food and its ingredients to fly off the store shelves and come right to your kitchen. Then a mythical chef mysteriously appears from the heavens after hearing your desperate call and prayers to cook your meal. Then a magically cooked meal is brought to you in bed. Then you pray for a mythical servant to come and wash you. Pray for electricity to be on and work forever. Pray for your TV to go on and pray when you need to change the channel. Pray for the bills to get paid and pray for your house to get magically cleaned. Let me know how it turns out and send me the results."

I responded to Jeff that the writer was woefully ignorant of what prayer really is, thinking that prayer is about twisting God's arm to do our bidding. It is, of course, the other way around: prayer is that contemplative experience in which God twists our arm to do His bidding; prayer is that link of faith in which God guides us along a nobler path than we might take by our own inclinations alone. The writer has quite well ridiculed the popular straw-man caricature of prayer, I said, but he has said nothing that discredits the true nature of prayer.

Jeff replied that my "understanding of prayer is a western, intellectual one, not understood by the vast majority of people. For that vast majority," he said, "prayer is the way to contact a god It is not a contemplative experience, but, perhaps, a selfish plea to 'Pick me! Pick me!'"

Well, Jeff, I'll allow that probably most of us at one time or another do pray out of self-interest, do pray "Pick me! Pick me!" But those who have thought long and hard about the nature of prayer have quite a different opinion – an opinion that transcends religious traditions and looks beyond self.

Here's how William Barclay, one of my favourite authors of the last century, explained it: "Prayer is not a way of making use of God; prayer is a way of offering ourselves to God in order that He should be able to make use of us."

A few years ago I had an experience that made this opinion vivid to me.

A couple of us were having lunch at a popular Calgary hotel. Our waitress was slight of build with impeccably groomed silver hair. On this particular occasion, the dining room was packed, and if any waitress ever had reason to be in a frenzy, she certainly did. But as she moved from table to table, she exuded not frenzy, but an infectious peace and pleasantness.

When she dropped by our table, I commented to her on how happy she seemed in the midst of the noon-hour rush.

"Oh, I'm so glad you noticed," she replied. Then she took a moment to tell us the secret of her happiness.

Every morning before leaving for work, she would spend an hour or two in prayer about her job.

Was she praying that she'd get lots of big tips? or that her boss and guests would be nice to her?

Not at all!

She explained how during prayer she would visualize each table, each guest, she'd be serving that day. And she prayed that she'd be able to care for her guests as if she were caring for God in person – that she could be a blessing to each person at her tables. Her greatest concern was that they leave happier than when they arrived.

Was this about twisting God's arm for self-advantage? Hardly. Rather, day by day she prayed to God for those she would serve, and learned presence.

Perhaps this is what Mother Teresa of Calcutta meant when she said: "Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God's gift of Himself."

© 2004 Warren Harbeck

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