RELIGION

What prayer really does

Recent events reminded me of what prayer really does. First there were the repeated showings of clips on TV of Senate Chaplain Barry Black during the GOP’s shutdown of the U.S. government. In ostentatiously sonorous yet dulcet tones, he reprimanded, shamed and exhorted, in the name of his god, while obviously speaking much more to his audience than to his divine master. (It prompted me to recall Jesus’s admonishment of the Pharisees as they would “for a pretence make long prayer.”)

How many times we hear prayer used in just that way, by ministers in the pulpit, fathers at the dinner table, officials opening a meeting or blessing a ball game or cutting a ribbon. They seize it as opportunity to say things to their audience they would never have the guts to say to any one of them personally. Chaplain Black’s harangue before the Senate wasn’t telling his god anything that his god wouldn’t have already known, if that god is what the chaplain believes it to be; but the moment certainly gave the chaplain opportunity to say what he thought to people he felt needed to be chastised. (They did deserve chastisement, but that’s beside the point.)

 The other event that reminded me of prayer’s accomplishments was a call from a close family member encouraging me to pray for her son who “needs it now.”  Of course, that was bait, which I took: “What’s wrong?”  As she told me, I remembered how prayer is so often used simply to gossip. Back in my church days, someone was always saying something like, “I know you’d want to know what’s going on with Suzy and Joe — so you can pray for them.” Then, without skipping a beat, the lurid story of personal failure, family discord or deviant behavior would pour out in excited detail, the listener would question and guess, both would reckon and judge, then the instigator would finally end it all with a sanctimonious, “Pray for them.”

 Cloaked in the mantle of divine presentation, people say in “prayer” what they would otherwise never say.  Lacking the backbone to be honest face-to-face, people use it to express unfiltered annoyance with indisputable authority. Lacking good reason to reveal others’ secrets, people use prayer to reveal what they know should remain discrete and unspoken.

 Prayer so easily becomes, and perhaps most often is, an act of blatant disrespect. POSTED 11/1/2013