Recently, The New York Times Magazine published Zev Chafets's essay on the American way of prayer. He wrote it like a travel piece, from the perspective of a tourist in a foreign land among Evangelical Christians, Reformed Jews, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, and Charismatics.
While Mr. Chafets was trying to shade the story as a visit to a strange exotic land, it was more like going to a local strip mall -- very familiar. Except instead of cell phones, computers, or wide screen TVs, the shelves are full shiny new products like meditation, lectio divina, and connections to the divine. His travels through the American religious landscapes include the budding business of spiritual direction. Who knew that there were over 5,000 registered spiritual directors in the United States? I was unaware that there was a registry. And complaints goe to whom? "God ignored my requests; I want my money back." "Can I please talk to the manager? The customer service here is completely lacking."
Mr. Chafets quotes a Reformed Rabbi's description of prayer as, "Gimme! Thanks! Oops! and Wow!" Very pithy, a very good sound bite, and very good branding, the statement also comes from a very consumer-driven culture. The focus is on the person praying and what prayer can do for the consumer (I mean the believer), and leaves God almost out of the picture. What if -- just a thought -- God wanted us, say, I don't know, to feed the poor or answer the pain of another? Is that beyond the domain of prayer? God talking to us, calling us to be better -- could that also be part of prayer as well? Could we be moved beyond our own desires?
He finishes the piece by a trip to a church and hearing the kids talk about their prayers. The kids seem to have a better grasp of prayer than almost every one else in the story. It reminded me of working on a prayer hotline while in seminary. For an hour each Wednesday I heard prayers requesting to win the lottery, about wishes for husbands to leave their wives, and even had a call from a woman who was left with a neighbor's son. Her neighbor asked her to watch the boy for an hour and then left. The boy, seven at the time, was still waiting for his mother to come back for him after months. She wanted me to pray with him about not being angry and behaving better in both school and his new home. I asked him if he knew what prayer was. He said no. I said it was simply talking and listening to God. I asked if he wanted to pray. He said yes. Then I started to pray. I asked for God's will in his situation. The woman broke into the middle of the prayer and still demanded that I pray in way that explains why he should behave better.
Since then I have wondered and prayed about the boy. He is now a teenager, and yet his name is unknown to me. We can bring anything to God in prayer, this is true, but what God brings out of us is the beauty of prayer. I hope the boy found home.
Ernesto Tinajero is a freelance writer in Spokane, Washington, who earned his master's degree in theology from Fuller Seminary. Visit his blog at beingandfaith.blogspot.com.