Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Why Fight About Prayer When We Can Pray About Fighting?

This is my column that was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, October 17, 2018.

My mother had a habit that I thought was very odd as a child. She had a particular rocking chair, armless and covered in striped velvety fabric. She kept it in the kitchen of whatever house we lived in, near the coffee pot. That was where she had her morning quiet time.

We knew good and well that we were not supposed to disturb her. I learned it was a bad time to ask her for something, because the answer would probably be no.

The younger I was, the more that 45 minutes she spent in her chair, unavailable for me, was like an eternity. I vividly remember lying on the couch, listening to the repeated click of her coffee cup against the saucer, wondering when she’d be through.

Though Mom died years ago, she continues to teach me. She had a contemplative spirit that I inherited, but it didn’t unfold until I was well into adulthood. For her, this morning time spent with God was holy and precious, not forced. And the rhythm of her quiet time, near the opening of each day, was life-giving to her. It was the hook she hung her life on.

I am beginning to see that her faithful witness (and healthy boundaries with her kids) made an impact on my life. She taught me about prayer, not just by what she said but by what she did. It’s a bigger lesson than “now I lay me down to sleep, I pray, the Lord, my soul to keep.”

I watched her make time with God a priority.

In my adult life prayer has become my heart’s longing. Prayer is nothing more, and nothing less, than spending quiet time with God. It’s not complicated. It’s just time. It is healing for the soul.

Quiet reflection, offered to the Lord as a simple gift, is worth it for its own sake. We have to see past our functional assumptions about what prayer “does.” Early In the journey, we learn that it’s about intercession (praying for others) or petition (requesting things of God). We say prayer “works.” That is indeed powerful praying. But this is only a piece of the prayer pie.

Prayer is praise, gratitude, adoration, and contemplation. Prayer is confession, conviction, and honest sharing with God, who sees all and loves all the more. Prayer is silence as much as it is talking, and the purpose is most definitely not limited to giving information with God that God already knows.

I’m no expert and I don’t feel called to live in a monastery. But I do know that it’s easy to oversimplify prayer to asking God for things. Yet it’s also easy to over analyze prayer. Some even think you have to “cover all the bases,” as if prayer is about getting everything in (oh dear, I forgot about adoration today!).

It has been life-giving to get beyond seeing prayer in terms of what it does, and experience it as an outflowing of love for the one who created a deep desire in me. I love morning prayer, evening prayer, contemplative prayer, walking prayer, silent prayer, spoken prayer with friends ... all kinds of spending time with God. My heart burns for it and my soul yearns for it.

So I must admit, even though I’m a religious leader and a believer in prayer, it troubles me to see people fighting about prayer before ball games. For me, at least, that reduces prayer from what it is, an amazing gift and an invitation to share in the heart of God, to something God did not ever intend it to be ... a cultural symbol like flags and statues.

I am so glad to live in a country where we are free to pray. I pray at ballgames and grocery stores, parks and community events. I pray in the car or on the phone. There is no limit to how or where I can pray.

It does not threaten my faith to acknowledge those of other faiths, or no faith at all, and be content with a moment of silence to pray for safety and good sportsmanship. In fact, I think it’s bad sportsmanship to assume that the only prayer that counts is the kind that takes place over a loudspeaker.

Moments of silence don’t bother me because silence is the best prayer anyway. It is said that silence is God’s first language. So I take my hat off and I gladly pray. I suppose I don’t get upset about the lack of a microphone because I am incredibly grateful. In our country, we are free to pray all we want.

Here’s an idea for all of us. Why not pray for those we disagree with? Why fight about prayer when we can pray about fighting? And if you feel led to hold a prayer circle over in a corner at the game, I’d love to come.

I have seen the decision about prayer at football games compared with interrupting Jesus when he prayed on the hillside before feeding the 5,000.For me, that’s apples and oranges. Jesus didn’t insist on taking the microphone before athletic events at the Roman stadiums.

He drew people to the hillside. He taught them and fed them and prayed for them. He was not making a statement, he was abiding with his Father ... and welcoming those who wanted in on their conversation.

Maybe we need more prayer on the hillside and prayer at the gameside. Fighting about prayer is making prayer something other than the gift it was meant to be. Why reduce it to a cultural symbol, when it’s so much more?

As Richard Foster put it, prayer is the heart’s true home. Jesus said to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He didn’t say to fight against those who persecute us.

Whether you feel public prayer persecutes those of other faiths, or lack of public prayer persecutes those of Christian faith, it’s fair criticism either way. But the prescription is prayer itself.

Prayer is the gift God gave us to deal with the struggles of life. As I write this, I am planning to go to the hillside, or the lakeside at least, tomorrow. I plan to walk and pray, and to let go of my troubles and be filled with the quiet presence of God. I hope to be renewed and refreshed. I invite you to go with me, in your own way.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, “Musings of a Musical Preacher,” is found