What is Praying?

71-1-butterfly_01If you’ve ever watched a pool hustler, you know that it’s difficult, but possible to get four balls in four different pockets, with a single shot.  In a similar vein, it’s possible that with a single question, I will succeed in pissing-off not just atheists and agnostics, but religious moderates and zealots alike.  That’s actually harder to do than you might think.  And yet here I am and there you are, examining another taboo topic in a category of things never to be questioned.

The Disclaimer:  First, this is not…I repeat…not one of those glib, rhetorically snarky questions.  I would sincerely like to know much more about a topic which has confronted me for a long time, close to 50 years.

The Ground Rules for this Discussion:  For the purpose of this particular discussion, we are going to assume that 1.  There is a God.  2.  God is omniscient.  3.  God is omnipotent 4. God is timeless. (He exists simultaneously in the past, present, and the future.) 5. We are going to assume that God is merciful.  Lastly, I’m taking this question seriously.  I expect you to do the same.

The_Doors_The_Soft_ParadeFor me, the conundrum began in my sophomore year at F&M.  I had a heavy schedule, Constitutional Law, Abnormal Psych, Ethics, some mid-level course in Integral Calculus, and Logic.  Strangely, Con Law and Logic turned out to be the real b-busters of the semester.

On one fateful night in the dorm, I put on a new Doors   album, entitled Soft Parade.  The title song came on and I began playing it at normal volume.  But then, half-way through I picked up the needle and put it back in the first groove… then cranked the volume up to 10.  (Millenials, ask your folks what all this means.)  Imagine Jim Morrison’s voice whispering the first lines and then raggedly ramming-home the last one.  Apparently Morrison had some questions of his own as you see in these lyrics:

“When I was back in seminary school, there was a person there who put forth the proposition that: you can petition the Lord with prayer…petition the Lord with prayer, petition the Lord with prayer!  YOU CANNOT PETITION THE LORD…WITH PRAYER!”

Well, that got everybody’s attention.  Doors flew open.  What the F**K?  I gotta study!  was yelled down the hall.  One of the two actual seminary students in Atlee Hall came in my room, plopped down in a chair, and looked question marks at me.  I figured two smart guys should be able to make short work of this one.  Apparently not.

Once again, keep in mind that for the purposes of this discussion, I am assuming a wise, all-powerful, all-knowing, beneficent God.  Imagine, if you will, a conversation between God and a person making the prayer, for what is a prayer other than an “intimate conversation” with God.

prayerDear God, I most desperately need your help.  My most darling puppy of ten years has cancer all through her body.  They say she’s going to die and I can’t bear to live with that.  Please, please intercede on my behalf.  She’s a good dog, never did anything to anybody…nor have I.  I’ve been a good Christian.  Please do this one thing for me. Thank you, God.  Amen.

Even the most kindly and forgiving God, just might well be within His or Her rights to ask a question or two in return.  He might ask, “Do you not trust me, Sue?”  Oh…  Of course I trust You.  I didn’t mean to…  “Do you think that I’m unaware of any of the things you’ve just said?  Do you think me to be unknowledgeable, Sue, or worse, stupid?”  Heavens no. I wouldn’t think that for a second.  “Last question, Sue:  Do you think you’re in a better place to make these sorts of decisions than I am?  In short, do you think your solution is better than mine?  Do you think you’re smarter than God?”  Of course not.  Well…possibly in just this one instance.  I know You’re very busy…  I just thought…  I’ve been very loyal, I’ve never missed a day in church.  I thought…You could do this one favor for me.

I’m sure that I haven’t succeeded in capturing the precise way in which you pray, but I think you get the concept.  What is a prayer?  It is an attempt by man to communicate directly with God.  It invariably takes one of two forms.  It asks for something: Please do something for me.  Save my wife, save my child, please make it rain so we can save the crops.  Please let my daughter get accepted at Stanford.  Please let my son get 1400s on the SATs.  Please let the Miami Dolphins win this division game…   Or it thanks God for something that was asked for previously: “Thank you GOD!!!  725 on the math!  7oo on the verbal!”

Going back to that last lyric in Soft Parade,  I don’t think you can  or should petition the Lord with prayer.  Or…if you do, and God is as all-knowing as we know He is,  you are, most definitely, insulting Him.  You are saying, sorry, God, but the way You were going to proceed, needed a bit of tweaking, a small correction.  I’ll give you a hand.  Thanks for taking to my suggestions, and doing what I asked you too.  And I’ll let You know if I need anything else… Amen.

If we are to assume that this is literally how things work, and each one of us has a single, individual, intimate “in” with God, then we are forced to step back for a second and wonder, how does God handle the personal petitions from the 7.1 billion other souls on this planet?  More than that, what about the billions of conflicting prayers? You want your son to get 1400s on his SATs.  But every other high school junior is praying the same thing.  You want your candidate to beat all the others.  Sorry to say it, but it takes me back to when I asked my mother exactly how Santa Claus managed to visit every little child on the planet in about six hours.  That was a hard one to fathom.  This one is even more difficult.

01022-N-8913A-006If for a moment, it sounds like I’m making light of this conundrum, I am not.  A point of fact is that many people pray for much smaller and much less noble things than board scores on an SAT test.  We, as a highly flawed, self-centered, and often illogical species, often pray to God to help us actually do harm to our enemy or even our neighbors.  For anyone who is religious and has been in the military or fought in a war, this is absolutely how it is.  Look at the very common footage, not just of Japanese Zero pilots, but our own Hellcat pilots in WWII, praying on deck of their prospective carriers for God’s help to shoot the other SOBs out of the sky.

It should, as they used to say in college, be obvious to the most casual observer, that if God wanted to obliterate one country, culture, race, nationality, He would be able to do so with a nod of his head.

So…the question remains.  What is praying?  I personally believe it is mankind’s attempt to not feel completely helpless on this planet.  There are times…and I’ve had a large handful of them this particular year, where if I believed in the sort of avuncular, anthropomorphic God that many imagine, I would have said, “Just do this one thing for me, save Pamela’s life and I promise, I’ll change my ways.  I’ll go to church every day.  I’ll do whatever you like. ” And yet, even in my deepest sorrow, I would not ever presume to have greater wisdom than God.  For me, that would be supreme arrogance on my part.  I’m not sure how or what God thinks about praying.

16593Accomplished and well-known writer and lecturer, Sam Harris, made a point several years ago, only in a slightly different way with this fact:  “Nine million innocent children die every year before they’ve reached the age of five.”  (That’s 24,000 children a day or 1000 children an hour…dying.)  But then think of the parents and families of these children.  Demographically, the drastic majority of these parents and families are religious and have prayed to God for their child to be spared.  The prayers of 24,000 God-fearing children go unanswered…every single day.  How does that fit in with someone praying that they get into the college of their choice???

It might be argued, though I think it’s a slim argument, that God works in mysterious ways.  That exact statement is plugged-in for almost everything to which we would otherwise, throw up our hands in desperation   Nine million Jews died in prison camps.  25 million Russians died in WWII.  60,000 at Antietam, in our own Civil War,  Our two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of civilian innocents.  Earthquakes, volcanoes, plagues, tsunamis, nuclear annihilation, genocide, all part of some master plan?  He just works in mysterious ways…  However, God intimately listens and responds to your prayer that your husband gets the raise over the other two candidates.  If that is working in mysterious ways, those ways are very mysterious, indeed.  It would seem that God is either incapable of saving these nine million innocent children or He is indifferent to them.

DCF 1.0I’m going to share one rare moment where I did fall apart once.  Strangely it wasn’t to do with me or my family, it regarded my best non-human friend on this planet.  His name was Oogie and he was just wondrous.  If you’ve had an animal you’ve loved, you understand.  Oogie came down with epilepsy and became our special boy.

Seven doses of medicine a day and watching him like a hawk.  Still, he had seizures when he would just go nuts or take off.  One afternoon in late January it happened.  He was out for one second to pee and then…gone.  We called everyone and spent the rest of the afternoon in sub-zero weather tramping all over the mountain we live on.

Toward evening we got flashlights and kept on.  Somewhere around 11 pm we were exhausted, trotted inside, downed a hunk of cheese and went back out.  It had started to sleet…freezing rain.  Oogie’s fur was the thickness of the fuzz on a peach and we were freezing even though bundled up.  We were both out till 1:3o am and then the winds came up and everything just started to freeze.  No creature without fur could have survived.  And then my flashlight went dead.  And then I lost it.  I remember looking up at the blackness and screaming, “Is this one of Your jokes?  He didn’t do anything to You.  He never did anything bad.  Why don’t You pick on someone Your own size???”  I believe I said some expletives as well.

I would never, ever, ever  presume to advise anyone else in a category as serious as this.  It’s just too important and too personal.  I would, however, make an observation or two.  Of the handful of major religions and thousands of lesser known religions, if one God obviously stood above the rest of the others, then you would be seeing entire nations spontaneously bursting into flame.  Think of Islam vs. Judaism vs. Christianity alone.  If the Islamic religion had the one and only true path to God and it was Islamic, most, if not all of the United States would be scorched or burning in flames from all the prayers to Allah for its destruction.  And to be fair and accurate, a similar fate would befall much of the Middle East.  Israel, I have no idea as to whom they hate more at this point.  With all the factions and layer-upon-layer of hatred, I can’t keep track.

With all this in mind, and with my seriously trying to empathize with what God would think of all this, I would accept whatever the God I believe in does and try to cool it with helping Him out or informing him of things He might have missed.  If God can condemn me to eternal hell for not having been born in the “correct” culture, and by that I mean: if you were born in Iraq, chances are you aren’t Baptist and if you’re born in Oklahoma, chances are you aren’t a follower of Islam,  I can only imagine how He might feel, hearing me tell Him how to do His job.  I know it would annoy me a whole lot.

When I was a little kid, my mom had one thing she always said,  “When the winds fail…take to the oars.”  I seriously try to live the Golden Rule and help my fellow man in every way I am capable.  As far as praying for things, or special advantages or consideration, I leave it up to higher powers to decide how to handle me.  For me to presume that I have better ideas than God would be arrogant.






18 Responses to "What is Praying?"

  1. henry harvey says:

    You didn’t tick off this Catholic married to a Southern Baptist.
    Spot on, every time .
    I’m trying to include in my daily chats with God …thank you for letting me get up one more day. Thank you for my beautiful place and wonderful friends that He has put here for me to find. Thanks for Henry Harvey who always finds the right things to discuss when I need to hear it most .
    Don’t mean to get mushy, but I’m delighted that our paths crossed back in the 80’s.
    Stay well my friend, love lots and let’s keep on dancing and challenging those around us to think.
    In health and horses,
    Pam F.

  2. henry harvey says:

    Glad you took the article in the manner it was intended. These days, you don’t have to do much of anything to cause a firestorm of hate mail. And yet, we can’t just sit in our living rooms and not question anything either.
    Glad our paths crossed as well. What most people don’t realize is when you pick a topic that’s going out to thousands of people you, to do an unbiased job, you really have to crawl all over the topic and seriously try to attempt how others feel and think about it. That’s the goal. Sometimes it works. Other times…duck and cover.

    In health, horses, puppy dogs, and good friends.


  3. henry harvey says:

    First of all, you may be asking the wrong question.
    My prayer goes “show me the way.” And “help me to understand.”
    Within a short time, whatever the problem, it becomes clearer, especially if I sleep on it. And I have my answer.
    P.S. Of course, I do pray to the god of parking, living in center city, and 99.9 % of the time I find a parking place. The other .1 % of the time, I figure the God of Parking is asleep.

    Kitty C.

  4. henry harvey says:

    Oh, I like your style, Kitty!

    If these were Roman times again, we might have a God of lost keys, misplaced e-mails, and lost security codes. Gotta keep a sense of humor or we’re truly lost.
    Thanks for writing.

  5. henry harvey says:

    Excellent piece, IMO. One of your very best I think. Like you I’ve always had a problem – from age 7 – with the notion that each warring nation would earnestly pray that the other be blown into oblivion, possibly eternal damnation; and, in the case of England and Germany, actually use the same “Book of Common Prayer” (in translation, of course).

    Privately a prayer might go “… never mind the other 7.1 billion souls, God, this conversation is about ME. What I want/need/demand is …. that has to be small potatoes for you, but for me it’s a big deal.” You also reminded me of a time when I put your mother’s words into practice. An old friend whose father owned a boatyard suggested we sail, girlfriends in tow, across the Norfolk Broads first to a pub for a pint or two, then onto another “charming village” for afternoon tea, scones, cream, jam. On the return trip, some 9 miles from base – yes, the wind failed so we took to the oars. What oars? All we could find was a toy paddle not much bigger than a Q-tip. Not a high traffic area, one boat per hour. It was about 3 hours before someone with an outboard noticed our predicament. Girlfriends did a lot of tut-tutting. He married his, though. I didn’t, left for New York instead.

    Richard Rex

  6. henry harvey says:

    I am imagining a cartoon: The “prayer police” materialize in the bedroom of a small munchkin, mirrored sunglasses on and a ticket book out and awaiting scribbles. “Let’s see now, do you really think praying is the appropriate forum for asking that Suzie’s pigtails turn into garter snakes? “I don’t know. What does appropriate forum mean?”
    I have an acquaintance who prays so often…hours daily, I believe, that I think her time might be better spent just trying to solve things on her own.
    I don’t think God is supposed to be anyone’s lackey.

  7. henry harvey says:

    That’s quite an interesting perspective you have on prayers. My prayers usually are thanking God for my blessings, but I do pray for people’s healing and ask God to show me the way when I’m lost. Your’s is a very interesting perspective. I’ll have to ask God what he thinks.
    Chris F.
    Ps Did you ever find Oogie? He was special!

  8. henry harvey says:

    Hi Chris,

    Oogie was, indeed, our very special boy. I always thought of him as our somewhat short, furry, and nonverbal other son. We will miss him always.

    I’m glad you found the essay interesting. Sometimes you write to make someone chuckle. Sometimes you write to show & tell some new concept or technological breakthrough. And sometimes you write to ask an important question.
    I’ll be curious to hear what God tells you! Should prove interesting.


  9. Henry Harvey says:

    Nice Job, Henry.

    Mary Lou

  10. Henry Harvey says:

    Thanks, Mary Lou,
    Coming from you that’s high praise.


  11. Henry Harvey says:

    Thanks for this, I appreciated reading it.

    Here is something I wrote about prayer and social change that may interest you.

    I saw you went to F & M. My father was a professor/dean/acting president of F & M in the 50’s and 60’s, G. Wayne Glick. Any chance you were there then?


    Ted Glick

  12. Henry Harvey says:

    Hi Ted,

    Thanks for your reply. To answer your question, I went to F&M just a bit later than your dad when he was a prof and dean there. One of my friends and mentors was Dean Lacy, possibly the guy who replaced your dad. He was a character and we had many discussions/ arguments. He was the one who convince me NOTto be a psychiatrist.

    On a whim I googled your name to see who the heck you are. I think, we are something of chronological peers. I seriously considered avoiding the draft (lottery of 17) was a direct route to “Nam”. and my dad was a best-selling writer, and author of Air War Vietnam, a best seller, soo…I thought long and hard about Canada. I enlisted, went through OTS and had my trial-by-fire and crucifixion in pilot training when I refused to fly anything with napalm or machine guns. They didn’t nail me to a cross literally but figuratively. Wrote a 700 pg book about that entitled Peace Sign,
    I’m glad that you’ve put your money where your mouth (and soul are). Not many put it on the line the way you have done. …..You must be pretty skinny now…….
    It looks like we’re not in complete agreement regarding praying, but then…I was a philo major and we were taught to be hyper-picky on the details.

    Thanks for your input. You look like a good man.
    When I’m not pissing people off on the internet, I’m a writer, 18 books to date and counting and a sculptor for 45+ years. Writing’s more challenging than sculpting.

    Thanks for your input. Stay in touch.


  13. Henry Harvey says:

    Interesting observations and well-written expression of a very worthwhile topic! As Jews (although the zealots seem to have forgotten this message), we’re taught to question anything and everything – including G-d and prayer! Now, that’s a tough (blasphemy?) concept for many practicing faith-based religions!

    I often hear people saying, they’ll pray for me, and while I genuinely appreciate the sentiment and sincerity, somehow, I just can’t bring myself to say such a phrase. So, instead of saying, “I’m praying for you and Pamela”, please know you’re both in my thoughts. Along with the “healing hugs” I’m sending long distance, “y’all” have my heartfelt wishes for brighter, healthier days!

    All the best,


  14. Henry Harvey says:

    Hi Laura!

    Yes, I have one particular gal who likes to pray for me an awful lot. I’m pretty sure it’s not all that kindly, though. She’s decided I’m going to burn in Hell, and she just can’t work up the energy or impetus to release me to Satan. I’m just guessing here.
    For me, a deal-breaker is if someone states that a topic is beyond questioning. Nothing should be beyond questioning. If a topic can’t be questioned…can’t withstand an honest and sincere question, something is dreadfully wrong.

    Thanks for ever-insightful comments.

  15. Henry Harvey says:

    Oh, I don’t make wishes any more. Those grantors-of-wishes gods have a keen sense of irony and humor. Whenever a wish of mine has come true, it’s almost never in the way that I’d wanted – and, usually in a way that I’d never thought.

    Sort of like going to the psychic that used to be in New Hope on the corner of I-Don’t-Remember-the-Street-Name and the main drag (near the theater). She would tell me things, and darned if many of them eventually played out – but not the way I’d expected or interpreted her pronouncements. (She was amazing, by the way – Vivian May.)

    And, then there’s: “Be careful what you wish for; you may get it.” Or, “When G-d wants to punish you, She gives you what you wish for.”

    Best to just stick to the old adage: ’Just take one day at a time.”

  16. Henry Harvey says:

    Hey Nan,

    Interesting question: Is there a difference between wishes and prayers? I think so. I wish I had a new Maserati parked in my driveway, but I wouldn’t pray for one. Well, I wouldn’t pray for much of anything. I wish I were about 20 years younger, too, though I suspect I’d probably regret that one. Maybe wishing is secular praying.


  17. Henry Harvey says:

    I hate the sayings that god has a master plan or we have choices. If you put an infinite number of monkeys in front of an infinite number of typewriters, eventually one will type out god’s master plan. Then we would know it for sure. This might explain the huge loss of lives in WWII and other times in history. Or why 9 religious wonderful people were murdered while praying and studying the bible in church or why a crane collapsed on a sacred mosque killing 107 people in prayers.

    In my mind, there are an infinite number of universes, of which we are one that follow the laws of physics and cycle through birth to death. Then collapse and recycle again. No beginning and no end. So who is this all knowing power that so many pray to? It can’t be a woman because Isis and all of the historic butchers wouldn’t exist. What’s wrong with just decent kindness? And the Garden of Eden wouldn’t even be a gated community.

    I won’t waste my time praying…never did….but I will always keep honest good thoughts for those I care about.

  18. Henry Harvey says:

    Hey Phil,

    I had a classic moment a while ago when a priest was sent in to my hospital room to see if I wanted to say some last prayers……a bit unnerving. I told him I wasn’t going to become a hypocrite at this late stage of the game. It’s a myth that all deists, agnostics, and secularists turn to religion when the going gets tough.


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