Say a little prayer for me I Chuck's World

Oct 11, 2017

I have a few things to say about despair, so I’ll start off with a joke.

An elderly man, having led an exemplary life, said a prayer one day. “All I ask, in my old age,” he prayed, “is to win the lottery. Just a small one, to ease my burden.”

He said this prayer every day, for weeks and weeks. He was a devout man, an angel among us, treating his fellow beings as he would like to be treated, and so on. A good guy, humble and modest.

And, eventually, frustrated, which he took out on God. “What have I done?” he wailed. “I only asked for this one thing, and yet I’ve been rejected. Why can’t I just win the lottery, for once?”

Suddenly, the heavens opened, and a booming voice from above replied to his pleas.

“The least you could do is buy a ticket.”

This is a church joke, an old reliable, and I’ve heard a number of variations. It’s actually an object lesson dressed up as a joke, meant to be instructive. Prayer is all well and good, it implies, but reliance on intercession by a benevolent power can only go so far. We have some responsibility here.

Prayer strikes me as an odd subject for the news in 2017, but that’s where it’s been hanging out lately. If you follow the constant conversation that passes for commentary, you’ve probably seen some pushback on “prayers and concerns.”

Since the advent of social media, where we come to judge the quick and the trite, “prayers and concerns” has become the go-to phrase for many who wish to express their solidarity with the unfortunate among us, mostly victims of tragedies.

And we’ve had our share of tragedies lately. As the horror piles up from Harvey, Irma, Maria, the Mexican earthquake, and now the worst mass shooting in American history, so do the platitudes, particularly from our leaders. And if we sniff out hypocrisy in these, see politicians unwilling to vote for relief or for some legal redress we see as necessary, it’s easy to get disgusted.

My newsfeed is filled with these, articles and statements of disgust at the hypocrisy of offering words in lieu of action. I share this disgust.

But this avalanche of outrage has crept into our civic conversation, and the other day, skimming Facebook as I do, peeking between my fingers, hoping for pretty pictures and no politics, I saw several posts, all screeds against “prayers and concerns,” condemning the phrase as useless and an excuse for inaction. This bothered me a bit.

I wrote something online about this, then, and that’s where the despair came from.

“Despair” is an old word. It looks vaguely French and it is, but it’s rooted in the Latin verb “sperare,” which means “to hope.” Add in the prefix and it becomes the absence of hope, and that’s where I found myself.

I have no business defending prayer. I have confusing and sometimes contradictory feelings about it, although I routinely participate in corporate prayer, and I’ve had my experience with the private variety. Most of us have, though; surveys demonstrate that all sorts of people pray occasionally, from the devout to the disinterested, to the skeptical, to the atheist.

Whether deliberate or involuntary, it seems human to send our fears and desires out into the universe, looking to phone home.

Because we’re helpless, of course. Not always, but often. I imagined someone like my mother, horrified by the events in Las Vegas, unable to do anything other than observe the details, feeling the need to express her sorrow, offering up a “thoughts and prayers” comment and being attacked for it.

“Prayer does nothing!” they scream.

They have a point. Intercessory prayer (i.e., praying on behalf of others) can be twisted into a cruel shape, implying a heavenly vending machine where only certain people have the correct change. It makes no sense to me, and I’m somebody who goes to church every week.

It was the broad-brushing that bothered me, and I tried to point out that ordinary people, people who have no real power to effect change other than by voting and trying to influence their elected leaders, don’t deserve to be scorned for their prayers. It’s rude, and thoughtless. Save it for the people who can actually buy the lottery ticket.

It didn’t seem to work. The comments I got from this piece I wrote were defensive and unwavering. People should use other words, one of them said, ones that don’t encourage delusions, and several of my friends doubled down on political hypocrisy as if I hadn’t mentioned it. As if I were stupid, and needed correction.

Maybe. There are real victims in all of this, and they’re not the ones who offer prayers. I don’t think being snide to people about this is a national crisis, or worthy of concern. People who pray won’t suffer, and people who sneer at them aren’t evil. And, again, political platitudes without action deserve to be called out.

But I don’t believe prayer is a platitude. I suspect, in fact, that it’s formalized hope. Perhaps foolish hope, but hope.

I have lots of hope, actually. I just despaired a little the other day that in this divided world, decent people seemed eager to find an enemy, and uninterested in considering that, with our self-righteous and divisive scorn, it might be us.

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