“We’ve got to pray just to make it today.”
MC Hammer

Every major religious tradition includes vast tracts of wisdom on the notion of prayer. Prayer is a mechanism that enables mortals to talk with the gods that created the universe. There isn’t a lot of magic to it; some traditions have more rituals around prayer than others but even still, its a fairly rudimentary concept. We transmit and a receiving god hears and decides what she wants to do with our request.

People do it every day. Some pray in their cars while they’re driving to work. Others bow reverently at set times. Others wear traditional clothing as a reminder to pray without ceasing. Even those of us who don’t really have a clear idea of who we think might be listening on the other end will pray when times get rough. If you’re on a plane that goes through crazy enough turbulence, there’s a chance you might pray for the first time, just in case. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s an acknowledgement that you like your life and you’d prefer to keep on living it. It’s also a sign that you’re scared, and that’s OK too.

We give thanks. We pray for the sick and hurting. We ask for things.

In other words, lots of people pray. Billions, in fact.

Unfortunately, we in twenty-first century America are prone to develop what comedian Pete Holmes calls a slot-machine god perspective. We put our quarter in by doing our good deeds and we pull the handle when we bow our heads and close our eyes. By our math, the odds should be stacked in our favor. Good things should happen to us in order to balance out the universe. We deserve at least a few cherries because of all of the nice things we’ve said and the dollar bills we’ve given to folks standing on the corner.

The notion is be a nice person, get rewarded. Give so you can get.

At some point, many of us realize the odds aren’t stacked in our favor. Many of us are good people and lots of us have had bad things happen. Lots of us have prayed and haven’t been satisfied with the result. We’ve felt abandoned or forgotten. We are not blessed or highly favored — at least no more than anyone else.

The way that people tend to understand prayer today is pretty convoluted. There are a lot of caveats and conditions and it can be hard to keep up with all of the compromises that we’ve had to make in order to make it work in our rational minds. The base premise is something like this. God has a plan for each person. To some degree, God controls the universe and sets things in motion. Prayer is an avenue to worship God for being a great being, making sure that we are on the train out of here before everything goes to hell, and asking for things in the meantime. We ask for things like financial security, protection over our children, healing for our aging relatives, curing diseases, making ways where there seem to be none.

This scenario is not perfect. Some faith traditions, especially Christian traditions, believe that every day is numbered and that God is a button pusher, lever puller, steam train engineer god who is making everything happen; in other words, he controls everything. Others believe that God set everything in motion and has an overarching plan that we can choose to follow or to mess up.

In either case, we start to see some of the weaknesses with prayer.

What if we pray for something that is outside of God’s plan? Does he amend it or reconfigure the plan with new stipulations? Does he ignore those prayers? What if two people pray for completely different things? Does he refer back to the plan to see which one is more in line? Does he go with the prayers of the holier person? Is there a cosmic lottery?

It gets pretty complicated pretty quickly. The deflection I’ve heard most often is that it isn’t for us to know or it’s more common variant, God works in mysterious ways.

This model of prayer just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense and it’s part of the reason why I simply don’t believe in an interventionist model of god anymore. I reject the idea of slot-machine God and am not wholly convinced that anything your pray about actually gets processed and responded to by any heavenly beings.

But I still pray. Pretty frequently.

I’m content with my view of the universe. God set things in motion billions of years ago in some mysterious way that I don’t care to ever understand and let the universe take shape. Plants grew. People evolved and started learning to get along with each other. God largely stays out of the day-to-day operations. That’s all us. People starving on the streets? That’s on us. Plane crashes? Luck of the draw. Natural disasters? Really crappy luck that we need to figure out how to navigate. God doesn’t stop natural disasters but he doesn’t start them either. He doesn’t give more food to Americans than Africans but he leaves it up to us to figure out how badly we want to choose to ignore the idea that people are starving.

Prayer for me has become more about self-reflection and introspection. It is about speaking things into the world to which we can then choose to be accountable. If we are concerned about making rent next month, vocalizing that need serves to keep us from wasting money on video games or fast food. When we verbalize our deepest desires, we are able to hear the words and they can reinforced in our brains. So when we pray that we want our sick relative to be healed and comforted, we understand that this means that we will be devastated if they die so we should probably tell them that we love them and appreciate them and that we need to be by their bedside listening to their needs. They are the ones dying, after all, and its reasonable that they would have a lot of fear and anxiety that they would like to talk about too. Our presence with them is the peace that we want for them.

When we pray that the hungry will have food but do nothing to ensure that happens, the resulting dissonance isn’t tolerable. Too often we passively put that blame in heaven where it doesn’t belong – I guess it’s not in God’s will for these people to be fed. Then we schedule a meeting with our pastor over Pumpkin Spice Lattes to discuss why God doesn’t show up in the world to make things better.

Praying is not about changing God’s mind. It’s not about bringing the full force of heaven to bear on a particular issue. It’s not about miracles or a God that gets involved in the details of everyday life. It has been coopted by a materialistic culture as a way to get more of what we want. As chosen people, surely God will give us more. There may be elements of these things for sure and I’m not about to discount the role that belief in these sorts of ideas plays in the daily lives of millions of people. I just believe praying is about something fundamentally different.

I grew up in a fairly standard Christian church. One of the pretty standard teachings about worship was to follow the trail of your time, talents, and treasures to find out what you really love in life. The idea is that if you truly love God, then most of your time will be spent with him, thinking about him, doing things for him. Most of your talent will be used to glorify him. Most of your money will be contributed to him. Like many teachings, it started with good intentions but often devolved into a mechanism for delivering guilt that would hopefully motivate people to give and do more.

Prayer is like this. Prayer is about speaking into the universe the things that we desire. It is about us verbalizing the things that we do not understand, about how frustrating it is to see injustice in the world. It is about making known to ourselves and others around us the things that we value and want to work towards. It is difficult to pray for someone for whom you have no compassion, so prayer becomes a way to challenge the ways that we perceive others. It is about building compassion for others. It is about creating change that starts within you rather than asking for it to come from on high. It motivates us to actively engage with the world around us. To feed. To comfort. To protect. To advocate. To heal. To forgive.

To love.

Prayer doesn’t change anything. It changes everything.