A famous philosopher once visited a church to give a lecture entitled “A Critique of the Existence of God.” His lecture took place in the church’s fellowship hall. It was very well attended, with over one thousand people.
Yet, after a while, the professor noted that the audience was beginning to leave.
Finally, when only a few people were left, the professor asked the group if he had been talking too long. One man answered, “No, your lecture is not too long. And you have proved to almost everyone’s satisfaction that God does not exist. But it’s almost time for our prayer service. And, God forbid, we wouldn’t want to be late.”
This perplexing story challenges us to think about the meaning of prayer. Do we always agree with the words we say? In Judaism, we say a prayer asking God to revive the dead. Do we think God can and will do so? We ask God to water the plants of the field. Do we believe God makes it rain?
These types of prayers have led many scientists to reject religion as infantile and illogical. Yet, the purpose of prayer is not to teach science. It is to speak to the soul. We can pray what we do not believe by thinking differently about prayer. Prayer can be symbolic, mysterious and inner-directed.
Why do we take offense when a person tramples on the American flag? It is simply a piece of cloth. Yet, when we look at the flag or say the pledge of allegiance, we see it as a symbol of our country and our values.
The language of prayer is symbolic as well. When we say God revives the dead, we do not literally mean God opens a grave and breaths into a person who has died. Rather, we think of the way people live on through others. God revives the dead when we bring new life into the world.
Embrace the Mystery
One of the conceits of American society is the belief we can find all the answers. We can fix any problem with enough hard work and intelligence. This belief improves our world and leads to innovation. Yet, it will never satisfy us. The more we know, the more we realize how much more there is to know.
Albert Einstein wrote that scientists ultimately realize that “some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe.” In other words, scientists know they will never know all the answers.
When it comes to prayer, we can embrace the mystery as well. Prayer speaks to the heart, not just the mind.
Focus on the purpose of prayer
The Hebrew word for prayer suggests that it is not directed only toward God.It is also directed at ourselves. In other words, we do not pray simply to recite truths or impress God with our devotion. We pray to lift our spirits and move our hearts.
Prayer can transform us in a way ordinary language cannot. Consider the difference between an instruction manual and poem. We read one to get information. We read another to get inspiration. Prayer is like poetry.
But it goes beyond poetry in that it draws it also conveys a moral and spiritual imperative. It is not meant simply to entertain us. It is not meant simply to teach us. It is mean to guide us, to transform us, to lead us to a better life.
We pray not so that God hears us. We pray so we can hear God.
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