Today — as on many days — a Facebook friend asked for prayers. Almost immediately replies poured in. "I'm on it!" "Praying for you now!" Others posted the little emoticons of folded hands or hands reaching up in the air.
I didn't respond. Does this make me an awful person? I hope not. I just have a different idea of how to pray.
I used to pray all the time. I thought of God as a gumball dispenser of "good" stuff. But when the situation was not resolved my way, or in a manner that seemed positive to me, my faith was rocked. Of course, I see now that this wasn't God's shortcoming. It was my shortcoming. When I prayed to God for a specific outcome, I set myself up for disappointment.
So how does prayer transform me?
In my experience, prayer is transformative when (and only when) I ask God to change my perspective on a situation. I am not asking him to change my ex-husband or my son or the woman who bugs the crap out of me in the check-out line at Publix. I'm asking God to change me, to change the way I see and respond to the situations and people who challenge me. When I make that request, something miraculous happens even though I'm usually not conscious of it right away.
The moment I let go of my fixed approach to a situation or person and I allow that maybe, just maybe there's another way to resolve the situation, I feel relief. Maybe, just maybe, there's a new thought or idea that could shed a peaceful light on the day. That's what prayer does for me. It creates a little crack in my closed-up-tighter-than-a-drum-mind and that crack allows another idea —a better idea—to enter.
The good news is this: No matter how hard I pray, I don't believe God is not going to change his approach. He's not going to say, "You know, I was going let you to suffer, but now since you asked so nice and said pretty-please, sure I'll spare that terminally ill person's life, allow you to come into a small fortune, or keep your child from being arrested for a crime he committed." The God of my understanding is too wise to work that way. And yet, I used to give God suggestions for how and why to effect our lives —as if God needs help knowing what to do!
Years ago, I realized I had no idea how to pray. I was trying to amend my control freak ways, and dictating my wish list to God just didn't seem like the best way to go about things anymore. So I googled, "How to pray for God's will in my life?" Within a second, there were more than 20 million answers/results. Among them was an answer that was so obvious it made me laugh: The Lord's Prayer. As it turns out, Jesus was once asked the same thing by his disciples. His answer? "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done ... give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and deliver us from evil ..."
In The Lord's Prayer, Jesus didn't ask God to transport him into a world without suffering. He asked for acceptance, for forgiveness and to be sustained. Later, in that same New Testament passage, Jesus goes on to tell his disciples that not only will God answer our prayers, but he will always provide a healthy answer — never one that causes pain and suffering.
According to Luke 11:9-13, Jesus put it this way, "So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened. 11 Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? 12 Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? 13 If you then, being (human)*, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?”
Jesus says, "ask." Simple. He doesn't say, "specifically ask for what you think is best." He just says, "Ask." Ask for help, guidance, relief.
And then, he says, "Receive." Although he doesn't exactly spell this out in Luke, I believe he means accept the answer, accept what is given to you. Receive the outcome. Don't whine that it wasn't what you thought you wanted. And I love that Jesus goes on to clarify and affirm by essentially saying, "Hey, God isn't a sadist. He's not going to give you poison. He's going to give you 'good gifts'." But I must be open to the possibilities, and accept that whatever comes is a "good gift" — no matter how crumby it might appear to be at first.
Although Buddhists don't pray to God in the same way Christians do, Buddhist Zen Master Kyong Ho provided this beautiful perspective on prayer:
“Don’t wish for perfect health. In perfect health there is greed and wanting. So an ancient said, ‘Make good medicine from the suffering of sickness.’
Don’t hope for a life without problems. An easy life results in a judgmental and lazy mind. So an ancient once said, ‘Accept the anxieties and difficulties of this life.’
Don’t expect your practice to be always clear of obstacles. Without hindrances the mind that seeks enlightenment may be burnt out. So an ancient once said, ‘Attain deliverance in disturbances.’”
Buddhism has taught me to not ask for an outcome that only benefits me, but to pray for an outcome that will benefit many, many people — if not everyone in the whole, wide world. That's how karma (cause and effect) works; its ripples extend out to the shore. Things that happen in this life are not all about me. Events that occur are not even all about my family, or my extended family, or my community. But I can sit there and ask for a specific outcome because I know what's best ... Right.
So if you post a request for prayers on Facebook, I may not respond, but I will pray for you to make a place in your heart for acceptance of what is. Ultimately, I believe that’s how God answers all of our prayers: He creates a place in our hearts for reality.
* The Luke translation actually reads "if you being evil," but I contend evil is a little over the top. I translate this to mean that if even parents who are human and flawed want to give your children wholesome things, then you can imagine how God, the Divine, who is not selfish or fearful, would want to give his children only the best.