The Vaule of Prayer (Requests)
The last article I wrote was about the biggest benefit religion possesses: its strong sense of community. That feeling of unity and belonging that the Christian community provided is maybe the thing I miss most about being a religious person. But coming in at a close second are prayer requests.
For the ten years I went to Christian school, every day started with the opportunity to share prayer requests followed by a prayer that dutifully addresses all concerns. Prayer request time was supposed to be time set aside for spiritual introspection and communion with fellow believers, but it always devolved into nothing more than story-telling time. And I loved it. We had a way of taking a story that we wanted to tell and twisting it to make it either a prayer request or an object of praise:
“Last night, when we were coming home from soccer practice, it was really dark outside. A dog ran right in front of our car and my dad had to slaaaam on the breaks! We all started screaming because we thought he had hit the dog. My sister even started to cry. My dad got out to make sure the dog was okay and saw him walking along the sidewalk across the street. He got back in the car and told us the dog was alright. My mom said that maybe we should go pick it up so that it wouldn’t get hurt or cause an accident. So we took the dog home and called the number on its tags and its owner came and picked it up. I’m thankful to God that my family and the dog were not hurt and that it got to go home to its family.”
Human beings love to tell stories. It’s the primary way that we learn and relate to each other. I can still remember the feeling of excitement as I sat at my desk with my hand raised, waiting for the teacher to call on me so that I could tell the entire class my new and exciting story–err–I mean, prayer request. One thing that I particularly loved about prayer request time was not only the fact that I got to tell stores and listen to stories, but that I got to listen to stories from people who I wasn’t necessarily friends with. My own stories also reached this larger audience of my school-mates, where normally they would be relegated to the realm of the lunch table in the corner that my friends and I always shared. These were people who I wouldn’t usually converse with, but I nonetheless had a desire to share events of my life with them because I felt a sense of connectedness and community with them.
As I go about life as a secular adult, I find myself often wishing I could go back to my fourth grade class room and share some of my prayer requests with a communal audience. I find that I have have so many stories to tell, but no good platform from which to do so. Sure, I can talk to my husband when he gets home from work, but it isn’t quite the same as telling a story to a large group of casual acquaintances who can actually learn something about me through my story. I wish that I could tell my entire German class that I saw a squirrel holding up one of its paws as it ran past me that morning, and that I really hoped it would be okay and that it wasn’t in pain. I feel the same sort of connectedness and community with my German class that I did with my fellow fourth-graders. We’re all students at the same school, we all live in the same area, we all know each others’ names. But the reality of the situation is that in this grown-up day-to-day life there is little opportunity for that kind of random non-sequitur, self-revelatory story. I wish I could feel like my German class was enough of a community that I could be permitted my non-sequitur for the sake of bonding and communion, but rules of propriety keep me quiet.
I see the value of prayer requests from a Humanist perspective. They help inspire and support the structure of a community. They allow a large community to freely share stories with one another—to relate to one another—without worrying about propriety, without worrying about sounding self-centered, and without worrying if the other person actually cares. If it is a request to God, there is always a legitimate reason for sharing. Not so with my squirrel story and my German class, unfortunately. I worried about that squirrel all day, and I wanted so badly to feel like it was okay to tell someone about it, but I never found the opportunity. If only I still went to church.
(cross-posted from orDover)