Thursday, August 28, 2014

Giving Our Prayers Feet

The American scientist and philosopher Charles Peirce described belief as an idea you are prepared to act on.  If you say you believe something but you are not prepared to act on it, you probably don't really believe it in any meaningful sense of that word.

Of course, there might be a number of ways in which we might act on our beliefs.

What about prayer?  Could praying be a kind of action?

It depends.

Philosopher and atheist Daniel Dennett once described prayer as a waste of time.  I mean literally a waste of time.  If you're praying, he said, you're not engaged in useful activity.  When he was ill, someone offered to pray for him.  His reply:
Surely it does the world no harm if those who can honestly do so pray for me! No, I'm not at all sure about that. For one thing, if they really wanted to do something useful, they could devote their prayer time and energy to some pressing project that they can do something about.  (emphasis added)
I agree with him that if prayer keeps us from doing what we can to alleviate the suffering of the world, we're probably using our time poorly.

On the other hand, as I've argued before, prayer might be essential to other kinds of action.

Giving our money and time is generally a good thing, I think, but I think the giving becomes deeper still when we do as Thoreau urged in Walden: don't just give your money, but give yourself.  In other words, if you've begun by dumping water on your head for an ALS icebucket challenge, great.  Now deepen that giving by making it part of who you are.

If you decide to do that, prayer - or something like it, I don't care what you call it - can make a big difference.  Here's what I mean: giving to charities can be automated, so you can do it without thinking about it.  Set up an automatic bank transfer each month and you can give to as many charities as you can afford, without putting much of yourself in it.  But if you make those philanthropies and missions the intentional object of your thought for part of each day, you might find that you begin to care a lot more about the cause and the people involved.

If praying is the act of giving some of your time to bring together the world's greatest needs and your greatest hopes, then prayer might be the most important thing we can do.  Too often we allow ourselves to divorce others' needs from our hopes, and then the needs of others become allied with our fears. 

This is one reason why I respond to the news each day with prayer.  Sometimes my prayers are simply Kyrie eleison, "Lord, have mercy."  Because sometimes that's all I've got when my heart and mind are overwhelmed.  But if that's all I've got, then it will be my widow's mite, and I'll give it.  By the way, this has the added effect of making me worry less without taking away my desire to act for goodness and justice.

(My friend Anna Madsen has a short, funny, and helpful piece about just that, by the way.  Check it out here.)

All of this was inspired by a moving Facebook post by an alumnus of my college, Caleb Rupert.  Caleb is a thoughtful and creative man, and though I don't know him well, he strikes me as a good egg and as someone who wants to do the best he can in this life.  Here's what he shared on his page:
I'm standing at the bus stop and on the corner is a homeless woman. A kind looking black gentleman is walking by and nearly walks past her to beak the red-hand count down, 5, 4, 3....The gentleman stops, and turns to the homeless woman. He then falls to his knees and says a short prayer; I cannot hear the words, I'm too far away. As he finishes, she looks up and smiles at him. He smiles back and crosses the street. This gentleman gave up an entire two signals to acknowledge this woman through prayer. Though I do not believe that prayer will be heard by any entity other than the person praying and those around them, this does not discount the power, and importance, of acknowledgement of something as wicked as homelessness. A challenge in which so many of us like to ignore or pretend is non-existence, or worse, pretend this challenge is not as harsh and hard as it is. Regardless of my views of the validity of religion, I cannot ignore the importance of it being an entity which can cause those that follow, truly follow, not just "Sunday believers," but those that acknowledge the importance that every prophet and god-son has preached, which is to care for those that suffer and those that struggle. This gentleman, through his beliefs, gave this woman a smile, and the knowledge that when she goes to bed at night, someone is thinking about her and cares about her well being enough to stop and give his God, which he truly devotes himself to, a mention of her. In the end, regardless of a beliefs validity, what I believe is most important is relieving the pain of those that suffer and always remember that there is always someone who hurts more than you and your acknowledgement is the thing that can save them, even for a brief second, relief from that pain.  (Emphasis added)
Caleb's words remind me of Thoreau's, and of Dennett's, and of Jesus's.  Yeah, you read that right.  Because all four of them are concerned with making sure that whatever we do, we act on what we believe, and that we act in a way that tries to make others' lives better.     

I asked Caleb if I could share his words here.  His reply is just as good as his original post.  He said I could post his words, provided I include some links to local food shelves, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters.  I love that.

So I will ask that if you share this post, you do the same thing by posting a link to at least one organization in *your* community that helps the homeless.  In that way, let us make our prayers effective to the best of our ability, and may they rise to whatever heaven may be.

Here are my links for Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  Please consider volunteering your time, giving your money, and remembering them and the people they serve in your prayers.  And as you do so, may your prayers grow feet, and begin to change the world.

The Banquet

Union Gospel Mission

St Francis House 

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes prayer is not a public action for the good, nor valuable just because it triggers or makes possible public action for the good. Bugbee asks how he can answer for men he has shot down in battle and responds that he can do that only through leading a life of prayer. Prayer can be mulling tragic dilemmas or situations where no course of action seems possible, It can be an activity of the inner life, say helping things in one's soul percolate, or considering one's soul as the site where I value my values (WE Hocking). It's a kind of deep mulling and inward struggle (this sort of prayer) in the presence of an attentive listener. There must be people of heart to act with heartfeltness, and prayer (from this angle) prepares the and readies the heart.
    Thanks, David