Friday, May 18, 2007

Our Father Who Art In Heaven...

Warning!! Longwinded religious type post ahead.

A controversy is brewing in the Ohio legislature regarding the daily prayer being offered at the start of each legislative day. Evidently the ministers being brought in by certain Republican members have used their turn at offering this daily prayer as a chance to appeal to the most holy for affirmation favoring the ministers opinion on business before the legislature.

This brings to mind for me the manner and meaning of prayer. If you are new to reading this blog, let me affirm my faith as a Christian, with a generally liberal point of view on political subjects. I was raised in the finest evangelical traditions with my father being an Assemblies of God preacher in Montana. My earliest memories of formal prayer were of people bowing their heads, closing their eyes and speaking in biblical English to God. If I were feeling particularly mischievous I would half cock my head and look through squinted eyes, trying to catch any others of the gathered faithful who may be cheating by not closing their eyes and so on.

After reaching adult hood I kept my faith, but dropped the trappings of an organized church in favor of simply trying to live my life as best I could, trusting that my sense of right and wrong would be guided as God saw fit. In this new approach I came to believe that prayer was more than a formal supplication to God. To me any time that I was given a situation in which I would think in my own head... what would God like me to do here, that the answer which I felt was appropriate was how I ought to proceed. Therefore prayer for me became the simple outreach to God, in any way that I knowingly would do so, in my own consciousness. Of course doing so formally with head bowed and eyes closes still holds meaning mind you... but so does the much more common inner thought asking for guidance, or thought of thanks for something that has happened.

My understanding of God is that he (I'm sorry for using the male reference, I'm actually not sure that God has a gender as we understand it, but I will use the male reference simply for ease of use) can not be comprehended by the mind of man. I use the analogy of the ant on the airport tarmac trying to understand a Boeing 747. That ant knows the object that looms over it is massively powerful and unbelievably noisy at times... and if the wrong approach is taken to it that the ant and it's entire colony may be wiped from existence with seemingly no effort by the 747. But the ant really has no comprehension of what it is facing. The ant's brain isn't geared to comprehend such things, and even if it were the scale is so massively out of whack that it would take generations of ant research to even start to comprehend the function of a 747, and an eternity for the ants to research the actual mechanics and physics involved. So I always take any assurance that a person understands the will or manner of God with a grain of salt, no matter how holy or righteous that person appears to be, because no matter how much they pretend otherwise, that holy person is still an ant in the grand scheme of things. (My faith does allow for one notable exception to this rule mind you!)

Anyway... to bring this back to the Ohio controversy, I've always been slightly bemused when people take an occasion of formal prayer in order to present a personal point of view to those gathered as if God should righteously decide the matter in their favor. And for me, when a person presents their view via prayer on an issue that is controversial in nature, I start to cringe. Appeals to God for his help in matters which are open to debate or being contested by opposing sides seem crass to me. This is strictly my opinion, and I can relate with the temptation to try to invoke God on your side. I'm just not convinced that he is going to help your team beat the other team, and it is a pretty good bet that the percentage of fans praying for the team you root for is approximate to the percentage praying for victory for the other side. Pray for the health of the players, and that the contest would be enjoyable, with good weather and what not, but don't expect God to make the ball bounce your direction.

Abraham Lincoln famously faced this conundrum when he mused:
The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God can not be for and against the same thing at the same time.

This call for Godly intervention for the side you root for seems highly inappropriate in matters where the issues in question are politically partisan in nature. It would seem that the minister is calling the faith of any who disagree with them into question based upon that ministers opinion of what or what is not Gods view. If I were about to vote on tax funds for religious schooling, and I didn't think the state should be paying for that, I would be a bit peeved to have some preacher man open the session with an appeal to the almighty to open the eyes and show the light to those who do not see the Godly approach to that issue, from the preacher mans perspective anyway.

This is one of the major concerns I have with organized prayer in school. I favor a moment of silence for each student to reflect upon the coming day and use that moment as the student sees fit. But I see a definite danger to having teacher led prayer in public schools, with a diverse body of students. There is a near certainty that any student choosing to no participate would be labeled negatively by their fellow students. For those who did choose to participate, just imagine the diversity of faith in the classrooms across the nation. Can there possibly be an appeal to God which would not offend one group or the other?

Even the manner of the praying is open to debate. I married into a family of very traditional Mormons, and when I visit the inlaws I willingly take part in most of the family activities relating to that faith. The nightly prayer before bedtime is conducted with the family in a circle, on their knees with arms folded over their chests, heads bowed, mischievous kids squinting to see who is cheating. The language of the prayer is biblical, reminiscent of my childhood as the son of an evangelical preacher. I'm certain the inlaws would not be offended at other practices in other families, but many Mormons do hold this style of prayer as nearly a sacred type tradition. Some far eastern traditions involve prayer wheels and some orthodox traditions have incense carrying the supplications to God. My own belief mentioned above would fit perfectly with a moment of silence, but would not be recognized by many faiths as having validity. Who is to even say what prayer actually is?

I believe it is what each of us believe it to be, or even not to be as the case may be. It is a personal matter. Institutions in which the participants do not hold similar beliefs would be well served to approach the issue with due consideration for all those involved. If the Ohio legislature wants to start their day with a prayer, more power to them. If the Ohio Republicans want to turn that event into a chance to politicize God and proselytize for their particular faith... shame on them.

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