Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What Should I Pray For?

Some questions are questions in themselves; their intent is known only to the one asking. 
What should I pray for --- Why should I bother? I don’t think there is a God who is listening. What should I pray for --- There are so many things I want/need, which should I pray for? What should I pray for --- Who am I, to ask/tell a God what should be done? 
As you can see, the question almost becomes a philosophical one, with many subtle differences based on the mind of one who might pray.  But regardless of whether one should pray or not, what particular thing should be prayed for, or how much we believe God values our requests, the REAL question we want answered is: Will He give me what I am praying for?  At least that question sounds like one which has a more direct answer:  Yes or no?  There is, however, for many who would ask that blunt question of God yet another subtlety in their intent:  You know, God, if You loved us, You’ll say “Yes.”
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The dice game called “Craps” sounds simple.  Little children sometimes play it (although their parents probably give it some other name).  You roll two dice and if the total comes up 7 or 11 on the first roll, you win, but if it comes up 2 or 3 or 12, you lose.  Any other number on the first roll becomes your point, which you try to roll again to win before you roll a 7, in which case you lose. 
So, on the first roll you could win, lose, or neither --- you must continue to roll.  And if you neither win nor lose on the first roll, on subsequent rolls you could also win, lose, or neither.  You might roll the dice once, and the game is over, or you might roll the dice many times and find the game just continuing, until you win or lose.  The rules seem fairly simple, until you look up the Vegas Rules For Craps and you see the many ways you can place bets on the outcome of a roll, and the many differing payoff rates, which have to do with the odds of a particular number coming up on the two dice, since some numbers can come up only one way (two is a one on each die), while other numbers can come up multiple ways (six is three and three, or four and two (or two and four), or five and one (or one and five)).  You can see that the fairly simple rules about when you win or lose become more complex when you start betting on a particular outcome.
I wonder what the people in Vegas playing craps are praying for?  Well, first off it depends on if the one rolling the dice is on his first roll or a subsequent roll in the same game:  for instance, the number seven wins on the first roll, but the same number seven loses on a subsequent roll.  And to some degree what you are “praying” for depends on your degree of daring (or your confidence in God answering your prayers), since a bet on the number two can win one way after the first roll, but the number six can win 5 ways. 
In at least one way the game of “Life”, our life, is like that game of Craps in Las Vegas.  Like us, people there are praying and wondering:  Will He give me what I am praying for?  And certainly even we could give some relative odds of OUR “winning number,” a prayer answered coming up:  If I pray for snow tomorrow and the forecast is for ninety degrees, the odds are probably quite low that my prayer will be answered.  But the people in Las Vegas have one huge advantage over us:  They are in the room where the events of the game are taking place.  We are not.
The people in Vegas can see everything happening in the game, and understand it.  They can see, for instance, that the roller of the dice has just rolled the winning number seven, a total of fifty times in a row:  what are the odds, do you think, that he will roll seven again?  And does he look a little woozy and sweaty, like he is having a heart attack and will fall over before he rolls again?  People in that room can see those things, and have it influence what they bet, and pray for.
But God is not a material being; he is not in “our room” here on earth.  He maintains our existence and can influence material reality --- and He hears our prayers --- but He answers them in ways we cannot always understand.  In part, that is because we don’t understand what we are praying for.  God is “in the room” of all reality, and He sees all that is happening.  We pray for certain outcomes in life, like praying for the number seven to come up in the game of Craps, but not being in the room like He is, we don’t know if what we pray for, the number seven, will win (like on the first roll of the dice) or lose (like on subsequent rolls in a game).  We often think we know what we are praying for, but we really don’t.  We can’t see the whole game.  God can.
I maintain contact with an atheist friend I met when I lived in Europe for a year.  We worked on a project together and got to know each other quite well.  I once went to Germany to visit his home and family.  We agreed on many things, but obviously not all.  Our conversations on matters of God and faith were respectful, but sometimes we just couldn’t understand the other’s viewpoint.  Recently I sent him an email telling about my mom’s deteriorating health, and he responded in sympathy:  “I will keep the fingers crossed that she recovers.”
He is but a man, yet on some things I’ll never be able to figure out how he thinks.  And so why should I ever think that I can figure out how God thinks?  And yet so many of us assume we do.
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A nationally-known speaker came to our small men’s breakfast meeting this past Tuesday.  The topic of his talk was to be our new pope, Francis.  That surely was his intent, however he quickly got into an excited state, and proceeded to tell us about what “he knew” about God’s plan for this pope.  And, by implication, what we should be praying for. 
And as he spoke before us, I wondered what room he was in.
After telling us some of the things recently said and done by our new pope, and highly praising him, the speaker made a statement “that is going to shock some of you: Unlike our last two popes, this pope will fail.”  He went on to describe the major accomplishments of Popes JPII and Benedict XVI, and noted that Pope Francis will not focus on the same areas.  “This is the first truly post-Vatican II pope; he wasn’t there.  The last two popes implemented and clarified the results of Vatican II, and now that era of the Church, so much talked about and focused on, is closed.”  Those popes could implement Vatican II, but this pope will find it difficult to implement many changes in the Church, in a Church and in a world which so needs to change.
And I wanted to stand up and shout: “Oh ye of little faith!!”
But I didn’t.  The speaker went on to state what we all knew about the state of the Church and society, declining attendance, growing acceptance of sin and moral relativism, and the sexual abuse scandal which will continue to cripple Church leadership for many years to come: “The media will not let it die.”  “If the Church and society are to change,” he noted, “the lay faithful will have to step up and live the faith they say they believe.”  He went on to talk about the importance of subsidiarity, and how we must lead by example --- at least on this he and I would agree.  He stated rather bluntly that this pope would fail without us, and could only succeed with us, and our track record has not been too good in recent years. 
The men sitting around the breakfast tables (and a goodly number of women who attended to hear this speaker) asked questions or made comments which seemed intent on defending the laity.  “When was the last time you heard abortion or gay marriage preached from the pulpit?”  Another asked: “When was the last time we heard sin preached?”  And another questioned about the poor catechesis in even Catholic schools, “our kids are not taught the faith.”  It seemed a debate:  “The Church isn’t able to lead” versus “We need leaders.”  It kind of reminded me of the blind leading the blind, and of my namesake, Thomas, who wouldn’t believe or understand “unless I put my fingers in the nail holes, and my hand in His pierced side.”  If we don’t have it all neatly laid out in front of us and explained in the way we want it, we can’t believe it can happen.  Both sides of the debate implied a “prayer” about what God should do, but neither was in His room!
Oh ye of little faith!!
The pope will fail without us?  The shepherd needs to rely on the work of the sheep in order to succeed?  The parable I recall was not one in which the Shepherd went out and got lost and the sheep had to go and find him, it was the other way around.  When Jesus spoke to Peter, He said:  Lead My sheep, not “Listen to My flock.” 
The whole discussion brought to my mind another good friend of mine, who went to great lengths to “do the will of the Holy Spirit.”  He drafted a 70+ page proposal to implement large numbers of small groups in a parish, so that they could teach each other and be open to the workings of the Holy Spirit, and then they could meet and decide on what needed to be done within the parish, freeing the priest for other duties (“Go into your room and pray,” I guess).  With all good intentions, my friend too thought that priests were too busy, in too short a supply, couldn’t preach enough, and the people needed to take charge.  Fortunately (in my opinion), his proposal was not implemented, although many in the parish agreed with it.
Our speaker on Tuesday said that the laity must step up, but I’m not sure I agree.  Considering all the points he made about the weakened position of Church leadership, I don’t think that the laity taking charge is the answer.  There are so few (and even the speaker would agree on this) who are sufficiently catechized --- or in a personal relationship with Christ --- capable of leading, how can they “take charge?”  If people will not follow the Church leadership, why would they follow those who do?  No, instead of the laity stepping up, it seems to me that the religious leaders must step down.  If people are not listening to preaching (and whether something is preached or not, if the people are not in the church they can’t hear), then the priests must stop preaching and act, and lead not in words but in love. 
St. Francis did not come out preaching to the people of his day, he acted among them, in love.  And the people followed, and the Church of his time was reformed.  Yes, in our day subsidiarity needs to come to life and the laity need to act out in faith, but they are not listening to the words of priests nor will they listen to words of each other.  I believe that the Holy Spirit recently directed the votes of 115 men in Vatican City, and a Pope Francis was chosen, the answer to our prayers, even if we don’t know what to pray for.  Oh people of little faith, HAVE faith.  Don’t pray for --- or even demand --- God to do your will, humbly accept His, even if you do not understand why it is good for you. 
Our speaker Tuesday loudly proclaimed in his closing: “We must act!”  I agree, but humbly I must also state that: “We must follow!”
And I think God has given us a leader. 
You can read my conversion story or blurbs on the sidebar of this blog: when it comes to spiritual matters in my life, I HAVE acted in the past, doing all I thought was right.  And I so often failed.  It was only when I asked if I might help God do what HE thought was right in my life, that I began to succeed, when I (a great leader in my own mind) became humble enough to say “I will follow.”
And these days, I pray for nothing else. 
I won’t roll the dice and trust in myself alone, or “cross my fingers”.     

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