Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

On Religion: Prayer is our personal link with God

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‘‘It was a dark and stormy night.” Thus opens ‘‘Paul Clifford,” the 1830 novel by Bulwer-Lytton that is the butt of many jokes about florid Victorian writing. It is also the opening line of many a novel written by Snoopy. There must be something special about that line or the atmosphere it creates for it or something like it has been a part of literature for generations.

Without using the line directly, Shakespeare begins ‘‘The Tempest” with a ‘‘dark-and-stormy-night” opening. In act one, scene one, we find a small ship being tossed to and fro in the middle of a raging storm. Amidst the general confusion, the boatswain tries with little success to control both the ship and the people. When all seems hopeless and the ship is in peril of going down, the mariners enter the scene crying, ‘‘All lost! To prayers, to prayers! All lost!”

What a time to decide to pray. The ship is sinking and their lives are in imminent danger, so finally the mariners think that prayer might be appropriate. Surely we’re not that way, are we? We don’t wait until the last minute to pray, do we? I hope you don’t, but I’m afraid I do.

I believe I was given a good dose of the old ‘‘a man handles his own problems and doesn’t ask for help.” I don’t think I am alone with that attitude. Perhaps that approach was needed in a cut-throat, competitive past, but it surely is inappropriate in our society today. And, it never was appropriate when it came to prayer.

Prayer is supposed to be communication with God who loves us unconditionally and who wants good things for us. God created us in His image to be in relationship with Him, and prayer is one of the main ways in which we do this. Rather than wait for our ship to be sinking to begin our prayers, we need to start ahead of time so we will have built a base when the crises come.

If we are to pray, we need to find our pattern. What’s good for the goose may not be good for the gander. Each of us is a unique child of God.

We have all been given different gifts and experiences and attitudes. We need to allow these God-given attributes to direct our prayer lives. Some of us will pray best in hour-long sessions once a day; others of us will pray best in 30-second connections throughout the day. Whatever our personal prayer style, we need to find and follow it.

Next we need to pray regularly. Prayer is communication with God, and communication needs to be done on a regular basis. We probably all have friends from high school with whom we can pick up a conversation after a decade of silence, but close friendships can’t survive silent intervals that lengthy. We need to communicate with God every day so our prayer lives will develop a richness for us.

Finally, we need to look and listen for answers. Prayer is communication with our Heavenly Father who loves us completely and good communication involves a dialog between both parties. Occasional monologues between friends are fine, but few relationships can survive on them for long.

God has said that He wants to be in communication with us, so we need to allow time to hear Him speak.

We also need to look for answers in our daily living. Often God will answer our prayers in ways and at times that we don’t expect. If we will open our eyes, we will see.

Dr. Benjamin G. Davis was executive director of the Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs in Frederick from 1996-99, teaches theology at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore and is president of University College at the University of Northern Virginia. If you would like to respond to his column, e-mail him at bdavis.admin@unva.edu.