An old Hasidic story describes a poor farmer who makes a long journey to market with his produce. The day proved longer than expected, and the farmer is forced to spend the night alongside the road as he makes his way home. As he sets up camp, the farmer realizes he has lost his prayer book. He is distressed, as he never went to bed without saying his prayers. So this is the prayer he made:
“Lord, I have been so foolish. I have lost my prayer book and my memory is so bad that I cannot recite a single, proper prayer without it. So, I’m going to say the alphabet slowly and let you – the Knower of All – put the words together as you think best.” When he finished, the Lord said to his angels, “Of all the prayers I have heard today, this was the best, for it came from a heart that trusts me!”
I admit, I don’t know how prayer “works.” Once, I thought I did. “Ask, and ye shall receive. Seek and ye shall find:” That is what Jesus said, I know, but I can’t see how that is a blank check easily cashed at heaven’s ATM. Granted, the Rolex-wearing and forehead-lifted televangelists tell me that all I need is “more faith,” to get what I want.
I think that’s quackery sold under a religious brand name, however. I have seen far too many faithful, saintly people beg heaven for the smallest bit of intervention for the longest possible time, and get nothing but silence. So, no, you can keep the snake oil shelved.
How then should people pray? The Jewish story above might be the best answer. Pray, trusting, leaving all outcomes to God. Pray, as mystic Meister Eckhart likewise instructed, “To have no will but the will to accept God’s will.” Pray, surrendering yourself, your words, and your future to the Knower of All.
This isn’t easy, but it’s bearable if we believe that God is benevolent, gracious, and compassionate. If we can trust that God does not have to have God’s arm twisted to listen, that God doesn’t have to be badgered, begged, and negotiated with, then we might find a more restful, encouraging prayer life. We might even find faith, faith that God is good.
After all, that is God’s name. Every time we say, “God” – in English – we are using an ancient Germanic word: “Good.” Thus, to say God, is to say, “God is good.” It is to answer what Albert Einstein called, “The most important question facing humanity: Is the universe a friendly place?” in hopeful affirmation.
Yes, this is a mystery, for people don’t always have their prayers answered. Sometimes it seems heaven isn’t listening. Our days are full of need, limitation, and unresolved questions. But still we press on – betting our lives, risking our whole existence – on the goodness of God. Such is not a life of certainty, but it is a life of faith.