There is No ‘I’ in ‘Prayer.’
By Christian Piatt
Originally printed in the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper
I was with my wife, Amy, in Mexico last week for vacation. She found a small store, sandwiched between a convenience market and a show shop, which sold more religious paraphernalia than I ever knew existed.
Amy was particularly drawn to the milagros (Spanish for ‘miracle’) which are little metal emblems, stamped in Italy – and I assume blessed by priests – with the images of various saints, scriptures and other religious icons. She enjoyed poring over the scores of glass jars, selecting just the right ‘miracle’ for friends and family back home.
When we went to the front to pay, I ducked to avoid a clothes line, hanging just over the counter. Although I am of average height in the states, I feel like an adolescent to big for his body in many Mexican structures. The line was covered in hundreds of rosaries, the small strings of prayer beads used in the Catholic tradition.
Right next to the rosaries were clothespins holding the most recent scratch-off lottery tickets for sale.
Now, that’s interesting product placement, I thought.
Although I’m sure the proximity of the prayer beads and lottery tickets was coincidental, it got me to thinking about the reasons we pray. Last year, Newsweek and an online service called Beliefnet joined together do conduct a prayer survey. When asked, “What do you think is the most important purpose of prayer?” The most popular answer at 27 percent was “to seek God’s guidance.”
Close behind that were along the lines of giving thanks and drawing closer to the Divine. Lagging far behind at an anemic nine percent was “To improve a person’s life.”
Call me a skeptic, but I think this survey reflects a lot more about what we think intellectually about prayer than what we actually do. At the risk of beating a dead horse, I feel the urge to revisit the Prosperity Gospel concept once more.
I’m not suggesting that we’re all praying to win the lottery, although it’s my guess that more than one in ten sends up a good word when the Powerball creeps up over $100 million. From personal experience, I like to think that I make prayer a regular discipline to help strengthen my spiritual connection, but often times, I find myself forgetting to make it such a regular habit: that is, until I need something.
The explosion of the popularity of what I call “self-help Jesus” spirituality, from the eighties and on into the new century, suggests I’m not the only one. Such teaching has many champions such as Joel Olsteen, Joyce Meyer and the Copelands.
It’s quite a system, really. The principal is that God want’s the world’s righteous to prosper (materially), and that one of the main ways you show your faithfulness, aside from praying for affluence, is to give significant amounts of money to these ministries. This comes in many forms, including outright gifts, as well as book sales, lecture admission fees and more. I don’t know if Joel Olsteen sells T-shirts at his gigantic rallies, but it would not shock me.
The effect is self-evident. If you’re not growing in material abundance, you’re not working the system right. Duh!
It’s easy to castigate such a distortion of the gospel that not only fits so easily into the greedy value system of modern America, but also makes its proponents incredibly rich.
It’s not wrong to ask God for things. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us as much. But Jesus asks only for daily bread, not the whole stinking factory. Also, the whole prayer is in ‘we’ language. Nowhere in his prayer is the first person ever introduced.
If Jesus was around today, what would our modern-day Prosperity Gospel mavens tell him about his life of poverty? They’d probably tell him to pray harder, or maybe say he just wasn’t giving enough.