I am going to knock on the sky and listen to the sound. – Kevin Flynn
I grew up praying to god.
My earliest memories were praying over food, thanking god for our meal. I prayed over cheerios, peanut butter and jelly, and green beens. In our house, in the early days, this simple religious practice actually carried real meaning: we were very thankful to have what we had. I don’t remember much of those times, but I know now that my father, a blue collar worker, didn’t always have steady work and a consistent income. I do remember some times when my dad was home during the middle of the week and not understanding why. But I never remember missing a meal, unless I was being punished for being rebellious me. And, because we were good Christians, we bowed our heads and thanked our ever-present benefactor.
I prayed in church, too. Of all the places I have prayed, that is probably the most typical. I said I prayed, but more correctly the pastor prayed what felt to be interminable prayers (to my young hyperactive mind, anyway). I would sit with head bowed, desperately trying to keep my eyes closed (as a good Christian should), and would resist the urge to pick at the padding that was sprouting from the seat cushion. My first church was actually a civic centre down the street, and we did not file into pews, but sat in big purple chairs, most of which were so worn out that they were becoming disemboweled, and bored three year olds such as myself probably helped with the active destruction.
After that, I remember praying with my family, whenever we had family Bible study time, or at church during Sunday school. With my family we would sit around the living room, and my father would read something from the Bible, and sometimes a supplemental book, and afterwards we would either divide up prayer “requests” and pray, or my father would simply pray himself. During Sunday school I remember our teachers asking for prayer requests and, as we racked our brains for things to pray about, she would write on the chalkboard what we shouted out. Then we would bow to pray.
Somewhere during this time, I began to pray on my own. As a Christian kid I was encouraged to read my Bible by myself, “a quiet time with god” it was called, and then afterwards I was supposed to pray.
Prayer is talking to god.
Or at least, it is supposed to be. I have never once, outside of the Bible, heard of anyone ever having god audibly talk back to a single person. He certainly never spoke to me. In my entire human existence, whenever I have spoken to another person, I have almost always received a reply back. Even passing someone in the supermarket, and murmuring an “excuse me” usually warranted a grunt response. God is perhaps the most tight lipped person I have ever met.
This puzzled me even as a small boy picking stuffing out of my chair. Why did god never speak to me? Later I was taught that god was definitely speaking to me: “through” the Bible. In reading those hallowed words I was hearing the words of god to me. That was fine for a little kid, and because this whole Bible and Christian thing was so new to me, it worked, because I hadn’t read much of the Bible yet before and there were exciting stories to be distracted by. But, as I got older, and read more (and most of it from the library, not the Bible) I realized that the concept of god talking to me through the Bible was a poor method of communication. For one thing, god said the same thing to everyone and what he said never changed, and was never supposed to. For another, he always spoke to people who lived two thousand years ago, or even older folks, and he tended to speak in metaphor and stories about giants and lions and kings. He never once had anything to say to me as a third brother who only had the black lab to play with most of the day and parents who seemed to fight about everything. He never once said anything to me when my heart ached, or my temper flared, or when I had a really good day. My parents would point me to the Bible. Sad? read a psalm or two. Angry? read some psalms or something. Happy? read some psalms. I never received one unique word from god. I never heard him speak my name, and talk to me.
I asked god for things, I begged him for things, I thanked him for what I had, material and immaterial. I talked to him. I told him how cool he was. All these things I was taught I was supposed to do, regularly, and the more insistently, the better. “The fervent prayer of the righteous man avails much” I was told time and time again when, in despair or confusion or frustration, I went to my mother to ask why I never seemed to hear from god.
Of course, Christians believe that god does answer prayer, just not in words. He performs miracles. He grants requests. He sends good feelings. Theologically there are three answers to prayer (I was taught): yes, no, wait. Yes is for every prayer request that you utter that has a definite object that comes to pass. My grandmother is sick. I pray about it. She gets better. Yes from god. No is the opposite, naturally. My grandfather is sick. I pray about it. He dies. No from god. Wait is for every prayer request that nothing seems to happen about, one way or the other. I need a job. I pray about it. I hear nothing from any job application I ever fill out and when I call no one seems to remember my name. Somehow this doesn’t mean no, but wait, keep praying, it will eventually come.
But I have problems with all of this. First, I could never, ever find a single answer to prayer that I could not logically reason would have happened anyway. I saw no direct miracles. I heard of them. I believed that they could happen. Logically, it even made sense: I was told that god was all-powerful, so a being that is infinite in his ability to influence the universe can do what humans consider to be miracles, I just never saw any. Second, I could not reconcile a need to pray with another of god’s attributes: god is supposed to be all-knowing. So, why do I need to ask him, or tell him, anything? He already knows, is aware, and if he is good and all that, working towards the answer. The Bible even says that god knows what we pray before the words are formed. So, what was the point again? Ostensibly, my own growth, in discipline, to be humble before my master and show that I was leaning on his understanding for my life, or was aware of how awesome he really is. Sure. But to me, that makes god a massive egotist and a jerk. If someone does me wrong, I want them to be humble about it and apologize, but I could never stand people who fawned before me to get something. Just ask, man. I’m happy to help, and really, the only reason I need you to ask is because I don’t know you need something. I, at least, am not all knowing.
Do I sound arrogant, or unwilling to be humble? Well, I am now, but I remember countless times of pressing myself into my bedroom carpet, or onto my bed, face down spread eagle – “prostrate before god” begging and crying and trying as hard as I ever knew how to be humble, and contrite, and properly presented before the sovereign god. I cried, I was quiet, I shouted, I cursed, I was controlled, I repented – literally everything I was ever taught I was supposed to be, or do, or say: I was, did, or said. “The fervent prayer of a righteous man…” Maybe I was never righteous enough, but then, god was supposed to meet me where I was, he was supposed to make me clean, he was supposed to make me righteous, he was supposed to be big enough to handle a little tarnish, because, after all, who is perfectly clean? All of this I was taught time and time again.
But beyond all that, any answer to prayer one “receives” is rationalizable. My grandfather dies. God said no to healing. Or, god said yes to ending his pain. Hitler survives World War I, and at least one assassination attempt. God said no to averting millions of deaths and horrible holocaust. Or, god said yes to Corrie ten Boom’s personal growth. Now, if you don’t know who Corrie ten Boom is, go read her story, and I don’t mean to diminish the strength of an extraordinary person who saw extreme evil up close, but my point is that god’s answers to prayer are subjective, and open to any interpretation one wishes to ascribe to them. “Ask and ye shall receive” is a popular verse, but of course it is taken out of context and doesn’t mean what most Christians most of the time think it means: god will give you what you want. You have to ask for the right things, in the right way, with the right amount of humility, without the wrong amount of sin in your heart, and so on. The small print on that verse goes longer than most cell phone contracts and most celebrity pre-nuptial agreements. God will never, ever give you a Ferrari. Ever.
Back to a personal conversation with someone I was told was a father, a friend who sticks closer than a brother, a lover, and a god with whom I was supposed to cultivate a personal relationship: he doesn’t do that anymore. In the Bible god speaks to people all the time. But that was before most of the Bible was written. Now that it is written, god thinks that is sufficient, or so I had been taught. Wonderful. Can I live in the time of Abraham, please? I really didn’t ever want anything from god. I just wanted to talk to him. To have a talk with the one person I was told comprehended me completely, who understood every single one of my pains. But god doesn’t do that. I have two options: I can read a psalm, or I can talk to someone who hasn’t got a clue, or is often the cause of my pain. Terrific.
This is part of why I have renounced my Christian faith, and have turned my back on what I have believed my entire life.
All I wanted was one, single word. Am I asking too much from an all powerful, all knowing, all loving deity?
I grew up praying to god. All I ever got back was silence. I’m done.