God Told Me to Do It, Religious People in the Media, and the Truth about Prayer

Saying that God told him to leave, NFL hopeful Adam Muema walked out of the combines workout last Sunday.  “(God) told me to sit down, be quiet, and enjoy the peace.”  By doing this, the running back prospect said that God would fulfill his dream of becoming a Seattle Seahawk.  One sports reporter, Matt Rudnitsky wrote in response: “I hate to mock somebody for their religious beliefs, but even Tebow never approached this level of ridiculousness. Skip workouts to sit on your ass? Actively hurt your draft stock? You believe in a benevolent God, but you think he’d tell you that?”

Because this story of one young man (who has since gone missing) is being connected to religious people in sports, and to religious beliefs in general, I want to share these thoughts on prayer.  As a Christian, I, like most religious people, don’t believe that God speaks directly to me in order to steer my every action, like in the Bible accounts of Abraham and Moses.  It might be nice if it worked that way (or maybe not, lots of prophets were stoned) – but it doesn’t.  Prayer requires much more deep reflection… God’s “voice” is much more subtle.  So, what is prayer?  This story and this question reminds me of a dialogue that I once imagined taking place between an imagined reporter and an imagined public figure who is also religious:

Reporter: “You went through a tremendous trial in your life.  Did you pray during that ordeal?”

Yes, I did.

Reporter: “Did it help?”

Yes, it did.  You know… Prayer has layers.  If you aren’t a person of faith, then you will look at the surface, which can be scientifically analyzed.  Research shows that people who actively pray, especially the repetitious kind of prayers, mantras, meditations, rosaries, etc., can handle the stress of a situation better than those who don’t pray.  It calms the person so that they don’t suffer so much from the tension, discomfort, pain, fear, and can even help the person to focus better and make more rational decisions.  As a person of reason I understand that – and as a person of faith, I also look deeper, to see the layers beneath the surface, and understand prayer in full dimension, in its entirety.  Sincere prayer, I believe, opens one up to something outside of oneself, a supernatural grace, a kind of divine assistance.  Prayer is a way of receiving a holy gift – be it one of clarity or courage or comfort..

Reporter: “So… When you pray, you’re listening to God speak to you?”

Well, what do you mean by speak?

Reporter: “I don’t know, like, you call on God and he tells you that everything is going to be okay or tells what you need to do.”

Well, life would sure be a whole lot easier if it worked like that, wouldn’t it?  Like the guy in charge, who knows everything and always wants what’s best for you, knocks you upside the head and says, “Hey, don’t do that.”  Or, “Don’t listen to the GPS, go straight.”  Or, maybe, “Here, play these numbers in the lottery tonight.”  But, it doesn’t work like that.

Reporter: “But, you do believe that God helped you, right?”

I want to help you understand what I mean, so allow me to ask you a question: have you ever been truly loved?  I hope so.  I don’t just mean in the boyfriend/girlfriend or husband/wife way, but also by your mom or dad, an aunt or uncle, grandparent, sibling, or your own child… or maybe a teacher or a really good friend?  When someone truly loves you, they help you out, maybe with their hands, or their smarts, or something.  But, they also help you, sometimes most importantly, by just being there… by loving you… by believing in you.  That love can give you the courage to do things that might have otherwise been impossible.  You become more able to be who you were meant to be, to find your way, to do the right thing, to reach your full potential, to be all that you can be.  Love is powerful like that – human love and most profoundly, I believe, divine love. …  So, you see, prayer is a lot like loving – it isn’t merely about words.

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