I’ve attempted to write this post 3 times now, & it’s just a mess. A long, convoluted mess that I honestly don’t expect anyone to wade through because it takes too much brainpower on a Saturday afternoon when college football is on.

In the last few weeks, our “Heretics” (aka Sunday School) class has been talking about prayer. We’ve been going around the room taking turns sharing what prayer means (or doesn’t mean) to us. And this coming Sunday is my & Bobby’s turn. Bobby’s got his neat little notes all ready. Me? Not so much.

Let me begin by saying I currently don’t pray. (*gasp*) It’s just become so complicated that it’s easier to not bother. But I do want to pray. I just need to figure out how in a way that feels sincere & not hypocritical. That being said, I believe that every person is different, & if you’ve found a method that works for you, do it to it. This is NOT an attack on you, but merely a self-analysis of me.

What did prayer mean to me to a child?

It used to be very simple. I don’t know about folks in other parts of the country, but in the Bible Belt, religion & prayer are a part of every single thing. You pray that you’ll find a good parking space. You ask God to not let that cop pull you over even though you were going 10 over the speed limit. If you have a near-miss, you give God the glory because obviously he chose to spare your life. You pray for healing, from an ingrown toenail to cancer. You ask & ask & ask, & if you’re good, you’ll get what you ask for… some of it, anyway.

I used to be quite the pray-er (as in “one who prays”). I was taught to “pray without ceasing,” & so I did my level best. I prayed for A’s on tests & for Daddy not to spank me. I prayed that Mama would wash my favorite shirt so I could wear it tomorrow. I prayed that we would have spaghetti for dinner. I prayed that my grandparents would come visit. I peppered God with the most inane & inconsequential requests & suggestions, & I really thought He was listening to me. Like Santa, but “realer” (since I was told from the beginning that Santa didn’t exist – yet another casualty of The Church).

So what did prayer mean to me as a teen/young adult?

Prayer got a little more complicated when I cut my hair for the first time at age 17. You see, The Church taught me that God doesn’t hear the prayers of a woman whose head is uncovered (1 cor 3-16).  There’s a relatively large Mennonite population in our area — this verse is the foundation of their women’s head coverings. The Church that I grew up in, however, translated this verse as meaning that a woman’s “head covering” is her unshorn hair… & once you put your devil scissors in that stuff, you’re hosed.  God doesn’t hear the prayers of a woman with cut hair. When she cuts her hair, a woman disgraces herself & her “head” (her male authority figure, either father or husband). God turns deaf ears to her & hears only a prayer of repentance. I spent years pleading with God to listen to me despite my disgraced state. My prayers became this convoluted loophole-seeking mishmash: “Dear God, I’m really sorry I cut my hair. Will you please give me an A on this exam? And while you’re listening, I’m really sorry I had premarital relations with that hot Brazilian soccer player. Please forgive me. Again.”

What did prayer mean to me when my mother was dying?

When I was 29, Mama was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer & my relationship with God went through an entire metamorphosis. During the first few months, I leaned on religion like a crutch… I prayed fervently & without ceasing for Mama’s healing. I was more overtly religious that I had ever been. My grandmother told me of a lady whose tumor just miraculously disappeared & how she was healed “by faith” — I was determined to achieve the same for Mama. When she kept getting worse, however, I began bargaining with God, offering my allegiance & good behavior & even my own health in exchange for Mama’s healing in a purely transactional fashion. Obviously, that didn’t work either.

And then I realized that all the prayers in the world can’t fix some things. Prayer is not a tool that can be honed & sharpened & then be flawlessly wielded by those who have practiced the most.

During the last few months, when cancer had taken my mother’s outward beauty, her dignity, & ultimately her life, I stopped praying. I completely ignored God. I figured He wasn’t listening anyway, & my attentions & energy were better served in the minutia of dealing with terminal illness & the wreckage it leaves behind.

What does prayer mean to me now?

Raised as I was in an overly religious environment, it’s been difficult to stop praying. I formed the habit long ago of asking my Higher Power for things & feeling guilty for not saying thank you enough. I catch myself praying, & I stop it — bite it off with a vengeance. I use to not pray with anger. And now I don’t pray without emotion. I’m not mad. I’m just not convinced there’s a point.

In the last couple of years, I’ve attempted several times to revamp God in my mind. But I just can’t seem to get “Him” out of my head. God equals my father = The Church = big white guy = male-dominated religious smothering.

Someone said the other day: “When you don’t know what to say to God, thankfulness is always appropriate.”

So ok, I know I should thank Him for everything. But when I do, I’m thanking Him out of a sense of obligation, because I know He expects it. Just like my father. When I was a little girl, my mother used to come back to my bedroom & whisper “Sarah, tell your Daddy thank you for xyz. He’s waiting.” It could be dinner at a restaurant, or getting my winter clothes out of the attic, or putting air in my bicycle tire. And I would dutifully go thank him because he was waiting, & the longer he waited, the angrier he would get at my lack of appreciation.

I don’t like a God (or a father) who sits around waiting for me to be properly grateful. Should I be? Yes, absolutely. But when you truly love someone, you don’t demand a show of thankfulness for everything you do or give. You don’t expect or demand a certain response & begrudge the recipient if/when you don’t get what you think you’re entitled to. When I give Maggie a gift, I don’t demand that she say “thank you.” It’s nice that Jennifer & Tom are teaching her manners, but I don’t even notice whether or not the words “thank you” come out of her mouth. Her enjoyment of the gift & the expression on her little face is thanks enough. Someone who demands thankfulness is more concerned with the stroking of their own ego than with the wellbeing of the recipient. Are you giving the gift out of love or because of the adoration/admiration/exultation you’ll receive in return?

So yeah. That particular version of God seems a little like an egomaniac to me.

It’s been a long road to a place where I even WANT to pray. I’m still not completely there. I’ve come to the conclusion that God didn’t give Mama cancer… that He basically created a world, set it in motion, & then let us go to it (click here). Sometimes I bestow upon Him a more benevolent nature. Sometimes, I picture him as detached, like the Almighty Chess Master. I rarely see him as the vengeful God of my childhood anymore…  depending on the day, He’s either a) not vengeful because He loves me, or b) not vengeful because He has other, bigger things to worry about. He’s busy. He’s maybe even a little bit tired of this big ol’ mess that we humans have made.

Bottom line: I’m not sure what I’m going to say tomorrow. But I know I’m not going to lie & say the things that people want me to say because it’s the things that have always  been said. That’s the wonderful thing about this little group of Heretics hiding up in the corner of this giant southern church. They only expect the truth, whatever MY truth is. No judgment.

Maybe that little group IS God. They are God representing himself to me, just as He represents himself to others as something completely different.

Huh. On that note, I’m gonna go take some Ex.cedrin & paint Sue’s room a lovely shade of “Porpoise.” Which is gray, for those of you who don’t speak the language of ridiculous paint color names.