If God is Not a Vending Machine, Why Pray?

English: This vending machine was made by Nati...

“Keep us in your prayers.”

Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb said these words last night to TV anchor Rachel Maddow, when she asked what concerned viewers could do for the victims of the tornadoes that ripped through Moore, OK yesterday. According to his official biography, Mr. Lamb attends a Baptist church. I don’t know anything about Ms. Maddow’s religious affiliations. And yet I know in my gut what Mr. Lamb was saying to Ms. Maddow, and her serious nod in reply made sense, because we’re all Americans and we say these things when things are so bad that there isn’t a whole lot anyone can do.

What is it we are asking for, when we ask for prayers? My guess, from Mr. Lamb’s affiliation, is that he hopes that viewers will direct words or thoughts to God that will influence or inform God’s choices over the next hours and days. I do not want to make light of Mr. Lamb’s faith, any more than I’d want him to make light of mine. My faith works differently, however. (I feel odd calling it “faith,” but again, we’re Americans and that’s the lingo.)

When I tell people that I will keep them in my prayers, I am absolutely serious about that statement. I call their names to mind or may even mention their names aloud when I say my daily prayers. However, I do not expect the prayers to influence God. For starters, the one thing I know for sure about God is that I know bubkes [nothing] about God. God is beyond my little brain. I take my directions for my behavior from Torah, which suggests that even if my brain is too limited for God, it is good to pray daily, and it is good to use that time to pray for things that concern me.

So why pray, if I think that God is beyond my imagination? I pray because I am a limited being. I pray words that have been said for generations, that have shaped the thoughts and attitudes of Jews through the centuries. When I pray for people, I grow my compassion for them. I meditate on their sorrows, and my heart grows bigger. Will my prayers affect the fate of people in Oklahoma? I don’t know for sure. What I am sure of is that it is good for me to have compassion for them, it is good for me to think of them as part of my circle of concern. It will be good for me, should I ever be so unfortunate as to be in a disaster, to know that other people far away care about me. But it will also be good for me to have learned, from prayer, that I am not the only person in the world with troubles.

God is not a vending machine. I cannot put a prayer in and get what I want. God is not even a bad vending machine, that takes my prayer and gives me what it wants. God is beyond me. But in praying for those in trouble, I strengthen the bonds of humanity. When I pray, I remind myself that I am not God.

When I pray, I remind myself that I am my brother’s keeper, no matter how different our politics, no matter how different our ideas about things like “God.”

8 Responses to If God is Not a Vending Machine, Why Pray?

  1. nakedgod says:

    I concur with you in healthy prayer.

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  2. rabbiadar says:

    Thank you. That’s an interesting phrase, “healthy prayer” and it sets me to thinking, always a good thing. Thank you for that gift!

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  3. Hi Rabbi Adar,
    Great post, and you bring up good points. “. . .I know bubkes [nothing] about God. God is beyond my little brain. I take my directions for my behavior from Torah, which suggests that even if my brain is too limited for God, it is good to pray daily, and it is good to use that time to pray for things that concern me” and, “When I pray, I remind myself that I am not God”

    These points are all too often neglected in the Christian religion because I think the issue, “intercessory prayer,” is misunderstood. But while you’re right, our pea brains cannot fathom the mighty God, we do see examples of intercession in the Tanakh with Moses, Abraham, David and particularilary in Daniel 9. This theme goes on into the NT too. For me it shows, as you said, that we aren’t God yet we are also connected to all of His creation, and to Him. Somehow intercession, on another’s behalf, has scriptural evidence of influencing God (how that’s understood is another thing) since Moses convinces God of relenting, and not starting over. :-) Also, I hope it counts as I pray for the peace of Jerusalem and the safety and restoration of Israel and His chosen.

    I actually think the best thing one can do is to pray, yet what I take you to be saying is if that is *all* one does, (and doesn’t then act on their prayer and compassion) then they miss the point.

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    • rabbiadar says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment! When I pray for the peace of Jerusalem in the Amidah prayer, the words remind me that the current situation there is not OK. They nudge me to do what is in my power to move towards improving the situation.

      These lines from Gates of Prayer say it better than I can: “Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuild a weakened will.”

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  4. Shorty says:

    I don’t totally agree, but I do really like this post. I appreciate the reminder on how prayer for another takes us out of ourselves and our egos. That is in fact why I often will pray for someone, I remind myself that I would want someone to think and pray for me, so I pray for them. It only takes a few seconds.

    I personally believe that prayer can help change things, G-d wants us to turn to Him in prayer.

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    • rabbiadar says:

      Shorty, I am so glad you wrote! There are many different Jewish points of view on prayer, and I love a good discussion.

      When you say that you believe that prayer can help change things, can you be more specific about “things”? I am quite sure that prayer changes me, less sure that it changes anything in the outside world. But I’m always open to new information!

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  5. Berenice says:

    My Grandmother had a worry box…she would open this pretty liltte tin every night and caress the velvet lining. Then she would explain to any inquisitive child standing nearby that it was where she placed her worries of the day so that God could handle it. This brought back a memory so vivid that I had to share it with you…thanks for the memory!hugsSandi

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