Living on a Prayer: the value of Barack Obama's prayer breakfast
"The presidency," Barack Obama said this morning at the National Prayer Breakfast, "has a funny way of making a person feel the need to pray."
Prayer is one of those activities that is usually restricted to moments of great stress. "Please," you mutter, "please let the airplane for L.A. not take off before I reach the gate, even though I have arrived eight minutes after it was supposed to depart." [Editor's note: Didn't that actually happen to you, Alex?] "Please," you mutter, "please let Congress just pass the health-care reform package without feeling they have to read the whole thing." "Please," you mutter, "let Dan Snyder suffer a mysterious awakening and hand the Redskins over to someone who does not so completely and perfectly resemble Scrooge McDuck."
Gradually, it devolves into bargaining. "Lord," you murmur, "if you just fix this, I will go to church once a week." Nothing happens. "Twice a week!" Still, nothing. "Lord," you continue, "if you fix this, I will stop being Episcopalian and become a Catholic." Nothing. "Lord, if you fix this, I'm converting to Judaism." Silence. "Are you sure, Lord? I know this is an onerous process, because I once saw it depicted on Sex and the City."
Ambrose Bierce cynically defined prayer as follows: "Pray, n. To ask the laws of the universe be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy."
This is quite accurate most of the time. In moments of crisis, we tend to view Whoever Is Up There as a slightly defective personal wish-granting service. Maybe if I squeeze my eyes shut, we think, or if I get into the correct prayer stance. Maybe if I get one of those uncomfortable anklets they talked about in the Da Vinci Code, this whole thing will work out. At times God seems like a genie who is stuck in the bottle and would respond instantly if only you knew the correct sequence in which to intone things and wave your arms and prostrate yourself before the Almighty.
I pray. Often I pray badly, and pretty accurately described by the above.
So does Barack Obama. Prayer is traditionally divided into five categories: petition, expiation, adoration, thanksgiving, and sports-related. Most of President Obama's self-reported praying falls into the petition and thanksgiving category.
"Lord give me the strength to meet the challenges of my office," he prays. "Lord, give me patience as I watch Malia go to her first dance where there will be boys. Lord, let that skirt become longer as she travels to that dance."
As a nation, we may not know much about religion. A Pew Forum survey revealed that atheists have more biblical expertise than most U.S. believers do. But, like many things of which we know nothing, we care deeply about it, even though we only show that by occasionally going into panics that Obama might be Muslim. Of course, regardless of what Christine O'Donnell thinks about it, Church and State have been separated by the Constitution -- and what man has sundered let no deity join. But God still creeps into presidential addresses -- or, in cases like today's breakfast, serves as a focal point -- and most of us find this Presence somehow reassuring.
And perhaps that's the value of getting together over breakfast to talk prayer. Say what you will about it, part of its efficacy is that it can be so humbling. You ask, knowing that there may well be no answer, and that whether or not there is lies beyond your control. It's like Gchatting someone whom you are pretty sure is online but who seems to be ignoring you.
(Lord, you ask, send me a better metaphor.) The act of prayer, as Obama says, "is a source of strength, a reminder that our time on earth is not about us..."
Prayer both implies and engenders humility. It defines what you hope for but cannot always control. Some might call it an exercise in solipsism. But it is directed not inward but outward. Of course, there's praying, and then there is doing. As president, Obama must be aware of the difference. Praying for Egypt is quite distinct from rolling up your sleeves and entering the diplomatic fray.
But still, this morning's focus on prayer was reassuring. Because we all do it, whether reflexively or reflectively. Obama prays for Egypt just as hundreds of people tweeted prayers for the imprisoned journalists. And although these prayers are directed to different destinations, it's worthwhile to get together once a year, before we return to the murky business of Doing, and acknowledge that, at all kinds of bizarre times and places, we look beyond ourselves to Something or Someone and ask if things can be straightened out, just this once.
| February 3, 2011; 2:00 PM ET
Categories: Barack Obama, Petri | Tags: America, Barack Obama, prayer
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