One of my favorite holiday traditions is to attend the annual interpretation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, performed by the Tony award-winning Dallas Theater Center. The basic story is always the same one we are all familiar with, but each year there are a few twists. This year, for example, the Ghost of Christmas Past was Scrooge’s mother, who died while giving birth to Ebenezer. That small twist brought new meaning to Scrooge’s Christmas experiences growing up. And as usual, Tiny Tim tugged on my heartstrings, especially, near the end, where he comes to Scrooge after his visitations from the apparitions and, singing acapella, starts a mash-up of the songs, No Man is an Island and The First Noel. That number alone is well worth the price of admission.
Of course, everyone remembers Tiny Tim’s simple prayer, “God, bless us, everyone.” It is a prayer I wish God would answer, but does not – at least in the way I hope God would answer. I admit it. Throughout my life, I have struggled with prayer. Does God hear and answer my prayers? It sometimes seems he (or she) answers some of my prayers, but not others. I know, you’re saying to yourself, that Ludlow guy is an idiot. God answers all prayers, just not the way he wants God to answer them. In other words, “no” is also an answer. But to me, God can be entirely random when it comes to answering prayers. We sometimes acknowledge God for answering insignificant prayers, like finding our car keys, but we can’t seem to discern God’s answers to prayers regarding poverty, disease, war, human trafficking, or comfort in times of tragedy. Sometimes we pray for the healing of a loved one and God responds with a miracle. But for others, the miracle never comes.
Maybe God’s answers are not really so random. Perhaps God sees how answering our prayers a certain way can negatively affect someone else, so he refuses to intervene. I smile when I see competitors on rival sports teams pray for a win. Are the Dallas Cowboys God’s favorite? More seriously, during World War II, soldiers on both sides prayed to the same Christian God for victory. I cringe every time I watch this scene from Patton.[i] Would God bless the Allies with good weather so they can do a better job of killing their enemy?
Why do we even bother to pray? We are taught by scripture that God knows what we need even before we ask. And since God’s answers seem, at times, to be so random, what’s the use? Are we wasting our time then? Should we sit back and let God do his thing, fearing our prayers will have little impact on the outcome? I learned many years ago the answers to my prayers for things to happen the way I wanted them to happen rarely worked. So, I changed the emphasis of my prayers to less about what I wanted to happen and more about, regardless what happens, please give me the strength to get through a given situation, and let me learn from the experience. At least with those prayers, I am rarely disappointed.
Sometimes we pray to show our devotion to God. But often it is less about devotion to God and more about loyalty to a particular religion. Here is a scene from Vertical Limit[ii] which help illustrates this point:
I have learned that, while showing gratitude and devotion to God through prayer can be significant, prayer is more about us than about God. I hope you don’t consider that blasphemous. But prayer is one of the few times, if we do it right, where we undergo some serious introspection and reflection and determine what we are really thankful for, and what is essential in our lives. In short, it helps us focus on our values. It helps us realize what we need to do to be better individuals, better family members, and better members of society. I have also noticed, when people lose their faith in a God they once believed in, they often turn to meditation. And when you think about it, meditation and prayer often serve that same function of introspection, reflection, value determination, and change.
But for me, my prayers and meditation are not very useful. I have struggled to understand why that is, and I have learned much about my lack of spirituality from watching movies. For example, I first saw the film, Shenandoah[iii] when I was twelve, but I still remember this prayer:
When we make our prayers or mediations all about us and our accomplishments, we see no reason or need for improvement. Growing up, my parents called that a lack of humility. Today, we more often use the term vulnerability. If we are not vulnerable enough to see our mistakes and weaknesses, we don’t give deity (or even our own souls) much chance to reveal (or discover) our best selves.
Along with that same line of thought, if we focus our prayers or meditations only on ourselves, we will find very little spiritual enlightenment. I love this scene from Election[iv] where three candidates offer three separate prayers, but each in their way, are self-focused:
I find that when my prayers or meditations are more about blessing or helping others, I have a higher chance of feeling some spiritual enlightenment in return. And that spiritual enlightenment is usually in the form of what I can do to ease someone’s suffering, or help someone through a bad situation. In short, I often can, at least partially, be the answer to my own prayer or meditation and help be the miracle in someone else’s life.
Occasionally in the past, I had determined to have a soul-searching, deeply contemplative prayer, when a loved one or I was facing a particular challenge. To my dismay, I found that in most of those times, my efforts seemed like a disaster. My mind kept wandering, and I received no particular spiritual enlightenment. My prayers, although personal, often went something like this scene from Talladega Nights:[v]
Perhaps finding a quiet place might help. A friend of mine suggests we take a notebook and make notes before we begin our prayer or meditation, and let those notes help us keep our focus. Perhaps making notes of our feelings and impressions while we pray or meditate can also keep us on track. The point is, find something that works for you and stick to it. And long prayers or meditations are not necessarily the best. I served a church mission to Australia many years ago. On my first night there, my companion and I knelt at our beds after a long day, and each of us began a silent, personal prayer. I gave thanks for everything I could think of and asked God to bless me and everyone I loved. It was one of the longest prayers I had ever offered. I finished and got in bed. My companion remained on his knees. I kept waiting for him to finish, but he kept going and going. I soon started to panic a little, thinking, if to be a successful missionary required long prayers like my companion’s, I was doomed. My fear, though, soon turned to smiles as I heard my companion start to snore, asleep on his knees with his head in his pillow.
Finally, we don’t need to get caught up in the words of our prayers or mediations, as this prayer from Meet the Parents[vi] illustrates:
The important thing is to determine what is in our hearts and just let that come out.
This post indeed is one of “do as I say, not as I do,” as prayer and meditation are not my strong suits. But I believe that prayer, like meditation, is more important for the person who is doing the praying or mediating than for anyone that might be listening – God or otherwise. I hope each of us can experience spiritual enlightenment often, and through that enlightenment, we make ourselves and those around us better.
a quest for spiritual enlightenment might be a New Year’s resolution worth
keeping the whole year.
- Production Company: Twentieth Century Fox
- Director: Frank Schaffner
- Screenwriters: Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North
- Starring: George C. Scott, Karl Malden and Stephen Young
- Release date: April 2, 1970
[ii] Vertical Limit
- Production Companies: Columbia Pictures, Global Entertainment Productions, and Mountain High Productions
- Director: Martin Campbell
- Screenwriter: Robert King
- Starring: Scott Glenn, Chris O’Donnell and Bill Paxton
- Release date: December 8, 2000
- Production Company: Universal Pictures
- Director: Andrew V. McLaglen
- Screenwriter: James Lee Barrett
- Starring: James Stewart, Doug McClure, and Glen Corbett
- Release date: June 29, 1965
- Production Companies: Bona Fide Productions, MTV Films, and Paramount Pictures
- Director: Alexander Payne
- Screenwriter: Alexander Payne (based on the book by Tom Perrotta
- Starring: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, and Chris Klein
- Release date: May 7, 1999
[v] Talladega Nights
- Production Companies: The Legend of Ricky Bobby: Columbia Pictures, Relativity Media, and Apatow Productions
- Director: Adam McKay
- Screenwriters: Will Ferrell and Adam McKay
- Starring: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, and Sacha Baron Cohen
- Release date: August 4, 2006
[vi] Meet the Parents
- Production Companies: Universal Pictures, DreamWorks, and Nancy Tenenbaum Films
- Director: Jay Roach
- Screenwriters: Greg Glienna and Mary Ruth Clarke
- Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro, and Teri Polo
- Release date: October 6, 2000