Just Asking For It
It seems as though every few years, I tell the story about the lady who prayed for a parking spot. I knew her way back when, 25 years or so ago. We were all fairly young, with little kids and new homes and now this little church we ended up at, just curious or otherwise interested. It felt pretty normal. We ate pizza and drank beer, and discussed Philippians.
And during one of these free-wheeling discussions, bouncing from kids to sports to whatever we theoretically were supposed to be talking about, this lady said that sometimes she prayed for a parking spot. Just sometimes, when she was downtown and in a big hurry, and her prayer was always answered. Prayers are always answered. Her prayers, anyway. Or I think that was the point.
This was my first experience with otherwise intelligent people turning off certain areas of their brains when it comes to this sort of thing. I was used to the sorta-crazy people, and to the perfectly normal ones. This kind of rationalizing religiosity was new to me, and I liked where it was going.
So I pointed out that another lady one block over, who was also late and busy and praying really hard for a parking spot, had just lost out, and I wondered aloud what that meant. Did it mean my faithful friend was a better prayer? She didn’t answer but her eyes seemed to suggest that was a pretty good explanation.
But I was young and kind of a radical back then. I don’t get into those discussions anymore. People have heard them, or at least the people I hang around. They know all about this. We’re on the same page.
I can still make jokes about intercessory prayer, for example, and the illogical nature of it, the cruelty and inadvertent heartlessness of it at times, the outright dumbness of it at other times. Not that often, but when the mood strikes.
It’s hard not to at least dance near the edge of hypocrisy, too. Intercessory prayer (if this is an unfamiliar term, it just means praying for something specific to happen, like a disease to be cured or a parking spot to open up) is a common and natural part of many belief systems and traditions. People pray for rain. People pray for peace. I doubt there are very many people this side of televangelists who believe that a thunderstorm showed up because they hit their knees hard, but people are funny.
And to be fair, those aren’t really intercessory, at least the way I’m thinking of the term and these particular prayers. But even these very specific prayers, for someone who’s sick to get better, for a job interview to go well, for a house to be sold quickly, are generalized into supportive thoughts, really.
I’m not the guy to be discussing prayer, though. I pray. I pray corporately, I pray by myself. I pray when I’m in the car and bored. But I don’t really understand it, and I’m looking for personal relief, calm or peace. I don’t know how you’d differentiate what I do and routine meditation, really. I know the difference, but I can’t explain it. It’s just a thing I do, and I don’t get into specifics. That’s all I’m saying. You do your thing. But sometimes I make jokes, because whatever you believe or don’t, in my opinion God is not a vending machine that just needs exact change.
The other day I couldn’t find my keys, though, and I was in a real hurry, and that’s when I realized that there was a key exemption.
I mean, I knew it before. It just got reinforced, and I realized this was a rule I was perfectly happy to invent, if necessary. Key Prayers are acceptable, always. Maybe necessary.
It was answered, too. Like the Parking Lady, my key prayers are always answered.
Now, I was about to make the point that this is a spiritual set-up; we’re always going to find our keys. Keys are too important to truly lose.
But then I remembered that I actually did lose my keys once, on a flight, probably somewhere in the overhead bin. I never found them, but I don’t know that they’re lost; I just don’t know where they are.
A true Key Prayer has a time element, a rush to leave and a need for speed. A true Key Prayer will also employ a sliding scale of weasel words, usually beginning with “please” (God appreciates common courtesy) and possibly ending up with the oldie but goodie, “I’ll never ask for something again,” which seems kind of defiant and oddly calculating. As if there’s a limit on divine intervention and you’ve hit it, you know. Just one more time, I swear.
Then we find them, toss out a shout of gratitude to the universe, and get to wherever we need to be, forgetting all about this until the next time. Which makes the Key Prayer the perfect prayer, I think.
Most of us understand that we were always going to find the keys. We just need the comfort of praying about it.
This essay on the power of prayer was brought to you by the seventh and final season of HBO’s VEEP, since I watched the first episode last night. Selina Meyer, former and potentially future President of the United States, played by the amazing Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is the worst person in the world, is cynical when it comes to school shootings. This is saying something, since VEEP is a profanely cynical show, but Meyer first bitches about politicians offering “thoughts and prayers” and not doing anything, but only because the breaking news interferes with her political cycle.
And then, when confronted by another shooting, she attempts to vamp her way through an impromptu press conference and finds out why politicians use that particular phrase, and watching her mangle fake sympathy (she ends up sending her “mindfulness and meditations” to the victims and their families) was pure pleasure.
This is why I’ve pushed back on the push-back on “thoughts and prayers.” I get the hypocrisy alert, the platitudes without action. This is social media, though, and we wouldn’t even be thinking about the phrase without every pol having a Twitter account that needs updating. And because it’s social media, this offense taken at empty words moved into the theological realm. “Prayers DO NOTHING!” is the response.
Listen: Even letters to Santa Claus do something. It’s just doesn’t necessarily work the way we pretend it does.
But let me know if the parking space thing works for you. I keep meaning to try that. I’ve been having parking issues lately, and mindfulness doesn’t seem to help.