Some thoughts on prayer

On Wednesday afternoon, April 22, 2009, I was at a varsity baseball game at Legacy Park in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. William Chrisman High School was playing Fort Osage High School in a tournament. Just before the game began, I saw a shaven-headed fellow in an Indians baseball uniform walk out of the Fort Osage dugout along the first base line. He appeared to be one of the coaches. He got down on one knee and the entire team gathered around him. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but most of the players also took a knee and bowed their heads as the remaining few stood quietly with their hands folded in front of them and their heads bowed while the shaven-headed man talked softly.

I certainly could be wrong about what was going on in that gathering, but I got the distinct impression that this was a prayer circle. My initial reaction was outrage over what appeared to be a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. I said to myself, “A government employee in a position of authority over high school students doesn’t have any business leading them in prayer.”

My outrage has since subsided somewhat, but it set me to thinking (which is usually a dangerous thing): What is the point of a group prayer before a baseball game? What is the point of prayer generally? And why are they doing it that way?

During this round of thinking, I Googled the definition of prayer. It turns out that the simplest definition is from wordnet.princeton.edu. It is “the act of communicating with a deity”.

There seems to be a lots of ways to do that communicating. You can talk out loud in your native tongue, you can talk to the deity in his native tongue whether that be Hebrew, Latin, or Arabic, or you can just send your thought waves silently heavenward. I suppose you could even write a letter, but I don’t know how you would get the U.S. Postal Service to deliver it.

It was hard to tell from the bleachers, but for the Indians team, the shaven-headed guy appeared to have been chosen as a spokesman and looked to be doing the talking to God out loud for them all. I suppose the rest of the team might also have been doing the thought-wave projection thing, but I’m not telepathic enough to know.

Judging from the prayers I’ve witnessed, physical posture also has something to do with the whole “communication with a deity” process. I’ve been to one Catholic wedding and one Catholic funeral, and on both occasions, there was a whole lot of kneeling on both knees and bowing your head while placing your palms together. I’ve also seen a lot of Muslim prayers in Frontline documentaries. Those prayers involved a whole lot of very low bowing on a small rug while hitting your forehead on the ground.

For the Indians ball club, they all bowed their heads, but they seemed to have had a choice between taking to one knee or clasping their hands while standing. (Prayer rugs and prostration apparently weren’t an option.)

I’ve got a couple of hypotheses on the physical posture thing. First, maybe it’s a signal to the deity that he should start paying attention to what we’re saying. Normally, he wouldn’t really be listening to us, but when we kneel and clasp our hands, he’s suddenly all ears.

Second, regarding the whole bowed-head thing, I’m guessing that people must be under the impression that their thought waves come out the back of their skull, so they point the back of their head skyward to get the thought waves going in the right direction. That seems kind of stupid, so I’m probably wrong about that one.

Once you’ve chosen your manner of prayer, the next step would be to decide what it is you wish to communicate to the deity. I suppose there are lots of reasons for wanting to talk to God: maybe you need a new job, or you want to be forgiven for flipping off that guy in traffic, or you want to tell God how cool you think He is, or you just want to say thanks for a beautiful sunset.

I can only guess what the Fort Osage kids were praying for, but surely it must have been in some way baseball related. Why else would you pray just before the game unless it were baseball-related? If you were praying for anything else, you wouldn’t need to involve the whole team, and you probably would have done it before you got to the ballpark, during a quiet moment between innings, or later when you got home.

I doubt that the spokesman was outright praying for a win. It would’ve looked crass to publicly ask God to take sides in an athletic contest, but maybe the silent ones were asking for a victory. And maybe it even worked; after all, they did eventually win the game 12-2.

Although I consider myself an atheist (or “militant agnostic” on days when I don’t wish to embarrass my wife), I’m also an ordained minister. This title was earned on a lark from one of those internet-based churches that specializes in quickie ordinations and impressive titles. I suppose if I were younger, I would’ve gotten my ordination through an ad in the back of Rolling Stone like the guy on that old TV show Northern Exposure.

Given this fact, I suppose it’s no surprise that I’ve actually lead small groups in very latitudinarian prayers on more than one occasion. If I had been the team mouthpiece in this situation, I suppose I would have hoped aloud for an injury-free game and that the best team be allowed to win.

Even if I believed in God and wasn’t worried about church-state separation, I think I would still come to the conclusion that this sort of group prayer before a baseball game is a bad idea.

First of all, it raises the question: Is God more likely to grant a wish if a group asks for it in unison? That sounds more like casting a magic spell than it does praying. That’s just magical thinking and rank superstition, and do we really want to be encouraging that sort of thing?

Second, there are many of a less ecumenical bent than myself that use group prayer as their opportunity to invoke the name of a particular prophet and particular ideology. There’s nothing wrong with trying to convince people to accept your position, but that’s not prayer. That’s just preaching and it can get in the way of a genuine attempt at prayer.

Third and finally, I think the character of Jesus in that modestly successful work of fiction known as the Bible put it best in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:5), “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.”

So, in conclusion, if I see a bunch of people praying in a circle before a ballgame, I think at least some of them are superstitious, preachy hypocrites.