Prayer Rising, Even If Many Eschew the Pews

By Donna Britt
Friday, March 25, 2005

"Let us pray."

On Sunday, millions more churchgoers than usual will hear those words thanks to Easter, a holiday that traditionally inspires infrequent worshipers to join the faithful in the nation's pews. As a church-going child, I prayed for Easter's arrival -- not because of the unusual crowds or Christ's Resurrection but because the holiday meant new outfits and unscuffed patent leather shoes.

What will today's churchgoers -- particularly those for whom church services are a rarity -- pray for?

Millions will pray for our troops in Iraq. Many will petition God on the behalf of embattled hospice resident Terri Schiavo -- some asking that her life be extended via the feeding tube that her parents have wanted reinserted; others requesting that she be allowed to die as her husband insists she would wish.

Some prayers doubtlessly will acknowledge Ashley Smith, the Georgia widow who -- after an alleged killer of four took her hostage and bound her hands "in a praying position" -- used her Bible and the Christian bestseller "The Purpose Driven Life" to persuade him to free her.

Prayer, which for years received short shrift in popular entertainment, seems to be making a comeback. The religious-themed film "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" recently opened in the top box-office spot. Plane crash survivors on the hit TV series "Lost" have been depicted praying. Recently on "The West Wing," President Josiah Bartlet ended a discussion about religion in politics by observing that the one thing presidents can pray for is strength to get through the day.

In a nation in which more than 80 percent of us say we believe in God -- yet one in which talk show guests seem more comfortable describing their sex habits than their religious beliefs -- that's encouraging.

But why are many of us squeamish about discussing prayer? Why do some who'd love to have deeper religious lives avoid those pews?

"Because nobody has seen God -- and praying to an unseen God sounds foolish," says Patricia Raybon, author of the new book "I Told the Mountain to Move," described as "a determined struggle to learn how to pray; a triumphant lesson in learning to love."

"On my own, I can't quantify God, I can't prove God," Raybon continues. "I can only believe, and act on my belief. For rational people, following belief looks foolish -- many aren't willing even to entertain conversation about it."

That doesn't mean there isn't "a lot of praying going on under the radar," she adds -- a fact that the mainstream media rarely get. "So when all that energy manifests in a presidential win, the talking heads say, 'How did this happen and who are these people?' These people are us. And they're everywhere."

Of course "these people" aren't all faultless, role-model religious folk. Many are like Raybon, 55, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a self-described "scratched-up, middle-of-the-road Christian." Raised in the church, Raybon never left -- but her prayers felt shallow and rote. At 50, she found herself in a strained marriage, alienated from her mother and coping with one daughter's abandonment of Christianity and another's single motherhood.

A good church girl, Raybon prayed. But God felt like "the Big and Silent One . . . a great and distant emptiness, saying nothing, DOING nothing, mocking and . . . not there," Raybon writes.

Who hasn't felt that yawning emptiness? Doesn't the sense of a not-there God explain many empty Sunday pews? For some, what's frightening about prayer isn't just a terror of looking foolish. It's memories of having prayed and believed -- and having watched those prayers go unanswered by an apparently hard-of-hearing Creator.

Rather than cursing or accepting the emptiness, Raybon decided there must be a better way of praying, something more effective than begging "please, Jesus, please." Reading spiritual books, she wrote out her prayers and studied them, realizing, "We don't pray to get. We pray to love." Before long, her prayers became "less like cold lists and more like warm letters" to God.

But when her husband received a diagnosis of a potentially fatal vascular disease, Raybon's simmering desire to pray effectively exploded, teaching her to pray with an eloquence and passion that stunned and ultimately fulfilled her.

I won't reveal how Raybon's various challenges worked out. But she did learn how to pray. Real prayer, she discovered, requires that one stop running and start getting still. Real prayer takes us places we don't want to go, teaches lessons we've little desire to learn, and makes us reveal secrets we don't want to tell.

And then, she writes, they help us "change the world."

Raybon understands people's disillusionment when prayers go unanswered. It took her years to understand the Bible's clear conditions for successful prayer. "I grew up in a church that suggested you just call Jesus up and tell him what you want," she says. "That's lovely, but that's not what Jesus said."

It took her mother's death and her husband's near-fatal struggle for her to learn that a sovereign God "knows what He's doing and can see things we can't see."

She is fascinated with how the presidential election riveted the nation's attention on religion as a social and political force. But it doesn't surprise her. "More than any other First World country, religion is quintessential to what America means," she says.

Whichever side you're on in the ongoing political debate, "what's interesting is that [religion] is on the table," she says. "That we are having the conversation is . . . very patriotic. I love that we have freedom of speech, that . . . it's okay to debate religion. It gets ugly sometimes; we have a lot to learn about the subtleties of public debate."

Raybon pauses, perhaps long enough for the quickest of prayers.

"But I think only good things will come from it."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company