Thursday, September 22, 2016

God Myopia

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Back in the day, the Des Moines Register, where I worked for 22 years, was a marvel of a newspaper. It had expert writers in so many areas, including a drama writer, a markets columnist and a book and movie reviewer, to say nothing of people who specialized in science, religion, medicine, business, the courts, government and, of course, sports.

Unbelievably for such a small market, Time Magazine named The Register among the top five newspapers in the country in 1985. Like all newspapers today, however, it’s struggling.

One of the best of those Register specialists was Bill Simbro, the religion writer. He covered his topic like a good reporter, looking for stories he knew would be of interest to readers. A former Methodist minister, he sought out good stories wherever he could find them – among Catholics, Protestants, Jews, cultists and non-believers.

Simbro and the Register recognized that religion was important to many readers, that like all the other topics in the news, it was an important part of many people’s lives. It still is. Though religious affiliation has been declining, over 70 percent of Americans call themselves Christian while the number of adherents to other faiths have held steady.

Mostly Ignore It
Though this suggests a strong demand for news about religion, most news outlets – including the Register – mostly ignore it.  

Still, as a blogger on the topics for over three years, I can attest that it’s hard to get people’s attention when it comes to God and religion. There are dozens of competing interests, all of which seem much more interesting to modern readers.

Society appears to be indifferent, at best, to the question of God. Research shows that even many people who go to church regularly live their lives as if there were no God. They go through their days never referring to their beliefs and ignoring them on social and political issues.

Most Americans say they believe in God but many are vague about what that entails. They pray mainly when they are in trouble or need a “favor.” They avoid articles and broadcasts that aim to inform them. They may think that sometime in the foggy future they will commit to God and religion, but in the meantime, there are “important” things on which to focus.

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In the blogging world, if you want readers, you write about food, exercise, pets, sports or politics. You’ll get plenty of interest.

I believe many people avoid thinking about faith because it makes demands on them and appears to contradict what they know from everyday life. Faith, they perceive, does nothing to promote their “pursuit of happiness,” a noble goal.

Faith also contradicts science, according to the popular view. Faith, it is said, promotes belief in the “unbelievable” – in the case of Christianity things like the virgin birth, the miracles of the gospels, the “tolerance of evil by an all-good” God.

Then you have the teaching of religions on social issues, particularly on sexuality, consumerism and end-of-life issues. They don’t align with the values that are promoted in society.

But does the popularity of opinions determine their validity? Isn’t it possible that, as religious people for centuries have claimed, the universe is saturated with God, that God is in us and around us and in and around the earth’s billions of people, whether they acknowledge it or not? And isn’t religion the obvious way of expressing faith?

Big Stumbling Blocks
I know that the faith issues mentioned above are big stumbling blocks for many. Not for me. Once I get past the question of a God who created the universe – admittedly in a way that is not understood in or outside of religion – I can accept for good reason any of the other “incredible” issues mentioned. They’re small potatoes by comparison. 

I believe we’re all infected with a kind of communal myopia, a condition in which we see clearly things that are close but things farther away are blurry. Immediate rewards are clear, delayed rewards are fuzzy. Faith promises mostly delayed rewards but we have to have clear vision to detect them.

Vision is an important metaphor in the Bible. Lack of clear vision signifies a lack of spiritual insight. The messianic message in the Hebrew Bible is “a light to the blind.” Jesus calls the Pharisees of his time “the blind leading the blind.” And the healing of blindness is one of the hallmarks of his mission.

I’m trying to help people see more clearly in these blogs, and in doing so, trying to help myself do the same. I’m probably not grateful enough that sometimes, both may actually happen.







Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Blight on Humanity’s Soul

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As I age, I find it much harder to watch scenes of violence on TV or in movies. That’s especially true of period dramas that depict Nazi atrocities or the abuses of slavery in 17th and 19th century America.

Slavery is flagrantly anti-human and degrading, a blight on humanity's soul. It deserves the old-fashioned word, “abomination.” And isn’t it frightening to realize that we treated each other so inhumanly only 150 years ago?

Yes, it’s frightening, but slavery is much closer to us in time. Its modern term is “human trafficking” and though we may be in denial about it, it’s in our own back yard.

A 30-something couple from a Des Moines suburb last year has been accused of kidnapping a 20-year-old woman, torturing her, threatening her and her family with death and transporting her to Virginia where they sexually assaulted her and forced her into prostitution. The two are being prosecuted on federal charges of sex trafficking and transportation of a person for prostitution.

An attitude adjustment
The case was a shocker for many Iowans who consider the state to be relatively peaceful and secure. A few weeks ago, however, I attended a meeting in which Michael Ferjak from the state attorney general’s office made a presentation on human trafficking. It was an “attitude adjustment.”

It turns out that “agriculture” is one of the principal industries for which people are trafficked. Besides farm workers, nannies, immigrants, children and the mentally disabled are frequently trafficked, and teen “throwaways” – kids whose parents kick them out of the house – are also often victims. Ferjak said there are 500 throwaways a year in Iowa, and many end up trafficked by people who take advantage of their vulnerability.

The result of abuse of these teens is unambiguous. “When abuse begins,” he said, “development ends.”

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Traffickers use Craig’s list and events like the state fair to do business. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of trafficking victims are women and children.

So what does this have to do with the goal of this blog – to help people searching for God?

Just that faith is as much about doing, and not doing, as about belief; as much about how we treat each other as about prayer; as much about healing social ills as about going to church. In my opinion, you can’t genuinely search for God without developing a social conscience.

In imitation of the God we seek, we must be on the side of goodness and kindness, compassion and justice. Practices like human trafficking are violations of basic justice and can’t solicit a mere “ho-hum” from people searching for God.   

“Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery, and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to exploit human beings for some type of labor or commercial sex purpose,” according to the Department of Homeland Security. “Victims are often lured with false promises of well-paying jobs or are manipulated by people they trust, but instead are forced or coerced into prostitution, domestic servitude, farm or factory labor, or other types of forced labor.”

3,646 Cases a Year
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center says 3,646 cases of trafficking were reported in the U.S. in the first six months of this year, 32 in Iowa.

So what can we do, practically, to combat human trafficking? First, said Ferjak, be aware and make others aware of the problem. Second, if you see anything that appears to be an incident of trafficking, call 911 and “tell them what you see,” or call 866-347-2423 (toll free) or report it online at Third, since God-seekers are people of prayer, we can pray for the victims and for a change of heart by the perpetrators.

Pope Francis recently visited a refugee center in Rome that houses people rescued from prostitution and spoke with 20 women rescued from sexual slavery. According to America Magazine, “all suffered severe physical abuse during their ordeals and are living under protection.”

The Pope, who has been outspoken on the subject, calls trafficking and slavery “a crime against humanity’ and “an open would on the body of contemporary society.”



Thursday, September 8, 2016

Waiting, Not Camping Out

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For many years before he became a branch manager of a paint and glass company, my father was a traveling salesman, and a good one. His byword, common among salesmen, was, “You have to make the sale.”

You can exchange small talk with your customers all you want, ask about their families, discuss the weather and the economy, talk about sports, but eventually you have to get them to buy. And it's similar for customers. They have to decide whether to take the plunge and buy the product.

Somewhere along the road in our search for God, we have to decide for or against him/her, though the choice might be incremental. Do I believe? Is there a place for God in my life? Am I committed to God? And if I am committed, what does that mean?

In his famous book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis uses the analogy of a hallway off of which are several doors leading to various rooms, representing belief, disbelief, and religion as a way of expressing that faith.

Not a Place to Live In
“The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. …It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at.

“I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. …But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping.”

British novelist, poet and university professor, Lewis died in 1963. He is most famous today for his fantasy novels, The Chronicles of Narnia, now a film series. He developed Mere Christianity as a series of radio broadcasts in Britain during World War II.

C.S. Lewis
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A baptized Christian, he became an atheist at age 15, later describing it as being “angry at God for not existing.” He returned to Christianity at age 33.

“Lewis vigorously resisted conversion,” according to Wikipedia, “noting that he was brought into Christianity - in his words - like a prodigal, ‘kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.’”

Lewis’ broadcasts apparently had a profound effect on many of his British countrymen. Many were bewildered and despairing of human nature after witnessing the horrors of World War II. They were open to hearing about God. Seminaries and monasteries filled after the war, it is said.

"The war, the whole of life, everything tended to seem pointless,” wrote a member of the British military. “We needed, many of us, a key to the meaning of the universe. Lewis provided just that."

Living a half century later, we may not have gone through what the wartime people endured, but the deepest realities haven’t changed.

“All of our notions of modernity and progress and all our advances in technological expertise have not brought an end to war,” writes Kathleen Norris, poet and essayist, in her forward to Mere Christianity. “Our declaring the notion of sin to be obsolete has not diminished human suffering. And the easy answers: blaming technology, or for that matter, the world’s religions, have not solved the problem.

Evil Our Only Alternative?
“The problem, C.S. Lewis insists, is us. And the crooked and perverse generation of which the psalmists and prophets spoke many thousands of years ago is our own, whenever we submit to systemic and individual evils as if doing so were our only alternative.  

“Many of us hold out a hope that at some point, God will reveal himself/herself, if only in some small way,” she continues. “Or, we think we will suddenly gain some new insight, some intellectual breakthrough that will compel us to believe.”

That reminds me of what Tomas Halik, the Czech theologian I’ve often quoted in these blogs, has to say about faith: “If the signs of God’s presence lay within easy reach on the surface of the world, as some religious zealots like to think, there would be no need for real faith.”

People searching for God should not expect to camp out in the “hallway,” as Lewis describes the endless procrastination about faith some of us exhibit. Eventually, we have to decide, even if we have to accept that our faith is “as small as a mustard seed.” 




Thursday, September 1, 2016

Family Stories

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Back in my parochial school, we sometimes told Bible jokes - not in the presence of the nuns, of course, although they probably would have enjoyed them as much as we did.
“Who is the most elastic man in history?” went a question that took liberties with the Book of Genesis.
“Abraham. He tied his ass to a tree and walked up the mountain.”
And we didn’t neglect the New Testament.
“Why shouldn’t Christians watch TV?” Because Jesus told his disciples after a mystical experience, “Television to no man.” For the Bible-challenged, the actual quote is, “Tell the vision to no man.”  
After a few years of neglect, I just started re-reading the Old Testament, now called by many “the Hebrew Bible.” Those Old Testament people were getting mixed up in my mind – the Jacobs and Isaacs, Rebeccas and Ruths - so I figured it was time to take another look
Irrecoverably Out-of-Touch?
I know. The Bible may seem boring and irrecoverably out-of-touch. How could a book that’s 1,900 to 3,000 years old possibly be relevant to my life? And even if it were interesting, who has the time, right?
I believe many people too easily dismiss the Bible. It conjures up fundamentalists who look to the Bible to answer all their questions, people who are anti-science and irrational. For some it signals people who are politically and socially reactionary. In short, it’s not cool.  
I’m finding it fascinating, however, even titillating. Some parts of Genesis read like a soap opera with wives providing their servant girls to their husbands and fathers offering their daughters to strangers to protect male guests. It reflects life at the time, of course, a time when such practices weren’t that unusual but also when it was obvious to people that God was an important part of life.
Ok, so it might be a tad interesting, but is it reliable?
Yes, and no. If you mean reliable in the sense that all is literally true, that the world was created by God in six days, that there is a “firmament” above that God separated from the waters below, that we are all descendants of a single pair of humans called Adam and Eve, that Methuselah lived 969 years… Well, you get the point. In that sense, many events and “facts” in the Bible are unreliable.
But most scholars and religious leaders – including the leaders of my own Catholic Church – agree that the Bible is a mix of fact and fiction with a religious message that is completely reliable.
“All Scripture is inspired by God,” says the Second Letter to Timothy in J.B. Phillips translation of the Christian Bible, “and useful for teaching the faith and correcting error, for resetting the direction of (people’s lives) and training (them) in good living.”
People have come to understand the Bible much better because of studies in disciplines such as archeology, philology, history and ancient geography. They have provided an “Ahah!” moment for people who read the Bible. It’s not a history book, after all, but the Word of God in the words of humans.
A parallel can be drawn between the stories in the Bible and those we may hear in our own families.
Tight with his Money
My great grandfather, who emigrated from County Tyrone in Ireland, became a fairly wealthy man as a farmer in northwest Iowa. But he was known to be tight with his money. My father tells the story of his grandfather having rented a small farm to his son and new wife. The sole source of water for the house and small number of livestock on his son’s farm was an old windmill pump, the kind that used to be seen on farms across the country.
The story goes that someone came by the farm, sought out my great grandfather and offered him $25 for the windmill atop the pump. He accepted the offer, leaving his son and wife thereafter to pump water by hand.
The story brought laughs and head shakes at family gatherings, but did it actually happen, or happen that way? Who knows? That wasn’t the point. The story was strange and entertaining and reinforced the fact that my great grandfather, for better or worse, was a skinflint. Its historicity was irrelevant.
The Bible is far from irrelevant for people searching for God. More a library than a single book, it’s unbelievably complex, full of contradictions and undecipherable material, and yes, much of it is hard to read and hard to believe.
But I don’t see how people seriously searching for God can ignore it, at least if they’re searching for the God of Christians and Jews.


Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Gospel of The Little Prince

 Attention all those concerned only with “matters of great consequence:” Is it possible that you’ve become someone you didn’t want to be, having strayed far from the innocence and simplicity of childhood?

That’s the main question asked in The Little Prince, which Netflix, the streaming video service, has recently added to its repertoire of movies and TV shows. Though not a big fan of animated flicks, I was a big fan of the book, The Little Prince, back in the 1970s when it became extremely popular in the U.S.

 It was first published in French and English in New York in 1943 as a novella by French aristocrat, writer, poet, and pioneering aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who disappeared while piloting a Free French Army plane the following year over the Mediterranean Sea.
Nearly Two Million Copies
“The novella is the fourth most-translated book in the world and was voted the best book of the 20th century in France,” says Wikipedia. “Translated into more than 250 languages and dialects (as well as Braille), selling nearly two million copies annually with sales totaling over 140 million copies worldwide, it has become one of the best-selling books ever published.”
In a simple way, without preaching, Saint-Exupery is able to powerfully convey what is important in life. Although he was a Catholic, it’s not an overtly religious work but highlights many of the most important Christian values. It echoes Jesus’ words about the necessity to “become like children” if we expect to enter into the Kingdom of God.
In fact, it was intended as a children’s book, written for “those who understand life,” Saint-Expuerey wrote, contrasting them with people who think and talk “like grown-ups” and who are “concerned with matters of consequence.”
As an aviator, Saint-Exupery’s plane once went down in the Sahara Desert. He survived and his book is about a solo pilot who crashes in the Sahara and is visited by a little prince from another planet – a planet so small that the only other inhabitants are a rose – the love of the Little Prince’s life – and three volcanoes, two active and one extinct. “But one never knows,” cautions the Little Prince about the extinct volcano.
Antoine Saint-Exupery
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The movie differs slightly from the book in that in the movie, a little girl meets an eccentric neighbor, an old man who is the pilot and who narrates the story. The book opens with the narrator himself recalling that as a child, he made a drawing of an elephant inside a boa constrictor that had eaten the elephant.
Adults who viewed the drawing said it was a hat. He had to re-draw it to plainly show the elephant inside. Plainly, we grown-ups lack imagination.
The Little Prince, who is young and innocent but wise way beyond his years, tells the downed pilot of his journey, prompted by loneliness, to six planets. On all but one, he is exposed to the narrow-mindedness of grown-ups in the persons of a king, a vain man, a drunkard, a businessman, a lamplighter, and a geographer. Then he visits the earth, where he meets the stranded aviator.
 “I know a planet inhabited by a red faced gentleman,” says the Little Prince. “He’s never smelled a flower. He’s never looked at a star, He’s never loved anyone. He’s never done anything except add up numbers. And all day long he says over and over, just like you, ‘I’m a serious man! I’m a serious man!’ And that puffs him up with pride. But he’s not a man at all-He’s a mushroom!”

I understand that such a book and video are nonsense for many who consider such parables mere sentimentality with little application to the real world. Such people will be unable to understand the psalms or the gospels, either, and must conduct their search for God without such aides.
Important Message
But there’s an important message here for people searching for God. If you get caught up in all that “grown-ups” consider consequential – money, power, prestige, fame, stuff – the search for God will be much harder if not impossible.
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly,” one of the book’s characters asserts; “what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Jesus’ remarks in Mathew’s gospel about becoming like little children was in response to his disciples’ question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
The disciples’ question represents a typical concern of grown-ups: how much prestige, honor and glory can I get in life? Clearly, this is a major obstacle in the search for God, and all of us are vulnerable to its attraction.
The Little Prince may be a fictional cartoon character whose story is as unbelievable as that of Little Red Riding Hood, but the book’s message is essential to living happily and to the search for God.






Thursday, August 18, 2016

God as Santa Claus

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Belief in God is comparable to belief in Santa Claus, say some skeptics. It’s childish and nothing but wishful thinking.
I respect their views, and given the fact that my faith includes doubt, I understand their skepticism. But for many reasons, it’s really not a good comparison.
For one thing, belief in Santa Claus is a relatively recent phenomenon and is culturally specific. That’s in contrast to belief in a supreme being, which is universal and dates to the beginning of history. Secondly, few people past the age of 10 continue to believe in Santa Claus, whereas over 85 percent of adult Americans say they believe in God.
There are no ancient writings on which to base a belief in Santa Claus; there’s no huge body of literature, music and art devoted to him; no one has ever claimed that Santa Claus is the author of life or is in us and around us. After the Christmas season, at least, people aren’t comforted by the idea that Santa Claus knows and loves them.
Get Stuff
One reason for the comparison, perhaps, is the notion held by many that if they believe in God, they’ll - to put it crudely - “get stuff.” Many people searching for God overtly or secretly have the idea that if they succeed in their search, if they become people of faith, their material and physical lives will improve. In short, that faith is the road to material success.
“The more I give, the more I get,” sort of sums it up, with the “I get” part referring to material prosperity. Indeed, some evangelists have mined this idea, urging people to give in exchange for some material reward.
As far as I know, nothing of the sort is found in the Hebrew or Christian Bibles nor do I know of any  major religion that promotes such an idea.
“To wrap ourselves in the name of God and then sit and wait for the benefits is imprudent,” writes Eric Hollas, a Benedictine monk, in his blog, A Monk’s Chronicle, “and it is the foundation for a life of hypocrisy. It is a life in which we may fool others, but we mainly fool ourselves. And it’s so because we’ve used the name of the Lord to achieve power or wealth or influence — when in fact God offers none of that to those whom he loves.”

Eric Hollas
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What does God offer? The “churchy” answers are “eternal life,” “salvation,” “grace.” But another way of saying it is “centeredness,” the discovery of meaning in an apparently meaningless universe, the confidence – even though subject to the doubt that plagues all humans about virtually everything – that God clings to us and won’t let go even in the midst of suffering.

“For those who hear the word of God and act on it, then, there is no pass on experiencing the trials of life,” writes Hollas, “nor does it offer an express lane to the best that the boutiques have to offer. Rather, those who hear the word of God and do it will have the assurance of “God with them.”

Merely passing through trials doesn’t assure success, either, of course. During the Olympic Games, we have heard many stories of athletes passing through great personal trials on their way to success in Rio. But for every athlete who went through those kinds of trials and won medals, there are thousands of others who never won anything except, possibly, the satisfaction of having made the effort.

No, the search for God offers no medals or material rewards, though this could be misunderstood by Christians in reading some portions of the gospels, and Jesus’ disciples undoubtedly misunderstood.

Mathew’s gospel, according to The Message translation, has Peter asking Jesus, “We left everything and followed you. What do we get out of it?”

“Jesus replied, ‘Yes, you have followed me. In the re-creation of the world, when the Son of Man will rule gloriously, you who have followed me will also rule, starting with the twelve tribes of Israel. And not only you, but anyone who sacrifices home, family, fields – whatever – because of me will get it all back a hundred times over, not to mention the considerable bonus of eternal life.”

Poor All His Life
Jesus, who was poor all his life, certainly wasn’t offering material rewards. “Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or – worse! – stolen by burglars,” he also says in Mathew’s gospel. “Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars.”

It’s obvious he had something entirely different than “stuff” in mind, whether the stuff is material, political or power and prestige. That may be why so few of us take the gospel seriously.

“There will still be storms, there will be challenges galore, and there will be tests of every sort,” writes Hollas. “God does not promise to set those aside. But God does promise to help us rise to the occasion, to meet the challenges nobly, and to emerge as his beloved sons and daughters.”

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Why Church May Have Lost Its Appeal

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A few months ago I wrote a two-and-a-half page letter to the liturgy committee at the church my wife and I attend.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “liturgy” refers to public worship, in this case, the Masses that are held in Catholic parishes. My letter contained a half dozen or so suggestions on how to make the weekend liturgy more people friendly, more welcoming and more relevant to the lives of parishioners.

I was subsequently invited to speak to the committee and during the discussion of my suggestions, the parish priest asked me what I believed to be the point of the Mass.

“Prayer,” I answered. “Community prayer.”

He seemed satisfied with that answer and I thought about that when I recently stumbled across a notebook compiled by my deceased brother, Richard Carney, who for 53 years was a priest in the Kansas City- St. Joseph Catholic Diocese.

The notebook contains his notes on “centering prayer,” which incorporates silence and meditation – or “listening” to God – into prayer. It has become popular with many Christians who are looking for ways to make prayer more meaningful.

Though it holds a certain attraction, I have never mastered it. I pray frequently, but centering prayer just doesn’t seem to be my “thing.” I find it hard to distinguish between listening to God and listening to my own thoughts, including biases and negative thoughts that swirl around in my brain.

But one of my brother’s notes got my attention.

“…People who have learned to pray privately, who have developed a personal rapport with God through private prayer hardly ever just ‘put in their time’ at Sunday mass. …Private prayer is the training ground for proper public prayer; it will only be so good as one’s private devotedness allows it to be.

Richard Carney
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“Private prayer, then, is at the heart of public prayer; the heart developed in loving God in private is the same heart brought to Mass on Sunday.”

It occurs to me that people who lack an appreciation for the liturgy – or “going to church” - probably have little to no prayer life. How could you understand public prayer if you don’t pray in private? And how could you not appreciate public prayer if you do pray in private?

If we complain about God’s silence, just imagine the case he/she has against us in that regard. We are also silent, ignoring God – except, perhaps when we’re in crises – for reasons that often boil down to indifference and apathy.  

The search for God, which must include prayer, requires some tenacity and self-discipline. If you’re serious about weight loss, you first have to decide to do it, apply some determination, then adopt a regimen of diet and exercise. You may occasionally fail, but to be successful you put your shoulder to the wheel and try not to look back.

All that applies to prayer for people searching for God: a decision to pray, adopting the determination to do so, then the times and places to do it. Sometimes you’ll feel that you’re talking to yourself; sometimes you’ll be distracted by so many things it doesn’t seem like prayer; sometimes you’ll be so tired you can’t focus. That’s the prayer of human beings.

The Devil in the Detail
But sometimes the devil is in the detail. The time and place are important, choosing a time when we can get it done – such as early morning or late at night – and a place of quiet and solitude. If we have some success in prayer, we will become more determined in our search for God and eventually, be able to “hear” God’s responses in the form of intuition. We’ll feel closer to him/her and to others.

And that closeness to others should spark a desire to pray with them. I believe many people don’t get church because they don’t get prayer. They haven’t learned to appreciate the value of prayer or make the connection between praying privately and publicly.

Jesus did both, according to the gospels, and so did the ancient Jews, moving throughout their history from private encounters with God to public prayer in the Temple and synagogues. Muslims pray and so do Hindus and Buddhists, though in a different form than Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Universally, private and public prayer is fundamental for people searching for God.