Seven were drawn at random. They made their way to the front of the room and the rest of us watched them, looking for sign or signal of their intent. The teacher would then call out the magic words, “Heads down, thumbs up!” and for a moment there was the rustling sound of a class full of students crossing their arms across their desks and dipping their faces into the dark hollows thus created.
When the noise had died down you could hear them moving silently throughout the room. Some of us held our thumbs as high as we could, hoping to be picked. Others, not believing that any of those chosen would pick them, would hardly extend their thumbs at all.
Still others, despite the admonition against cheating would try to sneak a glance out of the corner of their eye, or through the space between their arms. Maybe if they could glimpse a flash of color along with the sudden tweaking of their upraised thumb, they might have the advantage over the others.
“Thumbs down. Heads up. Seven up!”
And then there was a room full of children, blinking in the light, looking to see which seven of their classmates would stand. Those seven would, by turn, try to guess who had selected them from among their fellows, and take their place at the head of the class.
A few weeks ago I found myself in a friendly debate with several people regarding the nature of prayer and meditation. Specifically, one of my friends had posted a question asking folks to offer their opinions on the difference (if any) between the two things.
I watched the thread develop for a while before I weighed in myself and most of what I read there did not surprise me in the least.
Most of the responses were of the fortune cookie variety…,
“Prayer is reaching out, meditation is reaching in.”
Yet even among these pithy responses, it was easy to pick out certain biases on public display.
“Prayer implies a conversation. Meditation is completely internal.”
“Prayer is requesting. Meditation is listening.”
“One has expectations and the other has goals.”
Most of the longer responses fell along the same party lines.
On the one hand, there were the seemingly religious folks who felt that meditation was less valuable than prayer because you were talking to yourself instead of God.
On the other, there were the humanist thinkers (with a few “spiritual but not religious” mixed in) who felt that talking to yourself was just fine as long as you didn’t call it prayer.
Honestly, it did not seem to me that either group had a particularly strong understanding of the full history, utility and variety of meditation techniques. And no great shock there.
Even less surprising to me, were the opinions regarding prayer.
One side appeared to see prayer as a wasteful exercise, either because there is no one there to hear, or because the One-God already has a plan and begging for favors isn’t going to do any good.
Others asserted that prayer is purely about worshipping God (their god, the one, the only) and that anything else is an affront to God, and also wasteful, because, you know, there is no one there to hear you.
I have often felt that watching monotheists and humanists debate is like watching one guy arguing with himself in a mirror. The talking points are the same but each side seems oblivious to the fact that there is a vast plurality of thought extending beyond their philosophically narrow tug-of-war.
Prayer is not about talking to an imaginary friend.
It’s not about sending God a wish list…,
…or a laundry list of complaints…,
…or seeking forgiveness…,
Not exactly, anyway.
When I was a child, I almost never got picked in “Seven Up”. I wasn’t particularly popular among my classmates and I really didn’t want the attention, so I just went through the motions. I’d cross my arms and lower my head, but my thumb barely extended above my closed fist. I did not make it a tempting target.
When I was a child, prayer felt empty and hollow. I was told how to pray and when and to whom, but I put no real effort into it. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit just didn’t do it for me. I understand now that I had already been touched by other gods, but back then all I knew was that I didn’t want the attention.
Later, I told myself that prayer was foolish, that there was no one there to hear.
After that, I joined the “spiritual but not religious” crowd and while I happily sent ‘positive energy’ where it was needed, I would not pray. I had accepted the lie: prayer was a Christian thing, another way of humbling ourselves before their Lord and Savior.
And I could not have been more wrong.
Prayer is not about humility or submissiveness.
Prayer is about believing ourselves worthy of attention.
Prayer is about folding our arms across the desk, dipping our faces into the darkness, and pointing a thumb at the ceiling. When we pray, we put ourselves out there, blindly, waiting to see if this time we will feel the tug which means that the divine has come to us.
It doesn’t happen every time, or even most of the time.
For some it may never happen at all.
Because prayer is not about being picked.
It’s about wanting it enough to risk being passed over.
“Prayer is reaching out, meditation is reaching in.”
Huh, sometimes the fortune cookie answer gets it right.
“Heads down, thumbs up!”