A Prayer Experiment

Fellow Patheos blogger Bob Seidensticker on the atheist channel is taking part in a prayer experiment, and when I first heard about it I thought it had to be pretty stupid, and said so. I thought it was one of those “God is a vending machine” ideas that you put a prayer in, push the request button and out pops your answer. Happily it is a little bit more sophisticated than that. It turns out some fellow at a Christian radio station in London has put forward an invitation for atheists to take part in a prayer experiment. The terms for the experiment are here. The basic idea is that the atheist promises to pray for a short time every day and then watch out for signs of God answering in their daily life.

Bob is taking part in this experiment and, to give him credit, seems to be taking it seriously enough. He reports on his first week here. I like a couple of his observations:

It’s tough to stay focused, and items from my to-do list often float by … a TV in the next room is distracting … I prayed while driving to a church small group meeting, and it made me a more considerate driver … how is simply making myself open to the Deity’s input different from making a specific request? … What if someone saw me—would I be embarrassed? …

Yes. Exactly. One of the problems here is that we’re dealing with people who are admittedly, not too experienced in prayer. Why didn’t anybody give these novices some pointers? Prayer is deep stuff. You’re going into a foreign territory and you’re not taking any maps? I accept that the experiment is deliberately open ended and not Christian as such, but  here are a few ideas to help keep focussed: These prayer hints are applicable for anybody–not just a Christian. 1. Sit still in the same place and same time each day. 2. Give yourself a visual focus of some kind. OK, you can’t use a crucifix, but why not light a candle? 3. Begin by reciting a form of words that brings peace and is inspirational. For this project, try reciting, “Speak Lord Your Servant is Listening” or “Speak Lord I am Listening” ten times. That helps clear the mind of extraneous verbal clutter and focusses your attention.4. As you sit in stillness speak to God–not just asking proof for his existence, but for the solution of some problem or the resolution of something you can’t figure out. 5. Spend the rest of the time is stillness and listening.

I like this observation too:

The experiment is more than just praying. It asks participants to remain “as open as possible to ways in which that prayer could be answered.” The closest I’ve come was on Day 5, where I was working with a volunteer team at a local Boys and Girls Club. When I came home, I realized that I’d lost my red plastic “Good Without God” wristband that I’ve worn continuously for a couple of years.

Hmm—was God telling me something? But if so, what was it?

Maybe God was saying, “You can’t be good without God!” Maybe he was saying, “That’s what you get for helping a worthy organization! Do it again and I’ll punish you worse.” Maybe this was a general caution to be more attentive to my surroundings so that I don’t lose things like this again.

Even if this was a divine action, we haven’t established that this was the work of the Christian god, and an action as vague as this might mean different things coming from different deities. For example, red in Hinduism is associated with Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and beauty. If she did this, maybe the message was, “Thank you for the red wristband. You will be rewarded.” And so on.

Here’s where I can help. You see, Christians aren’t supposed to do this on their own. Listening to the voice of God is a very risky business. That’s why you’re supposed to bounce the God response off someone else. This is called ‘spiritual direction.’ The idea is that you take what you think God said to you to someone else who is older and wiser and more experienced and they tell you whether it was God or whether it was just you talking to yourself or whether you’re going crazy or it was just your imagination. It’s all there in that Bible story about the boy Samuel in the temple hearing God’s call at night. Old Eli gave him some guidance.

So Bob, you should take some advice on this. Let me be your old Eli. I’m telling you that losing the red wristband was definitely God telling you what you first hunched: “You can’t be good without God.” This was major. Remember your a beginner here. He’s probably giving you a little test. Do well and make the right response and you’ll be more confident in your response next time.

Your problem is that you didn’t like that answer, and you got all confused–which is understandable and natural– and you didn’t seek advice from an old timer,  so you went on and analyzed the sign God gave you until you explained it away. C’mon Bob! You’re never going to be a person of faith with that sort of attitude! I’m joshing, but seriously, the person of faith does take the interpretation that fits with his faith perception. The faith thing means we learn to discern and use our intuitive gifts. We take risks that we might have got it wrong and will have egg on our face, but then we might have got it right and God did lead and guide us. The trick is to act on what was given. You know…the step of faith and all that. Remember your Indiana Jones. Take one step of obedience and trust and then next time God speaks you will have learned a bit more how to listen and respond.

See, the listening to God thing is an art form Bob! Did you think it was going to be easy? This is the stuff that saints are made of, and these people called saints are like Mt Everest climbers of the spiritual life. They’re the geniuses of spirituality. Did you think you were going to learn to listen to God’s voice with just a week of dabbling? C’mon Bob! You didn’t expect to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel after completing your first paint by number picture did you? Did you think you were going to play Rachmaninov after learning to play chopsticks?

I know, I know, “If God wants us to know him why doesn’t he make it easier?” It’s arguable that he’s made it pretty easy, but we’re the ones who’ve complicated matters by not responding simply and openly when he speaks. See, he gave you a sign. You lost your “Good without God” bracelet, but you didn’t listen. You explained it away, so now he’s going to have to try again. If you, on the other hand, had responded in awesome wonder (like a little child–and remember the Lord Christ said you had to become like a little child…) then you would have made more progress. I’m of the opinion that God is speaking to us all the time. The radio station is belting out the signal. We just don’t know how to tune in. We’ve lost the knack.

Here’s another pointer: Why are you doing this alone? Going into prayer is like going into a foreign and alien land. There be dragons! You should have asked for some of the experts to pray with you. I’m no expert, but I’ll tell you what–I’m going to pray for you every day for the rest of this prayer experiment. I’ll be Sam to your Frodo Baggins if you like. Furthermore, if you don’t mind, I’m going to ask some of my other friends to help as well. Don’t worry, they’re very discreet–in fact, they’re not even here on this earth, so they won’t bother you very much.

But then again…one of them might bother you…and that might just shake you up! Let me see now. Padre Pio ought to do the trick. I’ll see if we can get him to make an appearance in your life…

Anyway, I’ll be following your progress with interest. Good luck!

  • Tara

    The first prayer I prayed to God was not deep prayer–just a simple, “If your there God, then please help me!”. Immediately He did! But the prayer was said as a pure earnest request. So I wonder if our Lord will choose to come to this man and give him the gift of faith in this way? When God penetrates one’s heart, man has the option of listening or ignoring God and go about his own business. Makes me think of Elijah waiting on the mountain for the barely discernable sound of God–when Elijah heard it–he immediately knew it was God. Just as I heard Him the first time I asked. Men are always looking for the great “sign” the “feeling” the “shaking of the earth.”. But God comes to us in the most ordinary simple ways, and if your not paying attention–or your heart is closed of with worldly concerns–well, be still, the Lord is passing by! I’ll join you in prayer!

  • Marty Kay Zee

    Atheism is to religion as abstinence is to promiscuity.

  • Ben

    Dear Fr. Longenecker,
    Just a quick thought: in my experience, it’s more “internet polite” to add a note to your old post pointing the reader to this one instead rather than deleting it entirely. That said, this is, of course, *your* blog :)
    Thanks for sharing your words of wisdom with us!

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      The advantage of blogging for me is that it is quick to publish and quick to rubbish. The first post on this prayer experiment was done hastily and was not well informed. That’s why it went.

      • dorcheat

        Well, at least you are honest about it. Fortunately I saved the last posting about Bob’s experiment as well as the comments before you deleted it as well as this current posting!

      • abb3w

        Quick to publish, yes.

        Quick to rubbish? Not so much on a blog, when every page view (from technological necessity) hands out copies. Even less so when the change to no longer handing out copies draws attention to any fragments of earlier copies that remain, and draws attention to the potential need for preservation of copies for the future.

        Perhaps you might be familiar with the term “the Streissand Effect“? You might also wish to consider the opprobrium and ill-will that the Catholic Church has earned over history relating to its associations with censorship, such as via the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

        • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

          Try lightening up. It’s only a blog.

  • Bob Seidensticker

    Dwight: Thanks for the support and for the honest critique of the experiment.

    Bob Seidensticker

  • Susan J.

    I am praying for you Bob!

  • Joe

    I don’t see how you can honestly claim that losing the wristband was definitely a sign from God. People lose wristbands all the time, with and without prayer. If someone lost a ‘Good Without God’ wristband without praying, would that be a sign from God? How about if someone prayed for a sign from God, then lost a ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ wristband? Is that a sign that they shouldn’t do what Jesus would? I’m confident that both these things would have happened at least once somewhere. What makes Bob’s case different from these?

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      I think perhaps you missed the ironic and humorous tone of the post.

      • Joe

        Ah. Text based comunication makes that rather easy to do. My bad.

      • Kodie

        Maybe you should try to be funny next time.

      • Korou

        I think that Bob himself got it right when he said:

        “Even if this was a divine action, we haven’t established that this was the work of the Christian god, and an action as vague as this might mean different things coming from different deities. For example, red in Hinduism is associated with Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and beauty. If she did this, maybe the message was, “Thank you for the red wristband. You will be rewarded.” And so on”

        • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

          It’s hard for beginners to discern what God is saying to them. It’s like trying to learn a foreign language.

  • John Dempster

    Loved your post, Dwight Thank you very much