All possess desire to pray, author says

Saturday, September 7, 2002

By Laura Johnston ~ Southeast Missourian

Whether they're standing in the checkout line at their local grocery store or waiting -- sometimes impatiently -- at a stoplight, people are praying.

Everybody prays, whether they know it or not.

But the words of those prayers and the tone in which people are uttering them has changed since Sept. 11, though exactly how cannot truly be measured, says author Sophy Burnham.

Burnham's latest book, "The Path of Prayer: Reflections on prayer and true stories of how it affects our lives," (Viking Compass, $23.95) will hit bookstores Sept. 16. Burnham examines how people learn to pray, attitudes about prayer and how to move from prayers of distress to prayers of thanksgiving and adoration.

On Sept. 11, people around the nation were glued to their television sets during a national tragedy that showed how fragile life is, Burnham said in a telephone interview from her Washington, D.C., home.

"That anguish sends you to prayer," she said. "It might not send you to formal prayer in church and probably not even to your knees in your living room."

But it sends you to prayer because even simply saying 'Help me' is saying a prayer by the author's definition. Burnham contends that even a good atheist could pray because prayers are just thoughts and feelings of the heart.

It is during times of tragedy, no matter the magnitude, that people turn to prayer. "There are prayers taking place every day and minute," Burnham said. When mothers learn of their son's death in a war, when husbands lose their jobs -- that sends people to prayer, she said.

But asking what causes people to seek solace in prayer isn't as important to Burnham as people living so that the peace and comfort that prayer brings is found.

Prayer is a vastly untapped resource, she said.

"In 'The Path of Prayer,' I describe how most of us are praying all the time, even when we don't know it," she said.

Yet, some people are praying but don't want to admit it because as a word, "prayer" has some negative connotations.

"People are afraid of it," Burnham said. "And they don't know how to pray. We aren't taught what prayer is or how to make the best use of this power.

Prayer should be about communicating with a God that loves us, she said.

"We are never taught that the universe is madly in love with us," Burnham said.

Speaking faith's language

"Prayer is the language of our faith," said the Rev. Jeffrey Sippy, pastor of Hanover Lutheran Church in Cape Girardeau. "As you spend more time with God then your relationship deepens as you understand who God is."

Sippy is in the midst of a personal study on prayer and how it is less about asking for things and more about having the same heart and desires of God.

Part of the problem people have with prayer is not understanding how God works, or seeing immediate responses to their requests, Burnham says in her book.

"Unless you are in a state of love yourself and feeling centered, then your prayer is less effective for someone else," Burnham said.

People have to practice prayer, whether it's just for a few minutes each day or for hours.

"It's natural for people to pray. Everybody is suffering and they turn to prayer whether they know it or not. But when you start praying, you must pray with the full knowledge of what you want."

And since humankind cannot fully understand the mind of God, "we recognize our humility and in doing that we say 'Thy will be done.'"

As the nation turns its minds and thoughts to the events of the past year, prayer is at the forefront. The president has declared this a weekend of prayer and remembrance. "But what we're going through now is based in fear," Burnham said, referring to an impending war on Iraq.

"Let us hope that enough people are praying for the president and the wisdom of our governors that they will operate from a level of deep understanding," she said.

What the nation, and individuals, should be praying for is understanding, peace, safety, kindness, tolerance, generosity and love, she said.

"We don't pray to crush the enemy because we don't know the will of God. We can pray for peace, that's OK to pray for."

If people understand one thing it should be that we live in a spiritual dimension that works on the law of love, Burnham said. "If you are full of hatred then your thoughts will have hatred and bring insecurity and terror and all the things that vengeance provides for us. We will be in a hell of our own making, independent of whether anybody is attacking us."

But even amid all the fear-inspiring headlines in the news, people can continue to look toward God and offer prayer, she said. "I don't think we will totally understand. Even the disciples had to ask Jesus to teach them to pray. It's not necessarily unnatural for us to know but we have a desire to pray. We know that there is something greater than ourselves that can help."

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