Ceremonial Prayer?

I RECENTLY overheard someone commenting on the banning of prayer at a high-school graduation. He indicated that while he disagreed a bit over the banning, he could see its wisdom. In many cases, he felt, the notion of a stranger intoning a watered-down, generalized prayer for graduates is not appropriate. ``For many of the parents sitting there,'' he said, ``their whole lives with these youngsters have been prayer!''

That prompted me to ask myself: Is prayer just ceremonial?

Of course, when I thought about what the Bible teaches, I could see there is nothing ``ceremonial'' about prayer! Nothing could be less ceremonial than Christ Jesus' praying in the garden on the night before his crucifixion. His prayer was a natural means of communication with his Father. In the Bible, Hebrews points out that Jesus ``offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death'' (5:7).

To me, this shows that prayer is meaningful and is heard by God. Of course, Christ Jesus was unique. Yet, if we accept him as our Way-shower, we can adopt what he taught about prayer, about the power and immediacy of our communication with God.

All this begins with the nature of God Himself. God is a real presence among us--nothing ceremonial about it. God is not too distant or too lofty to enter into our daily affairs with His guidance and strength. For centuries, individuals everywhere have found God a powerful, ministering presence every day, and they have based their entire lives on this fact.

Finding Him is not like finding some Utopia, however. We don't have to travel long distances or do impossible things. But we do have to accept in our hearts that God is infinite Spirit, that He is therefore in all places, in all times. Isn't this what Jeremiah perceived when he recorded God's message: ``And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart'' (29:13)?

God is the creator of man, and this creation comes forth from God's love. God's love for man is always full and continuous. And He communicates this love for man in ways that we can understand, ways that make a difference each day.

Mary Baker Eddy, the Founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist, makes strong statements about prayer in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. In one place she says, ``The habitual struggle to be always good is unceasing prayer'' (p. 4).

A ceremony is often something we would rather get out of the way so that we can move on to better things. Prayer helps us commune with the one source of knowing that can help us at every turn in our lives. God is All-in-all. And He means to be understood and loved. Yes, prayer does always require putting aside personal emotions and opinions and humbly listening to and walking with God. This is an absolute requirement that ensures the prayer in our lives will be more than ceremony.

It also requires a goodness on our part. This is the ``habitual struggle to be always good'' that Mary Baker Eddy defines as prayer. And this goodness is no ceremony. It is a spiritual attribute imparted by God to man. And it is made manifest by you and me in our lives--often with great effort over long periods of time--as we learn to pray. The spirituality gained is, in turn, the engine that really empowers our prayer.

Our sincere efforts to be good remove any hint of ceremony from prayer.

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