Prayer Does Not Mean Stuffing a Sacred Slot Machine

“And this is the Western Wall in Jerusalem,” said the cruise ship promoter during his sales pitch on Mediterranean cruises. A graphic appeared showing the famous remaining section of the retaining wall of the Second Temple, built by Herod the Great.

He ended the brief monologue saying, “Many people chose to write their wishes on small pieces of paper and stick them into the holes in the wall.”

“Wait a minute!” I thought, reacting as if my spirit had been stung by a bee.

The promoter had just employed a similar phrase as he highlighted the many fountains in Rome. Throw a coin in, make a wish.

Those devout Jews lining up to pray at the Western Wall would surely not equate their prayers with the flipping of a coin into a Roman fountain.

Nor would I.

Then I began to wonder, “Why?”

Questions bubbled - the nature and purpose of prayer, the nature of God.

My wondering overflows - one blog, two, at least.

Prayer is one of those practices that bypasses the congestion of much religious patter and goes straight to the core question of the nature of God.

Prayer bypasses much religious patter and goes straight to the question of God.

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I am not one who subscribes to the slot machine image of God where the right combination of prayers, sincerity and volume generates the desired result.

Those kicking dirt onto the practice of prayer often charge at the straw image of God as the benevolent grandfather in the sky who can be plied by earnest pleading or sweet refrain. Prayer is judged a failure since no predictable, repeatable result can be assured from the old guy. They chant what no-one disagrees with - the world is no longer solely governed by Newtonian physics.

But actually, the astounding new ways of viewing the sub-atomic, physical and astrophysical universes make me reluctant to throw out the prayer baby.

We seem to know so little about what impacts what but, in a quantum world, one thing seems clear - many forces interact with each other in astounding ways.

Almost a century ago, thinkers like Einstein and Heisenberg were re-imagining the world.

In 1927, the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, “proved” that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known.” All aspects of reality do not behave as clearly and predictably as once thought. The pool table analogy was flawed.

And then, the observer effect said, in essence, that by the very act of observing something you change the system. Don’t look, you’ll change the world! The uncertainty principle is now regarded as a “fundamental property of quantum systems.” 

It appears the world - sub-atomic and at the galactic level - is a lot more delicate, nuanced and, dare I say, mysterious than cause and effect. So the current science makes me very hesitant to discard prayer on the basis of an attack on an older version of physics.

In more human terms, I continue to be impressed by the Healing Touch movement. There, as in many alternate forms of healing, people deal with “energy.” When asked if they feel anything - or have ever felt anything - practitioners often reply “no.” And yet sometimes, not always, the reality of the one being cared for changes.

So what’s up with that?

Would prayer be more palatable if it was thought of as interacting with an energy field, the breadth and power of which we are far from understanding completely?

Discussion often arises among religious professionals about whether God is an interventionist God, meaning “Does God, in some way, operate the strings behind a marionette world?”

I prefer to talk about a God who engages.

Prayer engages a Reality larger than a slot machine image. Prayer prompts interactions more complex than presently understood.

Prayer engages a Reality larger than a slot machine. Would prayer be more palatable as interaction with an energy field?

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I don’t have it all straight but I know wondering about prayer and wishes was enough to distract me from the rest of the cruise ship promotion. More in my next blog.

What is your experience of prayer?


  1. I appreciate these recent thoughts about the quantum age and God..I have always thought that if I were naming mysteries, prayer would be on the list… I wish we had the opportunity to have conversations like this somewhere in church life…

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