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I grew up Catholic, and am the product of parochial education: 14 years in total, kindergarten through high school and a year of grad school at a Catholic university.
My first formal experience with prayer came in kindergarten. My teacher said “God hears everything we say or think. He will answer your prayers—you have only to ask sincerely.”
Wow, I thought—that’s too good to be true!
Being a practical four-year-old, I was intrigued, to say the least. I couldn’t wait to test this concept for myself. I immediately began to pray, quite fervently I might add, for a … pony!
I have no idea why I chose a pony. I lived in the city and had never ridden a horse, or even seen one up close. Yet, as my fifth birthday approached, I prayed more fervently each day that God would give me a pony. I fully expected that on my fifth birthday, a truck would pull into the school parking lot and two men would walk a pony out of the back of the trailer. I could see it in my mind’s eye: I would run out onto the playground claiming the pony was mine, and the men would nod approvingly, hand me the lead rope, and off they would go.
I had no idea what kind of care a pony required. But, that’s OK, I thought—Mom would know! Once I walked it three blocks home and explained that God had given it to me, she HAD to let me keep it, right? I mean, come on—God gave it to me! I prayed and God answered! You can’t return a gift from God!! That would be rude!!!
As you might expect, my fifth birthday came and went. No truck drove onto the playground. Nobody walked a pony out of the back of a trailer. No one gave me the lead rope with a pony from God attached to the end of it. Sigh.
So ended my first experiment with prayer. From a small boy’s perspective, I felt nothing but disappointment and disillusionment. I thought of my teacher as either an outright fibber or completely misinformed. I wondered what else she was telling us that was complete rubbish. Seriously, my faith in education and religion was totally shaken to its core, at the ripe old age of five.
The Bible tells us:
Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. - Mark 11:24.
And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him. - 1 John 5:15.
But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. - James 1:6.
Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. - Jeremiah 29:12.
I believe the Bible is the Word of God and I believe what it says is true. I also believe that God hears us and answers our prayers. But from personal experience, it’s probably a good idea not to ask for a pony when you’re four-going-on-five.
I did learn from this experience, though. Slowly, I felt able to slowly glean what prayer is and is not:
Prayer is not magic.
God is not Santa Claus or a wish-granting genie in a lamp, just waiting to be summoned to give us what we want without regard for our circumstances, consequences, benefits or harm.
Prayer does not make demands.
I can make requests of God in prayer. However, after I make those humble requests, I must trust in His mercy and wisdom, and leave matters to Him. God is the Creator of the universe and does not take orders from anyone.
Prayer requires practice and consistency.
The Baha'i teachings ask us to pray regularly:
To be humble in your attitude towards God, to be constant in prayer to Him, so as to grow daily nearer to God. - Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 74.
Pray to and seek assistance from God, and … supplicate and implore His aid. - Abdu’l-Baha, from a tablet translated from the Arabic.
I’ve learned from the Baha'i writings that prayer is for my benefit, not God's. Prayer reminds me that I am not in control, God is:
Regard thou the one true God as One Who is apart from, and immeasurably exalted above, all created things. The whole universe reflecteth His glory, while He is Himself independent of, and transcendeth His creatures. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 166.
Praise be to God, thy heart is engaged in the commemoration of God, thy soul is gladdened by the glad tidings of God and thou art absorbed in prayer. The state of prayer is the best of conditions, for man is then associating with God. Prayer verily bestoweth life … - Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l‑Baha, p. 172.
Prayer, I’ve learned, does not provide a guarantee against suffering. Prayer cannot change things that are already predestined, but many things we face in our lives are not subject to destiny. Some things are predestined by God, but others are not. The things that are not can be influenced by prayer:
The Almighty hath tried, and will continue to try, His servants, so that light may be distinguished from darkness, truth from falsehood, right from wrong, guidance from error, happiness from misery, and roses from thorns. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 8.
While a man is happy he may forget his God; but when grief comes and sorrows overwhelm him, then will he remember his Father who is in Heaven, and who is able to deliver him. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 50.
I learned about the Baha’i Faith in college, and declared my belief as an adult. After college, I married a wonderful woman who is an avid horse fanatic. Her majestic stallion, Xenophon, was getting on in years and needed a place to retire. So, we purchased a piece of property and built stables and paddocks. Once completed and ready, a horse trailer pulled up to our new property. Two men led her horse Xenophon out of the back of the trailer and walked him to his new stable.
One of the men then walked a pony out of the back of the trailer. Handing me the lead rope, he said: “Here’s your pony, sir.”
I had no idea my wife had arranged for a pony to accompany Xenophon on his journey and retire with him as a stable mate. But the amazing thing is … that man handed me the lead rope and said “Here’s your pony, Sir” exactly fifty years to the day after I had prayed to God as a four-year-old for a pony.
Fifty years before, I did not have the capacity to receive and care for a pony. However, when I finally developed that capacity, God answered my prayer.
Do I believe God hears us and answers our prayers? Beyond the shadow of a doubt. He even hears and answers the misguided and ridiculous prayers of small children.
You may not like the time frame involved or the answer you get, but that’s for you to deal with. So before you ask for bestowals from God, ask for the capacity to receive them and the understanding to use those gifts wisely. You can’t expect to get what you don’t have the capacity to receive.