Thursday, January 19, 2012

An Atheist Jew Does the Alpha Course: Week 5, Why and How Do I Pray?

This week, we used a container of Sani-Wipes as a prayer stick. Judaism prohibits prayer sticks, right? As a form of idolatrous practice?

This is the fifth official installment in the Alpha course series, in which I recall my experiences as a Jewish-raised dude and now a Gnu Atheist who took the Alpha course with his Christian wife. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Last week, I accepted that Alpha was not going to be anything like what I had hoped. Saddened in one sense, in another I was relieved. Now I was free to observe the proceedings without worrying about being a participant. It turns out that this week's proceedings were very enjoyable, in a "I can't believe what's happening" way.

Alpha hosts and small group leaders  are now making a big push for people to participate in the retreat weekend. They say they have funds to help defray costs for people who might find it too expensive. It's about $100 or so per person. The weekend sounds fun, except for the group feely-feely stuff. It's going to be held at what sounds like a kind of campus in New Hampshire. There's supposed to be woods and walking paths around. My wife wants to go, and I'm on board if she is. So it looks like we are going.

My notes on this evening's content:
  • Dinner was chili; pretty good!
  • Worship music featured two songs, as usual.
    • Tonight, we heard “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” and “How Great Is Our God.”
    • The music comes across as both detached and mawkish. The first song seems self-centered, as if the worshiper is watching himself/herself pray. The second song is a communal high-five, but I don't see what it has to do with worship.
  • Tonight's DVD talk focuses on prayer. 
    • Nicky Gumbel, the speaker in the DVD, breathlessly declares that prayer is real, it’s good for you, and it works. 
    • Nothing very impressive here for me, except that Gumbel is all about telling stories in which people are just AMAZED (all caps) at something that has happened. Someone gets a job and someone else had prayed that it would happen, and they were both AMAZED. Many stories involve Gumbel coming to tears and/or someone pouring out his heart to someone else.
    • We got our first mention--that I can recall--of “the evil one.” I await a future talk that brings Satan into focus. Because a universe isn't complete without powerful and invisible beings on both the "good" and "bad" sides.
    • One ugly part was the idea that because Christians are forgiven, they are better able to forgive than others (other religions, other people). I forget now what the exact statement was, so I want to be careful and not misrepresent what was said. Nevertheless, there was the idea that feeling forgiven by God entails a greater capacity for and likelihood of forgiving others. This seems like a vacuous assertion. It’s all feel-good if one is a Christian, but the rest of us would like to see that claim backed up with some facts, please.
  • Small group talked about people’s experience with prayer. 
    • We welcomed a woman into our group. She seems a sunny personality.
    • Some shared that they feel someone (i.e., a higher power or God) is listening when they pray. Several suggested that this feeling developed over time; when they were younger, or not part of their current church, prayer seemed less effectual or genuine. The “as if” and “as though” expressions amused me. One might feel as though she drives a million-dollar sports car, but feeling that way is different from it actually being the case.
    • Tonight, group leaders invited everyone to pray in public. They had a plastic container of Sani-Wipes. The person with the container was supposed to say a prayer out loud and then pass the container around to the next person, who would then offer a prayer. 
    • One person declined to pray and simply passed the container. 
    • When my turn came, I said I would not pray but that I appreciated being with everyone there and getting to know them. After the meeting, one of the group leaders said she was touched by what I said. She may have been telling the truth, but I also know that apparent kindness and unconditional positive regard are part of what the leaders are directed to offer. 
    • As I listened to the discussion and heard people praying, I became filled with empathy. These folks are generally anxious and put upon in their lives. In church and in belief, they temporarily feel empowered and validated.

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