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Asking the clergy how they view prayer

'Oh, Lord, won't you buy me a color TV . . . ," The lyrics from the Janis Joplin hit "Mercedes-Benz" tend to be how many view prayer -- God as cosmic department store. But is that an appropriate way to pray? Our clergy discuss the purpose, and practice, of prayer. Are any topics not worthy of prayer?

The Rev. Louise Stowe-Johns, pastor, Amityville First United Methodist Church: Amityville:

God cares about us totally. There isn't any topic that God doesn't care about. I consider prayer a conversation with God where we're supposed to both speak and listen. We can get too wrapped up in ourselves, and that's a problem. The beauty of having a conversation and really listening to God is that, when needed, God helps us change the content of those prayers to be less self-absorbed.

If I'm always praying for something good to happen to me, maybe God will help me understand that there are other people who need my prayers. God will reshape my prayers and reshape me to be able to see others in need. Our self-absorption leads us to think we're the most important thing on the planet. If we have an active prayer life, we can rise above those endless self-serving petitions.

The more you are connected with others who are spiritual, the more it expands your prayer vocabulary and understanding of what prayer is about. If you stay in your own little cocoon, you'll stay very self-absorbed in your prayer conversation. It is good to know prayers such as The Lord's Prayer, because they give us a model, but you don't have to pray like anyone else. You just have to pray from your heart. Rabbi Susie Heneson Moskowitz, Temple Beth Torah, Melville:

I can't think of any topics that aren't worthy of prayer. If something is on your mind or in your soul, there is a way you can pray about it. We can't always pray "for" something or ask God to give us things, but we can communicate with God about our concerns and needs. To do this, we might have to expand our definition of prayer.

Prayer is not just asking God for something but rather an opportunity to have a conversation with God. You might say, "but God never answers me." There's a wonderful teaching: "Prayer is talking to God, and meditation is listening to God." Sometimes, our communication is expressed by sitting quietly and listening for God's answers; other times, it is a pouring out of all that is in our souls.

God might not be a being who answers prayer, but I believe that God listens to our prayers and that God can sort out the worthy prayers versus the more base ones. Instead of asking for something specific, we can pray for clarity or strength or for a sense of God's presence. Praying for others always seems nobler than praying for ourselves. When I pray for healing, I don't just ask that the person become healthy. I pray that the doctors and nurses have wisdom, the caregivers have strength and that the person who is suffering has a refu'ah shlema -- the Hebrew phrase meaning, a complete healing of body and soul.

Many traditions offer a book of prayers that reflects that religion's longings. We can combine these traditional prayers with the prayers of our own hearts to guide our relationship with God.

The Rev. David Lowry, rector, Christ Church, an Episcopal denomination, Manhasset:

Every topic is worthy of prayer. However, how I pray and what I pray about that topic may not be fulfilled or appropriate. If I want a new car, it is not that my transportation issues are not appropriate topics, but my prayers for a Maserati may not be appropriate. Prayer is not for asking for things. It is for enhancing a relationship with God. When you pray, you should develop a deeper understand of what you truly need. That would be a greater gift one could receive.

Certainly, scripturally, in the Old and New testaments, are examples of asking and receiving. "Seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened" (Matthew 7:7). There are a bunch of stories in the Bible about receiving things. But prayer is also a dialogue between man and his creator.

In college, I was captain of my college baseball team and had to pitch when all the other pitchers were sick or tired. This one time, the first batter was in the batter's box, and I saw him make the sign of the cross. First pitch, he hits a home run. The second time he came up to bat, he made the sign of the cross, and I made the sign of the cross. He made a double. I figured things were getting better.

I tell the story to remind everyone that we don't always get exactly what we ask for. Prayer is a process, not a negotiation. Prayer is less an issue of what one asks for, but what one could and should expect to receive.

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