Last week, I wrote about the prayers that get a “No” answer.
This week, let me confess that there are two prayers for which I feel some shame for praying.
The first prayer starts off with, “God, please make me like this man.” I pray this prayer when I hear from friends such as Cecil Murphy, who tells me his New York Times best-selling book, “90 Minutes in Heaven,” just surpassed 3 million in sales.
It’s a prayer I pray in the midst of people such as Andy Petruska. Andy’s a retired U.S. Navy captain who still is navigating the seven seas with his wife, Laura, as merchant marines. I stayed in their Florida home last week and swapped his sea stories for my less-than-exciting chaplain stories well into the night.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking. Those are self-defeating prayers, Norris. Don’t say things like that. Well, like you, I pray these prayers because I’m human.
Regretfully, the most human prayer I pray is the “At Least Prayer.”
It starts like this: “Thank you, God, that at least I’m not as bad as so-and-so!”
No, it’s not a prayer I vocalize. It’s a prayer that slips from the surly bonds of my brain and erupts when I’m asked for change by the fourth homeless person of the day. “Thank you, God, that at least I work for a living.”
Or it comes out when I browse a lousy book and I say, “At least I can write.”
Or it erupts at the gas station when some fellow pulls in driving a Hummer with his stereo blasting. The self-serving jerk is yelling into his tiny wireless earpiece about some business deal gone bad, all the while pretending he doesn’t notice the single mom who’s been waiting 10 minutes for the spot he took.
The prayer slips into my conscious stream of thought through an unspoken barrel roll of my eyes. “Thank you, God, I’m not like him!”
Maybe you’re praying it now. “Thank God I’m not like this hypocritical chaplain!”
Maybe I should be a better example of what Chuang Tzu, a Chinese philosopher who lived during the fourth century B.C, described. “The Perfect Man has no self; the Holy Man has no merit; the Sage has no fame.” (Chuang Tzu, 26).
But you’d have to admit we tend to think this way. For instance, did you say it to the cop who ticketed you last month? “At least I don’t weave through traffic!”
Have you said it to your children when they’ve complained about your overbearing attitude? “At least I let you go the movies.”
The thinking is similar to a man Jesus described in Luke 18. He stood praying in the front of the temple when he noticed over his shoulder a Roman collaborator, the most hideous of all beings.
“Thank you God that I am not like thissss man,” he hissed.
His At Least Prayer was so loud, he failed to hear the prayer of the one he condemned.
The message translation says the man “slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, saying, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’ ”
“Jesus commented, ‘This tax man, not the other, went home, made right with God.’ ”
Then Jesus said something that will forever squelch the At Least Prayer.
“If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”