During my cross-country speaking jaunts, I’ve practically memorized that part of the flight attendant’s safety speech: “If you are traveling with children, or are seated next to someone who needs assistance, place the mask on yourself first, then offer assistance.”
As a chaplain it seems counterintuitive to put myself before all others. But I know that it’s strategic advice to save myself first so I am able to help save others.
As ironic at that advice seems, it’s solid counsel – especially when it comes to prayer. In fact, it’s guidance I give every week during the spirituality group I conduct inside a locked psychiatric facility.
The group is composed of fewer than a dozen inpatients from various religious and nonreligious backgrounds. Because of those varied backgrounds, the group isn’t the Bible study you might expect from a pastor.
Nevertheless, we delve into some spiritual resources from a page of powerful faith quotes from the likes of Billy Graham, Helen Keller, Martin Luther King and others.
I close the group by asking participants, “What are you praying for yourself?” (I allow the nonreligious to supply their own verb: “hoping, seeking, desiring, etc.)
“This can’t be a prayer for Aunt Mary or a new car,” I say. “In your heart of hearts, tell me what you personally seek from God?”
Invariably, most respond with a single word like, “sobriety, peace, forgiveness, direction and contentment.”
I know it sounds outlandish for a chaplain to suggest that you pray for yourself before praying for others, but there’s rhyme to my reason.
And it’s this. In the book, “God for the 21st Century,” Dale Mathews contributed a chapter called Faith and Medicine in which he cites university studies investigating the efficacy of two kinds of prayer: Intercessory Prayer (praying for others) and Petitionary Prayer (praying for yourself.)
Mathews admits that praying for others is hard to measure. He cites research done by Dr. Harold Koenig, an associate professor of medicine at Duke University and the country’s leading authority on faith-and-medicine studies.
Koenig found that “…in studies of intercessory prayer where one person prays for the health of another, there is scant if any effect.” Now please don’t think I’m arguing that prayer doesn’t work; it just doesn’t lend itself to laboratory studies.
However, Koenig found that “…in the studies of petitionary prayer where a person prays for his or her own health or peace of mind there were tangible and quantifiable results.”
Amazingly, he says that “When you pray for your own health–especially your own mental health, … science suggests you may be on solid ground.”
The study has caused me to urge patients to pray for themselves before praying for that errant grandson. Before praying for a new job, perhaps pray for yourself. Before praying that your spouse will stop drinking, pray for yourself.
Does that seem selfish? I don’t think so. I see a cogent parallel between the flight attendant asking you to tend to yourself and me asking you to pray for yourself.
Maybe the time we spend praying to become the creation God intends us to be is God’s way of helping everyone around us – the helpless, the hapless, the homeless, the sick and wounded journeying beside us in our flight through this world.
So this week I encourage you to voice prayers for yourself. And while you do, my prayer will be that whatever miracle you seek from God’s hand will begin with the changes he makes in you.
At this time, you may return your seats to the upright position and remember that your baggage may have shifted during the reading of this column.