Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Prayer: A Faithful Community

On a typical Saturday morning anywhere around the world, you will be able to find a congregation of Jewish people inside of any synagogue. You will enter a sanctuary of any size or style and experience a unique service filled with Torah reading, d’vrei Torah, or sermons, and chanting. Depending which community you choose to spend Shabbat with, you may see modestly dressed families walking to synagogues, and the local kosher supermarket will be closed. You’ll find yourself surrounded with tallitot, or prayer shawls, and ardent Jews gathering to learn all afternoon. No matter where you choose to go, you will be immersed in a faithful community.
The following morning, you’ll see a somewhat different experience. Sunday mornings across the globe affect Christians of all denominations. All church doors are unlocked in order to welcome large communities that gather for worship services, masses, or bible studies. You will enter a spirited sanctuary of any size or style and be enlightened by the sense of both devotion and passion felt all around you. Depending on which Christian community you choose to experience this day with, you may see a contemporary band on stage or a white-collard priest standing before you. You may see a Gospel choir singing harmoniously or hear an organ echoing throughout gothic cathedrals.  All the local “Chik-Fil-A’s” will be closed, but inside every church community, there is overflowing energy that can satisfy any hunger for spirituality.
No matter which day you choose, which community you choose, or which service you choose to attend, these two dominant religions share a common practice: prayer.  
Prayer, derived from the Latin term meaning “to beg,” is a universal idea that unites people of all faiths. For thousands of years, prayer has been expressed through various styles and practices. Though styles of prayer have certainly evolved since the biblical days of our patriarchs, the significance of prayer has remained enduring nonetheless.
In Judaism, most of our daily prayers have already been written. Jewish congregants form daily minyanim , or quorums of at least ten Jewish adults, and chant Hebrew prayers in an organized service. There are set times at which we pray (Berachos 4:1) along with formulated tunes (nusachim) and movements. Covering every spectrum of life, the average prayer book (siddur) contains various psalms and prayers that are recited three times a day. While tunes and selected prayers are subject to change every so often, the core aspects of this prayer service have been preserved since the formation of Rabbinic Judaism. During each Shabbat service, there is a general feeling of holiness that engulfs a Jewish community; the unwavering commitment that Jews have in Shabbat is exuded through these weekly gatherings.
Within the more liberal sects of Christianity, prayer is explored in more of a contemporary style. During church services, (Evangelical, Baptist, Methodist, etc.) prayers are recited entirely on impulse. Pastors lead congregations in communal prayer and speak the first things that come to mind. Preaching to crowds ranging from ten congregants to thousands of congregants, church leaders speak eloquently and passionately, igniting their inner faiths to shine. Praise bands lead hundreds in impactful worship services, filled with religious music, singing, and even dancing. (Hebrews 10:25) Every Sunday morning seems as though a new element of spirit is being added to the Christian faith; one cannot help but smile when watching a room filled with faithful people spring into life. During the jovial moments in life, we can rely on our faiths for a dependable and inspiring service each week.
 Some weeks, however, are not as incredible. All religions in life face the tragedies and horrifying circumstances that deter the average person from praying. All clergymen are approached with life-altering events that threaten the faiths of their congregants. The religious institutions that we consider to be spiritual havens have always opened their doors during the times of dire need and despair; they even remain open as we grieve for reasons that are sometimes beyond our understanding. During these times of pain and suffering, every religious group is posed with the ultimate question that can sustain or eradicate one’s faith: Why do we pray?
Some people take prayer as an opportunity to praise God without any justification. Others use this outlet of faith as a chance to yell and be angered with theology. Some take the concept of prayer and modernize it; the organized time during weekly services to pray is merely for having “catch up” conversations with God. I realized, however, that no matter how people choose to pray, they are still committed to organized prayer at their respective religious services. Perhaps there is truly one, unbreakable aspect of organized prayer—one that we cannot circumvent even if we tried: community.
Through both the positive moments in life and the heartbreaking, there has always been a faithful community to support us. When we jubilantly celebrate our blessings, we have always been surrounded by a smiling community, one for which to be unconditionally grateful. We may not realize this until today, but that same tight- knit family stands behind us during times of personal struggle. We have always been supported and comforted during the moments in life that shake us and leave us feeling emptier than words can describe. Our loved ones in that community may not necessarily offer theological advice, but have always guaranteed a shoulder on which to lean through the rough patches in life. Through both our smiling and tear-filled eyes, we have seen our communities beside us and continue to stand beside us in our faith journeys. This is the same community that takes part in our organized prayer. So, despite the theological struggles and phases of doubt, why not immerse yourself in a providing community for as long as you possibly can?   
Prayer helps us find an everlasting community. Faith may be a personal journey, but certainly not one to experience alone. Perhaps that is why Jewish minyanim require at least ten congregants in order to begin praying together. Perhaps that is why Sunday morning church services will not commence without at least one family present. While prayer may be one of the fundamental values of religion, it is a strong community that is the ultimate backbone of faith. Faithful people are meant to share faith together.
To one struggling person, your faith could mean the world. Your presence could begin a long healing process for a grieving family. Your religious group’s service that one week could impact another’s life forever. By praying beside someone, however, you will be ensuring that person that no one in life must face faith alone. You will be alleviating the fears and doubts people may have, and replacing those feelings with inner peace of mind.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Faith is Certain

I know that the sun will rise tomorrow. With all of the scientific facts and astronomical data we are blessed with today, I can expect to wake up tomorrow and see rays of light emitting through my window. There is also no debating time. Our clocks, both digital and internal, will continue to function in their typical cycles under any given circumstance. These are only two of the many inexorable certainties that we experience in life. These proven facts in our daily lives, however, are limited.
There are things in life that we cannot physically see or explain, but choose to believe anyway. When our little siblings place their fallen teeth underneath their pillows, hoping to see a winged fairy deliver gifts in return, they are relying entirely on an unproven belief. When students choose universities to attend, they do not know what the outcomes of their decisions will be, nor can they predetermine their futures after school, but continue to grow and experiment with life anyway. Even the wisest of theologians and clergymen have very few answers to the questions pertaining to God’s existence that enter our minds on a daily basis. All of these situations represent a feeling that we all hold onto so dearly: faith.
Faith alone offers no guarantees. Faith is not the proof of our beliefs, but rather the hope that what we choose to believe in is right. While the proven theories in life can only extend to a given limit, the world of faith is truly endless. This sense of hope is also the foundation of most religions; it brings people comfort to believe in some greater force in the world, even if it will remain unseen forever. When a religious institution is filled with people who are gathering to believe in something greater than themselves, there is a sense of unity and humility felt in that environment. And with that unity, there is a reliable community, built and sustained through a common faith.
Unlike the established certainties, faith can be expanded, tested, or even demolished. Circumstances in life shake people; those victims then only want physical answers or just comfort—two factors that faith alone cannot always supply. It is not easy for a family of three, twelve, or even seventy-two to continue believing in an ominous theological being after experiencing a loss deeper than words. It is not easy for anyone to attend a synagogue, church, mosque, or any community of faith after having his/her own faith threatened. The moments in life where we struggle, doubt, and search for deeper meanings in our respective religions, however, is when our faith shines through the strongest.
 During the times of hardship and grief, many refer to the book of Tehillim (Psalms) in order to reconstruct their connections to God. Psalm 25 encourages us to believe in something greater than ourselves, or God, at all times. This verse inspires us to preserve hope, or faith, in a greater power and in a brighter future. By putting our trust in theology, or by keeping faith, we are opening ourselves to a world of fatality, community, and most importantly—strength.
In some cases, faith has been taken to the wildest extremes. Radical thinkers have disgraced their respective religions through their actions or words. There are faithful people who choose to jeopardize others in the name of their own faith. As a socially progressive society, it is truly devastating to witness an abnormal number of deaths pertaining to religion. Fortunately, faith is not limited to those mindsets.
In most of the other cases in life, faith has inspired the skeptics and the spiritually weak. For many, maintaining a faithful lifestyle and mindset has ignited the utmost mental strength and optimism. While adapting such an outlook on life does not limit its endeavors or accidents by any means, keeping and sharing faith only alleviates the intensity of those given situations. With a solid faith and an open mind, we can change the world.
 It takes true faith, or hope, to continue praying at the times when we have lost everything. It takes undeniable strength to not only recognize the proven facts in life, but to believe in them as well. It takes a community of faith to believe that the sun is still shining, even when it is not seen in the sky. It is also our obligation to take those unseen rays of light and spread them to communities that mourn in darkness. There is no doubt that time will continue to pass before us; that is a certainty that will never fail. It is what we do with that time, however, that defines where we stand in our faith. By living with a sense of hope, we can encourage others to approach the highest and lowest points of life with trust in both God and the importance of a community.
So from now on, I will continue to wake up each morning with not only the awareness that the sun has risen in the sky, but also with the faith that it will continue to shine through any storm.
“Oh Lord, I set my hope in You; my God, in You I trust,” – Psalm 25:1-2