Sharon Goldberg

Sharon Goldberg lives in the Seattle area and previously worked as an advertising copywriter in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. Her work has appeared in The Louisville Review, Under The Sun, The Avalon Literary Review, The Chaffey Review, Temenos, The Binnacle, Little Fiction: Listerature, The Feathered Flounder, Penduline, three fiction anthologies, and elsewhere. Her short stories “Caving In” (2012) and “Ghost” (2011) were finalists in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest. Sharon was also the second place winner of the 2012 On The Premises Humor Contest and Fiction Attic Press’s 2013 Flash in the Attic Contest. Three of her stories were nominated for the 2014 Pushcart Prize. Sharon is working on a short story collection.

   

Let Us (Not) Pray

I don’t remember when I first prayed, but I’m certain I prayed out of fear. Probably when I was three or four and scared to go to sleep at night. Scared of the dark. Scared to close my eyes. Scared I’d be attacked by burglars. I remember my Mom singing “Lullaby and Good Night,” her voice sweet and soothing. She said there was no such thing as burglars. I was skeptical.

*

At Agudath B’nai Israel Synagogue, I learned the Shema, the most important prayer in Judaism: Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. I believed it. At home, I learned prayers of thanks for bread and wine and the blessing over the Sabbath candles. I stood next to Mom, my hands above the flickering flames, and recited the barucha like a good little Jewish girl.

*

I’m a hypocrite. I no longer believe God exists, but I pray to him sometimes anyway. Prayer is my insurance policy, my back-up plan, a hedge against my bet. Still, I don’t want even a hypothetical God to think I’m dishonest. Or trying to put one over on him. Or invoking him falsely. So I qualify my prayer: “Dear Lord, if you’re there, please. . . .”

*

How long have humans prayed? Tunnel back in time 5,000 years to Mesopotamia. There the Sumerians inscribed prayers on stone votive statues. Even earlier, 10,000 years ago during the Paleolithic Period, artists in Southwest Europe and the Altay Mountains of Asia drew pictures on cave walls of animals, sometimes attacked by darts or spears. Was this a form of prehistoric prayer, an appeal to unknown gods for a successful hunt?

*

At Email2God.com, anyone may submit a prayer for himself or a loved one, or pray for those who post prayers. Some of the prayers on the site:

Father, I am not one to complain, I am a very lucky person. However, I am a big blockhead sometimes . . . . Help me to figure out who I am. . .

Please dear Lord, help my husband to find the perfect job for him; sooner than later please. . . . I am so tired and scared.

God, I love a girl namely Vanika but she not loves me. She is very happy with other guy namely Vishal. God plz help so get my true love back. . .

Dear God . . . I’m really messed up w whats going on w my Dad. Please show me a miracle and allow him to remain here on earth w us longer.

*

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that “the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”

*

According to the 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, fifty-eight percent of Americans pray daily. Older people and poorer people pray more. Jehovah’s Witnesses pray the most. Jews and the religiously unaffiliated pray the least.

*

When his team came from behind to win against the Miami Dolphins, then-Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, an Evangelical Christian, dropped to one knee and bowed his head in prayer while his teammates celebrated wildly around him—Rodin’s “Thinker” in the middle of a football field. “Tebowing,” as this practice was named, went viral when a fan created a website and invited viewers to post photos of themselves engaged in the act. At www.tebowing.com, you’ll see underwater divers, firefighters, tail hookers; travelers in the Sahara Desert, on an Afghan mountaintop, at the Taj Mahal; students on a high school campus, people in line for tacos, even a baby and a cat. Has prayer become just another occasion for a “selfie?”

*

“When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your father, who is unseen.” (The Gospel of Matthew).

*

As a child, I thought inanimate objects had feelings. I believed lamps, tables, chairs, and dressers could feel pain. I don’t know where I got this idea. I don’t know why I didn’t question it. But since it was gospel for me, I prayed to God to say I was sorry and ask forgiveness when I accidentally bumped, scratched, knocked, or toppled “things” in our apartment.

*

If we weren’t taught to pray, would we invent prayer?

*

Do our brains have a spiritual architecture? Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist and author of Why We Believe What We Believe, investigated this question. Using imaging techniques, he and his team scanned the brains of Franciscan nuns as they prayed, Tibetan Buddhists as they meditated, and Pentecostal Christians as they spoke in tongues. What did Newberg learn? “When we think of religious and spiritual beliefs. . . ,” he said, “we see a tremendous similarity across practices and across traditions.” The brain’s frontal lobe, the part that helps us focus, showed increased activity. The limbic system, which regulates emotion and is responsible for feelings of awe and joy, also showed increased activity. But the parietal lobe, the brain part that orients us in space, showed decreased activity, perhaps explaining the feeling of being part of something greater than oneself.

Scott Atran, author of In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, sees it in a different way. Religion, Atran says, is just a byproduct of evolution and Darwinian adaptation. “Just like we’re not hardwired for boats, but humans in all cultures make boats pretty much the same way. Now, that’s a result both of the way the brain works and of the needs of the world. . .”

*

Between the ages of eight and thirteen, I attended Junior Congregation services at the synagogue. I learned all the tunes to all the Sabbath morning prayers, signed up weekly to lead the chanting of one of my favorites, and sometimes led the entire service. I was proud of my prayer prowess.

*

What does prayer look like? Catholics bow their heads and make the sign of the cross. Orthodox Jews sway and rock. Muslims kneel and prostrate five times a day facing Mecca. Sufis play music and whirl, whirl, whirl. Hindus chant. Quakers sit in communal silence. Worshippers clasp hands, clap hands, fold hands, lay on hands, and lift their hands toward heaven. Some people pray with their eyes open, some with their eyes closed. They use knotted ropes, beads, goblets, and prayer rugs. They wear veils, shawls, bonnets, and kipot. Sometimes prayer is accompanied by candle lighting, bell ringing, incense burning, or anointing with oil. Does ritual intensify the prayer experience?

*

My father davened twice a day, reciting the traditional Jewish morning and afternoon/evening prayers. He prayed with a well-worn siddur on his lap, even though he knew every word by heart. He prayed wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, and on weekday mornings, wearing tefillen, a set of small, black, leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with Torah verses. He prayed every single day, except when he was in the hospital sedated.

*

In the 1960s, when I was a student at Admiral King, a public high school, we recited The Lord’s Prayer every morning in our home room. No one complained. No one questioned. But I felt uncomfortable mouthing a prayer that was not mine. I complied anyway. I didn’t want to be disobedient or different. My dilemma was whether to include “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever” at the end with the Protestants. Or leave it out, like the Catholics. To play it safe, I alternated.

*

In 2012, sixteen-year-old Jessica Alquist, an atheist and student at Cranston West High School in Rhode Island, won a lawsuit ordering the removal of a prayer banner hung in the school gym for decades. City officials claimed the banner was a historical artifact and served no religious purpose; the prayer merely encouraged students to grow mentally and morally, as well as physically. Jessica contended that the prayer which began “Our Heavenly Father” and ended with “Amen” was offensive to non-Christians and violated both the constitutional separation of church and state and the school district’s policy which stated that the proper settings for religious observance were the home and place of worship. Jessica was far braver than I.

*

A partial list of what I’ve prayed for: to win speech competitions, to win roles in plays, to win the hearts of boys; for a clean bill of health, for world peace, for the end of all disease; for my parents to come home because it’s 10:00 p.m. and I don’t know where they are and I’m afraid they were in an accident; for my husband to come home because it’s 10:00 p.m. and there’s no answer at his office and I’m afraid he was in an accident; that the driver I rear-ended won’t have a chronic injury; that totalitarian leaders will be deposed; that 9/11 won’t be the end of the world; that the plane I’m on will arrive safely—no pilot error, no weather fluke, no terrorist act.

*

It is May 1, 1967 and I am sixteen years old, but I feel like a big baby. I am freaking out. I have worked myself into a terror tizzy. Actually, I am edging toward a panic attack but I don’t know what a panic attack is. I am sitting on my twin bed in my mint green and apricot bedroom and I am crying and praying, crying and praying. Why? Jeane Dixon, who is a famous psychic, who is said to have the gift of prophecy, who predicted President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, supposedly predicted that half the world’s teens will die by May 9th of an unknown throat disease. And my throat hurts. Who am I to say Jeane is full of crap? Who am I to say she’s not God’s messenger? Who am I to say she’s not a true prophet? In biblical times, the people often disbelieved true prophets and look what happened—woe to them! I am afraid to close my eyes. I am afraid to fall asleep. Just like when I was a little girl. I am afraid I won’t wake up in the morning because I will die from the unknown throat disease. And I am furious at Jeane Dixon because she doesn’t say “repent” or “change” or “take precautions” and you won’t die. No. Jeane just says, “Bye-bye half the world’s teenagers!” So what do I do? I cry because I can’t help it. I pray because I don’t know what else to do.

*

For centuries, in the Old City of Jerusalem, people have stuffed prayers written on paper scraps into cracks in the two-thousand-year-old Wailing Wall, believed by devout Jews to be the Western Wall of the Second Temple. My brother Howard was in Jerusalem while my Uncle Sanford Brown lay in a Cleveland hospital hooked to a ventilator, his heart and kidneys failing. Howard posted prayers for Sanford in the Wall. Our uncle died anyway.

Now Wailing Wall prayers can be tweeted. Israeli Alon Nil founded TweetYourPrayers, an automated Twitter bot that accepts requests, in 140 characters or less, which he prints and takes to the Wall. Does God need a Twitter account?

*

Are there things that it’s not okay to pray for because they’re selfish or greedy or frivolous? Here are my rules: It’s not okay to pray for beauty, but it is okay to pray your lover will find you beautiful. It’s not okay to pray for wealth, but it is okay to pray for enough money to cover basic needs along with some discretionary income. It’s not okay to pray for a Nobel Prize, but it is okay to pray your work will have a positive impact on the world. It’s not okay to pray you’ll live forever, but it is okay to pray you’ll survive an illness or accident or disaster and live to see your children grow into happy, healthy adults.

*

During the last two months of my father’s life, I prayed for him. I didn’t pray Dad would live to be 120 like Moses, as he wished on his eightieth birthday. I knew it was impossible. I didn’t pray he’d be cured of Multiple Myeloma; no one who’s eighty-nine ever is. I didn’t pray he’d walk out of the hospital vibrant and vital; I don’t believe in miracles. I prayed he’d rally enough to transfer to a Long Term Acute Care Facility. I prayed he’d recover from pneumonia. I prayed he’d be weaned off the ventilator. I prayed he’d no longer need dialysis. I prayed he could be nourished without a feeding tube. I prayed he’d be able to speak and express his wishes. I prayed we were making the decisions about his care that he would make if he were in a position to make them. What answers did I get? Yes. No. No. No. No. No. I don’t know and never will.

*

Does prayer heal? Can its power be proven? For decades, scientists have searched for the answer, but their methodology has been flawed and their results mixed. In 2006, the outcome of a long-awaited study—the most rigorous to date—was published. Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute near Boston, tested the effects of intercessory prayer—prayer by strangers at a distance—on patients recovering from coronary bypass surgery. The results? Prayer had no effect. And patients who were told in advance about the prayer had a higher rate of post-operative complications, perhaps because they had higher expectations. While the study was designed to avoid earlier problems, Benson couldn’t control for a significant variable: the unknown prayer each person received from friends, families, and others.

*

I asked my cardiologist, Dr. Sarah Speck, about the relationship between prayer and medicine. “There are forces of nature we don’t completely understand in healing,” she said. “A positive environment is more healing than a negative, stressful one. I think there’s a spirituality that improves the healing process.”

*

Essential prayers: Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name (Christian); And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might (Jewish); In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the world (Muslim); May the merit of my practice adorn Buddha’s Pure Lands (Buddhist); Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner (Orthodox Christian); On the absolute reality and its planes, On that finest spiritual light, We meditate (Hindu). Amen.

*

Does prayer move energy in the universe causing change on some cosmic or atomic level? According to the laws of physics, no. There’s no scientific proof that a spiritual chain reaction occurs that can impact outcomes. But knowing we’re not alone, that people care and root for us does. It helps us persevere, marshal resources, boosts adrenaline, and fuels our immune systems. We are chemical beings and our chemistry is influenced by hope.

*

William James, the American philosopher, said “The reason why we pray is simply that we cannot help praying.”

*

When I was married, I used to watch my husband sleep and well up with joy at my good fortune. How lucky I was to be in a loving relationship with such an amazing man. I prayed just to express gratitude and say I was content. Thank you God! My husband is so bright, so dynamic, so charismatic. Thank you God! After eighteen years I still adore his blue eyes, his golden skin, his curly hair. Thank you God! My husband is happy and so am I.

Then, one morning, my husband announced he didn’t love me anymore and our marriage was over. I was devastated. And I was pissed at God. My gratitude wasn’t worth shit. God was mocking me. I made the mistake of telling him what I valued most, so he took it away.

I am grateful for my current loving relationship. Arnie is a wonderful man: devoted, affectionate, cuddly, caring. I believe he’ll stick with me for the rest of my life. But I never tell God “thanks.”

*

When both sides in a war pray for victory, does God deem one set of prayers more ardent? One cause more worthy? If you win, does that prove God was on your side? If you lose, does that mean God has forsaken you? Or do the prayers cancel each other out?

*

People pray together in churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, chapels, meeting halls and other havens of the like-minded. Perhaps prayer en masse is more transcendent—a spiritual amphetamine.

*

Every year, about three million Muslims flock to Mecca from all over the globe for the Hajj. Despite crowd control techniques, hundreds of deaths occur annually as ramps collapse under the weight of visitors and the devout are trampled in stampedes.  

*

On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in Judaism, observant Jews fast all day and pray aloud together to confess a myriad of sins and ask forgiveness: For the sin that we have committed under stress or through choice; For the sin that we have committed in the evil meditations of the heart; For the sin that we have committed by word of mouth; For the sin that we have committed through abuse of power; For the sin that we have committed by exploitation of neighbors;…. For all these sins, O God of forgiveness, bear with us, pardon us, forgive us! Sins are mentioned in plural form because tradition teaches that every Jew bears a measure of responsibility for the actions of other Jews. Even during the years I did observe Yom Kippur, I never appreciated the group guilt and absolution.

*

If there is a God, is he so egotistical or despotic or needy that he must constantly be invoked, constantly thanked, constantly told how great he is?

*

Prayer helps me focus, prepare, analyze, question, find strength, calm myself, get a grip—a session with my inner psychotherapist. It’s a means to shut out the noise of the world and hear myself think. Talking to an imaginary being or universal force helps lessen the weight of the challenging, the horrible, and the unbearable. Prayer is my valium.

*

“The Serenity Prayer” is the common name for an originally untitled prayer by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs. The most popular form is:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

If we were granted serenity, it seems to me, we wouldn’t need to pray for anything else.

*

I’ve never experienced an epiphany, a transformation, a conversion, a mystical presence, a rippling or tingling, a connection to the divine, or oneness with the universe while I prayed. Perhaps I’m unwilling to “let go,” to give myself over to some hypothetical omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent force. Perhaps I cling to the rational, like a mountain climber to a rope. The most I’ve felt is a sense of relief; maybe things will turn out okay. My loss? Could be. But here’s what I know. Despite my doubt and disbelief, despite feeling my words and thoughts are tumbling into a black hole, despite my certainty that answered and unanswered prayers are both pure coincidence; when I’m in danger or desperate or debilitated or dying or incredibly grateful, I will pray. And if anyone out there wishes to pray for me as well, I guess it can’t hurt. Just don’t do it in front of me.

5 thoughts on “Sharon Goldberg”

  1. Oh, thank you for writing this! Now I don’t have to! You caught so many of my thoughts on this matter. I’ll have to go over this carefully to make sure you didn’t leave out anything. Did you mention the puzzling matter of why God seems to kill so many people in tragedies such as earthquakes and let other people thank him for not killing them? That always gets me.

Leave a Reply to cm Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *