This past week the multi-state Mega Millions lottery reached $330 million. On Saturday morning, there were four winners. One of them, Elwood “Bunky” Bartlett of Nottingham, Md., believes his good fortune was the result of prayer.
Bartlett is a full-time accountant and a part-time teacher of Wicca. Wicca is sometimes associated with Satan worship and so-called “black arts,” but most participants deny such claims. While calling themselves “witches,” they really practice a benign form of nature worship. They believe in multiple deities, most of whom are associated with natural phenomenon–water, trees, the moon, and so on.
Bartlett says that when buying the lottery tickets he prayed to Wiccan gods to help him win the lottery. He promised if he won he would become a full-time teacher of Wicca.
I must confess that I have on occasion purchased a lottery ticket. The day-dreaming that my wife and I do about the things we would do with the money is worth the dollar we pay for the ticket. But never, not even once, have I prayed to win the lottery. I don’t believe that is what prayer is all about.
I also don’t think that is how God works in the world. I am reasonably certain that God does not direct the outcome of lotteries, political campaigns, or sporting events (sorry football fans).
Lotteries are entirely a matter of chance. Political outcomes are the result of choices that voters make. And the outcome of sporting events are mostly about the skill, determination and preparation of the players.
In fact, thinking about life in terms of lotteries, voting and sports is not a bad way to understand how prayer may function in our lives.
For instance, life is full of unexpected, random happenings. Unlike Zeus, God does not hurl lightning bolts at us, yet people are occasionally struck by lightning. In fact, the odds of being struck are considerably better than winning the lottery.
Prayer can help prepare us for the unexpected, the unplanned and the unwanted events that come to us.
Life is also like political campaigns in that our choices have consequences. The things we choose to do or not do become the bricks and mortar of the lives we build. Good choices result in solid, strong lives. Bad choices leave us weak.
Prayer provides an opportunity to reflect on our choices, to weigh them carefully before committing ourselves to them.
And life is like a sporting event in that we often get out of it what we put into it. The more prepared we are, the more we hone our skills and develop our strengths, the better we will play. The more we understand the nature of the game we are in and what our role is, the better we will play.
Of course even the best players can have a bad day. Sometimes even when we’ve done our best, we still lose.
In those instances prayer can be a valuable discipline to help us find healing. Prayer opens us to the grace of forgiveness. Prayer helps us find peace in the midst of chaos and confusion. Prayer can help us get up when we’ve been knocked down, and steady us to play again.
I’m not saying it’s wrong to pray for the lottery, I just think it’s a waste of time. “Bunky” Bartlett is not a multi-millionaire today because of the gods. He just happened to be at the right place at the right time. Next time, it could be lightning.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala. He is featured in “Golden Rule Politics: Reclaiming the Rightful Role of Faith in Politics,” a DVD produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics.