To pray or not to pray

stock market crashOne of the hardest questions to answer for young reporters is this one: What is news? One of the simple, but almost useless, definitions of "news" is this: What people are talking about. OK, but which people? In the newsroom? In the offices of major advertisers? The weather is news. But is last night's episode of "The Office" really news? A1 news?

I thought of this the other day when I clicked on veteran Time religion writer David Van Biema's feature called "Is It OK to Pray for Your 401(k)? A Theological Primer."

Well, it's not hard news. But it's certainly what people are talking about -- including the religion angle. Be honest. Didn't you think about that? Didn't you think twice about how to pray for, uh, the market? Thus, Van Biema writes:

TIME talked to Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim clerics about the kind of prayer that is appropriate in a time of possible economic peril and found strong agreement on some basic advice.

"People absolutely need to know that it's natural to ask God's [personal] help in times of crisis," says James Martin, a priest, editor at the Jesuit magazine America and author of the book My Life with the Saints. "It's human and we can't not do it." Martin points out that the Psalms -- in many ways the Western model for all personal prayer -- are full of such special pleading. And in the Lord's prayer, Jesus doesn't forget to include "give us this day our daily bread."

Daniel Nevins, dean of the rabbinical school at New York's Jewish Theological Seminary, also recognizes the legitimacy of the "help me" prayer, noting that the third of four prayers that religious Jews are expected to recite after meals asks God to "grant us relief from all our troubles. May we never find ourselves in need of gifts or loans from flesh and blood, but may we rely only upon your helping hand, which is open, ample and generous." Says Shamsi Ali, imam of the huge Islamic Cultural Center on 96th Street in Manhattan: "In this kind of situation, Muslims turn their face to God and say, 'Almighty God, we submit ourselves fully to you, heal us and strengthen us. What you give, no one can prevent, and what you prevent, no one can give.' "

Where some people veer off the doctrinal charts is with prayers for, well, windfalls that show up in their bank accounts. In other words, praying for protection and wisdom and even for God's blessing is different than a prayer for wealth or divine intervention in the market. Does God act in that way? Most theologians would say that question is above their pay grade.

So this is a valid religion feature, creating a bridge between hard news and the daily bread concerns of readers.

As I read it I thought of a column that I wrote a few years ago, hours before a hurricane knocked out the power in our home in West Palm Beach, Fla. How do you pray when a hurricane is headed your way? Pray for it to hit someone else? Vanish into thin air? It's interesting, I think, that the doctrines that apply to hurricanes are also very useful during storms in the marketplace.

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