Thursday is National Day of Prayer, as mandated by Congress. What should President Obama do? Should he follow tradition and sign a ceremonial proclamation? Should he follow President George W. Bush's practice of hosting a formal White House event? Should he ignore it completely?
Whether or not a national day of prayer is worthy of the name depends on what prayer is meant to be. In the Bush era, public or group prayer followed the pattern set down by Nixon in the Sixties: it was a validation of conservative values. God was for law and order and against hippies. God was against anyone who didn't believe in him, a ridiculous position when you think about it. Shouldn't God, of all beings, not need the approval of others? As long as prayer was simply a shout-out to evangelicals and supporters of the current war, I think it had little value as a national activity.
Anyway, prayer is personal to begin with. It is called upon by individuals for their own reasons, regardless of politicians who want to co-opt it.
Is there a single thing that prayer is meant to be? Many among the devout would find this an odd question, because for them the issue is self-evident. Prayer is a way to talk to God. The image is quite basic, like a telephone call. Whether God answers is exactly the same as whether the person you have dialed picks up the phone. The only mystery -- and it's a huge one -- is how to judge when God answers and when he doesn't. Is he angry or indifferent? Is he sufficiently pleased with your behavior in general? Does he deem it fit to fulfill your special request?
The human race has entangled itself fruitlessly in these mysteries for centuries, so it would be helpful to somehow get them out of the way by giving prayer a new meaning, one that doesn't depend on the fickleness of an invisible being living above the clouds. Why not consider prayer to be an action in consciousness? It may be too hard for someone in the Judeo-Christian tradition to let go of a personal (and usually masculine) God in favor of something as impersonal as one's own awareness, but I think this is where the focus should lie.
Everything about prayer happens in consciousness and nowhere else. The message is sent and received in consciousness; the results are noticed in consciousness; one's expectations, beliefs, and intentions are rooted in consciousness. Jesus proclaimed the existence of God inside each person, and "inside" means in a person's deepest consciousness. Therefore, prayer is one process: consciousness interacting with itself. Religions enforce a division between the one who prays and the one who answers, but why? Stripped of religious vocabulary, a prayer is nothing more than an intention. Either that intention comes true or it doesn't.
Once we put the issue on this basis, we can talk more rationally about how intentions come true. Does consciousness have the power to make dreams come true, to rescue people by bringing unexpected solutions, to heal illness, inspire faith, and surmount crises? A massive amount of evidence from the world's wisdom traditions says that a heartfelt intention arising in awareness possesses all these powers. There isn't space enough here to elaborate on the point at length, but anyone who delves seriously into the power of intention will come to the conclusion that having a prayer come true depends much more on the consciousness of the person who's praying than on an invisible, fickle, unknowable power who may or may not be listening.