Tag Archives: prayer for non-theists

The Problem with Prayer

It was bound to happen sooner or later…

Just before a worship service recently, a woman approached me and asked if I would anoint, lay hands on and pray for her. She was preparing to undergo surgery and was seeking prayers of healing and comfort. I asked if she would like the congregation to help me perform this ritual, or if she would prefer private prayer after the service. She elected private prayer. After the service, and after asking for her preference of “God language,” I–along with a clergy colleague who was in service with us that day–performed the ritual. Afterwards she smiled and said she really felt the power of our prayers.

My prayer and desire for her comfort and healing were sincere; still, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t entirely comfortable performing this ritual. As a Religious Humanist, I’m certainly open to the mystery of everything we don’t understand–and I have no problem calling that mystery “God.” I just don’t see that mystery as a supernatural being. I’ve also witnessed healings–never immediate as in dropping the crutches and running the aisles of an auditorium–but the emotional, spiritual and yes, physical healings of people who were not expected to fare as well in life as they eventually did.

At the same time, I’m no longer comfortable asking an external deity for favors. Actually I haven’t been comfortable with this form of prayer for a few years now. I know too many people–including myself–who have prayed to God for the healing of people we love, for the peaceful resolution to relationship conflicts, for favorable results for job searches for other people, etc. only to see those prayers go unanswered.

And please, don’t tell me God sometimes says “No” for reasons we don’t understand. Yes, I know sometimes healing comes in different forms. Yes, I know that some folks get an even better job than the one for which they prayed. And I can understand saying “No” to prayers like winning the lottery or hooking up with that amazingly hot man or woman we’ve been watching from across the crowded room all night. At the same time, what kind of warped deity would say “No” to a child’s prayer for food? What kind of deity would say “No” to a child’s prayer for the abuse to stop? Yet we know children starve to death every day; and we know child abuse continues to be a reality.

So, what is a clergy person to do?

Strange as it may sound, I still pray. I lead prayers in worship services because I realize communal worship isn’t about me; communal worship is about the community, and if the words I use somehow help any person connect to the God of their understanding and experience healing in any way, then something beautiful and mysterious has happened–and I’m more than good with that.

My personal prayer life has changed in that it has become more of a practice of meditation. I also often simply verbalize my gratitude for food, clothing, love, family, career and shelter. Whatever positive energy I have I offer in service to the greater good, and not only do I seek the healing energy of others to help me live out of my highest self, I seek that same energy for all creation. Those are my prayers, and I can offer them with integrity.

Who knows? Maybe in the end prayer isn’t really about the exact words we use or even to whom those words are offered. Maybe one of the best prayers any of us can offer is to live out of our highest selves and thus bring healing and peace to our planet.

Blessings on your journeys!