How do you pray for someone if you don’t really believe in God?
How do you pray at all?
I’ve been asking myself this question over and over this week.
I used to pray, with fervor.
I prayed, even though, somewhere in the deepest corners of my heart, I wasn’t sure that God was real or if s/he heard or cared. I prayed because it was what I was taught to do, because it was expected, because I wanted so hard to believe that it made a difference.
I prayed because I wanted to believe that it made a difference.
Now, though, as I work through what my honest beliefs really are, apart from what I was taught, apart from religious dogma, I often wonder where prayer fits in, or if it does at all.
I’ll admit that I stopped praying altogether long before I ever left my old life. It felt hollow, empty. I didn’t know if what I was praying was just going out into the void, if it was being heard, if it mattered at all.
And I didn’t pray for years.
Lately, though, for several months now, I’ve been thinking a lot about prayer. Actually, I’ve been thinking about it since this day last year, when the election went so incredibly, scarily wrong, I found out that the woman I was dating was a newly emboldened racist, and I walked out my front door to a Trump-inspired death threat on my car. It felt like the world was crashing in; I was alone and scared. I wanted to pray, needed to pray – but realized that I didn’t know how, or to whom.
So I went to church.
I went to church and I sat, stunned, in the pews with all the other scared, hurting people, wondering exactly what I still wonder today in times of tragedy or personal conflict/need.
What do you do in moments when your heart is aching or longing for something, but you don’t know the difference between a wish and a prayer?
What is a prayer anyway? Is it trying to finagle or manipulate to tilt the odds in your favor? Is it begging God/Jesus/Buddha/Elvis/the universe to move on your behalf? Is it repeating your wish over and over again in your conscious mind while trying to prepare your heart for disappointment?
Is there even a difference between a prayer and a wish? A prayer and a worry?
“I really need this job.”
“My friend is in the ICU.”
“I can’t find my ring.”
“There’s a problem with my car that I can’t afford to get fixed.”
“My anxiety is bad right now.”
“Systemic violence has trapped thousands of people in poverty with no hope of escaping.”
“Someone shot up a church.”
There are circumstances that weigh on our hearts. Even though some are completely out of our control, we can become consumed with anxiety about the outcome.
At what point does a desire for a specific outcome turn into a prayer? What keeps it from remaining a wish left to chance? Where, how does that change happen?
A friend of mine, Cheryl, grappled with these questions in one of her reflections at UUCV a few months ago, and her words brought me to tears.
She suggested that the change comes when you redefine prayer itself.
So many of us have learned that you have to pray TO something – Jesus/Buddha/Elvis/Whatever. That just doesn’t work for me anymore. Sending prayers out to…wherever…feels a little too much like wishing to me. Elusive. Impotent. Useless.
So, what if we stop thinking about prayer as praying TO something/someone, and start thinking about it as praying WITH, being WITH someone?
It doesn’t have to be something supernatural, mystical, nebulous.
What if we made prayer something we do with one another?
That night last year, sitting in the sanctuary with all those other scared, crying people, we talked, we sat in silence together, we sang….we…..prayed?
Thanks to Cheryl, I’m starting to realize that the difference between a wish and a prayer is who receives it.
At it’s best, prayer embodies love.
I think about the conversations that happen with the people who “get” me the most. Those nights spent in the art studio talking about everything with Antonia, sharing my fears and anxieties about religion and ‘church shit’ with Aija in her office, every dinner, hug, conversation with my girlfriend……they’re all acts of prayer.
In those moments when we are safe, when we are free to share ourselves – our hopes, dreams, failures, shortcomings, moments of pride, and joys with one another, without trust being broken or having to fear that our words will be used against us later on – we are praying together.
The speaking aloud the longings of our hearts, the lending the strength of our hearts to someone who needs to know that someone is listening, this saying “you’re not alone” or “me too”…. This is the kind of praying I can do.
The prayers that I pray now are not wishes sent out to the universe, and yes, it’s much easier to sit here and muse about prayer than to actually do it, but I’ve realized that I can, and do, pray.
Like so many things over the course of the past almost 7 years, prayer is vastly different now. It’s something I’m still learning about, figuring out as I go, and I’ve learned that, even though it might not be able to put out a wildfire, turn a hurricane, or stop mass shootings in their tracks, it can soothe an anxious mind, mend a broken heart, or rebuild a broken relationship.
So today, I’m going to pray – WITH.
Because prayer isn’t just something you say.
It’s something you do.