Thursday, July 29

What is prayer? Why pray? What is a Humanist or Christian to do?

Some thoughts on prayer this morning. They may be a little haphazard or discombobulated, but bear with me and forgive me if I have left something out!

Sometimes, I believe the word prayer is a trigger for folks. For those who are not religious or who have been to hell and back with their previously identified religion, prayer is like a hammer. If you only prayed hard enough. I know people have heard this phrase. And these words are so very wrong. A friend of mine had a son with leukemia, and people literally said this to her. Along with variations such as, "What did your family do to bring this upon themselves?" Gross.

I'm going to throw down some thoughts about prayer that are personal, not researched, but relying upon years of praying and reading. And years of encountering folks who would rather say, "Please sendy positive vibes my way." rather than "Pray for me." To get to an understanding of prayer, I am going to make some assumptions about universal human experience that I hope will be held gently and forgiven if I am wrong. Also, I'm not explaining the assumptions, just noticing.

We all ask the question why. Whether this is when someone is crying out in pain and we can't fix it. Or with curiosity, asking new questions regarding a phenomena. Or simply regarding our own existence on earth. It could, perhaps, be phrased as purpose. What is my purpose?

I wonder about this. I sit and work and seemingly run against the tide of culture regarding the youth I work with. The traditionalists want to "save" these youth, the progressives want to "cure" culture for these situates the problem in the youth and one situates the problem in culture. The unfortunate truth is that there is a both/and. This discussion is for another day. What is true is that I am smack in the middle of both of these conversations trying to get both sides to play gently with each other and to see the truth of the entirety. This can be annoyingly tiresome. Some days I just really ask myself, "Why am I doing this? I'm just a cog in the machine. Anybody and everybody wants my job and thinks they could do it. I could just stay home and do art!"

It is true. I'd be quite happy staying home and doing photography. And other artsy and craftsy things. I could sew again. Quilt again. Finally complete the quilt I started years ago. So many things that I could do that would lead towards happiness. But, would I be fulfilled? Content?

Probably not. I stayed at home with my kids throughout their elementary and junior high school years. You better believe I ended up running the world via PTA! And at church, I was just as much an insurrectionist. Founding the Church and Society committee and pushing for the full inclusion of all people into the life of the church.

So being happy staying home and doing art? Sure. But being content? That would be temporary. I'd get restless again and have to go start something again!

What I have noticed is that, for me, this all relates to human flourishing. What brings you greater joy? What brings the world more abundance? What heals? I definitely like to sit in this pocket. My purpose is related to creating safe places for people who are traditionally scapegoated.

Now, I am not a big believer in the idea we all must do a job that fulfills our one-and-only-purpose in life. That is a privileged position to be in. I am in a position to have the family support that allows me to work a poverty-wage job. And they support me in that. If your purpose is putting food on your family's table, then that is a righteous purpose. Purpose and the answer to "why" can change over time as we grow and learn. Answering the question, "Why?" propels us forward into change.

Unless it doesn't. It could be that the answer to why leaves you sitting right where you are. Trying to make sense of the world.

This may be where my idea of prayer rises up. For me, a white, middle-class, elder in the United Methodist Church, prayer is not a magic wand. If you pray for "X" you will get it! Prayer is alignment with ultimate flourishing. Prayer pre-exists my thought and utterance of prayer. It is the process of prayer that aligns my will with those ideas, attitudes, and behaviors that propel me forward into change that supports the flourishing of my neighbor and myself. Prayer aligns me with my purpose. It doesn't answer the question why, but it sets me forward on a discovery of why-as-a-process. A life's journey.

We can rename it many things: vibes, energy, a form of meditation. Every one of these expressions gets to a piece of the truth of prayer. Aligning with the good vibes, positive energy, discovery of cleansing and goodness.

Many folks ask the question, "Why pray?I think, no matter what your beliefs are , the answers are: To find alignment with human flourishing. To be open to change. To find purpose. To transform. To dream. To release.

My prayer for you is that you can find such an alignment in a way that propels you forward to discover the full heart of human flourishing.

A blessing from the humanist perspective:

As we have been blessed, so we bless one another to be a blessing. Breathe in, breathe out, this breath we share with all that breathes. Feel the love of the universe flowing through this community, into you, and out into the universe again. Let the love of all the universe—your love—flow outward, to its height, its depth, its broad extent. You are more than you know, and more beloved than you know. Take up what power is yours to create safe haven, to make of earth a heaven. Give hope to those you encounter, that they may know safety from inner and outer harm, be happy and at peace, healthy and strong, caring and joyful. Be the blessing you already are. That is enough. Blessed Be; Amen.

Adapted from the Karaniya Metta Sutta (Sunna Nipata 1.8) of the Pali Canon by John Gibb Millspaugh and Sarah Gibb Millspaugh at

Man in Prayer
Reconciling Ministries Convocation
Photo by Terri Stewart

Leave a Reply