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December 17, 2012

This isn’t your normal “Two She Bears” article, in that I don’t want to discuss some religious person doing something heinously wrong and deserving of the attentions of two angry bears.

Today I am going to talk about prayer.

I am an atheist, so I don’t find prayer to be a particularly rewarding activity.  But I do see the allure of it for people who are believers.  The chance to communicate, directly, with the most powerful being in this or any other universe – to tell Him your wants and needs, your sorrows and triumphs, or just to chat, and have that ultimately powerful being listen to you, communicate back, and possibly even act based on your wants and needs…  well lets just say that having a conversation, a give and take, an exchange of ideas, or just a relationship with the most powerful being ever, is a profound thing.  It is a unique activity in all of life’s experiences – there is nothing to compare it to really, it is singular.

I understand that.  I even respect, without necessarily wanting it for myself.

But I have an issue.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, which left 20 children and six adults dead, I saw a lot of comments and postings from Christians (and I admit that I am talking primarily about Christians here, though what I say seems to be applicable to prayer in general) that began with the words “Please pray for…”  They were everywhere on social media, but they were not limited to social media – politicians, talking heads, media celebrities, anyone who could get their words made public seemed to be asking for prayers for the people of Sandy Hook Elementary.

I found these statements odd in a way that I never did when I was in the church.  When in church it was very common for me to hear, on a weekly basis, about members of the church who needed our prayers.  And this made sense – even within a community of a couple of hundred members or less, it’s hard to keep track of everyone all the time.  If there was someone out in our little group who was ill or in trouble, maybe I would hear about it through other means and maybe I wouldn’t.  Moreover it was a good thing to have the community pray for one of its own – it strengthened our bonds as a community and made us aware of members of our church who we might not otherwise know well.

But Sandy Hook Elementary was a different matter entirely than Mrs. Darling the organist having hip surgery.  This was a nationally reported event.  And it was a horrible tragedy, one that struck at the hearts and minds of everyone throughout the nation, regardless of their beliefs.  So when I started seeing social media posts and hearing politicians and celebrities speak, and being exhorted to pray for all those who had been affected, one of the first questions I asked was “Why do Christians think they need to remind one another about this?”

When I was in the church, prayer was a ubiquitous part of the religious experience.  We were taught to pray about almost anything that went on – to pray for guidance when we were confused, to pray for comfort when we were sad, to pray for intercession when those we cared for were somehow in trouble, to pray in order to thank God for triumphs and successes, to pray simply to become closer to God, to pray for forgiveness when we knew we had done wrong.  It was second nature, when facing adversity or tragedy or success or awe or, well, practically anything to pray about it.  Prayer was THE go-to activity, useful for any occasion.  Terms like “the power of prayer” were often used expressions to remind us of prayer’s efficacy.

Assuming for a moment that my experiences with prayer in the church were typical, I had to wonder, when seeing this flood of prayer reminders, “Do Christians really need to be reminded – repeatedly – to pray when something like this happens?”  Thinking about it, my conclusion, based on my experience, is that really they don’t.  Praying is an important, well-taught, well-reinforced activity within the Christian church, and Christians know very well that their religion teaches them to pray for those who are in trouble.

So why all the calls for prayers?  What is their purpose, if Christians already know that prayer is an important and helpful thing to do?

Certainly there are a small number of Christians who will, due to shock or horror at events like the Sandy Hook shootings, become paralyzed and may need a reminder.  But my feeling is that overall, its code.  It isn’t an exhortation to action so much as it is a reminder to Christians during times of difficulty, when doubts might spring up, that they are in fact able to take action and be helpful, and that their religious beliefs about God’s goodness and mercy are not undermined by the tragedy.  The Christian faith as a whole has figured out by now that trying to spin the idea of a madman shooting 20 children and 6 adults to death as some sort of blessing (“They are with God now!”  “It’s all part of God’s plan!” or even “This is a sign that God is mad at us for X!”) just don’t play well in modern society.  At the same time, Christians, like anyone, are shocked and horrified when such events occur, and want to feel nurtured and comforted by their community.  My feeling is that all the “Please pray for…” statements are less intended to aid the Sandy Hook families, and more intended to comfort fellow Christians who might feel lost, confused, and heartbroken by the tragedy.

And I am going to say that there is nothing wrong with this.  Groups need a method for coming together in times of trouble, and this one works just fine.  My friends on Facebook who believe let one another know that they are not alone – that there are others out there who feel the same way they do, who are reacting in the same way they are, who are doing the same things they are doing.  And that makes them feel better.

One thing I am not going to do here is to discuss the efficacy of prayer.  I understand that Christians (and other religious groups) feel differently about this than I do, and  I don’t feel like picking a fight about it over the bodies of 26 people.  But I am going to say that I think that prayer, as it is described by the religious community, is passive, rather than active, when it comes to affecting anything outside the individual praying.  Even accepting for the moment that prayer has power to change the universe, to heal the sick, to aid the poor, it is still passive because it is not actually doing any of those things itself, but rather is asking God to do those things.

The problem I see here is that too often I perceive that Christians consider praying about something to be the end of the matter.  Sometimes that is sensible – there are some tragedies that we simply cannot affect personally, and if you believe in a deity with limitless power, and one who responds to prayer with that limitless power, then it only makes sense to put out the word for a being who CAN personally affect the tragedy or difficulty or suffering that you would really like some of that power focused on helping.  But I think that too many Christians stop there without giving a real hard think to what they can do, themselves, to help.

Why does this happen?  I am not sure.  I can envision a lot of reasons.  Perhaps it is the natural tendency of things to lose momentum.  Perhaps there is a feeling that once matters are turned over to God, further efforts would be pointless.  I wish I knew, because if I knew I could make more concrete suggestions.  But here’s one.

I was very troubled by this over the weekend, and I eventually turned to my friend pastor Chris Owens for a favor.  I asked him if he would ask his congregation this weekend to write a card or a message, or take some sort of physical action, in addition to prayer, for the victims and survivors of Sandy Hook Elementary.  He agreed, and this Sunday his congregation did just that (I am hoping that he will tell that story on his own blog, and I’ll provide a link here if he does).  But that in turn got me to thinking about the church and prayer.

There is an aspect to prayer that I think is very dangerous.  That is the idea that often seems to creep in that in a crisis or tragedy, prayer is sufficient.

Sometimes, there is just nothing earthly one can do about a problem.  There are so many, MANY problems out there demanding attention that nobody can respond to them all with physical aid.  If I give money or time to helping the people of Sandy Hook, that’s money or time that I am not devoting to other things, and so I prioritize.

But sometimes, when a tragedy occurs, there IS more we can do.  All that is needed is to spend a bit of time looking or thinking creatively and something will come up.  And I think that the way prayer is often taught in the church actually hinders this.  The place where most Christians learn about prayer – not only through teaching but through actual modeling – is at church (I presume this to be true for other religions as well).  But most prayers at a church service are highly ritualized and largely passive in nature.  Seldom is there any sort of physical act tied to the issue being prayed over.  The vast majority of what people learn about prayer in church is that prayers are a) formulaic in their words, patterns, and recitation, b) passive, in that they are dictated by either the church book of prayer, or the person leading the worship service, c) sufficient unto themselves, because they are seldom accompanied by other activities designed to address the issues that the prayers focus on.  Such activities may occur at other times, but they are largely decoupled from the act of prayer.

One of the best things about prayer, I always thought when I was in the church, was the sheer informality of it.  You can pray anywhere, while doing anything.  There is no necessity that prayer be treated as an end in itself.  For centuries monks have made work for their monastery into acts of prayer, and it is a wonderful idea.  Too often these days I see Christians making a big deal out of prayer, and not spending enough thought or effort on the activities that can go with prayer.  I think that they are missing out on an important component, which is that prayer should be a matter of last resort.  By “last resort” I don’t mean that prayer should be done only when nothing else can be done, but that prayer is something that can be so ubiquitous, so flexible, that it can be done in addition to anything else.  Prayer is the EASY part.  It should be at the bottom of the hierarchy of “ways to help” not due to any value judgement about its efficacy, but because it is universally accessible – any time, anywhere.  Finding out where to send money or sympathy cards or canned food or whatever is needed takes time, some effort, and maybe some research.  Prayer really should require none of those things.

It seems to me that there should be more effort and time devoted to the idea of coupling the act of prayer with more physical activities.  Jesus told us to help those who were in trouble.  Jesus was a smart guy, and if he had meant “pray for those who are in trouble” he would have said that instead.  And Jesus certainly wasn’t anti-prayer.  Helping others as an act of prayer, out of devotion to God, is something I wish was emphasized more strongly in the worship services of most churches.


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  1. Ed, your reflection here is salient and a healthy challenge to people who believe in the act of prayer. In the time I’ve been a Christian, I’ve been trying to understand exactly what prayer accomplishes– something along the lines of the efficacy of prayer (the part you didn’t comment on directly). The one thing I keep coming back to is that prayer opens my church community and me to the presence, power, and word of God.

    Having said that, I think that explains the “knee-jerk”, quite natural way that believers of all kinds turn to prayer in times of crisis. It’s like a child running to his or her parent at a time of need for help and for comfort. That’s the way I felt after hearing about the Sandy Hook shootings.

    Also, I think the high volume of calls to prayer after the Sandy Hook shootings occurred because we didn’t know what else to say or do. The shock was that great. Now there will always be those who spout off platitudes and interpretations that are just plain stupid, in bad taste, and altogether repugnant. But the more sensitive Christians (I dare say most of them) will simply mourn, pray, and seek direction.

    But Ed, I think you’ve been a but too premature in judging the actions of Christians who make the call to pray. It’s been my experience that action does indeed follow prayer, more often than not. I’m always amazed at the generosity and service given from the churches I’ve served. That doesn’t mean that we always do everything we should or that we heed everything God would tell us to do. But to say that by and large Christians pray and do nothing more as a result, I’m afraid that’s a tad unfair. It’s a healthy warning, but the characterization doesn’t fit most of the Christians I know.

    But also let me say that I agree with you 100% that prayer must lead to some kind of change. If God is real and if God is as glorious and powerful as we say he is, than it must follow that if we open ourselves to God’s presence, that will inevitably transform us– a change of attitude, a new vision, a change of values, a new direction. That’s far more than just a self-centered cry for peace or comfort, which is fine. But that in itself won’t do.

    Actually, the same thing happened to me since Friday. After the shooting occurred, I felt paralyzed. How was I going to address this with my congregation? What does all this mean? And, of course, what can I do about this? What do I do with my own shock and grief? All of that was put to prayer. Well, call me delusional, but I think God answered my prayers in large part by the conversation we had. Get our congregation to pray and then in the same breath to send cards. That’s what God revealed. Simple, yet a meaningful thing we could do. Then, on Saturday night at my church, I went over the sew the jacket of a homeless man we were hosting. One of the women from my church and my daughter Kathryn were also there serving. I talked to them about the idea. Kathryn had already been thinking of doing something like this. My main concern: where am I going to find a whole bunch of cards that late in the evening? The woman there just happened to have a number of Christmas and sympathy cards stashed away at her house. She volunteered to bring them for us to use. (God’s provision? I think so!) I later found out that she was short on cards, so at 11 that night, she went to a 24-hour Walgreens to buy more cards. Amazing, and a beautiful act of generosity.

    So… so much more could be said about the reasons and the efficacy of prayer. So many books have been written about that. But here’s a case in which prayer did open me to God’s work around me and God’s calling upon me to do something. The result was a beautiful moment in worship on Sunday that so many people told me was deeply meaningful.

    BTW, we collected 108 cards to be sent to Sandy Hook Elementary School. They will be sent in the next day.

  2. Edmund Mettheny permalink

    (NOTE: in this reply I use the word “action” specifically to refer to actions in the physical world. The term for this that Christians often use is “works”. I found “works” to be a clumsy term to use, so I substituted “action” instead. This should not, in any way, be construed as suggesting that I don’t think prayer is an action – that’s not a fight I am picking here).


    I don’t mean to be disparaging of the efforts of Christians here. I am sure that most of the organizations set up to help the victims and survivors are full of concerned Christians, and their efforts are much appreciated by someone like me who wants to know what I can do to help.

    Let me shrink the issue down to my observations. After the shooting (and continuing up until today) I have noticed in social media that my Christian friends have made a number of posts offering prayers for the victims and survivors, and asking others to pray for them. And as I say, this is fine – it is a meaningful and important activity among the faithful and I am not trying to knock it or criticize it here.

    At the same time, the posts from my atheist, agnostic, and wiccan friends tended to focus on things you could do, places where you could send cards, and organizations that were accepting financial donations. This also makes sense. Since atheists and agnostics in particular do not pray, they would concentrate on the things that they could do.

    What I didn’t see – and still don’t see – from my Christian friends is any of the postings of organizations that are providing actual physical aid to the victims and survivors. I have tried to pass such information along when and where appropriate, but as of yet I have seen only a single cross-posting by two of my Christian friends, one of whom is you.

    Now, I understand that my sample size is small, and I may be biased. I also understand that my not seeing Christians posting this sort of thing does not indicate that they are not, themselves, donating to such organizations. My issue here, however, is that based on what I am seeing, Christians are far more likely to vocally and publicly advocate for prayers for the victims and survivors than aid for the victims and survivors. It bothers me that, from what I am seeing, Christians seem more willing to advocate for prayer than they are for aid.

    Now it makes perfect sense to me for Christians to call for prayers first. Prayer is something that all Christians know how to do, it has deep and comforting meaning for them, and it is an activity that can be performed immediately, without waiting for someone to set up a hotline or a donation center or a paypal account or anything like that. What bothered me, and prompted me to write, was the considerable difference between the number of Christians I saw advocating for prayer, and the number of Christians I saw spending an equivalent amount of effort advocating for aid. I don’t think these are bad people, I don’t think they are stingy or lazy or misanthropic. So why the big difference?

    Prayer is taught, and practiced, in a formal way in church. There is a service, it follows a pattern, the prayers are largely pre-written and recited in a formulaic way. Action is largely divorced from prayer in church services. In fact, prayer is often used as a stand-in for action. When there is a crisis, such as this week’s shooting, the immediate reaction of congregations everywhere is to offer up prayers. And again there is nothing wrong with this – I don’t want this to come off as one of those “pray if you must” sermons of mine.

    But the extent to witch prayer and action are decoupled, and to which prayer is emphasized within the formal worship service, tends to reduce the importance of action (IMHO), and all too frequently this seems to reach the extent that Christians feel that when they have prayed, they have done all that they need to do, or at least all that they need to do publicly.

    From what I saw this week, my Christian friends seemed to be much more motivated to pass on calls for prayer then they did to pass on calls for action. What I would like to see changing within the church is that dichotomy. I would like to see Christians as emphatic and public and dedicated to spreading the word about actions that can be taken to aid those in need as they are about spreading the call to prayer for them.

  3. Ed, excellent feedback. I can see why those who do not pray would jump right away to some kind of action. That’s understandable. But I think you would remember from your Christian days that prayer is not only for comfort and solidarity. We Christians actually believe that prayer, my opening ourselves up to God, accomplishes things just as important as human action. I don’t pretend to know all of how of why this is. I just know that God hears and receives the prayers of his people, and in a divine form of synergy, accomplishes things. Now I do also believe that much of what God wants to accomplish is through his people. Prayer opens us to that reality, too.

    I still think that you may be a little too hasty or harsh in your criticism of “do-nothing people who only pray”. It is a concern yes, I’ve heard just as many Christians address that concern, too. But I also look at the high volume of work/action done by Christians in the way of mercy and justice. It’s incredible.

    So, all in all, you raise a valid critique. I’m just not convinced that your concern is as widespread or problematic as you make it to be. Since prayer is not an activity you personally value, I can see how you would look at prayer as a speed bump on the way to action. If that’s the case, that’s going to be a strictly theological matter that we’ll have to agree to disagree on for very obvious reasons!

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  1. How I Sent an Atheist to Church | Pastor Chris Owens – - Musings, Rants, and Reflections
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