A friend once invited me to her church to see her son in a Christmas play, and I half-seriously joked that I worried about being struck by lightening when I entered churches, since I don’t subscribe to the specific tenants of that church’s religion. Luckily, I seem to have gotten over that; on my trip to France recently, I found some wonderful moments of peace and reflection in some of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world. These visits, and a variety of sad news from friends in the last few weeks, have got me a’ponderin’ about something.
Living in a state/region that is often called the Buckle of the Bible Belt, stereotyping Northeasterners might expect me to say that because I don’t belong to a church, I am ostracized around these parts. Nothing could be further from the truth.
True, when I first moved here, a few folks did ask me if I was a member of a church. But when I answered, somewhat shamefacedly, that I wasn’t raised with a specific religion, have explored a few faiths in my life, and don’t claim any church as my own, they smiled and moved on. Maybe I’m missing some subtle shunning, but it sure doesn’t feel like it.
It’s not that I don’t believe in God. I do. But God doesn’t have a face or a gender to me, and I’m not even sure about assigning human characteristics to him/her, but when I am outside, among the trees, mountains, lakes or oceans, I feel a tremendous connection to, and awe of, something bigger than me. At the beautiful Mont St. Michel and Bayeux Cathedral in France, I found myself overwhelmed by the idea that those buildings had stood for hundreds of years, sheltering people searching for guidance from God. As I stood on Omaha Beach, trying to imagine it a war zone, I felt the peace and sadness of God all around me. When I hear of a great kindness, I believe that is God. And I believe all of us who strive hard to do good, be better people and treat others well are serving God.
So why, then, can’t I say “pray?”
When I hear of a death or hardship falling on someone, I generally want to say or type:
My thoughts and prayers are with you.
But then, for some reason, I amend it to say “my thoughts are with you” or “I’m thinking of you.” I take prayer out of it. Why is that?
Mostly, it’s because it feels hypocritical to me. Because, in that scenario, I am not asking God to help the person who is suffering. I’m not saying “God, please make this better for this person.” This is mostly because I don’t think God has much to do with our day-to-day lives. I am, however, hoping with all of my heart that this person will find comfort from whatever source, human or heavenly, that might be available.
Is that prayer? I don’t know, but it doesn’t feel like what we traditionally define as prayer, and so I don’t feel I can lay claim to it.
What do you think? Does prayer have to mean the same to everyone?
PS: It is my sincerest hope that I don’t offend anyone with my statements here; religion is a subject that I usually avoid. But I find myself with an interesting human puzzle working itself out in my head, and wonder if others struggle with this same thing.
PPS: As I finish writing this, I can’t help but remember a line from a baseball movie I watched this weekend:
God, I always said I would never bother you about baseball, Lord knows you have bigger things to worry about. But if you could make this pain in my shoulder stop for ten minutes, I would really appreciate it.