When 'I'm Praying for You' Feels Like an Insult

On Monday, I wrote about how, in times of panic or grave concern, I will sometimes clasp my hands together, bow my head and express my deep hope for the safety of my loved ones. It's prayer without religion. Like throwing a penny into a fountain or wishing on a star — but more deeply felt, more adamant, more serious. I know there is no power in wishing. Some wishes come true; some do not. There may be disappointment in experiencing the latter – but not surprise. Still, wishing gives voice to our hopes and dreams, and sometimes that's enough. Sometimes it's all we can do.

I think this is why I’m not offended when people tell me they’re praying for me. It touches me to think that, whether or not a higher power is ostensibly involved, those people are sharing their hearts with me in such an intimate way. I can only assume it makes them feel better, too.

But I know not everyone feels this way. To some non-theists, “I’m praying for you” reads like an insult — disrespectful, even offensive. They might feel frustrated that theists are hoisting religious beliefs on others, regardless of whether those beliefs brings comfort to the ailing party. One atheist mom said she can't help but feel she's being offered religious mumbo-jumbo in place of real help.

"When people tell me they’re going to pray for me," she said, "I tell them I'm going to dance naked in a cornfield for them."

That's certainly one way to handle the situation.

But, because we’re raising kids who are looking to us as role models for how to handle stressful situations, I thought I might add some friendly advice. Here's what I've come up with so far:

1. Consider the source: Ask yourself if these people are trying to offend or irritate you. Are they good friends who know nothing of your non-faith? Are they family members simply trying to express their sympathies? Are we talking about people who couldn’t conceive of offering true support without prayer? Or are they using your time of sadness or fear to convert you? Are they putting you down at a time when they ought to be lifting you up? (Because if that’s the case, it's time to do some de-friending.)

2. Own your own anger. Assuming people are offering you their prayers, times are probably tough right now. Part of the reason you might feel insulted is because you're in pain. And, as we all know, pain likes a target. Anger is energizing, whereas sadness is energy-sapping. (Think cursing over coffee with a friend, as opposed to crying into a pillow). I'm not saying: "Don't be angry." Just be aware of what’s happening. Be aware that you might be scapegoating someone to ease your own discomfort, and let that knowledge tame your temper.

3. Save Yourself: It's one thing to be offended by outspoken, obnoxious prayer talk. It's another to put yourself in a position to be offended. And, these days, that position is called Facebook. Want to avoid 75 percent of religion-related annoyances in your life? Locate the Hide button, and click it.

4. Get some perspective. In the grand scheme of things, prayer is pretty darn harmless. In fact, because it's mostly done in private, it may not noticeable at all. People who pray are unlikely to be hurting anyone — including you. So let them have at it! Then save your energy for the stuff that really matters.

5. Offer your thanks. Saying “thank you” when someone says they’re praying for you is a nice thing to say. And if someone is truly trying to be nice to you, the decent thing to do is to be nice back. Now, if someone is offering you their prayers as a way to demean you, there’s no reason to be nice. But I still think “thank you” is the best reaction. "Thank you" cuts off the conversation immediately; robs the person of any satisfaction they might get from riling you; and, when delivered with just the right amount of condescension, packs a hell of a punch.

6. Praise science. I think some of what is so bothersome about prayer is that it assumes prayer is required to fix bad situations — as though nothing but God has the ability to do that. To hear someone praise Jesus instead of praising the surgeon who just spent 12 hours saving your father's life seems to give credit to the wrong party. And we humans like to see people rewarded for their good work. Although I would't recommend getting into a confrontation about which one is more likely to made your dad well — prayer or medicine — I know others have found that voicing their faith in science or giving thanks to those who are making a difference in the world can offer a balance.

Now it's your turn. Thoughts? Suggestions? Is there ever a time when "thank you" is the flat-out wrong thing to say?

When the Godless Pray

A few days before Christmas last year, my mother's appendix burst. The hospital was two hours away, and by the time she arrived there, she was in bad shape. She underwent an emergency appendectomy and a grueling week in recovery, which damn near killed her. A week later came the pneumonia. It was a scary time for my family — very scary. Everyone knew it wasn't her time to go, and yet this series of events seemed to be spinning her toward the end.

So what did I do? I prayed.

I remember getting the news in the middle of the night (just like Madeline!) that my mom was being rushed to the emergency room. Without judging or second-guessing myself, I clasped my hands together, bowed my head and, in a desperate whisper, repeated the mantra: "Please let her be okay. Please let her be okay. Please let her be okay…"

I prayed again a few days later. This time I was on an airplane, flying 1,500 miles to her bedside. This time, so as not to disrupt my seat mate, I repeated the mantra in my head: "Please let her be okay. Please let her be okay..."

A year later, my mom is alive and well. She spent the last couple weeks doing what she loves more than just about anything — decorating the house with a lifetime's worth of holiday decorations. Some of the things belonged to her beloved father. Some of them she has had since she and my dad were married. Some of them were made by her children and grandchildren. And all of them are like old friends — familiar, loyal and full of memories. I was never so happy to see my mom's Christmas decorations go up as I was this year, the year after we almost lost her.

I can only imagine that someone with faith in God might interpret my mom's wellness as an answer to my prayers — my reward for calling on a higher power to help me through.

But the truth is, I wasn't asking a higher power for help in those dark moments last year. I never am. No matter what's going on in my life, I simply don't believe there's anything at work in the universe besides our marvelous selves. My brain won't let me. It seems, for better or for worse, that I'm missing the Faith gene.

So why do I pray?

Because in those moments of extreme panic and concern, the one thing that makes me feel better is to focus my mind on what I want — what I need — to happen. It is an emotional reaction, having nothing to do with my thoughts and everything to do with my feelings.

To me, praying is an intense form of wishing brought about by a deep focus on my love for other human beings.

A couple of months ago, I threw a surprise birthday party for my husband. Our families flew out from Colorado and Missouri and stayed the weekend with us. So much effort went into the event — all these little details orchestrated months in advance. And when it was over, and our families had returned safely back to their own homes, I thought: "What a magical thing to have happened." Everything went according to plan. The surprise went off without a hitch. All the flights were on time. No one got sick. The weather was perfect. The kids were great. Transportation was never an issue. And everyone had a wonderful time.

I'm not patting myself on the back here. I'm just marveling at how nothing went wrong. All those little details, and nothing went wrong. What are the chances?

There is magic in having things go right. There is magic when people recover from illness, when they give birth to healthy babies, when they get to their destinations on time. In all the things that go as we hoped or expected or orchestrated down to the last detail, there is magic.

And in those moments when I clasp my hands and bow my head and repeat my little mantras, maybe it's my way of hoping for a bit of that magic. The magic that I know for a fact happens every single day. The magic of existence.

Thanksgiving 'Prayers' for Secular Families


I recently became a member of a Facebook group called Mothers Beyond Belief, sort of an offshoot of Dale McGowan's Parenting Beyond Belief community. It's an online support group for secular moms. So last week the mother of a 5-year-old shared that her daughter wanted to say a "pray" before meals. The family doesn't believe, and therefore doesn't pray, so the mom was looking for other things the family could say instead. I loved the question, especially in light of this particular holiday. Thanksgiving dinner is one of those meals so extraordinary that it practically cries out for some type of deeper acknowledgement. At my house, we usually end up toasting the cook, which is infinitely appropriate but also lacks the power of prayer. Something about joining your hands and closing your eyes and really thinking about what's been done for you on that day, and throughout the year.

In that spirit, I thought I'd give you a few kid-friendly secular prayers — the first two came out of the Facebook thread, the second two courtesy of kellynaturally.com. Maybe you'll use them today. Maybe you won't. But isn't it nice to have the option? Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Now we come together We are glad to see each other. All the good things that we share, come to us with love and care.

Earth we thank you for our food, for work and play and all that's good, for wind and rain and sun above, but most all for those we love.

We love our bread. We love our butter. But most of all, we love each other.

Thank you for the food we eat. Thank you for the friends we meet. Thank you for the birds that sing. We give thanks for everything.