As an atheist, I'm grateful Christians pray for me

As an atheist, I'm grateful Christians pray for me
Photo by Steve Evans: "Ethiopia: Innocent Prayers of a Young Child." Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

I’ve heard quite a few people write and speak about how they were abandoned by friends after being diagnosed with cancer. I am very grateful that wasn’t my experience.

From high school friends I haven’t seen in 35 years to Facebook friends I’ve never met in person, from close friends to work colleagues, people seemed to come out of the woodwork to wish me well.

I was raised in an evangelical Christian home and went to a church-affiliated college. Many of my old friends are, not surprisingly, Christians.

My life took a different turn. For those inclined to witness to me, please know that I’ve come to my own belief system not through crisis or disappointment—though there’s been plenty of that—but through hard work, lots of reading and reflecting. And through lots of praying.

One problem for me was the “still, small voice” that I was supposed to hear was silent. All around me people were being “called” to this ministry and that endeavor. All I heard was silence. And believe me, I tried, with an open heart.

My first memory of praying was sitting in front of the television when I was five watching Billy Graham. He told to me to ask God into my heart, and I did. But God never spoke to me and never called me to do anything.

My atheism isn’t this simple. There’s lots more to it, and it’s hard won. I did not abandon Christianity carelessly.

From my father to my friends, I am frequently told that I’m being prayed for. It used to irritate me beyond reason. It felt patronizing and alienating. It felt like rejection.

Since being diagnosed, though, I feel differently about it. I’ve been reminded by some of these old friends, and by some new ones, that praying is what Christians do to find and offer comfort, to encircle others with love and protection.

It doesn’t really matter anymore to me what I believe about prayer. What matters is what I believe about these people. I believe that they care, that they love, and that they are sincere and good people.

A blogging friend of mine (at least I think it’s him) has put me on Phil’s Friends’ list for care packages and letters. The group is a Christian one, and the letters and cards come weekly with messages of hope and care, always with a Bible verse or Christian message.

When they first started coming, I felt guilty. It seemed wrong for this organization to waste money on a committed non-believer. But one day I got a handmade card from a little girl. It was a simple drawing that a five-year old had colored with the message, “I’m praying for you” scrawled on it in crayon.

That card swept me into a different state of mind. From my perspective, prayer is as much about what it does for the person praying as what it does for the person being prayed for. When I imagine a five-year old praying for me, it’s hard to be cynical.

This little girl is learning about empathy for others, about hope and grace. She is learning about the value of what she does in the here and now. She is learning that people need to know that others care about them.

Lately, I’ve been trying to be more consciously grateful about my life. I think it’s important to say that I’m grateful that people care enough about me to pray for me. They are doing something that is, for them, meaningful and holy. I’m glad to be encircled by that love.

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