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Prayer and God


Question & Answer

Fred from Canberra, Australia writes:


What titles do I use for God when I pray? Does prayer do any good?

Answer: By Rev. Gretta Vosper

Dear Fred,

My son, many years ago, came from school with an assignment he was required to complete. The creative writing project asked for one hundred different ways to say “said” other than, of course, “said.” At first glance, it seemed a daunting task but within minutes, the lines were filled and the list compiled. The truth is that, although mostly oblivious to the fact, those of us who read fiction are exposed to many, many different ways an author indicates that someone has just “said” something. The hours and hours of bedtime story reading his dad had shared with him had embedded those many words in his vocabulary already.

So, when writing my first book With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe, I challenged myself to come up with one hundred words that could be used instead of the word “god”. I didn’t want to suggest that the concept of god had any power to act in the world, but included words that could be interpreted by the reader in whatever way was helpful; that is, with or without agency.

I encourage you to do the same. There may be words that are quick to come: “grace”, “courage”, “love”. And there may be words that require more thought. For me, the word “god” lays out a broad terrain that cannot be limited by a single person’s perspective. I understand god to be a concept rather than a being, a word I once used to convey an amalgam of our best and highest ideals. I now no longer use the word as it too readily invites ideas of the supernatural, of blessing or judgment, of a privileged or capricious intervention, depending on whether the hearer’s own life has weighed out on the side of privilege or blight.

My understanding of god necessarily impacts on the concept of prayer, a topic I go into in depth in my second book, Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief. Whether the person engaged in the act of prayer believes in a supernatural deity or force or the benevolence of the universe, we are the only answer we’ve got to the challenges facing our world. Some will work toward solutions compelled by the god in whom they believe. Others will work toward solutions compelled by theirs own sense of compassion and responsibility. Goodness comes into the world through our own hands, voices, and actions.

I believe prayer is a very important component to a balanced and engaged life though I do not believe there is a god listening to us. We listen to ourselves. We sort out what is happening in our lives. We honour the beauty we’ve encountered, express gratitude and awe. We trouble ourselves toward making a difference wherever we are able. We sit within the reality of our lives and explore them.

Even believing that no deity exists who cares a whit for us, we can enrich our lives by the daily practice of prayer or, as I prefer to call it – again, to avoid confusion – meditation. Using the four broad categories around which much Christian liturgy is built, we can craft a daily ritual that invites us to perceive awe (adoration), reflect critically on our relationships with our own self, others, and the planet (confession), recognize how fortunate we are even in the midst of adversity (thanksgiving), and lament that we and those we love still suffer want, pain, sorrow (supplication). Traditional prayer grew up around human need, not the other way around. Acknowledging each of these aspects of our lives is an important facet of well-being.

There are many practices that can be powerful additions to one’s life and take the place of meditative prayer. Some prefer to journal, finding their own way to solutions by writing them out. I write poetry and often only understand what I was saying to myself hours or days after getting a poem out onto the page. Some find vocal music, chant, drumming or tonal vibrations help to balance their attentions and calm their minds. Mindfulness has proven to be an incredibly helpful way to tend to one’s mind and well-being. I encourage you to look for what works for you, trying this or that, rejecting what doesn’t “feel” right and leaning in toward what resonates with you.

~ Rev Gretta Vosper

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author

The Rev. Gretta Vosper is a United Church of Canada minister who is an atheist. Her best-selling books include With or Without God: Why The Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe, and Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief. She has also published three books of poetry and prayers.

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