An Unbeliever’s Prayer Journal



I write this after spending the morning at the bedside of a dying lady. Sophia (not her real name) is in a nursing home, and the hospice assessment is of “imminent death.” Family, friends and volunteers maintain a vigil so she will not die alone. But she will die.

We give her soothing words and strokes, which she may or may not hear or feel. They are given anyway.  Prayers are offered by others, and I want to pray, for her sake. But prayer is a problem for me.

I am not a believer. I am at most a seeker, trying to find faith in God, but not succeeding. I am as consumed with doubt and uncertainty as I am with a desire to believe.

So how do I pray? And to whom?

“God, if you are there, please…” That sounds as heartfelt as a letter addressed “To Whom It May Concern.” Or even worse, a message in a bottle tossed into the sea: “If anyone finds this, please…”

Can such a prayer, so conditioned upon doubt, be sincere or meaningful? If I were God, would I answer such a prayer? Not if I was having a busy day.

Can I address the Lord as “God, if you exist,” or “God, IYE…”, the way devout Muslims refer to “the Prophet, peace be upon him…”, abbreviated as PBUH?

So there’s that problem. To whom do I pray?   The other problem is “For what do I pray”?

A priest once explained that there are three types of prayer: to praise God, to thank God, and to ask God for something.  In Sophia’s room, the third seemed most in order.

What do I ask for Sophia? Recovery? A quick, easy death? Rest? To hang on a little longer? What exactly is it she needs most, what is best for her? God only knows.

And that’s the problem. Whatever is best, whatever she needs, God knows it better than I do. And because He loves her, he will give Her what is best, with or without my advice. Any specific request seems terribly presumptuous: “I’ve given this a lot of thought, Lord (IYE), and I think you ought to…”

Finally, and simply, I find myself saying, “God, be with Sophia.” I don’t know if He is anywhere, or even IS, but I sure want him to be with Sophia. I know my wanting and my asking are of no account. But it is what I want. So I said it, over and over, as the hours passed.

I realize it is not really coherent. If God exists, He is there with Sophia; if not, then not. My request cuts no ice either way. Even if, as Martin Buber said, we can only talk TO God, and not about Him, it seems silly.

Still, I repeated my silent prayer. And to Sophia, I spoke aloud when she was restless. “Rest, Sophia. God is with you.” How fraudulent, even cynical! As if I know that to be the case! But I knew it was what she, as a believer, wanted and needed to hear. And it is what I wanted for her. So I said it. I don’t know if she heard it, or if He heard it.


Which brings me to my little friend, Vivian. A wonderful, bright, beautiful 5-year old daughter of our wonderful loving neighbors, and big sister of a wonderful, rambunctious 3-year-old brother.

Her family is the best missionary project I have ever seen. They are a living billboard for Christianity’s ability to generate and support the very best kind of people and families. I am blessed to live next door to them and to play with the kids whenever I have the energy. It is a joy to bask in the glow of this loving family.

Well, Vivian has been diagnosed with cancer. She is being treated at a top hospital, and her type of tumor is a rare form of childhood kidney cancer with a very good survival rate. She is getting chemotherapy. The odds are in her favor. But she is suffering, and her parents are suffering.

Like all of their friends, I have offered any help I can give. Her family asks only for prayers.  And I face the same problems described above regarding Sophia. To whom, and how?

So I prayed “God, be with Vivian”

But I could not stop there. My prayer for Sophia was vague because I don’t know how to be more specific. A certain humility stops me from giving God my impertinent list of demands.

Not so with Vivian. I know what I want God to do. I want him to heal her tumors, to make them go away. And I want her restored to health, and her family restored to peace.

And I want it NOW!

I realize how presumptuous this is.  God, with whom I am not even on speaking terms, knows what is best for Vivian and her family. And He loves her far more than even I do.

So I should just pray “Thy will be done,” and leave it in His hands. But I cannot.

I pray my very specific prayer, hoping He will forgive the impertinence.

“God, please heal my Vivian.”


Sophia clings to life. My visits to her bedside continue to be lessons in prayer.

Since she is Catholic, I brought along an old Missal (Saint Andrew, 1949) I had found at a thrift store (99 cents: see below, “The Forgotten Books of Witness”).   In the back, I found a section of “Votive Collects”: short prayers for various needs.

“For the sick”? No, “restoration to health” was not the point.  “For a dying person”? “Refresh the soul” seemed a good request, but as for “all her sins being washed away”, I did not feel it my place to ask. I don’t know her well enough to know anything about her sins, if any. Asking forgiveness seemed presumptuous for me. Likewise the prayer “For a happy death”.

I found one I really liked: “For Pilgrims and Travelers”. “Hear, O Lord, our humble prayers and set Thy servant Sophia in the path of Thy salvation; that amidst all the changes and chances of this life, she may ever be sheltered by Thy help.”

The “Secret” part of this prayer (a Catholic thing, I guess) asks that God “send Thy grace before her to guide her steps, and sending it with her be pleased to accompany her on her way; both in her progress and in her safety.”

I liked the image of Sophia on her journey.  I remember once, driving along the east coast of Florida near Cape Canaveral, we quite accidentally got to see a rare night launch of the Shuttle.  It lit up the sky as if we were passing a brightly-lit city. As we watched, it became a single bright spot, which rose straight up.  Then, it did something I had not expected: it made a sharp, almost 90 degree turn to the southeast. And only then did it look like what it actually was; a ship of explorers sailing away from us, into uncharted territory.  I always thought of rockets as unique space things that went straight up.  Only when I saw that shuttle turn and sail away (rather than up) did I realize that the people in it were pilgrims and travelers.

Another prayer caught my attention at just the right moment. Nursing homes, especially in the dementia wards where dying patients are often placed, are all too often filled with the cries and screams (sometimes articulate, sometimes not) of suffering patients. It is rarely physical suffering: pain management usually handles that these days. It is rather the anguished cries of confusion and loneliness: “Get me out of here”, or “Help me”. Others wail or shriek like Banshees.

It is not neglect. The overstretched staff cope as best they can, trying everything to soothe and quiet the sufferers, but to little avail; as soon as the staffer moves on to other duties, the screamer continues. Dementia can be an implacable demon.

One particularly strong-voiced Banshee has her meals near Sophia’s door. While listening to her, I found the prayer “In any Tribulation”: “Despise not, O almighty God, Thy people who cry out in their affliction…” I didn’t quite understand how a loving God could despise these sufferers, but that was beside the point. I certainly knew how irritated those shrieks could make me, and the others around her.

I didn’t try to pray that one, as I am sure God (IHE) must love the suffering Banshee, without any advice from me. But I found myself repeating it silently every time she cried out in her affliction. I needed the reminder, not God.

I thought of my favorite parable from the Gospels (Luke 18:9-14), about the pious Pharisee who prays “God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are.” I think of this prayer whenever I find myself feeling smug.

I still have discomfort with the idea of praying a very specific prayer for a specific outcome for someone. Yet I admire the trusting relation they must have with God who pray so. They let their pain and their need flow from their hearts, straight to their loving parent, in personal conversation.

They seem unconstrained by doubt and rationalization about God. Prayer, without IYE qualifiers, is a loving and personal conversation with the God of all Creation.

How I envy them.  There can be no greater blessing than faith in a loving God.  I want that faith and that blessing; but wanting does not seem to be enough.

Yet, despite the impertinence and the hypocrisy, I keep praying: “God, please heal my Vivian! She has so much traveling yet to do.”

[UPDATE:  Sophia died a few days later, peaceful and surrounded by her family.  Her journey is at an end.]


I wrote earlier about my young neighbor and friend Vivian, who is battling a rare kidney cancer (I hope for your sake that you are not familiar with Wilms’ tumors, or any of the other diseases that prey on children.) She has been through hell: surgery, chemotherapy,  nausea, feeding tube, hair loss.  Tough stuff for an almost-six year old.  The Valley of the Shadow of Death is a tough enough place for adults.  But for six-year olds?

She and her brave family are still fighting, and the prognosis is very hopeful.  But the road is a hard one: More chemotherapy, then surgery, then radiation, then more chemotherapy.  And always prayer and more prayer.

Throughout her pain, Vivian remains brave and hopeful and trusting and loving.  And her parents maintain their lonely vigils, all the while continuing to keep life as normal as possible for their 3-year old son (100% boy!).

This family is one of the most beautiful examples of loving faith I have ever seen.

You who can pray, pray for my Vivian and her family.

[UPDATE: Vivian’s seven-month-long chemotherapy is done, and her prognosis is very good.  She and her family are back home, next door to us, and Vivian and her brother stop over to visit us regularly.     So now, prayers of Thanksgiving must be added to the ongoing supplications for her (and her family’s) continued good health.]

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