An atheist taught me to pray…REALLY???

downtown atlanta 7

By Kenneth Justice

I was homeless and lived out in the back-woods of Georgia for ten years” he said

~ Last weekend in Atlanta, one particularly interesting fellow I met was an ex-homeless man. A Vietnam veteran and fellow blogger who now resides in the suburbs of Atlanta, he suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder back in the 1970’s; a time long ago before PTSD was completely understood by the psychological community. Not fully understanding what was wrong with his mental condition, the man often found himself homeless, unable to deal with normal day-to-day life and interactions with other people that the rest of us take for granted.

What would you do all day living by yourself” I asked him, “the days must have seemed ever so long being all by yourself in the middle of nowhere

His response was encapsulated by one word, “meditation” he said, “When I was fifteen years old I learned about the Hare Krishna’s and adopted meditation as a daily part of my life. Even in the midst of Vietnam and being wounded three times, I’ve always spent time each day in meditation” he said

The conversation with the Vietnam War Vet reminded me of a Buddhist acquaintance I had many years ago who had come to the United States from Cambodia. He would often tell me about meditation and the positive effect it had upon his life, and even though I’ve always been a Christian….it was actually the conversations with the Buddhist as well as conversations I used to have with an atheist friend of mine that helped me to reevaluate my own prayer life for the better.

In the Evangelical Church culture that I grew up in; prayer was something that we were constantly being encouraged to do. By age 19 I’d read nearly 500 books on prayer alone, and coupled with all the sermons on prayer I’d read by people like John Calvin, Luther, and Spurgeon……my prayer life still pretty much sucked.

It wasn’t due to lack of devotion or time that my prayer life was unsatisfying. From age fifteen to seventeen I designated 1 hour in the morning, forty five minutes at lunch, and 1 hour in the evening to prayer. I used to have a quote tacked to my desk by the famous Christian minister John Wesley, “I don’t respect a man who doesn’t pray for at least two hours every day” and that little quote in many ways propelled me to praying as though my little life depended on it.

Yet after years upon years of countless hours of prayer……I felt no more at peace in my prayer life than before I had begun the whole experiment of praying.  Prayer simply seemed like a chore; it was nothing more than something I put a little checklist next to in order to ensure that I was being a good little Christian boy.

Even worse was that my many hours of prayer seemed to be turning me into a worse person than before I had begun praying; since the average Christian prays for less than 2 minutes per day (and I was well versed in those statistics) my ego and pride was on the rise as I knew I was out-praying just about every single Priest, Pastor or Parishioner that I came into contact with; yet all those hours of prayer weren’t really propelling me towards being a better person in any tangible way that I could see……and even worse; whenever I would pray I rarely felt at peace.

To say that the Evangelical Church culture I grew up in was insulated would be an understatement; it simply wasn’t kosher to hang out with non-Christians unless you had the express intention of trying to convert them to evangelicalism. But I was a coffee-house fanatic and it wasn’t long before I realized that if I wanted to connect with my fellow human beings….I couldn’t spend every waking moment trying to convert the non-evangelicals.

Suddenly, as I quit trying to proselytize every man, woman, and child that crossed my path in the coffee shop, I realized I was making more friends and deeper connections than I ever could of imagined. And even more amazing to me was how much I was learning from non-Evangelicals,

—-) Roman Catholics were teaching me how to be more grateful for ancient liturgy and traditions

—-) A lesbian friend of mine was teaching me to be more compassionate and understanding toward people who came from utterly different backgrounds than I

—-) An atheist friend of mine was teaching me all about his meditative practices and how he believed meditation improved his life

It’s not that I was being compelled to abandon my Christian my faith……but rather, I was beginning to see that all of those hours I spent in prayer were in many ways expended in utter isolation from the world around me. I was praying for countless hours each day……yet I was spending no time stepping outside of my Evangelical Church community and seeing the plight of the poor, the struggle of single mothers raising children, or the true loneliness that many people struggle with on a daily basis.

What good is a prayer life if you’re disconnected from the world you live in? As I look back on my life, I suspect that the reason my prayer life never seemed very satisfying is that my life in general was not very satisfying; I was simply another Christian trapped in the cycle of worship meetings, bible studies, and other church related activities of busyness that didn’t really amount to much when it came to the real world that was all around me.

And so as I sat at that coffee shop in Atlanta over the weekend, listening to the stories of the Hare Krishna War Veteran, I was reminded of who I used to be; a person that would never sit still for very long and listen to people with different beliefs. I used to be more concerned with what I had to say…..and I didn’t give a crap about listening to or serving others.

My prayer life still isn’t perfect, not by a long-shot. But as my two little dogs wake me up each morning, I’m finding that I feel much more peace and filled with joy then I used to be……

Just a few thoughts as I sipped my coffee this morning.


—) If you haven’t heard I’m currently on a 100-coffee house tour throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. I’d love to have coffee with you! Check my homepage for dates and locations.

Categories: Religion

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62 replies

  1. Kenneth, if this does not revolutionize one’s prayer life- nothing will…

    Pray without ceasing.
    (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

    I have come to the peace and understanding that prayer is not confined to a scheduled period of time, but is an ongoing discussion with our God and Saviour throughout the the day via thoughts, words, meditation, etc…

    Row well fine sir

  2. Excellent post. I’m keep checking to find out when you are going to be in New Orleans. I frequent a coffee shop about 2.5 hours away in a small town. It’s mine and my wife’s favorite place to visit.

    • Yup, I’m planning on making it to New Orleans but I’m still working on the airline details so once a ticket is purchased I’ll post the dates and locations 🙂

  3. 1-The bearded man currently lives in Americus GA. This is in south Georgia. It is just down the road from Plains. He calls Jimmy Carter “Cousin Jimmy.”
    2- I have written at great length about the concept of prayer. While it may have some value to others, it is a casualty of my horrific experience with Jesus. I just don’t know what to make of it.
    3- It is said that prayer is talking to G-d, while meditation is listening. It has been my experience that many Jesus worshipers talk to much.
    4- It would be a wonderful thing if people were as proud of their ability to listen as they were of the clever things that they say.

  4. EXCELLENT post Kenneth! I am sharing this post as so many Christians need to hear this.

  5. Try praying for someone else, never yourself. Could be that God deletes all self directed prayer messages.

    Regards and good will blogging.

  6. “What good is a prayer life if you’re disconnected from the world you live in? As I look back on my life, I suspect that the reason my prayer life never seemed very satisfying is that my life in general was not very satisfying; I was simply another Christian trapped in the cycle of worship meetings, bible studies, and other church related activities of busyness that didn’t really amount to much when it came to the real world that was all around me.”

    You just described what my life used to be like. My days of being disconnected from this world and the other people are over.

  7. “What good is a prayer life if you’re disconnected from the world you live in?”

    Seems to me that many self-righteous people use what they call prayer as a means to remain disconnected from the world of those in pain and need.

    Prayer doesn’t fix the world. We fix it, or mess it up. Prayer is a tool to get our hearts and minds pointed in the right direction so we can do the right thing.

    • “Seems to me that many self-righteous people use what they call prayer as a means to remain disconnected from the world of those in pain and need.”


  8. Prayer isn’t prayer if you are doing it by rote. You can pray all day & night, but it won’t allow hearts to be touched and bodies to be healed. It won’t connect with the Power of true Faith.

    Prayer is a genuine desire for the positive betterment of all mankind.

    Prayer is a song from the heart (and even I do it sometimes and I’m not even….exactly….a Christian).

    I believe in the power of positive thought though. A minute of true faith and goodwill is worth a lifetime of superficial words and gestures.

    • Vicki, as I was writing this article I was thinking about a number of things you had commented a few days ago (or maybe a week ago) as they left a really positive impression on my thoughts toward the subject.

    • That’s good to hear, Kenneth.

  9. No, you’re wrong. The only thing you should focus on is bible studies and where your eternal soul will be after death.

    Actually, I’m kidding, but this is all very interesting. It reminds me of how I came to be where i am today, spiritually. I used to pray a lot as a child and always felt this connection with Divinity. As I got old, and more transitions were added on top of traditions, I lost focus. Everyone around me was so focused on living the ‘right way’ according to the right dogma. After years, it dawned on me that I had lost that connection through my obsession with tradition. I asked myself something similar. What good are all these traditions and prayers if they are not fostering a stronger connection with Divinity?

    It reminds me of something a priest once told his congregation. I only heard this one time, but I think it should be said more often. People like to obsess over how to stay out of hell. They do just enough of the right things to make sure they avoid hell. Say, for example, you go to church every Sunday, but, outside the church, you are unkind and judgmental of the poor. You donate just enough of your time and money to satisfy the requirements of transition hoping that will keep you from hell while you should be focused on living every day of your life in a way pleasing to God.

    I like to think our destination after death has more to do with who we were, what we did and the motivations behind out actions, not whether or not we followed the right traditions.

    • Sounds like a brilliant Priest! Many good points you make, especially this one, “What good are all these traditions and prayers if they are not fostering a stronger connection with Divinity?”

      Dude, that sums up better my article than any of my sentences……

  10. When are you coming to Western Australia?

  11. Data here from the blank slate. I received no religious instruction on prayer. When I yearned for a spiritual journey I began with song. On my way to work that first year I sang “As I went down to the River to Pray” from Brother Where Art Thou. It helped quiet my fear that my old truck was going to break down. Sometimes when I say the Serenity Prayer, it is a way to focus on a plea for guidance. Most of my prayer now is meditative. I find that I have “answers” which I call intuition when I have at least the morning time for centering and breathing deeply. If it wasn’t helping me feel connected and more peaceful I would wonder why.

  12. I’m pretty sure that’s what is so hippopotamus-awesomeness about Grace. 🙂 Doesn’t matter what we do. Love Him and accept his love. It changes us and provides a calmness nothing else could ever do.
    Happy Friday!! 🙂

  13. I found this article very interesting. As an agnostic I find the act of prayer a little foreign. I was brought up in a christian household but prayer wasnt a family activity nor was I taught to pray. At my job we open meetings with a prayer t

    • to which I sit quitely. I find this time as a time to reflect and think about the people in my life who need help with any number of problems or who just need someone to remember them in their time of need. Even if I dont believe in a God I understand the power of prayer.

    • Well, I’m a Christian and I still at times find the act of prayer ‘a little foreign’ so I totally know where you are coming from……..I don’t pretend to understand it, although I have to admit; there are a LOT of things I simply don’t understand

    • i dont understand anything. haha and I think that has been the struggle I have faced, but the act of listening and speaking to whatever or whoever is there brings calm and peace to people and I find that fascinating.

    • i dont understand anything. haha and I think that has been the struggle I have faced, but the act of listening and speaking to whatever or whoever is out there brings calm and peace to people and I find that fascinating.

  14. Wow. 2 thumbs up on this one kenneth. When I was a new Christian it was the same. Doing the ‘sacred’ because that’s what we Christians do. What happened to relationship? What happened to caring about other and their thoughts, opinions, lives? It’s all about relationship. We can be such silly and selfish beings, dont ya think?

    • “what happened to caring about others and their thoughts, opinions, lives?”

      Exactly; too much of my early Christian life was very closed off from the world and I had to eventually ask myself; whats the point of being a Christian if the whole thrust of my life is focusing on what I shouldn’t do, what I shouldn’t say, etc…….. at a certain point I woke up and realized that I wanted to get outside of the bubble I was living in,

    • ” at a certain point I woke up and realized that I wanted to get outside of the bubble I was living in”
      -Jesus never lived in a bubble. He had close, intimate relationships with a select few. Then he went out into the world and ate with everyday people, even prostitutes and thieves. Gotta love it. Totally against a lot what we see.

  15. We all pray in some way- positive or negative thoughts and one day we get the answer, but not always what we asked. I’ve seen people begging, but to them is praying.
    Gratitude and Thank you are my favorite prayers.

  16. Kenneth, My first thought was that those 500 books were getting in your way, hah. Seriously though, If each one is only about 150-200 pages it would take me about 8,000 hours to read those books. I have a language disability, so I read much slower than most. I’m struggling this morning to read what everyone had to say.

    Anyways, the way people pray has bothered me since I was young. It seemed like a ritual of self-obsession, “What can I ask God for today, What do I want and need?” Thinking like that makes me feel ill. I always felt that I needed to interrupt people’s prayers with a little dose of, “Lord, let your will be done not mine own.” but I bite my tongue.

    Recently my prayers have been almost a pleating, because I don’t feel gentle or kind like Christ – as I would wish to be. Through my prayers I hope to continually embrace the redemption given in Christ Jesus.

    • Mdkiehl,

      I’m an avid reader and at a young age learned the skill of speed reading and taking notes… so I guess I’m fortunate in that regard…….

      “recently my prayers have been almost a plating,beacuse I don’t feel gentle or kind like Christ”

      Well, IMHO that is okay; because ultimately we should express what we are feeling.

  17. I saw this quote by Robert Jensen, “Christians serve a chatty God…” which seemed accurate, and I liked.

  18. Edinburgh? Nice place but you should try Glasgow too! 😉

  19. Great post. I didn’t grow up in church but became a Christian as a teen and became very interested in the mystics like St. John of the Cross and the contemplative experience. After many interesting mystical experiences I concluded, at least for me, that although I believe communion with God is possible through prayer, it is the community around me and Christ in them that grounds me. Whatever it is we endeavor to do, it seems that connection with God and others is the point.

  20. What a smart way to see life.being open and using different aspects from different lifestyles and beliefs and take them as you own.
    Now that is what i find very interesting. And a beautiful to live a fulfilled life.

  21. Do you know what Jesus favorite animal is? What color is His favorite? What makes Him laugh or cry? One time I said “you sure had a lot of good things to say in the bible, I guess that’s why you made the pages so thin.” He said “yes and words so small” : ) – God Bless!

  22. I have never developed the practice of prayer. I see myself more as spiritual that religious. My own philosophy is more along the idea of living an honest and pure life to the best degree that I can, always be willing to learn new things, embrace new ideas and forward those that create the greatest degree of survival for the largest influences in life, ie. self, family , work, mankind, etc. Be open to the differences in others and respect their choices in different ideologies…as long as they are not harmful.

    I can’t say that I meditate, either. I think I have learned the most by observing others. When I see qualities that I admire, I adopt them as my own…practicing if needed. When I see qualities I don’t like, I avoid doing those things. This allows me to become more aware of who I am…and also, who I am not. When I make mistakes, I try to self correct and learn from them. As much as possible, I try to acknowledge what I am doing right, appreciate it and express it to those who are important to me.

    The beauty in this is that it all is accomplished as I am doing the normal things in daily life…no delineated time, reserved for this activity…it’s ongoing.

    I do have people connected to me that ask for my prayers, though I don’t actually pray for them, I do send good positive thoughts that a favorable outcome arrives. Because I see this as one of the differences that I have with some, I will say, “I’ll pray for you,” when someone is going through something and seems to need extra strength to face it, because that is something they understand. Because it actually brings about a greater understanding between us, I have decided that doing this way is acceptable, not dishonest.

  23. I think this is why keeping an open mind is crucial to being a well-rounded, compassionate person. This is a great post worth holding on to.

  24. Be in the world but not of the world…. I like to remind my self who Jesus spent most of his time and who he prayed with.don’t forget the power of wordless prayer, if there is to much to say or emotions you want to convey to God, a simple, I’m here God, my heart is praying. And just be still and silent in his prevents, he knows your heart.

  25. I believe we were put here to serve others, to help others, and if we aren’t reaching out and listening then I don’t think we are living our purpose! Love how you’ve stopped and learned to listen!

  26. Reading, meditation, reflection, and all of those fun things seem to me to be about allowing your mind time to make connections between your experiences and your understandings. I find it interesting that you have been intrigued by some of the perspectives I have offered up on some subjects. Knowing how well-read you are and some of the experience you draw from, I actually find it a bit surprising and humbling! Inspiring me to read a book is like trying to set fire to snow.

  27. Your post is really accurate. I think many Christians are taught certain “legalistic” ways to worship, but never really truly about how to commune with God. Certainly meditating and quieting our minds is a good place to start. And, as you suggested, not only does it help our prayer life, it helps us to be quiet and peaceful in other areas of our life. Good for you in taking this in! And wonderful post. Keep it up. 🙂

  28. Meeting people from many walks of life changes you…and in my opinion always for the better. Even an insulated person I think still views the rest of the world but it is an ever present abstraction that doesn’t fit in with the experiences you have. Once the abstract shifts to the real, the tangible and the present you all of a sudden become truly familiar with the awesome variety of people in this world and only then can you learn how to live in it. It thus gives your prayer a substance you never had before perhaps.

  29. This is great Kenneth. I am launching a new series on contemplative practices and global consciousness. You may enjoy it I think. I’ve been swamped — but I am catching up on reading my favorite blogs… this is great news I’m seeing Ken… Congratulations.

    I don’t meet people as much face-to-face. Maybe I ought to get out and try this coffee shop approach — love coffees. I have no idea how it would work… 🙂 NONE

    ~ Eric

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