Monday, February 2, 2015


I preached this sermon Sunday January 25, 2015 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.

Story: Answer Mountain by Sarah E. Skwire
Assorted Quotes on Prayer:

“Prayer is a relationship; half the job is mine. If I want transformation, but can't even be bothered to articulate what, exactly, I'm aiming for, how will it ever occur? Half the benefit of prayer is in the asking itself, in the offering of a clearly posed and well-considered intention. If you don't have this, all your pleas and desires are boneless, floppy, inert; they swirl at your feet in a cold fog and never lift.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

“Prayer gives us the guidance we need. It opens the mind to the illumination of God. The prophets made their whole life an act of prayer - so they received the inspiration of God. Our humbler minds, standing much below the heights in which they stood, receiving for the most part only a reflected illumination, may now and then by climbing a little higher catch a glimpse of the direct light. Through prayer, we can receive the guidance of God to strengthen our hold on truth, goodness, righteousness and purity which are the laws for humanity emanating from the nature of God.”
― Israel I Mattuck

“Prayer invites God’s presence to suffuse our spirits,
God’s will to prevail in our lives.
Prayer might not bring water to parched fields,
nor mend a broken bridge,
nor rebuild a ruined city.
But prayer can water an arid soul,
mend a broken heart,
rebuild a weakened will.”
―  Abraham Joshua Heschel

“A family in my sister's neighborhood was recently stricken with a double tragedy, when both the young mother and her three-year-old son were diagnosed with cancer. When Catherine told me about this, I could only say, shocked, "Dear God, that family needs grace." She replied firmly, "That family needs casseroles," and proceeded to organize the entire neighborhood into bringing that family dinner, in shifts, every single night, for an entire year. I do not know if my sister fully recognizes that this IS grace.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

“Prayer is not a shout into an empty void answered only by its own echo.  Prayer is the spirit within us reaching out to the Spirit of the universe, and prayer is that Spirit responding to us.”
― Robert I. Kahn


Prayer is often one of those words and concepts in Unitarian Universalism that we don’t talk a great deal about. We struggle with the notion of prayer because it raises uncomfortable questions such as “Does prayer mean I believe in God?” “What does it mean that God answers or doesn't answer prayers?”  What is the purpose of prayer - why would I do it?”  “Who exactly am I praying to?”

These are all good and important questions to wrestle with, to keep asking.  Personally I love the first quote of our reading that prayer is a relationship.  Prayer is about connecting my self to the ultimate source of existence, the Spirit of life, the ground of being, God.  It is about speaking and it is about listening, paying attention.  So does that mean that prayer requires belief in God?  In this I call upon James Luther Adams who says that we all need faith, or something that we put our confidence in. James Luther Adams says this about God “...the word God may in the following formulations be replaced by the phrase ‘that which ultimately concerns humans,’ or by the phrase ‘that which we should place our confidence in.’ God (or that in which we have faith) is the inescapable, commanding reality that sustains and transforms all meaningful existence.” Faith is not about belief it is about trusting that there is something greater than ourselves; faith is knowing that we are not self-creating, self-sustaining.

So when we engage in prayer we are engaging with that which is greater than ourselves - the Spirit of Life, the source of all, the ground of being.  It is connecting with that which is both within and beyond us. Parker Palmer might say it is how we connect with our deepest, most authentic selves. Palmer in quoting Annie Dillard describes spirituality as connecting us with “the unified field, our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here.”

So prayer is not so much about what we believe but rather about expressing our deepest longings, joys, looking for guidance and discernment, our longing to be transformed and a way to hold the sorrows and joys of our own and others lives.  It is about connecting with the deepest parts of ourselves, with being, with what we name in our 7th principle as the Interconnected Web of Life. Prayer is a practice that embodies our connection to the sacred, to the holy, to that which is of ultimate meaning.  There are many many ways to pray and the purpose of all these many ways is to connect with ourselves and with being itself.  It is about connection, relationship to oneself, the world around us and to that which is so ultimate we often cannot even find words to name it.

There are many different ways and parts to prayer. I think when we think of prayer we have images of people on their knees asking God to do as they ask - heal a sick person, win a game, assure the outcome we desire, get us out of sticky situation.  So first that is one kind of prayer - petitionary prayer - asking for what is needed. Yet our popular image of how this kind of prayer is answered is often like the woman in the story who looks to the mountain to tell her what to make for dinner.  This leads to seeing the Divine as an arbitrary gift giver who sometimes answers prayers and sometimes not and maybe it was because we didn't ask enough, or the right way or maybe God was just off doing something else that day.  Yet this can be cold comfort to the person who lost a loved one, received a grave diagnosis or otherwise has their world fall apart.  If God is in control of everything, dispensing favors then God is not very good at all - allowing all sorts of evil and horrible things to happen.  Yet what if our petitionary prayers are something very different? What if it is like Elizabeth Gilbert states that it is about stating a very clear intention … a kind of naming a need into being?

Another familiar prayer is gratitude.  Meister Eckhart tells us that if the only prayer we ever offer is thanks it will be enough.  Prayers of gratitude make us stop and take time to be grateful for our lives and the gifts in our lives. Prayers of gratitude can bring comfort in the midst of hard times, they can be prayers of joy when a long awaited gift arrives or the surprising unexpected joy arrives in our lives. Stopping, giving thanks, slows us down and reminds us of the abundance in our lives.

Less comfortable prayer is the prayer of confession, the prayer of admitting to ourselves that we have fallen short.  Yet this is also a critical part of living. None of us is perfect and we will make mistakes, we will do things we regret, we will hurt those we love.  If we cannot admit to making a mistake then we can never get to the work of making amends, asking for forgiveness and forgiving ourselves and others.  Prayers of confession are not about beating ourselves up. Rather, it is the acknowledgement to ourselves and to the holy that we have fallen short.  As a child I often thought of this as the list of things I had done wrong that way - hit my sister, fought with my sister, used a bad word, talked back etc.  That is not a bad start yet now as an adult I can also look at the why or go a little deeper and get curious about what is going on beyond the act.  How did I fall short in my relationships? How did I let myself down today?  How did I do less than my best?  If we can be honest with ourselves about the ways we fell short then we can also begin to change.  An apology begins when we acknowledge that we made a mistake, that we have something to say we are sorry for.  That apology is much more authentic when we take the time to acknowledge it to ourselves and then go to the person to offer our apology. Part of that is also learning to forgive ourselves. I know that I personally struggle deeply with forgiving myself, with letting go of all the ways I have let myself and others down. Yet learning to forgive ourselves is essential to living, loving and moving through life.

Another form of prayer that gets little attention is prayers of lamentation.  In the Hebrew Scriptures there is a whole book called Lamentations.  Many of psalms are prayers of lamentations. Lamentation is the crying out for relief, in anger, in grief. It is the Why is this happening? Why me?  Why now?  It is crying out for relief, for justice, for healing? I know some of my most heartfelt prayers have been when life has literally pushed me to my knees in pain.  We don’t talk about it because these moments are so personal, so intimate.  We also live in a culture that denies this kind of pain.  Yet there are moments in all of our lives that we will find ourselves crying out.

The Psalms are a wonderful inspiration for prayer because every human emotion appears in the psalms - praise, gratitude, petition, anger, lamentation.  Sometimes they make us uncomfortable because of their rawness, the raw anger and emotion.  It flies in the face of our safe, rational, abstract prayer.  The Psalms are embodied prayers, the prayers of people who love, who hurt, who get hurt, are oppressed, are liberated, are angry, are joyful.  Prayer connects us not just with our head but our hearts, our being.  In many traditions prayer is combined with movement - standing, kneeling, laying down, raising our arms, covering one’s eyes, walking, - prayer then becomes a full body experience.  In the Islamic tradition, one prays 5 times a day, facing East.  There are set prayers and with them comes specific movements.  Prayer, like other spiritual practices, connects body, head and spirit - reminding us that we are not abstract disembodied beings but whole people who have bodies, who love, hurt, have feelings and thoughts.  At its best prayer draws us into our full selves.

Does prayer make a difference? Prayer definitely changes the brain.  Scientists have studied the brains of people who pray and meditate regularly and have found that a regular practice of prayer and meditation shapes the brain in positive ways and boosts the immune system.  Much of the science has focused on  monks and others who spend extended hours in prayer but the initial researchers on those who spend even short periods of time in prayer, like half an hour, also benefit.

What then about answers to prayer.  If prayer connects us with our deepest selves, others and the world then prayer is a way of paying attention.  When we pay attention then we may see things we did not see before; the words that we need to hear, that lift our spirits are there; a friend shows up with a hug and wise words; we make a connection with someone who can assist us; or the job long awaited for comes from an unexpected place. Also in clearly stating our intention, in asking for what we need, or giving thanks we are making it more likely that we will connect with what we need, we will notice it when it comes. In our reading from Heschel, prayer may not water the field, or fix the bridge or the city but prayer can transform us so we can do the work of the world.  As Israel Mattock tells us prayer connects us with truth, beauty and goodness.  Also as the story tell us - the answer to prayer is always under construction - it is sometimes yes, sometimes no, maybe and sometimes I don’t know.

Prayer connects us with our deepest selves, with that which is greater than ourselves which gives life meaning, connects us with others, the earth and the world.  It changes and transforms us, and as we change and transform, we see the world with new eyes. Prayer restores, renews, inspires us to go and do the work of building and healing the world.  In being transformed we then can do the work of transforming the world.

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