Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sermon: Learning To Pray

A sermon by Rev Michael A. McGee of Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A. given February 24, 2002 (source link [cached] here).

I want to thank the choir for singing “Down in the River to Pray” so well this morning. I asked them to sing it because I thought it fit with the topic of prayer and also it’s a song I love to hear.

The movie the song comes from, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, is also one of my favorite movies. It’s about three convicts who escape and go on an Odyssian journey through the southern countryside.

In one scene they witness a group of Christians in white robes walking down to the river to be baptized. They’re singing this beautiful Allison Krauss song as they walk along and wait their turn to be dunked.

When one of the convicts, who is as dull-witted as a hammer, witnesses what was going on, he runs into the river to be baptized and then comes out proclaiming that he is saved, all his sins are forgiven, and so the police have no need now to arrest him.

That’s a good way to look at the different ways people use prayer in their lives, some in a superficial way that simply seeks to fulfill their own desires, and others as a deeper devotional, plunging into the depths of the spirit.

But in the reading this morning, Rumi warns us that we can never know what is in another’s heart. What may seem superficial to one person may in reality be heartfelt.

Like many of you, I prayed frequently as a child. Most nights I would knell beside my bed or tunnel underneath my covers and pray to that paternal figure I thought to be God. I would pray for my parents and friends, for good grades and baseball victories, for long, sunny days and short nights.

Sometimes my prayers would be answered, while other times it seemed obvious that God had dozed off in the middle of my pleas. But having so little power to change things, I continued to rely on divine intervention to make my life better.

In my teens I had a religious crisis in which I began to doubt my Christian beliefs. I prayed nightly for God to point me in the right direction, to restore my faith, to renew my spirit. I pleaded for a sign, a word, some indication of what I should do. All I heard, night after night, was silence.

At the time I was greatly disappointed that my prayers had gone unanswered. You see, I had not yet come upon the words of Sister Mary Ignatius who said "Do not think prayers go unanswered. Every prayer is answered. It's just that sometimes the answer is no."

Now, with the perspective of years, I realize that my prayers were answered, and not with a "no" but with a deep and abiding silence. Silence was the answer. The silence said to me, "Seek elsewhere. Go within. Look into the darkness. Listen to your soul."

What I thought at the time was a cosmic "No!" turned out to be one of the most beneficial blessings of my life. I turned onto a new path that led me into a richer spirituality. And that new path has led me to be who I am today. My prayer now is "Thank you!"

Many of us have had similar experiences in our lives. We've been told in our childhood that prayer is an absolute necessity to be a religious person. But we were never taught how to pray. We assumed that God was an all night disc jockey who played special requests, or the game show host on "Let's Make A Deal." Many people never grow out of this childlike attitude towards prayer.

Some years ago, Harry Emerson Fosdick broadcast this as the most honest prayer he ever heard: "Bless me and my wife, my son, John, and his wife, us four, no more, Amen!"

To be perfectly honest I still fall prey to this small spirited kind of prayer from time to time. I remember when my children played baseball, and with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the ninth (and at times in situations less critical) I would send towards the heavens a heartfelt appeal, even to the point of offering to go to an extra committee meeting that week for one little base hit, or in my desperation even to have my child walked or hit by the pitcher. Of course, right next to me the pitcher's mother was probably praying frantically for her son to strike out the little runt at the plate.

It's so easy to misuse prayer for our own selfish purposes instead of letting prayer take us into deeper and more sustaining dimensions of being. We’ve been taught to whine to the Divine, but we’ve never learned how to actually pray.

To pray is a spiritual discipline, which means that it takes effort and attention, and it can never be learned completely. It’s a lifetime of learning. But if we do discipline ourselves, we become not only better at praying, but we eventually become our own prayer.

How do we learn to pray? Sometimes we need to learn from children. Forrester Church, the minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan tells of a time when he, his wife, and son, Twig, were eating a meal with a group of other UU ministers.

“...It will come as no surprise to you that we Unitarian Universalist ministers are not conspicuously pious. Our common meals, for instance, did not begin with a prayer. Well, my son had suffered through about three of these. He had enough of our thoughtlessness. He was missing something, that moment of quiet that inaugurates our meals at home. So what did he do? In an act of divine impertinence he held out his hands to the shocked minister to his right and to his half-chagrined, half-proud mother on his left, bowed his head, and left the rest of us scrambling to put down our forks for a moment of silent prayer.

“Twig also has taken to saying his prayers at night. In part, I must admit, this is a delaying tactic. He blesses everybody he can think of and would go through the list again if his father would let him. But, on the other hand, what a wonderful thing it is. To take a moment before drifting off to sleep to say a simple prayer for the ones we love.

“I wonder, have those of us who do not say our prayers at night really grown up? I fear not. I am afraid we have simply forgotten how essential it is that we remember to offer up our thanks for the blessings that are ours...” (CLF News Bulletin, April, 1981)

There have certainly been times in my life when prayer has been unimportant. But I find that as I grow older and as my spirituality deepens, I need prayer in my life B not the superficial, self-centered solicitation -- but the kind of prayer May Sarton speaks of in her poem, "The land of silence". She writes of the need

... to be present only in the
Prayer that is creation,
In the life that is lived,
Love planted deeper than emotion,
Pure idea that cannot break apart,
Creator of children or the work of art.

In order to learn to pray, we need to first learn to be silent and still. I believe we cannot be movers until we are moved, and it is only in the quiet moments of our lives, in the land of silence, when we have shut down the bevy of little distractions drawn from the day or spun from our fear of tomorrow that we can truly be moved by the spirit of life.

When we enter the land of silence we are then able to penetrate into the mystery of life. It's in that mystery that we transcend our self, our religion, and even our image of God, and we enter into the unknown.

In this mysterious unknown we are enfolded by the all-sustaining, all-embracing Being of Life itself. In the words of the Jewish mystic, Abraham Heschel: "To pray is to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live."

To enter into prayer requires that we not only be silent but that we learn to listen. To pray is to intentionally listen to and yield to the calling of life, to let go of all the excess baggage we carry around: the anger, embarrassment, bitterness, envy, greed, and then to listen to and affirm that which is the most sacred in our souls.

What do we hear? First of all we hear our own cries of brokenness and pain, cries that we usually stifle with busyness and noise. In prayer we open our wounds so that they may be healed. There is a spiritual that sings:

It's me, it's me, O Lord, standin' in the need of prayer;
Not my father, not my mother, it's me, O Lord,
Not my sister, not my brother, it's me, O Lord,
Standin' in the need of prayer,
Standin' in the need of prayer.

To truly enter into prayer we must first admit that we are in need of prayer, that we are fragmented, in pain, and in need of being healed.

And then we listen for the still, small voice at the center of our soul. It's a voice that speaks for life, for wholeness, for healing. It's that quiet voice we hear when all the other daily disturbances have been silenced that guides us towards a fuller life.

In the silence we may choose to ask questions of that voice within us, questions about our purpose, our meaning, our path to choose. In a novel by Elie Wiesel called Night he tells the story of a young boy in a small East European town at the end of 1941. One day the combination town fool and wise man, Moche, approaches him as he is praying:

"Why do you pray?" he asked me...

"I don't know why," I said, ...disturbed and ill at ease.

"And why do you pray, Moche?" I asked him.

"I pray to the God within me (to) give me the strength to ask ... the right questions."

Those questions we ask of Life must come out of the land of silence. But after we ask them we must be willing to listen for the answers, and we must be willing to live out those answers in our lives. A. Powell Davies once prayed this way:

“...the prayers that we do not want to pray, because they would commit us to hard tasks or require that we forsake our selfishness, help us to pray them. Yea, O God, more than all the others, let those be the prayers that we pray.”

Prayer is a way for us to feel our connections to other lives, to be sensitive to their suffering, and to try and heal their pain. Many people pray for a friend or family member to recover from cancer or AIDS or an accident, or they pray that someone may be able to cope with the grief of loss.

Many religious liberals don't believe in this kind of supplication, but I believe prayer can be a powerful force for healing. I do pray for others' healing and health and wholeness, certainly not expecting a miracle to occur, but as a way of bringing my consciousness into awareness of those who are in need of attention so that I may better respond. Another alternative I like is when the Quakers say, “I’ll hold you in the light.”

I’m asked sometimes by visitors to our church about the purpose of our lighting of candles of hope, memory and gratitude. I explain that it is simply a way some of us choose to become more aware of those we love or those in pain.

When I light a candle it’s usually for my father who is dead and my mother who is living or for others I love, or for those who were victims of the September attacks or other disasters. I know that lighting a candle will not benefit them directly, but it does benefit me by inviting them to be present in my memory and in my consciousness.

For me the time for Meditation and Prayer is at the heart of our worship together. It is in that time that we, in the words of the poet, Joy Harjo:

“ your whole self

To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon

To one whole voice that is you.

And know there is more

That you can’t see, can’t hear

Can’t know except in moments

Steadily growing, and in languages

That aren’t always sound but other

Circles of motion.”

Some people get hung up on the word “prayer” or they want to know who or what we are praying to. But to me it makes no difference what you call it or who you pray to. What matters is that we open ourselves up, our hearts, our senses, our spirits, becoming mindful of those sustaining connections, to the pain that urges us towards growth, to our deepest hopes and dreams, to the Spirit of Life itself.

But don’t get the idea that prayer is purely passive. I believe that "Prayer does not change things. Prayer changes people, and people change things." My colleague, Bruce Southworth, tells a story about...

“...the financial problems faced once by a Catholic Worker House in New York. There was desperate need for more funds for them to continue their work with the poor, and the >tradition was to pray to St. Joseph for such assistance. They did so for several days with no response, whereupon Dorothy Day and her colleagues marched to St. Patrick's Cathedral.’ There they picketed the statue of St. Joseph. >After a short time, Cardinal Spellman came out and gave them the money.’"

So it was not the prayers of Dorothy Day and her followers that changed things. It was their prayers that changed Cardinal Spellman, and then the good Cardinal changed the circumstances.

There's a Russian proverb which says, "Pray without ceasing, and row like crazy for the shore." It's through prayer that we transform ourselves, but then we must accept our responsibility to go out and transform the world. Prayer does not change things. Prayer changes people, and people change things.

One of the most tranforming prayers is one of gratitude. Someone has said that if you can say no other prayer "Thank you!" will be enough. That is certainly the prayer I must often utter. While gazing at spring's first crocus, or listening to children's laughter, or simply feeling a calming peace in the land of silence I will whisper a soft "Thank you!" for being alive.

There is one more aspect of prayer I am learning, and that is the prayer of embodiment. This prayer is described well by the ardent Unitarian and Quaker Susan B. Anthony when she said, "I pray every single second of my life; not on my knees, but with my work."

Embodiment prayer is a kind of prayer where the meaning in our heads becomes the meaning in our bodies. When we use our bodies with spiritual intent, both our bodies and the occasion become sacred.

Abraham Heschel once said of his experience marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Alabama, "My feet were praying." Embodied prayer is a spiritual practice in which you are able to see your will and actions intermingled with your values and purpose and engaged together with the world.

I do believe that our acts of compassion are the most potent of prayers. In the end, we are our own prayer. Whatever we do is the culmination of all that we have done, of all that we are, of all that we have prayed.

So this is how I am learning to pray:

* by being silent and still, mindful of my deepest desires and attentive to the still, small voice within;
* by asking the big questions about the meaning of life and letting the answers rise to the surface of my consciousness;
* by saying “Thank you!” to life, to God, to each other, for the multitude of blessings in my life;
* by holding each other in the light of our concern and compassion;
* by attempting to embody my words and dreams, not only being compassionate but compassion, not only loving but being love, not only praying but becoming a prayer.

May we learn to pray in the spirit of this prayer by the Ojibway People:


Look at our brokenness.

We know that in all creation

Only the human family

Has strayed from the Sacred Way.

We know that we are the ones

Who are divided

And we are the ones

Who must come back together

To walk in the Sacred Way.


Sacred One,

Teach us love, compassion, and honor

That we may heal the earth

And heal each other.

Amen, amen and amen.

And now please join me in spoken meditation and prayer:

Spirit of Life who is beyond name or description,

we speak with you this morning though we know not whom we speak with.

Perhaps it is only ourselves, but that is a worthy conversation to have.

Perhaps it is with the Great Mystery, with that which is greater than ourselves but impossible to comprehend.

And that too is a conversation worth having.

We are not sure how to pray to one we do not know or understand.

We have trouble finding the words as well as the inclination.

There is so much in our lives that must be done, so little time to be silent and still, so little opportunity to be mindful and meaningful.

How do we find the time?

How do we find the words?

Help us to make time in our days to swim in the ocean of silence.

And help us to find the words that bubble up from the wellspring of our heart.

And if we have trouble finding our own words, may we use the words of those who express our sorrow and hopes so well, such as this prayer from St. Francis:

Lord, make us an instrument of your peace,Where there is hatred, let us sow love;...where there is violence, let us sow forgiveness;...where there is doubt, let us sow faith;...where there is despair, let us sow hope;...where there is darkness, let us sow light;...where there is sadness, let us sow joy....Let us not so much wish to be comforted as to comfort; be understood as to understand; be loved as to love.For it is in giving that we receive; is in pardoning that we are pardoned;...and it is in dying that we are born into the life of the age to come.


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