Unitarian Society of Northampton & Florence
August 9, 2015
(The Mary Oliver poem referenced in this sermon can be found here.)
When I joined my first Unitarian Universalist congregation, this very one, nearly twenty ago, there was not much tolerance for the G-word (or the J-word) and there was a strong allergy to the p-word: prayer. We could have silence or meditation, but not prayer.
Spirituality was strongly here – this was and is no “corpse cold” congregation (thank you Ralph Waldo Emerson for that crisp descriptive phrase). Just in those days, a reactive one that has seemed to mellow in this regard over the years. For those of you who have been around that long and longer, I wonder if you might agree with this assessment. This discernible shift belongs not just to this congregation, but seems to be denomination-wide, though uneven to be sure.
Since starting seminary four-and-a-half years ago now, I am surrounded even more now with spiritual people – among friends, in the parishioners I served for two years in Cummington, among my colleagues, at the hospital and nursing home I spent last summer serving as a chaplain intern – it comes with the territory.
Consequently, and not surprisingly, I am surrounded by requests for prayer.
“Keep me in your prayers.”
“Can you say a prayer for fill-in-the-blank.”
These requests are all around me in a way they were not when I was growing up, or a decade or even half a decade ago. They are even on ~ gasp ~ Facebook (though I’m not sure they have made it to Snapchat or Vine yet…)
Even in the wide world, with its growing number of “spiritual nones” – N-O-N-E-S, those who do not identify with any particular religious tradition – prayer is present. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life,
Close to 90 percent of those affiliated with religions report praying on a regular basis, and 40 percent of Nones in general say they pray with some frequency. Indeed, …17 [percent] of those identified as “Atheist/Agnostic” …report that they pray. Among those who described their religious affiliation as “nothing in particular,” more than half say they pray regularly.
I’ve had more than my fair share of ambivalence about prayer and its power (not to mention about God and God’s power – the two topics are intricately related). It helps that people – like the UU Reverend Kate Braestrup – write about prayer – someone I not only respect, but whose writing allows me to chortle and perhaps even laugh at myself.
I do wonder about the power of prayer. I wonder about the nature of the prayers we flawed human often make. Some of us have been taught – in the religions we grew up in, from depictions in the media – that prayer is of that intercessory kind: please give me something. Maybe it’s a bargain: if you do this, I’ll do that. I’ll do this, if you do that.
This misses the mark. In his famous book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes,
People who pray for miracles usually don’t get miracles, any more than children who pray for bicycles, good grades, or boyfriends get them as a result of praying.
However, his comment didn’t stop there. He goes on,
But people who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of what they have lost, very often find their prayers answered. They discover that they have more strength, more courage than they ever knew themselves to have.
In my summer as a hospital chaplain, I found this to be true. More often than I expected. Sometimes,
- For people who are scared and have good reason to be scared;
- for people who are in pain and have medical conditions causing that pain;
- for people who are agitated with fear, with uncertainty, with loathing
I have seen talking do little, and prayer be the only thing that melts the suffering that plaguing them. Not for everyone, but for some. Melts it right away.
- Sometimes it is a familiar prayer, known to them from their faith tradition, sometimes known to them and millions of others since before they were even born.
- Sometimes it’s a prayer totally made up by the presence shared together and a companion who listens, watches, cares, and then, makes a leap of faith and opens their mouth…
So even though prayer has not been my idiom, I am honored to be asked. And to comply. I don’t have to know for sure, with solid guarantee, that it will work — for me to put in the effort. (If that were the criteria threshold, I’m not sure how many social justice rallies would take place.) I experience it as a chance to be blessed and to be a part of that greatER holiness that surrounds us.
Why do I agree to do this, when I don’t think asking God to change brings about said change? Why do I do it when I don’t even believe in a personal God? I turn again Rabbi Kushner, whose response mirrors my own. He tells a story of a late night phone call from a stranger, asking the Rabbi to pray for his sick mother.
Why did I agree, if I don’t believe that my prayers (or his, for that matter) will move God to affect the results of the surgery? By agreeing, I was saying to him, “I hear your concern about your mother. I understand that you are worried and afraid of what might happen. I want you to know that I and your neighbors in this community share that concern. We are with you…”.
Prayer is an act of generosity. And solidarity. And humility. It is living into this truth that I have my ideas of how the world and the universe operate, but I really don’t know.
It is also living into our seventh principle: into the interconnectedness of all living beings. We are not only with you, we are you.
But that is only half of why I consent. It is an important half, not to be minimized, but it is the lesser half. The other half has to do with my own experience not of praying, but of being prayed.
I have noticed that when some Buddhist teachers approach the concept of the non-self, they speak using phrases that discourage the use of the concept “my.” For example, they might say, “the mind thinks” rather than “my mind thinks” or “I was thinking.” The intent here is to discourage a sense of Self and encourage a sense of belonging to the Great Interdependence of which we are not theoretically a part, but really are a part.
For folks not into Buddhism, that might sound just plain silly. Maybe it is. Or maybe it isn’t.
One of the other ways I have heard Buddhist teachers approach this, since breathing is so key to meditation practice, is to talk about experiencing one’s own breathing as being part of the whole wide Unity of all and breath being breathed in the experience of your own body.
I have experienced something similar, though it wasn’t exactly about breathing. The story goes like this…
A long time ago, someone I was close to betrayed me in a very personal way. This happened when we were in college. It was the kind of violation that left a deep and lasting mark, requiring attention and healing.
Fast forward ten-plus years to a renegade college reunion. This was before Facebook for the general public, but email and listservs were in play. It became clear that the person who betrayed me would be in attendance. I vacillated over whether to attend, but decided that I would not let the presence of this person deter me. Over email, I told him to stay away from me and to have no contact with me.
The reunion turned out to be tiny; it was impossible to avoid each other, though he did his best. For my part, I was a vulnerable mess. I had come with friends but somehow they seemed to evaporate at just the time I needed them. At some point in the midst of reunion-type activities, I returned to the little dorm room I had been assigned as lodging. I was not sure of much except that I did not want to be there at all, feeling utterly and uncomfortably and despairingly alone and lost. In that loss, I turned to poetry.
There is, at least, some consistency in my life.
I had brought Mary Oliver’s New & Selected, and I happened upon a poem that took my breath away. I had read the poem before, had even earmarked it as a favorite.
But now it was new.
I found myself repeating its lines, over and over, giving myself to it, as if it was a mantra, as if it were – dare I say it? – a prayer.
Even half-asleep they had
such faith in the world
that had made them – – –
tilting through the water,
by the laws of their faith not logic,
they opened their wings softly
over every dark thing.
faith not logic / faith not logic / faith not logic
The repetition, the cadence, the urgency made it all much bigger than me, made it more than a poem and I more than a reader. I was not praying: I was being prayed.
I came out of that experience and did something I did not plan, envision, or anticipate. Who is this strange woman and what is she doing? I asked my former friend to walk with me. We talked, my focus on accountability, not forgiveness.
It was the boldest thing I ever did. I did not know why I was doing it, just that I had to and that I put trust – or faith – in the urgent impulse that came from being prayed.
faith not logic / faith not logic / faith not logic
When someone asks me to pray for them, I say yes.
I say yes, knowing I will be praying for them to have the courage and strength to endure what they are enduring, that they come out on the other side with their heart broken just enough to experience generosity and cultivate compassion in this world with its ragged, sharp edges.
I say yes, bringing Kate Braestrup’s voice again, “as long as prayer reminds me to deploy both my resources and my generosity,” and “so long as prayer serves as a uniquely potent means of giving and receiving love.”
I pray because this is a sorrowful world and we are vulnerable creatures in it – I want my energies to help cultivate the kind of vulnerability that doesn’t make us weak or mean, but brings a surrender that makes us stronger.
I say yes, because I know that prayer reaches places that mind or intellect can only belittle or, at best, describe, but never touch. Faith, not logic allowing me – us – to step over every dark thing.
I pray it be so. Amen.
Special thanks to Rev. Ute Schmidt, my supervisor during my hospital chaplaincy internship, who was guest reader at this service.