Earlier this year our worship team did a service about “Sticky words”- those theological words that make us uncomfortable. It turns out our most sticky words are “Hell” and “Sin” and right after that comes “prayer.” Why is that word “prayer” so troublesome for us? The most obvious answer would seem to be our diverse theology. Does prayer exclude atheists? What about agnostics- does it feel ingenuine to pray if you are not sure whether God exists? Moreover, prayer seems to imply a transcendent God, right? A God of some heavenly realm far removed from us. Or maybe, maybe it’s the idea of a God whose hand we see on cartoon shows reaching down from heaven to move us around like pawn pieces. Such an image of the divine goes against our own sense of free will and moral agency, it contradicts what we have observed of the natural laws of science lived out in our world.
But I think one of the main reasons that prayer is a sticky word for us is that it doesn’t seem to work. Even the most fervent prayers that a loved one will be spared the ravages of cancer, do not keep them from being torn from our lives. A lottery winner says her prayers were answered, and it makes us wonder, what about the other million people who prayed to win that jackpot? Maybe prayer is a sticky word for us because we have prayed for something we needed desperately and felt betrayed when our prayers went unanswered.
The story of that little broken bird offers us a new way of looking at prayer—a new way of answering the question “does prayer work?” Let’s approach this question the way we have approached all our sticky words this year; with an open mind. Asking “it is possible that at as a growing changing person with a growing changing theology, there a new meaning here for me? Asking “as a living tradition is there something in the word “prayer” that we Unitarian Universalists can reclaim? As a community that “encourages spiritual growth” I would like for us to consider reclaiming this word “prayer” by stretching it bigger and opening it to be more inclusive.
First let’s widen the purposes of prayer. Those of you who grew up in the Catholic Tradition are probably already familiar with their division of prayer into 4 basic kinds, but for me, growing up UU, this was new and useful information when I first came upon it. The kind of prayer we are most familiar with is the “Prayer of Petition (asking for what we need, including forgiveness)” What right, we might ask, do we have to ask the universe to heal us when so many others are sick, to ask that we get the new job we need so much when others go without work. So I want to bring a little bit of neo-pagan wisdom to help open this up for us. In the Neo-pagan tradition the process of clarifying intention is very important. It’s so easy to go along with the group, to go along with “how things are” and never take the time to say “What I would really like is to have a closer relationship with my partner, a job that is meaningful, healthy blood vessels.” Just taking time to clarify this intention could mean that next time you are alone with your spouse, you remember that intention, and reach out. So for Atheists, a petitioning prayer could have the utility of clarifying intention. For theists, and even agnostics, there is always the possibility that we could be aided and abetted by the universe in creating the reality our hearts yearn for. Perhaps opening our hearts in prayer could help us open our eyes to help when it does come, instead of being trapped in that desperate feeling that we have to do it all ourselves. As Wendell berry says “Let tomorrow come tomorrow. Not by your will is the house carried through the night.[i]” Whether we believe in God or not, we are all part of something larger than ourselves.
I imagine that most of us are also familiar with “Prayer of Intercession (asking for what others need)” We in this beloved community practice this through our time of Joys and Concerns, and through the silent reflection that follows. Spending time considering and empathizing with the needs of others is important because it helps us reach out beyond our own joys and concerns out to all those beings with whom we share this world. Whether or not our prayers or thoughts for our sisters and brothers have any impact on outcome, perhaps those prayers of intercession help enlarge our own hearts, help us cultivate compassion for others, maybe even help us be part of that help for which our brothers and sisters cry out.
The third form of prayer is Prayer of Thanksgiving (for what God has given and done) [ii] Here is one form of prayer that science has proven in multiple studies to be effective. Psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done research linking gratitude practices with both physical and psychological well being[iii]. Another study links gratitude to reduced stress hormones in the blood, which is linked to heart health. [iv] A third study linked practicing gratitude to health of relationships[v]
Have you tried this for yourself? Sometimes, I am having a particularly rough day, when I am filled with grumbles about my lot in life, I start naming things I am grateful for. The grumpier I am, the more challenging this is, so I look for the most basic things, things as simple as breathing in and out, as simple as food to eat. And as soon as I can think of anything at all to be grateful for, something inside me turns and I remember a better self.
“When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.[vi]
This song comes from a tradition in which dance and movement were a regular part of their worship.
James Forbes, the Pentecostal preacher who became a professor at Union Theological Seminary and who lead the Preaching seminar I attended this past February writes “Although there is a tendency in every tradition to make strong suggestions regarding prescribed patterns of spiritual formation, there is little to suggest that there is only one approach to spirit growth” he says we must “affirm the uniqueness… [of] the relationship of any one of us with the God whom we call Mother or Father”[vii] If you have had the experience of going to pray in a new religious community, where everyone joins in unison with words they all seem to know by heart, perhaps you wonder, as I do, if maybe I am going to do it “wrong.” At the same conference where I heard James Forbes speak, I also attended an evening worship with Jai Utal. He is famous for leading a kind of devotional singing called “kirtan” which comes from the Hindu tradition. As he prepared this group of a few hundred ministers, many of whom had never experienced kirtan before, to enter with him into a time of chanting he said (and I have to paraphrase here, because I didn’t have a pen with me at the time) “you can dance, if you do that, or sing, or not sing. It can be kind of tiresome trying to draw spirit in, so just be where you are, see what is there, and I find spirit usually enters in.”
Our relationship with that mother or father God is as unique as each one of us. Each of you has the right to reach out with open mind and heart. Even when we don’t know how to pray. Even in anger. Forbes told us this story:
“I remember once when I couldn’t find the words to appropriately address the God of my life. I knelt at my bed, stretched forth my arms and moved my shoulders in writing jerks of anguish. All I could utter were sighs and groans. But afterwards, I felt so much better that I said “Perhaps I can pray now.” But it seemed the spirit said to me” You don’t need to pray any more now. Heaven is equipped to receive choreographed prayer. Also, your sighs and groans have already been decoded and help is on the way.” [viii]
Here, perhaps, is the sticky part. What is this help that Forbes understood to be on the way? The great 20th century Jewish theologian and rabbi writes Abraham Joshua Heschel might have an answer for us. He says: "Prayer invites God to be present in our spirits and in our lives. Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuild a weakened will.” I believe this was the point of this morning’s story- that when that little bird sang out “from her broken wing and broken heart came notes of pleading, notes of sadness, notes of incredible beauty” Gradually her heart, if not her wing, was mended. Through her singing, her prayer, she found a new purpose in life and a new name.
This points, for me, to a 5th form of prayer --listening. After we have poured out our hearts, we just listen. In any conversation, in any attempt to build relationship, after we talk, we listen. Whether we are listening for the Holy Spirit as Forbes suggests, or for our own wisest self that sometimes lays hidden from us, we listen for that “still small voice.” Maybe words will spring to mind, or maybe just a feeling of being heard, a feeling of calm, a feeling of being emptied, or an experience of the mind as a still pond (which the Buddhists seek). Maybe in that listening we notice a feeling of being called to act, called to change.
Lately I am finding that one of the ways that prayer, or quiet reflection, “works” most reliably for me, is that it helps me remember what is truly important. Says yoga teacher Kate Holcomb “Taking time to differentiate between what’s just stuff out there and what’s me, and listening to the voice of my true Self, makes it a lot easier to make conscious, meaningful choices about how I spend my time and energy.”[ix] Holcombe uses the word self with a capitol “S” which helps us acknowledge the theological idea found in Hinduism and other religious traditions that I am not separate from anything that is; there is a fundamental unity undergirding all things. Prayer can help us connect to that deeper unity, to a higher, deeper, wider Self. Listening to the voice of my true Self reminds me who I really am.
What I would hope we could each take away from today’s service is two-fold. First, I would like for us, when we are at a public event or with friends and they say “let’s pray together” I want for Unitarian Universalists to experience that as an inclusive rather than an exclusive act. We UUs do have a relationship to prayer. It doesn’t matter whether your theology of prayer is different than that of your neighbors, we can reclaim that word so that it is authentic for us.
Second, I would like for each of us to have a practice, a path to that deep knowing, a practice building relationship to the web of life, that higher Self of which we are a part. Whether or not the word “prayer” ever stops being sticky, I wish for each person a practice building a relationship to the love that will never let us go… some practice to bring us comfort when we need it most-- to “water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuild a weakened will”
[i] –from Wendell Berry’s What Are People For?
[iv] http://www.thepositivitycompany.com/research/gratitude-research/ The original study can be found by looking up: R. McCraty, B. Barrios-Choplin, D. Rozman, M Atkinson & A. D. Watkins (1998) The impact of a new emotional self-management program on stress, emotions, heart rate variability, DHEA and cortisol. Integrative Physiological & Behavioral Science. 32 (2) 151-70.
Grant AM, et al. "A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way: Explaining Why Gratitude Expressions Motivate Prosocial Behavior," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (June 2010): Vol. 98, No. 6, pp. 946–55.
Lambert NM, et al. "Expressing Gratitude to a Partner Leads to More Relationship Maintenance Behavior," Emotion (Feb. 2011): Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 52–60.
[vii] James Forbes “The Holy Spirit and Preaching” p. 72
[viii] Later I found this same story in his book- James Forbes “The Holy Spirit and Preaching” p. 73
[ix] Yoga Journal March 2013 “In the Clearing” by Valerie Reiss p. 88