Aug. 7, 2016.
Have you ever sat down at the computer and, whether you are a believer or not, you thought, “God, if you are up there, or anywhere, please give me the inspiration to write this report, or paper, or if you are a minister, for instance, this sermon.” I have, that has been me, I admit it. There have been times when I sat down, stared at the keys on the computer and I closed my eyes. I’ve said please god, if you exist, give me inspiration to write this sermon. Then, like sometimes we do when we make prayers of petition, I waited. I heard the birds chirping, but nothing came. I waited. I thought about what to have for lunch and nothing came. I waited. I noticed how my left shoelace was tied a little tighter than my right shoelace, and yet still nothing came. I gave up, prayer unanswered and once again possible proof there was no god, or if there was one, god was totally being distracted by things like wars, natural disasters, politics or a billion or so other prayers being said at that very same moment.
I always find it amazing what people of faith and people who say they don’t really have a faith, will pray for. Of course we all know this prayer: Please god, let me win the lottery just this one time. Or please, please god, can I get an “A” on this test tomorrow. Then there are prayers like the grocery store prayer, “please god, let me find a line that goes faster than all the others.” Another favorite of mine is when a sports players close their eyes and pray for god to choose their team over the other players making the same prayers on the other side of the field.
Prayer is such an expansive and pervasive topic that I have decided to do something I don’t often do, I am not going to define anything. I am not going to take an academic overview of prayer. I am not going to explain the Christian, Jewish of Buddhist versions of prayer. I am not going to argue or defend any notion of God, and if she exists, does she answer our prayers. What I am going to do is explain why I pray. I pray for four reasons, to listen, to hold people and things in my head and my heart, to speak into the mystery and to live with intention.
There are many of us, including me, who always seem to be running from one thing to the next. And, there are also some of us here whose lives, although full, are not as busy as they have been at other times. No matter what stage we are in our lives, we often find ourselves distracted from experiencing moments of quiet or times for reflections on issues of meaning or purpose. When I think about praying, I know I need that time to stop my endless stream of thoughts on any number of daily subjects and listen quietly to what deep in my heart needs attention. It’s as if I have to force myself to put down some virtual to-do list that endlessly plays in my head and pay attention to what is calling on me from deep inside.
It is not only what calls me from inside, it is also what calls to me from the world. I listen for the pain and suffering of those in our congregation. Those whose lives deserve my thoughts and my attention in their moments of need. I listen for what calls to me in the suffering of the world, the things that I will hold in my heart for the pain being felt by so many. I listen for what calls to me in gratitude. What I know I need to be thankful for in my life. Thankful no matter what the source. I need to just listen to what calls to me to hear what deserves my most healing thoughts and my most grateful thanks.
Then I must not only listen for those who are in need or those who are suffering, I must also hold them in my thoughts and in my heart. I don’t talk much about my experience as a chaplain at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. I don’t talk about it much because in some ways it was such a sacred experience, I haven’t wanted to in any way to feel like I was using my stories or trust lightly. As a part of my ministerial formation, I was required to do what is called a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, which in this case meant serving as a chaplain on two wards, or what they call units, of Rady: the Hematology/Oncology Unit and the PICU or Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. When I signed up for this, I guess I thought I was going to spend a lot of time with children. In fact, I spent a great deal more time with parents and families.
This was a life-changing experience that I will never forget. One of the things that I was most worried about when I began, was that I knew I was going to have to pray. I had never really prayed before in my life. I had said Jewish prayers in Hebrew as a part of ceremonies or rituals as a kid, and I had listened to others pray in seminary, but I never really had to pray before out loud and I certainly didn’t have to do it in the context of another’s faith tradition. But that was in fact what we had to do as chaplains. You see, when a child had just been diagnosed with cancer, or a parent who has just ridden in an ambulance with their child because of a tragic accident needed comforting, I didn’t argue about their theology. I didn’t care about their politics. I didn’t question their choice of religion, I prayed a Catholic prayer if they were Catholic, I prayed a Baptist prayer if they were Baptist and I prayed a Jewish prayer if they were Jewish. I stood there at their side and I prayed. And I have to tell you, in those moments of fear and pain, of vulnerability and hope, I reached a much deeper understanding of why people hold on to prayer and their versions of faith. I reached a level of understanding that I had never known.
I came to also understand that it didn’t matter if or where those prayers would go; my job was to hold that space with them, my job was to comfort a hurting soul, my job was to walk with them in this moment of deep trial and need. And my job now is to do the same here with you. I now pray because, as it was at the hospital, and as it is now here at UUCF, it is my job, my calling and my incredible privilege to hold all of you in my thoughts and in my heart – always but especially in times of need.
And a little more about not caring where the prayers go. The Rev. Roger Cowen wrote, “In a desperate moment, I cried out for help, and I was answered. Some years later I am still a humanist – I believe that religion is about this world, about bringing justice and mercy and the power of love into life here and now. Yet I am a humanist who prays, who begins each morning with devotional readings and a time of silence and prayer. Why do I do this? I need a quiet time. I need to express my gratitude. I need humility. I pray because – alone – I am not enough and also I am too much. I express gratitude for the gift of aliveness. I assert my oneness with you and all humankind and all creation. When I pray, I acknowledge that God is not me.” When I pray, I acknowledge that I am not in control, that I need assistance, that I am grateful, that I hope for healing and love to spring forth and the understanding that the act of praying is an act of speaking in to the mystery.
I had another moment of shift in my life that has to do with prayer. In my second year of seminary, one of the staff was leaving to have cancer surgery. At a meeting during orientation week, someone stood up and said, “let us all pray for Jane.” These friends and fellow classmates weren’t fundamentalists; these were almost all pretty liberal people, mostly Christians, but some people of different faiths and some people with no faith tradition at all. But there we stood, Jane in the middle of a large circle with hand after hand placed on shoulder upon shoulder, that eventually led to hands placed on the shoulders and head of Jane. I didn’t know if this prayer was reaching some supernatural destination and I really didn’t care. What I cared about was Jane and this incredible chain of loving, caring and healing thoughts being sent forth, spoken and received in that room. It was the moment I dismissed some of my biggest preconceived notions about the purpose of prayer, because what this moment was about was Jane, her sense of love, her sense of support and her sense of community. There is no way of knowing how that helped her heal and weather this ordeal. There are probably others way to demonstrate all these things to someone facing the overwhelming experience of a potential life-threatening illness, but on that day, in that room, it sure seemed like a powerfully good example. And although for me the prayers were let go into the mystery, there was no question about the message that Jane felt from that room full of people.
Perhaps the most important reason in the four reasons why I pray is to live with intention. I believe that the most important prayers in life aren’t the ones that are said when we expect them to be answered or hope for them to be heard and granted, but the ones that help guide us to live life with intention. And although sometimes as UUs we get caught up in the object of the prayer, I think there are some amazing examples of prayers of intention that have wisdom and beauty. Here is one of my favorites, the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.” To me that isn’t a prayer to some old white man with a beard, it is the utterance of a request for enlightenment, growth, moral and ethical living and to overcome one’s inner demons to live with love. Prayer is a statement that we make to ourselves when we search the innermost voices and find the hopes and ideals for which we endeavor to live.
I think prayers of thanks and gratitude fall into this category. For living intentional lives surely must include being thankful for what we have. I don’t think we often pause and express gratitude and I think prayer is an opportunity for us to do that. Here is an example of one I like, author unknown: “Lord, we ain’t what we want to be; we ain’t what we ought to be; we ain’t what we gonna be, but, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”
I think prayer, by whatever name you call it, can help us to listen, to hold people and things in our thoughts and our hearts, to speak into the mystery and to live with intention. UU minister Erik Walker Wikstrom says in his book “Simply Pray,” “Looking at the form of prayer rather than its content – at the how of it rather than the why or to whom – can point the way toward the development of a modern prayer practice that is free of specific metaphors and images, not tied to any particular religious world view and not demanding adherence to any one set of religious symbols and expressions. This form of prayer can be the basis for a framework that can support a variety of religious beliefs, without depending on any in particular, creating an inclusive, yet rooted prayer practice.”
You see, when I see televangelists, or fundamentalists of any faith, pray for something; when I see prayer used as an tool of vengeance versus a source of compassion, gratitude and love; when I see people pray with expectations of reward and riches; I can’t help but think that prayer rooted in inclusion, introspection and compassion, can help us live lives of gratitude and love. You might say a state of consciousness perhaps, versus a state of entitlement and request.
So on this day, this is what I pray for: I pray for our compassion for those in need to rise beyond those who seek to maximize profit and self-gain for the purposes of the accumulation of power. I pray for, if not an end to war and violence everywhere, at least the increased realization that war can only go so far in solving our problems because, as Gandhi said, “I object to violence, because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.” I pray that someday soon, the people of the earth will realize that we are caretakers of such a fragile system of life and what happens to one truly does happen to all. I pray that we, here in our little corner of the universe, focus on the things that truly make our time in this world rich with laughter, flowing with joy and fostering deeper connections to those who think like us and also to those who may not. And finally for now, I pray that no matter the many divides that we now face in the world, and as naȉve and foolish as it sometimes sounds, we all somehow realize that reaching out in love and helping all feel loved will help us all to survive.