Spirit of Life was written by Carolyn McDade as a prayer. No one prayer is going be meaningful to all of us. But for countless UU's, this song has been a bridge to the communication and artform of prayer.
The other prayer you heard earlier, “Nam Myho Renge Kyo.” is one that I recite daily. When I first heard it, I was not enamored. I was on a peace pilgrimage. I was an activist and like to use the time when we were walking for the sacred UU spiritual practice of having discussion. I felt annoyed at the Nippon Zan Myohoji Buddhists and those who drummed and chanted with them. I just wanted them to shut up.
Then two years later, I was working in my yard. I was in a terrible mood. My thoughts were slave to resentment and anger. There was no peace in me. To my surprise I heard the chant ...coming from inside me. Since that day the chant has become part of my repetoire, my toolbox for spiritual life. Often when I begin to head down a mentally disturbing path, I recite this prayer. When I drive by an accident, the chant comes to me automatically and I'll add "blessings be upon all concerned."
So far today, I am doing all right. I have not gossiped, lost my temper, been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or self indulgent. I have not whined, yelled or cursed. I haven’t eaten any sweets. I have not charged on my credit card.
However, I am going to get out of bed in a few minutes, and I will need a lot more help after that.
That's a prayer I can relate to, and judging by your laughter I'm guessing that you can too. A little laughter is a great way to advance our consideration of prayer. People get so serious about prayer. They seem to think that to pray, you have to try to be someone else.
Years ago, I worked as a package handler for Fed Ex. The guys I worked with cussed all the time. Put downs, offensive jokes and ribbing were the norm. One day in the break room, the subject of religion arose and a change came over the group. It was weird. A bunch of hitters started talking as if to say “yeah I'm tough guy, but don't think for a minute that I'm not right with God.”
Okay so when you are talk to God, you take on a new persona? Really? Imagine if when you talked to your spouse, you could never just be yourself.
I am really excited to talk about prayer. I'm just guessing that maybe not everybody in the congregation is as excited about prayer as I am. I sincerely want to thank each of you who came today because of maybe despite of the topic.
Before I go delve further into the subject of prayer, I want to ask you something. How many of you have taken a “Position” on prayer? You don't need to raise your hands or anything. Just check yourself for attitude. Check to see if you have armored yourself up. Are you thinking, hey this liberal religion thing only goes so far? I'll grant the merit of taking a loosey-goosey approach to some religious matters. For example, taking the idea of the kingdom of heaven as a metaphor works well for me. But I don't care what you say, you are not going to change my mind about prayer!?
If you were grew in or around people who believed that God judges you and might punish you to an eternity in hell if you choose the wrong belief system, your history might make it difficult to approach the subject of prayer with a casual, open-minded attitude.
So I want to remind you where we are. In this congregation, we respect the right of individual conscience. It is up to you what attitude and practice you choose regarding prayer. Do it any way you want to do it. Don't do it. No one is going to try to force you to do anything. We also encourage each other to do the work necessary to be able to make conscious decisions for ourselves.
What I have to say about prayer is simple. If you have been defining prayer as asking Big Daddy in the sky to use his superpowers to grant you personal favors, .. then you have accepted a very narrow and limited definition of prayer. If you want to maintain this view of prayer, then you are going to ignore the readings and the sermon today which present other ways of praying and understanding prayer.
So once again I am banging the drum of liberal religion. I believe that religious liberalism asks great things of us. It's easy to out of hand dismiss something. It takes effort to consider and discern, to find the merit and discard only the chaff.
If you think prayer is dangerous hokum, I'm going to ask you to think again. No matter how you identify yourself theologically, you can access the transformative power of prayer. I assure you that you can do it, and maintain your personal integrity. You can choose the level and/or kind of prayer right for you.
“How can UU's pray as a group?'” you may ask. To whom are we praying?” When I was in seminary, I had an Episcopal Priest colleague who said “Unitarians pray To Whom It Concern.” “Yes!, I said emphatically. I was excited that he seemed to grasp our humble approach, our free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Unfortunately, he didn’t intend his comment as a compliment. To him, it seemed that we had left out the personal quality that he believed necessary for faith and right relationship with his god.
Some UUs pray to a personal deity. Many of our prayers address a sense of ultimacy, eternity and/or our greatest imagining of what is. We hold that there are many ways to address and approach what is most sacred. Speaking to God AS IF you were talking to a person is one possible way to pray.
One thing is for certain. In more and more of our congregations, in our district and national gatherings, we Unitarian Universalists are praying. Our Ministers and worship leaders are calling us together in a spirit of prayer. Some prayers address the Spirit of Life. Others call us to face the Great Mystery. We have used many names to address that which has called us into being.
We are praying to our greatest sense of what is. It is the web of existence. We are praying to the Universe, directing ourselves toward an enlightened conscience of caring for all life.
How we pray defines our relationship to God and to life. Prayer shapes our attitude, and attitude shapes our prayer. It’s like the way names influence a relationship. Some men call their wives sweetheart. Others call names that express a lack of affection or respect. You can think of a few. Perhaps the worst form of relating is to ignore someone all together.
Prayer invites us to become attentive to the Divine or sacred. I recall a prayer that came to me when I was Visiting Minister to the UU Fellowship of St. John in the US Virgin Islands. Upon waking, I looked at a spectacular view from the window near my bed. “Good morning blue sky, good morning green leaves, and tree trunks. Good morning rocks and birds. Good morning, ocean.”
Prayer does not require belief that there is a supernatural deity directing human affairs. Prayer may require us to acknowledge that there is more to existence than the stories and theories in our minds. To pray we must extend ourselves. We must reach out to life, to the sacred.
I suspect that another hurdle to prayer is the fear that we might be making a fool of ourselves. Some of us have been suckered too many times, and would avoid that experience at all costs. Perhaps we think: “No way am I going to be one of those foolish, superstitious or crazy people. Perhaps we tell are selves that “we have a grasp on reality.
Perhaps we are “in touch” with reality, but we have yet to capture it. That's why sometimes we pray to “Great Mystery.”
“Higher power” is another term that can make prayer accessible to any who reject a god made in man's image. The phrase HP acknowledges that is more available to us if we would reach out. For many people, HP refers to the power or wisdom of a group. For others HP refers to the interconnected web of life.
Many of us think that prayer must always be proper and polite, that we must say the right things in just the right way. Any of you who remember Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, know the Jewish tradition of talking plainly to God. Several summers ago a friend Cody received news that his good friend David had been diagnosed with a rare disease, and would be dead within six months. I shared with Cody the Jewish tradition of very personal and informal prayer. I said, “Oh yeah one day, God is going to have to answer to for all this garbage.” Cody roared with laughter. It can be helpful to address Life with an authentic voice, to stand in the place where you live.
Affirmative Prayer is another time honored way to direct consciousness. When we affirm our best thoughts and intentions about God, life or the Universe, we remember and experience grace. We shift from being in opposition to what is, to being able to accept more of what life has to offer us.
Meister Eckhart said “if the only prayer we ever say is Thank you, it is sufficient.” Prayers of gratitude are a powerful way to walk in harmony with blessings.
Saying grace at mealtime is a very practical way to bring ourselves into a more desirable consciousness. If we eat on the run, we are likely ingesting fight or flight neuropeptides. Saying grace before meals, helps us to shift our mental, emotional and physical condition. Shifting from the sensory motor to autonomic nervous system, we can eat and digest in peace.
Many forms of prayer invite the pray- er to submit to God's will. They ask us to pray only for God’s will and the strength to carry that out. This language is problematic for many of us, and so I offer this translation. Prayer can be an invitation to come into alignment with what is truthful, to move into harmony with the source of life.
Many of us are aware that we shape lives by our consciousness. Attitude is everything. Prayer can be a way to develop healthy and happy attitudes toward life.
How do we pray with the best intention? I was taught that prayer is the best way to prepare to pray. Much of our service is an invitation to move our intention to come into alignment with our highest values.
There is a story of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. this was the day that God sealed fates for the year ahead. For some reason, the high priest kept the congregation praying far longer than was customary. Finally, the rabbi brought the prayers to a close.
He explained that he had a vision, that the congregation's prayers were trapped in the building and hadn't gone up to heaven. Fortunately he said God had been moved by the purity of one person's heart, that God reached down to receive the prayers.
The high priest identified Ovie, as the one who had brought the blessing upon the congregation. The people began to wonder. Who was Ovie? Did he mean Avraham, the wise elder? No, rabbi continued. Ovie was a five year old boy sitting in the back of the congregation. Ovie didn’t know the traditional prayers. He hadn't learned Hebrew. He hadn't yet been instructed how to pray. What Ovie knew to do was to recite his A, B, C’s. So Ovie asked God to make a beautiful prayer for him. The high priest said, thank you Ovie for reminding us how to pray.
For me, chanting is a way to pray like Ovie. Chanting in a foreign language allows us to channel energy directly from our hearts. You have sung Niggunim, wordless chants from Jewish tradition. I also enjoy chanting Hindu, Native American, Pagan, and Asian chants. The vibrations stir from inside. They come into us and enable us to bring peace into this world.
A reading in our UU hymnal by Abraham Heschel says “Prayer cannot bring water to parched land, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city, but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.”
This passage seems to suggest that prayer changes only the internal rather than external reality. I believe it's bigger than that. Before Einstein, a mechanistic view of the world prevailed. Westerners looked upon indigenous cultures and saw them as superstitiously trying to manipulate the gods. People assumed they were living in a material world and that prayer didn’t matter.
Now we know that our thoughts and our observations affect material at its deepest subatomic level. Collective conscious affects physical conditions, indirectly, but perhaps more directly too. We have no reliable results to indicate that prayer can cause rain. However, I think it wise to admit that we don't know exactly how prayer works, what it does and doesn’t do.
Yes, Rabbi Heschel, we do know that prayer directs and changes consciousness, and this is powerful! Prayer is a spiritual practice. We can use it to improve our conscious contact with the sacred. We can pray ourselves into an awareness of the interconnected web of life. We pray because we want more than an intellectual understanding of our connectedness. We want to feel it. We want to experience the connection. Few of us are content to stay alone for very long. We address each other in many ways, and we experience our connection. How we address and relate to one another shapes and defines our relationships.
The same is true of prayer. Prayer draws our attention to what we hold as sacred. Some see it as connecting with our highest self, or greatest sense of truth. Some see it as extending beyond our limited and illusory idea of ourselves into an awareness of something much greater. If pressed intellectually, I am humanist. However, I choose to address the transcendent dimension as if I am talking to a beloved. Through prayer we cam invite the divine to enter into our lives.
One of my favorites ways to pray is to visualize radiant light and divine power pouring down upon someone in my concern. I end my prayer by saying “for the greatest good for all concerned.” In this way, I remind myself that I have a limited perspective. Rather than plead or demand that life conform to our expectations, we can acknowledge our desire in a way that helps us to become instruments of blessing. The healing light is a symbol of the connection we all have.
Do our prayers affect those we pray for. I have faith that in some way they do. We don't control outcomes. We can change our response to what has happened, and this will lead to more change.
Listen my Brothers. Hear me, Oh Sisters, life is calling to us from the fullness of splendor, glory and power! The question is: “How will we answer back?” How will we direct our consciousness? Will we address the eternal?
May our prayers move us to awe, hope and righteous action. May the meditations of our mind and of our hearts create in us a deep and lasting peace. May we access healing and transformative power now and forever more.
So Be it.
The Blessings already are!