Our spiritual theme for the month of February is prayer.
Prayer; that place where we take our emotions, our seekings, our questions and concerns, our gratitude, and set them forth with intention.
When we pray, we speak our words aloud or express our intentions silently, invoking the presence of Love, imploring that which is beyond our knowing to hear us and care about what we care about.
We put forth loving, open energy to wish goodwill to others and to ourselves. We ask for suffering to be eased, loved ones to be comforted, good fortune to arrive, and movement toward self-understanding.
Whether you pray to God, pray to the Great Mystery, to the Spirit of Life and Love, to many Gods and Goddesses, or if you send out thoughts and energy into the Universe, prayer is an avenue on which you can travel to tap into the essence of life itself, to experience Love more deeply, to come to know yourself more fully.
Whatever form your prayer takes, there is something in your wanting more, in your beseeching for something different, something in the very act of making yourself vulnerable by the asking of what you want or need, that opens possibility, that moves you and feeds you. And I suggest that energy sent forth also moves the world around us.
I believe in the power of prayer and the shifts that can occur through the transfer of positive, loving energy.
I also believe that if we could eliminate pain, disease, suffering, and injustice in our world through our thoughts and prayers alone, we would have achieved world peace by now.
We would all be reveling in the Beloved Community.
All would be well.
And so, I contend that our loving intentions, our earnest prayers are not meant to ONLY be whispered into clasped hands, sung aloud in cathedrals, written in prayer books, or contemplated for hours in meditation.
We do these, Yes. Please, do these! AND, also remember that prayer is much more than thoughts and intentions.
An image that comes to mind when I think about prayer in this way is one of a child learning to ride a bicycle. I imagine the child cruising down the sidewalk, feeling confident and proud. In an unfocused moment, they lose their balance and wreck into a heap on the pavement. The crying and the bleeding begin simultaneously; the child is in shock and pain.
I think to myself, that child could really use my empathy right now; they could use my thoughts of goodwill and desires for comfort. I instinctively send those thoughts and prayers out into the universe. I care that they’re hurting. I desire consolation for this crying child. I want their pain to cease. May it be so.
But, I also reach out and help the child. I pray for the child through my action as well as my intention. I talk to them, attempting to soothe them with my voice. I pick them up and cradle them, reassuring them it’ll be okay. I get out the antiseptic and bandages to tend to their wound. I drag the bicycle back to the garage and encourage them to try again another day.
My prayer life is like this. Both my loving intentions that I put forth AND the prayerful action I take to bring about more Love in the situation. Both are needed. Both are what I believe prayer to be about.
We hope; we pray; we make it so.
In wanting, in beseeching, we invoke the presence of Love.
And we manifest Love in the world through our actions.
This week our nation is reeling from yet another school shooting, this time in Florida. Once again, our politicians, clergy, business leaders, journalists, and celebrities are using their public platforms to offer thoughts and prayers to the families.
And many among us are calling them out on what they perceive as an emptiness in such thoughts and prayers, in the absence of action to follow up on the well-meaning intentions and wishes.
Thoughts and prayers become hollow platitudes when we fail to follow them up with action.
We pray for the families and friends who lost loved ones in Florida. We pray for those traumatized by yet another act of terrorism at the deadly end of a gun. We pray for healing and wholeness, comfort and consolation. AND we must prayerfully act.
We pray through advocating sensible gun reform.
We pray through advocating adequate funding for education and training for educators, through advocating healthcare access for all, by reaching out to elected officials, locally and nationally, by sending letters and calling, by voting, by lobbying, by joining and/or financially supporting justice organizations that are committed to the work of changing the underlying causes of this uniquely American phenomena.
We put our principles into action and prayerfully work for justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; for peace and justice for all in our world community.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, that “prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism and falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”
In other words, prayer must include movement toward that which we seek.
If we pray for Beloved Community, we must also work for its attainment.
Rabbi Heschel also wrote the famous words, “I felt my legs were praying,” describing his experience marching for civil rights alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma Alabama in 1965.
“I felt my legs were praying.” What a powerful statement indicating how he experienced his actions as prayer, as part of his relationship with God, not a separate matter of politics.
“I felt my legs were praying.”
Praying is intrinsically bound up with action.
What are the ways in which you pray through action? How do you pray with your legs? Or, more inclusively, with your body? With your financial resources? With your decision making abilities, your parenting, your political clout, your care for the earth?
How do you both pray through your intentions and your actions?
Sociologist and civil rights activist, W.E.B. Du Bois illustrated how prayer could be utilized “to comment on how the world “is” and to paint a picture of how it “should” and “could” be.”
I believe children should be able to go to school without the fear and risk of being murdered by someone wielding a semi-automatic assault rifle.
Therefore, what actions do I need to take to ensure that kind of reality?
How do I pray with my body to effect change? To move beyond my wishes and desires into making Love manifest in the world?
Also happening this week on a national scale, the US House of Representatives passed a bill weakening accessibility protections of the Americans with Disability Act.
House Bill 620 shifts the burden of providing access from businesses who are in violation of the ADA requirements to people with disabilities who aren’t able to access public spaces.
Folks denied access would have to wait up to six months before being allowed to take legal action for the noncompliance.
So for those six months, if you’re a person living with accessibility needs, you may have to skip that town hall meeting with your elected official at the local community college because you can’t access the space. The same town hall where members of the community get the opportunity to express their concerns regarding legislation that affects their lives.
Six months waiting for access to the grocery store or pharmacy. Six months waiting for access to public transportation, school, the doctor’s office, bathrooms.
The Americans with Disability Act was enacted in 1990.
I believe twenty-eight years is more than an adequate amount of time for compliance, and the passage of this bill in the House sends a disparaging message about the worth and dignity of people with disabilities.
So what am I doing to prayerfully respond to the alienation, pain, and fear my disabled siblings are experiencing right now? How am I praying through action to help avoid diminishment of their civil rights and accessibility? In what ways am I working toward inclusion and breaking down barriers so all can fully participate at the table?
In our own religious movement, we have the Unitarian Universalist Association Commission on Institutional Change, which was formed in August of last year and on which our own music director, DeReau Farrar, serves.
The commission was charged with “long-term cultural and institutional change that redeems the essential promise and ideals of Unitarian Universalism, in particular, analyzing structural racism and white supremacy within the UUA.”
As we Unitarian Universalists pray for the changes we need to make as a faith movement, as a racially and culturally diverse community, praying through action means we follow the lead of those calling for, among other things,
- accountability and transparency,
- promised funding for the Commission on Institutional Change and the staffing needed to do the work,
- support and funding for BLUU, (Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism)
- the use of our congregational resources to support the work of communities of color, and
- ongoing conversations and spiritual discernment regarding racism, white supremacy, and our roles in dismantling oppressive systems.
I urge you, if you’re not familiar with the work of the commission, to please look them up on the UUA website and read the Feb 10th statement in full.
Verbal thoughts and prayers are but one response to the lived reality of violence, oppression, discrimination, and pain in our world. Praying with your legs, as Rabbi Heschel described, is another way we live into our professed values and work to bring about the Beloved Community we so eagerly yearn for. Prayer through action. Loving with our deeds.
Whether you find prayerful time in silent meditation, community prayer, chanting, ecstatic dancing, centuries-old litanies, or focusing your energy on someone or some hope while you wash the evening dishes, I implore you to also imagine prayer as the action into which you put into being
the comfort you seek,
the wellness you wish for,
the justice you hope for,
the gratitude you celebrate.
Saint Teresa of Avila, Christian mystic and Carmelite nun from the 16th century, wrote:
“Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are (Christ’s) body.”
The flip side of the same coin is the reality that our actions alone, without prayer, are also hollow.
Without our desire toward Beloved Community,
without our intentions being set in a particular direction,
without Love leading and guiding what we do;
without these, our actions are curbed.
It’s not an either or proposition. Either we pray for more Love in the world or we lead with kindness and compassion, loving our neighbors as ourselves and working for justice. IT’S BOTH.
It’s through prayer where we connect deeply to the purpose behind our actions, to the imagination of how we want the world to be, how things should be and could be.
It’s through prayer that we ground ourselves in what we hold most dear and where we seek clarity and guidance and fortitude to move forward with action.
When the child falls off the bike, we don’t merely put a bandage on their knee; we offer some form of comfort and caring because we are committed to Love.
Each Sunday in this sanctuary, the minister or lay leader asks you, at least twice during the service, if you will pray with them. Tom asked you earlier after sharing our parish concerns, and I’ll invite you to join me in prayer at the conclusion of this sermon.
I want you to consider, when the worship leaders invite you to pray here, that we are inviting you into sending forth your intentions, going deeper spiritually, AND living out your values and prayers through action.
Alice Walker said, we carefully tend the hole in the garden of our hearts by growing a heart to fill it.
If we believe in Love, and I believe we do, then we hope; we pray; and we make it so.