“Its me, its me, its me, Oh, Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer.”
Prayer is one of “those” words. Powerful for many. Problematic for just as many more.
Who are we praying to? What do we expect to happen? Can’t we just call it meditation?
What do we mean by prayer? We well-educated, lovers of learning who would prefer answers and facts, not mystery. What do we mean?
More importantly, what does…or can…prayer mean to us, in our lives and in our living?
Rev. Susan Manker-Seale captured part of the tension around prayer in her piece entitled: “For those who pray and those who don’t:”
“For those who believe in some ultimate power that listens and can affect the world,
And for those who believe that it is only through the power and love of our own hearts [and hands] that we make a difference,
within each of our hearts is a yearning, a yearning for something better for ourselves, for each other, for the world.
That is our prayer.”
Prayer is often that, I believe…expressing our yearning for something better.
And that neutral language, free of most religious connotation…well, that may open a welcome window on prayer for some of us.
“A yearning for something better.”
“Something better.” That can sound like more of a surface wish. The prosperity gospel that more money, more cars, more possessions will come your way is not our path… Prayer, for me, is not about possessions, but about possessing or inhabiting your life is ways that point to love.
Prayer points to a deeper place.
Yearning comes closer. “Yearning” acknowledges that we are works in process and not in complete control. “Yearning” makes room for sadness and grief in the face of illness and evil and even death. “Yearning” takes us from the head to the heart.
Kate Braestrup is a UU community minister, and chaplain to the State of Maine’s Warden Service…the forest rangers. Early in her book, Beginner’s Grace, she speaks of the need to quiet the “monkey mind” in order to get to a space where prayer is possible:
“I was of two minds about prayer—correction: I was of more than two minds. I had a whole crowd inside my skull, all jabbering away and no one listening.
‘Do I have to kneel? Why can’t I pray just as well in the shower? Is there anyone to pray to other than the anachronistic God of oily televangelists and creeps? … What do I do with my hands…”
I do not want to minimize the theological questions in the consideration of prayer. The question of who is listening and what we want to happen as a result of prayer are good and real questions.
I have engaged those questions with more than a few of you.
But I cannot convince you about the value of prayer.
Because prayer is a practice. Its benefit cannot be proven…only experienced.
I described my own practice of prayer last week. What I didn’t say last week is that I developed that practice of prayer, of sitting with my best questions and waiting for answers, in church… in a Unitarian Universalist church to be specific.
I was in my mid-thirties, with two young children, and a struggling business to run. I felt responsible for my family and my employees. And it felt like there was someone wanting something from me…all the time. Some of you know that feeling today. Your life may feel like that. Many of you may remember it.
Now, I was a committed atheist at that time. I didn’t believe any God existed…and, more importantly, didn’t believe I needed any God.
But I found that I needed Church. Not for the sermons, very few of which I remember. The music was fine but that was not why I came week after week.
What I needed was that 60-90 second period of silence…after the spoken meditation. When I could be with myself in honesty…often in sadness…sometimes in fear…without having to respond to anyone, other than myself. It was the only time in my week that I could count on being just for me.
One of you confessed to me earlier this year that the part of Sunday morning that she looked forward to most was that period of silence. It is a remarkable time in our worship, when the sanctuary quiets and our individual silences somehow join together.
She was, I think, a bit embarrassed, though. She couldn’t know that long before I became a minister, silence is what kept me coming to church and eventually drew me in.
Theologian Howard Thurman writes:
“How good to center down!
To sit quietly and see one’s self pass by!
The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic;
Our spirits resound with clashings, with noisy silences…
As we listen, floating up through all the jangling echoes of
Our turbulence, there is a sound of another kind—
A deeper note which only the stillness of the heart
For a long time, especially once I went to divinity school, I was reluctant to acknowledge that my prayer life consisted of those few seconds…once a week.
Until I realized that I already had developed a prayer practice of sitting and listening every morning. Once I began thinking of that time as my prayer time, I was able to approach it more intentionally and came to expect more and receive morefrom it.
How good it is to center down.
Many of you, I know, have well established spiritual practices, and there is quite a range…meditation, Tai Chi, yoga, walking in nature as a discipline…all of these are approaches to center and deepen and be present to that yearning for something better…in ourselves and in our world.
I want to affirm that any of those practices and even those few moments of silence we practice here can qualify as prayer if they help you get through the week.
I have, of course, been talking about prayer that is individual and individually focused.
There is also collective prayer, prayer in community and I want to offer a few reflections on that kind of prayer this morning as well.
Because this was a church that prayed long before I arrived.
Every week, you are invited to light a candle in one of the side galleries and many of you do. Some before the service. Some after. There are Sundays when all the candles in the racks are lit.
We also invite you to leave a prayer request or “intention” in the urns. It might interest you to know that those urns and the invitation to leave requests for prayer were the idea of one of our intern ministers…about 20 years ago.
We say that those prayer requests or intentions are “held” by the ministers and lay ministers during the week.
What does it mean to “hold” a prayer request?
Let me tell you what happens.
After each service, one of our lay ministers collects those requests for prayers and incorporates them into a document which is sent around…by email I confess…to all the lay ministers and the ordained ministers. The requests are recorded exactly as written. Sometimes the requests are not complete or completely readable…people are often emotional when they write them. All the words that can be understood are included. Some requests include names. Most do not.
Each of us, the ministers and lay ministers, read and think about each request, what it means or might mean, what pain or loss is being experienced, what joy we are asked to celebrate…
At least in my case, I try to take some time with each one. And send my positive energy and my love in response.
I come back to these requests several times during the week. I “hold” them in my heart. We do this every week.
Those of you who have spent anytime in the ecumenical or interfaith world, know that it is not uncommon for groups to be asked to pray for one another.
This would be a challenge for many of us. Imagine being asked to gather with the two or three folks nearest you and to…pray for each other. Not in general but in specific. To pray for Sarah and Billy and Emily…specifically…and out loud.
Our lay ministers did this, prayed for one another, on their retreat last weekend.
Relax. I am not going to ask you to get in small circles and pray like that this morning.
But I am going to invite you to try something, inspired by Rev. Daniel Kantor of our Dallas church.
When you came into the sanctuary, the ushers gave you an index card. In a moment, I am going to ask you to write down a request for prayer on that card.
It can be a request for prayer for you or for someone you know who could use some support. It could be for a member of your family or a friend who is struggling right now, or someone close to you who has just had a success. Try to keep this as personal as you can, but don’t put your name on the card. That is not necessary.
After the service, when you leave the sanctuary, the ushers will be in the lobby and at the stairwells upstairs with baskets.
I want you to place your card in one of the baskets. And I want you to take another card, with a prayer request written by another congregant out of the basket. And this afternoon or this evening, I want you to “hold” that person’s request and offer what prayer you can as requested by the person who wrote that card.
You will be “holding” that prayer request just as the ministers and lay ministers hold the requests that are left every week.
Take a minute now to write your prayer request. Share pencils and pens as you need to. Be thoughtful in your writing and then in your receiving of someone else’s request.
If you are with us on-line, you can send your prayer request to email@example.com and it will be held by our ministers this week.
I think most of us are finished.
I have one final request. I would love to hear your experience of this. If you are willing, send me an e-mail or drop me a note and describe how this experience was for you, what you felt, what you learned…
I wanted to make this sermon on prayer quite specific and concrete. My hope is that this exercise will strengthen the bonds of community for us all.
I think there are times when we all, each and every one of us, are in the need of prayer.
A central part of what it means to be part of this community is that we need not struggle, we need not celebrate, we need not grieve, we need not travel alone.