“You ask me how to pray to someone who is not,” began our Responsive Reading this morning. And that is certainly one question that thinking about prayer can prompt. Is prayer begging a favor from someone or something, some power or force outside ourselves that might have the ability to grant that favor?
You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft…above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.
A velvet bridge that we walk even if the destination is uncertain…even if there is no other shore.
A warm and comforting path for our journey
Viewing beautiful landscapes below, suffused in the golden light
Of a constant sun.
A velvet bridge that we travel together.
I love that poem by Milosz. I wish it were true for me more often, that sense of ease and comfort. It sometimes is.
But it seems to me that what that poem promises…a path of ease and great beauty on which contradictions always reveal new truths and compassion flows out of us and toward us…It seems to me that that is a lot to ask any prayer to deliver.
Or to say it another way, my life has not always been like that and my prayer life, although it sustains me and…finally…centers me… the truth I find in my prayer life is often more hard-won and even hard-edged than that image of the velvet bridge suggests.
Theologian and mystic, Howard Thurman, in his book, Disciplines of the Spirit, describes a more complicated and, for me, familiar discipline.
“No one is ever free from the peculiar pressures of [their] lives. Each [of us] has to deal with the evil aspects of life, with injustices inflicted upon [us] and injustices which [we] wittingly or unwittingly inflict on others. We are all of us deeply involved in the throes of our own weaknesses and strengths… The only hope for surcease, the only possibility of stability for the person, is to establish an Island of Peace within one’s soul.”
An Island of Peace within one’s soul.
Thurman was born, in 1899, in one of a handful of exclusively African American towns in Florida. Perhaps it was growing up in that segregated but safe world that allowed him to trust his own worth and dignity later in his life. He founded the first intentionally interracial church in the United States, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, in San Francisco. I’ve preached in that pulpit. While serving as Dean of the Chapel at Boston University, Thurman mentored and companioned Martin Luther King, Jr. as King evolved his liberating theology and began to experiment with the language of Beloved Community that has become central to our own theology of hope.
Thurman spoke here…well, in Eliot Chapel… for the 100th Anniversary of this congregation in 1966. Though I never met him, he is one of my mentors.
An Island of Peace Within One’s Soul. From Thurman again:
“Here one brings for review the purposes and dreams to which one’s life is tied. This is the place where there is no pretense, no dishonesty, no adulteration. What passes over the threshold is simon-pure. What one really thinks and feels about one’s own life stands revealed; what one really thinks and feels about other people far and near is seen with every nuance honestly labeled: love is love, hate is hate, fear is fear.
Well within the island is the Temple where God dwells—not the God of creed, the church, the family, but the God of one’s heart.”
No pretense. No dishonesty. Love is love, hate is hate, fear is fear.
There is that quality of honesty that I value, that I sometimes find myself avoiding but that I trust most in my own prayer and my own spiritual life.
Most folks out in the world, and some of us here, understand prayer to make sense only if you believe there is a God, a presence, a something “out there” to pray to.
But even those of us like myself, who are comfortable with the language of God, have dark nights of the soul when we feel abandoned and alone; times of grief, or fear, or frustration with the injustice of the world, when its hard to have confidence that a loving spirit of life really moves in the world…or in our lives.
Most of us are agnostic at best. But even agnostics can pray.
Here is a famous one: Dear God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul. It’s a prayer that is a bit contingent, but still…
Prayer is, of course, only one spiritual practice that can help us keep centered. More than a few of us follow one of the several disciples of meditation, of quieting and emptying, especially from the Buddhist traditions. Some of us find connection and centering in more embodied practices like Tai Chi. Regular time spent in the natural world is a common spiritual practice.
One congregant described how just walking out her door and noticing the beauty and intricacy of a branch or a flower can take her to depth…to that Island of Peace. She spoke of surprise, of being caught off guard, “stopped in her tracks”… and reminded that the busy-ness of life is not all there is to life. Reminded that she wanted to live out of a deeper and more grounded place, not centered in ego and performance.
Some of you have engaged with our Wellspring program of spiritual deepening. Some of you are a part of Wellspring this year. That program asks each participant to engage in some regular spiritual discipline but it does not specific what that discipline is to be. We, each of us, need to find an approach, a practice that works for us.
There are many ways to find that center, to return to that Island of Peace, to remind ourselves that there is something beyond our individual selves, beyond our personal wishes and even our dreams… some Spirit of Life that moves in us but is not constrained by our consciousness or centered in our ego.
There is a humility that is part of prayer…and a letting go.
May Sarton, in The Journal of a Solitude, describes what she means by prayer:
“If one looks long enough at almost anything, looks with absolute attention at a flower, a stone, the bark of a tree, grass, snow, a cloud…something like revelation takes place. Something is ‘given’ and perhaps that something is always a reality outside the self. We are aware of God only when we cease to be aware of ourselves, not in the negative sense of denying self, but in the sense of losing self in admiration and joy.”
Does prayer work? Well, not in the sense of getting everything you wish for. Prayer is not like ordering a pizza and waiting for it to be delivered.
Prayer is a process not an outcome. It is far more verb than noun.
And in my own experience, prayer may not change anything outside my self…but it can change me. Prayers may not work in the world, but they most certainly can work in me.
For those of you with a regular spiritual practice…whether that is prayer or some other, I am probably preaching to the choir.
For others of us, the only way to learn about prayer is to experience prayer.
Every week, you are invited to light a candle or to leave a prayer intention, a request for prayer that our ministers and lay ministers “hold” during the week.
In fact, we use that term “to hold” often in this congregation.
After every sorrow that is named in parish concerns, we say that we “hold” the person or family that is struggling or fearing or grieving.
There is a story, told by Rev. Bill Neely:
“The brown box was heavily taped,
Safe for shipping far away,
Happy Birthday shakily written
In black magic marker on top.
He shuffled to the counter,
Box gingerly in hand,
He slowly set it down,
And lifted his worn, warm eyes.
She was rushed.
Long line. Slow hours.
Impatient crowd. …
She had just tossed a package in a bin,
And had turned toward him ready to repeat.
She saw age in his eyes,
Tremors in his hands,
Love in his box,
Joy in his gift.
She slowed, asked, Is it fragile?
No, it’s a doll for my granddaughter.
I’ll bet its pretty.
I hope she likes it. She’s a little old.
I’m sure she will.
She smoothed the postage on top,
Away from Happy Birthday,
Gingerly carried it to a bin,
And softly set it down.
She held his gift with tender hands,
While we waited and watched,
Wishing to be held in the same,
Wanting to hold in the same.”
We hold one another in this community. We hold one another in care.
An index card was attached to your order of service. I am going to invite you to take a moment in silence now, and to write, on that index card, your prayer request this morning. How would you like to be held this morning? What prayerful thought would you like to be sent your way?
Where could you use a good intention.
After the service, the ushers will be at the doors to receive those cards. Just put your card in the basket.
And take another with the request for prayer from another person.
This afternoon, when you have a quiet moment, take the card out and read the request…be present to its honesty and the invitation that request offers to reach out in spirit… and, in whatever way you feel, through whatever practice you follow, pray for that person. Hold that person in your care.
Please share pens or pencils. The ushers will also have additional cards if you misplaced yours. Just raise your hand.
We engaged in this practice of holding each other in prayer once last year and many of you urged that we do this regularly. This is one way we embody the Beloved Community.
Let us take a moment now to write our requests for prayer.
“This is how we are called:
to cup hands and hold
even when the sirens begin
even when sorrow cries out, old and gnarled,
even when words grow fangs and rend.
Gently open …
Like the golden hollow of a singing bowl,
Like the towering rim of mountains
This mist-draped valley.”
Held with care.
Will you pray with me now?
Spirit of Life and of Love. Great mystery.
God of honesty. God of comfort. God of hope.
In the silent sanctuaries of our hearts
We speak the truth of our lives
We speak that truth and hope that someone hears
Hope that at least we can hear our truth.
We speak out of and into that Island of Peace
Where we know our center
and feel the Ground of Being firm beneath our feet.
We speak the truth of our lives.
We yearn to be known and to be loved for who
We truly are:
Forgiven for our frailties,
Supported in our strength,
Embraced in our love.
We are not aliens, strangers in a strange land.
There are no passengers on planet earth.
We are all crew.
This life is ours to inhabit.
We hold ourselves with honesty
But we also hold ourselves with tender care
And we reach out to hold one another
In the same.
So may it be. Amen