Will You Pray With Me?

Most weeks as part of parish concerns people are invited to write down their prayer requests to be held by the ministers and lay ministers of this church. Those requests offer a glimpse of what all of us are carrying as we gather here in community every Sunday.
Prayers for love and comfort for a loved one living with cancer.
Prayers as someone discerns whether to move to be with a person she loves or stay here and give up that relationship.
Prayers that suffering might be lessened for person with a terminal illness.
Prayers to help person who is very discouraged about finding work.
Prayers for patience and love from my child who lives with mental illness.
Prayers for one paralyzed by depression and thoughts of suicide.
Prayers for a fast recovery from knee replacement surgery.
Prayers asking for justice as another African American man dies at the hands of police.
Prayers for peace in our world.
Prayers for our country during this election season.
The prayer requests run the gambit most weeks. For me they are reminders of what I know many people carry with them from week to week. They are expressions of the burdens we carry, the fears we live with, of the many things we have to be thankful for. They are expressions of how we reach out in our own times of need. They express ways we hope to grow and change.
Talking about prayer in a Unitarian Universalist church can be a challenging topic. I recall that in one of our area congregations there was a discussion about whether prayers should even be allowed in their services. Just didn’t belong in one of our churches. Some visitors are sometimes surprised to note that we have not one but two places in the Sunday liturgy where we pray.
Some have told me that they look forward to those words more than just about any other every Sunday when we are together in church. Others have said that they grit their teeth when asked to pray. After all, what does prayer mean in a congregation where probably a majority of folks identify as humanists, many atheists and agnostics? Don’t prayers have to be to something or someone? Just doesn’t make sense.
So here we are.
Some of us came to know prayer in childhood. I certainly did and it was important to me. I remember saying prayers before bedtime. I remember sitting in church and focusing hard as I could as prayers were said there. The more I concentrated the more effective they might be. These were most often prayers of petition. God give me this. God make me better. God…. Of course god was the male with a white beard up there somewhere who took it all in and gave a thumbs up or a thumbs down to the petition.
As I got older and as I came to be more questioning about all kinds of issues related to the church and about god, I wasn’t quite sure what to do about prayer. But I can tell you that some of those patterns of petition were—and still are—pretty ingrained.
Now I can tell you that I pray every day. It is an important part of my own spiritual practice. Now it is not at all the kind of prayer that was once important to me.
In a poem called the Summer Day, Mary Oliver says:
“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed…”
Perhaps it is that act of paying attention that best describes what prayer is about for me these days. Prayer is space that I try to make in my life where I can call up the things that are on my mind, in my heart. It is a time for me to pay attention to what is stirring. It may be an issue in my life that I’m trying to figure out. It may be a struggle I’m having… maybe around forgiveness or letting go. It may be calling to mind a loved one I’m thinking about. It may be calling to mind some of you and struggles you are having.
There is a direction and intention. What I might call something larger than myself, what I might call god… and awareness that I am part of some whole.
It is first of all a time when I try to recognize my connection with life—its struggles and its gifts. When I am not sure how to begin I start with gratitude… calling into my consciousness the blessings in my life. But it is also the place where I try to name my struggles. Maybe it is someone I’m in some kind of conflict with. Maybe I just can’t let something go. It is a space to hold those in my life who are struggling. When I say I will pray for someone I try to do that.
It is not that I say a prayer and all is made right. But what may change is the way I see it. In holding that intention I may find that my heart opens, that I’m offered a new perspective. I should note here that for me, prayer is different from meditation. If in meditation I try to be open to what stirs, prayer is more active, I am naming the intentions in my heart. At least that is a distinction that I make between the two practices.
One of you wrote to me last week and offered a reflection on how the meaning of prayer has changed over time.
Growing up Presbyterian, Mary’s early prayers were ones recitations of requests and needs. She always concluded the prayer with “in Jesus’ name.” That, she said, was important to legitimize the prayer.
But then one day in this church a thought came to her: “I can visualize holding the person or need in my heart and that visualization can be prayer. It makes the prayer more visceral and heart-centered rather than verbal and head-centered. This shift has allowed me to be more spontaneous – in the moment, I can focus on the person and hold them in my heart.
She continued, “This has also shifted God out of some of my prayers. (I wasn’t even aware of this implication, that my prayer had become Godless, until I pondered communicating this shift. But, this feels empowering to me – I, too, carry the Holy within.)
She reflects that drawing prayer into her heart and out of my head has really nourished her, allowed prayer to be spontaneous, helped her heart to flourish, made prayer easier to do and to access.
This is how theologian Frederick Buechner describes prayer:
“The odd silence you fall into when something very beautiful is happening or something very good or very bad. The ah-h-h! that sometimes floats up out of you as out of a Fourth of July crowd when the sky-rocket bursts over the water. The stammer of pain at somebody else’s pain. The stammer of joy at somebody else’s joy. Whatever words or sounds you use for sighing over your own life. These are all prayers.”
I think that for me at least the impulse to pray almost feels primal. When I look back on my life it has always been there. It may not always be called prayer, but it is a kind of reaching out when we don’t know where else to reach. When we get into a tough spot, we may not know what else to do. It is in those moments when we feel isolated from the world that we are most in need of reaching out. It is a need to connect, to connect with something larger, however we might describe it. We search for that connection and we search to find what matters most to us.
Perhaps the central spiritual task is seeing ourselves in relationship with the world, with something larger than ourselves. Call that god, call that spirit. call the beloved, call that community, call that our highest intentions. Prayer is making a space to name what it is we are holding , to name what it is we are seeking. To first of all ask the right questions.
Elie Wiesel tells the story of a young boy in a small East European town in 1941. One day the combination town fool and wise man, Moche, approaches him as he is praying.
“Why do you pray?”” he asked the young boy.
“I don’t know why,” the boy said.
“And why do you pray, Moche?” the young boy asked him.
“I pray to the God within me (to) give me the strength to ask … the right questions.”
Prayer is not so much about how god responds, but it is more about our own response. In the voicing of prayer, we get closer to what is most important. In the voicing, we are asking the questions and hope that we might get closer to some kind of answer. The important part is not so much where they go or what the answer might be as it is what we do with what comes to us.
It is sitting with what is stirring in us. What is most important is the door that opens up when we allow ourselves to ask the questions.
Prayer is perhaps a way of moving into what we face in life. It is a way of giving ourselves to what we might not understand. It is a way that we reach out and in that reaching out discover that we are not alone. That in our pain we can reach out for something and in the reaching out find connection. It changes how it is we see any given situation.
It has been said that prayer doesn’t change the circumstances we find ourselves in, but it changes us and how we are with what is happening in our lives. And that, I think, is true. We come to see ourselves in some new way in relationship with the mystery. We come to an awareness that our intentions are connected to something larger outside of ourselves.
Writer Sharon Salzberg tells the story of being at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, also known as the Wailing Wall, considered to be one of the holiest sites in Judiasm. The custom is to write a prayer on a piece of paper and place the paper in a crack in the wall.
Salzberg writes that she went one day and wrote down her prayers. She did not address them to some supreme being, but asking for loving kindness for her friends who were sick, for her friends who had parents dying, and so on, and then put the paper in the cracks in the wall.
She went back the next day and did not know if she would be able to find her paper in the wall. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people come and place intentions there every day. But she did find it and was very pleased.
She went back the next day to check again and this time she was not sure if her intention was on the wall or not. She left feeling a little disheartened.
The fourth day she went back and it was clear she was not going to be able to tell whether her paper was there or not. She had no idea what actually happened to her prayers.
She found herself fixated with the fact that she could not see her piece of paper. And then she has a realization. She looked at the hundreds of other pieces of paper up on the wall and she realized that it really didn’t matter if her prayer was still up there. Her prayer was part of all the prayers that were on the wall. In a moment she understands that it didn’t matter what was up there as much as the fact that her prayer was part of a universal prayer.
What she figured out was that each intention expressed someone’s own version of the universal. On the wall were prayers for love and compassion, for peace and healing and hope. No matter what the particulars on each piece of paper, they actually all said much the same thing. As we are connected together, our prayers are connected together and we come to speak in a language that transcends boundaries.
On any given Sunday there are many prayers brought to this space. Prayers of healing, prayers for wisdom, prayers for peace, prayers for compassion, prayers of thankfulness. And we bring those prayers in our own words born out of our particular ways of being in relationship to the world. And the communal prayers are a way of naming the intentions we hold as a community that comes together.
We are reminded that we are part of how the world moves and changes every day. As we are moved and changed, so is the world, so is god. It is an on-going conversation. If I can life prayerfully, I am taken out of myself in a way that I am more aware of my own connection with all around me. My pain is also the pain of the world. My joy is also connected to the joy present in the world. It helps me to have some better perspective on where I am in the world. I know that this is where I am and where I am supposed to be.
These are times that ask much of us, friends. We are asked to make sense of a world that at times seems so full of brokenness. We are asked to make sense of racism and poverty, of a world so full of war. We are asked to make sense of a world that asks us to see the world through what separates us, not what we share.
Yes, these are times that ask much of us. In our praying, in our striving, in our struggling, may we first recognize how we are together. May we recognize how our prayers are part of a much larger prayer. May that awareness ground us as we find our way, day by day by day, in this world. Amen.
Spirit of life, god of mystery and wonder, of beauty and of brokenness, be with us all the days of our lives. Help us to bring all the stuff of our lives to you, that we might be changed, that we might be opened to possibility. Hear us, that we might be better able to hear others. Open us always to grow, in love in hope, in understanding. Amen.
As you go into the rest of this day, as you go into this coming week, pray without ceasing, good people. And in your praying, may you know love. In your praying may you know hope. Amen.

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