What I've Learned About Prayer So Far

A Sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove, co-minister
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

– January 6, 2002 –

(follows "By the Waters of Babylon" #279
and Gathered Here #389

"Captive in a foreign place, we exiles weep and remember our homeland."

This is a strong sentiment of longing–for a return to the familiar and meaningful.

"Gathered here, in mystery, in community, with struggles & power. Spirit, draw near."

This is also a sentiment of longing–for an awareness of that which gathers and unifies us: "Spirit, draw near & help us understand our place together, our mutual destiny."

Another song we sometimes sing to close ritual occasions is: "Listen, listen, listen to my heart's song. I will never forget you, I will never forsake you."

Again, longing–for deep relationship: a sustaining, abiding connection.

And one more that we sang a number of times soon after Sept. 11 and still: "Imagine all the people, living life in peace…"

This is a widely shared vision of global harmony, a longing that is challenged and deepened by the ongoing realities of war and violence.

I highlight the sentiment of longing expressed in these songs because I've come to understand that this is one essence of prayer: longing, yearning, hoping. These songs and many others are prayers, really, expressing hope for some desired change: relief, recovery, growth in awareness, greater connection, more peace, etc. Prayers often articulate longing.

As someone who was raised in a very humanist UU setting, I have never been inclined toward what generally counts as prayer, and I believe that life is perfectly valid without such activity. AND I’ve been around a lot of fine people (including my wife and co-minister Barbara) who have shown me that there are many other dimensions to this complicated field of prayer, many less-than-traditional angles that can bring great value to the art of living an intentional life, one that is open to experiencing a full spectrum of possibilities. Musical prayers have been the most obvious example of this for me.

I also find the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness to be a process akin to prayer, although utilizing very different intention and content. Breath meditations, for instance, create a centered peacefulness that can also be found in the afterglow of some prayer, but longing is not a feature of mindfulness at all. In fact, in mindful meditations one usually stays very conscious of the present moment and tries to release all attachments to the past or future. Nonetheless, a mindfulness practice carries, for me, some of the same power as prayer does for others, at least as I’ve come to understand both.

And I wish to continue learning about prayer, so today I offer some of what I’ve figured out, so far. There are numerous scholarly works on the many types and methods of prayer, so my reflections here are less instructional and more personal, more about how I have come to acknowledge and understand some kinds of prayer as a deepening force that emerges from very human and humane sources, such as the experience of longing.

Although certainly there are also plenty of traditional prayers that I find distasteful and irrelevant, that make arrogant assumptions about who’s listening and often ask for what I think are unreasonable, even irresponsible results. I can accept that such prayer might be helpful to its practitioners, but it alienates me.

I especially do not value or appreciate prayers such as were inflicted upon the country at the Presidential Inauguration ceremony a year ago. Maybe you recall how narrow and sectarian both the open and closing prayers were at that event. It was outrageous and many interfaith voices (including mine) complained vehemently. Self-righteous and near-sighted moments like that give all prayer a bad name, and I’m thankful that there are plenty of mainstream religious leaders around who do not pander to such exclusiveness.

Let me also say up front that the power of prayer to help people focus is notable not just for the good it might do. My life was changed forever one day when I saw a billboard that read, "Worrying is praying for what you don't want." I’ve drawn upon that short sentence of wisdom many times since then. Think about it: "Worrying is praying for what you don't want." This is a backhand acknowledgement that prayer is indeed about longing, yearning for change, but it can be equally addressed–if inadvertently–to what we fear, when we pay too much attention to what might possibly befall us.

Yes, prayer can be about longing for something, sometimes for yourself, but also often with others in mind. I’m not sure I agree with the extreme definition offered by W. H. Auden, that "to pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself." But this is still a helpful reminder about our natural tendency to self-absorb. Sometimes I think it is fine and even important to attend to one’s own needs, and prayer can help renew one’s inner strength. Prayer can also draw us toward a bigger picture: the larger context of what holds us and our essentially small dilemmas (that nonetheless loom large in our view).

As you probably know, the traditional form of prayer uses a theistic model for that larger context. (It is some sort of god that holds us.) Language that is more inclusive can disguise this ultimate message, but only thinly. Those of us who prefer different language to describe what is holy can definitely feel excluded from such otherwise meaningful moments.

But I’ve been moved to find a posture that doesn’t get so easily excluded. Perhaps it’s my interest in building common ground among varying faith traditions. Prayer is so often a part of such interfaith gatherings, that if I were to get offended by everything I heard that I didn’t believe in, I wouldn’t stick around for much at all. And then I wouldn’t have a place at the table, let alone the ears of any others who might value my UU perspective.

So what has become most important to me, in dancing with prayer, is to appreciate it as an effort to articulate a relationship to some larger context. The effort is what matters to me, and I can value almost any attempt to align oneself with the grand mystery of existence (i.e., that which is greater than the sum of all our parts).

To my mind, there just ain’t enough acknowledgement of our fundamental interdependence within a larger context, so I’m willing to go maybe further than halfway to translate prayers for my own ears, as long as I sense that someone’s intention is to somehow honor the mystery, even if they use names that don’t work for me.

I find that often when I’m experiencing well-meaning prayer that might still use language I can’t relate to, I can at least be thankful that, for a moment, we have paused to breathe deep into the mystery. Yes, I may have to adapt some of the wording used to describe that mystery–that is my burden, I guess, and I accept it. But with this posture, I find it gets easier and easier to relax into the larger, human meaning of what most prayer is about, and postpone my theological arguments. Moments when any group of people pause to breathe deep into the mystery are precious; I can find another time to delve into semantics.

Speaking of being thankful, that’s another essence of prayer that is important to me: thankfulness. In much praying, one assumes a humble poster of gratitude and appreciation. I’d say I'm in league with the medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, who’s quoted as saying: "If the only prayer you say in your whole life is Thank You, that would suffice."

This may be the essence of why the holiday of Thanksgiving is so universally celebrated (on this continent, at least). Interfaith services around Thanksgiving are usually grounded in very inclusive prayers of appreciation. At such times, we very much "pay attention to something or someone other than" ourselves. We express gratitude galore, often in the form of prayer. I, personally, do not send prayers of thanksgiving in any particular direction; it is a posture of appreciation that I aim for–especially gratitude for the abundance of life that emerges from the mystery of existence.

I don’t choose to call that mystery God, with all the name’s attendant baggage, but I can accept that some people might. I can disagree with the theological implications of someone’s use of language and still value what their goal is, if it’s essentially an expression of longing or gratitude. I know what it is to long for change, and I try to fold thankfulness into every step I take, so I can identify with and appreciate those motives, even if I have to feel my way past some of the actual language.

Certainly, traditional petitionary prayers are about longing, usually asking, petitioning a deity for a desired, often specific outcome, sometimes bargaining in exchange. A classic, if simplistic example of this would be: "Oh God, if you get me out of this fix I’ll… I’ll… I'll go to church more regularly."

For many folk, prayers are an attempt at a two-way interaction, asking for some intervention from a more powerful force that they believe has some control over things. I can't speak for this style of prayer but I can see how it inspires a deeper listening for answers to the questions, or ways to satisfy the longing.

It's still hard to imagine actual results from petitionary prayer, as if there were "a capricious God out there, to be cajoled by teams of prayer warriors" [C.L.]. Nonetheless, I have come to respect the power of belief, the power of longing, even as I might question the efficacy of expecting a response, per se. But then, even the supreme Christian evangelist Billy Graham finds that there are limits. "The only time my prayers are never answered," he once said," is on the golf course."

In my very humanist UU upbringing, prayer was not an activity I was taught in any way, shape or form. It's one of those loaded religious words that my parents rejected, and they threw out the activity with the word–maybe not the being thankful part, but the longing aspect. My home church seemed like an almost entirely intellectual endeavor, built around plenty of social time, of course.

So I got the message quite clearly that prayer was not for us–any prayer. But there was no substitute activity, no redrawing of the process, just a void. And I think I suffered without any training in how to express my longings, my yearnings, my need to build relationship with a greater context that acknowledged life, the universe and everything. My young adult years were a blurry confusion of identity crises–inner and outer. I didn’t recognize my longings as such and came close to some destructive edges. I had no centering outlets, no practices of humble thanksgiving, no guiding or comforting rituals.

I invite you to consider my experience and testimony as you active parents out there model for your young UUs how to relate to the larger aspects of life and living. If you do not pray with them, per se, do you provide some kind of outlet for the growth of their natural awe and wonder at things which are not in their control? Do you express your own longings in ways they can learn from? Are you demonstrably thankful with them, in ways they will remember and adapt for their own paths?

During the holiday season just past, during this time of New Year resolutions, and certainly in the aftermath of Sept. 11, we all are perhaps more inclined to notice our yearnings and our gratitudes. But do we do more than just notice them? Prayer, in whatever form it might take, can be a helpful process in this regard. Twentieth Century UU theologian James Luther Adams described prayer as "a technology for access to our depths." Wow, that’s an intriguing notion: prayer as a kind of personal technology.

As an adult, I've been attracted to Buddhist teachings, perhaps because they also seem to help me access my depths. But they generally stress the release of all desire, all grasping. They advocate a disciplined path of freedom from longing & yearning. That sounds good to me, but then I’m reminded of what the instructor at a UU clergy spiritual retreat said "our longings are the most holy part of us." Hmmm, another intriguing notion: "Our longings are the most holy part of us." I’ll have to meditate more on that.

I admire people with an active prayer or meditation life, whatever their philosophy about it, however ambitious they might be for outcomes. Chances are, it's doing them–you–some good, because praying is about being intentional. It’s like saying "OK, Universe, this is a moment I'm taking to be aware." In prayer, you take a moment to become keenly aware of your own life, or someone else's.

It may not be coincidental that the words prayer and aware sound alike. Prayer that centers us and focuses our attention makes us more aware. More awareness usually brings more meaning into our lives. I understand prayer to be a posture: of heartfelt longing and/or gratitude. ‘Heart-felt’ is a lot–enough, really. I do believe that if you really feel what's in your heart, changes will happen. UU minister Lon Ray Call said it well: "Prayer doesn't change things. Prayer changes people and people change things."

This is perhaps part of what we attempt in our moments of sharing Joys and Sorrows together here, as we will again very soon. In those moments, I generally hear many of what could be called prayer requests, symbolized by candles lit in hope, yearning, gratitude. These sharings are good community medicine, with little or no questionable side effects. This year, Barbara and Jennifer Brooks (our ministerial intern) and I decided to close the sharing portions of our services with a pause for prayerful acknowledgement of our full and interwoven humanness.

It seems that at this point in the evolution of our consciousness, we're discovering just how much power our awareness, our intention really has. What we think about and focus on has a way of rising in reality. It’s not guaranteed, certainly, and we may disagree on why, but I, for one, am staying open to possibilities. Yes, it's not entirely scientific–yet, anyway. But I believe in–my faith is in our ability to be ever more deeply aware of the universe and the universal fabric of life, and how our own individual garments have been woven out of a whole cloth.

Reaching and activating this kind of awareness of our interconnectedness is demanding, exciting–revolutionary even–in the face of a culture that seeks to separate, divide and minimize us. But faith-full religion is often aligned against the status quo. Prayer can be a radical activity–‘radical’ meaning ‘of the root or source.’

In seeking ever greater awareness of the true, unified nature of life–which is the root of our existence–we pray for greater connection, greater healing, greater understanding, as we acknowledge our longings and gratitudes.

Often it’s not a rational exercise, this yearning; which is why songs can work well as prayers. Our longings are not always fit for talk anyway. Better to sing them. Music touches us in ways that discourse can't; it's especially good at carrying prayers. Think of the most powerful songs you know. Might they, in fact, be prayers? Listen to one of the most powerful songs I know, spoken rather than sung, for this moment:

Spirit of Life, come unto me. Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion. Blow in the wind, rise in the sea, move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice. Roots hold me close, wings set me free, Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.

This is a prayer full of yearning, longing for a balanced connection with the Spirit of Life. We’ll get to sing it together later, of course. The moments in my life when I have felt most deeply involved in prayer have often had musical foundations, musical inspirations, musical vessels. "Spirit of Life, sing in my heart!"

Music and singing are another soft "technology for access to our depths." For songs can often embody our most prayerful sentiments. Let me close now with another such piece, written my our UU colleague, John Corrado:

Voice Still and Small (#391)

Closing Words

As we stand together and feel the pulse of life course among us, let us be thankful for this day and these people.

May we, gathered here in mystery and unity, share an intention to live fully, breathing deeply into each moment, finding more love in ourselves and each other.

May we, gathered here in struggle and power, remember to listen for that voice still and small inside all of us that reminds us to look for more hope, everywhere.

And now, let us give voice to the Spirit of Life singing in our hearts.. (#123)

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