In one of my early jobs when I was a young adult, I had a co-worker who always liked to engage me in philosophical and religious debates. You know the type of person, the one who not matter what you say feels obligated to take the opposite position (Although that was possibly me as well during those conversations). Well when the topic came to the existence of God, he would say there are no atheist in foxholes. Everybody is praying to someone. Never having been in foxhole myself, I couldn’t verify his statement with personal experience.
But I have had a few life threatening experiences in my lifetime, and I admit that I prayed the same prayer that St. Augustine of Hippo prayed to his God when he prayed about being celibate, he said Lord, just not yet, not yet. So I know I am going to die sometime, but just not yet. This would be a petitionary prayer, asking for something in this case from some childhood notion of an anthropomorphic God. Often this comes in a time of deep need and helplessness. It comes when we are at the end of our rope. It is often an act of submission. a realization that we are not in control of all things in our world.
An acceptance that although as I used to say, I am captain of my ship, master of my fate, as I have learned, I cant control the sea, or the rain, or the wind, and so although I can set the direction of my life, there are unexpected events, some bad, some good, that we need to be open to and adapt to them. Because even if I am Captain of my Ship, there is an old saying the Captain goes down with the ship!! So perhaps praying for something is the realization and acceptance within ourselves that we are fallible, that we need help from others, that we are interdependent with all of existence. It is about acknowledging in our lives the presence of something other than just ourselves in the universe. But such a petitionary prayer is often used for others as well. Hoping someone else gets well. As the Norman Vincent Peale quote in your order of service says, “When you pray for anyone, you tend to modify your personal attitude toward them.” It is a reminder, a touchstone, an intention of your caring for someone other than yourself. It makes that person and the concept of caring present in your mind And caring about and thinking about others helps us as well. I think this is what Jesus was pointing to when he said, Love you neighbor as yourself. If we care for ourselves, mentally, spiritually, physically, if we love ourselves, it will lead us to loving others. And conversely if we love and care for others it will lead to loving ourselves. You don’t have to pray to someone, you just have to pray for someone.
Growing up in the Jewish Tradition, I learned certain prayers by rote. After repeating them every week for over 10 years, I can still remember many of them today. (Chant the Sh’ma in Hebrew) Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is One. A Unitarian message of oneness if I ever heard one. Now this prayer has no personal meaning to me anymore. Although I do catch myself humming the chanting sound every now and then without words. Some of that is just comfort of childhood memory of days gone by. But I think that is the point and one of the benefits of memorized or repetitive prayer. It gives us comfort. It gives us something to hold on to in times of despair, when no words can come forward we have some words. Sometimes when the world is swirling around us, we just need to slow things down, and prayer can help us do that and that comfort us. Meditation is another form of prayer that can help us slow things down. It is often said that praying is sending out our aspirations and desires to the universe and meditation is listening to the Universe.
I do consider meditation to be a type of prayer. I have for a long time had a personal meditation practice. The Goal of meditation for me is to quiet the mind, and increase focus. I am ecletic in my meditation practice. I usually focus on my breath. But for anyone who has tried to meditate, you will know it is very easy and natural to let your mind wander from the breath. This is not new to us in the modern world. Throughout history this has been a challenge, which is why many meditation practices include repeating a mantra or a word, or counting each breath up to the number ten as techniques to calm the mind.
Our mind is busy with inputs from so many different parts of life, that we often don’t stop to hear not only what our head is telling us, but what our heart is telling us. We are so often so busy responding instinctively to the stimuli around us that we forget or are not conscious about what is or could be giving meaning to our life. So I ask you right now to just stop, stop for one second and consciously take a breath. Take a deep breath. Think about what is meaningful or what could be meaningful in your life. (time for breathing) The ultimate goal of meditation, or any type of prayer is to make us more aware in life. Even when we are sitting in silence, we will hear the wind blow, we will hear the dog bark. (story of dog licking face) The goal of being more aware is so that when one is not meditating, you will maintain this same level of awareness. You will be aware when someone’s attitude or energy is waning, you will notice and be conscious of how you respond to people. As opposed to merely being reactive, you can train yourself be mindful. But it takes work.
There is also a prayer practice called confessional prayer, or contemplative prayer. This is when we look within and discern our own actions, or as the Ancient Greek aphorism goes "Know thyself" This could be through deep thought contemplating on writings, journaling, spiritual direction, connection circles, or therapy. I have done all of these myself as a way to better understand what drives me and what gives my life meaning and what I find sacred in the world. And once we find meaning in our life it should lead us to action. Prayer or meditation should never be an end unto itself. It should bring us comfort that lets us go on with our day, it should bring us awareness so that our actions in the world should be mindful, and lastly it should bring courage to face the road ahead and the work that still must be done to create our beloved community.
We need to answer each others prayers. Have any of you seen the movie “Evan Almighty” Personally, I think it is a really bad movie. Although I think Morgan Freeman is excellent as God. There is one scene in the movie when Evan’s wife is at her wits end and Morgan Freeman as God says:
“Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does God give them the opportunity to be patient? If they pray for courage, does God give them courage, or does God give them opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does God give them pportunities to love each other?”
So I ask you to be open to the opportunities that are around us. Be open to what moves you in your heart. Be open to the power of love to transform yourself and our community.
In my experience in Unitarian Universalist Congregations and even in seminary, I had not had a lot of experience with prayer other than contemplative study. So it was interesting that the first time I told my in laws I was going to seminary, and first you have to understand, my in-laws are very down to earth people, former farmers, who are fairly conservative. So the first time after we visited them after my revelation of my new vocation, they asked me to say a prayer before the meal. Now in 20 years prior to this they never once asked me to do this. I did a prayer of gratefulness, thanking the farmers, the workers who labored to bring the crops from the ground, the people who delivered the food to the markets, the servers in the restaurant, They haven’t often asked me to say prayers since then.
My greatest understanding of prayer came to me when I worked as a chaplain in a hospital. Many people were at their deepest spiritual need, no I take that back, We all have deep spiritual needs, but these people because of their illness were more aware of their deep spiritual need. What I learned from that experience was that even in the darkest hour of our lives, we should be grateful for what we do have. Most of the prayers I did at the bedside of patients were prayers of gratitude. Gratitude for being alive. Gratitude that the sun comes up every day and goes down every evening. Gratitude for having family, a roof over their head, food to eat, doctors to care for them. As the serenity prayer says, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.
So this past month, I have been doing a lot of praying. I have been praying that everyone has handed in their pledge cards, And I have been praying that everyone found within themselves the ability to be generous so that this Congregation can continue to be a meaningful part of your lives and in the life of the larger community. We did one on one stewardship visits again this year, because we heard from many of you that you enjoyed getting to meet other Congregants and as well we also wanted to know what you found meaningful, and what you hope to find in the future to make your religious life more meaningful. Myself and the leaders of this Congregation want to hear from you. When you go downstairs after service, you will find a large silver bowl. You will find slips of paper and pens. We would ask that you to write your hopes and dreams for this Congregation on the slips of paper and put them in the bowl.
Now a few weeks ago, the children and youth created posters of their dreams for the Congregation. (we are not asking you to do posters, although if you want to you can). We want to hear from you because it will be easier to achieve our vision and mission, it will be easier to make our experiences here meaningful if we are all working together and rowing in the same direction. We are all in this together. I recently posted pictures of those posters the children and youth did on Facebook and someone messaged me and praised me about how wonderful they were. And the truth I had to respond and you should know that I had almost nothing to do with that.
I sat together with the Stewardship Team, if they are here today, I would ask them to stand….for the last two years Barb Robinson, Mona Mcray, Amber Laughead, and this year Kate Rathmann Hanson, Emily Smith and Elaine Kresse – (give them a hand). (acknowledge visiting stewards as well) The Stewardship Team and I sat together and worked on our vision of Stewardship and the Annual Pledge Drive and then they created it and implemented it and had a lot of laughs in-between. They implemented it. The powerful moments, the skits, the training for visiting stewards, the brochures and much more. Countless hours and hard work because they believe in the vision and mission of this congregation
The work this Congregation does will determine if our dreams come true. I believe in my heart we have something very special here, and its because you make it special. I say prayers of gratitude every morning for what I have. And ultimately prayer of gratitude are prayers of celebration. A Celebration of life. We should celebrate life, and our lives and what you have created here and what we hope to still yet create here in the future. So after the service we will have a special celebration downstairs to Celebrate the ending of the Annual Pledge Drive.
Let us celebrate our past, our present and our future, let us celebrate hope, Let us celebrate love, Let us celebrate our vision and mission, let us celebrate our lives, both the joys and sorrows, the ups and downs, the good and bad, let us celebrate life when we wake up in the morning and when lie down at night, let us celebrate life when you are home, at work in the community and when you are here at the Congregation. “This is the day we have been given. Let us rejoice and be glad.”All this I pray in your name, Amen.