Click to listen here (as delivered in Nantucket on March 18, 2018)
Let us pray.
Now… some of you instantly bowed your head a bit, maybe you closed your eyes. Perhaps you took in a deep breath as you waited to hear how I started the prayer and to whom I addressed it.
Others of you did that, but you also groaned a little inside, because you don’t pray, you don’t like the word pray, and wait…. didn’t we just pray?
Others still didn’t close eyes or bow heads – either because you thought, rightly, that I wasn’t about to actually pray. But others of you didn’t do any of that because the idea of prayer actually runs counter to how you understand your theology. And while you know I’m not going to intentionally exclude anyone in my prayers, you also have lots of experiences with so-called interfaith or ecumenical prayers that are directed to a particular understanding of a particular “Whom” to which the prayer is directed.
Prayer as a construct across the world’s religions and cultures is… fraught. Pray wrong and you’re a heretic. Pray too overtly and you’re a fanatic. Pray in a style that’s outside your community’s norms and you’re a pariah.
Sometimes prayer is so central to a religion’s lived practice it becomes almost a curiosity. Such is the case with our understanding of the five daily prayers of Muslims.
While it might seem strange to us, praying five times a day makes perfect sense to Muslims, who understand their god as one who seeks devotion in order to help us let go of the things of man, the things that would keep us from the deep compassionate love of God. Praying at prescribed times rather than praying when it’s convenient further enforces the idea that we must do things in God’s time, not in ours. The prayers have a distinct form and include words that have been spoken for a millennium, along with physical movements to involve the whole self in prayer.
This is a religion – one of the Abrahamic religions – that takes seriously the idea that In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. Islam is a recited religion, and to even read the Koran or speak the words of prayers is an act of worship and devotion. And while television has demonized the chant “God is Great” – “Allahu Akbar”, as though it is the secret code to unimaginable terrorism and violence – it is not that far off from the start of the Hebrew prayers, “Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha`olam…” or “Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe…”
It’s true that we who are by and large descended from Christian faiths, this kind of prayer seems foreign, the demands unreasonable. Yet even our Roman Catholic friends are taught to pray the rosary and instructed to do so at certain times and places.
Prayer is a significant practice in many religions, in ways many of us don’t understand and sometimes distrust.
Yeah. Prayer is fraught.
Prayer is found around the world, in every religious tradition, whether it’s called prayer or not.
Now prayer should not be confused with meditation. Meditation is a practice or technique for promoting relaxation, building internal energy, and developing a sense of compassion in a floaty, non-attached sort of way. And don’t get me wrong – meditation and mindfulness practices are important and good and valuable. But prayer is different. Prayer doesn’t expect you to watch your thoughts pass by or disengage. Prayer doesn’t expect you to be free of the monkey mind as a prerequisite; rather, that is prayer’s result. Being restless, dubious, and distracted is a perfect trifecta of emotion for entering a time of prayer.
So we decide to pray. What is it?
There are many ideas about what prayers should be, but I like the simple classification found in Erik Walker Wikstrom’s book Simply Pray, from which the title of this sermon is drawn. In the book, he talks about four basic types of prayer:
The first is Naming. This is a prayer of gratitude, for naming all the ways we encounter the sacred. It might appear in a grace said or sung before a meal:
Let us give thanks for the food that we share
Let us give thanks for people who care
Food fills our bodies, and love makes us whole
Let us give thanks deep down in our soul.
It might be the laundry list of names for god – whether the 99 names of God in Islam, or the myriad ways Unitarian Universalists name the sacred, starting with Spirit of Life and occasionally including ‘to whom it may concern.’
Or we may simply name all we are thankful for, and begin naming the mystery that prayer helps us approach.
The second type of prayer is Knowing. This is the prayer of confession, the prayer of “well, here’s all the crap.” It’s Job’s complaint to God in his eponymous old testament book. It is the third verse of For All That is Our Life:
For sorrow we must bear, for failures, pain, and loss,
for each new thing we learn, for fearful hours that pass:
we come with praise and thanks for all that is our life.
It is this Muslim prayer, also found in our hymnal:
Save us, our compassionate Lord,
from our folly, by your wisdom,
from our arrogance, by your forgiving love,
from our greed by your infinite bounty,
and from our insecurity by your healing power.
Knowing prayer invite us to journey into the shadow without judgment in order to see ourselves more clearly.
The third type of prayer is Listening. This is the prayer of holding space open. Listening prayer, as Wikstrom writes, “is predicated on the notion that God is already speaking to us and that the reason we don’t know this is that our heads are so full of static.” We want God to hear our prayers, but are we hearing our prayers?
There’s a scene in the film The Hunt for Red October, where our hero, Jack Ryan, is on an American aircraft carrier, tracking Soviet ships that are looking for a renegade Soviet sub; the captain notes that the Soviets are “pinging away with their active sonar like they’re looking for something, but nobody’s listening.” When Ryan asks what he means, the captain replies that the Soviets are moving really fast. “At that speed,” he says, “they could run right over my daughter’s stereo and not hear it.” Sometimes there’s so much static that we forget to listen. As the Talmud says: “The Good Lord gave us each two ears and one mouth, showing we should listen and speak in the same proportion.” Our hymn Voice Still and Small calls us to listen –
Voice still and small, deep inside all, I hear you call, singing.
In storm and rain, sorrow and pain, still we’ll remain singing.
Calming my fears, quenching my tears,
through all the years, singing.
Thoreau’s piece “I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life” invokes the same kind of prayerful listening.
The fourth type of prayer is Loving. This is where prayers of petition and intercession come in. It is about asking for the things to make our lives and the lives of others better – showing our love and asking for love, mercy, and compassion in return. What’s important to remember in Loving prayers is that we do not pray so that GOD knows about people’s needs; we pray to make sure WE know. Spirit of Life is a Loving prayer, reminding us of who we want to be at our best…sing with me:
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.
Our opening hymn, May Nothing Evil Cross This Door, and our closing hymn, Thanks Be for These, are also Loving prayers.
Now of course you can do all this in the name of God, Jesus, Allah, Krishna, Vishnu, Odin, Gaia, or in the name of the Spirit of Life, the Creator, the Infinite All, Mother Father Spirit, or any other name you can come up with. The who, really, doesn’t matter. And even if you don’t believe there is a who at all, praying takes us outside of ourselves, reminding ourselves that there are forces at work in the world – nature, physics, metaphysics – that are larger than us, remind us that we aren’t the center of the universe.
Prayer, in other words, keeps us right-sized.
Because prayer isn’t about who you pray to, and know that you can pray to no one. Praying is about OUR attention. Prayer is a conversation with Mystery. Prayer keeps us humble – it is a way for us to acknowledge what we don’t know, and get us in touch with what we desire, what we need, what we fear. Prayer focuses our attention on what calls to us and what drives us. Prayer clarifies our priorities – noticing the things that strike terror, the things that make us weep, the things that call us to swell with hope.
And despite the fact that we all have probably uttered the “God, get me out of this and I will…” prayer in a time of crisis, or bad mistake, or bad hangover… prayer isn’t a bargain. Prayer isn’t about doing one thing to receive another. Prayer is simply a moment where we give attention. It creates space to notice all the bad stuff – our fears, our doubts, our anger, our sorrows – without guilt or judgment.
And just naming things in prayer – Divine one, protect my neighbor as he heads to surgery next week – or Mother of All, hold my family as they struggle with this loss – just naming things in prayer matters. You see, when things go unnamed, they tend to grow exponentially into big hairy monsters lurking around the corner. But when we take time to name all the bad stuff – and all the good stuff too – we draw our attention to those things so they seem more manageable.
Prayer also helps us see what we have to do. We might pray for help, but our prayers are answered when we see how that might happen. There’s the story of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town, and that all the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, ‘I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.’
The waters rose up. A guy in a row boat came along and he shouted, ‘Hey, hey you! You in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.’ But the man shouted back, ‘I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.’
A helicopter was hovering overhead. And a guy with a megaphone shouted, ‘Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I’ll take you to safety.’ But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety.
Well… the man drowned.
And standing at the gates of heaven, he demanded an audience with God. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘I’m a religious man, I pray. I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?’
God said, ‘I sent you a radio report, a helicopter, and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?’
When we pray, we get clarity. We get perspective. We get right-sized, and so do our needs, our wants, our joys, and our sorrows. And when we pray, we create, for a moment, a bit of a pause for our bodies, minds, and souls to catch up to the moment.
I think this is one reason I kind of admire the Muslim practice of prayer. Five times a day, for a few minutes, prayer takes center stage. And while these are not free form, we know that ritual and rote chant can actually help open our minds to what we might consider religious experiences.
In the late 1990s, neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Eugene d’Aquili conducted an experiment with a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks and Roman Catholic nuns – they hooked these willing participants up to all kinds of brain scanning gadgets and asked them to pray or meditate as usual. Rosaries were said, deep humming chants were intoned, and at the end, the scientists analyzed the data. They found that at the moment these practitioners indicated they were “in the zone” with a spiritual connection to the Mystery, the frontal lobe activity increased significantly, suggesting that something happens when we occupy one part of our brain.
This experiment was repeated in the early 2010s with Muslims, and they found that when the prayers got most intense, the religious experience, as felt in the frontal lobe, increased. It’s thought that by distracting the analytical brain with a repeated prayer or chant, it allows other parts of the brain to get busy. And there is a thought that this kind of activity is healthy for our brains; just as doing crossword puzzles keeps those synapses firing, prayer activates parts of our brain that don’t always get a work out.
The conclusion I draw from all of this – the cognitive, the emotional, and the spiritual benefits – is that we should pray. A lot. Whether we really know how to or not.
Because while there are books and proscribed rituals for prayer, ultimately prayer is simply a moment of commitment, of diving in, of just going for it in order to experience it. To simply pray. Wikstrom has the perfect metaphor: just as you cannot know what prayer is until you do it, “you cannot find out what ‘wet’ feels like unless you get into the water. There’s simply no way to talk about it. There’s no explaining it. There’s no understanding it, even. There is only getting wet.”
So… let us pray.