Wow, Gimme, Thank You: A Spirituality of Prayer for Unitarian Universalists

“And here’s something else, another problem you might have,” says comedian George Carlin: “Suppose your prayers aren’t answered. What do you say? ‘Well, it’s God’s will.’ ‘Thy Will Be Done.’ Fine, but if it’s God’s will, and He’s going to do what He wants to anyway, why the [heck] [he actually doesn’t say ‘heck’ here] bother praying in the first place? Seems like a big waste of time to me! Couldn’t you just skip the praying part and go right to His Will? It’s all very confusing.”

Where are you when it comes to prayer? Is it all very confusing? What’s it for?

Now listen to another voice on the matter, very different. A poem by Mary Oliver, entitled “The Summer Day”:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—?the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
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, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

**

A very different voice than George Carlin’s, right? But here, too, we find confusion about prayer. We hear the poet say, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.” Which is interesting to me, since I think this poem is brilliant in the way it articulates the genuine heart of prayer. Yet what it says diverges radically from popular conceptions, according to which prayer is supposed to be about people asking God to intervene in the natural world (cure a disease, stop a flood, win a football game, win a war) and if God doesn’t deliver than you either step up into full-on cajoling or whining, or you experience perplexity a la George Carlin, or you feel angry and betrayed and tell God to go to H E double hockey sticks. The poem is light years away from this, and also from common experiences of prayer which too often amount to nothing more than slow jam versions of grown-ups talking in animated Peanuts specials on TV. Wroh wroh wroh wroh wroh wroh wroh…. The poet uses that word, “prayer,” and she knows it is saturated with theologies and ideologies that aren’t in line with the new life she’s breathing into it. So she says, “I don’t exactly know what a prayer is.” But what she does know is that prayer can be something very different than the popular mind makes it out to be—and this includes the popular Unitarian Universalist mind as well. She is saying (or, rather suggesting—I’ll be the one saying it) that God doesn’t have to exist for prayer to have power and to change lives. Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said it like this: “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”

We are breathing new life into an old word this morning: “prayer.” That, by the way, is what makes us religious liberals. Religious liberalism is a middle path and middle way between instant rejectionism and unthinking adherence. Religious liberalism receives the riches of the past, reconciles them to what we best know in the present, so as to make it all useable in our future. This is our spiritual way! If this were a political ad on TV, I’d proudly say, “I approve this message.” I hope you would too.

Let’s start. One of the main things we want to know about prayer—real prayer—is this: it’s tied to our spiritual and emotional depths. Either it expresses these depths as we experience them spontaneously moving within us; or the depths within don’t seem to be moving at all, and we use prayer words and rituals to jump start things and warm us up…

Take the first part of the either/or. Brings to mind an experience I’ve shared with you before. It has to do with my years growing up in Peace River, in far north Alberta—nights when I would lift up my eyes and see the Northern Lights in all their electric colors, shifting and shimmering, green and orange and purple curtains over the sky. All so beautiful and mysterious, and to this my very heart would answer back with a sense of wonder and amazement, my very heart would open up and sing. No one taught me how to do this. Somehow there was within me an innate capacity for reverence, a predisposition to be in awe of something larger than myself, and I knew then that I was not the center of the universe and that there are deeper and higher and bigger things in existence, and even more, that in these depths and heights and hugeness was my true home. This is how prayer found me. A prayer of wow, prayer of awe, prayer of thank you. I was not so much praying as being prayed through.

It’s like Mary Oliver in her poem, looking upon a summer’s day, and the depth dimension of her life is spontaneously stirred, her sense of wonder and awe is stirred, and it all goes straight to her lips, she finds herself asking some of the biggest questions imaginable:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?

The heart overflows, and prayer is the expression, the completion, the fruition. We find ourselves singing before we even know it….

On the other hand, there are times when we are feeling distractable, unfocused, and disconnected from our depths, and here, prayer can help get us grounded, get us focused, get us connected. Here, prayer is at the beginning of the process, not at the end (similar to how many of us might need that cup of coffee—or that diet Coke, or whatever—to get us going in the morning)….

One example of this comes from the Rev. Jim Eller. His main concern is the question of whether religious humanists can pray with integrity (he himself is one) and his answer is a very definite YES. But we can also see his prayer as a way to trigger a feeling of thankfulness when we are not feeling very thankful at all.

We give thanks for being.
We give thanks for being here.
We give thanks for being here together.

That’s it. That’s the prayer. And to pray it, you don’t already have to feel thankful. Prayer becomes the discipline by which you increase your capacity to be thankful. Prayer directs attention and intention and from this, invariably, flows character.

Another example of prayer getting things unstuck and getting them started up comes from my preaching professor in seminary, the Rev. David Bumbaugh. He writes, “Prayer was … a ritual part of mealtime in our household as I was growing up. Somewhere, in some corner of my mind, I can still hear my Uncle Jim’s voice as, every evening, he tucked his head and quickly muttered over the food:

Dear Lord, Bless this food to our bodies
And thus to your service.
In your name we pray. Amen.

The prayer was uttered with such speed and with so little inflection that it required some years and some growing sophistication before I was able to decipher the meaning of the words which constituted the suppertime incantation.” More of that wroh wroh wroh wroh wroh wroh wroh I talked about earlier, right? Except faster…. But now listen to how Bumbaugh shines a light on an extremely underappreciated but vital aspect of public prayer. “But here, … the words were not the source of power. That prayer was effective because it was a ritual act which signified the reconstitution of the family. We did not offer grace at other people’s houses. We did not offer grace at breakfast or lunch or when any of us ate alone. We did not offer grace at picnics or on those rare occasions when we ate at a restaurant. Grace was a thing we did together, at supper, at home when all the family was gathered. The message, independent of the words spoken, was always the same: ‘No matter where the day has taken us, no matter where responsibility might lead us, the center of life is here, around this table, with the family.’”

That’s the story from the Rev. David Bumbaugh. It affirms how a mealtime prayer can help members of a family feel reconnected after a day of being scattered to the four winds. But it also underscores the fact that prayer is not just about words interspersed with silence; it is something we do with our attention and with our bodies.

Now as I say this, I am thinking about our Embracing Meditation time in worship every Sunday. The public prayer that we do, when I ask you to settle in a little more comfortably, close your eyes if you wish, allow the tensions in your body to soften, breathe out all anxiety, breath in peace…Hopefully it won’t ever sound like a prayer from Uncle Jim, but even if so, we are still gathered around a shared worship table, all of us. The message, independent of the words spoken, is always the same: “No matter where the previous week has taken us, no matter where responsibility might lead us, the center of spiritual life is here, around this table, with our spiritual family.” That’s the message. The prayer itself, in other words, is the answer. It works whether or not God hears the words. WE hear the words, the words move us and that is enough. And I say this as a theist, as one who believes in a God. God may be listening in, but that’s not why I pray.

David Bumbaugh’s story also brings to mind something else: a prayer ritual that I’ve been engaged with for almost ten years now. Once a week for an hour, over the phone, a beloved colleague and I pray together. Half of the time, we share what’s going on in our lives; and the other half, we pray for each other. And what that sounds like, at times, is very well echoed by these words from Catholic mystic and writer Thomas Merton:

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

That’s the prayer. I know … very different from Mary Oliver’s mystical, even nontheistic, poem. Very different from how she spends so much time in prayerful description of the grasshopper, how she says she knows

how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

Some days are diamonds, yes, and call for prayers of gratitude and praise; but other days are stone. Prayer has its different moods, and the Merton prayer picks up when a person is crying out help me …. when a person feels lonely and lost, and confused, and carries them to a place of surrender, and courage, and trust.

How about this prayer? (I’ll bet you are more familiar with this one):

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Then there’s this prayer, which I myself wrote:

I forgive all the ways in which my life appears to fall short.
I trust that whatever I truly need will find its way into my life.
I am grateful for what I have.

I call this my “holy trinity” prayer: forgiveness, trust, gratitude….

All three prayers echo something that writer Marcel Proust once said: “We do not succeed in changing things according to our desire, but gradually our desire changes. The situation that we had hoped to change because it was unacceptable becomes unimportant. We have not managed to surmount the obstacle, as we were totally determined to do, but life has taken us around it, led us beyond it.” The discipline of prayer tests our desire, it transforms our desire.

For ten years, it’s the discipline my prayer partner and I have been doing. For ten years, ultimately we’ve been asking each other Mary Oliver’s question:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Our hour together starts out cold and slow, like creaky middle-aged bodies getting out of bed in the morning and needing a shot of caffeine to wake up. One of us starts talking about what’s been going on, then it’s the other’s turn … and then we go into prayer. It’s like walking through a door. On one side, our speech feels very ordinary, like a report or a newspaper article; but on the other, it’s charged with significance. It’s electric. How could it not be, when you hear your prayer partner reflecting back to you your own life nonjudgmentally, the way God would, with all its joys and sorrows, all its imperfections and fears and wonderings and anxieties… With every word of encouragement and hopefulness, you find yourself calming down and softening, you find your perspective on things shifting, you find yourself catching a glimpse of something you’d lost track of, at least momentarily: who you want to be, your best self, your heart’s desire.

Have you ever prayed with someone before, one-on-one? Have you ever felt held and known, like this? Have you ever felt intimacy, like this?

Prayer is its own reward. It’s not about asking God to be Santa Claus for us, and 99% of the time feeling disappointed. Either we find our hearts already overflowing, and words of prayer are on our lips before we know it; or we use prayer when we are feeling on the surface of life or anxious and frayed at the edges, and we want to reconnect with the depths, we want to feel encouraged and strengthened to face our challenges, we want to become more of what we potentially can be. That’s what real prayer does for us. And it works.