Prayer

When did human beings begin to pray? It must have been in the dawn of
that enchanted age when everything in creation was assumed to have a
will and a spirit of its own, and human beings did not distinguish
between their own dim consciousness and the consciousness of all
nature. A hunter being confronted by a beast, “thinking to ”
the beast, “Please don’t hurt me.” And perhaps the
creature, for some reason, went away. A sort of prayer had been
uttered, which seemed to be efficacious — that is, it
“worked.” A connection was made. Events, it seemed, could be
changed, affected, by addressing the forms and creatures of nature.
The rain was petitioned to fall and wet the earth; or the flood was
begged to recede, the sun to return from the darkness, the fire to
move away; the grain to grow; the wild beast or the enemy to be
defeated.

Then the gods came, bursting forth from fear and yearning, gods who
dwelt on mountain-tops or deep in the forests, who, like Yahweh of the
Hebrews, were modeled after the most powerful of tribal leaders. They
were petitioned for favors, like the kings. Houses were built for them
where the people could come and speak with them and give them gifts.
Sacred arks were built for them and carried into battle against the
enemy.

The gods were wholly other, but they could be addressed, cajoled. They
could be argued with. Their “minds” and will could be
changed. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, even Yahweh repented of
having flooded the earth and said he would never do it again. And the
gods, for all their supernatural airs, had a suspiciously human love
of praise and honor.

The gods have come and gone, changed their form, been born, died, and
come to life again. But those basic forms of prayer have changed
little in the eons following the primitive’s confrontation with
the beast. The most common form of prayer is still the intercessory
prayer, praying for God to intercede, to change what is or what is to
be. “Heal my child.” “Make my car start this
time.” “Give us peace.” “Make the lights come on
again.”

Intercessory prayer rests on the assumption that reality is governed
by a supreme being who controls events, makes things happen prevents
things from happening. A group of Georgia ministers were rejoicing
recently that their joint prayer efforts had resulted in heavy
rainfalls in their county. Some Cuban refugees crashed their plane
into the waves, praying for God to save them. And God, they say, put a
ship right there by their plane. The model, again, is that of the
tribal king or the feudal lord who received petitioners, sat in
judgment, issued decisions. So be it. Or not. Of course, there were
many pleas the king simply ignored. And the king never explained why
this field should be flooded and all the crops lost so that that field
would be watered.

Years ago, as a young Methodist minister, struggling with my faith, I
asked an elder minister why God would have ignored my prayer that the
life of a young mother in my parish be spared. He said, “God
didn’t ignore your prayer, son. He said “No.” And I
thought “No! – No!?” I ask you not to take the life of an
innocent young woman and you just say “No!?” like some
barbarian warrior chief? That was a highly religious experience for
me. It was also the moment I began to give up on religion.

When Unitarian Universalists were surveyed some years ago about their
religious beliefs and practices, only about twelve percent indicated
that prayer was, for them, communion with God — in any traditional
understanding of the term “God.” About seventy percent of
the respondents indicated that prayer meant, for them, an act of
meditation or communion with the inner self.

Is “meditation” the same as prayer? There is a precedent of
some long-standing to use the terms synonymously. As far back as 1586,
Thomas Hooker defined meditation as, “A serious intention of mind
and body whereby we come to search out the truth and settle it
effectually upon the heart.” And Dean William Sperry, of Harvard
Divinity School, defined prayer as “An intellectual discipline in
truthfulness and a moral discipline in unselfishness.” “It
is the endeavor,” he said, “To find out what is true and
right and then to conform to these.” These definitions, one of
prayer, the other of meditation, seem to ascribe the same function and
effect, as if the terms can be used interchangeably.

The difficulty with the term “prayer” is that it carries
that ancient baggage of begging the all-powerful king to change
things. I, the mere subject, pleading with a “wholly other”
being. Meditation, on the other hand, is not negotiating with a Wholly
Other supreme being, but communicating — communing — with the whole
of being of which we are a part. The meditative prayer does not seek
to change what is but to achieve true clarity about what is, and to
draw closer to that power that lies within us.

The Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, in speaking of the
process of prayer, used the image of the vast fields of oil, a source
of power that lay beneath the surface waiting for us to develop the
means to access it and use it. “There is nothing magical about
the process [of prayer],” Adams said. “It is not a means of
bringing God under control. One does not change God or control God.
The process is more like that which takes place when a student seeks
out great teachers. Teachers retain their own essential character, but
through their tutelage the students are themselves changed.”

Does the prayer that is not the prayer to change what is but is the
prayer to understand, receive, and accept — does such prayer make a
difference? I know it does. But it requires discipline. And it
requires an attitude that is becoming more and more foreign to our
lives. Perhaps what is most difficult is that the process of prayer
requires a “stopping” in our normal, daily tracks. My late
colleague, Paul Beattie, said “In prayer or meditation there is a
stopping of the flux of time and the crush of events. A person puts
herself or himself into a solitary condition, away from the pressures
and worries of life. This is, in itself, beneficial.”

There can be no question about that. “Putting oneself away”
from the pressures and worries of life is beneficial. But it isn’t
easy to do. “Putting ourselves away” gets low priority on
our endless list of things to do. Sometimes I drive by those places
with signs that say “Self Storage.” And I think to myself,
“Yeah. That’s what I could use right now. A place to store
myself for awhile.”

I mentioned Thoreau last week, who said even in his time that most
people he knew lived lives of quiet desperation. Our desperation is
not even quiet but is punctuated constantly by beeps, and rings, and
buzzes to which we respond like mice in a box. The theologian Paul
Tillich wrote, “Like hit and run drivers, we injure our souls by
the speed with which we move on the surface, and then we rush away,
leaving our bleeding souls alone.” One of my daughters says that
she goes on solitary hiking trips so that she can finish the thoughts
she begins in her everyday life, but never finishes.

The Buddhist Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, has said

In order to change the world, each of us has to build a pagoda.
There were people who thought that I was urging them to build more
pagodas so Buddhism would become a national religion. But this
pagoda cannot be built by stones and sticks and things like that,
because this pagoda is a sanctuary where you have a chance to be
alone and to face yourself, the reality of yourself. If you
don’t have a pagoda like that to go into each day, you cannot
change anything.

Ironically, for transformation to begin, we have to begin to change
our lives. The action does not begin from outside ourselves but begins
from within ourselves. Before we can even pray, we have to create the
conditions for prayer by changing how we live. To be able to pray or
meditate, we must first be willing to begin the discipline of
“stopping,” of paying attention, focusing, listening. The
poet T.S. Eliot said, We are distracted from distraction by
distraction. We mean to be distracted from distraction. But we are
distracted from even that good intention by distraction. If
distraction is the way of our lives, living like a pinball, bouncing
from one distraction to another, we must be willing to invest the
effort of moving from distraction to attention. Jesus said, “When
you pray, Go into your room and shut the door.”

Prayer begins, then, by finding a place apart building our pagoda.
Prayer begins by making a space in our worlds and within ourselves to
which we go to stop, to focus, to pay attention. It will take much
practice and much effort, just to be able to allow ourselves to do
that. We have become servants to what drives us and need permission to
stop and enter the place of prayer. And only we can give the
permission to ourselves.

What, then, do we pray for or pray about?

The better form of prayer or the function of meditation is not to
accomplish something. The last thing we need is something else that
has to accomplish. My thoughts about prayer rest on my basic
theological conviction which can best be summed up by Ralph Waldo
Emerson who said, “There is no bar or wall in the soul where
person, the effect, ceases, and God, the cause, begins.” Emerson
spoke of “the Soul of the Universe,” “The Wise Soul of
the Whole.” Emerson insisted, in his Eastern-influenced,
transcendentalist theology, that each of us and all things participate
in that soul. “There is a deep power in which we exist,”
Emerson said, “and whose beatitude is accessible to us.”
Think again of Adams’ image, those oil fields, that vast source of
power waiting to be accessed.

My prayer, then, is not to something outside myself. It is not “O
God, please do this or don’t do that.” I do not understand
God in those tribal king images, or as a being wholly other from
nature but as the Whole of which I and all being am a part. For me,
prayer is the process by which I gradually transform my usual
cluttered consciousness by clearing from my thoughts, retreating from
all the rushing, striving, problem solving, worrying, manipulating
ways I have to get things done. More than anything else, prayer for me
is a process of letting go and letting be what is. For only when my
prayer has helped me to accept what is can I move with it or beyond
it.

The question remains, does prayer “work?” We are, of course,
“work-oriented” and particularly
“results-oriented” people. Perhaps what we need to do is to
re-examine what we mean, or what we want to mean, by the
question “does it work?” Part of
what we mean, I’m sure, is “does prayer or meditation, change
things, does it make things happen?” There is no doubt in my mind
that it does or, at least, that it can. Tennyson said, “More
things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”

Can people be healed by prayer. I know they can. I don’t believe
that God upsets the natural process to answer prayer. But I know that
faith often has the power to heal. Any physician knows that. Prayer is
an expression of love and care. And I know that love and care can
heal. Many people in this congregation, when troubled or ill, ask that
we mention them during our meditation time. It is comforting, healing,
encouraging to them to know that we, their religious community, are
paying prayerful attention.

Prayer is a means of moving from chaos into wholeness. It overcomes
our dividedness. Re-establishing that wholeness, restores our creative
partnership with the Soul of the universe, in Emerson’s terms
–with God, if you will. That partnership can work wonders. I know
that the kind of prayer or meditation I have been talking about can
overcome illness and disease, since illness and disease are often
expressions of fragmentation and dividedness.

It is in the nature of our modern lives — of the ways in which we
live our lives — that our attention, and therefore our creative
power, is divided, and by division, weakened. What we do, what we say,
how we are in the world–comes too often from isolated parts of us,
not often enough from the whole. What we create in the world,
therefore, is often partial, incomplete. Prayer is a way to gain
awareness that we are indeed whole selves and from there to gain
awareness that we are united with the wholeness of being. When we
achieve that awareness, We can heal the dividedness. We can overcome
evil. We can light the darkness.

And what does all this have to do with prayer at the flagpole, prayer
in schools, prayer at public events? Hardly anything at all.
Self-conscious prayer at football games, is mere demonstration. It is
a caricature of prayer, a mockery of the religious consciousness, and
an infringement on the right of others not to be subjected to
religious pressures.

Some say they want to bring God back into public life. But what is
profane cannot be made sacred by profanity and making a public display
of prayer is profane. What an odd God some conceive. A God distracted
by angelic music or dozing in the fluffy heavens whose attention is
suddenly caught by critical mass having been achieved in a Georgia
stadium and a sufficient numbers of voices raised in the Lord’s
Prayer for the Lord to hear.

Many say that it is good to say the Lord’s Prayer together because
it is the One Great Prayer. Well, of course, it isn’t the one
great prayer for Jews, or for Muslims, and it certainly isn’t the
one great prayer for me.

The so-called Lord’s prayer is a prayer from another age, another
culture, grounded in a primitive view of the universe. It’s a
prayer addressed to a Patriarchal father, a prayer of abject
dependence on a supernatural being, of human helplessness and
servitude. It is, above all, a sectarian statement of faith which has
no business anywhere in the public realm.

The Teacher said,
And when you pray,
you must not be like the hypocrites;
for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues
and at the street corners,
that they may be seen by men.
But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door
and pray to your God who is in secret.

There’s an old Gospel hymn called “Standing in the need of
prayer.” I believe we are standing in the need of prayer. And I
urge you not to forsake prayer because of what it meant to you once or
of how others demean it and politicize it. We are fragmented, divided,
harried, and distracted souls and such battered souls are standing in
the need of prayer, a need to “put ourselves away” from what
distracts us, to create and return daily to that inner temple for
renewal and restoration.

Reason drew us from the altar and magical incantations. Let the Spirit
draw us back to the truth of prayer that makes us whole. We are
standing in the need of prayer. For all good things proceed from
prayer.

“For there to be peace in the world, there must be peace in the
nations.
For there to be peace in the nations, there must be peace in the home.
For there to be peace in the home, there must be peace in the
heart.”