WORSHIP SERIES: THE VIRTUES OF HUMANISM
SERMON“The Rationalist’s Prayer”
Speaker: Rev. Taryn Strauss
What form does prayer take to the humanist? Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.
This morning’s reading, in praise of rain, came to me earlier this week when the last thing I felt like doing was praising the rain. This is what prayer asks of us, to praise or at least face head on something we would rather condemn or curse. Perhaps like many of you, I have not always had a relationship with prayer. I have not always understood how or why it might be useful to me.
I was raised in a humanist UU congregation, and I don’t think I ever heard the words, “Let us pray,” once in my childhood in Chicago’s west side. It wasn’t until I moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, when I experienced social persecution because didn’t attend the prayer meetings at the flag pole before school, I didn’t stand for the pledge of allegiance (which was somehow related for me, to a Christo-nationalism that I proudly rejected), and I didn’t join the Fellowship of Christian athletes, though I was a starting varsity athlete, nor did I join Young Life, the Christian Youth Group of the popular and the beautiful. Instead, proclaiming my humanism, I spent my lunch hour organizing a letter writing campaign to international political prisoners in my role as the president of our school’s chapter of Amnesty International.
Meanwhile, at home, my family of six gathered for a raucous, politically engaged home-cooked dinner seven nights a week, and even though my mother was in seminary, we never ever prayed, nor observed basic table manners. But the gathering of the family was sacrosanct. We were allowed many freedoms as teenagers, except for one rule above them all: don’t miss family dinner. Looking back, while appreciate the ritual of our gathering, I wonder if we missed something by not praying. How might it have changed the quality of our dinner discussions, which were the laboratory in which our ever evolving identities and opinions were tested.
I did not pray, not really, until I faced my own deep struggle with multiple miscarriages and the hellish uncertainty of fertility’s race against time. Even then, it was mostly a confusing, desperate request for intervention of some kind, some great hand to reach down into the anxiety spiral I had fallen into, that might pull me back out or at least throw me a rope.
Then in seminary, I really learned to pray. The form of it, the proper way to address a deity. But it was all fumbling and foreign, I didn’t become comfortable with prayer until chaplaincy. Before leaving every single hospital bed, every pastoral encounter, my supervisor required us to offer a custom-made prayer. It was the rigor of repetition, and required deep wells of creativity to custom make prayer for a religiously diverse population. Praying for atheists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, secular humanist Jews, and evangelical Christians, but always oriented as a Unitarian Universalist. That’s what changed my relationship to prayer, and now it is a part of my daily life.
Prayer is an expression of the soul’s deepest desire, the imagination’s power to push boundaries and break out of paradigms. Prayer is a chance to sink in and really listen to what desire is deeper and more central to who you are and what you are here to do with your one wild and precious life. Prayer can be intercessory, offer gratitude, or express awe and wonder at the mystery of life.
I think of the act of prayer similar to the act of love. There are so many kinds of love. Love of music or art, love of a hobby or a sport, love of the natural world. Love does not require a partner. You need not be in a romantic relationship to be a romantic, or to feel and express love. Prayer is like this.
Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian Forrest Church used to say, “tell me about the God you don’t believe in, because I’m sure I don’t believe in that God either.”
In case you were wondering if I pray to a bearded man sitting on a throned cloud, that is not even close. Let me be clear, when someone does find comfort in Father God, I respect and honor their beautiful belief. The object of my prayer is a shape shifter, taking on the attributes I need in a given moment. Redeemer, Mother, Mystery, Universe, Father, Friend, Comforter, Steadfast Mountain, Deep Canyon, and on and on. Even when I pray an intercessory prayer, I pray for something that is possible. I won’t pray for someone to be miraculously healed, but I will pray for the doctors to be wise and holistic in their thinking, and for all the healthcare professionals to do their absolute best, most careful and more caring work for this patient. I will pray for deepest comfort and expansive peace for the person undergoing the procedure, and for their family.
Like most human ideas, prayer can certainly be weaponized. Perhaps if you become nervous or defiant when we mention prayer in worship, it is because someone has prayed for your soul against your will. Perhaps they prayed for your soul to get into their version of heaven, perhaps they used their prayer as a way to burn a bridge, end an argument, or gain a sense of moral superiority. I was heavily prayed for when I lived in Tennessee. At first, I was outraged, how dare they pray for me! Then, I became grateful, and that was the most disarming. I was glad they didn’t want me to burn in hellfire forever. That was sweet of them. I remember when the UU General Assembly was held in Salt Lake City Utah, and swarms of us checked out the great library of ancestors, where the Mormons kept records of every American so they could pray posthumously for them to enter heaven. It is soul colonizing, and infuriating, the way they do this even for Jews, atheists, Muslims, and people with radically different versions of an afterlife. I do not believe in weaponizing prayer, however, I have found my own peace with being prayed for. Now, this minister will accept all of your prayers, gratefully.
Prayer can be subservive. One of my favorite subversive prayers is the Seventh Day Adventist senate chaplain, Rev. Admiral Barry Black. He was elected to the office of senate chaplain in 2003, where he continues to serve and gave the opening prayer to the recent impeachment trial. I loved his prayers during one of the most divisive moments in the senate’s history, the 16-day US federal government shutdown of 2013. On Oct 1, the first day of the shutdown, he prayed for divine guidance to “strengthen our weakness, replacing cynicism with faith and cowardice with courage.” Did he just call the senators weak, cynical and cowardly? I do believe he did. One Oct 3, day three, he prayed, “Save us from the madness. We acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcomings, our smugness, our selfishness, and our pride. Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable.” That is what we call a sick burn.
This prayer was subversive, and powerful. It was the only moral voice in the room calling for higher standards of commitment and ethical behavior. It was a voice that held special power because many of the hypocrites he referenced would use religion as their basis for cynical power plays. He was using his prayer to interpret a faith that would transcend political maneuvering in favor of a more just and higher functioning government. He continued with his subversive prayers each day of the shutdown, they became harsher and more pointed as time went on, so much so that his prayers were parodied on Saturday Night Live by Keenan Thompson. This is an expression of his truth and inner desires that could not be expressed any other way.
Praise the Rain:
In her poem, Praise the Rain, Joy Harjo offers gratitude for the diversity of life’s experiences. She praises not only the sun, but also the rain. Like poetry, like sacred scriptures, prayer can be a container for all of life’s complexities. She writes,
Praise crazy. Praise sad.
Praise the path on which we’re led.
Praise the roads on earth and water.
Praise the eater and the eaten.
Praise beginnings; praise the end.
Praise the song and praise the singer.
Yes, but do you? Do you praise crazy, praise sad? Do you reserve your gratitude only for things you deem to be good? You are missing out on the relief that come after the lament. The lament itself, the expression of anger or fear or sadness that was deeper than you ever knew. No recipient needed. Harjo does not tell us to pray for rain, but praise the rain when you see it. Praise crazy. Praise sad. Our need for life to be always good, always even-keel, this can hold us back from deeper expression, deeper pain but also deeper self-knowledge, deeper love and deeper connection to the self, to something greater, to each other.
In her little book, “Help, Thanks, Wow, the writer Anne Lamott breaks prayer down into three categories.
She writes about how prayer often begins and ends with a plea for help amidst desperation.
“There’s a lot to be said for having really reached a bottom where you’ve run out of anymore good ideas, or plans for everybody else’s behavior; or how to save and fix and rescue; or just get out of a huge mess, possibly of your own creation.
“And when you’re done, you may take a long, quavering breath and say, ‘Help.’ People say ‘help’ without actually believing anything hears that. But it is the great prayer, and it is the hardest prayer, because you have to admit defeat — you have to surrender, which is the hardest thing any of us do, ever.”
If you have known desperation, then you may have looked into the vast sky and asked it for help. You may have held a rosary and asked it for help. You may have held a hand, tighter than you meant to, and offered to it the gift of your desperation. “Help.”
Next, Lamott explains the second kind of prayer:
“Thanks is the prayer of relief that help was on the way. … It can be [the] pettiest, dumbest thing, but it could also be that you get the phone call that the diagnosis was much, much, much better than you had been fearing. … The full prayer, and its entirety, is: Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you. But for reasons of brevity, I just refer to it as Thanks.”
Again, no recipient needed.
If I’m honest about how we came to be a praying family, holding hands around a table and saying thanks, it’s because of my Episcopalian spouse, whose steadfast and very private prayer life was always a marvel to me. He used to tell me, “It’s not a genie or a birthday cake designed to grant me a wish. It’s just a relationship. And so, always the chivalrous one, he never forgets his manners, and always says thank you. I hope my children will tap into gratitude throughout their life, and whatever their life holds in the moment, even when it’s at its hardest and scariest. That’s the discipline of gratitude.
To connect to gratitude when life is full of scarcity, confusion and even death. When nothing makes sense or feels meaningful. That’s Joy Harjo’s poem speaking to us again, “praise the hurt, the house slack,” she tell us. It’s the most difficult thing to do. Prayer can cut into the senselessness, for me it’s like putting one foot in front of the other out of loss.
The third kind of prayer LaMotte explores is the Wow prayer. LaMotte writes,
“Wow is the praise prayer. The prayer where we’re finally speechless — which in my case is saying something. … When I don’t know what else to do I go outside, and I see the sky and the trees and a bird flies by, and my mouth drops open again with wonder at the just sheer beauty of creation. And I say, ‘Wow.’ … You say it when you see the fjords for the first time at dawn, or you say it when you first see the new baby, and you say, ‘Wow. This is great.’ Wow is the prayer of wonder.”
I remember one summer we were at the beach with family friends, watching a spectacular meteor shower. The adults started rounds of applause at the largest meteors. They were laughing, they were wowing, they were giddy with awe.
For me, it’s not enough to feel wonder, gratitude, nor desperation. It is the expression of those parts of life, giving them voice and energy and weight, so they can impact my life, little by little, and lend reflective meaning to my days. For me, I can have faith in something greater than me without knowing it exists. I can pray without certainty of God’s presence. For the rationalist, for the humanist, I say, prayer is also for you. Some of you may know Sean Golan. He grew up a UU at UUCA, and he now serves on our board of trustees and in our young adult group. Years ago, he wrote a personal Unitarian Universalist humanist companion to the Lord’s prayer. This has been meaningful for him, and I share it with you now with his permission:
greater than all of us combined,
which we sanctify with our thoughts and deeds,
let me know that in The End
we will all see and understand one another.
Help me accept and embrace this day
and be thankful for the life I am blessed with.
Help me remember, we all make mistakes and we are all imperfect.
Help me be strong enough to let my frustrations and anger go with my breath.
Help me to forge the path forward through forgiveness
and to resist the temptations of vindictiveness and self-righteous judgment.
Help remind me to use my thoughts
and actions to further my understanding,
and to lift my self and others up
by bringing more love to the world.”
Amen. May it be so.