Shall We Pray?
Rev. Jane Page
November 23, 2008
Shall We Pray? That question is often used to introduce a prayer to a group. It’s not a question that one expects a vocal answer to. In fact, in that context, it’s not a really meant to be a question but a statement. “Shall We Pray” means “We are going to pray so bow your heads and close your eyes.”
But today, it’s the topic for this sermon and it’s really meant to be a question. Do we need to pray – individually or as a group? And why? What is prayer and what is it good for?
This sermon can actually be considered as part of my “Can You Say …” series that attempts to examine and reclaim religious language. If you’ve been around here long enough, you’ve heard:
Can You Say EVANGELISM?
Can You Say GOD?
Can You Say RESURRECTION?
Can You Say GRACE?
Can You Say ATONEMENT and
Can You Say AMEN?
But this sermon is about more than reclaiming a religious word. It’s about reclaiming a religious practice. When I first started coming to UU, I didn’t hear the word “prayer” used. We did have a moment of silence, of course, and folks could pray silently if they wanted to I suppose. And this was fine with me personally.
Rev. Ann Fox shares why there was little prayer in UU churches from the 1960’s to the 1990’s. She said:
Our history shows that we wanted an authentic religion that was true to what we believed and what made sense to us. Many if not most were not convinced that God existed. We asked, “To whom or to what are we praying?” The joke was that Unitarian Universalists began their prayers with, “To whom it may concern!”
But in the last decade there has been an emphasis in UU churches on diversity of beliefs and the inclusion of diverse religious practices including prayer.
Similarly -- over time – especially during my weeks as a hospital chaplain in preparation for my ministry, I began to see how valuable prayer was for many folks. So when I became your minister, I asked the worship committee if we could experiment with a new order of service. And that order of service has included a time for prayer. After all, we UU’s do claim as our first source of inspiration the
“Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.”
Now certainly that “direct experience” could include other activities like meditation, transcending through music and movement, through the visual arts and experiencing nature. And perhaps those experiences could be thought of as prayers themselves. But today, I’m going to focus on more traditional types of prayer. Now I have a confession to make – and that is that I, personally, achieve more of this “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder” through these other avenues than I do through traditional prayer activity. But prayer may be the perfect portal for you or others and sometimes it’s just what I need too.
I did not grow up in a family that “prayed together.” Yet, we stayed together. Now I did get training from my mom on saying bedtime prayers. She would come into my room and tuck me in then we’d say together: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord, my soul to take.” It was not a comforting prayer. But other than that night time prayer, we didn’t pray. Oh my grandfather would always say the blessing at family gatherings – I never could understand what he was saying though because he mumbled through it. So I didn’t have a lot of early exposure to prayer at home. But I got a full dose of it at my Southern Baptist church. And I also joined in with my schoolmates every day for our “God is Great” blessing. I’m reviewing this with you now because my review of my own upbringing with prayer has helped me to understand why prayer is perhaps not a huge factor in my life now. And that’s one reason this sermon was such a struggle for me. It was much easier to do a sermon on DANCE.
So what is prayer?
The word “pray” can be traced back to a Latin ancestor word which means to ask or beg. But the act of prayer certainly precedes the word prayer and this act has been reported on in the very earliest of histories from cultures all over the world. The act of prayer usually has a divine recipient – perhaps a god, goddess, spirit, creator or ultimate intelligence. In some cultures the recipients of prayers are also ancestors or humans who have died and become saints that can also pray on the behalf of the petitioner. Some cultures and religions emphasize creative prayers that vary with the individual while other cultures and religions use prescribed prayers. And those of us sitting here come from different backgrounds and therefore probably have different histories and feelings about this ritual and different definitions.
The most common definition found in various online dictionaries is similar to this one: an address, petition, or conversation with God or gods or other deities.
But others see prayer as something other than communication.
Larry Dossey says that prayer is an “attitude of the heart.” Judy Holleman defines prayer as “Aiming for what matters.”
Most of the references I’ve read place “prayer” into categories and there are too many for me to share today in this short sermon. But I will explore the five types of prayers recognized by most Christian denominations; and there are similar categories found in other religions.
First: Adoration, expressing Love for God or the divine! There are lots of examples of these types of prayers in the psalms. Many include words of praise for the almighty. But words of adoration and praise are also found in poetry and prayers for lesser things. Hear these words of adoration by the poet Walt Whitman:
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-doeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
Second: Contrition and asking for forgiveness! The definition of “sin” is missing the mark. And in these prayers we acknowledge that and ask forgiveness from God or perhaps from ourselves. Some may even ask the earth for forgiveness.
Last Spring, American Indians, Canadian Indians and Mexican Indians gathered in the shadow of ancient Mayan pyramids in the early dawn to pray, sing and light incense, and ask the contaminated Earth for forgiveness.
The Third type of prayer is Petition – asking for our needs and desires to be met. And I have a little more to say about that. Do prayers of petition really work? Well, I suppose it depends on how much faith you have and who you put your faith in.
A little boy was kneeling beside his bed with his mother and grandmother and softly saying his prayers,
"Dear God, please bless Mommy and Daddy and all the family and please give me a good night's sleep."
"Dear God, please bless Mommy and Daddy and all the family and please give me a good night's sleep."
Suddenly he looked up and shouted, "And don't forget to give me a bicycle for my birthday!!"
"There is no need to shout like that," said his mother. "God isn't deaf."
"No," said the little boy, "but Grandma is."
Actually, there is a lot of evidence that petitioning for what we desire, focusing on what we desire, visualizing what we desire – can sometimes make a difference, especially if we believe it can.
I once had a wart on my finger and was looking up in a medical book the possibilities for remedies. And this book said that if a child was young enough to believe in wishes and hocus pocus – one could often wish the wart away. And even some adults have success with a variety of “home remedy” techniques like – “rub it with a pea then wrap the pea in a tissue and bury it in the backyard. As the pea rots away, the wart will also.” The success of these methods may be based on mentally stimulating the body's immune system response.
So it takes a little faith to move that mountain of a wart or a growth in your body, but our bodies have powerful ways to heal themselves if we can mentally stimulate them to do so. And for many believers, prayer provides that mental (or some may argue spiritual) stimulation.
Jesus said we needed to have the faith of a child. And in all of the miracles “performed” by Jesus, he indicated that the person’s faith had made them well.
But there’s a downside to this “good news” of petitioning prayer helping folks to move positively toward their desires. TV Evangelists have for some time now encouraged folks to “plant that seed” by giving to their ministries and then receiving prosperity and riches in their own lives. And they parade many before the cameras who give testimony to that prosperity. But all of those seeds must not fall on fertile ground. And many followers, especially older folks, end up with their savings vanished with their faith. Even more sophisticated folks – even Unitarian Universalists – come under the influence of similar theological, philosophical, or spiritual remedies because – yes, positive thinking and creative visualization is powerful.
In 2006, Rhonda Byrne published a film, followed by a book called, “The Secret.” This was basically a repackaging of the late 19th century New Thought movement which included the “Law of Attraction.” As described in the film, the "Law of Attraction" principle posits that feelings and thoughts can attract events, from the workings of the cosmos to interactions among individuals in their physical, emotional, and professional affairs. Now I’ve been reading a book called “Evil Genes” which provides lots of evidence supplied by new brain research. This includes how our minds work and even how we can shift some ways it works by our own practice of thinking about people or events more positively, etc. We can almost train ourselves to be more compassionate. So I can see how the positive side of this can work. But I dislike Byrnes emphasis on the idea that our misfortunes are things that we have attracted to us through our own negative thoughts. That may be the case sometimes. But I think the Buddha was also right. Life can be difficult. Shhhh…. It Happens. So it bothers me that victims of bad stuff may take on guilt that is inappropriate. And I fear that folks can be hurt significantly by putting too much weight on their prayers and visualizations and have expectancies that will be too high. Speaking of the Buddha, I just read an excellent novel based on his life by Deepak Chopra. And it’s true that he also was able to visualize through the pain, but the pain still came.
The Fourth type of prayer is Intersession. These prayers are very similar to those of petition, but there is a distinct difference. In prayers of intercession we are praying for others. Now we often come up here during “Joys and Concerns” and light a candle of concern for a friend or relative and ask others to pray for them or hold them in the light. Who does that help? It probably certainly helps the person doing the candle lighting or praying to feel like they’ve done all they can do to help their loved one. But does it help the loved one? Maybe. I guess it can’t hurt. But the evidence is quite conflicting here. There were studies done in the 1980’s and 1990’s that seemed to support the power of intercessory prayer. However these studies later came under quite a lot of criticism for their methods. More recent studies with better controls have shown no difference between patients being prayed for and those who did not receive prayers.
Results of the largest study of this type were released in 2006. This study was specifically related to patients who had heart surgery and found that patients who were prayed for did not do better. In fact, the group who was TOLD that they were definitely receiving prayers had significantly higher rates of complications. The moral of that story is that if you are going to pray for some one who has just had heart surgery, don’t tell them.
The FIFTH type of prayer is Thanksgiving. And it’s my favorite. I suppose I like prayers of thanksgiving because they are not really asking for anything. Instead one is noting the blessings we already have. I think of Forrest Church’s mantra that we should “want what we have.” When I was growing up my dad used to tell folks that my brother didn’t get everything he wanted – but that I did. And he said, “the difference is – Jane knows what to want.” And it’s true that like many of you, I was blessed with the understanding needed to set realistic goals and work hard to achieve them. Not that I’ve gotten everything I’ve wanted in life – that’s for sure. I’ve had some tough times. But I’ve been blessed tremendously and I’m so thankful. And I believe cultivating that “attitude of gratitude” is the key to more blessings because it enables you to SEE the blessings that you are given each day or that are within your reach rather than wishing for the impossible or the improbable.
So these are five main types of prayer: Adoration, Contrition, Petition, Intersession, and Thanksgiving. And sometimes all of these are found in a single prayer. The prayer that is most familiar to all hits on most of these. This prayer is commonly known as The Lord’s Prayer. The book of Matthew shares this prayer as part of Jesus’ lesson to his disciples on praying. I’m going to share this from the King James Version because of its beauty and familiarity.
From Matthew 6:5-13 (King James Version):
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.
After this manner therefore pray ye:
Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
Now that last line – about the kingdom, power, and glory was added much later by the Protestants – but it will always be part of the Lord’s Prayer for me.
I probably learned this prayer when I was in the “junior” department at First Baptist – which corresponded with elementary school. But some parents take pride in teaching their children this prayer and a very young age. I was reading on a Christian web site of one such attempt. The mother said:
I had been teaching my three-year old daughter, Caitlin, the Lord's Prayer. For several evenings at bedtime, she would repeat after me the lines from the prayer. Finally, she decided to go solo. I listened with pride as she carefully enunciated each word, right up to the end of the prayer: "Lead us not into temptation," she prayed, "but deliver us some E-mail. Amen."
Although the Lord’s Prayer is beautiful, it’s a little too patriarchal and theistic for me to use as a personal prayer, yet it includes the major points that I would want to pray. If I prayed it today, I would say it differently.
I would probably translate the Lord’s Prayer to something like this:
Oh Divine Spirit of Love and Life that we hold as sacred. We pray that that light of love will shine down upon us and fill our beings so that we can bless others and this earth so holy. May we know that each day is a blessing. May we gain nourishment through that which is provided for us. May we be forgiven for our failures in life, and may we forgive others who have failed us. And may we avoid temptation and all that is evil. For Love is within all of us, and power and glory, for as long as Life continues. Blessed Be.
When I pray a prayer like that – I feel better. I feel more connected with others and with whatever spirit there may be. And I want to live better and do better. So maybe that’s why it’s good for me to pray.
But I do not think one has to pray to be good any more than once has to dance to be good. Each of us should find our own ways to transcend.
Shall We Pray?
Yea or Nay?
Tina Whittle called me Thursday evening to share some information about one of our members and I told her I was working on this sermon. I shared with her that it was probably going to be a sermon that didn’t end with a clear conclusion. And she said,
“Then it will be a good Unitarian Universalist sermon.”
I pray that to be so.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Copyright Rev. Jane Page, 2008