Monday, February 22, 2010

"Unitarian Universalist Prayer?"

The sermon text below is written as a guide for preaching, not a final text for publication. Please enjoy this sketch of my thoughts from this past Sunday's worship service.

Unitarian Universalist Prayer?

In my home-town of Tulsa, Oklahoma, there is a piece of art that is quite impressive. If I remember correctly, I think you can actually see it from the airplane when flying into town. It is at the entrance of Oral Roberts University. I keep saying it, but is actually they. To most people, they are simply known as “The praying Hands.” At 60 feet tall and weighing 30 tons, these praying hands were at one time, and I believe still are the largest cast bronze monument in the world.

From an artistic point of view, the sculpture is pretty, well tacky. From a theological point of view it is interesting. Most people assume that the two hands are hands from the same person. That is certainly what the sculpture appears to be about. But if you look closely, you notice that one hand is slightly different from the other, not in a left hand – right hand sort of way, but in a different person sort of way.

As is often the case with art, far more interesting than the object itself is the way that we observers interpret the sculpture. Like I said, the casual observer sees hands praying. This colossal statue has been an object of tremendous praise and derision from countless tourists and internet posts. It’s one of the few things that people can comment on about Tulsa, one of the few things they remember, and of course it comes with and opinion attached.

I know this because I did a pretty thorough internet search about them. There are tons of picture and tons of opinions. And I weeded through most of it to find what I was looking for. I had this idea in my head that I faintly recall about the hands being from different people. So I dug and I dug and I dug, until I finally found my answer. It was in a 1981 issue of “Oklahoma Today” magazine. The story is actually about the artist who created the sculpture but includes a little bit of detail behind the initial concept.

Oral Roberts said, “The Hands represent the hand of a physician using the natural forces of God’s earth and the hand of the prayer partner offering the prayer of faith.” The right hand represents the power of prayer and the left, medical skill. What a tremendously different sculpture than those who love it or hate it. Countless Tulsan’s see it as an eye sore in their city, without even bothering to understand it’s purpose.

How often do we interpret prayer, or other peoples religious practices the same way? How often to we take what we see at face value and ridicule it, without taking the time to learn about the underlying concept?

The fact is prayer is a multifaceted experience. It means a great many different things to different faith communities. And as Unitarian Universalists, our practices are just about as diverse as our theological beliefs. I have heard UUs practicing prayer, meditation, crystals, calling on Pagan Gods, Goddesses, and spirits, yoga, guided imagery, energy healing, visiting sites known to be of tremendous spiritual power. You name it, and Unitarian Universalists have done it. Or not done it. The other very important piece of this story for UU’s is that for some people, for some of you, prayer is not something you participate in. That’s just another piece of our diversity. If you believe there is not God or sense of the divine, then it doesn’t make much sense to pray to a void. That makes sense to me.

Because it is rooted in our personal beliefs, prayer is a deeply personal thing. So personal that I think often we don’t know what our closest friends and family members participate in. We can know their deepest strangest secrets, but prayer is often not on the list of topics up for discussion.

Well I’d like to break that taboo for just a moment today. For just literally a couple of minutes, I would like you to turn to the person seated next to you, and answer these two questions. Do you pray? What does that mean to you? Of course no one if forcing you to answer these questions, but I invite you to push yourself a little. Pick one person seated next to you, and both of you answer the questions, do you pray? And What does that mean for you?

I hope that that experience was both liberating and informative. I know there were some surprises out there, and I thank you for sharing with one another.

As I said before, and hopefully as you have discovered in that quick chat. There are all sorts of prayers. I want to talk about a few of those different types of prayer.

First of all, there is a fascinating difference between traditions for the way an individual is supposed to pray. In some traditions, like Islam and Catholicism, prayers are a recitation of something that one has memorized. The rosary is the best example I can think of this sort of prayer. It’s a sort of script that one follows in communication with the divine.
That’s a pretty sharp contrast from Protestant Christian traditions for whom prayer flows freely from the heart. I’m betting that your conversation from early was influence by this split, between prayer as a recitation of a script and extemporaneous conversation with the divine.
Both scripted prayer and extemporaneous prayer have a lot to offer, and people tend to stick with one format or the other, depending on the way they are first exposed to prayer.
I have heard from Unitarians several times that they come into a challenge when the memorized prayer that used to bring them comfort, no longer matches their belief. That is after all the primary benefit of those scripted prayers. You know them by heart and they bring comfort. But if the words don’t match what you believe in your heart, there can be major conflict there.
One of the key things I want to be clear about today is that your prayer life exists to serve you, not so that you can live up to a script that someone else deems appropriate. If there are portions of a prayer that you no longer like, CHANGE IT. There is no reason to recite things that you don’t believe. And if you can’t change a portion of the traditional prayer that brings you comfort, then find a new one. I am more than willing to help if you would like. There are some amazing prayers in our hymnal and countless resources printed by the UUA. Look at our library, or you are welcome to have access to my collection of materials.

But not all prayer is done alone. Much of it is done with a wider community. We do this every Sunday here at church with a prayer or a meditation. For obvious reasons this is the most theologically loaded moment of our worship services. I know the prayer is not going to please everyone, but I do my best to provide a balance. You may notice that the prayer or meditation is usually somewhat balanced with the sermon. That is to say, if I’m doing a lot of heavy theology and talk of God in the sermon, then we will have a meditation with minimal theological detail. However, if the sermon has been had less of an explicitly religious focus, then I will choose a prayer that is addressed to God and resembles a more traditional prayer. As I said before, we have a tremendously wide variety of belief and practice. And we try to build our community by supporting one another by recognizing a range of types of prayer and meditation on Sunday mornings.
I thank you for trusting me, and each other with this delicate balance. It can be tough to know that you would never say those words, but know that they are meaningful to someone else in our community. Sitting with that uneasiness until your turn and words that are meaningful to you are said is really what makes our church possible. It’s a tremendous trust that I will probably talk more about next week. But for now, thank you for making our diversity possible

So we pray together in our Fellowship, but sometimes we are expected to participate in prayer with people in other places, outside of houses of worship. It is a strange phenomenon in our country, the public expression of faith, public prayer. Public prayer is one of many things in life where my intellect doesn’t match my emotional experience. I am a minister, a person who has dedicated my professional life, and a good deal of my personal life to religion, and still public prayer makes me flinch. I think the big issue is about having a captive audience. If people have come to an event for a purpose other than prayer, then they should not be expected to join in, as if everyone believes the same way. Of course religious institutions should practice their faith freely, but expecting everyone to share that religious sentiment in a public venue is, well na├»ve at best, and manipulative at its worst. I know that is a sore spot for many UU’s and rightfully so.

And for some people it does not make sense to pray at all, ever. Some people, some of us believe that there is no God and that the exercise of communicating with a void makes no sense to you. That is certainly an important part of the Unitarian Universalist community.
There is something very important to be said about the atheists in our midst, both for them to hear, and for everyone else to hear. Whether you call it religious or not, your commitment to live out your values in this world is magnificent and holy and sacred and profound and inspiring. Living out your highest values is everything that anyone can say about the power of faith. Simply put, it is good, and it is worthy.
Belief in God, or participating in prayer doesn’t validate anyone’s place in this community. The bravery to live out of our highest ideals and our faith, the bravery to reach out and make our world a better place, that is what we are most centrally about. And that is what we do.

Too often we create a false dichotomy between prayer and action. These two foundational elements go hand in hand. This is not an either /or thing, either we pray or we act. The choice is not one or the other for most of us. It’s a matter of engaging both prayer and action. No one can act 24 hours a day. It simply isn’t physically possible, and sometimes we the opportunity to act isn’t in front of us. Sometimes we face obstacles in life that no amount of action will help, so we meditation, or we pray. We send out our good thoughts and feelings to the universe and we hope for the best.

It is true that some religious traditions place prayer over action, but we do not. We are Unitarian Universalists. I am concerned with the way we pray, not the rest of the world. The reading explains this point very well. Actually the reading that we did earlier is pretty much a summary of everything I had hoped to say in this sermon.

Throughout time and still today religious life has been of tremendous support to communities as they make meaning out of their lives. Religion helps us to face the challenges and uncertainty of life, and it helps us to celebrate the beautiful gifts of this world. Personal prayer is a big part of that.
The merits of prayer are not about the effectiveness of healing a patient. There are countless studies coming from both sides that try to prove or disprove the power of prayer. Most of these studies seem to neglect the effect of prayer on the people doing it. It was mentioned last week, that Cal Hullihen first came to church because people who go to church live longer. Well it may sound funny, but it’s true. People who engage their concept of the divine, or their highest values to seriously bring meaning into their lives do live longer. Prayer is good for the people who do it. Living out our values in community is good for people. In fact it’s difficult for me to think of any other way of being in the world.

I want to close by simply saying, I invite you to let your life be your prayer. Let the words that you speak and the actions that you take be a reflection of your hopes for the world. Let your heart be open every day, at every encounter to the divine that rests in the world. Live your prayer. That is the highest calling in religion. Let your life be your prayer.


1 comment:

  1. LOVE THIS! Kent, I am grateful for the ministerial gift of this profound sermon from you.