Monday, February 25, 2013
A Prayer for Reproductive Justice
We Unitarian Universalists are a justice seeking people. And for the next two years, we will reorient some of our justice concerns toward reproduction. That’s because at the 2012 General Assembly our national faith community selected reproductive justice as our Study Action Issue. What that means roughly, is that congregations across the country are encouraged to study and learn about the topic. They are invited to reflect on how their faith calls them to respond to the question. Perhaps more importantly, in the midst of that discernment we are called to act in large and small ways, to bring about justice by acting in our world.
We Unitarian Universalists have actually been vocally supporting a woman’s right to choose abortion for a very long time. We passed resolutions at our General Assembly in 1963, 1968, 1973, 1975, 1978, 1980, 1985, 1987, and 1983. Having sat through a few General Assemblies myself, I can assure that that getting a few thousand Unitarian Universalists to agree on anything is a tremendous accomplishment.
We have done a great deal to advocate for abortion rights as a faith community. And that is what comes to most of our minds when the topic comes up. But reproductive justice is about much more than one particular choice. Yes, abortion is an important choice, but it is only one piece of a much broader struggle. Reproductive Justice is a multifaceted movement. It is about empowering every person to make decisions about their own sexual well-being, and women having the resources to choose how and when they will birth children. It is having awareness and courage to say yes to the sex that you want, and no to the sex that you don’t want. It is giving youth and anyone who wants it, accurate and helpful information about sexuality, including support for the moral, ethical, and spiritual dimensions of sexual activity.
Reproductive justice means taking seriously the experience of poor women and women of color, and offering the tools that they need to make choices about reproduction. And it is interwoven with our continuing work for immigration justice, as we fight against laws that tear families apart, and endanger the safety of migrant women.
As you can hear, there is not single legislative agenda that we are after. Reproductive justice is a much broader scope than the individual right for women to choose to have an abortion. With the full scope of the topic out on the table, I want to explore how some of our Unitarian Universalist beliefs inform our perspective on reproductive justice.
The first of these is the belief that I think most UUs resonate with. That is the belief that every soul is sacred and worthy. I know at first glance this sounds like a pro-life poster. But we as Unitarian Universalists believe that every soul is sacred and worthy, and that means more than defending the potential life of a fetus.
First of all, it means a sincere investment in the health and wellbeing of young people. We owe it to them to provide good information about sex. And I don’t mean information about the basics of physical health. Yes, that is essential, but we also owe it to them to have real opportunities to discuss decision making about sexual practices and issues of self worth. Perhaps most of all we owe them a real conversation about what to do with the fact their lives are swimming in a hyper-sexualized world. In advertisements, television shows, movies, magazines, music, everywhere they turn sex is promoted as the primary means for human intimacy.
And then there is the internet. You may not know this, but you should. Anyone who has access to a computer and the ability to use it, let’s say anyone above the age of twelve years old, has access to a virtually endless supply of pornography. If they look for it, whatever it is, they can find a video of it on the internet. To be totally clear, I’m saying anyone with access to a computer can find an endless supply of graphic pornographic. This is the world our children are coming of age in, and we have to respond to it. If we cannot shield them from it, then we at least owe them an opportunity to make sense of it.
The issue at hand isn’t that sex is dirty, or that our kids are ill inclined. The issue is that we love and respect our youth. And we owe it to them, and to everyone else to have the tools to make sense of the over sexualized world that we all have to navigate. Every soul is sacred and worthy. Every soul deserves the opportunity to develop into a sexually healthy adult.
But youth are not the only people who are vulnerable in this regard. We are also called to remember that women, particularly poor women and women of color still in our world are disempowered. They often do not have the ability or the right to choose how and when they will have sex. I know in our community that is bracing to hear. But there are still many women in our country who are coerced into having unprotected sex, not as prostitutes, but as women who survive in a patriarchal culture. Affirming the worth of all people, and helping to empower the historically marginalized means helping them to take charge of their reproductive choices. Every soul is sacred and worthy, every person is entitled to decided if they want to have sex and how they want to protect themselves from pregnancy and STDs.
There are two other groups of people whose worth and dignity we are called to remember and protect. The first one is women struggling with unintended pregnancies. The religious right is quick to mention the rights of the fetuses and embryos. I personally share a small portion of that concern for a potential life. But the key piece of this equation is that word “potential.” Yes, there is potential for those cells, those fetuses to develop into meaningful lives. However, the women who carry them are already in the midst of a meaningful life. They have careers and school to handle. They have pressures from family and society. Every soul is sacred and worthy, this includes the brave women who have faced the very difficult decision to have an abortion, and the countless women in the future who will need to exercise this critical right.
And finally when I say that every soul is sacred and worthy I speak also of the countless children who are born every year to mothers and fathers who are unable to care for them. Many of the fortunate ones like myself, and some of the children in our congregation, get adopted into loving, supportive families. I can tell you that even is no cake-walk. Many others get left behind in a foster care system that is simply overwhelmed and underfunded. Nationwide, more than 463,000 kids live within the foster care system. 463,000 children do not have a permanent home. Many of these children are available for adoption, but the right family has not yet come along. Every soul is sacred and worthy. Every child born into this world is entitled to a safe and loving home environment. But the hard fact of the matter is, our society is not equipped to provide homes for the many, many children who are in desperate need. How, in the midst of that reality can we possibly force women with unintended pregnancies to risk their health, risk their careers, risk their social stability, to bring another child into this great mass of children in need. It simply does not add up. Every soul is sacred and worthy.
Another truth that we hold dear as Unitarian Universalists is that there is a unity that makes us one. Beyond all the differences that appear to divide us, our fates are interconnected. What affects one being, invariably affects the others in an intricate web of life.
It is rarely talked about in our world, but many, many women have faced the difficult decision to have an abortion. Most likely a woman that you know and care about has struggled with this dilemma. By the age of forty-five, nearly half of all women will have an unintended pregnancy. And, nearly one third will have an abortion. Let me repeat those numbers because they are big. Nearly half of all women will have an unintended pregnancy. Nearly one third will have an abortion in their life. It is also important to note that the rates of abortion among poor women and women of color are significantly higher than the rest of the population.
Abortion is not a bizarre rare thing. It is a very hard thing, but the women that we know and love face this difficult reality with bravery and courage. While preparing for this sermon I ran across an amazing short film called “The Abortion Diaries.” It is a collection of interview with women of different backgrounds who had had an abortion. They share candidly what that experience was like, and in so doing they break a silence and support one another. Hopefully we can show the film sometime soon here. As a man I found it very insightful and helpful.
There is a unity that makes us one. Abortion is a reality that impacts the psychological and spiritual well-being of the women in our lives. It therefore affects us all. And while it feels chilly to bring up money in a conversation so anchored in our core values, we are all connected financially to the impacts of reproductive justice. When women are empowered to make their own decisions about when and how to have children, they tend to have fewer of them. It is in all of our interests to have fewer children growing up in poor families. It is in all of our interest to have fewer children landing in the foster care system. By providing our children with accurate and helpful information, and by empowering poor women and women of color, we can save both tremendous heartache and tremendous sums of money in the long run. Again, I know it feels chilly to talk about money in this conversation. But our economy is just one of the many ways in which we are very, very connected to one another.
There is a unity that makes us one. That means that this conversation and the struggle for reproductive justice is not for women to engage alone. We are all touched by this. Saying that this struggle is for women alone is like saying ending racism is up to people of color to take care of. I know it is precarious to say that men have a voice in this discussion. I have heard from some of you, and I have read many, many suggestions that the only people who should be deciding about matters of abortion are women. I understand that inclination, I promise you I do. I have felt the urge to tell straight people, even the well intended ones that they just don’t get it. But, I also understand that we work together to create change. There is a unity that makes us one, a unity that calls us to listen deeply and work together while we bring more justice into our world.
The final piece of our faith tradition that I want to draw on today is an understanding that courageous love will transform the world. We Unitarian Universalists are called to struggle for reproductive justice as people of faith. That means our religious values and beliefs inform our commitment and our action in this arena.
Yes, reproductive justice is a question of faith and values. And we bring our faith and values with us into the struggle. I recently read a story about just that. Rev. Lisa Sargent worked for Planned Parenthood before she entered the ministry. It was hard but rewarding work. Frequently when she cam to work she found the building was surrounded by protesters. They usually were holding signs with religious messages and offering forgiveness through Jesus if only she would reject the work she was doing. But one day Lisa came across a bumper stick that gave her some solace and courage in the midst of all the religious force. The sticker said simply, “I’m pro-choice and I pray.”
She hung it up in her workspace and within 15 minutes a co-worker was there to talk about it. She whispered, “Do you really pray?” “Um, yes I do,” she said. “SO DO I!” They had a wonderful moment affirming their work as people of faith. And the day continued with a near constant stream of co-workers who wanted to talk about this simple sign. Rev. Lisa writes “I learned that day that my colleagues weren’t working at Planned Parenthood despite their religious beliefs, but because of them.” In fact it was working for Planned Parenthood for several years that lead Lisa into the ministry. She saw the way that prayer and meditation played a role in women’s difficult decision. And she saw the need for a religious voice that supported rather than shamed people in their time of need.
Like Lisa and those brave Planned Parenthood employees, we approach the issue of reproductive justice not in spite of our faith, but because of it.
I want to come back to the title of this sermon, “A Prayer for Reproductive Justice.” We are not praying for more abortions. We are praying and acting to create a world where everyone is empowered to decide what is right for his or her own body. We are striving for a world where poor women and women of color have enough power and self esteem to defend their rights. We long for a world where our young people can grow up with the tools to make sense of this culture obsessed with sex. And perhaps most of all, we pray for a world with enough compassion for people to sit together and hear the hard stories and tell the hard truths. So that one day we might all know more deeply what it means to love one another.
Monday, February 18, 2013
Prayers of the People
Today we are talking about a piece of our weekly worship service, the piece called Prayers of the People. Every Sunday following joys and sorrows, we say a short prayer naming the joys and concerns that have been raised, and also lifting up some of the other significant issues of the world.
Before we go into talking about that particular piece of OUR tradition here at UUFLB, I want to talk about religious ritual in general. The really amazing thing about ritual, or at least a good ritual, is that you can see many layers of different meaning in it, and it means different things to different people. In fact, some of the rituals that seem the most conservative and traditional, can actually be the most transgressive thing a community can do.
The best example of this comes from a small church that I attended back in college. It was a Christian church that did amazing ministry with the struggling and disenfranchised. Most notably it ministered to people living with AIDS. As a Christian church, they stood in solidarity with the most destitute and socially isolated community around. Keep in mind they started doing this in the early 90s in Oklahoma. And as a part of their solidarity with people living with AIDS, this community used the ritual of laying on of hands.
If you don’t know, what that looks like, is the person receiving a blessing stands or sits in the middle of the room, while the minister places a hand on that person’s head. Then, everyone in the community is invited to come forward and reach out to place a loving hand on the person, or to come in contact with someone who is. So that through touch, everyone in the room is connected, with a single person in the middle of this focus.
If you were here at my ordination service a few years ago you saw and participated in this type of circle as my ministry was confirmed and blessed through touch. Now at first glance, this sort of physical blessing can look a little spooky. That’s what some people thought of it in my ordination. Shortly afterward I heard one of my non-church friends turned to the other and asked “Are we really going to do this?” It smacks of faith healing and belief in miracles and all the sorts of magical thinking that we tend to challenge as Unitarian Universalists.
But I want to take you back to that little church where I first encountered the ritual, the little church that began as an AIDS ministry. What do you think that it might have meant for them to lay hands upon those who were sick and hurting, those in need of support? Yes, it meant that offering a blessing in this ritualized way, as Christians have done for a very long time. But even more than that, I meant defying a culture of exclusion, a culture that tells us that people living with AIDS are sinful and dirty and untouchable. You see, insisting on using touch for this sort of prayer was a radical act of solidarity with those who were suffering. It was an act of defiance against the status quo.
What appears at first glance to be an evangelical Christian practice can actually be a revolutionary endeavor. Ritual isn’t always what it seams. Consider what it means that same-sex couples want to participate in the ritual of marriage. Their embracing of a traditional form is a pretty aggressive way of saying we are here too, we want the same recognition as everyone else. Second best isn’t good enough. That very traditional ritual becomes revolutionary. Or consider the role that Spirituals have played in the American Black experience.
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
If you get there before I do
Coming for to carry me home
Tell all my friends, I’m coming too
Coming for to carry me home
Hopefully we know enough about American music and history to know that this song is not just about hope in the face of death. It is also a resilient cry for freedom. It is a song of solidarity and protest. We could choose to dismiss it as “too Christian.” But that would miss the point, wouldn’t it.
How often do we interpret prayer, or other people’s 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.
To understand the meaning of a ritual, you have to take its context into account. We offer prayers of the people in a particular Unitarian Universalist context. We pray together, knowing that not everyone in the room believes in prayer, and others embrace it whole-heartedly. We pray with a deep investment in scientific discovery, as a community of diverse faithful people committed to building a better world. And we offer up in prayer our most intimate pains and joys.
Prayer isn’t simple, especially around here. And when it is real, it contains our deepest sentiments. Perhaps it is worth remembering that the word prayer stems from the Latin root of precarious. It reminds us that prayer, the genuine article, remains an uncertain, even scary, adventure.
Often we pray when there is nothing else that can be done. I shared in my Newsletter column that I don’t pray very much any more. While I do meditate pretty consistently these days, my prayer life has had an ebb and flow. But sometimes, regardless of where I am in that ebb and flow, sometimes there’s nothing I can do to fix a problem. I’m not talking about finding a parking spot, I’m talking about having a broken heart, either for yourself or someone else. Sometimes all you can do is pray, whether or not you believe it makes a difference or not.
Having that opportunity alone is a tremendous benefit. It’s part of why we have joys and sorrows and prayers for the people. Because we all come to moments in our lives that we have done everything we could to make things right. But sometimes, what we care most about is out of our control. So we speak our hopes and our fears to one another, and to the Universe. And in so doing, we are offered a bit of release. The opportunity to lay your burdens down before another human being or before God is priceless. Getting what you want in the end isn’t necessarily the point. The point is saying “Here, this my heart is overflowing with need or joy. Here, can you hold some of this for me because I have done what I can and I can’t do any more.” We ask for help, guidance, and healing.
Prayer offers us an opportunity to let go when we have done everything we can to make it right. And it can also do the opposite. Just like we heard in our children’s story, prayer can give us the courage to make change in our lives. I really loved the story this morning because of the way you get to see prayer make an impact in her life. It wasn’t about God pointing a finger and magically made the girl able to do something she couldn’t before. This story was about a girl using prayer as a spiritual discipline, as she considered the task before her. And before she even knew it herself, she had expanded her horizon of what was possible. Through her praying and dreaming and envisioning a different way, she empowered herself to do what she really wanted.
I want to unpack for a minute, the false dichotomy that is often set up between prayer and action. I have heard Unitarian Universalists state that time is wasted with prayer, time that could be spent acting to make a difference in the world. We just talked about two ways that that is not true. Prayer is deeply related to action in our life. Sometimes we have done all we can do and we need to set our burden down to move on. And sometimes, we need to steel ourselves up, we need to prepare for the struggle ahead. And for many of us, prayer is a way of doing both of those things. Prayer is not the opposite of action, it is in concert with action.
And some of us believe that prayer itself is an action that has a real effect. I believe there is a healing power in our exercise of prayers of the people I believe that having our pain acknowledged by people that we love and trust is a critical and powerful step in the healing process. Our communal prayer makes a difference in people’s lives. As the Rev. Tom Owen-Towle puts it, “We believe that our souls generate healing energy. We’re not talking about superstition or magic, but prayer as an act by which we place another’s burden [or joy] in the center of our consciousness.”
This quote is especially powerful because it also tells us what prayer is not for us as UUs. It is not superstition or magic. When we pray here it isn’t for the forces of nature to stop in their tracks. We don’t pray for magic to occur. We do pray for hope, courage, and healing wherever and whenever it is possible.
Many of us believe that prayer changes things in the world. But what is much clearer is that prayer changes things in our own heart and mind. Everyone has a story of why they first come to church, and they are all good. One of our church leaders, Cal Hullihen, first came to church because people who go to church live longer. 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.
Prayer is good for people and living out your values is good for people. For many in our community who are atheists, prayer does not make sense. Some people, some of us believe that there is no God and that the exercise of communicating with a void makes no sense. That is certainly an important part of our 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. What’s more, and thank you Bruce Taylor for reminding me of this on Facebook, atheism is a particular stance, that is the fruit of serious deliberation and thought. It is a real and valid way of understanding our world.
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, 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.
Before we close today, I want to be clear with you about my purpose in focusing on prayer this month. The purpose is not to convince you or anyone else that you should pray. Many people in our community believe that prayer changes things, that the Universe listens and responds. I know for some of you that makes perfect sense, and for others it is complete hogwash. And both of those responses to prayer are okay. But, my goal, our goal as a diverse religious community is to build a place where each of us can cultivate the spiritual practices that make sense to us.
But more than that, we aim to build a place where we can share safely with each other what those spiritual practices are. Prayer is such a secret thing in our world. Secrets for two reasons, cover up shame, or to maintain power over another person. There is nothing shameful about praying, or not praying. There is nothing you need to hide here about your spiritual practice.
I know it is scary, but we can talk about it. 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 is 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? And be kind. Answering this question is just as strange and scary for your neighbor as it is for you.
Thank you for sharing yourselves with one another. In that little conversation that you just had, and here on Sunday mornings in worship. The power that we have as a community comes only through your willingness to trust one another and be gentle. When we do that, when we are able to talk honestly about our faith and when we bring our hopes and sorrows with us to church and lift them up with a clear voice, amazing things can happen.
Monday, February 4, 2013
Voices of Faith
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Some of us may stumble at the first line of this prayer. Some of us may stumble at the word prayer. I understand that. But exploring a little bit of how this prayer is most often used today may help us as Unitarian Universalists get a better grasp of prayer in general. This prayer, the serenity prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, is best known today for its role in Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step groups.
The beauty of Alcoholics Anonymous is that it revolves around people telling their own story, and sharing with one another where they have found hope and meaning in their own lives. It’s only fair to say that a good portion of that comes in the form of religion, and faith in God. Some AA meetings take on a more religious tone than others.
But within AA and the twelve steps, there is no test of creed. There is only a commitment to be a part of the group and try to make your life better. Does that sounds familiar? It should. Because that’s the way I explain Unitarian Universalism to anyone who asks. We have no set doctrine, no specific thing that we all must believe in, but we agree to be on a journey together as we improve our lives.
You don’t have to believe any particular thing. But in AA they talk a lot about belief in a higher power. The second step of AA is “Come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Of course for many people that power is God. But for lots and lots of others, that power is something different. It is something like the power of human community, the power of the fecundity of nature, the power of love. A number of different things are identified to help those in recovery lean on some source outside of themselves.
And just in the way a power greater than him or her self can help a person in recovery feel supported and gain perspective, any of us can replace the word God in this prayer with whatever we hold in high esteem. Weather that is love, community, nature, God or something completely different, calling upon our highest ideals is a great place to start in our search for serenity and perspective.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
This first prayer is all about finding perspective in life. In fact all of the prayers that I will talk about hold this as a key element, hoping to keep a focus on what we value most, so the rest of life can fall into place. And who couldn’t use a little help with finding perspective in life. It is a simple, beautiful, and helpful prayer for just about anyone. And it resonates beautifully with our own religious tradition.
Our second prayer is not quite as common as the other two prayers we are discussion today. But, this prayer from Francis of Assisi makes its fair share of appearances. I especially wanted to talk about it because it offers a pretty powerful bridge between traditional Christian prayer, and other religious traditions, like Unitarian Universalism, and believe it or not, Buddhism.
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love, Where there is injury, pardon Where there is doubt, faith, Where there is despair, hope, Where there is darkness, light, Where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, not so much to be understood as to understand, not so much to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, it is in dying that we awake to eternal life.” ~St. Francis of Assisi~
You have probably heard this prayer before. But how much attention have you paid to it? I personally had pretty thoroughly blocked this one out of my consciousness. I hear the words and my brain shuts off, because it evokes an idea of God that doesn’t mesh easily with my own. But this week I took the challenge to dig deeper. And what I found was pretty interesting.
From the very beginning, the prayer echoes my own sense of the value of prayer. And it is, I think, why many Unitarian Universalists pray. It’s not a prayer to get something, it’s not a request to the cosmic cash machine. This prayer is about making ourselves more action oriented. It is about making the person praying an instrument for sacred peace. “Make me and instrument of your peace,” is a way of verbalizing a deep yearning to live up to our highest ideals. Of course it goes on from peace to a whole litany of values that we long to embody. But at the core, this prayer is about finding strength and courage to live out our convictions in our daily lives.
My biggest challenge with this prayer, is that it begins to sound pretty pious near the end. It asks “grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, not so much to be understood as to understand, not so much to be loved, as to love; ” Don’t get me wrong, these are obviously very noble and good objectives. But honestly, how many of us truly want to reflect these priorities in our lives? How many of us want to love others more than to receive love ourselves. It’s a very tall order.
But there is a lens through which it makes more sense. It echoes strongly the Buddhist understandings of compassion. You see, within the Buddhist framework, life is full of suffering. It never ends. But, when we focus on the needs of others and begin to alleviate their suffering, we begin to put our own suffering into perspective. We heal our own wounded heart by healing others. That’s what the practice of compassion is about in Buddhism, in a very, very ridiculously small nutshell. It is a huge challenge, the religious journey of a lifetime, but in consoling, understanding, and loving others, we reap the fruit of those actions ourselves.
And finally, the closing phrase is a hard pill to swallow. “It is in dying that we awake to eternal life.” This is a very nuanced statement about Christian salvation. Death, here is a reference to dying in Christ and Baptism. It’s actually quite complicated theology that is worlds away from how we might understand this line.
But, strangely, it’s not all that far away from the Buddhist concept I was just referring to. It’s about losing ourselves to something great. When we lose our self, when we let go of ego and focus on the bigger picture, we forget our own personal needs and see our life in a wider context. We are invited to lose our self in a stream of life that continues far beyond our breath. For Christians and undoubtedly for St. Francis, it was about God and Jesus, but ultimately it is about finding hope in something larger than ourselves, especially as we face our own limitations. “It is in dying that we awake to eternal life.” These words could just have easily come from a Buddhist.
Before we move on to another prayer, I have to share with you one really fun gem I found in preparing for this sermon. I was fascinated to find that Francis of Assisi’s life story is strikingly similar to that of the Buddha. St. Francis was the son of a wealthy foreign cloth merchant. After receiving a vision, he went on a pilgrimage to Rome where he joined with beggars at St. Peter’s Basilica where he learned to renounce luxury. His spiritual journey was about letting go of material goods. And as he found new hope and meaning in that letting go, he began to share his message and his lifestyle with whole communities of followers. They gathered in groups, in intentional communities dedicated to living out this simple way of life. If you know the Buddha’s story, it is shockingly similar.
Through hearing this prayer, this voice of faith, we hear two great spiritual leaders sharing a common understanding of the world. Though we only have time to look at three prayers today, my hunch is that if we looked at the prayers of different spiritual teachers, we would find much more commonality than difference.
The last prayer for today is easily the most common in the United States, The Lord’s Prayer. I know you have heard this, at the very least in movies. And I know many of you grew up saying it. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on 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.” --- Matthew 6:9-13
This prayer is perhaps so common because it comes straight from the source. In two different books of the Bible, in Matthew and in Luke, Jesus is asked how his followers should pray, and this is what he offers to them. Just as interesting as the content of the prayer though, is how Jesus instructed them to go about praying. He tells his disciples, look, don’t be like the hypocrites who pray in public in; prayer isn’t a show, it’s a private conversation between you and God. You don’t need to be articulate; God knows your need. When he talks about prayer, Jesus paints a picture of a deep and intimate relationship with the Divine. It’s far different from the formal religion that took place in Temples during his time. We often forget it, but just about everything he said and did was countercultural in his time.
That idea of an intimate relationship comes out from the very beginning of the prayer. “Our Father, who art in heaven.” For most of us, this first line drips with sexism and patriarchy. But you have to remember context. This prayer is over two thousand years ago in a different language. I was fascinated to find this week that this may not be the best translation. The word Jesus consistently used was “Abba,” which means basically, “Daddy.” It is a much more intimate image than the word Father tends to bring us. It’s calling upon something on which we depend for our being. I know this isn’t an idea of the divine that resonates with all of us. But it is pretty powerful to know that when Jesus told his follower how to pray, it wasn’t to a stern and separate father figure, it was to a more intimate and personal Poppa.
The other piece of this prayer that is striking is that it is in the first person plural. “Our Father, give us, forgive us, lead us.” But we just heard that Jesus recommended praying alone, and that’s what he typically did. Jesus talked a lot about an individual’s faith and relationship with the divine, but he also insisted that we as individuals are responsible to a wider community in our faith. You may remember these little phrases, “Whoever does this to the least of these does it to me; who is your neighbor; feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless.” Jesus was not just interested in an individual’s faith. He was deeply invested in healthy and compassionate human community.
“Our Father, give us, forgive us, lead us.” All of the first person plural brings us back to the beginning of the prayer, the idea of the kingdom of God. Throughout his ministry Jesus taught that the kingdom of God, the perfect community, was ours to create. It is woven and depends on human community. It can’t be done by one person alone. The saying isn’t the kingdom of God is in you, the individual. But, the kingdom of God is among you, the people.
The most popular prayer in Western Christianity hinges on a communal religious experience. Give us, forgive us, lead us, all together as we seek a better way of being in this world. And this is the foundation of our faith as Unitarian Universalists, not the details of the kingdom of God, but the collective nature of the project. Regardless of what we believe or don’t believe about God and the Bible, we here agree that the real sacred work is not that of an individual faith life. The real work is a collective project. As we together seek nourishment, as we seek forgiveness, as we seek a right path, we do it together, and we offer these same gifts to one another.
Today we have looked at a few of the most commonly known prayers. Because we are here in the United States, they happened to be Christian prayers. But I want us to remember that prayer isn’t something that any one person or one tradition owns. For those who do it, prayer is just something that emerges from our hearts to the Universe, in times of need, celebration and gratitude. Some of us, some of you do it. For other’s it is a curious exercise. But I want to remind you all that prayer is something that belongs to us as Unitarian Universalists, just as much as any tradition.
I selected our closing hymn today because it has become one of the most beloved Unitarian Universalist prayers. The words reflect our common investment in the spirit of life, healing our pains and moving us toward creating a more justice. Would you please join me now in singing one a prayer from our own Unitarian Universalist community.