Monday, February 18, 2013
"Prayers of the People" - Sermon
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.