You Are in My Prayers

You Are in My Prayers
1-23-11
Rev. Douglas Taylor

During my first or second year in ministry, I was attending an interfaith clergy gathering with another Unitarian Universalist colleague. The organizer of the gathering turned to my UU colleague and asked him if he would lead the group in an opening prayer. My colleague replied, without missing a beat, “Well, I really am not very good at that sort of thing, but –” and he smiled glancing over at me “– but Douglas always has a prayer in his back pocket.”

My initial thought, as I smiled back and gathered myself to lead the interfaith clergy in prayer, was that my colleague had pulled a fast one on me! But I could roll with it. Later, as we drove away together from the event my UU colleague confessed that he was really uncomfortable being asked to lead prayer like that. He told me how glad he was in that moment that I had come with him this time because he knew I was comfortable leading prayer like that. What I had initially perceived as a mildly irritating trick was actually a shy compliment.

So for the rest of the trip back across town I pondered that statement. “Am I comfortable leading prayer? I hadn’t thought so before.”

And I thought back to a similar comment another colleague offered. When we were in seminary at Meadville Lombard, a handful of us arranged to meet three times a week for early morning meditation in one of the empty classrooms. We would arrive silently, before breakfast, someone would lit a candle and keep time. After fifteen minutes we would extinguish the candle, hold hands briefly and then disperse back to our apartments to get ready for classes.

One of my classmates was quite effusive about how valuable these fifteen minutes of silence were to her. “Douglas, you have silence a lot, you can tap that whenever. But this is very new to me. Fifteen minutes feels very long and agonizing, I am so grateful I am not alone in the room because I don’t think I could last three minutes without the rest of you there.” She was single, I had two young kids back home – and I was the one with easy access to silence? But when I am honest with myself, what my friend said of me is true. Being silent is simple for me, and to turn the silence toward silent prayer is not a difficult step.

So I am developing a sense of myself that is line with others see in me: I am one for whom silence is like a second skin. I am one who travels with a prayer in my pocket. But I am also, I must admit, someone who has trouble with prayer – well, with some kinds of prayer – ok, with one particular kind of prayer: Petitionary prayer or intercessory prayer.

That’s the kind of prayer in which a person asks God to do something or change something. “Please, God make me pass this test, save the plane from crashing, get my team into the finals.” I don’t like this kind of prayer because it implies that God is an entity that tinkers with history and physics to suit the wishes of the faithful.

I heard about a minister who became upset with a woman when she described how her son had survived a particularly deadly military action because she had prayed for him. The minister asked her if she thought the other soldiers’ mothers had not prayed enough or been faithful enough. He asked her if she really thought the soldiers who did not survive had died only for the fact that they did not have mothers who prayed for them as she had done for her son.

And yet I will tell people, I have told some of you, “You are in my prayers.” I feel as though I identify with the women in the story who prayed for her son’s safety – not so much the smug satisfaction that seems to be there after the fact. But certainly the fervent wish that my prayers will be answered: that health will be restored, pain eased, relationships reconciled. Yet I don’t experience God as a wish-granting genie that I keep in my personal prayer bottle. “You are in my prayers,” I say. What does that mean? I struggle with this.

I don’t know if it ever crosses your mind. I don’t know how many of you here are people who pray. Maybe you struggle with it too. I am always surprised by the larger than expected number of us who pray. The stereotype is that we don’t – or if we do, our prayers are “to whom it may concern.” Maybe you have long ago dismissed prayer – you are not a praying person. I wonder if maybe what people reject when they reject prayer is this particular type of prayer, this intercessory and petitionary prayer. I was reading recently that there are five basic types of prayer: “Wow,” “Thank you,” “Sorry,” “Please,” and “____.” Of course some will tell you the number is really 2 or 22, but I like five. “Wow,” “Thank you,” “Sorry,” “Please,” and “____.”

“Wow” is a prayer of praise, a hallelujah. It is the prayer of amazement and wonder and appreciation – like applause. It leads well into “Thank you.” “Thank you” is a prayer of gratitude – perhaps the most easily understood. “Sorry” is the prayer of confession, the prayer for seeking to set things right again. “Sorry” is a hard one to do not because Unitarian Universalists find it theologically challenging but because all humans find it hard to say ‘I have done something wrong and I want to make it right.’ “Please” is the prayer of supplication and intersession, the petitionary prayer. This is a hard one. And it is the one most people think of when they think of prayer. This is the help me, heal me, hold me prayer; the change-this-bad-thing-to-good prayer. “Please” is the type of prayer Flip Wilson is poking fun at when he said, “I’m going to pray now, does anyone want anything?” It is the one I most have trouble with. “Wow,” “Thank you,” “Sorry,” “Please,” and “____.” The final type is silence.

Silence is included in the list of five here. An argument could be made that silence is not prayer, it is meditation; it is listening not speaking. Prayer is supposed to be a spoken experience; it is putting words out there, right? Theologian Soren Kierkegaard tells a story of a man who thought prayer was talking. But he grew more and more quiet until he realized that prayer is listening. I imagine the majority of us do not have a problem with a practice of meditative listen, of sharing silence in a reverent fashion. I suspect some of you would balk at calling it prayer.

In our regular liturgy each Sunday I mark the prayer and meditation time as moving through three phases: first with words, followed by silence, and the singing of a hymn. All three are forms of meditation or prayer. But I note a difference between the element I call a prayer and the next element which I call silence. And yet, it is more than merely the absence of noise. It is silence of a certain quality. Jacob Trapp writes about it in this meditation:

Let this house be quiet. Let our minds be quiet.
Let the quietness of the hills, the quietness of deep waters, be also in us:
So quiet that the noise of passing events and present anxieties,
of random recollections and wondering thoughts, is stilled;
So quiet that the marvelous stillness is like music;
So quiet that we feel the very being which is the life of us all;
So quiet that we are renewed, we feel at one with all others,
at home in a tabernacle of stillness;
So quiet that we sense the ripples of this pool of quietness and healing
pass through us and out to the farthest star.

Silent prayer or meditation in its simplicity can be the most open and accessible form. It even eliminates the difficulty involved for atheists, humanists, and other non-theists among us because there is not an assumed ‘other’ listening to our prayers because the prayer is silent.

But take a second look at some of these other types of prayer. “Wow” can be a natural, spontaneous, overflow of appreciation with life. Kate Braestrup describes a moment in her book when she pulled over to the side of the road to watch a sunrise. Braestrup is a chaplain with the Maine Warden Service and was on her way to a search-and-rescue happening several hours from her home. Knowing full well the fear, anxiety, and sorrow awaiting her arrival, Braestrup still had to pull over the car and watch in amazement as the world worked its way through a stunning sunrise. She writes:

I pulled the car onto the verge and turned off the motor. I sat gazing at the dark water, rocks wrapped in light from a pale sky. Consumed by a yearning whose object I couldn’t identify, I could think of no way to respond to it, though I badly wanted to respond. So I sat there and let the sun rise.” (Beginner’s Grace, p 33)

She confessed she wished she would have responded by “composing a splendid prayer and leaping from my warm car to sing it, three beside the frosted road.” (Ibid p33) But all she could do was murmur, inarticulately, “Wow.”

I can manage a prayer of “Wow” from time to time. Often when it takes on words it becomes a “Thank you” prayer. “Oh, we give thanks for the precious day.” When I remember to say grace before a meal it is a “Thank you.” E E Cumming’s poem with the opening line “I thank you god for most this amazing day” is a good example of a prayer of thanks. You can find that one in our hymnals, number 504. All of the selections from 493 through 524 are prayers that might serve for us. Take a look. You will find a disproportional amount of “Wow” and “Thank you.”

I like this one from Richard Fewkes in our hymnal number 515.

For the sun and the dawn which we did not create;
For the moon and the evening which we did not make;
For the food which we plant but cannot grow; …
I won’t read the whole prayer; you get the gist of it. For all these good and necessary things in our lives “we lift up our hearts in thanks this day.”

“Sorry” prayers are there in our hymnal. There is a small section ahead of the meditations and prayers called “Confessions.” There are exactly three prayers there – not a lot. Number 477 by Vivian Pomeroy is a prayer I have used in worship now and then. “Forgive us that often we forgive ourselves so easily and others so hardly.” I have sometimes felt we need a companion to this that acknowledges the times we are harder on crueler to ourselves than we would ever dream of being to another human being, for which we ought to seek forgiveness.

The “Please” prayer is not in our hymnal as much. The “Please” prayer is asking God for something, either for ourselves or for others. Please give us guidance, healing, safety, blessing—it is used to ask for all kinds of things, great and small. There is a cluster of short prayers in the hymnal that count as intercessory prayers, as “please” prayers: numbers 507, 508, and 509. The first one says:

Grant us the ability to find joy and strength not in the strident call to arms but in stretching out our arms to grasp our fellow creatures in the striving for justice and truth.

The next one reads:

Save us from weak resignation to violence, teach us that restraint is the highest expression of power, that thoughtfulness and tenderness are the mark of the strong; help us to love our enemies, not by countering their sins but by remembering our own.

And finally, the last of the three says this:

Save us, compassionate Lord from our folly, by your wisdom, from our arrogance, by your forgiving love, from our greed, by your infinite bounty, and from our insecurity, by your healing power.

These ask for help. “Please,” they say, “Help us, save us, grant us, teach us, heal us.” But if you are following along in the hymnal I am sure you’ve noticed these are listed not as Unitarian Universalist prayers, but as examples of prayers from the three western monotheistic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

There is another “Please” prayer, but it turns the formula on its head. It is number 519 written by Rabindranath Tagore. A Bengali poet and novelist from the early 1900’s who developed some loose connections with American Unitarianism after World War 1. The prayer is this:

Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless in facing them.
Let me know beg for the stilling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not look for allies in life’s battle-field, but to my own strength.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved,
but hope for the patience to win my freedom.
Grant me that I may not be a coward, feeling your mercy in my success alone;
But let me find the grasp of your hand in my failure.

As I said, this turns the formula on its head. Instead of praying for something I don’t have or can’t have, it is calling forth qualities from within myself that need at the moment. When I offer prayers during worship they may include elements of “Wow” and “Sorry,” but often they are taken up in “Thank you” and “Please.” I often say things like,

Where there is difficulty grant us strength. Where there is adversity grant us courage. Where there is suffering grant us meaning, that we may grow not bitter for the road we travel.

Perhaps some one asked you to pray for them. Perhaps this is no trouble for you! For many of us we struggle between compassion and an honest articulation of our beliefs about God and prayer when such a request is made. I believe in love. I believe that God is the transformative power of love. And I believe this love, this God, resides within each of us.

So when I say to someone, “You are in my prayers,” I don’t mean to imply that I have a special tug on God’s ear and can put in a good word for you. I don’t mean to imply that my prayers can somehow alter the laws of physics or tips the scales of chance. I see prayer as less a statement of fact and more a poetic reflection on reality. A prayer is not a research paper or an encyclopedia entry. A prayer is a statement of compassion. Prayer is not a replacement for actions that can make a situation better; nor is it a last resort. Prayer is a way of approaching the world.

And so do I pray the sort of prayers that ask for things of God. I don’t like the implication that God is a cosmic vending machine because from all I’ve experienced God is not like that. So I continue to struggle, and somewhere between poetry and integrity I will pray. Somewhere between the words that make sense and the words that soothe, I will pray for each of you. I will pray that health will be restored, pain eased, relationships reconciled and suffering made at least meaningful.

I invite you to pray – try the silence, try the “wow” and the “thank you,” and when necessary pray the “sorry” prayer. But know that if you pray then it will come up: I invite you to pray of others, to pray for those in need. I still struggle with it. But I will pray that health will be restored, pain eased, relationships reconciled and suffering made at least meaningful. Perhaps I will meet you sometime in this struggle, in prayer.

In a world without end,
May it be so