Landscape from Young, NSW 2011

Why I Pray

A superb sermon by Rev Judith E Meyer. Mirrored here by permission. Our thanks to Judith.

It is one of the best articulations I have been able to find of the value of prayer in a world where, to quote Judith, "I do not believe in a supernatural deity either... I'm not pinning my hopes on the "everlasting arms" that may or may not be waiting to catch men when I fall." In this world, prayer can seem rather pointless, but in Judith's sermon we see how the power of prayer need not be given up.

"Why I Pray"
A sermon by the Rev. Judith E. Meyer
Unitarian Universalist Community Church
Santa Monica, California
November 5, 2000

Religious liberals have sought diligently for years
to find fresh and relevant definitions of prayer.
Bishop John Shelby Spong makes a passionate appeal in his book
for prayer as the exercise of an authentic life.
"Prayer is what I am doing," he writes,
"when I live wastefully,
passionately, and wondrously
and invite others to do so with me
or even because of me."

More practical, perhaps, is the definition we find in our covenant:
"Love is the doctrine of this church.
The quest of truth is its sacrament,
and service is its prayer."
This perspective is consistent with the Unitarian Universalist emphasis
on deeds, not creeds,
as the standard of the good life.
We are at our best when we are acting on our principles.

The liberal religious understanding of prayer
as authentic living or service to others
is an honest attempt to recast traditional religious forms
in the terms of contemporary experience.
We do not offer prayers
"by storming the gates of heaven,"
nor do we imagine our God as residing there.
For Bishop Spong,
prayer is the here and now experience of coming fully alive.
"There is only the call to be open to the depths of life,"
he writes,
"and to live in such a way as to reveal those depths."

Bishop Spong writes,
"I do not believe that there is a being,
a supernatural deity,
standing over against my world
who seeks through some invasive process
to imprint the divine will on the life of my world.
The deity I worship," he adds,
"is rather part of who I am individually and corporately...
God is the presence in whom my being comes alive."
I do not believe in a supernatural deity either.
I'm not pinning my hopes on the "everlasting arms"
that may or may not be waiting to catch me when I fall.

But like Bishop Spong, I do have a sense of God,
not the God of theism or the bible,
but a sense of something holy,
which I still seek, however tentatively,
to be part of my life.
And prayer is my appeal to that God
or that "something holy"
to enter my life and even to change it.
This is the culmination,
if you can call it that,
of the years I have spent
contemplating, rejecting and revising my image of God.
As those of you who have children are frequently reminded,
this thinking starts early in all of us.
When I was very young,
I had many fervent religious interests
and tried everything from devotional rituals
to giving up listening to my transistor radio for Lent,
as a way of seeking God.
My parents tolerated my preoccupations
with good humor and little comprehension.

I asked my father if he believed in God.
"I worship Apollo," he told me,
and then directed me to read all of Bulfinch's Mythology.
They were good Unitarian Universalist parents,
but they tried too hard to intellectualize religion
and left me looking on my own
for spiritual experiences.
They think that is why I became a minister.

My childhood image of God as the object of devotion
soon gave way to God as an intellectual exercise
when I studied philosophy in college.
There is nothing quite as effective for losing faith in God
as studying proofs of His existence!
Once I made it to Hegel and then on to Marx,
Heidegger and the existentialists,
I never looked back.
I became convinced that the human enterprise was tragic,
that the only authentic state was anxiety,
and we could save ourselves
only by facing up to this bleak reality.
After a while, I cheered up,
and wondered whether God might have something to do
with life not always being tragic
and occasionally offering some relief instead of dread.
Whatever this glimmer of hope and transcendence might be,
I was willing to call it God,
and today I still do.
It's just a glimmer,
but the light stays on.

My sense of God has changed throughout my life,
as I imagine it has for you,
and yet something I've noticed
is that my use of prayer has hardly changed at all.
I admire the liberal religious view of prayer
as service,
or social action,
or celebration,
or any of the ways in which
we are at our best,
but that's not how I pray.
I don't pray often.
But when I do,
it's because I'm desperate.

I want to tell you about this,
because sometimes these prayers,
desperate though they may have been,
have changed my life.
Not because they were answered
in any obvious way.
Not because the universe offered me any signs
to confirm that I was going in the right direction.
Not because of anything outside myself, actually -
but because of something inside,
something that allowed me to open up,
or to change,
or to move on
in ways I desperately needed to do.

I have prayed for sleep.
I have prayed for forgiveness.
I have prayed when I've had it with my perfectionism
and need help with acceptance.
I have prayed for healing.
I have prayed for people I know who are suffering.
I have prayed by hospital bedsides
when there is nothing left to say.
And I have prayed
when I feel cut off from the spirit of life,
when I feel trapped,
no longer in touch with my own true self.

Our story for the children this morning
was a mystical narrative in which the Maasai Man
sings to the spirits of the animals caged in the zoo.
They get a glimmering of something
that reminds them of who they really are,
and they don't feel sad and trapped anymore.
When they remember their own true selves,
they feel free.

Prayer is like the song of the Maasai man.
It can rekindle the awareness of who we really are,
and remind us of the spirit within.
We can turn to it when we feel trapped too,
held back by our own limitations and weaknesses,
or frustrated by the constraints our lives have imposed on us,
or when we have nowhere else to turn.

The best advice anyone ever gave me about prayer was this:
just ask for what you want.
Just ask:
not because you will receive,
but because there is hope and healing
in naming what you want.
There is hope and healing in the truth,
whatever the outcome you seek.

Mary Oliver writes,
"[And] if your spirit carries within it
the thorn that is heavier than lead -
if it's all you can do to keep on trudging -
there is still somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted ..."
These words are for those of us who have felt the pain
of not being exactly who we wanted to be;
and for those who have had to hoist the heavier burdens of life:
illness, disappointment, loss;
and also for those of us whose personal struggles
are mundane but no less tragic or impenetrable.
For any of us, the thorn can become heavier than lead at any time.
When it does,
there is still the beast deep within,
still shouting,
still living in the spirit
of what is light, natural and free.
That is where prayer can lead,
if we let it take us there.

Prayer is primitive and fundamental.
It is the naked recognition of who we are
and what we want.
Prayer is speaking the truth to ourselves,
not always an easy thing to do.
We express ourselves in our most vulnerable state.
Perhaps that is why people have sent their prayers to heaven:
far away,
safely out of reach.

But what we need is what can reach us:
to sense the spirit within,
and know the truth of ourselves.
The truth is what can reach us.
Prayer is letting it find us.
Once we know the truth,
we are free to change and grow
and find what we are seeking in life.

We religious liberals are skeptical about prayer
because we reject the materialism
of asking for something we want,
and we lack the belief in a supernatural agent to provide it.
But asking for what we need,
whether that is the strength to change and grow,
or the courage to face our fears,
or the willingness to move closer to others -
asking is the first step
towards finding what we need,
and becoming the agents
of our own true selves.
In this sense, we pray to the spirit within us
that helps us to move in the direction we desire.
As Bishop Spong says,
"There is no magic here!"
There may even be no God here,
just the human yearning to live honestly
and to be true to oneself.

I still pray to God,
because if I need to pray badly enough,
I don't have time to define and qualify what I mean.
But if I were to define and qualify what I mean,
I would say that God is the spirit at the center of life
in which I place my trust and my vulnerability.
Something like that.
Bishop Spong's definition works well too:
"God is the presence in whom my being comes alive."

But you don't need God to pray.
You only need your true self,
and a willingness to open your true self
to your deepest yearnings, hopes and fears.
Whatever you have is enough.
I also want to tell you my one other belief about prayer.
When my prayers are answered,
I give thanks.
I try never to forget to give thanks.
It may be some imaginary transaction going on in my head,
but it does not feel complete to me
until I have acknowledged my gratitude
for whatever I have received.
Perhaps I'm relieved
that whatever crisis provoked the prayer is over.
Or I realize one day
that something has changed in me
and that I have grown in some way I really needed to do.
Or I think about my life and feel grateful.
I give thanks.
And then I move on,
no longer as heavy as lead,
more in touch with my true self,
knowing, at least for that moment,
that something holy goes with me too
and is never too far away.

"The Spirit of the Maasai Man," by Laura Berkeley (New York: Barefoot Books, 2000)
"Why Christianity Must Change or Die," by John Shelby Spong (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998).

Copyright 2000, Rev. Judith E. Meyer
This text is for personal use only, and may not be copied
or distributed without the permission of the author.

Judith's Church Home

October 2002

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