Praying (a sermon preached to Woodinville UUC in July 09)

Good morning Woodinville Unitarian Universalist Church!  I bring you greetings from your brothers and sisters in the United Church of Christ.  I am glad to be with you again.  For those of you who don’t know me, I am a recent graduate of Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry and am approved for Ordination in the UCC.  I grew up in the Unitarian Universalist church, however, and I am bilingual—I speak both UU and Progressive Christian, and (I hope) I am a bridge between our communities—who are working together on important human rights issues all over this troubled world.

And it is in part because I believe in the work that you are doing—that we are doing together—that I am so pleased to be here with you today.   Thank you very much.  Let us pray:

Holy One,

Open our eyes, open our ears, open our hearts. 


Do Unitarian Universalists pray?  Some do Yoga.  And some practice transcendental meditation.  Some jog, or swim or hike.  Some read poetry every morning before the rest of their household is stirring.  Some light Sabbath candles on Friday night and say the ancient Hebrew blessings.  Some have learned to go deep inside to look for and to listen for inner wisdom and guidance.

So, yes, some Unitarian Universalists pray.  But I would guess that many of you prefer words like meditation, chanting, drumming or tai chi to the word prayer.  I may have lost some of you when I asked you to pray with me just a moment ago.  If so, please give me another chance–

Prayer is another one of those words that has been stolen from us by the religious right.  Because it is not only Unitarian Universalists who feel a little funny talking about praying and prayer, progressive Christians too feel a bit self conscious.

We feel self conscious because of the way public prayer has been used as a forum to wound and to insult and to demonize others.  The ways public prayer has been used to claim God for our side—be it our football team or our country.  We are embarrassed by books like the Prayer of Jabez which claims that repeating a certain mantra from the Bible will cause God to give you whatever you ask for.  We are appalled by books like God Wants You to be Rich! which promotes prayer as a self help/get rich tool.   We feel angry when prayers at high school graduations are used to draw lines between us and them, or when prayers at inaugural addresses insist there is only one way to pray—only one way to address the Great Mystery of the Universe.

We have all known people who act as if the Holy One is some kind of vending machine, as if when we put in the correct change and pull the correct lever, the candy bar we want will slide down the chute.  We have all known people who—when they don’t get the candy bar they hoped for—bang on the glass, kick the machine, and then give up in disgust.

We have met people who say things like, “My daughter had cancer, but God has answered our prayers and the cancer is gone.”  And we have wanted to point out that this is terrible theology.  We have wanted to ask—and what about all the people who prayed but their cancer DIDN’T go into remission?

I could go on and on—and you probably could too.  From the beginning (remember the church selling indulgences?) prayer has been given a very bad name.  And although wonderful books like Eat Pray Love have done some work to reclaim it, all too often the word prayer leaves a bad taste in our mouths.

So why am I up here today, talking about a subject that makes all of us a bit squeamish?  Because I believe that prayer is a powerful tool.  Like any tool—a hammer for example—it can be used to destroy, or it can be used to build, to strengthen, to secure.  And just because far too many people in far too many times and places have used this tool irresponsibly does not mean we should give up on it altogether.  I want to reclaim the word.

If prayer is—as I believe it to be—a powerful tool in the life of a person of faith, in the life of a community of faith, then I want to be a person of prayer.  And I want you—Woodinville UUC—you who work for peace and justice and equality—I want you to be people of prayer, a community of prayer.  I am not asking you to give up yoga or meditation or walking—this is not an either/or kind of thing.  I want you to continue with all the practices you have—individually and communally—and I want you to give other kinds of prayer a second look.  I don’t want you to miss out on any of this life changing, soul transforming tool just because some people have given this deep, ancient and honorable practice a bad name.

So what is prayer?  There is no simple answer to that question.  There is no single definition.  Which is why we turn to poetry.  So let’s hear again the words of Mary Oliver.  I will start with the Summer Day which has been a favorite poem of mine for at least ten years.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean–
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down–
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is” says the poet, but it seems to have something to do with paying attention.

I spent the last couple of weeks at summer camp.  Last week I was in Idaho on Lake Coeur D’Alene, where I go every year to be chaplain for the high school aqua camp.  It is, quite simply, the best job in the world.  On the morning I wrote this sermon, a bald eagle screeched right above my head during morning worship and then settled in to the top of his tree for the entire service.  I met a fawn on the path, her back still covered with white spots.  We looked at each other for a moment.  And then another.  And then another.  Then she turned her head and walked slowly into the brush, found a nice spot, sat down and disappeared in the mottled green of the forest floor.  I saw a mother robin with an enormously fat worm held fast in her beak, making her way back to the nest and chicks we could see from the dining hall.  And I almost ran into a black garter snake who was sunning on the path.  He moved away and back into the tall grass with that impossible sideways slither that only snakes know how to do.

At camp, whenever I stop and listen, I hear hundreds of birds, or the lapping waves of the lake, or the chirping of the crickets.

At camp it is pretty easy to pay attention.

At camp it is pretty easy to pray.

Mary Oliver’s poem invites me to cultivate my ability to pay attention so that I can pay attention to my everyday life with the same joy and wonder I found so easily at camp.

Wake up!  Says the Buddah.

Listen!  Says the Prophet.

Pay Attention!  Says the poet.

“What else should we be doing?” Mary Oliver asks.  Pay Attention.  Be Idle. Be Blessed.

The second poem of Mary Oliver’s we have for this morning is called Praying.  And she wrote this poem many many years after she wrote The Summer Day—many many years after she wrote the words “I don’t know what a prayer is.”  I think of it as her answer to her own wonderings.


It doesn’t have to be

the blue iris, it could be

weeds in a vacant lot, or a few

small stones; just

pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try

to make them elaborate, this isn’t

a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which

another voice may speak.


“Just Pay Attention” she says, echoing her earlier words.  The she gives us a few clues to help us figure out the mystery.

prayer doesn’t have to be fancy

prayer isn’t a contest

prayer is a doorway

a doorway in to thanks and into silence

I love this image of prayer as a doorway.  I see it in my mind’s eye and I think of the magic wardrobe leading into the Kingdom of Narnia.  For this is no ordinary doorway.

It is a doorway to a place where the Holy One might speak and be heard, where your soul’s deepest truth might speak and be heard, where love might sing and be heard and heeded.

And perhaps this is where the rubber meets the road.  Maybe this is why we feel so much more comfortable with our other practices—yoga, meditation, hiking.  Because none of those other practices spend much time holding out the promise of (in Mary Oliver’s words) “another voice” that “may speak”

This is hard to sit with.  I know it is.  For a time, this—more than anything else—is what drove me from a life of faith.  So how can we talk about prayer together?  One of the gifts of living my faith as a Christian is that I have the model of Jesus’ life and teachings to guide me.  In the words of our more conservative brothers and sisters, I ask myself What Would Jesus Do?  Now, I used to just roll my eyes when I hear that question.  Just as perhaps some of you are rolling your eyes at me right now.  But stay with me for a minute.  Because one of the best answers to what would Jesus do is—he would tell stories.  So taking a cue from my Rabbi, I want to tell you a few stories from my own life in prayer.

So here we go:  first thing you should know is that I grew up in Dallas Texas—not just the Bible Belt—but the buckle on the Bible Belt.  And I was surrounded by people who talked about their close personal relationship with Jesus, people who seemed to have God in their back pocket, people who said that all it took was faith.

And I was a little girl growing up in a violent and chaotic home, who, after a beating would sob her heart out, calling to God for comfort, for deliverance, for presence.  But I heard nothing.  For years I prayed to hear something—anything.  At some point I gave up.

But all around me, people continued to talk about how they walked and talked with “the Father.”  And I became bitter and angry inside.  The way I saw it, there were two choices.  Either they were lying, or God was talking to these jerks, but ignoring me.

I decided they were lying—that was easier than the alternative.

And for a time, I successfully ignored God.  I grew up, picking up the pieces of my childhood as best I could.  I went off to college, then Europe.  Jeff and I got married, got started in our careers, and most Sundays we attended the church of the New York Times.  We had bagels and coffee—that was our communion.

And then, our first child Miranda was born.  (here comes the second story)

I was twenty three, fundamentally unchurched, reasonably content in my liberal, secular-humanist worldview, when God took advantage of my hormone-logged postpartum daze and hit me over the head with a baseball bat.  I held my baby daughter in my arms and I knew, I knew God loved me like I loved this wet, wrinkled start of a human being.  I got it.  I didn’t love this little lump because of her good works (though I certainly hoped she would grow to be someone who would do good in the world).  I didn’t love her because of what she could do for me.  I simply loved her because she was mine, I had created her, and she was good.  If I loved her this much, this freely, and this fully, how much more did God love me?  In that overwhelming moment in the maternity ward, I heard a voice and caught a glimpse of God.

That moment undid me.  Everything I thought I knew was turned upside down.  I still didn’t understand the deafening silence of God in my childhood years—in fact I still don’t.  But that moment of being caught up in Holy Love was so real—it changed me, it changed everything.

First it sent me back to church.  We joined first the University UU church in Seattle and later University Congregational UCC.  God was now a Reality in my life that I wanted to know more about.  I read books.  I talked to other seekers.  I tried to get a handle on this Jesus person and what that was all about.  But I didn’t pray—at least not much.  When I look back on it I have to laugh—I wanted to know more about this God who had reached out and grabbed me—but I didn’t think to talk to God—that is I didn’t think to pray.

No it wasn’t until my world fell apart that I began to pray.  Maybe you too have known a time in your life when everything fell apart.  It is not all that uncommon, though we like to pretend it is.  For me, when things fell apart, one of the symptoms was that I had trouble sleeping.  And even when I managed to get to sleep, I always woke before dawn with my mind spinning round and round.

As soon as the sun made an appearance I would be up and on my bike.  As soon as my legs started spinning, my mind would settle, and after a time, I began to pray as naturally and as automatically as I breathed.

Not a fancy prayer, just a noticing of the beauty around me and a thank you in my heart…I prayed for my family and my friends as their faces would come to my mind..I sang hymns and taize:

Oh Lord hear my prayer Oh Lord hear my prayer, when I call answer me.  Oh Lord hear my prayer, oh lord hear my prayer, Come and Listen to me.

And one day as I was singing this I realized the words had changed and I was singing

Oh Child hear my prayer, Oh child hear my prayer, when I call answer me.  Oh child, hear my prayer, oh child hear my prayer, Come and Listen to me.

And I realized that God was singing to me and through me.

It was that time—the time when my world fell apart—that I became a person of prayer.  It has become for me a way of life, a habit.  Often as my husband and I are sinking into sleep at the end of the day, I feeling God tucking us in, and my heart fills with a wordless prayer of love.  I wake in the morning and even before I am fully awake I am praying a prayer of thanksgiving for this day, for my husband and kids, for this life and for friends and for work, for love and joy and everything.

I do a lot of what I have come to call stealth prayer.  I pray at stop lights and I pray while brushing my teeth.  I know someone who takes the long way to work so he can bless each house and those who live there as he drives in.  I know someone who prays while she washes the dishes by hand.

Prayer does not have to be an onerous practice.  You do not need the right words or the right space or even five uninterrupted moments.

It is like the poet told us.  It does not have to be the Blue Iris.  It can be anything.  In any moment.  No need for fancy words.  No need for words at all sometimes.

All you have to do is be willing to walk through that doorway into the magical kingdom of gratitude and thanksgiving and silence.

And then listen.  Listen to your heart.  Listen to your soul.  Listen for the One Beyond Naming.

It just might change your life.

May it be so!


2 Responses to Praying (a sermon preached to Woodinville UUC in July 09)

  1. Pingback: On Praying | A Live Coal in the Sea

  2. Pingback: Prayer to an Unknown God | A Live Coal in the Sea

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