Opening Words: White Heron, John Ciardi
What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare,
a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,
a shaped thought at the sky — then gone. O rare!
Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
would have cried Father! Cry anything you please
But praise. By any name or none. But praise
the white original burst that lights
the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,
I sit by pond scums till the air recites
It’s heron back, and doubt all else, but praise.
We’re here to be reminded to pay attention to the heron and the robin, the daffodils and roses, the ocean shore and the mountain peeks, the darkness and the dawn…and,by paying attention, to nurture that part of us we call ‘the human spirit’ which bridges the gulf between us and reminds us that we are with one another here today…that we ‘abide with one another.’
Sermon: Does God Listen to Prayers?
I want to talk about prayer – we Unitarian types are more apt to talk about it than to do it…we make fun of ourselves by saying we pray ‘to whom it may concern.’
In our Sunday service we generally have a time of sharing concerns and joys with candle lighting, followed by some music to invite the muse, followed by some silence to deepen our conversation with the muse, followed by some words to bring it all together.
I introduce that part by saying, “I invite you to join with me in the spirit of meditation, prayer and reflection.”
That invitation each Sunday is carefully crafted to be as inclusive as possible – theists, agnostics, atheists, deists, pantheists, undecideds, etc.
First of all, it’s an invitation – request for participation; it’s an enticement, to encourage your participation. It’s certainly not a demand, not even an expectation…just a poetic invitation, like Whitman’s words in Song of the Open Road where he says, ‘Whoever you are, come travel with me…allons! after the great companions.’
So I invite you to join with me in the spirit of…meditation, prayer and reflection; it’s a multiple choice option.
I could say ‘meditation, prayer or reflection,’ but one option is ‘all of the above.’ Or ‘none of the above,’ as the case may be.
The meditation to which I’m inviting you is a particular kind of contemplation, to think on these things together.
Emerson said that ‘prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.’ That definition does not presuppose that someone up there is listening, but it does assume that there is a higher order of thinking than that which results from reading the New York Times.
Prayer comes in many forms – the common element is entreaty, a fervent request or appeal. For many Unitarian types, the word is off-putting since it assumes that someone is listening.
While I don’t believe in a god who sits in the clouds processing prayers from the six-or-so billion of us, I do know that prayers are listened to…and that listening itself has the most basic hint of the divine I can imagine. (Repeat…explain.)
We usually equate praying with putting words together, of saying something, but we pray with our ears more than our mouths. The verb ‘to listen’ shares the root of the verb ‘to praise.’
To listen, to pay attention, is to praise. A good example is Mary Oliver’s poem/prayer she calls Messenger:
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
Victor Lundy’s suggestion about the roof design…two hands in prayer…not touching, to leave room…I would add to leave the question open…to leave space for your doubts and for mine.
When I was growing up we had prayer in school, told to ‘fold your hands, now let us pray.’
For some the clasped hands help to assume a prayerful position…some prostrate themselves…the Muslim at prayer assumes the right position, and at certain times of the day, with prescribed prayer.
Some practicing Buddhists write a prayer on a paper and put it into a prayer wheel and spin it…a fast way of repeating the prayer many times for better effectiveness.
My Catholic friends growing up would go to confession and get penance…to say prayers as a consequence of sin, for example the priest would assign five our fathers and three hail Mary’s.
For some, prayer is simply gratitude. Maybe the best prayers are never spoken, simply feeling a sense of gratitude.
Prayer, for some, is simply silence. They may not even call it prayer.
For many Unitarians the best prayer is a discussion about prayer and the prayer is addressed ‘to whom it may concern.’
There are four familiar forms of prayer: praise (ala White Heron) petition (please) confession (sorry) and intercession (help me!); translated as “thanks,” “ouch,” “sorry” and “please help.”
Anne Lamott, in her book Traveling Mercies, says she has just two prayers: “Help me, help me, help me, and thank you, thank you, thank you!” Intercession and praise…
Colleagues sometimes ask me if I pray and I say yes, and they ask, ‘to whom?’ The implication is that if you’re going to pray you must believe that someone is ‘out there’ who is listening…the Big Someone who cares…and, if you do it right, you’ll be rewarded by having your prayers answered, though sometimes that possibility seems like winning the lottery.
They say that we Unitarians believe in ‘on God, at the most.’
The God I believe in is not ‘out there,’ listening. The God I believe in is the human capacity for compassion. To pray, then, is simply to give voice to that compassion.
“Prayer doesn’t change things, prayer changes people and people change things.”
I’m sometimes surprised that people who believe fervently in the effectiveness of talking therapy often say they don’t believe in prayer. They’re talking about ritualized prayer. A good therapist is one who listens effectively, which is to say, let’s the other know she’s being heard, and that the listener is attempting to understand, and thereby to feel respected.
What is therapy? Carl Rogers said, “Therapy is a special ingredient in all relationships. What is that ingredient? It’s something that happens when you feel heard…it’s something that happens when you feel respected or when you have a sense that you are being understood.
Why does that make life better? The problem is still there, the concern is still there, the issues are still there, but something feels different, better, easier. Prayer is a frame of mind – the prayer of the mother nursing her infant; the prayer of the gardener planting seed or weeding or watering plants; the prayer of the grandfather holding his son’s son for the first time.
You don’t have to be a theist in a traditional sense to pray. You simply need to pay attention. All you need is a little humility, some charity and a degree of compassion.
Mary Oliver put it into a poem she titled, Praying:
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.
Here’s another from Mary Oliver which she calls Prayer:
May I never not be frisky,
May I never not be risque.
May my ashes, when you have them, friend,
and give them to the ocean,
leap in the froth of the waves,
still loving movement,
still ready, beyond all else,
to dance for the world.
Prayer is like going to a chiropractor; say where it hurts and make an adjustment.
Remember the old television sets that had several knobs you used to adjust the picture…horizontal, vertical, brightness and focus…and those rabbit ears you could move around, changing their position to get a better picture?
I often use that image in counseling and ask, “What things would you adjust in yourself right now…to get a better, clearer, more pleasing picture?” Prayer has the potential to make those adjustments.
Don’t ask whether God is listening. Allow yourself to proceed ‘as if’ there’s a Someone out there, or in there, who is listening…
Memorize a few poems or a few lines and use them as your mantra. Transcendental meditation folks suggest using the word ‘one.’ It’s an interesting word when repeated as a meditation.
Or go to favorite poems. I can hear the poets implicitly saying, “I invite you to join with me in the spirit of meditation, prayer and reflection.”
Reflection is mental concentration…thoughtfulness – giving careful consideration to what has been said. Reflection is what a mirror does.
Do you know any prayers by heart? Many know the prayer attributed to Jesus, often referred to as ‘the Our Father.’
Sometimes our affirmation feels like a prayer: ‘Love is the spirit…’
The violin player tuning her instrument is a metaphor for prayer. Each of the four strings must be tightened or loosened separately. What might those four strings represent in us? Fear, perhaps, and anger or resentment, hope or faith, and love. Each of these is part of our human makeup and each needs adjusting from time to time.
Listen again to the prayer attributed to Native American, Chief Yellow Lark.
O Great Spirit
whose voice I hear in the wind and whose breath gives life to all the world,
I come before you one of your many children,
I am the small and weak.
I need your Strength and Wisdom.
Let me walk in Beauty, and make my eyes ever
behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect
the things you have made
and my ears sharp
to hear your Voice.
Make me Wise
so that I may understand
the things you’ve taught my people,
the lesson you have hidden in every leaf and rock.
I seek Strength, not to be greater than my brother,
but to fight my greatest enemy, myself.
Make me ever ready to come to you
with clean hands and straight eyes,
So when life fades, as the fading sunset,
my spirit may come to you
Why, then, does Jewish worship refrain from petitionary prayers on the Sabbath? It’s because petitionary pray is asking God to do something for you, to alter the universe, another word for work. Don’t ask God to ‘work’ on the Sabbath!
Prayer can be a way of reminding yourself of things you want to do in your interior life, or even in your day-to-day life. It’s a way of making a kind of to-do list.
I remember hearing a story about a little girl who was very troubled by the fact that her older brother trapped rabbits, and she had begged him to stop. One night her mother heard her praying: “Dear God, please stop Bobby from trapping rabbits.” He kept trapping them so the next night she prayed, “Dear God, please don’t let the rabbits get trapped.” They got trapped, so the next night she prayed, “Dear God, now the rabbits won’t get trapped! Amen.” Her mother said, “Darling, how can you be so sure that God won’t let the rabbits be trapped?” The little girl replied: “Because I jumped on all of his traps and sprung them!”
There is a power in putting our deepest hopes and aspirations into words – that’s when prayer becomes a to-do list. Don’t wait for God to stop your brother from trapping rabbits…spring those traps!
End: The most important ingredient of prayer is silence, so listen again to Chili’s famous poet, Pablo Neruda, Keeping Quiet, (trans. From the Spanish by Alastair Reid.)
And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.