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Last week we took a look at Harvey Cox’s new book, The Future of Faith in which he made a clear distinction between faith and belief.
He divides the history of Christianity into three ages: the first he calls the age of faith, the first three hundred years, when people who were followers of Jesus lived their religion in their day-to-day lives, as Jesus is quoted in Matthew 25 as saying, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you visited me.”
They asked, “When did we do those things to you?” And he answered, “As you have done it to one of the least of these my brethren you’ve don it unto me.”
The age of faith, Cox suggests, ended in the early part of the fourth century with the formation of Christian dogma…theology…the creeds…the Trinity. That was the beginning of what he calls The Age of Belief, suggesting it was, in a strange way, the end of The Age of Faith. I guess he’s saying ‘belief ends faith.’
He says that the age of belief lasted until about 50 years ago when we entered the third age, which he calls The Age of the Spirit.
The Age of the Spirit is characterized by people saying, “I’m spiritual but I’m not religious.” Meaning: I don’t practice religion in the traditional way…I don’t believe in the creeds in a literal sense, etc. But I’m doing some work on myself…to deepen my life…to connect with others better…inner work is called ‘prayer,’ in the broadest sense.
In his book, The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox references a story that leads into our discussion of prayer. He writes:
“The Spanish writer Miguel Unamuno (1864 – 1936) dramatizes the radical dissimilarity of faith and belief in his short story ‘Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr,’ in which a young man returns from the city to of his native village in Spain because his mother is dying. In the presence of the local priest she clutches his hand and asks him to pray for her. The son does not answer, but as they leave the room, he tells the priest that, much as he would like to, he cannot pray for his mother because he does not believe in God. ‘That’s nonsense,’ the priest replies. ‘You don’t have to believe in God to pray.”
Just as faith is not about belief, so prayer is not about belief. Prayer — from Latin verb, precari, “ask earnestly.”
The word for prayer shares the root of the word precarious, which originally was a legal word, coined in the 17th century, meaning, “held through the favor of another,” “obtained by asking or praying.”
It has to do with being “dependent on the will of another,” which led to sense of being “risky, dangerous, uncertain.”
Martin Luther King knew he was in a precarious position, dependent on what he called ‘God’s will,’ which he trusted, so he said, “I’m not fearing any man.”
The prayer attributed to Jesus says, “Thy will be done.”
To be in a prayerful state of mind is to be serious, to be sincere…its purpose in part is to overcome fear; to find the courage that it takes, the strength that it takes, the determination that it takes to get through this difficult time.
That’s why they say, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
In military language a foxhole is a defensive fighting position (DFP) – it’s a type of earthwork constructed in a military context, generally large enough to accommodate at least one person.
Prayer, ultimately, is a ‘defensive fighting position large enough to accommodate one person,’ in the sense that the most challenging, difficult times in life are ultimately personal.
That doesn’t mean you have to get through them by yourself – it does suggest you have to do what you need to do for yourself…for yourself, not by yourself.
On Sunday mornings when I introduce a time of prayer I say, “I invite you to join with me in the spirit of meditation, prayer and reflection.”
There are two points here: first, I’m acknowledging that the word prayer may be difficult for some whose frame of reference is the traditional language of formal prayer…so I use three words which for me are synonymous: meditation, prayer and reflection…a time to be thoughtful together.
Early in my ministry I stood at the bedside of a woman in her mid-90’s with whom I felt close; I’d known Alice for a few years – she had been a suffragette – she was a strong woman for whom I had deep admiration and respect. She was in the last days of her long, accomplished life. I asked, “Alice, would you like a prayer?” Without pausing she responded, “No, I’ve never found it useful…but I’ll bet you’ve got a poem or two which would be nice.”
Last night I visited Eloise, who is nearing her 96th birthday. Her husband Seth died a few days ago and we’re planning a memorial service. I asked Eloise about it, but she wasn’t sure what I was talking about. But we were making a connection, so I asked if she’d like a poem, and she brightened up. For the next half hour I recited poems and she was very appreciative – the poems were all the prayers we needed!
When I was in college I was active in Congregational Church — the minister began his sermon with a brief prayer, using a passage from Psalm 19:
“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight…”
He gave a little different twist by saying, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight…” acknowledging that it’s a two-way street; there’s no such thing as a one-way sermon.
A sermon is about connecting with one another on an intellectual or rational level, so we feel like we are understood, and they’re about connecting on a deeper level where the emotions reside so we have a sense that we’re connected on a feeling level…deeper than the ideas or the words.
Our candle lighting invites a prayerful attitude – the one lighting a candle and speaking is asking us to connect…to listen thoughtfully, to hear prayerfully, if you will.
Our shared silence is then made prayerful as we reflect, remembering what was said…maybe not all that was said, especially if there’s several candles…but the silence becomes prayerful, or ‘sacred,’ if you will, as we reflect in a caring way about the person who spoke, or the person who was spoken about.
My spoken words in response to those candles try to give voice to our collective caring thoughts. In other words, it becomes a prayer…not because of a formula with familiar words, but because of an attitude of sincerity, which on occasion can touch a bit of humor, but are never frivolous.
So when I invite you to ‘join with me’ in the spirit of meditation, prayer and reflection, it’s about leaving our separate egos and feeling together in caring concern or celebration.
Instead of telling you that we are going to pray by saying ‘let us pray,’ I offer a gentle or subtle invitation to enter into a serious frame of mind which can be called prayer or as easily be called meditation or simply reflection.
That’s what the young man’s mother in Miguel Unamuno’s story was asking; she needed some help, some support – he could have simply held her hand and said, “I love you,” and that would be a prayer…then he could easily have said what he appreciated about her…
Spoken words become a prayer because of the deep, heartfelt intention of the one speaking them, and it feels like the words could just as easily have come from you.
We need to give ourselves ‘permission to pray,’ whether we would say we ‘believe in God’ or not…like the son in the above story.
Mary Oliver put it nicely in her wonderful little 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.
It doesn’t have to be perfect…it doesn’t have to be a spoken in what Paul called ‘the tongues of men and of angels.’ Weeds grow anywhere they can – they’re more likely to survive in a vacant lot where there’s no one to pull them out as useless or ugly…
“A plant considered undesirable, unattractive, or troublesome, especially one growing where it is not wanted.” That’s the way we sometimes feel!
Prayer, then, is all about paying attention…it’s about ‘patching a few words together without trying to be elaborate,’ or maybe ‘without trying,’ without worrying about your ego – what someone will think of you, or if it’s a silent prayer, without worrying about what you think of you!
It’s not a contest. It’s not a final exam. It’s not even an entrance exam! The prayer opens the doorway that gives entrance to appreciation, and when you’re through saying the words there may be a feeling of some kind of connectivity…like ‘another voice speaking.’
Certain forms of prayer give prayer a bad name.
I once heard a clergy person quote lines from the book of Psalms that asked God to kill all the pagans – I was so outraged that I interrupted the public meeting (it was a holocaust memorial service, of all things!) and I said that the dictionary definition of pagan – one who is not a Jew, Christian or Muslim, included me, and I said I find it offensive that God is being called upon to kill me or anyone else.
I hesitate to bring this anecdote up, but I want you to know that I’ve had a few occasions during my 42 years of ministry when I had to draw a line in the sand to point out the limits of tolerance.
Most Unitarian Universalists struggle with this issue of tolerance and its limits. That’s why we quote Ralph Waldo Emerson who said in his most famous essay, Self-Reliance:
“Prayer that craves a particular commodity, anything less than all good, is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft…As soon as (we are) at one with God (we)…will see in prayer all action.”
In a lecture he gave at the Harvard Divinity School graduation in 1838 Emerson said:
“Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist, then is the worshipper defrauded and disconsolate. We shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not uplift, but smite and offend us. We are fain to wrap our cloaks about us, and secure, as best we can, a solitude that hears not. I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. …
“A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned.
“Not one fact in all his experience, had he yet imported into his doctrine. This man had ploughed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history. The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of thought. …
“It seemed strange that the people should come to church. It seemed as if their houses were very unentertaining, that they should prefer this thoughtless clamor. It shows that there is a commanding attraction in the moral sentiment, that can lend a faint tint of light to dulness and ignorance, coming in its name and place. …
“I am not ignorant that when we preach unworthily, it is not always quite in vain. There is a good ear, in some men, that draws supplies to virtue out of very indifferent nutriment. There is poetic truth concealed in all the common-places of prayer and of sermons, and though foolishly spoken, they may be wisely heard.”
It’s a two-way street.
While Emerson was critical of preaching that ‘turned people off,’ as we would say in the current vernacular, he was also saying to the people in the pews, “Get what you came for.”
That includes the sermon, but also the music…the silence; the architecture, the candles, the prayers.
The writer, Anne Lamott, says that the two best prayers she knows are: “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
The ‘help me’ prayer is the one said in the foxhole – the DFP, the defensive fighting position.
Foxholes come in all sizes, shapes and colors. They come in the form of loss – the death of a loved one; the loss of a job; foreclosure; a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness; a divorce; the death of a beloved pet.
They come in the heavy, colorless form of loneliness, alienation, isolation…depression.
They come in the blinding color of red in raging anger.
Most foxholes can accommodate only one – they’re about eight feet deep – no way to get out. A companion in an eight-foot deep foxhole provides the possibility of escape because you can stand on his shoulders to re-surface, then let down a rope to help him out.
I make a point of pausing silently before beginning the words to a sermon…to make a connection…that’s my way of praying…acknowledging that it’s a two-way street between pulpit and pew…between my words and my mind and my thoughts, to your mind and your thoughts.
If that connection is not made, there’s no point in this pulpit.
Prayer is certainly not about agreement…it has nothing whatsoever to do with agreement…it is, though, about connecting…in some way, on some level.
Frequently there’s someone with whom I have a sense of connecting on a deeper level than the mere words allow. We all read faces. There are lots of messages that come in to the pulpit from the pews during the sermon.
This is a special process, even sacred, in the sense that it is out of ordinary time. We are present to one another, as fully and completely as we’re able, or inclined. We can’t force it, however. The message is: I am here. Though I’m speaking, I am also listening. I want to be of help, but I don’t need to fix you or provide solutions to your problems.
The implicit message: “I have faith in the process of listening in a way that reaches down ‘where the spirit meets the bone.’ I have faith that it will be of help, but in the final analysis, I’m not the helper…you are.”
Doctors don’t cure people. They may facilitate the healing process, including surgery, medication and a good bedside manner characterized by a caring attitude.
Clergy don’t fix your spiritual problems. We try to facilitate the process whereby you find your way back to a place of inner peace, maybe even point you in the right direction…to guide your feet, as the hymn says.
There’s another well-known song that says:
“Oh you gotta walk that lonesome valley, Yeah, you gotta walk it by yourself, ain’t nobody else gonna walk it for you, You gotta walk, walk it by yourself.”
Pablo Neruda provides our closing words – his poem, ‘Keeping Quiet,’ is a reminder:
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 a 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,
victories 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 to be dead in winter
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.