In Need of Prayer

READING    From Sabbaths I, Wendell Berry (1979)

Our opening words were a prayer of praise, our chalice lighting a prayer of gratitude.  The poems we read earlier to the children were prayerful poems.  Poetry has been a form of prayer for me since I was a very young child, although I’m not sure I was aware of the connection.  This is from Wendell Berry:

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.

MEDITATION        Ubi Caritas

READING     From “Our Minor Absolutes”  Howard Thurman[i], The Centering Moment,  pages 38 and 39 (adapted)

I know that Thurman’s use of language can feel dated.  In this reading and prayer I have made some edits to make it more accessible.

The title is “Our Minor Absolutes.”  I love that phrase.  “Our minor absolutes.”  He’s referring those things in our daily lives that we prioritize and let occupy our foremost thoughts, those things that are not so important in the big picture, but that distract and also consume us.   He writes:

“Spirit of Life, it is hard for us to simply be in your presence.  There are so many minor absolutes to which we give strength and energy that we are embarrassed. 

We wonder – will you give, out of the detachment and calm, some insight that will tutor us in quiet, in silence, and in waiting?  …

We seek forgiveness, but again and again as we wait in the silence, we do not quite know for what …  Perhaps what we really seek is an awareness before something greater than ourselves…. 

We would be better than we are, but… we are not sure that we really want to be better than we are. … If, under the aegis of your spirit, our lives were changed, we are afraid of what might become of us. … Work over us,…hat we may more deeply desire to be better than we are.

Drop thy still dews of quietness
Till all our strivings cease
Take from our souls the strain and stress
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of thy peace.                       Amen.

HYMN           It’s Me, O, Lord

My husband Booker, who has told me that despite (or maybe because of) leading last week’s service he does not want my job, is a doctor at a clinic in downtown Springfield.  He was on call a few Sunday mornings ago, when he got a page from a patient during choir rehearsal.  He called her at the break and told her, “I can’t get to the computer to look at your record right now.  I’m at church.  I’ll call you back in little over an hour.” 

“You’re at church?” she said.  “Can you please pray for me?  Can you ask other people to pray for me, too?”

He said, “I can do that.”

He told a few of you about his phone call, who were here early to set up.  And one or two of you said, “Tell her I’ll pray for her too.”

When he called the patient back, 90 minutes later, she told him she felt better already.

What do you need, in order to pray?  And why?   Our minds, our words and our feelings are powerful.  The spirit moves in mysterious ways.  Prayer and meditation are good for our bodies, our immune systems, our psyches, our souls.  And – we need all the help we can get.

Someone who isn’t here this morning told me she was sorry to miss today’s service.  She said, “I pray, or I try to pray, but I don’t believe in God and I don’t know what I’m doing.”

There are many kinds of prayers, in many religious traditions, and many, many ways to pray.  One of the children’s poems spoke of dance as prayer. Dana chose a very apt Gershwin tune for our postlude that suggests dancing our prayer.  The lyrics, by B.G. De Sylva and Arthur Francis say:

    All you preachers
    Who delight in panning the dancing teachers,
    Let me tell you there are a lot of features
    Of the dance that carry you through
    The gates of Hea-ven.  
     I'll build a stairway to Paradise  --- With a new step ev'ry day !

The western tradition, and especially the Protestant tradition, has, with some exceptions, an emphasis on words.  It favors prayer as something spoken.  Praise, gratitude, comfort, reverence.  The spiritual “It’s Me, O, Lord” is a prayer of confession, as is the meditation from Howard Thurman.  And both the spiritual and Thurman’s mediation are also pleas for help, or prayers of intercession.

“We would be better than we are
“It’s me.  It’s me.  It’s me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”

For several years I took spiritual direction at my mentor Margaret’s home in Boston.  One of her most generous and wise bits of counsel was this: “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”

Do you ever find yourself wanting to pray, in need of prayer?   You’re welcome to Margaret’s permission to pray as you can, not as you can’t.  To accept permission for your prayers to be inconsistent, or to not to make sense.  Accept permission to set aside an old belief that you need to pray To Someone.

What do you need, in order to pray?

This is Mary Oliver’s poem “The World I Live In,” from the last collection published before her death. 

I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs.
The world I live in and believe in
Is wider than that. And anyway,
what’s wrong with Maybe?

You wouldn’t believe what once or
twice I have seen. I’ll just
tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
ever, possibly, see one.

The 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal is remembered for saying “Le coeur a ses raisons que le raison ne connaît point.” 

“The heart has its reasons – about which reason knows nothing.”

There is heart-knowing and reason-knowing.  There are times when “A” and “Not-A” can both be true, when “Yes,” “No,” “Maybe” and “I Have No Idea” are simultaneously the right answer. 

I hope there are angels in my head.  I pray because I need to.  Because it centers me and grounds me and reminds me of all that sustains me, including all that is not of human devising. Prayer gives me time to set aside, at least for a short moment, all those minor absolutes that I risk being consumed by.

I pray for comfort, and in gratitude and praise. I pray to forgive and be forgiven.  To name my fears and grief and failings and be reminded of my gifts.  I pray to hold those I love in my heart and mind.  I pray for us.

It is a practice, a process, a journey.

“O - Praise the wonder and beauty of this day, or of this night.”
“How can I not be grateful?  I am grateful - Thank you.”
“I am not alone.”
“Help me.”

I often turn to loving kindness mediation, of which there are many variations, beginning with the self, often, and spreading outward:

May I peaceful, may I be free from pain, may I be well. 
May you be peaceful, may you be free from pain, may you be well. 
May we be peaceful, may we be free from pain, may we be well.  May all people be peaceful, may they be free from pain, may they be well.  May all beings…”

And there is lament.  Margaret would often remind me of its usefulness, when I brought a worry or fear.  Prayers of protest and lament are the “why me, why us, fist-shaking, wailing prayers.” Prayers blaming God. Prayers that name and cry out against unspeakable sorrow or injustice or personal anguish and pain.
This is from the book of Lamentations – 2:11, quoted by an African American pastor after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson MO, August 13, 2014

“I have cried until the tears no longer come. My heart is broken, my spirit poured out, as I see what has happened to my people.

Combined with the heartfelt cry in many of the psalms: “How long, Lord?  How long?”

In the Quaker tradition prayer comes out of silence.  The voice of light comes through silence, communal or solitary. 

Are there prayers from a tradition you grew up in?  Or poems that touch you and speak to your need?    “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  A prayer of comfort.

Sometimes I turn it into a prayer of comfort and of gratitude for the earth:

Gaia is my shepherd, I shall not want
She makes me lie down in her green and golden meadows
She leads me beside still waters
She restores my soul.
She leads me on the path of rightness for her name’s sake
Even though I walk through a desolate valley I will not be afraid…

I pray with, and adapt, the lines of hymns or anthems. 

From a prayer put to music by John Rutter:  “Open thou my eyes, that I may see.  Incline my heart, that I may desire.  Order my steps, that I may walk in the ways of thy commandments.” OR 

“Open my eyes, that I may see.  Touch my heart, that I may desire to do better.  Order my steps, that I may know how go on.” 

If you are drawn to pray, how might you begin?  In a quiet place.  With enough time to center, in silence and as much wordlessness to start as you can manage.  Or with music.  Breathing in, breathing out.  That can be enough.  The thoughts that come can be a prayer.

AND – the serenity prayer that is said at every AA and NAA meeting across the world is one of the simplest, most life-saving prayers I know of.  If you know it, please say it with me.

Grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

What do you need, in order to pray?   May you accept permission, if permission is what you need.  May you accept and embrace different ways of knowing – of reason and heart.  May you trust yourself to accept what you need.

Our minds, our words and our feelings are powerful.  The spirit moves in mysterious ways.  Prayer and meditation are good for our bodies, our immune systems, our psyches, our souls.  And we need all the help we can get.