Spiritually Speaking: The Prayer Dilemma
It was always a looming fear for the liberal chaplain; you begin a prayer and get prayer-jacked by a visiting family member or friend in the hospital. Sure, it begins innocently enough. A good engagement with a patient. They share that they are of a particular faith tradition. They would appreciate a prayer. You have a sense of their beliefs and feel confident of what to do next. They ask you to offer a prayer. You close your eyes and begin. Then, out of the blue as you take in a breath, the visiting family member takes over and takes your prayer to a place you never imagined! They conclude the prayer. You are left with an awkward goodbye and fury of a chaplain scorned.
I don’t think you have to be a chaplain to relate to being in a situation where you felt forced to participate in a prayer that concluded with a request for you to affirm something you can’t affirm. This is, after all, the meaning of the word “amen.” I affirm.
But wait….I do not!
And yet, I am just not ready to throw prayer out entirely and certainly not prepared to wage a war against prayer. So what is a UU to do?
As a minister, I know that when I offer a prayer on any given Sunday there are those who cheer, those who are enraged, and many who cringe. For me, prayer is not a petition. It is an invitation to an intimate listening and heart opening. During a Sunday service, prayer occurs in the context of community. For those injured by the misuse of prayer or just new to a community, this is an intense risk of relationship: to listen deeply to the sounds of life in the space, to open my heart to the words uttered by one who may represent past injury, and what’s more to lean into the discomfort of sitting in silence as a counter-cultural act.
Will the words be ones I could agree with? What if I don’t pray? I don’t know these people! My stomach just rumbled. Did she say forgive? Ack!
But then, I suppose, being in relationship is always a risk. That’s how I consider prayer, a quieting, poetic way of inviting relationship. Sometimes it is a relationship with my own conscience, sometimes with a community, sometimes with the ancestors and at others, I am trying to listen for life itself. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it is a little bumpy or clunky. We are going to try out a few new rituals of prayer, different kinds over the next month. As always, participation is never required or mandated, but it may just be a good experience to begin in this small way with trying new things in our service.
The thing is, as I ready to leave, I am aware that there are routines and rituals we have developed that we may not even realize. The arrival of the next interim minister can provoke a good deal of anxiety, not unlike walking into those rooms as a chaplain and wondering, “what if?” To be in relationship is always a risk, but this is the essential spark of the faith, a risk not bound by a particular building or minister, or even shame or set dogma, but bound only in the deep desire to belong to one another: to enter into the quieting, poetic, intimate and strange experience of being human together.
I hope you’ll consider praying with me, and with whomever might follow in our pulpit, to wade into the many anxieties of our world at this moment, and still listen beneath the fear for what could be. I believe we can swim to the other side together. And I’ve known the changes and the rituals of relationship to bring me closer to the space of awe and love that lead me on.
With faith and love,
A word about prayer from Reverends Jake Morrill and Meg Riley at FaithRocket (our partner in theme-based ministry)….
Last week, a friend told me about San Martin de Porres. Long before he was beatified (made a “saint”), he was a tireless worker for those on the margins in Portugal, in the 16th and 17th centuries. He started an orphanage. He was kind to animals. He radiated kindness. These days, he continues as the patron saint of those who are multi-racial, of barbers, innkeepers, public health workers, and all those seeking racial harmony. And my friend especially likes Martin de Porres because my friend says he’s also the patron saint of gay men. This lovely character, Martin de Porres, is remembered for how many lives he touched. But service was not his only outlet.
There’s a story that Martin loved to daydream as he swept in the orphanage. As he daydreamed, he would contemplate God; he would slip into prayer. And as he prayed, as the story goes, he would begin to levitate. To just lift off the ground and float, with a dreamy expression. And the nuns would have to come into the room, and pull him by the ankles, until he came back to earth. I love the image of someone so absorbed in prayer that they begin to float! It reminds me of the scene in the movie, Mary Poppins, where Uncle Albert and the gang all rise to the ceiling, caught up in their great laughter. They’re laughing and laughing, and can’t keep on the ground. Have you been having experiences like that?
It’s an anxious time in our country. People are clamped down, clenched up, and sometimes boiling mad. We’re hearing language and observing behavior by leaders that is painful to watch and difficult to explain to children. In response, we may feel what’s needed is to re-double our effort, to swing into action, to become even greater agents of justice in our time. And it could be. But, it could also be that what’s needed in these days is some amount of perspective, or what Zen Buddhist teacher Roshi Joan Halifax calls “the grandmother’s heart”–caring and loving, but a little detached and accepting, as well.
While everyone else rushes about, putting out fires, it may be that the world would also be helped by some of us floating a bit, our minds and imaginations on some wider view. In relationship with the Holy, however we understand it. This month’s theme is “prayer.” For some, that may set off alarm bells, or may seem like a concept foreign to what works for you. But what if it was a means of gaining the widest possible perspective? What if it was a way to receive into our hearts our allotment of love–not from those around us, but from the cosmos of which we are a part? What if prayer was a way to send forth our heart’s most piercing longing?
In this month of November, as fall really sets in, as our nations makes its decisions, maybe some of us can be like San Martin de Porres, floating a bit, daydreaming, and pondering the Beloved Community, that we might share that vision with others, who are thirsting for it.
Jake and Meg