Rev. Elizabeth McMaster.
“Welcome Morning” — by Anne Sexton
There is joy
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
in the spoon and the chair
that cry “hello there, Anne,”
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.
So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.
The joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,
“Keep Walking” — by Rumi
Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to.
Don’t try to see through the distances. That’s not for human beings.
Move within, but don’t move the way fear makes you move.
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened.
Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
“There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” sings the poet. And that’s where we UU’s get thrown off course. We think, many of us, that prayer is meant to be said to an all-powerful being upstairs?that big guy in the sky, white always with silvery locks of hair, throwing metal bolts of lightening at us?or?as we gain UU enlightenment?at those poor slobs who haven’t theologically arrived as we have! And we turn away from prayer, skipping merrily on our way, a supercilious sneer on our lips, oblivious to what Rumi told us centuries ago?”There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Forgetting even what our own beloved prophet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, told us a century and a half ago, “We are always praying. Every secret wish is a prayer.”
We Unitarian Universalists have the toughest time coming to grips with some words! Prayer is one of them. We think we’re so smart, yet we give up the word prayer because we’re not willing to look as poets look, look as prophets look?on prayer in a broader sense. It almost makes fundamentalists or certainly literalists out of us?and don’t we ever look down on fundamentalists and literalists! We shrug off prayer or make jokes about it?One UU wag has said we would?or should begin our prayers, if we pray at all, by addressing “to whom it may concern?or we just “get on with it.” One of those bothersome words.
One of the problems I see with how many of us look on prayer is that we think prayer is to be addressed to someone?in the jokester’s case, someone anonymous?”to whom it may concern.” Like the start of a business letter, perhaps, but hardly the way to pray.
I pray every day and I really think you do too. I pray?not at any regular time, and sometimes at even unguarded moments when I am surprised?almost after the unconscious prayer is finished?by saying to myself?”Oh, my, that’s a gorgeous sunset.” Or, “My God! Isn’t that person truly remarkable.” Or, “Whew! How did I manage that!” And, as my friend and colleague Joan Kahn-Schneider says, “I don’t pray because I believe that prayer changes God; I pray because I believe that prayer changes me. And it does!”
I get worried about us left-wing literalists and about our seeming unwillingness to come to grips with religious words. I was interested to see how your “Affirmation” was printed on the back of your Order of Service. You’ve put those troublesome words in quotes?”doctrine”, “sacrament”, “prayer.” Why is that? Is it because you’re not quite sure what those words will sound like if you just spell them out?no quotes?just leave them bare-faced out there for anyone to see? This particular Affirmation?given a few editorial swipes?is in the back of your hymnal, “Singing the Living Tradition”?#471, if you want to check me out. It was written by a Universalist minister, L. Griswold Williams, who lived from 1893-1912. He served churches in Reading, PA, Barre, VT, and Floral Park, NY. The only differences between his original Affirmation and your adaptation?besides the quotation marks around the words “doctrine”, “sacrament”, “prayer.,” are found in the last part of the Affirmation. Where you say, “To serve life in fellowship,” Williams wrote: “To serve human need.” You conclude with: “To the end that all people shall grow in harmony, Thus do we covenant with each and with all.” Williams says: “To the end that all people shall grow into harmony with the Divine?Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.” Whoops! A couple more problematic words! Maybe we should look at these words and see what’s going on?but this morning we can only address one overriding word?prayer.
I’ve hung my puppet, Kali, on the pulpit to help us look at prayer in different ways than we may have to this point. Kali is a Hindu god. She has 6 faces. Each face is a different color. And I understand, along with the Hindus, that there may be one God?at most?or there may be 300,000?or perhaps 30M. The world is many faceted, as is Kali’s face?we see the world through many lenses. The world appears many colored, as is Kali’s face?we vision it in many hues. Kali is red?like, sometimes she’s angry. Sometimes she’s blue?well, arent we all sad at times? Who says there’s but one God? Black? Brooding? Yellow? Sunny? And on and on?through the colors of Kali?the emotional kaleidoscope of our day-to-day emotions.
Likewise, who says there’s but one way to pray? The two readings this morning are certainly obvious prayers?and how different they are! Anne Sexton gets up in the morning and sees and feels and hears things that give her reason to be thankful. She doesn’t get down on her knees?although she recognizes that common body movement of prayer. But she “paints a thank-you” on the palm of her hand. “The joy,” she says, “that isn’t shared…dies young.” She offers up thanks for the simplest things in life and, in so doing, brings them to her own attention and basks in them?for joy unrecognized dies young!
Rumi, in our second reading, has a different way of looking at prayer. “Today,” he says, “like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened.” Well, I don’t know about you, but I often wake up empty and frightened. The day ahead seems, from deep underneath my bedcovers, to be fraught with peril. Will I hurt someone? Have I done so already and don’t even know it? How can I live my day as I want to live it?not as I sometimes do? Can I be better today than I was yesterday? Rumi continues, “Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.” In other words, let’s not just rush into the day before we’ve had a chance to see, feel, touch its beauty. Take it easy! “Take down a musical instrument.”
Then he gives us some really Unitarian advice?”Let the beauty we love be what we do.”?the beauty is in the act, not in the words! But how can we know how to act if we don’t pause in our daily lives to recognize the beauty we love?before we do anything? Recognize what beauty really is and how we may connect? Rumi then says what I, in less articulate ways, want to say to you this morning: “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” There are hundreds of ways to pray.
The question, “Do Unitarians pray?” has, like Sexton’s and Rumi’s different approaches to prayer, as many answers as there are Unitarians. Like much of what we say we do and believe, some of us say we pray and some of us say we don’t. Yet, if we listen to Emerson, we all pray. “We are always praying. Every secret wish is a prayer.” But of course, like good Unitarians we keep coming back to asking the ubiquitous UU question?what do you mean by prayer? Once again, we’re wary of semantics! We want to be sure we understand the terminology.
Several years ago I conducted a workshop titled “Words of Power.” I developed the program because I was concerned? still am?that we UU’s tend to throw metababies out with the bathwater. That is, we leave the church or synagogue of our youth, discouraged with the dogma, tired of the trite, and turned off by the theology. We stay away from church or synagogue for awhile?many of us. And then, however we get here, we find ourselves inside the walls of a Unitarian Universalist church. And some of the old words we heard back there stick in our craw. Words like God, or salvation, or sin. Words like grace, or redemption?or prayer. We want to hear an address, not a sermon (because that reminds us of someone telling us we’re sinners), and we allow silent time, but not prayer (because prayer has directed us in the past to pray to some supernatural being). Why do we do that to ourselves?buy into someone else’s theology as truth although we don’t believe it? Might it be because we’ve let ourselves be seduced by somebody else’s definitions of these words?
I’ll admit, as far as the word prayer is concerned, that the dictionary is no help. But you’ve got to remember that the dictionary was written in earlier times, and even though it’s been updated, it’s mostly been updated with new Twentieth Century words, and those old religious words have not been recast in light of new theologies, new religious studies. The more I look into the dictionary, the more flawed I think it is.
I’ve had conversations with many Unitarians?sometimes members of the churches I’ve served, sometimes not?who argue, “Well, how can we have a word mean just anything? If fundamentalist Christians believe that a word like ?prayer’ or ?God’ or ?grace’ means one thing, and I try to say it means something else, what’s the integrity of these words? If a word is to mean this and then that and then something else, then the word itself loses meaning.”
Well, you’re right! But, I counter, why do Christian fundamentalists get to define words any more than we liberals do? We split from the Congregational Church in the early Eighteenth Century because we believed in One God and they believed in Three! If we’re going to give over the entire religious dictionary to those on the right side of the room, then why are we here in the first place? Why does our religion matter? And besides, you can get into a conversation with a fundamentalist if you want to?find out that whereas you may be willing to give that person their beliefs, they’re not willing to give you the same?they’re right, you’re wrong. They’ve got the truth, you don’t?you can get into that conversation if you WANT to ?AND you’re welcome to it. But, I think we can have some really interesting conversations among ourselves about words of faith ?and perhaps shed a little more light on these subjects than we can if we think that the only definitions we allow are those set by people whose theologies are 360 degrees from ours. I believe that words of faith can have?must have?different meanings for each one of us, and our strength as a liberal faith is to enhance our own individual religious stances by listening to others within the liberal church?and finding out what they think. Faith words are not like describing a chair. A chair is a chair. But a prayer is?well, it’s this:
It’s Robin Morgan saying:
Blessed be my brain that I may conceive of my own power…
Blessed be my feet that I may walk in the path of my highest will.
It’s Joy Harjo praying:
To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
It’s Denise Levertov, remembering:
We intone together, Never again,
we stand in a circle,
singing, speaking, making vows,
remembering the dead
We are holding candles: we kneel to set them
afloat on the dark river
as they do
there in Hiroshima…
How can we have a monolithic belief in prayer and how it’s done? I’ll bet even far right Christian fundamentalists, when they really get down to praying, do it in numbers of ways.
Might we instead look on prayer as something that can be helpful to us and make it work for us in our daily lives? Might we free ourselves up from definitions that simply don’t work? I think we get too bogged down in what someone else tells us words like prayer mean. A parishioner in a church I once served, said to me, when we were on the subject of prayer in the Sunday service, “Gee, I can never pray. I don’t know what to do with that time.” And my response was, “Well, why don’t you mentally look over your calendar for the week ahead and do a little planning on how you’re going to get everything done? Perhaps do a mental shopping list for what you need at the grocery? This time of quiet?perhaps the only quiet time in your entire week?can give you that opportunity.” Funny thing happened. Linda soon reported back to me that, once she looked at the prayer time as a time for whatever she wanted it to be, she could pray! The purpose of prayer time had been enlarged for her and that allowed her to be more focused. She stopped thinking of it in terms she had learned in another part of her life. Terms that no longer worked for her.
Perhaps that’s true of others of you. We can do whatever we want during that quiet time. We can plan out portions of our weeks; we can think about friends and loved ones who are on our minds; we are free do do ?most anything?even drop off, a bit! Theresa of Avila, the 16th century mystic, once asked, “Do you ever fall asleep while praying?” There was no answer, just an embarrassed shuffling. “Well, if you WERE to fall asleep, what would you say about it?” Still no answer. “Well,” she said, “would nobody thank God?”
There are other ways of praying besides sitting in church and bowing one’s head. I find when I hike in the Colorado mountains or walk along the creek path near my home, that most always a feeling comes over me that I am one with the mountains or the trees or the water, and such peace enters my being that I truly consider those moments prayerful ones. To pray in another way, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, the social activist, said of the Civil Rights era, “our feet were praying.” In other words, for him, and for many others, righting wrongs, marching for justice, working for the peaceable kingdom is a much an act of prayer as devotional readings or silent meditation. You can pray out of thanksgiving for the beauty of the earth or the goodness of your life, or you can pray to give you strength for the social activism you do.
You undoubtedly have moments in your own lives?moments of such grace and beauty?that they are considered prayerful by you; moments when you are at one with others in acts of justice, considered holy by you.
So, here are some reasons for praying, with examples of different kinds of prayer.
The earliest form of prayer I learned?probably you, too?was petitionary prayer. My current favorite author, Anne Lamott, in her latest, “Traveling Mercies,” speaks of prayer a lot. She has a lot to pray about. Her best friend, Pammy, dies the same year her adorable and adored son, Sam, is born?and she’s a single parent. She’s been on dope and drugs and alcohol since junior high and is just coming off them. She prays a lot. She needs to. She says, “Here are the two best prayers I know: “Help me, help me, help be,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
That’s petitionary prayer?where you ask God for something or make some kind of deal. Remember your early childhood prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my souls to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” If I die, Lord, please take care of me. Petitionary. Asking God for something. Actually, how did we ever say that prayer as children? It should have scared us to death! How did we ever sleep, thinking we might not wake?
Later, as we grew toward maturity, petitionary prayers became more sophisticated?well, kinda! “Please God remove these zits from my face before the Friday dance” or “I’ll do anything at all for you, God, if you just get me through this exam.” Deal making with the Guy Upstairs!
Most of the memorized prayers we know, or know of, are of this ilk. The Lord’s Prayer is petitionary…”Give us this day our daily bread…lead us not into temptation…deliver us from evil.” Come through for us, Big Man!
As with some of you probably, this prayer gives me big problems. Although it is said even in some of our Christian Unitarian Universalist churches, it gives me problems for three reasons: it appears to be seemingly mindless repetition of words over and over without thinking about meanings; the words themselves are hierarchical and patriarchal (anything with the word “Lord” in it, gives me pause); and the whole idea of asking for some outside force to give me my daily bread and deliver me from evil gets me off the hook for earning my own bread and being responsible for my own life?lifts the responsibility right off my shoulders. I believe there is a force greater than ourselves; I believe we are here through grace; but I do not believe that asking God for something is the purpose of prayer. At least for me.
A second type of prayer is that of thanksgiving?like grace before meals. I must tell you that my birth family never said grace, nor did we after I was married and had a family of my own. Before I entered seminary, I had never been exposed to any grace other than, “Give us bread, Give us meat, Great God, Let’s eat!” or “Pass the teeth, pass the gums, look out stomach, here it comes!” Yet, recently I’ve been rather interested in why Unitarian churches, when they have fellowship dinners or potlucks or any kind of coming together involving food, don’t say grace. Why is that? Are we not grateful for the food that we eat? For the fellowship we enjoy? Is it not appropriate to say something before we eat communally?something like ?”Hey, I’m happy I’m here! And I’m glad you are, too! And I’m thankful that we’re in this place we enjoy ?and we’ll surely enjoy others’ cooking.” That’s about it! You can argue with me if you wish as to whether you want to spend about 10 seconds on giving that kind of thanks, but I think it’s kind of important for a church community to, every once in a while, just pause and say “thank you.” Well, I think it’s very important!
Maybe even more than once in a while?maybe every day?maybe we want to?have to?pause and give some kind of thanks. Maybe there are some days we want to find ways to be stronger than we think we can be. Maybe there are some days we want to just seek solace from hurt by articulating some kind of?well, I’ll call it prayer! Of course, there are some days when we’re not quite sure what to pray. Anne Lamott has another word to say for those kinds of days. She says, “A woman I know says, for her morning prayer, ?Whatever,’ and then for the evening, ?Oh, well,’ but has conceded that these prayers are more palatable for people without children.”
Frankly, I think they may be even more appropriate after a day with children! What that prayer says to me in the morning’s “whatever” is?I’m up for anything that may happen to me today. I think I can handle it and I hope I have the strength to do so. And in the evening’s prayer, a letting go?”oh, well”? like, well, “oh, well.” So it went that way. So I didn’t get everything I wanted to get today. So it wasn’t perfect. “Oh, well.”
Whatever our days hold for us, however, we are here by grace. We haven’t had a whole lot to do with that. We may help things along by being good to our bodies, by not walking out in traffic, by keeping our hands off live wires?but we are here by grace. And I think we might give a little thanks for that. e.e. cummings says it best for me:
I thank You God for most this amazing day:
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes.
Prayer is a good way to center ourselves. Julian Barnes speaks of “the deep ache of existence.” The poignancy of everyday life, I think he means. For me, it is the imperfectness of living that throws me off center. Prayer offers a space to find that center in my life. Listen to these words by Fr. Thomas Keating. Perhaps they can be a centering for you:
The root of prayer is interior silence. It is the opening
of our mind and heart, body and feelings…to…the
ultimate mystery, beyond words, beyond thoughts,
So, I invite you to join me by getting comfortable and open to these words of Fr. Keating’s.
“We begin our prayer by disposing our body. Let is be relaxed and calm, but inwardly alert, like a bird just before it takes to flight. We may close our eyes, or simply focus them on a spot on the floor…In either case, our purpose is to fix our gaze inwardly…We lock our attention into the ultimate mystery, whom we know, by faith, is within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than choosing. The ultimate mystery is the ground of our being, the source from whom our life emerges at every moment.
“We are totally present now, with the whole of our being, in complete openness, in deep prayer. The past and future?time itself?are forgotten. We are here in the presence of the ultimate mystery. Like the air we breathe, this presence is all around us and within us, distinct from us, but never separate from us. We may sense this presence drawing us from within, as if touching our spirit and embracing it, carrying us beyond ourselves into its silence.
“I surrender to…interior silence, tranquility, and peace. I do not have to feel anything, reflect about anything. Without effort, without trying, I sink into this presence. I let everything else go. No thinking. No reflecting. No particular acts of mind or will. Love alone speaks. I simply desire to let go and be one with the Presence, to forget self, and to rest in the ultimate mystery.
“…Everything in my life is transparent in this presence. It knows everything about me, all my faults, brokenness, and still loves me. This presence is healing, strengthening, refreshing?just by its presence. It is non-judgmental, self-giving, seeking no reward, infinitely compassionate. It is like coming home to a place I should never have left, to a consciousness that somehow was always there, but which I never recognized before. I cannot force this awareness, or bring it about. A door opens within me, but from the other side. I seem to have tasted before the mysterious sweetness of this enveloping, permeating presence. It is both emptiness and fullness at once, dark and yet luminous. I wait patiently; in silence, openness and quiet expectancy; motionless, now within and without. I surrender to the attraction to be still, to be loved, just to be.”
I wouldn’t want to say much more than this?to leave you in this state of peaceful suspension. But the world outside awaits, and I have one last reason for prayer?a reason that carries us beyond this centering to the exterior of our lives. For if all we can do is reflect, be thankful, center ourselves?then we have reneged on our promise to the world. There are lots of religions that will let you rest here?ours is not one of them! The promise we make as Unitarian Universalists is to make of our lives something more than merely interior designing. A colleague says of the purpose of her life, “I want to leave this world a better place for my having been here; I want to make my little acreage more bountiful.”
And so, my final reason for prayer is to lift us outside ourselves as we seek to bring about a better world. It’s a questing, an asking for direction to our lives. Matthew Fox, the Dominican scholar and director of the Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality, defines prayer as “a radical response to life.” Prayer for Fox becomes a focus for action to respond to life in ways we had not thought of before. This Jewish prayer says it for me:
We cannot pray to You to banish war, for You have
filled the world with paths to peace, if only we would
We cannot pray for You to end starvation, for there is
food enough for all, if only we would share it.
We cannot merely pray for prejudice to cease, for
we might see the good in all that lies before our eyes,
if only we would use them.
We cannot merely pray, “Root out despair,” for
the spark of hope already waits within the human
heart, for us to fan it into flame.
We must not ask of You to take the task that You
have given us. We cannot shirk, we cannot flee
away, avoiding obligation forever.
Therefore we pray for wisdom and will, for
courage to do and to become, not only to look
ion with helpless yearning, as though we had
For Your sake and ours, speedily and soon,
let it be: that our lands may be safe, that our
lives may be blessed, now and for all time.
We can’t leave it to God?or to someone else?to make ourselves more at peace, to mend our relations with others, to bring justice to a troubled world. The “spark of hope already waits within (our own hearts).” So let us “fan that spark into flame” and in so doing, give ourselves and the world mercy and peace. SO MAY IT BE.