Do Unitarian Universalist Pray?
Rhetorical question for many, but not all of us. I think the most common answer would be “of course we pray, we just call it something different.” In reality, everyone prays in one form or another, be they religious or not.
Before we get further into those differences, let me share a little of my background and why I chose prayer rather than one of my usual political topics. I look at doing these services as a way to stretch, to persuade or to search into a new area of our Unitarian faith. Today is the later category. In the almost 30 years of attending three different Unitarian congregations, I don’t recall one service, one message devoted to prayer.
Before I started working on this message, I would have answered the question of “do you pray?” a quick “not really”. I meditate, take spiritual walks, yes; but pray, no. For me nature is my cathedral — in my garden, on the lake or on a hiking trail. When I come to church it’s to connect with other UUs, to stretch, to learn, to share and to be of service. The closest to prayer for me in church is watching our darling UU children as the grow and blossom and the far too, brief times of meditation. But, what about group prayer? When we sing some of our UU hymns, that is a form of group prayer. Last weeks “Blue Boat Home” certainly was for me. The “all hymns service” Barb Michael and the choir organized in February was certainly a hour of group prayer.
Like many of you, I grew up with “Now I lay me down to sleep” as a bed time prayer. Rather gruesome if you really think about the words; I didn’t. Baptized in my mother’s Methodist faith, I was raised Episcopalian. Lots of ritualistic prayers every Sunday, but no real discussion as to what they meant, or how, or why to pray individually.
In preparation for today I took off the shelf The Book of Common Prayer I’d received at confirmation when I was 12. It must easily be 30 years since I’ve opened it. I was looking for the language of the Apostle’s Creed. Why? In my memory of my religious childhood, the only challenge I made to what we were taught was “I believe in the holy catholic church” — I didn’t think I believed in the Roman Catholic Church, I was joining St. Georges Episcopal Church. Little c, big C. Little c means universal.
Paging though the Book of Common Prayer I discovered there are a set of prayers and readings for every Sunday in the year, every occasion, every possible contingency, in other words, no work needed on the parishioners part.
Fast forward to the middle ‘80s when I first attended a Birmingham Unitarian Universalist Church. No prayer book, no specific ritual, no hard and fast rules. At BUC I found folks that believed many different things and some who didn’t believe at all. Pretty much like here. It was work to sort out where you fit, what you believed and how you structured your own religious/spiritual life.
Because many UUs come from some other faith in childhood, we come with old traditions we either choose to keep or leave behind. That makes us all unique from the very start. As we’ve developed our own faith/spirituality, they take many forms which all have their own understanding of what Christians traditionally call prayer. More common every year are those who find us who have no religious training to reject, so their task is to create from scratch.
How does one create a prayer life, if you choose to do so? Every religion has its symbols, its icons, its, if you will ‘props’ to aid in prayer. Just turn around and look at the flags strung across the ceiling; flags with the symbols of the worlds religions. We have a Tibetan bell we start our services with. I don’t particularly consider myself a religious person and yet I easily found two Books of Common Prayer, a UU hymnal, Buddhist prayer beads, Muslim prayer beads, a miniature creche made from olive wood bought at Sheppard’s Field in Palestine, a dream catcher and a New Year’s good luck arrow Dan brought back from a Japanese Buddhist temple. We have Dan’s family Bible and a number of other religious books. I’m sure a number of you have kept rosaries from your childhood just as I’ve kept my prayer book. Perhaps they still structure your prayer life, but in a different way.
Beliefnet.com, Belief-O-Matic, Wikihow all give you to info on UUs and prayer. In fact, I don’t know if it’s just a rumor or factual, but I’ve heard many UUs discover they are UUs by taking the test on Belief-O-Matic. Polls show four time as many folks claim to be UUs than we claim as members. They really are the ‘silent minority’ religious wise. So, back to the issue of prayer, Wikihow has a piece on “How to say a UU prayer”; actually not bad. First light a chalice, look into the flame a few moments to focus and bring you into the present. Next, Close your eyes and center yourself, some will ring a gong. Then say a personalized prayer. Lastly extinguish the chalice. Any vessel with a tea light will work.
Thinking I’d find a quick, concise answer to the question as to “types of prayer” I wandered in to the world of google; now a verb in our lives. I kid you not, 75 Million hits on that topic. One had nine types of prayers, complete with Bible versus to go with each. Another had Fun Prayers for Myers Briggs Personality Types; if you want to see yours, see me after service, I printed them out. A site, www.positiveprayers.com gave me a list of the most famous prayer quotes. The top one is often referred to as “The Serenity Prayer” by Rheinhold Neibuhr, an American theologian. I’m sure many of us can easily recite it.
Rev. Thomas Schade, of Worcester, MA, wrote:
“Our (Unitarian) faith advances not by paying attention to all that we doubt, but by paying attention to what makes us sigh, what makes us groan, what makes us tear up, what makes us shudder, what makes us gasp, what startles us and surprises us. What makes us ache. Where once we cherished our doubts, now we need to name our longings.” Rev. O’Neill of, Brooklyn NY, calls it, “To name our longings. Prayer is naming our loves, healing our hurts, confiding our fears. Rudy Nemser, once wrote all prayer can be summarized in four simple words: Thanks! Ooops! Gimme! and Wow! “
Rheinhold Neibuhr, says that prayer is about “giving voice to the human predicament.” “Prayer does not change things; prayer changes people, and people change things … Prayer is not hearing voices, prayer is acquiring a voice.”
My sense is many of us see religious liberals divided into those who are spiritual and those who are activists. A number of clergy addressed this issue. Rev. Jane Vennard, a United Church of Christ minister, is equally grounded in a strong practice of prayer and contemplation as well as working for justice. She believes we have misstated the debate between faith and works, or prayer and activism, or spirituality and humanism, however you might characterize it. For the issue is not at split between those but how we choose to express them. “Do you have contemplation, prayer, a spiritual aspect to your being, a meaningful interior life that direct you in your actions? Or is it escapism, a fuzziness and other-worldliness that actually keep you from acting? On the other side, and especially for those of you who have a more spiritual bent, it’s not that action and taking justice stands are “non-spiritual,” the problem is when people are acting from agitation, thoughtless, restless, loud, single-minded, ego-driven, often unkind agitation.
For our activists that’s not how we want to be perceived if we want to make a difference in the world. Vennard argues for active contemplatives and prayerful, purposeful workers. People who seem grounded while they act, quietly purposeful and assured, people immersed in the task, working toward a goal, with certain and creative purpose.
The latest issue of the UU World, has a great article on “A Humanist’s Guide to Prayer” that is well worth reading either online or with your old fashioned hard copy.
One of the jokes made about UUs, generally in derision, goes “we pray To Whom It May Concern.” Well, that’s partly true but in a good way. If you are a UU/Christian, a UU/Buddhist, a UU/Pagan, a UU/Atheist, a UU/humanist, a UU/agnostic, or some other self identified view of a power greater than our individual selves, so be it. Just be whatever you are consciously, with knowledge and intention. Whether you call it prayer or mediation use that time to be the you best UU.
To paraphrase Rev. Jann Halloran, “How do we pray? I would argue that every one of us prays or meditates or contemplates, probably almost on a daily basis. And when you don’t pray, stop and muster your thoughts, your emotions, your temper, your tiredness, your patience, you know it. When we blurt out thoughtless remarks, callous jokes, unthinkingly harmful analogies and metaphors. We stomp on someone’s feelings. We then stop at some point, realize what we’ve have done, and vow to do better next time. That’s what being a spiritual person is all about. Learning to be your best self in the midst of any moment, be it relaxed or crisis.”
“Rev. Paul Rasor says that our theology is suppose to guide us to a meaningful life. We have our religious ideas, our intellectual beliefs. These are translated at the heart and gut level into practice, prayer or meditation – the point at which we go beyond naming to owning our beliefs, and then we live them out with our hands and feet in the real world of action. That’s the order — thinking praying, doing.”
So, after spending the past week reading, watching video of various UU messages on prayer, reading about other religions views of prayer, and reflecting on my own experiences, I think I’ve come to a much deeper and broader understanding. For Unitarian Universalists pray takes many forms, some collective, some individual. We draw on our old faith traditions, look to other world religions to incorporate beliefs, understandings and rituals. Some of our prayers are personal mindful meditations, some are joyous group gathering involving music and dance. Some of our prayers take place with the child blessings, the joining of two people in marriage and saying goodbye to our elders in death and more tragically those who die far too young.
I want to close by simply saying, I invite you to let your life be your prayer. Let the words that you speak and the actions that you take be a reflection of your hopes for the world. Let your heart be open every day, at every encounter to the divine that rests in the world. Live your prayer. That is the highest calling in religion. Let your life be your prayer.
Closing poem by Wendell Berry
I go among the 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 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.
Given at Mqt. UU on April 13, 2013 by Sarah Redmond