"Thanks! Ooops! Gimme! Wow!"

February 9, 2003
The Reverend Victoria Weinstein

PRAYER (this translation of the Lord' s Prayer comes from New Zealand aboriginal peoples)

Eternal Spirit,
Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God in whom is heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom
sustain our hope and come on earth…

With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials to great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For your reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and forever. Amen.
from "The Language of the Heart" A. Powell Davies (excerpt)

The closer prayer is to life, the less likely it is that what is expressed at one time will be consistent with what is expressed at others. And it is to life above all that prayer should stay close. Circumstances change; so do moods and emotional conditions. At one time, there may be triumphant faith; at another deep dejection. Prayer should arise from whatever we really feel, directed towards mastery of our lives through growing insight and guided by our moral nature.

It is neither desirable nor possible that prayer be literalistic in construction or constrained to abide by the strict rules of logic. It is the language of the heart, akin to poetry. Prayer goes on where language leaves off. It has to do with what is least known and yet most deeply felt. Prayer of all things should never be careless. It should carry integrity to its highest intensity.

Everyone prays, though not everyone admits it. Even a curse is a kind of prayer – a prayer inverted. under the strain of difficult conditions, or in severe loss or bereavement, or when emotionally moved by a scene of great beauty – as at many other times when we are deeply stirred – there is something within us that cries out for expression. Though we cannot understand the mystery of the world about us, we feel its kinship with the mystery within us. This mystery, too, we do not understand but we know it in our own aliveness. Something there is that will not allow it to be silent; it speaks out in our own voices.

The Sermon

What are we doing when instructed, "Let us pray?" We are free to do whatever we like, of course. We may bow our heads and concentrate on the words and let them speak to our heart. Some of us look around to see what others are doing. Many of us listen to the words and decide to translate them in ways that minister to us, finding new messages or life in the dry bones of rote tradition. Some of us go over our grocery list, or use the time to nurse grievances. We can ask our gods or our ancestors spirits for help or healing for ourselves or others in that moment. We can let ourselves sit quietly and feel cared for, which is something I do when people tell me they are praying for me.

I remember being stuck in the Emergency Room one time with two broken feet and ankles when a hospital chaplain came by to visit with me. He was a Russian Orthodox priest with a beautiful Russian accent and when we were through with our little visit he put an enormous cross to my lips for me to kiss. I could have said "No thank you." I could have broken into a fit of the giggles. I could have said, "Let me explain the differences in our theologies and why you might not want me to kiss that cross." I could have asked, "Is there a Protestant chaplain in the house?" But I chose to let myself be blessed by him, according to his own sense of spiritual meaning, and I kissed the cross. With two broken ankles, I certainly wasn' t going anywhere.

I have decided that life is far too short to ever feel insulted by anyone' s prayers or blessings for me, and I encourage you to adopt this attitude. It makes life a little bit nicer. Unless someone is praying for God' s wrath to rain upon my head and my people, I warmly accept all prayers. They might even be ignorant or misguided to my ears and sensibilities, or invoked to a strange God, but that' s okay. I' ll take them. I am adept at translation by now, and translation is the key to being blessed by every prayer. If that priest wasn' t worried about whether or not I had the proper credentials to kiss his cross, why shouldn' t I allow myself to be included in his healing ministry? My only concern in that case was more hygienic than spiritual: I do hope that that priest has a religious devotion to disinfectant as well as to Christ, at least as long as he' s essentially passing "the kiss of peace" around a hospital (you hate to think of the kiss of peace becoming the kiss of death for someone. . . ).

I am sorry to have to tell you that when it comes to prayer I am an ‘F' student. I have tried to learn a good method; to be disciplined in my prayer life. Believe me, I have tried. I have taken many classes, attended I-don' t-know-how-many workshops, purchased shelves of books on the subject. I bought an Anglican rosary last year and spent a day teaching myself that system of prayer. The string broke and now all I have is pretty beads. I have paid people to try to teach me how to pray. I belong to several on-line internet prayer groups which ask nothing of me but that I read the e-mail I get sent every day. I am not even good at that. Should I read it aloud? Am I supposed to print out the words and read them in a more serene setting away from my work desk?

I love this moment from Mary Oliver' s poem "The Summer Day" –
I don' t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn' t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

I do know how to fall down in the grass, and how to be idle and blessed. I am really good at those things. I also know how to pray with the Bible in the style they call Lectio Divina, which is to pay close attention to each line and to imagine myself in the story or lament or psalm unfolding before me, to listen to the deeper meaning of the text. I can do this for almost two minutes before my mind goes off like a monkey swinging through the branches ( If I am reading the Bible in preparation for a class, however, I can sit still for long hours).

I believe in meditation. I believe wholeheartedly in it and deeply admire those who practice it. I can meditate for up to twenty-five seconds before feeling that I am going to crawl out of my skin. I am improving.

The Sh' ma of the Jewish tradition is a beautiful prayer, and I especially like it because it is short: Shma Israel, adoshem elokhenu, adoshem ekhad. Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. You can say this all day – or at least upon waking and going to sleep -- as faithful Jews are taught to do, and it puts you into sacred time. I am determined to learn some Muslim prayers too, which I will do when I can find someone to teach me the correct pronunciation of the Arabic (Someone once said about me that while Muslims are praying five times a day toward Mecca, Vicki is praying five times a day facing Walden Pond).

I also like the little meditation phrases suggested by Buddhists, and I use those a lot. Things like, "breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile." This is one of the easiest and gentlest prayers I know, taught by Thich Nhat Hahn, whose book Peace Is Every Step might be the most loving Valentine' s Day gift you ever gave your honey or your child. Just a suggestion.

I have a little kind of Buddhist prayer that I invented recently and I say it many times in the day. It goes like this: More love, less control. This prayer works in every situation. It is a truly non-denominational prayer that I would recommend for all world leaders, and for parents of teenagers, and for anyone who has to wait in line at the DMV. More love, less control.

Although I am an F student in prayer, I feel that I get a B+ for effort.
I have memorized both the Lord' s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm and I tend to say them to myself a lot. For one thing, I find myself becoming calmer as I struggle to remember the words, which isn' t that hard as the poetry is so beautiful. "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me." I collect translations of the Lord' s Prayer, and am determined to learn it in the original Aramaic. In using these two beloved prayers in my own life, I am touched not only by the ideas contained therein, but I also dwell in the awareness that at any given moment these same phrases are being prayed by perhaps thousands, maybe even millions of people, in an amazing array of languages. I find this to be very nourishing; I feel I am in the flow of a striving toward peace shared by many souls. I feel I am playing some of God' s Greatest Hits with a world-wide ensemble.

I believe that the church that prays together stays together, and I am quite sincere at those times I recommend that we prayerfully engage in reflection on some congregational matter. What do I mean when I invite us to prayerfully reflect together on something important? What I mean by this, first and foremost, is that we attempt to go beyond the dictates of our own egos in our consideration of an issue. What I mean is that we conscientiously, and in a spirit of love -- call upon the highest and best within us – the Divine Spark, if you will – and accept that whatever our own desires, we are not in control of the outcome. This is both a Buddhist and a Christian concept. The Buddhists call it non-attachment. In Christian terms we would say, "Thy will be done."

I don' t know where I picked up this phrase, but I find myself saying often nowadays that I am "holding you in prayer." What I mean by that is that I am lifting you up, by name, to the care of God as I understand God :the healing and uniting Spirit that binds all living things in their ceaseless striving for grace and meaning and wholeness. So far no one has ever said to me, "Listen, don' t bother." I think we understand that while prayer is not easy to pin down by definition, it comes from love and is always, to quote Miss Martha Stewart, "a good thing."

To pray is to be intentionally present to your life, wherever and whatever your life is at the given moment. "Pray without ceasing," Paul told the first Christians. We should not mistake prayer as something that must be done with an end in mind, or that we should consider efficacious only if it produces a particular outcome. Pray without ceasing. Stay awake. Be present to your own life.

I feel a little inarticulate this morning because I have been away for four days and out of my regular routine, and I find that a regular routine is very important for maintaining a prayerful attention to one' s life. Like many of you, I have spent this week anxious and hurting, fairly glued to news shows and the radio, and trying not to feel hopeless and helpless about my country' s future, particularly about a war that seems to be imminent, and that I still do not understand or accept the reasoning for -- although the state budget alone enough to cause us all serious distress. I have been spending time with wise friends and mentors and even tried to listen to arguments and opinions that differ widely from my own, which is always hard. I am reading books and articles trying to understand various aspects of our current predicaments, as if understanding will protect me from fear, which I am feeling a lot of these days. I am doing what I can to stay engaged and involved.

And I am praying. My prayers are mostly wordless and forlorn but I do not feel they need to be otherwise. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, prayer does not change God, it changes me. I do not like the joke that Unitarian Universalists pray "To Whom It May Concern." We need not pray with specific requests directed to Someone or Something in the classic "gimme" approach known as petitionary prayer. We pray, rather, with the simple intention to mingle our heart' s desire with that of the world' s. Prayer helps our heart prepare room for whatever happens. "Lord prepare us for what Thou art preparing for us."

There is a scene in one of my favorite movies, The Apostle, that never fails to get me no matter how many times I see it. A man shows up, drunk and belligerent, to a church baseball game his kid is playing in. He knows his wife has been having an affair with the handsome young coach, who is also the youth minister of their church. The man is angry and his ego is bruised. He picks a fight with the young lover and in his stupor he picks up a baseball bat and swaggers around with it. In a moment of tragically misguided machismo, he swings the bat at the lover and cracks his head open. The lover falls to the ground swiftly and silently, with horrible thud. He is immediately surrounded by church members who begin to pray over his body and one woman moans, "Your mercy, Lord! Mercy!"

It' s all she needs to say. It' s all she needs to pray. Your mercy, Lord. How did this go so wrong so fast? So much sin. My pastor, so suddenly violent. His beautiful wife, stained by her own iniquity. The lover, careless and young, likely to die of this jealous explosion. Mercy Lord.

In this film, people pray for each other all the time. They pray for each other, they pray about things. "I' ll pray on it,"they state again and again. And when life turns out just like it turns out despite their prayers, they go on in faith, praying as fervently as ever and always willing to accept what their God has in store for them. What I love about this is that they live in the faith that praying into silence and apparent non-response is nevertheless not a waste of time or faithfulness. In one wonderful scene, Sonny spends all night in a fervent, one-sided diatribe with his lord and savior. He' s up til the wee hours of the morning shaking his fist in the air: "I am your servant. I am your servant – but I' m mad at you, Lord!" "I always call you Jesus and you always call me Sonny!"

This scene has made a lasting impression on me, for it illustrates in a memorably dramatic way that prayer—even when just an all-night hollerin' session -- is ultimately the expression of a relationship; an exclamation of the intimacy between a ourselves and our faith and our unique destiny. Very little gets solved for Sonny in "The Apostle," but his prayers never waver. His prayers, and my own, are an active method by which we stay in conversation with our human struggle. This does not mean that through prayer we give up or give in. What we come to realize is that while we can act to influence the world and others, our prayers can ultimately only take us more deeply into the recesses of our own hearts. Prayer is where we dwell in the mystery of our own being without the need to explain ourselves or make excuses for what we feel or how we are experiencing our existence.

I hope you will try to pray in your own way. I hope that you will continue to pray if you already do so, for I am convinced that whatever our prayers are, they do matter, they do influence the emotional eco-system in which we live and move and have our being. Your prayer may be a THANKS, a simple expression of gratitude for blessings tiny or tremendous. You may pray out your OOPSes, acknowledging where you have missed the mark and opening yourself to a deeper wisdom that will lead you to make things more right and balanced. You may pray a GIMME; a very human thing to do and almost impossible to avoid in our striving human condition. And you may simply pray WOW, a child of wonder, insisting on awe as the most appropriate reaction we can make to the world. I would like to borrow these words by K.F. Amiel as my prayer for all of us today:

"Let mystery have its place in you; do not always be turning up your whole soil with the plowshare of self-examination, but leave a little fallow corner in your heart ready for any seeds the wind may bring, and reserve a nook of shadow for the passing bird; keep a place in your heart for the passing guest; an altar for the unknown God."

And so may it be, and so may it ever be, world without end. Amen.


As swimmers dare to lie face to sky and water bears them,
As hawks rest upon air and air sustains them,
so would we learn to attain free fall, and float into Creator Spirit' s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns that all-surrounding grace.
(Denise Levertov)