Imagine you' re in the hospital. Maybe you' ve had a minor heart attack and you' re recovering.
A man walks in, holding a clipboard. "Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So," he says, "I want to let you know that thirty-six people from Lee'
s Summit, Missouri will be praying for your swift recovery. Is that okay with you?"
You' re in the bed. You' ve just had a coronary. You think, "I don' t know anyone in Lee' s Summit, Missouri but that sounds fine. Sure." So you tell the guy with the clipboard that that would be fine. And the guy wishes you well and goes away.
You' re in that bed, and you' ve got a lot of time to think. "I wonder who those people are in Lee' s Summit, Missouri are. I wonder if they' re people I would like. I wonder if it was a good idea to have them praying for me. What if they' re just praying kind of sloppily? What if they' re distracted when they' re praying, and they get the wrong message out somehow? What if they' re some of those crazy fanatic types who might try to come and convert me if I get better and make me join their fanatic church? Wait! How come people are praying for me in the first place? Good God, I must be in worse shape than they' re letting on."
You' re in the bed thinking like this, and your blood pressure goes up. Wouldn' t it? Mine would! I remember being in the hospital in Connecticut one time after having broken both of my ankles. A Greek Orthodox priest came by to visit with me, and to pray with me, which was really nice, and I appreciated it. I was in a lot of pain and I welcomed the visit and the prayers. But as the priest left, he held out an enormous cross for me to kiss. It reminded me of the kind of thing my grandmother would have done, so I kissed the cross, kind of smiling to myself as I did it. But then, you know, it occurred to me that this priest is a hospital chaplain, and God knows who else has been kissing that cross and what diseases they might have! I' m sure my blood pressure spiked as I tried to get a nurse to bring me some antiseptic for my mouth. If someone had included me in a study on prayer that day, they would have had to conclude that prayer causes anxiety in hospital patients.
Do you know, that' s just what was concluded by a recent study the most exhaustive one ever yet compiledon the effects of intercessory prayer. Intercessory prayer, in a nutshell, is the kind of prayer most people think of when they hear the word "prayer": it is an appeal to God for healing of the sick and suffering. This study, the largest and most anticipated one of its kind, "concluded that for the patients included in the study, prayer from strangers had no effect on whether the patients suffered complications from coronary artery bypass surgery" (The Christian Century, May 2, 2006).
"Not only were effects of prayer by strangers neutral, but the selected group of patients who knew with certainty that strangers were praying for them experienced complications at higher rates than did two other groups who were only told that they might receive prayer."
Well, sure. I think of the man in the bed worrying about why he' s being prayed for, and who' s praying for him, and I' m not surprised. In that bed, your mind is working overtime.
Here are some more details on this study as reported by The Christian Century:
The strangers doing the praying came from three religious communities that are very experienced in praying for others: a monastery in Paul, Minnesota, a community of Carmelite nuns from Worcester, MA, and a group called "Silent Unity" from Lee' s Summit, Missouri.
I suppose some people read that study with a sense of self-satisfied vindication, saying to themselves "Well, I always knew that prayer nonsense was good for nothing. And now they' ve proved it."
People like me read the study and laughed out loud, saying, "Whose bone-headed idea was this? Whose great idea was it to pop in on heart patients and tell them they might or might not be prayed for, or that a bunch of random people were going to be praying for them!!?" I couldn'
t agree more with author Richard Sloan who was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "The problem with studying religion scientifically is that you do violence to the phenomenon by reducing it to its basic elements that can be quantified, and that makes for bad science and bad religion."
Prayer is essentially about love, and that is something science has no way to measure. I wonder what would have happened if the study had been able to track people who were suffering in some way who had been told that people they knew and loved were praying for them. I think the results would have been quite different, not that I would bother to measure such a thing in the first place. Some things just don' t need to be measured. I don' t need a scientific study to tell me that all this rain has made a mushroom of my spirit. You couldn' t measure it. But I know it.
Around here, being a church, you hear folks ask for prayers and good thoughts all the time. That' s part of the work of a church; spiritual work. We say in our Unitarian Universalist principles that we are part of an interdependent web of existence. Prayer is a way to stop and take time to feel that, to live in the wonder of that truth, and to open our hearts in thanks, or in sorrow, or in supplication, or in the amazing awareness that life is happening and we are in the midst of it. Prayer is not just getting on your knees and asking for something. All our lives, in all the ways we pray, we are asking for something: we are asking to feel more alive, we are asking to trust our instinct that this all matters, we are asking for a confirmation that we are an important, precious and beloved player in our own small corner of creation.
t teach methods of prayer at this church perhaps we should. We could definitely talk about methods of prayer if some of you were interested in it. What we would do would be an exploration of different methods of prayer, not an instruction for doing it the "right way." There is no right way. All prayers of our hearts are simple and sincere, and real. Everyone here knows perfectly well how to pray.
Do you ever stop during the day and think to yourself, "I sure hope so-and-so is feeling better." You put an image of them in your mind, and you wrap them in your strength. That' s prayer.
Maybe you are in your kitchen one evening and it comes to you that someone in this community is exhausted from being at the hospital all day, or there' s been a death in their family recently. As you make your own dinner, you put together a casserole for that other person at the same time. You mix in your sorrow and your concern along with the cheese and the pasta. Your life force gets into that casserole and nourishes that person or that family. They know your love comes with the meal. That' s a prayer you made with your hands.
You take a walk in Norris Reservation one morning. As you walk and breathe deeply, you think of all the people you know and add someone who' s in need of support to your mental checklist of people you want to talk to that day. You reflect on how you might help; what comfort or consolation you might provide. You bring them into your heart in prayer, even if you don' t think that' s what you' re doing.
You' re driving to work when you recall that a member of this church is off on a trip somewhere that morning, and you wish them safe travels as you' re stuck in traffic on 3 North. A plane flies by overhead. "Maybe that' s them," you think. "Be well! Go with God!" and if you know they' re an anxious flier, you add, "Don' t have an anxiety attack! You' re going to be fine! I' m with you down here!" You' re praying. That' s what it is, it' s that simple.
We are bound together in bonds of fellowship and love. By choice, we are bound. That' s such a simple thing, but so powerful, that voluntary commitment to be part of the same circle of joys, sorrows and life' s journey. You look around you on a Sunday morning and it looks quite ordinary, all these good people sitting in pews and the minister talking from the pulpit. You might wonder, what are these bonds between these people? How do they get formed?
They get formed here in worship, as we encounter together issues of ultimate meaning, as we sing the songs of our tradition and share our joys and sorrows, and enter into the silence of contemplation and prayer together. That' s one bond. But there are so many other ways that we share our life forces with each other and become one people in spirit, and I think you' ll be surprised when you see how this works:
Has anyone in this church this year sat with the children or with a group of adults in a religious education or Sunday school class and listened with respect as someone shared an idea that was important to them? Did you make a sincere effort to share something of yourselves in that setting? We are bound together by our learning together. Study can be a form of prayer.
Has anyone here sat in front of his or her computer at home and thought about how to craft a meeting agenda so that your team of leaders would have the best chance to get work done in an organized way, to feel that their volunteer time had been honored? When you did that, did you send your spirit out over your committee and think about them, and how to support them in their work, or how to sensitively noodge them into accomplishing tasks they committed to doing but were having trouble following up on? When something irritated you or frustrated you, did you take a moment to count to ten so that you could think of a more measured and caring response than the first one that came to your lips? That' s what it means to be a church: to be led by love in all that we do. Our leaders know this, and they do all their considerable and sometimes exhausting work all within the spirit of our covenant.
To be led by the spirit of love in your leadership is a form of prayer.
So many of you in this church are leaders, and you are tremendous leaders. We have the busy and devoted Activities Committee that has been totally rejuvenated by Peg Kitchenham. Marie Miller has done yeoman' s work as the head of our Music Committee this year and Jackie Magazu has spent her umpteenth year heading up our Worship and Denominational Affairs committees. Peter Fairbanks has helmed the Membership Committee for two years as Chair. Felicity Long served as our Religious Education Chair during what was a challenging year for them, and Melody Barlow was our chair and sole member of the Adult RE Committee. Sue Robinson stepped in as Service Committee chair this year with great results, and Dexter Robinson and Bob Detwiler gave their hearts and souls to a new Organ Improvement Committee. Paul Bourque was an especially trusted advisor to me as chair of the Committee on Ministry and Don Messinger took the huge job of being chief of Buildings and Grounds, while Les Taylor headed up our new Capital Improvement team. Bernie Gardner headed up the Fogg Committee again, Jeanette Mitchell became our competent and devoted Collector, and Tom Anderson brought tremendous intelligence and energy to the Finance Committee as chair. Helen Keeler served as the gracious president of the Alliance for Barb Meacham, who goes back on duty next year for the well, a lot of years.
So many others took charge of so many other big projects. You know who you are.
I am familiar with the work of all of these people, and I can tell you that every single one of them has taken on their work in the spirit of ministry, and has in their own fashion prayed their way through many trying hours of church work. Every single one of them has had good reason at times to scream and slam the phone down (on me, at the very least!) or to write a zinger of an e-mail in response to something that frustrated them. And yet every single one of them has led with grace and care and appreciation and sensitivity, considering other church members in all their organizing and toiling, and putting relationships first in all their transactions.
I would like to thank them all today, and all of you who may have not chaired a committee but who served in a huge variety of creative ways, and who took many opportunities to pour your own lifeblood into all the programs of this church.
All of the work of your hands, when done in the spirit of love, is a prayer.
I haven' t forgotten our Parish Committee: Bob Detwiler and David Dube and John Meddaugh and Jimmy Pickel and Marta Reese our Treasurer and Chris Silva and Donna Wilson, who wasn' t able to finish her term but who was with us through December. When we say "the buck stops here," our Parish Committee is the "here" where it stops. They are under constant pressure to get a lot of work done. And they have done this work, with your help and support, within the bonds of fellowship and love, making their service to this church a prayer. And God love them, they have fun at their meetings!!
As you can see, when we look at it all together, this is one very busy beehive. And for the past two years, there has been a most gracious Queen Bee looking after this whole operation with utmost care, with total dedication and with a combination of organizational brilliance and a deep and abiding commitment to the spirit of our covenant. Deanna Riley has sent her spirit out over this congregation hundreds of times over the past two years as the Chair of our Parish Committee. She has been constantly available to every member of the congregation who has brought any concern to her, she has shepherded dozens of new projects into being, and has implemented a long laundry list of improvements into the First Parish leadership. She has undertaken every challenge and every task put to her with the foundational understanding that, in the church setting, relationships come first. And so she has made it her primary business to be concerned first and foremost with the spiritual well-being of this congregation while simultaneously toiling long and hard hours assuring that action items are completed and all the business of the church is tended to. She has put a compassionate heart and a sensitive soul into serving this church, and has made her term as our president the most beautiful kind of blessing and prayer.
Look around you. Really look. Go ahead.
Look at these people, look at yourselves, men and women whose lives are being poured out in love for this life and for this church, in ways visible and invisible. Look at this body of people, woven together as one living prayer. What a blessing. What a beautiful thing. Keep on praying, whatever you do. Amen.