Turning the Corner
(A sermon on the subject of Prayer)

Jan Vickery Knost

First Parish in Norwell
January 7, 2001

When you turn the corner
And you run into yourself
Then you know that you have turned
All the corners that are left.

“Final Curve” - Langston Hughes

The past few weeks have not been good easy ones for Lorna, myself or our family. As most of you know, on October 31st our 38 year old son was in a terrible automobile accident. His was the only vehicle on a sunny, dry day in northern Alabama on the Interstate. Something caused his car to veer sharply to the left resulting iin an 83 foot roll that came to rest against a tree. Keith was airlifted to the regional trauma center with is back broken in four places, a punctured lung, six broken ribs and a broken nose. It is a wonder he survived but, Life be praised and with 45 days in Surgical Intensive Care, he live. We await the papers for Medicaid that will get him to a rehabilitation hospital.

This prompts me to digress for a moment to say “Thank You” to all of you. You are a most wonderful congregation. Your church leaders cleared the way for us to be with Keith for over two weeks. Rachel Tedesco ably assisted the rest of the staff in doing the necessary tasks during my absence. During my calls home I was assured by Chris and Prue that things were proceeding smoothly. Your calls of sympathy filled my heart. Your cards and notes were saved and brought to Keith. They helped us through. Your thoughts, your words, your steadfast love - how could I ever express our gratitude?

Given these circumstances, I suspect that you will agree that the topic for today may be appropriate. Let us consider its meaning, its use and its usefulness. “Prayer” is a concept many Unitarian Universalists do not find meaningful in the classic sense of its definition.

prayer - 1. a. A reverent petition made to God or another object of worship. b. The act of making such a reverent petition. 2. An act of communion with one worshiped, as in devotion or thanksgiving. 3. A specially worded form of address used in worship. . . . 5a. A fervent request. . . 6. The slightest chance of hope. (Webster’s Collegiate Dict.)

There are Prayer Stalls in Italy; Prayer Towers in the Muslim World; Prayer Shawls in Israel; Prayer wheels in India; Prayer bells and bowls in Tibet; aids to prayer called “worry beads” in Greece; prayer rugs in the Muslim world; aids to prayer called Rosaries in the Roman Catholic tradition; I could go on. Prayer is a world-wide activity.

And yet, as Unitarian Universalists, we sometimes have a problem with the word. Notwithstanding its acceptance as a legitimate human religious activity around the globe, we say, “Wait a minute”. When asked why, some are quick to respond, while others are not sure.

Matthew Fox is a current and outspoken Quaker mystic. Listen to his words as contained in his book, On Being a Musical, Mystical Bear.

There is no doubt that most of us here today are apt to think of the word “prayer” in the context of the living dialogue between human beings and God. True enough. But not always. Some of us view the activity more broadly as meditation or even contemplation. It is seen by some as a way of assisting us to understand life more clearly. To “Love Life” more deeply, as Fox suggests.

Howard Thurman, the great theologian, minister and student of the human spirit, wrote extensively about the nature of prayer. One of his books is titled Disciplines of the Spirit. In it, he tells about a tree in his backyard where he grew up in Ohio. One day he noticed workman digging a large hole in the street. As he watched, he discovered a large section of sewer pipe was exposed; “around it and encircling it was a thick network of roots that had found their way inside the pipe by penetrating the joints in many places. The tree was more than four hundred yards to the other side of the house, but this did not matter to the roots. They were on the hunt - for life.” (p. 13)

Each of us seek ways of finding nourishment beyond the daily demands of our bodies. We all have a hunger for something of meaning beyond the ordinary. We long for clarity; for a sense of knowing that would go beneath the common events of everyday.

Dr. Samuel H. Miller, Dean of Harvard Divinity School for a quarter of century, spent his lifetime in a quest for some understanding of the bonds that exist between art and religion. In doing so, he paid particular attention to the quest for meaning that occurs in prayer, meditation or contemplation. He drew a singularly precise image to explain what he meant in quoting the words of the blind poet, John Milton in his play “Samson Agonistes.” Samson, made blind by his captors, the Philistines, works in his chains at a treadmill in Gaza. And he says of himself:

“The blind Milton seems to be saying that one does not appreciate light until he has experienced darkness visible. It was characteristic of Dr. Miller to find covert religious insight, the recognition of darkness visible, in the work of the artist. In a sermon on the relationship of art and religion in the contemporary situation, he says,”

He goes on to say that the artist, Pablo Picasso suggested that modern humanity is all in pieces. Remember one of his odd portraits? In it, the human figure’s nose up in the left-handed corner and his chin in the southwest end of the picture. The artist tries to say that reality is a strange fusion of something seen beyond the appearance of things. The dark shadows are only if there is a sun. For the blind, there is none. For those who do not see with an interior eye, there is none.

That is a partial a reason why people pray; why they quiet themselves, trying to find that center; that focus; that theme of life that is the very act of loving the gift of life. Let’s think about that for a moment.

Traditionally, prayer was always sort of “aimed at a personal God, a supernatural God.” The belief or the hope of the person praying was that that God would act, intervene, punish or reward. Most, if not all of us have given up that notion. Unitarian Universalists may not have given up an idea of God, per se, but the belief in a God that can enter history and make a difference by means of prayer for this or for that - no.

Ralph Waldo Emerson told about a minister in Concord, Massachusetts who one Sunday prayed for rain “with great explicitness”, to use Emerson’s words. Indeed, on Monday there was a torrential downpour. Emerson concludes his story with these words: When I spoke of the speed with which his prayers were answered, the good man looked modest.”

Really!? For many, though, what we call “intercessory prayer”, is a possibility. But most Unitarian Universalists when confronted with a belief which makes it possible to manipulate the work of God find the concept rather obnoxious or even infantile.

When people ask for changes in weather; good grades in school or a better paying job, polite children; unblemished skin; a winning lottery ticket or deliverance from the guilt of a crime; that’s taking it too far.

For some, then, prayer has a bad name because of its mindless character. A church member objected to hearing a minister of another denomination who read the Lord’s Prayer. She said he did it without any feeling at all. You’ve heard such prayers spoken in public, too.

We hear chaplains praying for football teams to win the battle; to achieve victory over their foes. We hear ministers wanting God to fix something; to make life or death a matter of making a deal. Spare me this or that. We’ll do this for you if you do. The activity is meaningless, childish, arrogant and manipulative. I reject it.

On the other hand, there are elements of prayer that are lasting and beautiful. Three simple elements are always there - confession, acceptance and thanksgiving. When we employ these in our time of being quiet, all of us can find strength and courage.

Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, confesses his fear of what is to come in Jerusalem the next day. He then accepts the situation and says “Not as I will, but Thy will be done.” And with that, he finds the strength to praise the life he has been given and the challenge laid before him in seeking to serve God.

I believe, and I continue to believe, regardless of the outcries of ambiguity and protest from those who do not, that we can gain strength from prayer, meditation or contemplation. It is not an automatic process as in saying a Rosary. It is a growing process that requires discipline and patience.

Lorna’s sister Marcia is one of the top nurses in the State of Oregon. For over 35 years she has attended conference after conference on various aspects of nursing. She said to me that statistics have borne out the fact that whenever someone is in the hospital and has a large group of people praying in their behalf that that person, whether he or she knows it or not, seem to respond positively. This, at times against incredible odds. So what do we know? What do we really, finally know???

While we’re on the subject of prayer, I would like to say few words about the matter of prayer in public schools. Currently, due to the extreme pressure from the religious right, there seems to be a rush to judgment occurring in the U. S. Congress over the matter of voluntary prayer in the public schools.

First of all, I would say that “voluntary prayer” in a school is decidedly NOT voluntary. It is coercive. The reason I say this is the tremendous influence of what we call “peer pressure”. Voluntary prayer in public schools violates the separation of church and state andcontrary to the ill-informed claims of some of the spokespersons of the religious right, the so-called “Founding Fathers” meant exactly what they said when writing the First Amendment. They knew the only way to guarantee freedom of religion was to prohibit government sponsorship of it in any form; they knew enough not trust one another and so they put it in the Constitution.

Not only is voluntary prayer in public schools coercive, we also need to bear in mind that no matter WHAT prayer is devised for children to say, it is likely to be offensive to some in our pluralistic society.

For example: Christians are called to invoke the name of Jesus Christ in their prayers; Jews do not. Muslims do not. Nor do Hindus or Buddhists. And what about those who are agnostic or atheistic?

The whole thing really makes a mockery of prayer. No wonder prayer has a bad name. No wonder some, in planning services here in this sanctuary, shy away from using the term or even employing the activity called “meditation”. Prayer has become trivialized. It has become an innocuous formulation. Described by the orthodox, it is rote exercise. Meaningless. Preposterous. It treats prayer as decoration that is misguided and foolish. So I say “NO” to prayer in the public schools. Period. End of discussion.

To put it a little more lightly, I would quote the words of the American humorist, Russell Baker. He seems to describe the true shallowness of children praying in school.

One of the difficulties many of us have with prayer is that we assume that prayer is the prerogative of the illiterate, the uneducated and the unsophisticated. It need not be. We also assume that it must be couched in some traditional form, some posture, some formula of words. It need not be. It can be only the conscious focusing of thoughts, aspirations, feelings - - sorting them out quietly, withdrawing from the panic of the moment, summing up our better selves, quietly withdrawing ourselves for a moment from the frenzy of activity, anxiety and selfishness.

Prayer of this sort is a very personal and private matter about which no one should erect a fence of dogma or rigid form. That kind of prayer does not deny the self, but hopefully, enlarges the awareness of self in a larger relationship than to one’s self alone; it reaches out for contact with a reality that is not wholly imprisoned within one’s own, isolated skin.

Call that reality what you will. Call it Life. Call it God. Call it Love or Beauty, or call it by no name at all. It is merely the willed and conscious contact of the single self with that which is more than the self alone.

The ancient sage, Irenaeus, proclaimed that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Matthew Fox echoed his sentiments centuries later: “Live to make life livable; . . . In short, love life.”

So remember: Prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer has the possibility of changing people. And people change things.

Thank you all. . . for your prayers ! So be it and Amen.

(I am indebted to my colleague, Bruce Southworth, for his insights into the matter of prayer in public schools. -jvk)