I have done lots of praying this past week but as a person who does not believe in a God who answers prayers, my stating that I have done lots of praying is going to need an explanation. How could I be praying if I do not believe in a God who answers? What possible good would my praying have if it is not directed to someone or something?
And for the record, I did not begin my prayer To Whom It May Concern as in the Unitarian Universalist joke. No my prayers are aimed at no deity other than the mystery of life and my humble role in its unfolding.
We began our service today with The Prayer of St. Francis. It has been attributed to Francis of Assisi, the monk of the 13th century. However, the prayer in its current form can only be traced back to 1912 when it first appeared anonymously in French in La Clochette, a spiritual magazine. It is most likely not a prayer written by St. Francis.
But regardless of the origin, the prayer has universal appeal to Christians of all stripes as well as people of other faith traditions. It is a prayer asking for the willingness to change one’s behavior. A softening of the heart is being sought.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is despair, hope.
This is a prayer that although it petitions a higher power, is also asking the person to focus on behaviors that potentially would change their immediate environment if they were attentive to their surroundings. How might a person sow love where there is hatred? What might that look like? What might that look like in the neighborhoods of Gaza and Jerusalem, where hatred has once again spilled over? I saw a photograph of two young boys; one Jewish, one Palestinian arm in arm. Sowing love might look like that, not simply a photograph but the actual friendship between members of the two rival groups. Or what might it look like here in Alabama where people are upset over the election results and want to secede from the union. What might a focus on harmony look like in our country? Poking fun at their obvious disdain for the election results is probably not sowing harmony—Just sayin’.
The Prayer of St. Francis is popular because it resonates deeply with human nature. Everyone one of us has experiences where negative emotions have appeared recalcitrant and wanted to find a way to resolve them. This prayer addresses these states of the human condition. It leaves the door open as to how these conditions might be resolved but it posits the desire into one’s consciousness which in turn might lead to a specific action. Perhaps an action that one person can do. Perhaps it will be an action that a small group can do or perhaps an action that a sweeping movement can do. How might these seeds of love, hope, compassion be sown in our families, in our communities, in our nation today?
The human condition is also addressed in a Buddhist Metta, a sample line might be “May I live in peace and harmony with all beings.[i]” It is setting the intention and then the desire to focus on this intention with mindfulness. What would living in peace and harmony with all beings look like? The Buddhist is examining this thought in the Metta. The prayer is not addressing a deity but it is setting the intention and is opening the door for the mind to thoughtfully ponder what might be done to achieve this desire.
The Prayer of Jabez became popular a few years ago. It is the prayer by a person found in the book of First Chronicles in the Hebrew text. Not much is known about him other than his mother naming him Jabez after a difficult labor which means “he makes sorrowful/ pain”. He issues a prayer to God requesting blessing and ends the prayer with “that I may not cause pain.” The text tells us that God granted his request.
It became popular with the prosperity gospel preachers and new thought practitioners as a prayer to gain prosperity. The difficulty with saying this prayer is the formulaic aspect of it for gaining prosperity. Say these words in a ritualistic manner every day for at least 30 days and low and behold, you are prosperous in all things. This is the prayer on the surface and it is how Bruce Wilkinson in his book on the Jabez prayer encourages people on how to increase their lot in life. When the Prayer of Jabez is approached in this manner it encourages magical thinking. It becomes a potion, an incantation for a life of ease.
Life was never meant to be easy. Life can be enjoyable. Life can be an adventure. Life can be fulfilling. But life is not meant to be easy. It may have easy moments when things are moving along smoothly but those moments are the extent of the easy life. So those who pray this prayer as a formula for the easy life will be sadly disappointed. Even Bruce Wilkinson, the author of the popular book was to be sadly disappointed.
In 2002, he used the profits to go to Swaziland to set up an orphanage for children orphaned by the AIDS pandemic. A noble cause. Certainly this was an increase in his territory. He had grand visions. But a Wall Street Journal[ii] story reported in 2005, that he “resigned in a huff from the African charity he founded” allegedly because the people of Swaziland did not comply with his demands. There is a life lesson here and the answer is implied in the very prayer he promoted[iii] but apparently refused to see.
Beneath the surface of this prayer there is something being asked of the pray-er. ‘Increase my territory’ implies a relationship with the world that is more than just acquiring wealth. It requires taking on more responsibility and being held accountable for one’s actions. In the case of Mr. Wilkinson’s grand intentions of using his new found wealth, it meant listening to the needs of the people he felt called to serve. Instead he went to be the savior of these children. But what was required of him was to honor their culture in humility. He had a responsibility to honoring the worth and dignity of the people he wanted to help. This noble task was not about him as an evangelist or savior. It was about being accountable to the territory he was entering. Being kept from evil requires being attentive not only to the events that are happening around the person but also attentive to the impact of one’s actions so “I may not cause pain.” This is a prayer that while being addressed to God is also about taking responsibility for one’s journey through the world. It is not a mantra to be repeated in a rote fashion but rather wrestled with in relationship with one’s own life circumstances.
What territory in my life am I required to be responsible for? How am I being held accountable to the tasks set before me? How am I being attentive so that I am being kept from harm? How am I being attentive to the responsibilities that I have so that all who may be impacted by my responsibilities and behaviors are also kept from harm so that I may not cause pain? These are the questions that are raised with this prayer and the answers are probably not ones that fall from on high into one’s lap. The answers come from dialog, from being in relationship with others, from being attentive to the needs presented, and they come from walking humbly in the path of life.
The Serenity Prayer is another popular prayer that is about discerning the way through our life. The prayer was written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr wrote extensively on theological ethics before, during, and after World War Two. The horrors of this war from the Nazi and American concentration camps to the release of the atomic bombs over Japan are the backdrop of his writings and the circumstances in which this prayer was created.
It is a pragmatic prayer not given to the illusion that all things will be fine and dandy. Again, this is a prayer that while it addresses a higher power, requires the person to wrestle with the words in relationship with their own circumstances. What are the things in my life that cannot be changed and therefore accepted as they are? What are the things in my life that can be changed? Are the things that can be changed worthy of my efforts to change them? Are there indicators or sign posts that I need to be paying attention to, which would determine something as changeable versus non-changeable in my life?
The practicality of this prayer to be applied to daily life won this prayer into inclusion of Alcoholics Anonymous circles. The second stanza includes their famous tag line, ‘One day at a time.’ It recognizes that life includes hardship. The second stanza also contains allusions to the last week of Jesus’ life of accepting the world as it is and not fighting it.
Now I told you I have been praying a lot this past week. These were the prayers that I found myself referring to this week. I prayed that I would be a comforting presence to members of our congregation. I prayed that I would be mindful in my behaviors to offer the support needed for family members to make critical decisions in the care of their loved ones. I prayed that I would find the right words to share at the right moment to lessen the deep pain, I knew would be felt. My prayers were not to a deity but they were uttered with the humility of the unfolding mystery called life. I knew that my words might not make a difference, or that my presence might not make a difference but I believed the attempt was an important one to make. Perhaps in a moment of transcendence, in a moment of grace, the realization of being loved would break through and soften the moment, ease the transition from this life or ease the acceptance of a life transitioning to death. It matters not to me if the person recognizes that moment as God’s love or human compassion—if only it would provide some comfort in our human hour of need.
There is one more prayer that I find myself uttering. The 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart said If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough. Thank you is a prayer. I say thank you when I look at the flowers blooming out front of this church. I say thank you when I see children laughing and playing. I say thank you when I observe the members of this congregation be so generous with their time in support of others. And I say thank you for this life that I am living as it is filled with wonder, filled with interconnections of love. When hardships befall us as they are bound to from time to time, I find myself saying thank you, not for the hardships but for the response of the people around me who step forward with love and compassion.
This past week many people stepped forward and their presence was deeply appreciated. Thank you… it is the prayer that is more than just two words. It is a prayer of reception. When a person says thank you, especially in difficult times, it is an acknowledgement of humility. It is an acknowledgement of love shared. It is an acknowledgement of our interconnective needs of one another. If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough. Blessed Be.
“When Praying is Sufficient ” delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa by Rev. Fred L Hammond 18 November 2012 ©