Sermons 2010-11

Love and Death

Love and Death
3-13-11
Rev. Douglas Taylor

This past Wednesday was the beginning of Lent for our Christian brothers and sisters. Perhaps you noticed, as I did, people in the grocery store with ashes on their foreheads. “From dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.” (Genesis 3:19) I attended an Ash Wednesday service with my daughter many years ago, primarily just to see what it was all about. Having grown up Unitarian Universalist I am sometimes overtaken by a curiosity and longing to see and experience what many UUs experienced in childhood before finding this faith.

My daughter and I sat through the Ash Wednesday service, listened to the scripture lessons, the prayers, and the homily – which was quite remarkable. The minister used passages from a modern Buddhist meditation book, drawing comparisons to Lent. He also talked about his experiences as a young employee of a local grocery store, reflecting on how they had to close the store once a year to do a full inventory of their stock and how that is what Lent is like. We have to close the store and take stock.

Then we went up through the lines of worshipers to get a smudge of ash across our foreheads in the sign of the cross. “From dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.” You are mortal. You will die. Wear this mark on your face all day; you will likely forget it is there but you will see the reactions of people around you and suddenly you well remember. You are dust; you are mortal; you will die.

I know the major theme of Lent is around the discipline of abstaining, of giving something up, of sacrificing for Jesus. Through prayer, charity, and self-denial, the practicing Christian is preparing for holy week. Prayer, charity, and self-denial are what the 40 days are about; but the last one, self-denial, is what everyone talks about, what everyone sees.

But what I was struck by most in the Ash Wednesday service I attended was not the prayer, charity or even the self-denial. It was the experience of being asked to face my own mortality. I am dust. I am mortal. I will die. If I were in charge of all the rituals I would ease up on the renunciation and self-denial aspect of Lent and focus on the facing of mortality; but not in a lugubrious manner. I would set it up as a challenge, as a reminder to live life more fully. If I were in charge of Lent we would have no more of this giving up luxuries and vices temporarily. I mean, if you’re going to give up vices, just do it. And as for luxuries, well … I can see the deep value in that that, but that’s another sermon. Still, I would shift the Lenten focus. Instead of sacrifice and self-denial, we would celebrate life amidst the sharp contrast of death.

If I were in charge of the ritual, I would probably make us all listen to that song that was popular on the radio a few years back. It was a little bit country, but that is to be forgiven. The chorus said: “someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.” The story in the song was of a man who learned he had a terminal disease and instead of moping or feeling bad he went sky-diving and bull-riding. When you are aware of your impending death, you treat each day as something precious.

There was an old bluegrass song I remember hearing on the radio one time that talked about a cemetery where the dates listed on people gravestones would span months, not years. The explanation given was not that these graves were for children, rather the dates represented the amount of time these people actually spent fully living – a very small percentage of their actual lives to be counted in months rather than in years. If I were in charge of Lent, we would listen to that song.

And if Bluegrass and Country music are not suited to your taste I suppose – for you – I would be willing instead to offer up the same message through lines from a Mary Oliver poem when she says “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” Or I might share a Henry David Thoreau quote: “I wish to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived.” Or, I could simply acquaint you with the life’s work of Rev. Forrest Church.

Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church has famously said that death is central to religion. The exact quote is “Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” That has been the Forrest Church quote because he not only said it and it preached it for many years – he lived it. “Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” Church developed esophageal cancer in 2006. After a successful operation, the cancer returned in the spring of 2008 and he was given months to live. Church delivered his ‘final sermon’ in 2008. He was blessed to offer what he thought to be his final sermon a total of five times as his cancer went into remission. Prior to his death, which did finally arrive in September of 2009, he had arranged to have his final two books published just after his death. One book was on contemporary Universalist theology and the other was titled Love and Death.

“Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” This short sentence outlines the human search for meaning. This brief theological summery by Church opens up the whole conversation of why we long to have a life that matters, a life with love. “Knowing we must die, we question what life means,” Church wrote. “Death is not life’s goal, only life’s terminus. The goal is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for. This is where love comes into the picture. Then one thing that can’t be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we go.”

In Church’s theology, Love is the counterweight to Death. Love is what makes death and life meaningful. Love is also what gives death its sting, for if we did not love it would not hurt so much to lose people in our lives.

There is a Buddhist story I considered using for the children’s story this morning: the Mustard Seed. In the story, a child dies and the mother is greatly distraught. She carries her dead child to her neighbors and to physicians asking for their help. Finally she arrives at the feet of the Buddha and asks for his help. The Buddha says, “I can help you. I will mix a cure for the child. You must fetch me a handful of mustard seed.” The young mother joyfully starts to leave on this errand but the Buddha stops her saying, “The mustard seed most come from a house that has known no death, where no one was lost a child or spouse or parent or dear friend.”

She goes to the first house on the street and asks for mustard-seed. The people in that house, recognizing her, take pity and offer her many handfuls of mustard seed. “Here, take all you need.” But then she is forced to ask, “Has a child or parent or spouse or dear friend died in this family?” They sadly answer her, “Alas we have known death; please do not remind us of our deepest grief.” And so it was as she went through the whole town and through all the villages, she found no other answer. There was no house but that some beloved one has died therein. “How selfish I am in my grief!” the young mother finally cried out in understanding. “Death is common to us all.” She then returned to the Buddha to bury her dead child and find comfort in the Dharma.

It seems to me there are two things here, the task of facing my own death and the task of facing the death of those whom I love. The task of facing my own mortality is a challenge. That task, I think, is to come to a sense of peace within myself about my own death. But as this mustard seed story highlights, the task of facing the mortality of others whom I love is quite a different challenge. That task, I think, is to still seek a sense of peace but only after wrestling with the grief, the loss, and the love.

I stand here in a particular position: I have never lost a close member of my family. Grandparents, yes; all my grandparents have died, a few of them while I have been an adult. But I have not lost a parent or a sibling, a spouse, best friend, or child. So take what I say with that grain of salt. Still I tell you that the task of facing the mortality of those whom we love is not a greater challenge, just a very different one from that of facing our own mortality.

I did have the opportunity as a teenager to face the possibility. My mother has serious scoliosis which required a full spinal fusion in the mid-80’s. As a minister, my mother was perhaps not exactly comfortable with the topic of death but at least willing to be open about the real possibility. She drew up her will, she had power-of-attorney papers ready, her doctors and family all were aware of her “no-extrodinary measures” wishes in case something went wrong during the surgeries. Nothing went wrong. But it was an uncertain and anxious process.

That I had this opportunity to consider the death of a loved one without a loved one actually dying is not so remarkable alone. More remarkable is it that I took the opportunity. Rather than deny the real potential of her death, I considered it – allowed myself to feel what it might feel like. Years later I still remember that I seriously entertained the possibility. And to this day I am aware of how privileged I am and continue to be that this was an intellectual and emotional exercise for me rather than a lived reality.

When we are young it is thankfully uncommon to experience the death of a loved one. With the addition of years, the chances of this particular form of suffer increases steadily. With the addition of years, you are less likely to be able to give your mustard seed away to a bereaved seeker. But then, that really is not the point. The point is not to give mustard seed but to offer comfort and consolation.

All life is suffering and our suffering is due to attachment, says Buddhism. As the story of the mustard seed teaches, there is a way out of suffering. The word “Dukkha” is easily translated as suffering, but it may perhaps be better translated as ‘impermanence.’ It is because of the impermanence that living is precious. It is precisely because living is finite that we value it. Learning to love in the face of impermanence, knowing that in the end there will be suffering is the heart of this small story.

A memorial reading I often think of when preparing a service is titled, “The Cost” by Dorothy Monroe.

Death is not too high a price to pay
for having lived. Mountains never die,
nor do the seas or rocks or endless sky.
Through countless centuries of time, they stay
eternal, deathless. Yet they never live!
If choice there were, I would not hesitate
to choose mortality. Whatever Fate
demanded in return for life I’d give,
for, never to have seen the fertile plains
nor heard the winds nor felt the warm sun on sands
beside the salty sea, nor touched the hands
of those I love – without these, all the gains
of timelessness would not be worth one day
of living and of loving; come what may.

Death is a natural part of life, a part that is filled with sorrow for the loss and anxiety for the unknown of what is next. Sorrow and anxiety are Death’s companions. There is a way to grow less anxious and it is worth pursuing. I can become less anxious about my own death by living the best possible life I can live, by coming to terms with the reality that everything alive in the universe dies eventually.

Death is also filled with sorrow. And there is a way to take the sorrow out of death, but it is not worth pursuing – because the way to remove sorrow from death is to not care. May we never grow insensitive to the pain of another person. May we never consider indifference to be an option over suffering. Every memorial service I have done is concluded with this benediction,

Blessed are those who cherish the sacred memory of those who walk with us no more, having achieved serenity in the knowledge that bereavement comes only where love abides. Out of sorrow shall come understanding; through sorrow you are joined with all that live.

Death is a natural part of life. But until death’s time, life is full of beauty and love and courage. Love is the counterweight to death.

I remember an older lady from the previous congregation I served before coming here. Ilse was dying, she insisted on being home not in a hospital. She had many friends around her, many members of the congregation. She had taught Sunday School for 39 consecutive years and was upset she could not teach during her last year to make it a round 40! During her last weeks she would call and ask me to come visit her, to pray with her and to sing to her.

One of her daughters told me that she roused them all in the middle of the night, waited for those who lived a few minutes away to arrive, and gathered them around her bed. She looked each one in the eye and told them she loved them and said goodbye. She closed her eyes and took a few breaths. Then she opened her eyes again and said, “Damn! I botched it again.” She lived a few more weeks past that. When she did die it was quietly and without fanfare.

Like Forrest Church’s “farewell sermon,” Ilse’s bedside farewell was repeated a few times before it really took. The point for Ilse and for Forrest was to express the inexpressible: something about love and death, perhaps that love is stronger than death. Certainly love is what gives death its sting, but in the end love wins.

You are dust; you are mortal; you will die. But you are now alive and there is courage enough and love enough to make life sweet. Love is the counterweight to death. Dwell on death only long enough to let it go. Then release yourself to lifetime and do your part to fill it with love.

In a world without end,
May it be so.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pledge Drive

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pledge Drive
Rev Douglas Taylor
3-6-11
[Note: this sermon is largely based on a sermon by Rev. Webster Kitchell Howell called “Money Talks” which can be found in the book The Abundance of our Faith published by Skinner House Books]

My wife said to me “Well, I for one have never heard of that movie and I bet a lot of other people haven’t either.” She and I were laughing together this week about my title for this morning, “How I learned to stop worrying and love the pledge drive.” My wife expressed her opinion that this was perhaps the worst sermon title I had ever dreamed up. And that’s saying something. The movie in question is a 1960’s classic satire by Stanley Kubrick staring Peter Sellers and George C. Scott. Its full title is “Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

My title was meant to poke at our annual anxiety about money. Nobody should learn to love war or bombs. And it can feel like no one is ever going to love pledge drives either. But what would it look like for us to really find this annual process to be one of the best pieces of our congregational year? Every year we do this pledge drive, and speak of the great value of our free religious faith and the power of this community and how it is good to support it financially. Over and over we say this each year. I’m looking for new way to say the same old wonderful stuff: that money is an expression of our value.

And yet, every year I stumble through the process. And every year I grow a little anxious trying to think of just the right way to speak of something this important in the life of our congregation. So I thought it might be best to seek advice from a source whose authority on the topic of money is nigh undisputable. I dug a dollar bill out of my wallet and asked if it could join me in the pulpit for a conversation.
(bring a dollar out and place it visibly on the pulpit)

Douglas: “Money I am glad you could spare some time to talk with me this morning”

Money: “Hey, glad to have the opportunity. I get invited into churches and other places of worship a lot, but most of the time I don’t really have a chance to connect with people. I’m kept at arm’s length like a pariah or something.”

Douglas: “Oh! Well, I must admit I was not expecting you to jump right into the heart of the problem. I thought you would start out with a joke or two, like when I thanked you for coming to talk you would say: hey, money talks all the time, it’s just that the most common words it says are ‘good-bye’”

Money: “Yeah, that’s about your stuff. I don’t know those jokes.”

Douglas: “Oh! Ok, well anyway, I’m glad you agreed to speak with me because I have a problem that I think you can shed some light upon.”

Money: “You’ve got a problem alright, but not the one you think you have.”

Douglas: “Excuse me?”

Money: “Oh, I know you are going to ask me about how you can get the people in the congregation here to open up to a more abundant and generous way of giving. Am I right?”

Douglas: “Well, I suppose. I want to ask them to give joyfully and generously to fund some of the bold plans we have, but I also don’t want to stress anyone out or make anyone feel anxious or guilty or shamed.”

Money: “You think your problem is figuring out how to make all these people relax and enjoy the pledge drive with a positive and generous attitude.”

Douglas: “Uh, well … yes.”

Money: “But that’s not your problem.”

Douglas: “It’s not?”

Money: “Nope, not even close.”

Douglas: (pause) “Ok, I’ll bite. What is the problem that you can help me with?”

Money: “For starters, your sermon title.”

Douglas: (Sigh) “It’s a spin on an old movie title, a satire from the 60’s …”

Money: “I know, I heard you mentioning it at the beginning and I gotta say I agree with your wife. I’ve never heard of the movie either – and besides, you say it is satire. Are you really trying to appeal to the better part of people through satire? Really?”

Douglas: “I hadn’t thought of it like that.”

Money: “The problem you need my help with is that you are very ambivalent about money. You want to know how to speak passionately about giving without sounding greedy – because you are constantly preaching about the evils of greed. The problem is that you are uncomfortable around me.”

Douglas: “This is certainly not the sermon I thought we would be delivering together, but since you brought it up: Yes, I do have some issues with you. Money, you tend to bring out the worst in people. You seem to feed on that spiritual dissatisfaction that gnaws at me, tempting me to think I can use you to become happier or more secure or express my feelings for others. But I know that you can’t bring me true happiness or truly express my feelings for others. So I try to avoid thinking about you: which creates problems with my personal finances. Yet when I do think about you my thoughts tend to be focused on how to get more of you.

You seem to take perfectly normal people capable of generosity and compassion, and by your absence you make us desperate and covetous – or by your presence you make us selfish and retentive. Money, you are at the root of many arguments between loved ones. You hold so much power over us, making us feel vulnerable and defensive. I don’t like the way I feel and act when you are part of the equation.”

Money: “Now do you see what I mean when I said your problem is not your pledge drive?”

Douglas “But the pledge drive is where it shows up. Money, you represent time and energy, of course. That is what we often try to talk about in these pledge drives. But you also represent power and status, and that is a little more uncomfortable for us to talk about. But it’s a trick because to be honest I must admit that being over-focused on money is trouble: the love of money is the root of all evil. And yet, here I am devoting an entire sermon to ask people to give more of it to us.”

Money: “But you’re missing something really important in what you just said. Yes, I represent time and energy. And I won’t deny that you instill in me a certain representation of status and power. But what you’re missing is that I also represent value.”

Douglas: “Well, obviously. The price tag on something is a statement of its value.”

Money: “But the value of an object is not limited to the value indicated on its price tag.”

Douglas: “Fair enough, there is sentimental value that has nothing to do with you, Money.”

Money: “Now consider: you are willing to use me to obtain something of value to you. So I represent power and status, time and energy, and most importantly – value.”

Douglas “You’ve made your point. But how does it apply to me or to our pledge drive.”

Money: “Someone once said, ‘At my best I use my money to communicate to the world my values. At my best I use my money to bear witness to my values.’”

Douglas: “Now that’s nice. I like that, who said that?”

Money: “You did, two years ago when you were telling these fine people that money is a tool of the sacred, that money represents a ‘divine interaction’ of values.”

Douglas: “Oh yeah, I remember that. I was talking about how money originated as a metaphor for divine valuation. Different people used different tangible objects to mark value and this tangible marking was the beginning of money. The really interesting part was that it was rooted in divinity – people understood that it wasn’t just bartering or trading commodities. Money began as a divine mark of value.”

Money: “Keep going, this is good”

Douglas: “Did you know that in Ancient China, they used tool-shaped pieces of bronze to signify value. And on one island in the Pacific (Santa Cruz) they used red feathers, while on another (Yap) they used huge stone disks.”

Money: “That is very interesting”

Douglas “In Nigeria they used copper rings, in Ethiopia they used bars of rock salt, and in Liberia it was pieces of iron wire flattened at each end.”

Money: “Yes I know. It is me you are talking about, after all. And today in this country you use cloth bills, metal coins, but mostly those thin cards of plastic with a magnetic bar. Unfortunately you’ve let me slip from being a deep metaphor of value to a mere representation of payment.”

Douglas: “That right there is the problem. As much as I tell everybody that you are a tool of the sacred, rooted in divine valuation, the reality that every one of us feels on a daily basis is that you are a tool too easily corrupted to cause suffering and injustice.”

Money: “Hey, at least you have free will to choose to use your life and your gifts as you want. I am, as you have pointed out, only a tool at your disposal. It doesn’t really matter how much of me you have, it’s what you do with me that counts. Does this help you know what to say to the people here this morning?”

Douglas: “Hmmm. I suppose it does. I still want to ask us to be generous.”

Money: “But why do you want them to give me to the congregation?”

Douglas: “Well, generosity carries its own reward. When we don’t let our anxiety and ambivalence about money determine what we do with it then the benefits are manifold! When we are generous, we are able to give with a sense that our gift creates not only tangible results but also intangible connections. Generosity flows from a sense of caring for that which we all hold in common – it is an act of compassion and gratitude.”

Money: “OK, but one thing I can tell you from my experience is that people are not often just randomly generous. People make choices about how they are going to be generous. And remember, if we’re trying to free me from the basest of claims, people should make choices based on their values. Right?

Douglas: “Right. Ok, money. People should be generous specifically in the direction of this congregation precisely because of their personal values and the way this congregation embodies those values in the world. Our congregation stands open to the promptings of the spirit, that ‘the bonds of love keep open he gates of freedom.’ People are generous because we are creating a community of acceptance and encouragement, of hope and justice.”

Money: “Right on!”

Douglas: “People here are generous because we create a community that honors the worth of every person; that stands up to society and says: Here we create an open and accepting community where theists and atheists, pagans and heretics celebrate together each Sunday.”

Money: “Preach it!”

Douglas: “Here we create a community where gay and lesbian, straight and bisexual, transgender and question people are all welcome and offered a blessing.”

Money: “Amen!”

Douglas: “Here we create a community where people work together to build a better world, challenging injustice and encouraging love and compassion in all things. Bound by words like “Interconnectedness, Transcendence, and Compassion,” we gather together to create the beloved community. And the pledges we make, the promises we offer of our money, serve to make plain the value we hold for the creation of such a community.”

Money: “Can I get a Hallelujah!”

Douglas: “Money, thank you for joining me here this morning. You helped me sort a few things out in my heart.”

Money: “I have only one piece of advice to offer that you didn’t figure out for yourself.”

Douglas: “Oh, what’s that?”

Money: “The best thing for creating generosity is gratitude. So, thank them. Thank them for letting me be sacred again. Thank them for using me to create the world they dream of. Thank them for using me to tell the world of their values.”

(folds money back into wallet)

Good people, I want you to know that the gift you offer is appreciated and is used to create a particular kind of religious community. Thank you for the promise you make to use your financial resources in this way. Thank you for helping to create a community that is open and welcoming to the faithful heretics and the religiously scorned, for the seekers and skeptics in need of a home. Thank you for making your money into a tool of the sacred, into a statement of our values. Thank you. The world needs faith communities such as ours. Thank you.

In a world without end
May it be so.

Whose Are We?

Whose Are We?
2-20-11
Rev. Douglas Taylor

An elderly gentleman ran a curio and antique shop in a large city. A tourist once stepped in and got to talking with the old man about the many things that were stacked in that shop.
Said the tourist, “What would say is the strangest, the most mysterious thing you have here?”
The old man surveyed the hundreds of curios, antiques, stuffed animals, shrunken heads, mounted fish and birds, archeological finds, deer heads – then turned to the tourist and said, “The strangest thing in this shop is unquestionably myself.”
(DeMello, Anthony; Taking Flight, p131)

I don’t know if any of the rest of you resonate with such a story, but I certainly feel myself to be quite a mysterious curio at times – a mystery box of the same proportions as any great theological or philosophical mystery of life. It is said that “Who am I?” is the first of the great questions people ask themselves in the search for meaning. “Who am I?”

There is an activity I have done a few times at our annual 24-hour Spirituality Retreat held each spring. It involves pairing people up and having them take turns asking the question “Who are you?” We take turns, for five minutes my only task is to ask that question and wait for my partner to respond. I then say something like “Namaste” and ask again, “Who are you?” For five minutes. And then we switch roles and my partner asks the question of me again and again for five minutes. The pacing is determined by the answerer; if I run out of answers we sit in amiable silence until the five minutes is up. This activity often leads people into a deeper appreciation of their identity, but is not always easy.

In Anthony DeMello’s book Taking Flight, there is this story:

A woman in a coma was dying. She suddenly had a feeling that she was taken up to heaven and stood before the Judgment Seat.
“Who are you?” a Voice said to her.
“I am the wife of the mayor,” she replied.
“I did not ask whose wife you are but who you are.”
“I’m the mother of four children.”
“I did not ask whose mother you are, but who you are.”
“I’m a school teacher.”
“I did not ask what your profession is but who you are.”
And so it went. No matter what she replied, she did not seem to give a satisfactory answer to the question, “Who are you?”
“I am a Christian.”
“I did not ask what your religion is but who you are.”
“I’m the one who went to church every day and always helped the poor and needy.”
“I did not ask what you did but who you are.”
She evidently failed the examination, for she was sent back to earth. When she recovered from her illness, she was determined to find out who she was. And that made all the difference.
(DeMello, Anthony; Taking Flight, p140)

But I don’t think this is necessarily an inaccurate or wrong way to answer the question. I understand the point of this small story – who we are in not what we do or who we spend our time with, there is something deeper – yet I still protest. Who I am is certainly caught up in my vocation, my faith, my relationships, and my behavior. Who am I? I am Douglas Taylor. But what does it mean to be Douglas Taylor? I am father, husband, minister, friend. The question “Who am I?” easily moves into the relational answers. I am connected to others, and who they are to me is part of who I am.

Another frame for this question is, “Whose am I?” This tugs at a slightly different set of answers. Instead of searching for individual identity, it seeks to uncover who has a piece of me. Whose am I? Who needs me, who loves me? To whom do I belong? To whom am I accountable? To whom do I answer? Who or what lays claim to my heart and my life?

This, now, is the question that I was asked to ponder at a minister’s training session I attended this past summer. The Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association hosted a theological conversation and invited about fifty ministers to be trained in leading this conversation among our colleagues and our congregations.

At the beginning of our time, one colleague (Rev. Sarah Lammert) shared this story.

In Seattle the interfaith clergy organization has a tradition of asking senior colleagues to share their life odysseys. On this particular occasion, a Roman Catholic priest was telling his story, and he said that his life had been in large measure a failure. He remembered the heady days of Vatican II and how hopeful he and his generation of liberal priests had been that real change was coming to the church he loved so dearly. And yet: these many years later he felt that the church had if anything become hardened and deeply conservative, and his dreams had not been realized.
Now this priest was someone who was valued among his interfaith colleagues, and they were somewhat hurt and stunned by his revelation. And yet; one colleague noted, despite the severity of his words, his demeanor seemed quite peaceful and content. “How can you claim that your life was a failure, and yet appear so calm and serene?” “I know whose I am,” replied the priest. “I know whose I am.”
(from Rev. Sarah Lammert’s Whose Are We? Sermon, Feb 1, 2009)

My colleague then went on to describe how this question “Whose am I?” later became a spontaneous focus for a group of Unitarian Universalist clergy. “Whose am I?” As she and her colleagues tentatively approached the topic she heard herself saying “It is easy to lose sight of the fact that we belong to something beyond ourselves.” She heard someone else offer, “The language that we use to express some of the experiences and concepts can be frightening, trigger baggage, invoke reactivity in our congregations.” And yet another said, “We tend to have a spiritual don’t ask don’t tell policy.” (ibid)

Following that opening in which our colleague shared the story of the priest and some of the responses that she and her colleagues experienced, the trainers began the workshop. We broke into pairs and then following the format of the exercise I described earlier, we each had five minutes to answer the question “Whose are you?” We were told the pattern would be this: Person A would ask “Whose are you?” I, as person B, would respond to the question. My partner, person A, would say “God be merciful,” and then repeat her question, “Whose are you?”

Interestingly, when we did this at the training last summer, my partner and I did not bat an eye at the language of the response. God be merciful. We were both theists and were willing to work within the instructions as given and just role with it. Later in the fall when I lead my district colleagues through the workshop there was a small uprising. I stopped the workshop and we spent half an hour sorting out what to do with that phrase “God be merciful.”

As it turned out, the majority of the reaction for my colleagues was not the word God. As one of my atheist colleagues said, “I can translate that in my head. I understand the concept of metaphor and symbol enough to be ok with using that word. It’s ‘merciful’ I’m having trouble with. As if there is something wrong with my answers for which God needs to be merciful.”

So we talked that through and we agreed that different responses, such as “Namaste” would serve as well. And we left it as “ask your partner what response he or she would like to hear,” and we jumped in. And that is just part one of six in the workshop. One interesting thing we discovered is the nuance heard in the phrase “God be merciful” by those who went ahead and used that response.

My colleague asked me “Whose are you?” I responded saying, “I am God’s.” And she said, “God be merciful. Whose are you?”
I belong to the universe. God be merciful.
I am Love’s. God be merciful.
I am my own. God be merciful.
I belong to my family. God be merciful.
I am my mother’s son. God be merciful.
I belong to my mother’s people. God be merciful.
My father has a corner of me, too. God be merciful.
I am of the earth, with a special call from the herons, the cattails,
and the rivers. God be merciful.
I am wholly of our Unitarian Universalist faith. God be merciful.
I serve and am called by this congregation. God be merciful.
I belong to my colleagues. God be merciful.
I am my children’s. God be merciful.
My brokenness calls me. God be merciful.
As does my sorrow and that certain darkness within. God be merciful.
But also my light. God be merciful.
I am called by joy. God be merciful.
I belong to life. God be merciful.
I serve God. God be merciful.

Step one of the workshop took me to a very deep place. We were then brought through further workshops about our calling and about the covenants we hold. Direction of the program is to move from “whose and I?” to “whose are we?” and it was not an easy shift. It is not an easy shift from the individual to the community because we as Unitarian Universalists do not have a shared doctrine of God. I can say “I am God’s,” no problem. But the words would not so easily fall from our lips to say we are God’s. It is not that we do not speak about our relationship with God here. It is not that God is not the answer to the question for some of us. Rather it is because we hold a commitment that belief cannot be coerced. It is because we hold a commitment that each person shall engage in the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. It is because we hold a commitment that every person is unique and will thus have their own experience of life and love and the holy. The reason it is difficult to shift from “whose am I?” to “whose are we?” is because we as Unitarian Universalists hold a commitment that every person will necessarily have their own theology.

My answers will not be your answers and that is part of the grace and beauty of our faith. We are theists and atheists and agnostics together in one room. We gather as seekers with ties to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, various forms of Paganism and Native traditions. We gather as skeptics and mystics, humanists and transcendentalists. What we hold in common is our covenant to walk together in the ways of truth and service, honoring both the individual worth of each among us and the ways we are interconnected in living on earth. Thus we do not necessarily have a common name for or even a common understanding of the holy, of the ultimate reality, of God, of the creative and transformative power in life. Thus we do not have a common answer in the obvious sense to the question “Whose are we?”

The obvious answer to this question – the answer we all implicitly knew to be the answer when the priest said it in that opening story told by my colleague – is God. “I know whose I am,” the priest said. We know who he meant: God. But that answer, even layered with the nuance of metaphor and symbol, is not wide enough to serve for the whole of us. I suspect we will have multiple answers in the end.

The workshop does not offer an answer during the last session. The program created by the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association is not driving toward a particular end point. Instead it is after the conversation. The point is to wrestle with the question. And I suspect we will have multiple answers. But I shall not leave you with only the vague assurance that it is complicated. Allow me to wade into this question and dare an answer or two.

Whose are we? Who needs us? To whom do we belong? To whom are we accountable? Framing the question in a few different ways opens up the nuances. We belong to all those who have gone before us and all who will follow after as the community of Unitarian Universalists in this town. We belong to each other and we are needed by those not yet here. We belong to the earth and yes we belong to God and we belong to love. This matters because we are held accountable by love and by God and by the earth and by each other.

May God be merciful, because there are real consequences to such connections; consequences concerning what we are to do as a community and how we are to be in this world. We are not only our own. We are not isolated beings, but connected. There are multiple answers but the demand and the consequences are as real as if we were the sort of congregation that produced one answer only. So let us seek to uncover whose we are together. And may God be merciful.

In a world without end
May it be so.

Civility Amidst Polarized Politics

Civility Amidst Polarized Politics
Douglas Taylor
2-27-11

I’m gonna start by giving you all some advice. If you ever publish a letter to the editor or a guest editorial in the local paper do not, unless you are a glutton for punishment, read the posted comments of the online version for your letter. Jean Rose-Klein published a short article this week and I took a quick glance through the online comments (and here I admit I do not follow my own advice) to see the usual storm of accusation, denial, posturing, and frustrating carelessness flung across my computer screen. In fairness, I will point out that there are, among the posts ‘removed for violating the guidelines of discourse,’ a few thoughtful and interesting posts that are worth reading. Unfortunately it is not worth sifting through the garbage-posts to find them. As a forum for discussion differing views, the online anonymity style is a failure.

Our society dearly needs a functional forum where differing political and social perspectives can be shared with civility. We, the people, are too easily isolated into our homogeneous niches lest we stumble across the reality of a well stated alternative position that might cause us to engage. Today, during the service I invite you to participate in just such an open forum conversation. Following the sermon and before the closing hymn I will open up the floor for any response you might have to this topic and what I have shared. So I invite you now to consider your own life and how you are with these issues.

The reading for this morning ends with the historian’s observation “The United States only stabilized as a nation when it gave up the dream of being a one-party utopia and accepted the existence of political opposition as crucial to maintaining a democracy.” [from Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz, p314] Thus, one could extrapolate, that our current political woes may be the instability of too many of us picking that one-party utopian dream back up. According to this historical perspective, one of the great hallmarks of our nation is the Freedom of Speech and how that freedom allows different perspectives to be heard and ultimately for truth to work its way to the top of the political milieu. If, however, we stop listening to different views, stop attempting to ‘embrace error’ for the sake of promoting truth, then we grow stuck in our own conceptions and misconceptions with no way of uncovering the difference between them. It is a problem.

What we are seeing and hearing now from our elected leaders and news commentators is not good. We hear one called a fascist and another, a racist. Rude comments about lipstick on pigs pass for good-natured colloquial commentary. And the use of violence is implied when someone uses the cross hairs of a gun site to mark political opponents, and another quips ‘if they bring a knife to a fight, we’ll bring a gun.’ And then there is the back drop of the angry rallies on both sides of the political railing, each comparing the other side’s leader to ‘Hitler’

About a month and a half back the topic of political civility became a major issue. U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was holding a “Congress on your Corner” event at a local grocery store when a man opened fire killing 6 people and seriously wounding many others, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Fascinatingly, rather than focusing on gun control or mental health issues, we turned our attention to the conversation of civility.

One interesting response offered by congress was to mix up the decades-tradition of segregating the chamber seating arrangements for the president’s address to Congress later that January. They decided, as a gesture of civility to honor Representative Giffords, to sit as all Republicans on one side and all Democrats on the other. I looked at a seating chart of the event and I will say I was impressed that it was not only a few lawmakers – the chamber seating was really well mixed. And, granted, while this was merely symbolic it was still remarkable.

Not that I think the January 8th shootings in Tuscan were motivated by the increase in polarizing and vitriolic political rhetoric as some have suggested. Quickly after the shooting pundits and regular people started asking, “What is the connection, if any, between political rhetoric and violent acts?” The tone of our political discourse, I suspect is not the cause, but rather another symptom of the same malady afflicting our nation. I don’t know what motivated the shooter on January 8th to take the actions he did. But to lay the blame at the feet of the former governor of Alaska, for example, is only to perpetuate the rhetoric we claim to be the problem.

A colleague of mine (Rev. Roger Fritts in his 1-0-11 sermon “Polarized) pointed out a study done a few years ago in which researchers interviewed people in prison for assassination or assassination attempts. The study did not find these assassins and would-be-assassins to be politically motivated. Instead, the finding showed that overwhelmingly these people felt invisible. Many of them, prior to their attack, struggled with job loss, failures in school or in significant relationships. Their stories are littered with experience after experience of failure. A significant goal in their choice of target was to gain instant fame. These assassins and would-be-assassins were motivated not by politics but by a desire to overcome failure through notoriety. And while I do not know if such was the case for the shooter in Tuscan last month, the profile seems to fit. [“Fame Through Assassination: A Secret Service Study” National Public Radio, Morning Edition, January 14, 2011. Alix Spiegel. http://www.npr.org/2011/01/14/132909487/famethroughassassination-a-secret-service-study]

Indirectly, however, I am sure the tone and atmosphere of violence in our society has an impact. We model for our children and for all society an acceptance of violence and meanness. Our society offers these models and reinforces the tendencies to use the vitriol and hate as common forms of discourse.

Here is a local example to chew on. At the Vestal High School a few months back there was a “Kick-a-Jew-day” that sprang up among some of the kids, spread by texting and facebook. It is a slightly more complicated story that this, but in essence several kids kicked their fellow students who were Jewish. Rather quickly I heard people jumping from a statement about ‘the awful thing these kids have done” to how “these are awful kids.” But to demonize these kids is not helpful. I am not saying there might be an explanation that would make the incident somehow acceptable. What I am saying is there might be circumstances we don’t yet know that would make the incident something other than a hate-crime perpetrated by the worst segment of our society. Demonizing the ‘other’ not helpful. Listening to people would be helpful.

We could call up any number of examples in which sides are taken, lines are drawn, and people stop listening. The pattern of polarization is so ingrained in our public process that it is hard to avoid it.

There was a big longitudinal study done recently that looked at census data and county level election results data from the past five decades. [The Big Sort, the clustering of like-minded America, Bill Bishop, 2008. And, again, my thanks to colleague rev. Roger Fritts for highlighting this book in his sermon as cited above.] The major finding of the study was that over the past 30 or 40 years Americans have been sorting themselves into homogenous geographies. In the 1950s, for example, people with college degrees were fairly evenly distributed across the United States. In recent years, college-educated people have been disproportionately concentrated major cities like Berkeley, California; Cambridge, Massachusetts, and other such places along the east and west coast. In these communities, people tend to be more interested in politics and less likely to attend church. They tend to listen to National Public Radio, read weekly news magazines, vote Democrat, and own cats.

People without college degrees tend to be found in places like Lubbock, Texas; Gilbert, Arizona; Lafayette, Louisiana; or Allentown, Pennsylvania. These communities tend to be less densely populated and thus have bigger lawns. People in these communities watch Fox for their news, they own guns, volunteer and participate in clubs and churches, vote Republican, visit relatives a lot, and own dogs.

In short, we are clustering not only based on educational level or working class vs. middle class. We have been, over the past few decades, sorting ourselves into geographic clusters of like-mindedness. One pertinent observation from the research is that like-minded groups tend to enforce conformity and grow more extreme through a self-reinforcing loop. Mixed company tends to moderate while like-minded company tends to polarize. As political liberals and conservatives keep themselves in enclaves, they grow more zealous and become more distrustful of each other. Churches, even our diversity-loving liberal Unitarian Universalist churches, do not escape this clustering of like-mindedness. Many is the time I have heard a person comment about how great it is to have found a church home and to be around like-minded people. And yet, mixed company tends to moderate while like-minded company tends to polarize.

So, what can we do about it? The simple answer is to meet people who disagree with you. My mother tells a compelling story about that. My mother is a Unitarian Universalist minister, and when I was 18 she moved to Syracuse to serve the May memorial Unitarian Universalist Society as their Minister of Religious Education. During her years in Syracuse she also volunteered at the Planned Parenthood Center, serving on its board and as its President. She says the response she got from members of the congregation was mixed. Some would ask:

“What’s in it for us? You are taking time away from focusing on us to work for Planned Parenthood. And, I don’t agree with everything they do there.” Others would say, “Thank you for representing us as a congregation with the hard work to do at Planned Parenthood.”

Reflecting on that she writes:

Sometimes I felt like I did represent May Memorial; sometimes I felt I represented Unitarian Universalism and the UUA; but most of the time I was answering a personal call to work for the rights of women to maintain control over their reproductive choices, and for girls and women to receive the medical care they needed for healthy sexuality, pregnancy, and overall health. I received many a threatening phone call, and the Director and Medical Director wore bullet proof vests to work each day. I stood facing the Lambs of Christ protesters who came to demonstrate in front of our building, and I wrote letters to the editor.

She then tells of a program she became involved in called Common Ground for Life and Choice. It was a conference she attended, a conference for those who stood for life and those who stood for choice to come together and share peaceful and constructive dialogue.

We spent the first part of the conference just talking to one another about our lives apart from this topic. Then we were given colored dots to put on our name tags: blue for choice and green for life. By that time, however we had begun to relate to one another in caring ways that made it difficult to hate someone who differed from us on this issue.

There were guidelines they had all agreed to such as ‘no inflammatory language’ and ‘no language that made the others in the group uncomfortable.

It was an amazing experience. From it I developed a very powerful relationship with a young woman who was Pro-Life. We went on a radio talk show to share our beliefs. I remember one caller was angry that we could even talk with one another much less understand and respect the other’s beliefs. We held a Sunday morning Adult discussion Forum at my church together and she was treated with respect and listened to with compassion. Her Pastor would not allow us to come to her Christian fundamentalist congregation to have the same dialogue. I always regretted that for I do believe it could have begun a bridge of understanding.

Following this conference one of the women who had stood outside of the Planned Parenthood Center said she had never thought that those of us inside the building were frightened of them. But I told her we were, in part because of the murders of Planned Parenthood personnel in Brookline, MA and in Florida, and because our Center had experienced a buteric acid attack. I know that in Syracuse, at least for a time, the volatile environment eased and the work that came out of the Conference and the dialogues between those of us who were Pro-choice and Pro-Life helped many who were open to listening with respect came to a deeper understanding of all the dimensions of this issue.

It is possible to have an effect; it is possible to engage with people – even with people who seem to be so very far from your perspective. It is possible to impact the public discourse around you.

So, what are we to do? We could start by treating each other more gently and hospitable. Let us practice among ourselves. We could extend that hospitality to every person we find in this space: from the person we don’t recognize and might be new on Sunday morning to the person wandering the halls on a weekday evening looking for their meeting room. Take this generous and hospitable spirit of civility out to your work places and schools, to the coffee shops and shopping centers, to the multitude of places where you might bump into a person with a different perspective to offer. And then, speak up and listen in turn.

In a world without end,
may it be so.

You Are in My Prayers

You Are in My Prayers
1-23-11
Rev. Douglas Taylor

During my first or second year in ministry, I was attending an interfaith clergy gathering with another Unitarian Universalist colleague. The organizer of the gathering turned to my UU colleague and asked him if he would lead the group in an opening prayer. My colleague replied, without missing a beat, “Well, I really am not very good at that sort of thing, but –” and he smiled glancing over at me “– but Douglas always has a prayer in his back pocket.”

My initial thought, as I smiled back and gathered myself to lead the interfaith clergy in prayer, was that my colleague had pulled a fast one on me! But I could roll with it. Later, as we drove away together from the event my UU colleague confessed that he was really uncomfortable being asked to lead prayer like that. He told me how glad he was in that moment that I had come with him this time because he knew I was comfortable leading prayer like that. What I had initially perceived as a mildly irritating trick was actually a shy compliment.

So for the rest of the trip back across town I pondered that statement. “Am I comfortable leading prayer? I hadn’t thought so before.”

And I thought back to a similar comment another colleague offered. When we were in seminary at Meadville Lombard, a handful of us arranged to meet three times a week for early morning meditation in one of the empty classrooms. We would arrive silently, before breakfast, someone would lit a candle and keep time. After fifteen minutes we would extinguish the candle, hold hands briefly and then disperse back to our apartments to get ready for classes.

One of my classmates was quite effusive about how valuable these fifteen minutes of silence were to her. “Douglas, you have silence a lot, you can tap that whenever. But this is very new to me. Fifteen minutes feels very long and agonizing, I am so grateful I am not alone in the room because I don’t think I could last three minutes without the rest of you there.” She was single, I had two young kids back home – and I was the one with easy access to silence? But when I am honest with myself, what my friend said of me is true. Being silent is simple for me, and to turn the silence toward silent prayer is not a difficult step.

So I am developing a sense of myself that is line with others see in me: I am one for whom silence is like a second skin. I am one who travels with a prayer in my pocket. But I am also, I must admit, someone who has trouble with prayer – well, with some kinds of prayer – ok, with one particular kind of prayer: Petitionary prayer or intercessory prayer.

That’s the kind of prayer in which a person asks God to do something or change something. “Please, God make me pass this test, save the plane from crashing, get my team into the finals.” I don’t like this kind of prayer because it implies that God is an entity that tinkers with history and physics to suit the wishes of the faithful.

I heard about a minister who became upset with a woman when she described how her son had survived a particularly deadly military action because she had prayed for him. The minister asked her if she thought the other soldiers’ mothers had not prayed enough or been faithful enough. He asked her if she really thought the soldiers who did not survive had died only for the fact that they did not have mothers who prayed for them as she had done for her son.

And yet I will tell people, I have told some of you, “You are in my prayers.” I feel as though I identify with the women in the story who prayed for her son’s safety – not so much the smug satisfaction that seems to be there after the fact. But certainly the fervent wish that my prayers will be answered: that health will be restored, pain eased, relationships reconciled. Yet I don’t experience God as a wish-granting genie that I keep in my personal prayer bottle. “You are in my prayers,” I say. What does that mean? I struggle with this.

I don’t know if it ever crosses your mind. I don’t know how many of you here are people who pray. Maybe you struggle with it too. I am always surprised by the larger than expected number of us who pray. The stereotype is that we don’t – or if we do, our prayers are “to whom it may concern.” Maybe you have long ago dismissed prayer – you are not a praying person. I wonder if maybe what people reject when they reject prayer is this particular type of prayer, this intercessory and petitionary prayer. I was reading recently that there are five basic types of prayer: “Wow,” “Thank you,” “Sorry,” “Please,” and “____.” Of course some will tell you the number is really 2 or 22, but I like five. “Wow,” “Thank you,” “Sorry,” “Please,” and “____.”

“Wow” is a prayer of praise, a hallelujah. It is the prayer of amazement and wonder and appreciation – like applause. It leads well into “Thank you.” “Thank you” is a prayer of gratitude – perhaps the most easily understood. “Sorry” is the prayer of confession, the prayer for seeking to set things right again. “Sorry” is a hard one to do not because Unitarian Universalists find it theologically challenging but because all humans find it hard to say ‘I have done something wrong and I want to make it right.’ “Please” is the prayer of supplication and intersession, the petitionary prayer. This is a hard one. And it is the one most people think of when they think of prayer. This is the help me, heal me, hold me prayer; the change-this-bad-thing-to-good prayer. “Please” is the type of prayer Flip Wilson is poking fun at when he said, “I’m going to pray now, does anyone want anything?” It is the one I most have trouble with. “Wow,” “Thank you,” “Sorry,” “Please,” and “____.” The final type is silence.

Silence is included in the list of five here. An argument could be made that silence is not prayer, it is meditation; it is listening not speaking. Prayer is supposed to be a spoken experience; it is putting words out there, right? Theologian Soren Kierkegaard tells a story of a man who thought prayer was talking. But he grew more and more quiet until he realized that prayer is listening. I imagine the majority of us do not have a problem with a practice of meditative listen, of sharing silence in a reverent fashion. I suspect some of you would balk at calling it prayer.

In our regular liturgy each Sunday I mark the prayer and meditation time as moving through three phases: first with words, followed by silence, and the singing of a hymn. All three are forms of meditation or prayer. But I note a difference between the element I call a prayer and the next element which I call silence. And yet, it is more than merely the absence of noise. It is silence of a certain quality. Jacob Trapp writes about it in this meditation:

Let this house be quiet. Let our minds be quiet.
Let the quietness of the hills, the quietness of deep waters, be also in us:
So quiet that the noise of passing events and present anxieties,
of random recollections and wondering thoughts, is stilled;
So quiet that the marvelous stillness is like music;
So quiet that we feel the very being which is the life of us all;
So quiet that we are renewed, we feel at one with all others,
at home in a tabernacle of stillness;
So quiet that we sense the ripples of this pool of quietness and healing
pass through us and out to the farthest star.

Silent prayer or meditation in its simplicity can be the most open and accessible form. It even eliminates the difficulty involved for atheists, humanists, and other non-theists among us because there is not an assumed ‘other’ listening to our prayers because the prayer is silent.

But take a second look at some of these other types of prayer. “Wow” can be a natural, spontaneous, overflow of appreciation with life. Kate Braestrup describes a moment in her book when she pulled over to the side of the road to watch a sunrise. Braestrup is a chaplain with the Maine Warden Service and was on her way to a search-and-rescue happening several hours from her home. Knowing full well the fear, anxiety, and sorrow awaiting her arrival, Braestrup still had to pull over the car and watch in amazement as the world worked its way through a stunning sunrise. She writes:

I pulled the car onto the verge and turned off the motor. I sat gazing at the dark water, rocks wrapped in light from a pale sky. Consumed by a yearning whose object I couldn’t identify, I could think of no way to respond to it, though I badly wanted to respond. So I sat there and let the sun rise.” (Beginner’s Grace, p 33)

She confessed she wished she would have responded by “composing a splendid prayer and leaping from my warm car to sing it, three beside the frosted road.” (Ibid p33) But all she could do was murmur, inarticulately, “Wow.”

I can manage a prayer of “Wow” from time to time. Often when it takes on words it becomes a “Thank you” prayer. “Oh, we give thanks for the precious day.” When I remember to say grace before a meal it is a “Thank you.” E E Cumming’s poem with the opening line “I thank you god for most this amazing day” is a good example of a prayer of thanks. You can find that one in our hymnals, number 504. All of the selections from 493 through 524 are prayers that might serve for us. Take a look. You will find a disproportional amount of “Wow” and “Thank you.”

I like this one from Richard Fewkes in our hymnal number 515.

For the sun and the dawn which we did not create;
For the moon and the evening which we did not make;
For the food which we plant but cannot grow; …
I won’t read the whole prayer; you get the gist of it. For all these good and necessary things in our lives “we lift up our hearts in thanks this day.”

“Sorry” prayers are there in our hymnal. There is a small section ahead of the meditations and prayers called “Confessions.” There are exactly three prayers there – not a lot. Number 477 by Vivian Pomeroy is a prayer I have used in worship now and then. “Forgive us that often we forgive ourselves so easily and others so hardly.” I have sometimes felt we need a companion to this that acknowledges the times we are harder on crueler to ourselves than we would ever dream of being to another human being, for which we ought to seek forgiveness.

The “Please” prayer is not in our hymnal as much. The “Please” prayer is asking God for something, either for ourselves or for others. Please give us guidance, healing, safety, blessing—it is used to ask for all kinds of things, great and small. There is a cluster of short prayers in the hymnal that count as intercessory prayers, as “please” prayers: numbers 507, 508, and 509. The first one says:

Grant us the ability to find joy and strength not in the strident call to arms but in stretching out our arms to grasp our fellow creatures in the striving for justice and truth.

The next one reads:

Save us from weak resignation to violence, teach us that restraint is the highest expression of power, that thoughtfulness and tenderness are the mark of the strong; help us to love our enemies, not by countering their sins but by remembering our own.

And finally, the last of the three says this:

Save us, compassionate Lord from our folly, by your wisdom, from our arrogance, by your forgiving love, from our greed, by your infinite bounty, and from our insecurity, by your healing power.

These ask for help. “Please,” they say, “Help us, save us, grant us, teach us, heal us.” But if you are following along in the hymnal I am sure you’ve noticed these are listed not as Unitarian Universalist prayers, but as examples of prayers from the three western monotheistic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

There is another “Please” prayer, but it turns the formula on its head. It is number 519 written by Rabindranath Tagore. A Bengali poet and novelist from the early 1900’s who developed some loose connections with American Unitarianism after World War 1. The prayer is this:

Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless in facing them.
Let me know beg for the stilling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not look for allies in life’s battle-field, but to my own strength.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved,
but hope for the patience to win my freedom.
Grant me that I may not be a coward, feeling your mercy in my success alone;
But let me find the grasp of your hand in my failure.

As I said, this turns the formula on its head. Instead of praying for something I don’t have or can’t have, it is calling forth qualities from within myself that need at the moment. When I offer prayers during worship they may include elements of “Wow” and “Sorry,” but often they are taken up in “Thank you” and “Please.” I often say things like,

Where there is difficulty grant us strength. Where there is adversity grant us courage. Where there is suffering grant us meaning, that we may grow not bitter for the road we travel.

Perhaps some one asked you to pray for them. Perhaps this is no trouble for you! For many of us we struggle between compassion and an honest articulation of our beliefs about God and prayer when such a request is made. I believe in love. I believe that God is the transformative power of love. And I believe this love, this God, resides within each of us.

So when I say to someone, “You are in my prayers,” I don’t mean to imply that I have a special tug on God’s ear and can put in a good word for you. I don’t mean to imply that my prayers can somehow alter the laws of physics or tips the scales of chance. I see prayer as less a statement of fact and more a poetic reflection on reality. A prayer is not a research paper or an encyclopedia entry. A prayer is a statement of compassion. Prayer is not a replacement for actions that can make a situation better; nor is it a last resort. Prayer is a way of approaching the world.

And so do I pray the sort of prayers that ask for things of God. I don’t like the implication that God is a cosmic vending machine because from all I’ve experienced God is not like that. So I continue to struggle, and somewhere between poetry and integrity I will pray. Somewhere between the words that make sense and the words that soothe, I will pray for each of you. I will pray that health will be restored, pain eased, relationships reconciled and suffering made at least meaningful.

I invite you to pray – try the silence, try the “wow” and the “thank you,” and when necessary pray the “sorry” prayer. But know that if you pray then it will come up: I invite you to pray of others, to pray for those in need. I still struggle with it. But I will pray that health will be restored, pain eased, relationships reconciled and suffering made at least meaningful. Perhaps I will meet you sometime in this struggle, in prayer.

In a world without end,
May it be so