(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
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Around ten years ago when I was in the midst of a phase in my life when conservative Christianity was a way to cleanse me of gay shame, I regularly engaged in many of the rites that I believed were a necessary part of being a good Christian. I prayed a lot – with people I served in Pastoral Care, with small prayer groups I joined, with other Pastors, on my own, and at every meal. I even naively forced it on my daughters – asking them to pray with me at their bedtimes and to hold hands with me in prayer before each meal.
In one horrifying event for my daughters, we were at a local McDonald’s and I insisted they join me in bowing our heads while I gave thanks for the food. Whether thankfulness for Chicken McNuggets is worthy of God or not, I’m not sure! But my daughters still tease me about that episode and how they blushed and stared straight ahead while I bowed my head and said a far too lengthy prayer. Much like most self-conscious teenagers, they were sure that every person in that McDonald’s was staring at us, talking about us and pointing their fingers at us – “look at that odd praying dad and his girls!” They scolded me for praying in public when private piety would have been much better – and less embarrassing to them!
I also remember that around that time that a well known Pastor at a very large local church was seriously injured during a minor surgery. His abdominal aorta was punctured and he was actually dead for several minutes. As a result, most of his internal organs lost oxygen and shut down. After his heart was restarted, he lingered in intensive care, near death, for many weeks. His doctors said that he would either die or be in a coma for the rest of his life.
Pastors and members from evangelical churches around the city and around the world began a prayer vigil for him – one that was organized so that it would be continuous. Tens of thousands of people participated and chose specific times each day to pray for him. I was one of them.
This Pastor survived and, while his recovery was lengthy, his escape from the brink of death and eventual return to ministry was seen as a miracle. Most said it was due to the countless prayers. The Pastor himself said that prayers were instrumental in his healing. God had answered the many faithful pleas in his behalf.
About a year after that, a member of my congregation was diagnosed with advanced cancer. She was not given long to live. She was a woman of deep faith with many friends. My church began a prayer vigil for her that included hundreds of people. She also fervently prayed for healing and her life became even more devoted to the God she believed would save her. Sadly, after an eight month health battle, she died.
In this March messages series entitled “What’s on Your Mind?”, I’ve chosen a topic suggested to me by Wayne Butterfass. He hopes it might complement a discussion Stuart led on a fourth Sunday a few months ago. As Wayne asked in his e-mail to me, “Are my prayers being answered? The small ones seem to be answered, but the big ones – like asking for a friend with pancreatic cancer to be cured – they don’t.”
Along with that question, we might also ask why should we pray? Does prayer offer us any benefit? What can be said about showy prayers made in public over Chicken McNuggets or prayers for victory before football games or prayers for greater wealth, career success, romantic happiness or our nation’s blessing? Is there a God or any force listening to us? For believers and the religiously skeptical alike, does prayer have value? Are prayers answered in any way that can make sense?
My understanding of spirituality is not concerned with whether or not God or any other supernatural being answers prayer. Such a concern involves the existence of God and is a matter of personal faith. Here at the Gathering, believers and skeptics are equally welcomed and respected. We participate in the life of the congregation – and in prayer – together. If one believes that an active and loving God or supernatural being is involved in human affairs, then one will believe that she or he answers prayers. Theistic skeptics, on the other hand, refute the existence of God and thus, of course, deny that prayers are answered.
But such arguments about the existence of a divine being are pointless and ignore the very real benefits of a spiritual life. As a culture, we get caught up in such a debate while overlooking the many common spiritual beliefs and practices we can share. All people have a god-force within them. We are imbued with goodness and great abilities to shape our lives and our world for the better. In that regard, prayer is a powerful medium of communication. Prayer speaks the longings in the deepest recesses of our souls. It expresses our hopes, dreams and fears. It gives voice to our collective yearnings and, as a result, prayer helps to unite us, instruct us in the ways of life, and inspire us to act. If WE are the gods and goddesses that can improve the world, then prayer is our communal call to action. It is the soothing song of peace. It is the quiet voice of redemption and forgiveness. It is the vision of a brighter and more just future. Prayer has value. Prayers are truly answered every day. Prayer works.
It is said that when the human species first uttered a prayer or plea to some higher power, religion was created. Indeed, prayer is the essence of spirituality. Prayer is ultimately an expression of human hope which is pretty much what we do here every Sunday with our readings, our songs, our conversations and our attendance. We hope to be better people; we hope to unite and find community with others; we hope to find insight in how the universe works and how we can improve it.
But, hopefully, we do not leave it at that. Each Sunday, I pray (!) we each leave with some sense of purpose, some inner resolve to take what we have learned, to use what inspired us, to leverage old and new friendships – and then go out and DO something with them. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Prayer is not an old person’s idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action.”
And, as I said earlier, world religions largely concur. In his Sermon on the Mount address, Jesus taught a summation of his sense of spirituality. Blessed are the meek, the humble, the peacemakers, and the merciful. Love your enemies, forgive them and never demand an eye for an eye. Seek the way of peace. As a foundation for all of his teachings, he asked that we root out and expose all forms of inner and external hypocrisy. Don’t condemn physical murder when you murder with your angry words. Don’t condemn adultery when you secretly lust in your heart and mind. Don’t claim to be a loving person if you hold bitterness toward anyone. Don’t showcase your charity when all you really want to do is show off how good you are. Don’t pray in public when what you really want to do is appear pious. Do these things humbly, quietly and without fanfare. Ultimately, he asked that we align our heart motivation with how we act.
And then he taught a suggested prayer – what we commonly call the Jesus Prayer – one that includes ALL of the spiritual elements of a worthy prayer. The Bible offers two versions of the Jesus Prayer – one each in the books of Matthew and Luke. While the meaning is the same in both prayer versions, the words are different. This suggests that those who heard Jesus’ model prayer were not concerned with the exact words. It was the meaning and the ideas of what he taught that had significance. And that speaks to us today. There are multiple versions of the Jesus Prayer and no single one is better than any other. Good versions capture the essence of what Jesus intended for us to pray. Indeed, his overall intent was for prayer to be an expression of universal hopes.
If we consider the words from the standard Jesus Prayer, we first find an attitude of submission to something greater than ourselves, “Our Mother or Father who is in heaven, holy be your name…” Such an expression reminds us that we are NOT the center of creation, whether or not we identify a God or a higher power to which we pray. Our prayers should both acknowledge and express this idea – that there are forces and powers and forms of creation much, much greater than we. We submit ourselves to our own personal understanding of what is greater than us – to God, to Jesus, to the power of love, or to the goodness of human intention.
Further, we find in the Jesus Prayer that our prayers should be inclusive. Prayer should not be self-focused and they ought to avoid pronouns of “me” and “I”, using instead “we” and “us”. Jesus taught that truth in his suggested prayer – “give us…”, “deliver us…”, “forgive us…”, “lead us…”
Additionally, Jesus teaches us with his model prayer that we should not ask for the desires of life – money, power, and material things but, instead, for simple sustenance. “Give us our daily bread…” instead of “Grant me a new car, or a romantic partner or a healthy body.” The intent that Jesus suggested in his model prayer is for us to dwell less on ourselves than on others, less on material needs than on deeper life lessons. We ask for ourselves only the basics of life – daily food, shelter and clothing. Such an attitude gets at the heart of spirituality – if we live life not with a “me” attitude but with a genuine desire to serve and love others, we will often find the contentment we seek. Universal laws of karma and reaping what we sow apply. When we send out honest hopes for the well-being of others, they will return to us. Good creates good. Love fosters love. Generosity inspires generosity. In this way, Jesus implicitly told us that our prayers WILL be answered – not by God but by ourselves and by others. We send out into the world attitudes and acts of love that will return to us.
As one of the high ethics of spiritual living, Jesus also taught in his model prayer that we must be humble. We pray to be forgiven of our misdeeds as much as we are willing to forgive others. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The implied lesson is to forgive as much as we ask to be forgiven. Once again, Jesus told us our prayers will be answered not by God but by us. If we forgive generously, we too will be forgiven generously. We will reap what we sow.
Equal to that teaching is the idea that we are weak people. “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” We make mistakes. We sin. We hurt ourselves and others. We daily fall short of our desire to be good and loving people. Our prayer is for help in avoiding mistakes – for insight, encouragement, teaching and modeling of behavior from others. God is not our help in avoiding temptations. Our rational minds, our friends, our faith communities, and our contented hearts all show us pathways to goodness. Prayer inspires us to such goodness and we, indeed, fulfill its request. We seek to be good. God does not do this. We do.
Honest prayer, according to Jesus, is also about trust in a brighter future. It is hope filled instead of angry, defeatist and negative. Prayer is persistent and regular. It is not saved for times of crisis but for frequent expressions of hope, gratitude, love and forgiveness. In that regard, once again, prayers are answered! If our attitudes are focused not just on needs – those of ourselves or others – but on joy, thankfulness and generosity – we will be people who find that abundance in our lives. This is an attitude focused not on what we individually or collectively can GET but on what we individually and collectively can GIVE. This is how prayer is a language of action! As we pray for the healing of another, we pray for how we can help him or her – how a word of support, a gesture of kindness, a listening ear or a simple expression of love can bind up any wound and heal any aching heart. Instead of asking to be loved by another, we ask instead how we can love another – how we can befriend, care for or love another. Once again, WE insure that prayer is answered because we are inspired to act. When we serve, we will be served.
Such positive and others focused prayers have tremendous power. Science has shown in several double blind studies that those who are sick do better and heal faster when they know they are prayed for and when they themselves pray with attitudes of determination, gratitude and generosity. Hope and love are potent drugs. With prayer, we administer them and shower them on suffering friends, family members and total strangers. We cannot claim in all instances that our prayers will be answered with the literal cure of another person. It is the motivation of our loving requests and the positive words of hope that create opportunities for healing of mind, body and soul.
Those for whom we pray will be encouraged. They will be served by our prayerful calls to action. They will be inspired to think positively and thus promote healing in their own hearts, minds and bodies. Someone we know may physically suffer or die. But, with our prayers, we can offer and encourage action that comforts and heals their bodies and souls.
Even in this regard, our prayers must be infused with humility. We cannot pray and demand cures or fixes in all instances. As Jesus implied in his model prayer, we are weak. We are fragile. We each will get sick. We each will die of some frailty or disease. Our humble prayers can acknowledge such truths while expressing the much greater desire for peace and contentment. Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil. The support of others, their love, their prayers are a comfort to us.
Most of all, Jesus taught his followers that prayer is a communal language. We can practice it alone but it is best when practiced in community. This ethic is common to many religions. For Jews, the word synagogue literally means “house of prayer.” To meet, sing and learn together IS prayer. The same is true of Muslims. While prayer by oneself is allowed if necessary, one should attend the five times a day “salah” or prayer sessions in a Mosque or in a group. Hindus also gather in mass pilgrimages, as they do at this very moment, to pray together. Indeed, prayer is a language by which a community expresses and shares its collective memory of dreams, thoughts and expectations. We serve one another, we inspire, we support and we instruct by our prayers. As one prays for another, the community as a whole is inspired to act – to reach out, to share, and to love. As one prays in gratitude for all that life gives, those who listen will share such an attitude. Entire communities can be changed by prayer – to seek peace, to forgive, to let go of anger and seek after the greater good of cooperation. Once again, God does not answer such prayers. People do.
I have seen both sides of the divide between belief and non-belief. I’ve come to a place between those extremes. It is irrelevant to me whether a literal God exists or not. Instead, I try to look at what Jesus and other great thinkers and prophets taught about universal goodness. How can I, in this life, improve my thinking, my attitudes, and my actions so that I can fulfill my reason for existence – to do my small share to improve the world? When we pray together and when we choose to remember others in their need, we speak words of hope. We speak words of action, love, and redemption. If there is a god or goddess looking down upon our mortal selves, he or she has granted us the ability to think and act in ways that have tremendous power. Our prayers are expressions of our deepest yearnings. They are calls to act. If they are sincere, if they derive from a humble heart that knows its flaws and failures, if they seek not for ourselves but for others, they WILL be answered.
Let us pray. Let us act. Let us, in turn, answer our own prayers. We are god and it is to us, to all human-kind, that we must pray, honor and love.