Monday, October 31, 2011

My Halloween Column

My Halloween column A Candy Bar for Death appeared today on the UU World web site. If you've been reading this blog, you recognize some of the ideas from The Story of Our Deaths.

I'm reading the comments both here and on the UU World site. I suspect the bigger discussion will be there, the smaller one here. So, whichever appeals to you.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Let Us Pray?

a service given at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois
September 18, 2011


from The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

in the Middle of all my Labours it happen'd, that rumaging my Things, I found a little Bag, which, ... had been fill'd with Corn for the feeding of Poultry, ... what little Remainder of Corn had been in the Bag, was all devour'd with the Rats, and I saw nothing in the Bag but Husks and Dust; and being willing to have the Bag for some other Use, ... I shook the Husks of Corn out of it on one Side of my Fortification under the Rock.

It was a little before the great Rains ... that I threw this Stuff away, taking no Notice of any Thing, and not so much as remembring that I had thrown any Thing there; when about a Month after, or thereabout, I saw some few Stalks of something green shooting out of the Ground, which I fancy'd might be some Plant I had not seen, but I was surpriz'd and perfectly astonish'd, when after a little longer Time, I saw about ten or twelve Ears come out, which were perfect green Barley of the same Kind as our European, nay, as our English Barley.

It is impossible to express the Astonishment and Confusion of my Thoughts on this Occasion; I had hitherto acted upon no religious Foundation at all; indeed I had very few Notions of Religion in my Head, or had entertain'd any Sense of any Thing that had befallen me, otherwise than as a Chance, or, as we lightly say, what pleases God; without so much as enquiring into the End of Providence in these Things, or his Order in governing Events in the World; But after I saw Barley grow there, in a Climate which I knew was not proper for Corn, and especially that I knew not how it came there, it startled me strangely, and I began to suggest, that God had miraculously caus'd this Grain to grow without any help of Seed sown, and that it was so directed purely for my Sustenance on that wild miserable Place.

This touch'd my Heart a little, and brought Tears out of my Eyes, and I began to bless my self, that such a Prodigy of Nature should happen upon my Account; and this was the more strange to me, because I saw near it still all along by the side of the Rock, some other straggling Stalks, which prov'd to be Stalks of Rice ...

I not only thought these the pure Productions of Providence for my Support, but not doubting, but that there was more in the Place, I went all over that part of the Island, where I had been before peering in every Corner, and under every Rock, to see for more of it, but I could not find any; at last it occur'd to my Thoughts, that I had shook a Bag of Chickens Meat out in that Place, and then the Wonder began to cease; and I must confess, my religious Thankfulness to God's Providence began to abate too upon the Discovering that all this was nothing but what was common; tho' I ought to have been as thankful for so strange and unforeseen a Providence, as if it had been miraculous; for it was really the Work of Providence as to me, that should order or appoint, that 10 or 12 Grains of Corn should remain unspoil'd (when the Rats had destroyed all the rest,) as if it had been dropt from Heaven.

from Spirit and Flesh by James Ault

Registering needs and recognizing how the Lord met them was the bread and butter of conversation at Shawmut River. But special time was taken at the beginning of Sunday-evening worship for testimonies and prayer requests. They represented two sides of the same reality. Testimony pointed to the perceptible evidence of God's work in the world -- a job found, a marriage saved, an illness healed -- and prayer requests brought these same needs to public attention in the first place and made them a matter of community prayer.

... As prayer requests were given, members jotted them down on prayer lists, which they slipped into Bibles or pockets, eventually to stick them up, perhaps, on their refrigerator doors alongside shopping lists and other items of household business. And many looked to those lists in the course of conducting their "prayer lives." It occurred to me at the time that these practices were probably an effective means to seeing needs met merely by social means. As faithful members meditated regularly on their prayer lists, I reckoned, they would be routinely reminded of specific needs and have them in mind when someone mentioned news, say, of an apartment becoming available, a job opening up or another member's unexpected windfall. In this way, needs and resources would be providentially brought together.

from "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish" by Bertrand Russell

Sometimes, if pious men are to be believed, God's mercies are curiously selective. Toplady, the author of "Rock of Ages," moved from one vicarage to another; a week after the move, the vicarage he had formerly occupied burnt down, with great loss to the new vicar. Thereupon Toplady thanked God; but what the new vicar did is not known.

from "Pat Robertson & Hurricane Gloria" on the web site

In 1985, with Hurricane Gloria headed toward the east coast, televangelist Pat Robertson promptly went on the air to pray. "In the name of Jesus," he declared, "we command you to stop where you are and move northeast, away from land, and away from harm."Incredibly, the hurricane did in fact begin to head northeast. Robertson's claims to have changed the course of the hurricane were met with considerable scorn, however, particularly in Long Island - which lies to the northeast of Robertson's native Virginia and was devastated by Gloria after she changed course.

from a proclamation from the Governor of Texas

WHEREAS, the state of Texas is in the midst of an exceptional drought ... NOW, THEREFORE, I, RICK PERRY, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.

[Imprecatory prayer means praying for God to do harm to someone. Baptist minister Wiley Drake advocates imprecatory prayer. He has admitted to praying for the death of President Obama, and Drake called the assassination of the abortionist Dr. George Tiller "an answer to a prayer".]

from "Pastor Wiley Drake Calls for Imprecatory Prayer against So-Called Religious Liberty Watchdog Group" Christian NewsWire, August 14, 2011

In light of the recent attack from the enemies of God I ask the children of God to go into action with Imprecatory Prayer. Especially against Americans United for Separation of Church and State. I made an attempt to go to them via Matt 18:15 but they refused to talk to me. Specifically target Joe Conn or Jeremy Learing.

from "The Language of Faith" by former UUA President William Sinkford

my son Billy, then 15 years old, had overdosed on drugs, and it was unclear whether he would live. As I sat with him in the hospital, I found myself praying. First the selfish prayers for forgiveness…for the time not made, for the too many trips, for the many things unsaid, and, sadly, for a few things said that should never have passed my lips. But as the night darkened, I finally found the pure prayer. The prayer that asked only that my son would live. And late in the evening, I felt the hands of a loving universe reaching out to hold. The hands of God, the Spirit of Life. The name was unimportant. I knew that those hands would be there to hold me whatever the morning brought. And I knew, though I cannot tell you how, that those hands were holding my son as well. I knew that I did not have to walk that path alone, that there is a love that has never broken faith with us and never will.

My son survived. But the experience stayed with me.


Let Us Pray?

I grew up in a religion where God was very literal and personal. God was someone you could talk to, and if you did, He could give you real, tangible help.

When you believe in a God like that -- I mean really believe, and not just go through the motions -- prayer is a very serious act. You have asked the Ruler of the Universe to listen to you, so you don't chatter about trivia. You don't posture or pretend, because God is not fooled. You don't ask for things you don't really want, because you might get them.

To pray well, then, meant more than just saying the right words. It meant being centered and authentic. A good prayer got to the heart of things. It boiled down what was really going on in my life, what my true hopes were, and what kind of help I really needed.

As I got older, though, I stopped believing in the kind of God who mucks about in the physical world, changing the directions of hurricanes and zapping away tumors. I also began to see the dark side of prayer. I had come to believe that bringing justice to the world is a human responsibility, and it bothered me to watch people push that job off on God. "I'll pray for you," the rich man says to the beggar, and then he walks away. When people on the other side of the world suffered from famine or war or natural disaster, we prayed, and that disquieting sense that we ought to do something was satisfied.

Some of the readings displayed other kinds of dysfunctionality. Believing in prayer can make the Universe seem like a big patronage system. It all depends on who you know upstairs, whether God likes me better than he likes you. So the winners thank God, but what the losers say is not recorded.

Prayer can be a way to avoid reality. So Governor Perry can ignore what science says about global warming and instead fight the drought in Texas with a day of prayer.

Some people even project their vindictiveness onto God. If Wiley Drake hates President Obama or Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, then God must hate them too. And maybe God will send an assassin if Drake prays hard enough and gets enough people praying with him.

Having spent my share of time sitting by hospital beds, I can testify that even those desperate emergency-room prayers can have a dark, narcissistic side. The crisis isn't about the person who might be dying. It's not even about the doctors and nurses. It's about me and my relationship to God. God kills or saves people just to make a point to me. That's how important I am.

Atheists ridicule talking to God. "You just have an imaginary friend," they say. And as I lost my childhood faith, the act of prayer did begin to seem ridiculous. So I stopped. I missed it, but it was like one of those silly toys you continue to feel sentimental about, even though you're past the age. You box it up and put it on a high shelf, because it's embarrassing. It's proof that you're not really as mature as you claim to be.

Eventually, though, I began to realize that what I missed most about prayer was not the prospect of magically healing the sick or changing the weather or getting some unfair advantage. I missed the doing of prayer. The simple thought experiment -- what if I did have the ear of the Almighty, what would I say? -- cut through a lot of the noise and fog in my mind. And when I asked myself: "What advice would a supremely wise being who loved me give in this situation?" the answer was often fairly obvious.

Some imaginary friends, I eventually decided, are worth talking to.

That insight set me to taking inventory. What if you ignore the metaphysics and theology surrounding prayer and just look at the doing of it? What beneficial practices has folk wisdom encoded into prayer over the centuries? How many of them can we rescue without falling into the corresponding traps?

We saw one of those beneficial practices in the responsive reading. It did not address God by name, but for all practical purposes it was a prayer of thanksgiving. I find that I need that. The mindset of my everyday life keeps me focused on what I deserve and making sure I am not cheated out of it. It is so easy to forget how many of the good things in my life are not of my own making. A practice that regularly evokes feelings of gratitude makes me happier and saner.

Another kind of prayer can be good group process. Taking a moment at the beginning of a meeting to step back from the nitty-gritty disagreements and recall the common ideals that bring you all together -- that can make for a more cooperative, more productive meeting.


Two traditional kinds of prayer involve stepping outside the Ego: the prayer for forgiveness and the prayer for help. As we've already seen, these prayers have dysfunctional uses as well as beneficial ones, but fortunately there is a simple rule that separates them: Prayer is a good first step, but a bad last step.

Obviously, if you have wronged other people, you should be confessing it to them and trying to make it right with them. But this is a good first step: Admit in your own mind, to the most compassionate judge you can imagine, that you did wrong. If you can't do that much, what hope is there that you'll make things right in the world?

Similarly, if even when you are alone you can't admit that you don't have all the bases covered, that you are not in control of the situation, and that you need help from somewhere -- then how will you admit that to anyone else? And how will get the help you need if your Ego will not let you admit that you need it?

The reading from James Ault illustrates how prayers for help can work in a community. Having assigned a long list of tasks to God, the parishioners of Shawmut River don't leave it there, they start looking for ways they can help God do his work. Sister Mabel wants God to find her a ride to the doctor next Thursday? Well praise Jesus, that's my day off. That nice young couple is asking God to replace their refrigerator that died? I've got one in the basement that I couldn't figure out what to do with. Hallelujah!

Now, we may laugh at this community, because Jesus isn't driving anybody to the doctor. They're doing it all themselves. But if our community doesn't have as effective and as cheerful a way to ask for and receive help from each other, then what do we have to laugh about?

I've already pointed out how prayer can excuse a lack of action. But sometimes action is impossible or unwise, and prayer can keep alive an idea that otherwise might fade away. Many slaves in the old South had no prospect of escape, but they sang and prayed about freedom, and the idea stayed alive. Generations of Jews said, "next year in Jerusalem" and did little to bring that about beyond teaching their children to say the same thing. But then, when action became possible, the idea was there.

It is worth asking: What ideas do you have today that you aren't acting on, but you also aren't willing to give up? How will you keep them alive?

Finally, we come to the most difficult kind of prayer to justify: the prayer for a miracle.

The reading from Robinson Crusoe raises an important question: What is a miracle, anyway? Something is a miracle to you if it is completely outside your expectations, like the English barley that springs up on Crusoe's deserted Caribbean island. But the Universe is vast and our brains are tiny, so we're constantly ignoring, overlooking, or forgetting things that turn out to be important -- like the rat-chewed chicken feed Crusoe had dumped out in a sheltered spot just before the rainy season. The results of those forgotten causes can be so close to a miracle as makes no difference.

The future always outgrows the box we build for it. It shrugs off our theories and wriggles out of our computer models. When we let ourselves look this fact in the eye, it is as wonderful and terrible as the most primitive tribal deity. Even within the natural order, we really don't know what might happen next.

I saw that in my own life a few years ago. I was at a shopping mall when I began to feel sick. I went to the food court, thinking that if I got off my feet and drank something, I might feel well enough to drive home. Instead, I got worse, and before long I was debating whether I would be able to make to the bathroom before I threw up.

I decided to run for it, but as soon as I stood up, I fainted ... and some stranger caught me before I hit the floor.

Now, I wasn't expecting that, because in my mind, I was alone. But the vast real world contained possibilities I was not taking into account. In fact, an impromptu emergency response team sprouted up around me like Crusoe's barley. Somebody laid me down gently on the floor. Somebody ran to get mall security. Somebody called 911. And when I woke up a few seconds later, somebody was sitting there to explain to me what was happening. Strangers, every one of them, taking action "as if they had been dropt from Heaven".

Supernatural? No. Miraculous? To me -- yes.

Prayer is dysfunctional when it gives us a false confidence that we can overpower the natural world, like the pastor who expects to be saved from the flood by some means other than boats and helicopters. But it's good to have a practice that encourages you to remember that the doom you seem to be facing may not be as rock-solid as it looks. The world is vast, and it contains unimagined possibilities for good as well as evil. We shouldn't count on them, but it's also a mistake to count them out.

Finally, I want to talk about Bill Sinkford's experience sitting beside his son's hospital bed. But before I go there, I want to take a detour.

There is a common situation in which it makes perfect sense to pray for any kind of miracle you can imagine: In a dream. In the Dreamworld, the traditional explanation of how prayer works is literally true: There is an all-powerful being who has good reason to care about you.

That being is the Dreamer, who in some sense is you. You run around the dreamscape doing your dream-character things and maybe being quite miserable. But no matter how impossible the situation seems, you could get it all straightened out if only you could a message through to the Dreamer.

Now, what does that have to do with the world we face when we're awake? I believe that we are physical beings who live in a world that obeys physical laws. But a lot of our experience of life is not forced on us by the physical situation. As I discussed last spring, our experiences are filtered through the stories that we tell about our lives. The meaning of our lives is not in the motions of the atoms of our bodies. The meaning of our lives is in the stories that we are living, and a single physical situation can support many different stories.

So a very important aspect of your life is under your control, because you are the primary story-teller of your life.

But using that power is incredibly difficult. For most of us most of the time, being the Story-Teller of our lives does us no more good than being the Dreamer does us when we are dreaming. We get trapped in our stories. And even if they are largely of our own devising, we can't figure out how to escape.

Just deciding to tell a new story doesn't work. For example, whether I am a success or a failure depends more on the story of my life and how it is told than on my physical situation. If the story of my life says that I'm a failure, yes, I could start telling a new story that says I'm a success. But would that make me a success? More likely, I'd feel like a fraud -- a failure who is conning people about how successful he is.

No, the story of your life has more substance and momentum than that. Like the power of the Dreamer, the power of the Story-Teller can be very hard to access.

Now let's get back to Bill Sinkford sitting by his son's hospital bed, praying for a miracle. At that moment, Sinkford is trapped inside one of the most horrible stories there is: He is the Bad Father who deserves to watch his son die. Because he wasn't there at the important moment, and he never said this significant thing, and he did say that terrible thing instead. This character that he believes he is deserves no mercy and no compassion. He's just reaping what he sowed.

As long as Sinkford goes round and round that hamster wheel, as long as the story is about him and the failings of his character, he can't get out.

But then he experiences a pure cry of the heart, what he calls "the pure prayer": Let my son live. He's not controlling the situation. He's not reminding God of his previous promises or trying to negotiate a new deal. He's not living in the past or the future. He's just arrived at the essence of his experience of this moment: Let my son live.

That cry of the heart does not heal Sinkford's son. But it is so intense that it breaks the story. It wakes him up. For just a moment he stops being a character in a story and becomes a fully conscious human being, with all the power that entails.

I think it's important to understand what that power is. It's not physical power. He recognizes that the physical world will do what it does. His son will live or not live. Even in Sinkford's heightened state of awareness, that's not his choice to make.

But he is no longer trapped inside the character he has been, and his relationship with his son is not trapped inside the story he has been telling about it. Whatever happens, there can be a new story. That story will have the possibility of meaning and the possibility of love and the possibility of joy.

Sinkford ends his account by saying, "The experience stayed with me." I think he's acknowledging the temptation he felt to box that experience up and put it on a high shelf, the temptation to say "Things got crazy there for a while, but I'm OK now."

If you've ever had an experience like Sinkford's that seems life-changing at the time, you know that often the moment passes and you get pulled back into your old story. Or sometimes the new story is no better. That moment of revelation doesn't always work out. But it certainly won't work out if you reflexively get embarrassed about such experiences and explain them away as soon as possible.

So I close with this advice for those moments when you feel the need for a miracle: Don't repress that need, don't crack the whip and try to get yourself back in line. Try to hone it. If what you think you need is a violation of the natural order, it's probably not coming. But never forget that the natural order is bigger than you think. Stay open to the unexpected.

And if the miracle you really need is related to your character and your story, that can happen. If you need an inner transformation, if you need to reshape your relationships, if you need to break free of your patterns, if you need a new way to find meaning in the world -- that can happen. There is a powerful being who cares about you who could make that happen.

In some sense that being is you, if you could just wake up.

The first step in that awakening process is very similar to the kind of prayer I described at the beginning. Sit with your need and strip away everything that is non-essential. Strip away all the ego, all the self-importance, all the self-pity, all the desire for control, until you find that pure cry of the heart.

That is the moment when things can start to change.