Sermon #46 (10th January 2021 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
The title of today’s service – ‘Help! Thanks! Wow!’ – is shamelessly nicked from Anne Lamott’s book. It’s subtitled ‘the three essential prayers’ and is based on the premise that asking for help, appreciating what is good in our lives, and having a sense of awe at the universe we find ourselves in, these three are vital practices to get us through the day – and the night – to help us find our way in life and orient ourselves towards what is most life-giving – especially when times are hard. And – I don’t mean to bang on about it – but times have been pretty hard of late, haven’t they?
I’m big on prayer – I guess that’s no great surprise in my line of work – but I am. At least in theory… but as with so many things in life, I confess, my actual prayer practice has been a bit hit-and-miss over the years. However, if there’s one positive thing I can say about the experience of living through 2020, it’s that it certainly pushed me into praying like never before. There’s nothing quite like that sense of disorientation that came with the world being upturned – the sudden sense of vulnerability, helplessness and lack of control – to make us acutely aware of our need to reach out for help from beyond. And there are many losses and upheavals in our lives that can take us to such hard places.
Anne Lamott has this to say on the prayerful cry that often arises in such desperate moments:
‘When my friends and I have run out of good ideas on how to fix the unfixable, when we finally stop trying to heal our own sick, stressed minds with our sick, stressed minds, when we are truly at the end of our rope and just done, we all say the same prayer. We say, “Help.” We say, Help, this is really all too much, or I am going slowly crazy, or I can’t do this, or I can’t stop doing this, or I can’t feel anything. Or, Help, he is going to leave me, or I have no life, or I hate the one I’ve created, or I forgot to have a life, or I forgot to pay attention as it scrolled by… Most good, honest prayers remind me that I am not in charge, that I cannot fix anything much, and that I open myself to being helped by something, some force, some friends, some something. These prayers say “Dear Some Something, I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t see where I’m going. I’m getting more lost, more afraid, more tightly clenched. Help”.’
So when we’re in a bad way, a tight spot, we might just find that prayer arises spontaneously. But how about cultivating a prayer practice intentionally? Making it an integrated part of our everyday life instead of something we only turn to as a last resort when things are desperate? In most religious traditions prayer, understood as communication with God, is central to the life of faith but – in my experience – Unitarians can sometimes seem to be a bit ambivalent about it. We pray, collectively, in our services – especially those of us who attend our regular ‘Heart and Soul’ spiritual gatherings which are really a Unitarian prayer group in disguise – and it may well be that many of us do have our own prayer practices but it’s not something we talk about much. Sometimes our – laudable – commitment to reason leaves us reluctant to wholeheartedly enter into prayer when we’re not sure who it is we’re praying to, or what it is we’re even doing, or why. It can leave us praying-with-the-handbrake-on, emotionally speaking, and not fully engaged.
If this sort of reservation about prayer resonates with you, perhaps the opening words of Anne Lamott’s book, the prelude which she titles ‘Prayer 101’, might be helpful:
‘You may be wondering what I even mean when I use the word “prayer”. Prayer is… communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God. Or… to the Good, the force that is beyond our comprehension but that in our pain or supplication or relief we don’t need to define or have proof of or any established contact with. Let’s say it is what the Greeks called the Really Real, what lies within us, beyond the scrim of our values, positions, convictions and wounds. Or let’s say it is a cry from deep within to Life or Love, with capital L’s… let’s not get bogged down in whom or what we pray to… Prayer is us reaching out to something having to do with the eternal, with vitality, intelligence, kindness, even when we are at our most utterly doomed and sceptical. God [however we understand ‘God’] can handle honesty, and prayer begins an honest conversation… It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold.’
Or even simpler than that, perhaps we can understand prayer in the sense that we heard about in the reflection that Chloë read for us earlier by UU minister Vanessa Rush Southern. The purpose of prayer, on this account, is to ‘put our hearts in the right place’. And what does that look like? Well, the different ways we might pray are almost limitless –we can be silent – or speak or chant – or write or draw – or pray with our whole body – we can pray alone or together – with rituals, like candle-lighting – spontaneously or by rote. Sometimes we can get snagged on one particular idea of what prayer is ‘supposed’ to look like, but there can be a joy in experimenting, being playful, and challenging ourselves to mix it up a bit.
Whatever form it takes, perhaps there’s a common thread of helping to shift our perspective – you could think of it as getting in touch with a ‘God’s Eye View’ of your life and the life of the world – tuning in to some kind of Universal Consciousness – or connecting with your own inner wisdom. Prayer is a practice that can help us shift ourselves out of everyday autopilot mode, and into a way of being that’s a bit more intentional, re-aligned with our deeper purpose and values. When we’re feeling a bit lost, or adrift, or stuck – all of which can happen quite often, I find – prayer might just remind us who we are, and whose we are, and what matters most of all in life.
It’d be remiss of me to get all the way through a service on prayer without at least giving a respectful tip of the hat to this little book, ‘Simply Pray’ by UU minister Erik Walker Wikstrom, which I’ve been banging on about for well over a decade now. The author puts aside those thorny questions of ‘who are we praying to?’ – that’s why the book’s called ‘Simply Pray’ – his is very much a ‘just do it’ approach – on the basis that the practice of prayer has value even if it ultimately turns out that the only person who hears our prayers is us (or, in the case of communal prayers, there is worth in the acknowledgement of our shared human condition).
Having carried out a comparative study of prayer practices in several major faith traditions Wikstrom concludes that there are four main strands of prayer that are common to all. He calls them ‘Naming, Knowing, Listening, and Loving’ – and these are terms that will be quite familiar to anyone who’s ever been to one of our Heart and Soul gatherings – as it’s the structure we’ve been using here for many years now to pray together as a group (Thanks Erik!) But I wanted to mention them today as – I reckon – they make a pretty good starting point for anyone wanting to experiment with a particularly Unitarian-friendly personal prayer practice. You might try sitting in bed last thing at night, or first thing in the morning, any quiet moment you can claim really, and just giving yourself ten minutes to go through the four strands of prayer – in your mind, in your journal, or spoken out loud – maybe together with someone you live with.
I’ll just briefly talk you through the meaning of ‘Naming, Knowing, Listening and Loving’ in case you want to try it out for yourself, but I do recommend the book (or coming to Heart and Soul!) Naming prayer is simply a gratitude practice – a mixture of Anne Lamott’s ‘Thanks!’ and ‘Wow!’ – reviewing your day and noticing what’s been good – whether that’s rather humble everyday pleasures or awe-inspiring moments of amazement at the cosmos and the wonder of creation. Knowing prayer is a practice of honest self-reflection – reviewing your own actions and attitudes – noticing where you did well, where you made mistakes – seeking guidance to put things right. Listening prayer is simply contemplative stillness – ‘a silence into which another voice may speak’. Loving prayer is bringing our awareness to the needs of others who are struggling and suffering, both close to home and around the globe, and expressing our compassion and hopes for them. Naming, Knowing, Listening, and Loving. There are many ways to pray but that’s not a bad start.
In a way, there’s simultaneously too much to say and nothing useful that can be said about prayer. We could have services for weeks and weeks exploring different angles (and I’m up for that)… but nothing I can tell you is an adequate substitute for getting your feet wet. So I’m going to close with some words of encouragement from Martin Shaw of the West Country School of Myth and Story. He says:
‘Become a prayer-maker. Why? Because what you face in your life is bigger than you can handle. It is. Go to a place with shadows and privacy, and just start talking. There is some ancient Friend that wants to hear from you. No more dogma than that. Use your simple, holy, words. Then sit. Listen. Go for a walk. Let in. Then you fight like a lion for what you can affect, and you surrender the rest.’
How else could I end but: Amen.
Sermon by Jane Blackall
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