Please note: I did not have time to fully correct the sermon text, so no doubt it’s full of errors. Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.
The first reading is by the Unitarian Universalist choral conductor and composer Nick Page:
“I composed a piece of music called ‘Healing Prayer,’ to be sung by combined choirs and congregations. I wrote it because a dear friend had been diagnosed with leukemia. He asked that his friends neither visit him nor call him, but rather that we simply pray for him. And people prayed—even many who had never before given prayer a thought. My friend is now well on his way to recovery. I am far too scientific to say that our prayer healed him, but I know that those of us who prayed found a deeper connection to him, to each other, and to the world we live in — and I know that my friend also found that connection between self and all things. I also know that this connection was more than mere thoughts — it was tangible — as tangible as the medical treatment he also received.”
The second reading is a poem by Denis Levertov, from her book Oblique Prayers (1984). The text is online here.
Sermon: “Why I Don’t Pray (But Maybe You Should)”
Back in 1999, I was serving on the Pamphlet Commission of the Unitarian Universalist Association. These days, pamphlets are produced by staff at the Unitarian Universalist Association, but back then they relied on volunteers to create pamphlets. We were working on a pamphlet titled “Unitarian Universalist Views of Prayer.” This was part of a series of pamphlets where we asked a variety of Unitarian Universalists to give their views on topics such a God, the Bible, prayer, and so on. Each pamphlet showcased the wide range of opinions that can be found among Unitarian Universalists, and part of the point was to show that we Unitarian Universalists don’t have a doctrine or dogma. We find our way to truth, not by having someone else tell us what is true, but through dialogue and through trying out ideas on other people and having our ideas modified and changed through our participation in a religious community. Ours is a pragmatic approach to religion, a pragmatism that is related to scientific method.
Cathy Bowers was the Commission member charged with coming up with material for this pamphlet. She solicited brief essays on prayer from a wide range of Unitarian Universalists, who held a wide range of viewpoints. Cathy solicited an essay from Anita Farber-Robertson, and Anita wrote about a devastating illness she had had in her thirties, saying, “For the first time in my life, I understood intercessory prayer…. I asked my friend to pray for me. He did. I was astonished at its power.” Intercessory prayer is the classic type of prayer where we ask God or some other divine power for help in our lives.
As a way of contrast, Cathy then got James Ishmael Ford, who is both an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and an ordained Zen Buddhist priest, to write about prayer from the Zen perspective. James wrote, “I’ve found through ordinary attention I can know enough to find authentic peace and joy.” This type of prayer is sometimes know as centering prayer, or meditative prayer, and it need not have anything to do with God. in a similar vein, Cathy then asked Roger Cowan, an avowed humanist, about prayer, and he wrote: “I am a humanist who prays, who begins each morning with devotional readings and a time of silence and prayer.”
And Cathy also got some people to write about types of prayer that we might not usually term prayer. Nick Page, the Unitarian Universalist choral conductor, wrote about how music became a form of prayer for him. We heard part of Nick’s essay in the first reading this morning, and he concluded by saying that he wrote his “Healing Prayer” composition “not because I believe in a higher power, but because I believe in a living universe with energies both powerful and subtle — all mysterious.”
In the end, Cathy came up with a really good collection of seven different UU views on prayer. In typical Unitarian Universalist fashion, each of these seven people interpreted prayer in different ways, but each of them spoke movingly about the power of prayer. She presented these essays to us at the next meeting of the Commission. Everyone on the Commission (except me) spoke enthusiastically about the seven essays. I kept quiet for a while — Cathy was an old friend of mine, and I didn’t want to sound negative — but I finally asked: “Where’s the essay that says prayer is a crock of beans?” Because, as I pointed out, there were a lot of Unitarian Universalists — people like me — who don’t pray at all. If we were going to be true to the title “UU Views on Prayer,” then we needed to represent those of us who don’t pray.
Cathy and the rest of the Commission readily agreed, somewhat to my surprise, and Cathy promised to contact several well-known Unitarian Universalist atheists and humanists to ask one of them to write a brief essay on why they didn’t pray. But she ran into a problem: no one seemed to be willing to write such an essay. One well-known Unitarian Universalist humanist just didn’t answer her inquiries. A well-known Unitarian Universalist atheist gave a reply that could be boiled down to, “What is this, some kind of joke?” Others were more polite, but all came up with excuses to not write about why they don’t pray.
At that point, everyone on the Commission turned to me and told me that I’d have to write the piece about how prayer was a crock of beans. Now, I was in no mood to write anything. My mother had died a couple of years earlier, I had just started a new job, and I was trying to complete a master’s degree in my spare time. But they wouldn’t let me off the hook. “It doesn’t have to be long,” they said. “Just a paragraph.” So here is what I wrote:
“I don’t pray. As a Unitarian Universalist child, I learned how to pray. But when I got old enough to take charge of my own spiritual life, I gradually stopped. Every once in a while I try prayer again, just to be sure. The last time was a couple of years ago. My mother spent a long, frightening month in the hospital, so I tried praying once again but it didn’t help. I have found my spiritual disciplines — walks in nature, deep conversations, reading ancient and modern scripture — or they have found me. Prayer doesn’t happen to be one of them.” Nearly a quarter of a century later, I have a different set of spiritual disciplines or practices or whatever you want to call them — but prayer still isn’t one of them. Every once in a while, I still try praying, and it still doesn’t do anything for me.
However…. That brief essay only talks about personal prayers I might do for myself. If someone else wants me to pray for them, I’m more than happy to do so. So, for example, if I had known Anita Farber-Robertson during her thirties when she was so ill, and if she had asked me to pray for her, of course I would have prayed for her. Now I’m a minister, and when you’re a minister people ask you to pray for them all the time. Of course if someone asks me to pray for them, I will do so, and I will put my heart into it. I don’t believe the notion that dominates modern Western culture, that religious belief must underlie religious ritual. I agree with the ancient Greeks and Romans — you don’t have to believe in the gods in order to participate in religious rituals.
In fact, for me as a Unitarian Universalist, I think it’s most accurate to say that religion centers on community, and that ritual exists to keep the community healthy. For us Unitarian Universalists, our main ritual is coming together once a week as a community; if we pray for each other, the biggest effect of those prayers is to help us draw closer to one another. While many of us are believers (and many of us are non-believers), our communal religion is primarily based on connections between people, and the connections we humans have with the rest of the world around us.
Speaking as a Unitarian Universalist, then, if someone asks me to pray for them, it doesn’t matter whether I believe in prayer. It doesn’t matter whether prayer is part of my personal spiritual community. What matters is that someone has asked me for something that’s very simple to offer — a prayer. If I pray for them, I’m helping to strengthen the interdependent web of humanity. So if someone asks me to pray for them, I’m generally going to say yes. When Anita Farber-Robertson asked her friend to pray for her while she was so ill, he said yes. It didn’t matter whether he had a regular prayer practice, or whether he was like me, someone who never prayed. He prayed for Anita, and she found herself “astonished at its power.” This is the power of human interdependence.
This raises the interesting question of what happens when someone prays for someone else. Anita wrote about the astonishing sense of power she felt from intercessory prayer. Was this sense of power real or imaginary? I can almost hear some of you thinking: “But scientific studies have shown that prayer [choose one] does / doesn’t work.” That misses the point. Prayer cannot be adequately studied with the kind of objective statistical analyses that science does so well. Prayer is about your very subjective experience. Anita felt the power of intercessory prayer, which we could also call the power of human connection. By contrast, I’m one of those people who doesn’t happen to feel the power of human connection if others pray for me or if I pray for others. I happen to feel the power of human connection in other ways. There is a great range of subjective experience among human beings, which is part of what makes it so difficult to be human.
James Ishmael Ford, the Zen Buddhist priest and Unitarian Universalist minister, wrote about another kind of prayer from his perspective, saying: “I’ve found the beauty and mystery and grace of our existence are revealed in prayerful attention. Through attention we can come to know the connections.” Christians might call this type of prayer “centering prayer.” Secularists might call this “meditation.” These types of prayer involve stilling your thoughts, and simply paying attention. This is another way that we can become aware of the power of human connection, and indeed the power of our connection to nonhuman organisms and indeed to the non-living world as well. Many of us in this congregation find this type of prayer to be extraordinarily meaningful, providing shape and even purpose to your lives.
As is true with other kinds of prayer, meditation or centering prayer doesn’t work for everyone. I meditated regularly for many years, then finally stopped because I sometimes had negative experiences, where meditation wasn’t calming; instead it threw me off balance. It turns out that negative experiences during meditation are fairly common, with perhaps a quarter of all people who meditate having had some kind of negative experience. As with intercessory prayer, people differ in their experience of centering prayer and meditation — for some of us, centering prayer or meditation is an essential part of our lives; for others of us, centering prayer and meditation don’t work.
It is fortunate for us that we are Unitarian Universalist, so we don’t feel like I have to keep doing something that either doesn’t work for us, or leads to negative experiences. We are a pragmatic people, we Unitarian Universalists. If a Unitarian Universalist wants to learn centering prayer, the rest of us encourage them to give it a try. If it doesn’t work for them, they are still just as welcome in our community.
Similarly, if one of us Unitarian Universalists asks the rest of this community for prayers — prayers for healing, prayers for getting life back on track, whatever the request might be — we as a community are going to pray for that person. This is what we do each week during our worship service when we listen to one another during the candles of joy and concern. While a few of us may be so creeped out by prayer that they really feel they can’t pray, it doesn’t matter, the rest of us can pick up the slack. Some among us may not believe in prayer but are still willing to offer up a prayer; if the recipient of the prayer feels it’s meaningful, then it’s meaningful.
I’m sure the people sitting here this morning, or participating online, represent a wide diversity of views of prayer. We have Buddhists among us who might agree with James Ishmael Ford’s views of prayer. We have Christians among us who, along with Anita Farber-Robertson, may feel the power of traditional intercessory prayer. We have agnostics and atheists among us, some of whom pray, and other who think prayer is a crock of beans. We doubtless have some Pagans and New Age people among us who might or might not use the word “prayer” but who engage in some kind of prayer-like practice. A few us of are mystics like me, and as is typical of mystics our views are going to be all over the place. And I’m sure there are musicians among us who, like Nick Page, feel that making music is what they do for prayer.
Yet even with this great diversity of viewpoints on prayer, we come together in community. We are bound, not by doctrine or dogma, but by the ties of community. If someone asks us for prayer, we’ll do our best to comply with their request . This is what community members do for one another. We do our best to support each other. Some of us are overwhelmed by life, and it’s all we can do to show up on Sunday morning, either online or in person — or maybe we don’t even show up on Sunday morning, but we still think about this community. Yet even when you feel overwhelmed by life, you can still be supported by this community. And maybe that’s the real power of prayer: it doesn’t require extraordinary effort. All you have to do is think of someone else, and if you want you can say a few words that sound like a prayer to you. It doesn’t seem like much. But the power of that tiny little act might astonish us with its power.