Why I Don’t Pray (But Maybe You Should)

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.

The Problem with Grief

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.


The first reading is an excerpt from the poem “Two Dreams” by Margaret Atwood:

Sitting at noon over the carrot salad
my sister and I compare dreams.

She says, Father was there
in some kind of very strange nightgown
covered with bristles, like a hair shirt.
He was blind, he was stumbling around
bumping into things, and I couldn’t stop crying.

I say, Mine was close.
He was still alive, and all of it
was a mistake, but it was our fault..
He couldn’t talk, but it was clear
he wanted everything back, the shoes, the binoculars
we’d given away or thrown out.
He was wearing stripes, like a prisoner.
We were trying to be cheerful,
but I wasn’t happy to see him:
now we would have to do the whole thing over again….

The second reading is from a book by Elaine Pagels titled Why Religion?: A Personal Memoir. In this book, she tells about her son Mark’s death, followed by the death of her husband a year later, and how she made sense of their deaths.

“Shaken by emotional storms, I realized that choosing to feel guilt, however painful, somehow seemed to offer reassurance that such events did not happen at random. During those dark, interminable days of Mark’s illness, I couldn’t help imagining that somehow I’d caused it If guilt is the price we pay for the illusion that we have some control over nature, many of us were willing to pay it. I was. To begin to release the weight of guilt, I had to let go of whatever illusion of control it pretended to offer, and acknowledge that pain and death are as natural as birth, woven inseparably into our human nature.”

Sermon: “The Problem with Grief”

The sermon this morning is titled “The Problem with Grief.” So there is no suspense, I’ll tell you right up front what the problem is with grief: Grief seems to be cumulative. That is, all the individual instances of grief we happen to experience in life seem to add up. And a lot of times the total sum of grief seems to add up to more than all the individual instances of grief. The memoir by Elaine Pagels, from which came the second reading this morning, is a perfect example of what I mean. In that memoir, Elaine Pagels tells about how her son died, and then a year later her husband died. As you read her memoir, it becomes clear that these two overwhelming experiences of grief, happening so close together, added up to something more than each experience of grief on its own. And this tallies with my own less intense experiences of grief: when I was grieving one thing, I seemed to be extra sensitive to other feeling of grief.

So why is this a problem? Grieving has been a fact of life for human beings as long as there have been human beings. Surely we should be accustomed to it by now. Except that this has becomm a problem because there are at least two major sources of societal grief right now.

First of all, there’s the grief that we’re all feeling as climate change and other environmental problems become more pronounced. Lack of ice in the Arctic, too much plastic in the oceans, diminishing natural habitats near us: there are so many environmental changes to grieve. A field biologist friend calls this “eco-grief,” the grief that comes from the knowledge of the looming ecological disaster.

In addition to that, most of us are experiencing pandemic grief. This is the grief that most of society continues to experience every time people remember what we lost during the pandemic. Of course there are people for whom the pandemic went smoothly, and they don’t have any personal pandemic grief. But even if you’re not experiencing pandemic grief yourself, you’re surrounded by people who are. It is endemic in our society right now.

Thus nearly all of us are experiencing the effects of both eco-grief and pandemic grief. These add up with whatever individual grief we happen to be experiencing. The sum total is a lot of grief.

That’s it. Now you’ve heard the whole point of this sermon. Now there’s no more suspense, and you know the worst. If you want to check out now and stare out the window, I’ll try to talk softly.

Now that you know the problem with grief, I’d like to devote the rest of the sermon to talking about how we can manage grief — how we can manage it both individually, and as a community. What can we do to make ourselves feel better?

First of all, let’s talk about guilt. Grief and guilt often seem to come hand-in-hand. In the second reading, Elaine Pagels talks about the guilt she felt while she was grieving. She felt tremendous guilt after the death of her son. Surely she could have done more for him. Surely she could have fought more aggressively for treatment for him. Looking back, knowing his medical problems, she worried about what choices she made that might have made his situation worse. She felt guilty that she didn’t do more for him. She felt guilty that she didn’t advocate more aggressively for him. She felt guilty about choices she made that she thought might have made him worse. The guilt was dragging her down, and she had to find a way to deal with it.

This mixture of grief and guilt happens to all of us. A friend dies, and we think: I should have reached out more, I should have been there for them. We think about the state of the environment, and we think: I should have gotten rid of that gas-guzzling car sooner. A parent or a spouse dies, and we think: I should have done more for them. I should have done this. I should not have done that. Those feelings of “should-have-done” are what lead us into guilt.

But Elaine Pagels points out that when you’re feeling guilty, it is because you have convinced yourself that you have a great deal of control over your life, and that you have a great deal of control over the lives of those close to you. After my father went into his final illness, my sisters and I talked a lot about what we should have done differently:– we should have talked Dad out of thus-and-so, we should have told him to get a second opinion… there were many things we felt we should have done differently. But after his death, when we could think more calmly, it became clear to us that we had done the best we could with what we knew at the time. It’s easy to look back on the past and say, “I should have known.” But the fact of the matter is that we didn’t know, nor could we have known.

This gets at a fundamental theological point. We human beings do not have a lot of control over our lives. We like to think we have a lot of control over our lives. We almost have to live our lives as though we have a lot of control. But in reality, we really don’t have as much control as we’d like to believe.

This is one area where the conservative Christians maybe have an advantage over us. For them, God controls absolutely everything, and once they die they feel fairly secure that they’re going to go up to heaven and everything will be fine. We Unitarian Universalists live in a more complex reality. We acknowledge the possibility of random events; that is, God does not control absolutely everything. We acknowledge the possibility that well-intentioned actions can have unanticipated consequences; that is, even when we are doing out best to do what is right, things can go wrong. As for an afterlife, some of us believe a pleasant afterlife, and since we are Universalists we know we all get to go to heaven. Some of us, like Socrates, see death as the most perfect night of sleep you could ever have, untroubled by dreams or fitfulness. Some of us are quite content with oblivion. But nearly all of us tend to focus on this world, not the next world. We worry less about what happens after death, and more about what happens here in this life. We want to make this world better. We believe that we have the ability, and the free will, to make this life better. In short, we are perfect candidates for guilt.

Back in the 1970s, the Unitarian Universalist theologian William R. Jones pointed out that within Unitarian Universalism, while the theists among us believe in God, and the humanists among us don’t believe in God, both parties believe in “radical [human] freedom and autonomy.” We are all existentialists. We have been thrown into an absurd world, and it is up to us to make meaning out of that world. The way we make meaning is through our actions. We cannot know all possible results of our actions, and fairly often our actions result in unforeseen consequences — because it is simply impossible for us to foresee every consequence of each action we take.

If we can seriously acknowledge this, we have taken the first step towards releasing ourselves from some of the burden of guilt that we might carry around. We do the best we can, knowing that oftentimes things are not going to turn out as we had hoped. There will always be things we could not anticipate. Of course we’ll still feel guilty about decisions we made that didn’t turn out well. But once we can accept that we have less control than we’d like to think, guilt will have a lot less power over us.

Once guilt has less power over us, then grief becomes a lot more manageable. If we’re not spending all our time thinking: “I should’ve done this,” or “I should’ve done that” — once we relieve ourselves of some of the burden of guilt, then we can actually do something with our grief.

Which brings me to the next point. Grieving is usually a fairly lengthy process, and there’s no good way to speed it up. I’ve learned a lot about the grieving process from hospice workers. They typically tell us that after someone close to you dies, the most intense grieving will take about a year, often with a moment of intense grief on the first anniversary of that person’s death. Then, so they tell us, we can expect another year of somewhat less intense grief. After the second anniversary of that person’s death, the grief tapers off to a much more manageable level. Of course everyone is different, but the general experience of hospice nurses and hospice chaplains tells us that after someone close to us dies, most of us can expect about two years of grief.

However, our society expects us to be done with grieving in a few weeks. As a minister, I’ve noticed this again and again. I’ll watch as someone loses a spouse, or a parent, and they get a lot of support from their workplace for about two weeks, and from their friends for about two months. Then they’re expected to be back to normal. Yet what I’ve seen again and again — and what I’ve experienced myself after the death of each of my parents — is that the worst of time grief seems to come about three months in, give or take a month. It’s at about three months in when the numbness wears off, and suddenly the feelings of grief become most acute. And three months is past the time when our society expects us to be done with grieving, when everyone expects us to be “back to normal.”

But if you try to get “back to normal” too quickly, you can actually prolong your grief. During those two years of more intense grief, you have to take the time to allow yourself to grieve. If your life if filled with busy activity, allowing you no time to grieve, what seems to happen is that it takes longer than two years to get through the worst of grief. This, by the way, is one reason some people come here to attend Sunday services. Quite a few people start coming to Sunday services in the aftermath of the death of someone close to them. They come here to have some time for themselves, where they can grieve without being interrupted. Because you can sit here, going through the motions — pretending that you’re listening to the sermon, standing up and mouthing the words to the hymns — but what you’re really doing is dealing with grief. We need places like this, where we are allowed to sit and grieve if we need to.

Our society doesn’t allow much space for grieving. Yes, we have developed grief support groups, and you can go see a therapist. You can install a grief app on your phone to help you grieve. Unfortunately, our society wants us to use grief groups and therapy and grief apps to hasten the grieving process, so that people can become more productive. That’s what our society wants us to do — be more productive. Whereas actually what we need is time to just be — we need to spend less time doing, less time doing therapy and doing grief group and doing our grief app — we need to spend more time just being human.

Trying to hurry through grief doesn’t work. Of course you should use a grief app if that works for you. Of course you should see a therapist if you can afford it and if that will help you in your grieving. Of course you should participate in a grief support group if that’s going to help you. But don’t expect these things are going to make the grieving end more quickly. If you try to hurry through your grief, it will come back later to haunt you — just like a ghost in those old ghost stories. When we try to hurry through grief, what we are actually doing is ignoring our essential humanity. We are trying to pretend that we are machines that just need a little metaphorical oil to function more smoothly. We are trying to pretend that we are computers that happen to have a software bug called grief, and if we just get the right app, or if we just update our operating system, we can get rid of this bug. As a minister, I see this happening again and again. People try to hurry through grief, they try to hack their grief, they try to fix their grief as if grief is something that is broken — and it doesn’t work. You can’t hurry grief. You can’t hack grief. You can’t fix grief.

Grief happens when someone we love, or something we love, is gone. If you want to get rid of grief, the only way to do that is by getting rid of love. If you don’t love anything, then you won’t grieve; you will be nothing more than a machine. Once you open your heart to love, you open yourself to the possibility of grief.

This brings me to the final point I’d like to make about grief. Grief happens when something or someone you love is gone. From this, a logical consequence follows: When we are surrounded by love, then we will be supported in times of grief. Family, friends, and/or communities like First Parish can surround us with love. Love is what we need as we move through grief.

Because of this, it makes sense to strengthen our ties with those groups where we can be surrounded by love. For many of us, our immediate families will be one of the most important groups to surround us with love. (However, I do want to acknowledge that not everyone’s immediate family has the possibility of being filled with love, and sometimes some of us have to get out of our immediate families.) But even those of us with immediate families that are filled with love need something beyond our immediate families. To that end, we might cultivate circles of friends and acquaintances. Even more important, in my opinion, are communities like First Parish, organized communities of friends and acquaintances where we share common values and where there are mechanisms in place the help us reach out to one another. We need communities like First Parish where people know what it is to grieve, and where people know what it is to love.

All this takes time. Strengthening our families takes time. Building networks of friends and acquaintances takes time. Making caring communities like First Parish takes time. Yet we are pressured by society to spend less and less time on these things. We are pressured by society to spend more and more time being busy and productive.

I’d like to suggest that this is where we want to be counter-cultural. Let’s resist that pressure to be busy and productive all the time. Let’s strengthen our families, nurture our friendships, be part of communities like First Parish. These are the things that allow us to be fully human.

To grieve is to be human. To love is to be human. And maybe this is the real problem with grief these days, and the problem with love — our society does not value the time we need to spend in being human. But I would suggest to you that you will find it to be worth your while to become more human, even if that means you are less productive. Become more human. Fill your life with love. That is what we are meant to do.


Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation. The poems were read by Carol Martin, worship associate.

There are those who find sleep to be a waste of time. Sometimes these are the same people who find night to be wasteful or fearful or something to be avoided. They may be the people who say that dreams are delusions and snares. The only good time, so they say, is the day time, the time of bright sunshine, and at night we turn on all the lights so that it looks like daytime. Day time is the good time, the pragmatic work time, the time for getting things done and working towards your goals.

But where do your goals come from? The least of our goals come from the pragmatic work time. These are the incremental goals: we make a thousand dollars and next we want to make ten thousand dollars, then a hundred thousand dollars, then a million dollars. It all seems very grand, but what does it mean?

In the time of the ancient Hebrew prophet named Joel, the nation of Israel had fallen on hard times, and they longed for a time when “the threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil” — the ancient equivalent of having a million dollars. But simply to have an abundance of physical pleasures was not enough, said Joel; beyond that, God would pour down God’s spirit upon all the people, and…

“Your children will prophesy.
Your elders will dream dreams,
and your young people will see visions.”

Dreams and visions…like the Langston Hughes poem “Dream Variations”…

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
Dark like me—
That is my dream!

To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening . . .
A tall, slim tree . . .
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.

Langston Hughes praises rest and night and dreaming in his poem, and he adds something of vital interest to those of us in the United States: he connects these things to race and racism. Western culture has traditionally thought of darkness and night and sleep as being less than brightness and daylight and wakefulness. Beginning in the fifteenth century or so, Western culture went further and began equating skin color with things like daylight and darkness. Westerners started saying that people with darker skin colors were like darkness, night, and sleep. This meant (so they said) that darker skin colors were not as good as light skin colors, which were like daylight and wakefulness. Westerners started calling Africa the ”dark continent,” and this meant several things: that Africa was populated by people with black skin, that Africa was a dangerous “heart of darkness,” that Africa was not as enlightened as Europe, that Europe had the right to send its soldiers and warships to “enlighten” Africa.

Langston Hughes turns this Western imagery upside down. Night is gentle and tender, he says, and then goes on to say that night is “black like me.” This one short poem challenges a metaphor that many in the West carry around inside ourselves: the metaphor that night and darkness and blackness are somehow bad, while day and light and whiteness are somehow good. Langston Hughes makes us ask ourselves: Why set up a hierarchy like that? Why not allow day and night to be equally good? And furthermore…why not allow White people and Black people (and all other skin colors) to be equal?

Which brings us to a poem by Emily Dickinson…

Sleep is supposed to be
By souls of sanity
The shutting of the eye.

Sleep is the station grand
Down which, on either hand
The hosts of witness stand!

Morn is supposed to be
By people of degree
The breaking of the Day.

Morning has not occurred!
That shall Aurora be —
East of Eternity —

One with the banner gay —
One in the red array —
That is the break of Day!

Now the stereotype is that every time Emily Dickinson writes about “sleep,” she is actually writing about death. Therefore, many people will simply assum this is a poem about death, and leave it at that. But you can’t reduce Emily Dickinson’s poetry to a single simple logical explanation. There is more to this poem than meets the eye.

Emily Dickinson tells us what “Sleep is supposed to be,” a mere mechanical “shutting of the eye.” But, she says, sleep is more than that: sleep is the “station grand / Where a host of witnesses stand.” Emily Dickinson knew the Hebrew Bible well, so it’s reasonable to hear echoes of the Bible in her poems. I think I hear echoes of the prophet Joel when he prophesied about how the elders will dreams dreams, and the children will prophesy, and the young people will have visions: a host of witnesses dreaming and making prophecies for the future. Sleep is more than the mechanics of shutting your eyes; day break is more than the sun rising. First come the dreams and visions. After that, we act on those dreams and visions. Day cannot exist without night. Night cannot exist without day.

Emily Dickinson wrote this poem during the Civil War. With that in mind, we might say this is, in fact, a poem about death: the death of the many soldiers who died in that brutal war. But I also hear this as Emily Dickinson’s statement of hope for the future. When the Civil War ended in a victory for the North, when there was a victory over the forces wanting to maintain slavery, then would the dreams and visions for racial justice begin to be fulfilled. Well, here we are, a century and a half later, still trying to complete the work of the Civil War — still trying to bring complete equality and freedom to all people. Emily Dickinson’s poem is still topical.

Perhaps we will always be striving for the perfect future that never quite arrives. Yet it is the dreams and visions that keep us moving towards that perfect future — it is sleep in the sense of the “station grand” surrounded by a host of witnesses that will bring us those dreams and visions of a perfect future.

Which brings us to the third poem, by James Weldon Johnson, titled “Mother Night.” The range of his writing was unusually broad: he wrote lyrics of hit Broadway songs, and published a well-received novel, three books of poetry, a non-fiction book, political essays, and finally perhaps the best American autobiography of the twentieth century. At the end of his autobiography, he gives a summary of his religious outlook, which makes him sound very much like a Unitarian. With that in mind, here is his poem, “Mother Night”…

Eternities before the first-born day,
Or ere the first sun fledged his wings of flame,
Calm Night, the everlasting and the same,
A brooding mother over chaos lay.
And whirling suns shall blaze and then decay,
Shall run their fiery courses and then claim
The haven of the darkness whence they came;
Back to Nirvanic peace shall grope their way.

So when my feeble sun of life burns out,
And sounded is the hour for my long sleep,
I shall, full weary of the feverish light,
Welcome the darkness without fear or doubt,
And heavy-lidded, I shall softly creep
Into the quiet bosom of the Night.

Now this is indeed a poem that equates sleep with death. But the poem says: death is not something fear; it’s something to be welcomed when the time is right. Now it was perhaps easier for him to say that when his time to die came along, he would, “full weary of the feverish light,” welcome the night of death. He wrote this poem when he was 51, by which age he had already lived a very full life: first African American to pass the Florida bar exam, hit songwriter on Broadway, successful poet and novelist, U.S. consul to Nicaragua during a revolution, and the first executive secretary of the National association for the Advancement of Colored People. If, like James Johnson, you’ve had a successful life full of major accomplishments, I think it’s easier to say that you might “welcome the darkness without fear or doubt.”

Yet there’s more going on here than the poet saying, “Hey, I’ve had a good run, when it comes time to die, I’ll be ready.” He makes a theological point: out of the chaos of darkness came the universe. (Today we might talk about the Big Bang, but that’s a scientific theory that wasn’t developed until after James Weldon Johnson died.) From the primordial Night came blazing suns, and from blazing suns came planets and life and eventually human beings. And at the end of time, human beings, planets, stars, will all return to primordial Night. From stardust we have come, and to stardust we shall return. If this is what we really believe, we too will “welcome the darkness without fear or doubt.” James Weldon Johnson is telling us that each human life is of utmost significance precisely because it participates in the great drama of the universe, from the Big Bang to the ultimate end of everything when entropy finally takes over. You may or may not agree with him, but you can see how such an attitude might reconcile him to death: like Socrates, he is a poetic rationalist who understands death as a long night of perfect sleep; not something to be feared, but something to be desired, when the time comes.

Each of these three poems tells us different things about sleep. Langston Hughes upends the old Western notions that nighttime and sleep are bad, that blackness is bad and whiteness is good, that dreams should be ignored: instead, he says that night and darkness and blackness and dreaming and sleep are things we should value. Emily Dickinson tells us that sleep need not be the mere shutting of the eye, for when we are guided by a host of witnesses it can guide us to a hopeful future. And finally, by placing our brief human lives in the context of the lifespan of the universe, James Weldon Johnson tells us that sleep is not something we need to fear.

On this day when we lose an hour of sleep, I hope I’ve convinced you that sleep is good. Sleep is more than merely good, it is cosmically good, it connects us with human striving for justice and with the life of stars and the universe. With that in mind, I think I’ll take a nap this afternoon to make up for the hour of sleep I lost last night.