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Delivered at the United Church of Jaffrey
November 12th, 2017
Prayer alters the face of the world revealing unnoticed harmonies and symmetries and knitting together the natural and social dimensions of our existence… Prayer is speech, but much richer than speech alone. It is a peculiar kind of speech that acts, and a peculiar kind of action that speaks to the depths and heights of being. Much of the time prayer seems to be nothing but talk: praising, cajoling or pleading with God…but to pray is also to act.
— From: Prayer: A History by Philip & Carol Zaleski
Worn Away Wood
In Xiahe, a small town nestled on the edge of the steppes in the Western Chinese province of Gansu I saw something that has stayed with me, ever since.
It was 1990, and I was a year out of college.
My best friend Lorin and I were wandering the world.
A large segment of Xiahe’s population were Tibetan, and while the Communist central government in Beijing did not officially condone the practice of religion, some unspoken agreement seemed to prevail in this provincial backwater because the Tibetan Buddhists in Xiahe were practicing their religion unhindered.
We did not enter the temple, rather, we stood on the outside, craning our necks to peer into the mysterious darkness within.
Where we were standing, on the edge of the temple’s outer portico, we saw an old man praying before an ornate and brightly colored mandala.
A few sticks of incense smoldered by his side.
The old man prostrated before the mandala, repeating his prayer over and over under his breath.
Curious, but at the same time not wanting to disturb him, I crept up behind him. When I stood a few feet behind him, and watching him perform his prostrations, I noticed that in the place where the old man’s hands stretched out before him, there were two deep channels worn into the wooden floor.
I could see the grain of the wood where it was worn down.
I could also see that the worn places were darkened by the sweat of all the men and women who came in from the field, or down from the mountains, to worship in that place.
I could see, from that worn away wood, a dedication that, in my early twenties, I could scarce imagine being able to sustain.
I could see, from that worn away wood, a willingness to surrender, that, as a young American, weaned on the cult of the individual, was utterly unknown to me.
That worn away wood captured my attention.
It spoke of persistence.
It spoke, somehow, of both surrender and action.
It spoke of a kind of purposeful humility.
Thoughts & Prayers…
As you all know, exactly one week ago, at this time on a Sunday morning, a man ran into the Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs Texas, and started shooting.
When it was over, 26 worshippers lay dead.
Another 20 were injured.
And all this, you also know, has happened barely a month since another shooter sprayed bullets on an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, killing 58 and injuring 546.
The day after the Las Vegas shooting, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren broke with tradition.
Instead of offering her “thoughts and prayers” she wrote:
“I’m heartsick for people in Nevada & across the country who woke up to this news & are worried that their family & friends are ok. Thoughts & prayers are NOT enough. Not when more moms & dads will bury kids this week, & more sons & daughters will grow up without parents.”
So when, in the wake of the Sutherland Springs shooting, House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted that “the people of Sutherland Springs need our prayers right now” democrats across the spectrum were primed and ready to leap:
Massachusetts house representative Seth Moultan, tweeted: “We are praying – but prayers won’t fix this or prevent it from happening again.” He then wrote: “Let’s also pray that you (meaning Ryan) find the courage to do your job.”
Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal chimed in: “Prayers are important, but insufficient. After another unspeakable tragedy,” he wrote, “Congress must act – or be complicit.”
House Representative Pramila Jayapal from Washington State weighed in, tweeting: “They were praying when it happened. They don’t need our prayers. They need us to address gun violence crisis & pass sensible regulation.”
The singer and actress Bette Midler tweeted this scathing indictment: “About the epidemic of mass shootings? Watch politicians tweet condolences, thoughts and prayers and then go to cocktails with gun lobbyists.”
What do we mean by Prayer?
Are they right?
I am torn.
I agree with Elizabeth Warren and her colleagues when they insist that the government must act in some practical and effective way to insure that military style firearms stay out of the hands of people who would perpetrate these heinous, murderous acts.
I, like them, am impatient with politicians who are more concerned with their success than they are with the lives of their constituents.
When I read Bette Midler’s tweet, I think: Yes! — she is speaking truth to power!
Innocent people are dying, and the only reason we lack the political will to do anything about it, is because the NRA has our legislative branch of government in their pockets.
The federal government can (hypothetically) legislate a solution — and so we talk politics — but in essence this is less a political issue than a moral one.
It is immoral to step aside and allow our neighbors to be killed.
It is immoral to step aside and allow ourselves — our children — to be killed.
So yes, I agree that legislative action is necessary.
But when I hear all these people, that I admire, claiming that prayer is insufficient, I am troubled.
As a Christian minister, I am troubled.
They may be right!
But there is a part of me that wants to protest…
Let me put it this way…
It all depends, I believe, on what we mean by “prayer.”
If by “prayer” we mean something that we say in order to “make it all better” and move on — then yes, I agree with Elizabeth Warren and the others when they proclaim that “thoughts and prayers are NOT enough.”
Too often, in our society, religion has played the “kiss away the booboo” role.
If, by “prayer” we mean simply lighting a candle, mumbling a few words, and then moving on with our lives, as usual… then I would not only agree with Elizabeth Warren — I would go even further and say that prayer is actually hindering us from getting something done.
In the direct aftermath of every mass shooting, at precisely the moment when loss and outrage are at their most intense… legislative momentum stalls when key lawmakers find cover behind fake piety: “Now is not the time for action…” they say… “Now is the time to pray…”
But do we honor the families of the dead when we pray for them and then do nothing?
Is this the meaning of prayer?
Is prayer the necessary observance that allows us to stop caring about our neighbors?
I don’t know about you, but that’s not what my religion looks like.
Collaborators in Salvation
In the parable that Carol read for us this morning, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to “ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.”
Five of the maidens brought extra oil for their lamps.
The other five did not bother.
The bridegroom took longer to come than expected, but when, at length, he arrived, the five maidens who were prepared, could refill their lamps and welcome him.
The five unprepared maidens, ask their wise colleagues for help but no help is forthcoming. They must scramble to get more oil, and when they return to the festivities they are not let in.
The bridegroom says to them “Truly, I do not know you.”
Through the centuries between the time of Jesus and today, many of the faithful have read this parable as Jesus’ directive to be prepared at all times lest he return to fetch them to judgment.
Indeed, this interpretation is provided by Jesus himself at the end of the parable when he says:
Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
But what if we allow our interpretation of this verse to dwell on the wise maidens rather then the foolish ones.
What if we read this more as a suggestion tale then as a cautionary one.
Then we see that the success of the festivities at the end of the parable depends as much on the wise maidens as upon the appearance of the bridegroom.
This parable is not just a demand that we be ready.
It is also instructing us to contribute to the kingdom of heaven.
We are collaborators in salvation.
To be saved we must not simply be in the right place at the right time.
We must also act.
And there’s something else.
This collaboration that Christ is talking about is not something that you do once or twice in a half-hearted way.
Its a way of life.
When prayer is something that we can do thoughtlessly, with a shrug, then, I fear, it has lost its meaning and its significance as a vital part of human life.
The five maidens in the parable who were prepared show us that our relationship with the divine is something that we must pay attention to.
That paying attention
Acting inward toward God
In today’s modern reading, Philip and Carol Zaleski, write that
Prayer is speech, but much richer than speech alone. It is a peculiar kind of speech that acts, and a peculiar kind of action that speaks to the depths and heights of being.
I love this.
Prayer is a peculiar kind of speech that acts, and a peculiar kind of action that speaks to the depths and heights of being.
Our tendency, when we pray, is to think that we are communicating with the Divine — and that the Divine is somewhere…
Somewhere up there…
This is a deeply ingrained notion that comes to us from childhood.
This Divinity that we speak to, that we ask questions of, that we plead with, becomes almost like a parent to us.
There is something important in this. It is important to be keenly aware that there is something else — something that is greater than us, and that this something calls us to be just.
But the danger with this idea — the danger that Elizabeth Warren is picking up on — is that this way of thinking can take the responsibility away from us.
Prayer does not take away our responsibility.
Because prayer is not simply a speaking outwards toward God.
Prayer is more than that. Prayer is an acting inward toward God.
Prayer awakens God within us.
Prayer is our attention to the precious eternal quality that is within us — it is our connection to that part of us that insists on justice and love — in spite of everything.
When we act to awaken the divine within us, we become more powerful — more intentional about our insistence on the good.
Prayer — as a learned when I saw the worn away wood — is not just speech: it is action.
The action of purposeful humility.
Prayer, I would argue, is enough.
Not the “kiss away the booboo” prayer.
But the prayer the prayer of purposeful humility that awakens within us the Divine insistence on Justice and love.
this way of life
If we are serious about it…
will not only achieve legislative change
It will achieve a transformation of our souls.