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Standing in the Need of Prayer – 10/19/2014

The story is told of the Baal Shem Tov – the great mystical rabbi of 18th century Poland – that at times of great danger and calamity for his community, he had a certain practice he would always observe. The rabbi would go into the woods alone to a certain place among the trees. There he would meditate and light a special fire. Finally, he would pronounce a particular prayer over the flame, and by this observance, it is said, the crisis was always averted.

After the Baal Shem Tov passed from this life, the responsibilities of leadership passed to his successor. This inheritor was a good and worthy scholar and teacher, but he did not know all of the secrets of his predecessor. One day, a new and dire threat arose, and following the custom of his teacher, the younger rabbi went to that same place in the woods. Yet, he did not know the particular way in which the fire needed to be lit, so he confessed, “O Holy One, I do not know how to light the fire, but I can say the prayer. And this, it seems, was enough.

The next rabbi in this lineage was also wise and dutiful, but when it came his turn to lead and watch over the community, he knew even fewer of his ancestor’s secrets than had his predecessor. When the hour of doom arrived, he returned to the place in the woods, but could only declare, “O Blessed Name, I cannot light the fire or even pronounce the prayer. All I can do is to come to this sacred location.” And that alone, in its time, was enough.

Finally, there came a new rabbi who was just as dedicated and insightful as those who had come before, but even the last remaining secret of the forest was withheld from him. So once again, calamity arrived, and all seemed lost. Sitting at home alone, it was all that the teacher could do to declare, “My Rock and my Redeemer, I cannot light the fire. I do not know the prayer. Even the sacred place in the forest is hidden from me. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And, according to the story, it was.[i]

This morning’s sermon is the second in a three-part series following the teaching from the Jewish tradition that the world rests on three things: Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim. Torah, which can be translated as teaching, we covered last month. Gemilut chasadim – acts of loving kindness – will be considered in November. Today our word is avodah. Literally, it means work, or sometimes, service. In modern Hebrew it can mean anything from the work of the business world to the labor of farming. But in its traditional religious sense, avodah means the work of serving God, especially the words and ritual of worship and of prayer.

The story of the Baal Shem Tov and the rabbis who succeeded him follows a shift in the historical practice of Judaism. For centuries the center of Jewish practice was the temple in Jerusalem and the rituals and sacrifices observed there. Hundreds of animals – among them sheep, cows, and doves – were sacrificed there in the course of each year, requiring a large team of priests to oversee the work. Each sacrifice had a particular meaning and reason behind it. But when the temple was destroyed for the second time, the priesthood was dispersed, and the sacrifices ended. The response to this crisis within Judaism was the development of the teaching that the act of worship and the effect of prayer within the human heart effectively replaces those sacrifices. This is part of why the meaning of avodah is so broad and encompassing: it has grown over time as a matter of survival. Christianity, of course, and Islam both trace themselves back to the same temple as modern Judaism, and in their own ways they have devised means for transforming earthy, sometimes bloody pagan practices into meditative rituals and prayers. (A pause to note here that while ‘pagan’ has often been used as a pejorative term, I do not intend it as such, and it’s important we remember that most modern pagans find animal sacrifice just as distasteful as would the average Muslim, Christian, or Jew, if not more so.)

As Unitarian Universalists we are connected, through our Christian roots, to this same evolution. Yet, many of us feel a hesitancy, either small or great, around words like worship and prayer. There are at least two reasons for this. First is the unfortunately popular idea that one can only pray to God, and to a certain narrow idea of God, which many of us don’t find personally meaningful. Second is the understanding of prayer as a mechanical sort of tit-for-tat; prayer as the means of accessing the cosmic vending machine to obtain health, wealth, or any other thing we might want – or desperately need. There’s an intellectual argument against this one, of course, but as always I’m much more interested in the moral argument against it. If prayer is a means of bartering with the universe, or just begging God for preferential treatment, if prayer alone can make the difference in our fates then people all over the world are being punished daily for failure to pray. Few of us would feel good about participating in something that amounts to spiritual bribery: a program of cosmic corruption.

An image from one of the science fiction novelist Rober Zelazny’s books takes this idea to its absurd conclusion. On a distant planet the local religion is based on advanced technology and intended for social control. One of its mainstays is the ‘Pray-o-Mat,’ a massive apparatus of metal and glass covered in animal shapes: tigers, serpents, fish. One activates it by inserting coins and pressing buttons. Once commanded, the machine glows and hums as it prays on your behalf. The amount paid into the machines is tracked over one’s lifetime, and used to determine how nice or how poor of a new life and body one can expect to enjoy after death.[ii]

These two concerns are good reasons, I’ll grant, not to pray in ways that one finds immoral or contrary to how you understand the universe. But prayer can be quite a bit larger than this. My colleague the poet, educator, and minister Lynn Ungar writes of prayer in its small, spontaneous manifestations, and offers this reverent and agnostic example, “The full autumn moon rises, huge and orange and glowing, and I feel my spirit lifting along with it. “Thank you,” I say. “Thank you.” In the moment of beauty it doesn’t matter whom I am thanking or even whether I am heard. It is enough to be grateful and to be a witness to wonder.”[iii] Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman, a major 20th century leader of Reform Judaism in the United States, wrote that “Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city. But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, rebuild a weakened will.”[iv] Prayer’s applications are vast, and the fact that the word is sometimes used dysfunctional or destructively does not mean that it can have no use or value. In fact, it doesn’t even prevent us from benefiting from it, even when we would deny having any practice of prayer.

Can I get real with you for a second? I love being your minister. I have wanted this job since I was 13 years old. And, that doesn’t mean that my days are all egg-free cake and vegan ice cream. I have moments when I’m frustrated. I have times when I fail. I get caught up in why nobody bought into my clever idea, or I fume over all the time I spent trying to come up with a clever idea that never came. I focus on the emails I haven’t answered yet, and the calls I haven’t made, and the sermon I still haven’t written. I want you all to know that this doesn’t mean that I love you any less than you thought I did. It especially doesn’t mean that you should try to take care of me or fix anything. What I’m trying to say is, I have days when I come home the office with a worn-out soul. And when I do, one of the things that restores me is cooking dinner.

I don’t do it every night, and it doesn’t work every night that I do it. But cooking for my family returns some of my sense of self and purpose when it gets tarnished or bent by the rest of the day. There’s a rhythm in the kitchen, between the cutting board and the knife, the stove and the pan. It’s calming and meditative when I find it. More importantly, preparing food is an expression of love and when I pay attention to that, it helps me to love myself and all the other people in my life a little bit more, and my grip on all my pettiness and disappointments slackens some. The Jesuit priest John Veltri offers a prayer I believe points in this same direction:

“Teach me to listen, O God, to those nearest me, my family, my friends, my co-workers.

Help me to be aware that no matter what words I hear, the message is, “Accept the person I am. Listen to me.”

Teach me to listen, my caring God, to those far from me– the whisper of the hopeless, the plea of the forgotten, the cry of the anguished.

Teach me to listen, O God my Mother, to myself. Help me to be less afraid to trust the voice inside — in the deepest part of me.

Teach me to listen, Holy Spirit, for your voice — in busyness and in boredom, in certainty and doubt, in noise and in silence.

Teach me, Lord, to listen.  Amen.”

As one covenant recited in many of our congregations declares, “Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer.” That expansive, almost impossibly broad meaning of the Hebrew avodah – meaning work, service, worship, and prayer – matches perfectly with the sentiment of Unitarian Universalism. There is no natural wall between the sacred and the secular. Work can be prayer if it accomplishes what prayer exists to accomplish: refocusing and strengthening our intentions towards that which is most precious in life.

Empty prayer, hollow of intention, yields nothing. As Claudius, the murderous king of Shakespeare’s Hamlet pronounces after failing to summon any real remorse for his crimes, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” Intention – in Arabic, niyyah, in Hebrew, kavanah – gives meaning to prayer, but prayer is also a whetstone of intention. Contemporary rabbi Elyse Frishman offers the following prayer of aspiration for focusing on the potential of the self, the beauty of others, and the determination to struggle for justice:

“My soul came to me pure,

drawn from the reservoir of the Holy.

All the time it remains within me,

I am thankful for its thirst

for compassion and justice.

Let my eyes behold the beauty of all creatures;

let my hands know the privilege of righteous deeds.”[v]

The renowned Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn writes that, “When love and compassion are present in us, and we send them outward, then that is truly prayer. [Further], in sending love outward, we may notice a change in our own heart.” In the classic gospel hymn, the congregation sings, “Not my brother, nor my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer…Not the elder, nor the deacon…Not my father, nor my mother…Not the stranger, nor my neighbor…but it’s me…” More times each day than I want to count, it’s me: standing in the need of prayer. Needing to be humbled in my wants and fears, the impulses I too often let control me. Needing to have that still, small voice of moral courage exalted. Needing to be pointed again in the direction of love. Sometimes by my labor, and sometimes by closing my eyes and naming my gratitude, my regret, and the best hope I can muster.

Researching my topic for today, I stumbled onto the gift of some words from one of my favorite spiritual ancestors that I hadn’t come across before. It was a prayer written by the great anti-slavery preacher Theodore Parker. The prayer actually closes with him wishing not to be forgiven for his sins, in the hope and expectation that all wrongs should carry their natural consequences, and he should be redeemed by paying them rather than dodging their fair price. But my favorite passage is this one:

“From all this dusty world Thou wilt not lose

A molecule of earth, nor spark of light.

I cannot fear a single flash of soul

Shall ever fail, outcast from Thee, forgot.

Father and Mother of all things that are,

I flee to Thee, and in Thy arms find rest.”[vi]

Every prayer is a poem. However literally meant – and I do not mean to disrespect the ardent theists among us – any image of God is also a metaphor for the shape and form of justice, peace, and love, and of the universe itself. “Father and mother of all things that are,” what a beautiful, comforting, hopeful description of the cosmos we share, and in the arms of which – these bodies, this building, this Earth – we rest.

The great Unitarian Universalist minister Gordon McKeeman asked the question for formulating prayer, “How does one address a mystery?” He offers four basic answers: cautiously, reverently, hopefully, quietly; and expands on each in turn. But then he turns to what exactly should be said once the right approach is made.

“But what shall I say?

Anything—any anger, any hope, any fear, any joy, any request, any word that comes from the depth of being addressed to Being itself—or, perhaps, nothing, no complaint, no request, no entreaty, no thanksgiving, no praise, no blame, no pretense of knowing or of not knowing.

Simply be in the intimate presence of mystery, unashamed—unadorned—unafraid. And at the end say—Amen.”[vii]

My friends, I encourage you – indeed, I challenge you – to experiment, to explore, and to find whatever means of prayer you can. Again, I mean whatever practice or action or pattern of thought serves best to return to the best that you are capable of and the highest ideals you hold. What lets you reach out for solace in times of trouble, and reach out towards other people in their own trying times. What expresses your awe and wonder and gratitude most profoundly, and what strengthens your resolve to do right and your courage to make amends for what you’ve done wrong. Seek out and follow whatever you can find to hone and refocus your soul. The world depends upon it, for your own purpose and wellbeing depend on it – and you, just like me and everyone else – are a part of the world.

[i] This is a Chassidic tale, based on a retelling by Elie Wiesel in his book, The Gates of the Forest.

[ii] From Zelazny’s novel, Lord of Light.

[iii] http://www.uua.org/beliefs/welcome/spirituality/151283.shtml

[iv] As quoted in Gates of Prayer, the New Union Prayer Book.

[v] As quoted in Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur.

[vi] As published in, The Life and Correspondence of Theodore Parker

[vii] http://www.uua.org/worship/words/meditations/5478.shtml

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First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915

978-922-3968

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