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A sermon by Brian J. Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
Sunday, February 4, 2018

If I’m being honest, I don’t really know how to pray. But that doesn’t stop me from praying most all the time.

Best I can remember this habit started mostly by force. It wasn’t always that way, however. Growing up I prayed in a most traditional fashion, like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, with my family before meals and each night, kneeling beside my bed, before sleep. My grandmother usually came into my room just before I fell asleep to pray right along with me.

In childhood my prayers were mostly composed in list form. I’d pray for my mom and dad, my sister, cousins, uncles and aunts; and finally, I’d end by asking God to shed some food and goodness on people who didn’t have it as good as I did.

It was my grandmother who taught me how to widen my prayer requests, as in my mind the world consisted only of school, family, the farm, and Taco Bell every Friday night (#Nachos BellGrandeforlife).

Grandma’s lessons previewed the suffering many people throughout the world experience, a reality I’d become aware of as I matured.

Along with that maturity came a growing dissatisfaction with the results I was getting from prayer. My prayers didn’t stop bad things from happening at all; they didn’t even make somewhat decent things happen. Furthermore, God’s silence confused me. I desperately wanted to hear God like the prophets in the bible did.

I wanted to wrestle with angels and converse with burning bushes.

The closest I got to wresting angels was when I dated a girl named Angel in middle school. Angel had a cannon for an arm and once threw a football so hard it slipped right through my fingers, landing directly on the bridge of my nose, blacking not one, but both of my eyes. Not a great look for an insecure, acne-faced, middle schooler, I assure you.

I’m fairly certain that for most of my teens and early 20s I managed to get by without uttering a single prayer at all.

At this point, I realize I haven’t exactly made the most favorable case for today’s topic. A conversation about prayer amongst UUs may be, in our modern era, entirely unnecessary. But I hope that’s not the case. Nevertheless, many, if not most, of our congregations are filled with secular humanists who profess to having put most of their faith in science and reason; according to the poll our youth conducted a few months back, this congregation fits squarely into the dominant humanist worldview. But I want to argue prayer isn’t just for theists, it’s for atheists too.

The great Unitarian minister, the Rev. Dr. James Madison Barr (who was an atheist and a Republican), who served the Church of the River, in Memphis, Tennessee, from 1962 to 1982, has a rather famous prayer that begins with the words, “I don’t pray.”

Dr. Barr’s point in saying “I don’t pray” is this: “Life, in all its splendid and raw power is enough for me, and so it should be for you also; now, go on, live boldly, and say “Yes” to life.

On some level, that’s pretty sound advice, or so it seems to me. Dr. Barr’s advice is, in some ways, an early manifestation of the self-help trend that our culture has been swimming in the waters of for some time now. The self-help genre, largely an extension of psychology, contains a fair amount of rubbish, but also a lot of value.

One of the lessons particularly helpful for me is the advice to say “yes” to yourself by saying “no” to things you don’t have to do.

That advice helped bring me out of a strong desire to always be where the action was; it helped inspire me to want to become my own person; it helped guide me through a time in my life when I finally put my health and happiness and choices under close inspection. Following that difficult but necessary time in my life I ended up throwing out a lot of clutter: I got rid of those unrealistic and harmful expectations and started surrounding myself with people who truly had my best interests in mind. It was liberating to say the least.

But the gift of this insight was a bit of a double-edged sword. In growing an awareness of my own personal neglect, I realized I had been equally neglectful of the people and relationships in my life that matter most.

After some soul searching I decided I wanted to share some of this awareness with my mother. My mom was proud to learn that her son finally managed to put away a few childish things; mostly she was happy I’d managed to survive my late-teens and early-20s at all. I remember one of those conversations with my mom when she said, “I always knew you’d find your way, Brian. I’ve been praying that this would happen for you for a long time.”

Now on the surface that’s a nice statement, right? Don’t get me wrong, I know for a fact my mom truly prayed for me all those years. But, you see, where I come from “I’ve been praying for you” has a bit of a double meaning. When I was a kid I never much liked watching TV or flying kites. Given the choice, I’d always choose to sit in the kitchen and listen to my mom and her sisters and my grandma share stories and gossip. And it was because of that experience that I knew that whenever one of them said the phrase, “I’m praying for him,” what they really meant was, “he’s an idiot.” And I’m not too proud to admit that yes, I’ve been an idiot.

“I’ve been praying for you” is sort of the Midwestern-version of the South’s “Bless her heart.”

And, believe it or not, I think I’ve figured out the north central Wisconsin version of “Bless her heart,” but I’ll need some of you to tell me whether I’ve got it right after the service. But I’m pretty sure the Wisconsin version of “Bless her heart” is “well now?”

Reason it, the other day I was shopping for a book downtown and I overheard two ladies talking about one of their friends’ grandson.

Not everyone up here has a Wisconsin accent, which is a shame, because I love it. And every time I hear someone talk with one I make it a point to stop a moment and listen. Anyways, one of the women said to the other, “You know, Doris told me the other day that her grandson got sent home from school.” “Oh, no!” the other lady responded. “Why’d he get sent home from school?” “Well, Doris said it’s because he got caught smoking a cigarette in the bathroom,” to which Doris’ other friend responded, “Well now!”

Earlier I said my prayer habit started mostly by force, which I’ll acknowledge is a loaded statement.

What started my ongoing season of prayer was back in my junior year of college, when I learned I was to be a father. I can easily recall my wife, Sarah, calling me one afternoon, crying. I remember running from a table in the library to one of the fire escapes to finish the call. Collecting myself I heard her say the words, “I think I might be pregnant.” “How’d this happen?” was the only idiotic thing I could think to ask.

We strategized, and she decided she’d pick up a pregnancy test on her way home from work later that night. Several hours later, still sitting in the library, too nervous to change locations, she called to tell me the results of the test came back positive.

Instantly I grabbed my stuff, ran down the four flights of steps to the street, clear across campus to my car, and sped over to our apartment.

On that drive I remember feeling so excited and anxious, but mostly terrified. I had come from a broken home, splitting my time between my grandparent’s and my parents’ separate homes. All of that history and those painful memories flooded my mind with this marvelous news. Like a reflex I caught myself saying aloud, “Let this be different; let me have learned from this life.” I don’t know who I said that to, but I said it all the same. In essence, I prayed.

Being a parent has been a greater education than almost any other I’ve undertaken. It has been a humbling lesson in my utter powerlessness – here, in this child, is this life that is a part of me, a fragile mystery who will learn to love and hope and fear – for me, being a parent has cut me down to size, proving the limits of my ability to protect and save on a daily basis.

But it wasn’t just parenthood that taught me this. This lesson was clarified and reinforced as a minister to hospital patients. Some nights after I’d finish a shift I’d sit in the hospital’s chapel and curse God. Like I did as a child, I’d demand reasons for so many broken hearts; and all I’d hear was the same deafening silence that accompanied the prayers of my childhood.

There are some people who believe nothing happens for a reason, that everything is random. And perhaps that’s the case, there’s no way to be certain either way, I suppose.

But I don’t know that I will ever find much satisfaction with the idea that everything is random, driven only by luck and chance, even though so much is driven by luck and chance.

I refuse to it’s random that I became the husband to the woman I married, nor do I think it random I became a father to my child. I don’t think it random that I was the chaplain on duty for the people I was blessed with the opportunity to grieve and pray with. I don’t think it random that I’m standing here before you all now, broken and lucky and proud and fearful that I am.

Now I’m not saying I believe everything happens for a reason.

I read every morning of war and lies and corruption. And each week in my office I am contacted by people who struggle to achieve even the most basic of needs, suffering from the illness of addiction, and longing for the simplest securities. I would never be so cruel as to even suggest that these hard situations happen for a reason. Some things are beyond anyone’s control. No level of intelligence or insight can prevent tragedies from occurring. One of the most difficult things for me to acknowledge is the fact that I can’t save them all.

There have been times when no one is looking that I throw my hands up in defeat, asking, “Will I ever be enough?” So many of us struggle with this awareness that individually we cannot do all the good that we want, that there’s not enough time or money or energy. It’s enough to harden even the warmest hearts. And that’s why I pray.

I don’t pray because I think my prayers will bring peace to warring nations overnight. I don’t pray because they heal diseases and take away pain. I don’t pray because I assume it will protect my family any more than someone else’s. But I’m not scared to say there is something powerful in the act of praying.

But prayer isn’t just something you say under your breath to someone or –thing. Prayer, at its most basic, is about intentionality, it’s about opening up one’s heart and mind; it’s about making space for a time set apart from the busyness of daily life, and the constant chatter that plagues the minds of so many people, myself included. I often say one prays with their whole body.

For me, prayer has to have an everyday-ness. Prayer must be something that grows your awareness of the larger system of things, inspiring a life lived more passionately and meaningfully. Prayer renews the spirit by cultivating an inner peace so that you’re prepared for outer service of love and action.

Alla Renée Bozarth, an Episcopal priest and director of Wisdom House, a center for healing and spiritualty, has a prayer that begins, “Make of your life an offering! Make of your life a prayer!” Bozarth’s prayer ends with

Learn and play your prayer,
work and rest your prayer,
fast and feast your prayer,
argue, talk, whisper, listen and shout your prayer,
groan and moan and spit and sneeze your prayer,
swim and hunt and cook your prayer,
digest and become your prayer,
release and recover your prayer,
breathe your prayer,
be your prayer.

Bozarth’s prayer beautifully conveys that our lives can be a prayer.

Prayer can be a gift that deepens our compassion for the world and our caring for others. That is why in churches and synagogues, in mosques and around dinner tables people pray together. The very nature of the act is participatory and communal; it reminds us that we’re all in this together, that your pain is my pain, that we need each other.

Prayer challenges society’s not-so-subtle messages that we have to be aggressive and certain. Prayer proves, over and again, peace of mind and compassion towards others is a sure remedy for sorrow and pain. Prayer is a language and act that transcends time.

One of the Buddha’s most enduring prayers says, in its entirety, “The thought manifests as the word; The word manifests as the deed; The deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care, And let it spring from love Born out of concern for all beings.” Put simply, the Buddha’s prayer teaches us that by meditating on care for all beings we are preparing ourselves for the tasks before us, both great and small.

For me, every day I pray that my heart doesn’t harden; I pray that I never stop noticing the goodness all around; I pray that I have the courage to rise in the face of the chances and changes that befall with gratitude for the magnitude of this life, and the love I’ve received.

There’s no right way to pray. Sometimes I pray to my grandmother, other times I pray just to hear myself speak something painful and true. But mostly I pray because knowing what I know and loving what I love makes me vulnerable. And “[f]inally,” in the words of the Rev. Vanessa Rush Southern, I pray “with whispered hope for the chance to wake up and face it all again. So may it be. Amen.”

[1] Ibid., 13.

[2] Vanessa Rush Southern, Miles of Dream (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2015), 12.