For me, prayer is about putting myself in a position to remember the vastness of time and space and putting into context my small part in it. Prayer is a way to open to the mysteries of life and to see if I can live up to those deep values that will save the world, like compassion, peace, and justice. And prayer cultivates humility, which is essential to living a kind and compassionate life. In prayer, we’re saying, “I don’t know the answer to the world’s dilemmas, but here I am.”
I believe that deep inside us, like a Russian nesting doll, is that ancient man or woman in our ancestry who peered up at the sky and cried out for rain or food or for God to save their child. And whether we believe anything or anyone answers our prayers it doesn’t matter much to me. I like to promote what I call the Nike principle of prayer: “Just do it.”
I heard a rabbi once say that there are four types of prayers: Gimme, Thanks, Oops, and Wow. Put another way: “I need,” “Thank you,” “Forgive me,” and “How amazing.” One place we can get stuck is thinking that prayer is always gimme: gimme rain, gimme health, gimme a Mercedes-Benz. We forget that there are other types of prayer that need us. But the “gimme” prayer isn’t a bad place to start, because it bluntly names whatever despair we are experiencing or any desires we think might fill the hole in our spiritual lives.
One summer Sunday when I preached on prayer we handed out index cards to everyone who entered the sanctuary. At the end of the sermon I asked people to take a moment to write a prayer need, something personal or something for someone else that they wished to have prayers said for. I told them the cards would be collected and at the end of the service when they left the sanctuary they could pick one up from the ushers’ baskets to take home. I asked them to consider seriously that someone in the sanctuary would be asking for their prayers, and so in the writing and in the receiving to be thoughtful about the exercise we were engaged in.
The switch here was that the ministers weren’t going to collect these prayers and say them in church. The people in the pews would take a fellow parishioner’s request, contemplate it, and pray over it for the week. Throughout the week I received notes and stories about how this had affected those who were present. Some said they felt closer to the church community, knowing the struggle of another in the room. One member said her card was a request to pray for the Palestinians. It happened that her father is a Palestinian, and she spent a week praying for her father. Others said they got back a prayer eerily similar to the one they wrote: a prayer for peace, wellness, or family tranquility.
The next Sunday we asked all who wished to tell us about their experience with the prayer card to write their story about what had happened in this process. One family wrote how they had arrived at church having just received an unwelcome diagnosis for their five-year-old. “We arrived sad, scared, and insecure. This card exercise ended up meaning so much to us. Not only did we get to pray for others in our congregation—but someone out there was praying for our sweet child. That night we went to sleep with a sense of peace.” Another member wrote that later, “I felt some additional strength to deal with some of my own difficulties because, after a week of praying over the card I received, I realized someone has been praying for me.” Yet another wrote, “I felt connected to another worshipper and less alone. I knew I wasn’t the only one in need of support and someone else was counting on me to send good thoughts their way.”
What is the result of our prayers? I think we toss out the idea all too easily. These stories tell me that it is worth making some time to speak to the universe in prayerful consideration for all that requires our love. Maybe saying a “gimme” prayer once in a while can do some greater good, especially if it is for someone else.
This article appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of UU World (pages 10–11).
- Spiritual Practice and Prayer in Unitarian Universalism. Introductory information from the Unitarian Universalist Association. (UUA.org)