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Praying as Unitarian Universalists

How can we pray with integrity, grace, power, and purpose?
By Wayne Arnason And Kathleen Rolenz
Spring 2008 2.15.08

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When it comes to understanding the form and meaning of prayerful moments in Unitarian Universalist worship, the first practical question we encounter is our dilemma with the language of reverence.

One minister in a congregation we visited began her prayer, “Spirit of Life, Holy One, named and unnamed, mother and father of us all . . .” and the introduction continued for what seemed like a full minute. This style of opening prayer is not uncommon in Unitarian Universalist churches. Ministers are keenly aware that if they were simply to say “Dear God . . .” some members of their congregation would flinch in the moment or protest later. We strive to be as theologically inclusive as possible. We ask ourselves, what about the pagans in our midst? How do we include them in a spoken prayer? How about the atheists in our congregation, for whom the word God or the mention of a deity outside of human knowledge is meaningless? If we avoid the word prayer and the forms of prayer, and call that segment of the service “Meditation,” we may recognize that the last thing the committed meditators in our pews do when they are meditating is listen to lengthy poetic exhortations. If these quiet and contemplative moments in our worship point toward a dependency on the mystery of life that is beyond our naming, how do the words and actions we choose to use help or hinder us in this task?

This is the unique dilemma of anyone who is supposed to lead the prayer time in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. In UU humor, the joke is that we pray “to whom it may concern,” an approach generic enough to cover just about every theological persuasion. At the same time, the many poetic forms we use can create an invocation so bland or jumbled as to strip the prayer of any power or import. How can we pray with integrity, grace, power, and purpose, when we struggle with the question of to whom we are praying?

Many worship leaders who wish to address a reality larger than ourselves resolve the dilemma by using the most inclusive form they can. We noted earlier the popularity of “Spirit of Life” as a beginning for prayer because it represents a safe harbor for both theists and humanists.

Some of our churches use traditional prayer forms that have been part of their liturgies and congregational identities for generations. Inclusivity is a value for these congregations, but they will not compromise their liturgical identity and tradition to achieve it. Instead, they search for it outside the worship service. Most of our congregations give their ministers and worship leaders broad leeway in how they use and introduce prayers or meditations.

Our advice is to keep it simple. If you like to use diverse invocations, don’t use them all in one prayer. Use ones that have both integrity in the context of your own theology and the potential to include the widest variety of people. As an alternative, begin with the same invocation every week, but let the congregation know what it means to you from your theological perspective and how you believe its consistent use adds to the worship life of the whole congregation.

The balance of words and silence is an important decision in whatever form of prayer or meditation you use. One of Kathleen’s pet peeves occurs in both Uni­tarian Universalist churches and in other traditions. The minister says “Will you join me in a time of prayer or meditation?” and then launches into a long, wordy prayer that takes the listener to the other ends of the earth and heaven and back, ending with a prompt and efficient “Amen.” Too often there is no time allowed for silence before or after the prayer. Prayer may be felt as just one more thing to be done before the sermon can begin.

The power of silence cannot be overestimated, and yet it is one of the aspects of liturgy most lacking in our worship. Perhaps this is because most of us are uncomfortable with silence. Our discomfort may come from our rebelling against having to be silent in church as children, or perhaps it is the awareness that when we enter silence together, we really aren’t completely silent. The minister’s stomach rumbles. A child cries in the back of the sanctuary. Someone coughs and another rustles through her purse to find a cough drop. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to order complete silence on a Sunday morning in worship. We suspect that the more compelling reason that Unitarian Universalists tend to shun silence is that it invites us to enter deep waters of the spirit, and we do not know if we have the buoyancy to swim.

“Be still and know that I am God,” the psalmist writes. And 1 Kings 19:12 says, “God was not in the fire, or in the earthquake, or in the wind, but in the still, small voice.” To sit together in silence requires confronting the inner workings of our own minds. In silence, we see more clearly our thoughts and feelings, our hopes and losses. We can shut them out by compiling our to-do lists or fretting about the crying baby, but if we continue with the silence, we feel the tug of the spirit calling us to a larger life. For some, these feelings are strange and unsettling. There is nothing to do in that silence but “be.” There are no landmarks, no roadmaps, no GPS systems to guide us, save for the rhythm of our own heartbeat and the rise and fall of our own breath.

A skillful prayer can provide a congregation with these landmarks and put a name to the feelings that well up in silence. It can guide beginning travelers through the emptiness of their own silence and help them to see the variety and beauty that exists there. Worship leaders whose prayers touch the congregation deeply and consistently are people whose prayers well up from their personal spiritual practice. The single most effective thing a person can do to create meaningful prayers is to have a rich private prayer life oneself. When a congregation enters a deeper silence together, the feeling in the room is palpable. The silence is rich and dense, as if all had just dived into a refreshingly clear lake on a hot summer day. It is here, in this space, that the knowing comes, that the insight is seen and the healing witnessed.

To make this possible, this silence can be neither too long nor too short. If it is too short, there is not enough time to delve deeply, but allows for skimming the surface. If it is too long, those meditating or praying may find their minds wandering far afield. The meditative stance should always be alert, awake, and receptive. The silence before, during, or after the prayer or spoken meditation is useful if it helps the individual move into the depths of their own being and then out again.

Prayer can cut through our intellectual barriers and touch our hearts, enabling us to feel truly held and embraced by community and by love. Led by a minister or worship leader who pulls a prewritten prayer from the hymnbook minutes before delivery, it can also leave us bored. At its best, prayer is a conversation between people and their minister, their community, the world, or their God.

The most meaningful prayers are not cleverly written but sincerely delivered. Cerebral prayers can leave us cold. The purpose of prayer is to put the mind and the heart together in a spirit of attentive, calm, and quiet awareness. When a prayer does not contain a shred of the person who offers it, it is a hollow echoing of words, regardless of its poetry, craft, or style. The preacher or worship leader must know the congregation well enough to speak to their condition that day. “Canned” prayers seldom have the power of a prayer that has been born in the moment.

The purpose of prayer in transformative worship is to allow enough silent time in the worship for transformation to occur. When we sit together in silence, when we lift up in prayer the gamut of human experience and emotion, we create a time to reflect on these things. When we are invited to a period of meditation and can focus on our breath or a word or an image, the action has the ability to distill our thoughts. When we can listen fully and reflectively to the “still small voice” within, we may be surprised and encouraged by what emerges.


Adapted with permission from Worship That Works: Theory and Practice for Unitarian Universalists. © 2008 Wayne B. Arnason and Kathleen C. Rolenz, published by Skinner House Books. See sidebar for links to related resources.

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