Prayer in a UU world

June 2, 2013 - 10:15am

Join service leader Laurie Stuart in the first of a month-long exploration of prayer. Starting from the beginning that prayer is breath, the experiential service will use stories, songs and prayers to examine our own relationship to what can be described as an intimate conversation with the Divine.

Whether you have an active prayer practice or a cursory appreciation of a well-placed "thank God," this service has the potential to pique your interest and soothe your soul.


Welcome to the Upper Delaware Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. This morning we begin a month-long exploration of prayer and spiritual life. Interestingly enough, while many of us may or may not have a prayer practice, or one that we have identified as such, there is an awful lot written about prayer from a Unitarian Universalist perspective. Prayer, like God, almost, and who are you praying to anyway?, is one of those uncomfortable subjects in UU circles.

So this morning, I want to be very transparent and put forth the essential place of prayer in our daily lives. Further, we are obligated to explore and dissolve all those pieces of resistance to this tool. I want to put forth that as we are all part of an interconnected web, and with the growing science of a connected consciousness, that it is, indeed, our obligation to approach our lives with a consciousness that reverently connects us to an open mind, and loving heart and helping hands. It is my prayer that this service will be an exploration that prompts you to seek a greatness of spirit that is profoundly evident when our lives are lived in prayer.

Call to Worship: 

Directions on saying a Unitarian-Universalist Prayer

Are you a Unitarian Universalist who wants to pray? Or do you know some UUs and find yourself curious about their religious practices? If so, read on.

1. Light a chalice. While a chalice in UU tradition is a candle in some kind of cup or holder, it doesn't need to be fancy; simply place a little tea candle in a candle holder and light it. Blow out the match, and look at the flame for a few seconds to bring yourself to the present moment. This step is optional, but it's highly recommended.

2. Close your eyes. Some people find it easier to calm themselves and concentrate on what's being said, without distractions, by closing their eyes.

3. Center yourself. Take a few moments to become centered within yourself. Imagine your soul or life spirit being active in all parts of your body, and then slowly calming and coming together at your heart. Some Unitarian Universalists may hit a gong and raise their hands. As the sound slowly drifts, they lower their hands. Consider doing this especially if you have trouble feeling centered.

4. Say a prayer. There are many many possibilities; here's a common example:
We light this chalice,
for the light of truth,
the warmth of love,
and the fire of commitment.
We light this symbol of our faith,
as we gather together.

5. Personalize the prayer. Add whatever wishes or concerns are on your heart and mind, either silently or aloud, for example, "I send my positive thoughts to Uncle Joe during his surgery and ask for a quick and full recovery." If you don't know who you're praying to, don't fret, you're in the same boat as many UUs. If the prayer is heard and answered by an external power, that is good. If the prayer just makes you feel more peaceful and connected to the life spirit of the universe, that's good too.

6. Extinguish the chalice. Unitarian Universalists often will not blow out a ritual candle, but rather will use a candle-extinguisher -- a bell-shaped, inverse metal cup that hangs down from a handle to cover the flame. But nobody's going to "get" you if you blow it out with a puff of breath! If someone recited the prayer with you, you may choose to blow out the candle together. Enjoy watching the drifting smoke.
If more than one person prays together, take turns lighting and extinguishing the candle.

You may pray at any time simply by saying positive wishes for yourself or others, either in your mind or aloud. Direct your prayers to whatever God you believe in, or to a beloved symbol from a world religion, such as Jesus, Gaia, or a saint.
Because Unitarian Universalism is a religion without proscribed rituals and beliefs, you may use prayers from any religion that are meaningful to you. You will see a wide variety of prayers, some borrowed from other faith traditions, used respectfully in UU congregations.

If you pray or meditate with your eyes closed, make sure the candle is safe from dripping, tipping, or combustible materials such as paper or fluttering curtains.

Chalice Lighting: 

When the mind knows, we call it knowledge.
When the heart knows, we call it love.
When the Being knows, we call it prayer.

First Reading: 

In a pamphlet edited by Catherine Bowers, eight Unitarian Universalists (UUs) respond to the questions "How do you pray?" "Why do you pray?" and "What role does prayer play in your life?" These questions, of course, assume an affirmative response to the previous question, "Do you pray?" Some Unitarian Universalists would simply respond, "No."

The responses in this pamphlet reflect the wide variety of approaches to prayer among Unitarian Universalists. We have within our congregations a rich diversity of opinion and belief about prayer and many other religious matters. We invite you to join with us and bring your own perspective to our ongoing dialogue.
—Catherine Bowers, Editor

Read by individual members of the congregation:

Roger Cowan
In a desperate moment, I cried out for help, and I was answered. Some years later I am still a humanist—I believe that religion is about this world, about bringing justice and mercy and the power of love into life here and now. Yet I am a humanist who prays, who begins each morning with devotional readings and a time of silence and prayer. Why do I do this?
I need a quiet time.
I need to express my gratitude.
I need humility.
I pray because—alone—I am not enough and also I am too much.
I express gratitude for the gift of aliveness.
I assert my oneness with you and all humankind and all creation.
When I pray, I acknowledge that God is not me.

Lynn Ungar
During the moment of silence in our Sunday service I close my eyes and sing, silently, inside my head, "Guide my feet while I run this race for I don't want to run this race in vain." As I sing in silence, I imagine myself and the congregation enfolded in arms of love.
At a hospital bedside I hold the hand of a dying woman. The words form in my mind—or perhaps in my heart—"Goddess, be with her, give her strength and courage and comfort for this journey."

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.

Daniel Budd
The best advice on prayer I have yet found was given long ago by Jesus of Nazareth. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he said that prayer was nothing to flaunt about or show off. It is a personal matter, an intimate aspect of our living, and not the public proof of our righteousness. Prayer begins in the heart, that secret place within us all.

Other living traditions have taught me that prayer is an honest expression of how we are in the very depths and doubts of our souls. Prayer is the admission that we are fragile, fallible, and finite. Prayer is giving up, a way of creating a place within ourselves for this Mystery to dwell. Prayer is a covenant we make to be of service. Prayer is a way of living with the very questions that perplex us.

Prayer is an opening of the human heart. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he said, "Pray like this," simply, from the heart.

Lucy Virginia Hitchcock
One morning many years ago, in those trance-like moments between sleeping and waking, a dream image came to me which has affected my subsequent life. A mist was streaming down into my body from above. It flowed through my limbs, but when it reached my hands, it was stopped by the blunt ends of my fingers. I woke up and held my hands before my face. I knew that, if I did not move my hands and feet and voice, the holy spirit would be trapped in my body and unable to do my share of its work in the world.

Prayer for me is taking time to be present for that gracious spirit and aware of the gifts that come to and through me simply because I am alive. One word for this time of presence is gratitude. Another word is meditation, in which, by observing my breathing, I become ever more aware of creation in process. In addition, prayer is theological reflection and social strategy, alone and in groups. This leads to a return of gifts bestowed, as in the wonderful Universalist affirmation which I love to recite in our communal worship, "Love is our doctrine, the quest for truth is our sacrament and service is our prayer. . . ."

Service, especially the prophetic, artistic, dogged work of systematic change for economic justice, is my prayerful response to all I have been given. When I act for justice, when I act with compassion, the spirit in me is no longer trapped at my fingertips. It can move and shake and shape and sing.

James Ishmael Ford

I've found through ordinary attention I can know enough to find authentic peace and joy.

We can know ourselves and our place in the play of the cosmos through sustained attention to what is going on. I've found the beauty and mystery and grace of our existence are revealed in prayerful attention. Through attention we can come to know the connections.

In my thirty years delving into the Zen practices of bare attention, this has been my experience. At the moments within our complete nakedness to what is we find our foolishness and glory are all revealed. Here our hearts and minds open. And, here, we come to an experience that is worthy of those wonderful words "meaning" and "purpose." Within this prayer, within this attention, we can find our connections as a deep intimacy. And out of this knowledge we find a moral perspective, a call to justice, and a peace that passes all understanding.

Nick Page
I composed a piece of music called "Healing Prayer," to be sung by combined choirs and congregations. I wrote it because a dear friend had been diagnosed with leukemia. He asked that his friends neither visit him nor call him, but rather that we simply pray for him. And people prayed—even many who had never before given prayer a thought. My friend is now well on his way to recovery. I am far too scientific to say that our prayer healed him, but I know that those of us who prayed found a deeper connection to him, to each other, and to the world we live in—and I know that my friend also found that connection between self and all things. I also know that this connection was more than mere thoughts—it was tangible—as tangible as the medical treatment he also received.
Growing up in the Unitarian Universalist faith has been a wonderful evolution for me. The words from Psalm 42 have become very meaningful: "As the deer longs for the stream, so my soul longs for Thee, O God." My longing is for the elation of compassionate connectedness—that incredible feeling of being a part of all actions—God or Creation as a verb—a self-organized interdependent event. I composed the "Healing Prayer," not because I believe in a higher power, but because I believe in a living universe with energies both powerful and subtle—all mysterious. At the end of "Healing Prayer," members of the congregation may offer the names of those in need of healing. It is a powerful moment—an emotional moment—a spiritual moment. We touch that which we long for—the living spirit of Creation.

Dan Harper
I don't pray. As a Unitarian Universalist child, I learned how to pray. But when I got old enough to take charge of my own spiritual life, I gradually stopped. Every once in a while I try prayer again, just to be sure. The last time was a couple of years ago. My mother spent a long, frightening month in the hospital, so I tried praying once again but it didn't help. I have found my spiritual disciplines—walks in nature, deep conversations, reading ancient and modern scripture, love—or they have found me. Prayer doesn't happen to be one of them.

Anita Farber-Robertson
When I was in my thirties, still early in my ministry, I was stricken with a mysterious illness. My world turned upside down. I was hospitalized while the doctors ran tests, and my body did its own thing, separate from what I wanted of it. I was frightened, too frightened to pray. For the first time in my life, I understood intercessory prayer. I needed the connection, and I was not strong enough or grounded enough to establish it for myself. I needed someone to keep the lines open and clear, to maintain them and make sure they were secure in the turbulence that was ahead. I couldn't do that. It was all I could do to get through one day at a time, not knowing what was happening to me, a prisoner of a body that was becoming my enemy, rather than my connection to the sacred.

I asked my friend to pray for me. He did. I was astonished at its power. I felt the tears, the release, the comfort, and the assurance that the world and all that was sacred would wait for me, would hold a place for me, when I could not do the work of holding it for myself.

In that moment I could feel that the spirit of the universe held me, as it held every living creature. My friend's prayer had touched that spirit as surely as it had mine, and it had done so in my behalf.

I pray for people now. Every day. It is one of the most important parts of my prayer life. When all the rest of it falls away out of busyness or distraction, I can still, each morning, lift up those I love and those in pain, through prayer. And fortunately, there are those I know who pray for me.

Sermon Title: 
The Agreement
Sermon Author: 
Barry Lopez, “One hundred Wisdom Stories from around the world,” Edited by Margaret Silf.)

Once upon a time, before there were any people walking around in this valley, there were bears. They had an agreement with the salmon.

The salmon would come upriver every autumn, and the bears would acknowledge this and take what they needed. This is the way it was with everything. Everyone lived by certain agreements and courtesies. But the salmon and the bears had made no agreement with the river. It had been overlooked. No one thought it was even necessary.

Well, it was. One autumn, the river pulled itself back into the shore trees and wouldn’t let the salmon enter from the ocean. Whatever they would try, the river would pull back and leave the salmon stranded on the beach.

There was a long an argument, a lot of talk. Finally, the river let the salmon enter. But when the salmon got up into this country where the bears lived, the river began to run in two directions at once, north on one side, south on the other, roaring, heaving white water and rolling big boulders up on the banks. Then the river was suddenly still. The salmon were afraid to move. The bears were standing behind trees, looking out. The river said in the middle of all this silence that there had to be an agreement. No one could just do something, whatever they wanted. You couldn’t just take someone for granted.

So for several days, they spoke about it. The salmon said who they were and where they came from, and the bears spoke about what they did, what powers they had been given, and the river spoke about its agreement with the rain and the wind and the crayfish and so on. Everybody said that whey needed and what they would give away. Then a very odd thing happened – the river said it loved the salmon. No one had ever said anything like this before. No one had taken this chance. It was an honesty that pleased everyone. It made for a very deep agreement among them.

Well, they were able to reach an understanding about their obligations to each other, and everyone went his way. This remains unchanged. Time had nothing to do with it. This is not a story. When you feel the river shuddering against your legs, you are feeling the presence of all these agreements.


Homily: Prayer, an agreement

In “Worship that Works,” Wayne Arnason and Kathleen Rolenz write:

“Prayer can cut through our intellectual barriers and touch our hearts, enabling us to feel truly held and embraced by community and by love. …

“The most meaningful prayers are not cleverly written but sincerely delivered…. 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 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.

One of the ways that I access that “still small voice” is to write in a journal. Here’s what I wrote on May 31.

“I breathe in.

"I sink into the feeling of peace. I am content with my life. I understand that my traumas are ancient and that my soul will grow through discernment of my place in the world.”

That entry was following a visit to Muir Woods, where I stopped to listen to a grove a redwood trees. “You are connected to the ancients,” the wise redwoods told me.

My prayer for answers have always been addressed to trees and answers are always heard.

Although recently, I had a transcendent moment while praying at a co-workers mother’s funeral. It was following communion and it was a second service I attended in that church that morning. Driving from some two hours away I arrived early enough to attend the Friday morning Mass with the Catholic School at St. Gregory’s in Bayside. My transcendent moment followed communion (something that I had never done before going to seminary) in the second service. (I did worry that the priest would think me breaking all the rules.) After having received the host, interestingly there was no wine at the funeral, and there had been at the Mass of the school, I made my way back to the pew and sat down and prayed for all those around me. I don’t know what was different; it’s not like I have never get lost in prayer. But this time I was consumed in earnestly blessing people’s lives. I vaguely recall running through a list of people and heartfully blessing their lives. It was not that I was blessing their gifts in my life. It was that I was blessing their lives. I remember feeling in total union with them. I can’t remember who or any of the details. What I know is that I was totally present to the blessings of others. And in that moment of consciousness, focused on the other, I experienced a greatness of spirit. It was not a still small voice, it was a greatness of spirit.

I touched it again while attending the last intensive weekend of my Graceful Leadership class. We did an exercise where we paired off and said to our partner: “In relationship to this conversation with me, I imagine you are feeling “xx”. And because this was an exercise of identifying our own wants and desires in relation to the other, I said things like: “I imagine that you are experiencing contentment.” I imagine that you are intellectually engaged in this conversation with me.” It was amazing what a switch that happened when I owned our own needs and desires in relation to the other. In being totally transparent and focused on the other, I experienced a greatness of spirit.

Craig Hamilton in his Evolutionary Enlightenment class talks about his belief that all of our consciousnesses are connected. And how our small shifts benefit the whole. Science is beginning to have the capacity to measure the invisible connections of our consciousness.

And therefore I invite you to consider prayer an agreement of our humanity and our inherent existence in the world. Just like the bears, the salmon and the river, our agreement is our lives in prayer. It is an agreement that we make with the earth. It is our commitment to our spiritual growth and to each other.


I have a longing to return to our native place, to find reverence in our daily lives, a reverence that fuels a connection to everyone and everything. It is ancient, set in the post-modern world. It offers an opportunity to live a life of greatness of spirit. It offers comfort and revitalization to be a mature adult in a complicated world.

I think we all get there
on totally different paths.
And we are fortunate
that we will share those paths,
May they become more well worn,
and celebrated
in this religious community
in the days ahead.

Closing Words:
I pray to the birds.
I pray to the birds because I believe
They will carry the messages of my heart upward
I pray to them because I believe in their existence,
The way their songs begin and end each day
— the invocations and benedictions of earth.
— I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear.
— And at the end of my prayers,
— They teach me how to listen.
— Terry Tempest Williams, Earth Prayers, page 53.

Benediction: Mary Oliver's poem "The Summer Day
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention,
how to fall down into the grass,
how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Sermon PDF: