Why Can’t Prayer Be Our Prayer?

Over the years I’ve regularly seen the following words as part of Unitarian Universalist covenants and worship openings:

“Love is our doctrine, the quest for truth is our sacrament, and service is our prayer.”

Rev. Peter Morales published an article with UU World in 2010 that is titled “Service Is Our Prayer”[1] and he ends the piece by saying simply, “May service always be our prayer.”[2]  I have often heard congregants across the country refer to social justice as their “religion.”  But without trying to unpack that particular theological steamer trunk in a short blog post, I find myself asking why can’t prayer be our prayer?  Why do Unitarian Universalists have to apply some other meaning or framework to prayer for it to have value in our theology?  Are we really that disinterested? Are we really that damaged?  Are we really that uncurious?  My concern is that we don’t do enough to teach people (in particular ministers) about prayer and we don’t provide enlightened alternatives to people who are actually starving for the unique kind of sustenance that something as simple as prayer might give them.

Some of what I’m offering here is certainly based on a degree of generalization.  Many Unitarian Universalists do pray and they do so in a variety of ways.  But prayer is not a broadly promoted or consistently applied tool in UU spiritual experiences.  The great irony for me in the statement “service is our prayer” is that so very often, particularly in the interfaith organizing that so many of our congregations are attracted to as their form of service, the other traditions we work alongside begin and end every meeting, gathering and action with some kind of literal prayer.  For them,  service needs prayer.

I have regularly been asked to offer prayer in these settings because the assumption is that as a faith leader, I have easy access to the facility to invoke what is traditionally thought of as prayer.  I’m lucky, my first professor in seminary, Rev. Jim Mitulski gave me a direct command when I first met him, “Pray aloud every day.”  Having been raised in Christian traditions, prayer was never foreign to me, but making it an intentional, daily, verbal practice changed things for me.  It gave me fluency of language and imagery and purpose with prayer.  But even more than that, it helped me understand that prayer does not have to be as much about the words (as Rev. Morales references[3]) as it is about the practice itself and the motivation behind that practice.

I learned that prayer can be one way to focus intentionally and exclusively on what is most important to us in any given moment.  Prayer in this way is very intentionally not the “doing” but the “being.”  Often, when I speak of ‘focus’ in UU circles however, people drift into vaguely informed conversation about Buddhism and meditation.  But this does those practices and traditions a disservice and I have found prayer needs to be something very different.  For Unitarian Universalists in particular, prayer presents a tremendous opportunity.  Through prayer, one is able to pause the march of time in the mind and sink into all the many feelings, hopes, fears, anxieties and joys one may have about something and this is not the same as meditation.  Prayer is not still; it is not clearing.  I find that prayer does the opposite, it gathers and brings even greater presence, whether that is to conflict or joy.  Prayer works and wrestles; it is not necessarily calm and it is often active and alive even if it is quiet.  While prayer can ease a sense of turmoil it has the capability to exhilarate just as well.

Another key difference for me with the act of prayer is the intentional humbling to the human experience, a certain kind of surrender that happens in the act of prayer.  It is like an inner leveling of all the forces that invites both acceptance and strength, independence and interconnectedness.  Sinking into this unique place and calling up words to frame and crystalize it in my own private experience or in the experience of others listening to me publicly feels like a truly holy exchange.  This is one of the most sacred tasks I have the privilege to perform anywhere, in any faith setting.

So I ask again, why can’t prayer be our prayer?  We are just as deserving of this unique spiritual blessing as anyone.  What is the language that Unitarian Universalists, religious professionals and lay people alike can embrace that doesn’t deny us the gift of prayer?  As a child of the Civil Rights Movement, I know that service will always be more powerful with prayer not in place of it.

[1] Peter Morales, “Service Is Our Prayer,” UU World Magazine, September 27, 2010, https://www.uuworld.org/articles/service-is-our-prayer.

[2] Peter Morales.

[3] Peter Morales.

Last Splash

Okay folks, this one hurts.  I know that people passing is part of the circle of life, and when our favorite stars go, it should really just be a general sadness for them and their families while we enjoy the biography specials and the exposes on E!, but when I read that Esther Williams died today at 91, it kind of hit my like a truck.  You see, when I was an adolescent, trying to figure out just what was going on for me in terms of my not being attracted to girls and having a rather powerful crush on one of my male neighbors, I was also watching old movies on the TV.  Debbie Reynolds and Judy Garland were favorites; but above them all, standing on perfectly arched feet was Esther Williams.

I’m not quite sure what it was…maybe not so much a single quality, but a combination of things that made her seem at once other worldly and totally human.  In my youthful mind, she had the perfect body and face…which is a little ironic, because when I look at her now, she’s built a bit like a boy…clearly, I had formed my likes by this point.  She also seemed to have an irrepressible sense of humor.  When I watch her films now, I get the sense that frequently they had to do multiple takes because she was always cracking up.

It seemed to me that even though she was stunningly beautiful, she never took herself too seriously.  Although, that was different when it came to her swimming.  Watching her glide through the water, you could tell that this was a trained athlete, with flawless timing and technique…at least to a non-athletic swimmer like me.  She was beauty and strength and humility and glamour.  Wow.  Watching a woman like this in action gave me incredible respect for the full dimension of feminine culture.  In a bizarre way, seeing her was the beginning of me understanding that the other little boys and the terrible way they talked about girls as objects wasn’t right; nor was the way that some of the little girls acted like objects.  There was obviously much, much more to being a woman.  What a great foundation for getting to know the powerful young women of my teens not to mention the women of my family.

So to Esther and her family, I send a prayer, immense gratitude and a wish that somewhere some little gay boy is watching your old movies, looking at you and thinking, as I did, “if that is what a woman can be,  then I will always be in awe of what woman can be.”