the hands of Chagall's "The Praying Jew"

At a recent church meeting, I was struck by a certain sheepishness.  As a group of us gathered to begin doing some work for the community, the leader of the meeting asked if someone would be willing to offer a prayer.  The room fell silent as people shuffled uncomfortably in their seats.  I looked around, smiling, to see folks glancing at their shoelaces or fiddling with their smartphones; it’s a scene that has played out any number of times at Covenant meetings over the years.  We did good work that night, but I walked out of the meeting wondering why we were so reluctant to pray.

Some of the reasons, of course, are perfectly understandable.  Like most liberal religionists, we excel at deconstruction.  So we all too often know exactly what prayer isn’t, what we don’t mean by it, and what troubles us about the practice.  We have long since given up ideas of ancient petitionary prayer, where one might seek to persuade God or the gods to intervene in the natural order of things (bringing rain, say, or gifting us with material good fortune).  We have long since moved beyond traditional anthropomorphic images of the divine (in a litany our children wrote, they say, “we’re pretty sure [God] is not an old white guy”).  We have long since dismissed the notion that prayer is something done only by a priest or sanctioned arbiter, some holy person with the credentials to move between worlds.  It is good that we have left some of these ideas behind because they aren’t really authentic for many of us.  But what is authentic?

As many of you know, I have moved among various practices of prayer in my own life and ministry.  There was a time, as a child, that I prayed to an anthropomorphic image, asking mostly for help in being a good boy.  Later I understood prayer more as a way of naming people who were struggling with something (e.g. illness, recovery, grief).  For a period after the death of my father I didn’t pray much at all because I couldn’t make much sense of it; rather, I went for long walks and let the path itself become a prayer as I remembered things he told me and wondered who I would become.  As a minister at Covenant, I have held two primary forms of prayer–on the one hand, I pray publicly in our worship, naming the dreams and needs of our community and holding us in a shared time of reverence; on the other hand, I pray personally in silence, sitting on a zazen cushion or in my writing chair by an east window where sunlight streaks across the floorboards and warms the quiet.  In my silent prayers, I hold images of those I love and care about without quite knowing exactly what I am doing.  Lately I have been writing poems as prayers.

There is no one way of praying, but the more I try various forms of prayer, the more convinced I become that prayer is a way of attuning ourselves to reality, both the things that we cannot control and the things to which we can respond in meaningful ways.

This week I’d like to ask what prayer means to you.  Feel free to share your hang-ups, but what I’m most interested in is what you hope and need prayer to be.  There’s no need to stare at our shoelaces hoping the question will pass.  Let’s lift up our eyes and make ourselves a bit vulnerable.  How might we (re)learn to pray?

With aloha,