Prayer for Unitarian Universalists. Meaning, prayer for people who are all over the map, theologically. Prayer for atheists, prayer for agnostics, prayer for theists. 


But, doesn’t prayer automatically mean a conversation that is like a phone call, except to God? Or, at the very least, “to whom it may concern”? 

But, prayer as in “thoughts and prayers?” The prayers that too many folks seem to use as blatant substitutes for real action around heartbreaking things like school shootings? 

But, prayer as a thing just Christians do, so that if you pray, it must mean you are a Christian? 

Where are you this morning when it comes to prayer? 

Does a “but” come to mind when you are invited to consider it for yourself? 

Let’s cut straight to the heart of things, with a poem by Mary Oliver, entitled “The Summer Day”: 

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean—

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

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, how to stroll through the fields,

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?

That is the poem. It must be a poem. Regular speech just can’t suffice, when you (like the poet) are full of a feeling of wow at the world and its magnificence and mystery; full of a desire to be given peace in the face of inevitable death; full of gratitude that you and I have the opportunity to do something with the one wild and precious life we have been given. 

Prose must give way to poetry. 

And did you notice when the poet said, 

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…

This is particularly interesting, since the poem is itself a prayer—a powerful one, at that. But I know why she says what she says: because her vision of prayer diverges radically from popular stereotypes. According to the stereotype, prayer is an exclusively Christian thing to do. The stereotype also says that prayer is supposed to be like a telephone call to God, with the purpose of persuading God to do something: cure a disease, stop a flood, make the Cleveland Browns win and/or the Pittsburgh Steelers lose. (Which, I will add, short tracks anyone for a relationship with God that is bound to end in frustration, disillusionment, and perhaps even an angry desire for God to go to H E double hockey sticks.)

But Mary Oliver’s kind of prayer is light years away from this. She knows that prayer is something of universal value and can’t be confined to one particular religious tradition. She also knows that prayer is its own reward, that God doesn’t have to exist for prayer to have power and to change lives. Even if God does exist, prayer’s function should not be about trying to twist God’s arm to do something that God would not naturally do. Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard picks up on this last insight perfectly when he says, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” 

That’s the original insight I am inviting you to consider this morning: prayer is a kind of self-talk and human community talk that has transformative power. It’s not principally about God (if God exists). It’s not about persuading God to do something or refrain from doing something. It’s something human beings do to change themselves. 

It’s a kind of technology of heightened consciousness.

It is a skillfulness of soul. 

Prayer. The word is an old one, and we are breathing new life into it. That, by the way, is what makes us religious liberals. Religious liberalism is a middle way between the extremes of (a) instant rejectionism and (b) unthinking adherence. Religious liberalism receives the riches of the past, reconciles them to what we best know in the present, so as to make it all useable in our future. 

This is our distinctively liberal spiritual way!

So let’s go deeper. The main thing we want to know about prayer—Unitarian Universalist prayer—is this: it’s tied to our spiritual and emotional depths. Either it gives fulfillment and voice to these depths as we experience them moving within us; or the depths within don’t seem to be moving at all—we’re feeling dry and maybe in despair—so the prayer words and rituals are used to jumpstart things and warm things up.

In other words: how we pray depends on which situation we’re in. Take the first situation: deep spiritual and emotional feelings have already been triggered, so the function of prayer is to focus that emotion and magnify it. The Mary Oliver poem is itself a great example. The poet is immersed in the scenes and sounds of nature, and this creates deep feelings of wonder and awe in her, feelings that are incomplete unless they are given special verbal expression. Before she knows it, the biggest questions imaginable spring to her lips: 

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

Then there’s that singular grasshopper, sitting on her hand: 

This grasshopper, I mean—

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

The spiritual energy here is building and building until wonder mingles with grief: joy in the beauty and complexity of life, together with sadness in knowing all things die, and you and I will die too. 

And then comes the question:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

The poet looks upon a summer’s day, and the depth dimension of her life is spontaneously stirred, her sense of wonder and awe is stirred, and it all goes straight to her lips, effortlessly, and the result goes beyond ordinary speech, it is prayer, a poem that really is a prayer. 

I know this from first hand. One memory that stirs relates to my years growing up in Peace River, in far north Alberta—nights when I would lift up my eyes and see the Northern Lights in all their electric colors, shifting and shimmering, green and orange and purple curtains over the sky. It was all so beautiful and mysterious, and to this my very heart would answer back with a sense of wonder and amazement, my very heart would open up and sing. No one taught me how to do this. Somehow there was within me an innate capacity for reverence, a predisposition to be in awe of something larger than myself, and I knew then that I was not the center of the universe and that there are deeper and higher and bigger things in existence, and even more, that in these depths and heights and hugeness was my true home. 

This is how prayer originally found me. Spiritual emotion or wonder and awe wanting fulfillment through spoken words. Words that leapt to my lips, because I just couldn’t help it. 

Prayer can be just like this. But now remember that there is an altogether different kind of situation we can find ourselves in: times when spiritual feelings aren’t flowing: times when we are feeling distractible, unfocused, and disconnected from our depths. Or we might be feeling real anxiety, real fear. So what we want then is to feel better grounded, better focused, better connected. Or we want to feel soothed, comforted, perhaps even emboldened and encouraged. 

In other words, caught in the push and pull of our daily living—sometimes irritating, sometimes traumatizing—we are needing an experience to help remind us of who we really are: spiritual beings having a human experience. 

Now in this second kind of situation, prayer functions somewhat like the first cup of coffee in the morning—or the first can of Diet Coke. It kickstarts the day. The energy isn’t there when you wake up, but drink your caffeine-laced drink, and presto! 

Its go-time. 

One example of this comes from the Rev. Jim Eller. His main concern is the question of whether religious humanists can pray with integrity (he himself is one) and his answer is a very definite YES. But we can also and at the same time see his prayer as a way to trigger a feeling of thankfulness when we are not feeling very thankful at all. Here’s his Humanist prayer: 

We give thanks.

We give thanks for being. 

We give thanks for being here. 

We give thanks for being here together. 

That’s it. That’s the prayer. And to pray it, you don’t already have to feel thankful. Prayer becomes the discipline by which you increase your capacity to be thankful. Prayer directs attention and intention and from this, invariably, flows the emotion and action. 

This is a big reason why prayer can well serve the cause of social justice. Listen to this prayer, adapted from The Talmud, with a little Dr. King and Abraham Joshua Heschel thrown in: 

May we not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. 

May we do justly, now. 

May we love mercy, now. 

May we walk humbly, now. 

May we know, as the fragile human beings we are, 

that we are not obligated to burn ourselves out in the work,

or to complete the work, 

but may we also know that it is on each of us to do something, 

that no one is free to abandon this work

that is larger than one’s individual hurts and concerns. 

Injustice anywhere

Is a threat to justice everywhere. 

So let us now pray with our hands and our feet. 

Let us now go into the work.

This we pray, in the names of all who have lived and died

In service to humanity. 

That is the prayer, and it is about focusing attention and intention. It’s about getting our heads and hearts right for the work. By no means is it one of those hateful “thoughts and prayers” kind of prayer that irresponsible politicians pray. Not in the least. 

God may be listening in, but that’s not why we pray. Prayer works whether or not God hears the words because WE are hearing the words and the words work upon us and change us. 

Again, prayer is transformative self-talk and human community talk. 

It’s a kind of technology of heightened consciousness.

It is a skillfulness of soul. 

For myself, I’ve been developing this skill for almost twenty years now. Once a week for an hour, over the phone, a beloved colleague and I pray together. Our time together starts out cold and slow, like creaky middle-aged bodies getting out of bed in the morning and needing a shot of caffeine to wake up. It starts with ordinary speech: each of us taking a turn in talking about what’s been going on in our lives. But when we go into prayer, it’s like walking through a door. Before, our speech feels ordinary, like a list of bullet points or a newspaper article; but on the other side, it changes to poetry. It’s heightened, it’s charged with significance, at times it’s electric. 

Part of this is because you are hearing the tender words of your prayer partner lifting up your concerns, touching on your imperfections and fears and wonderings and anxieties. But they do so with words of love, with a kindness that all too often can be hard to muster up for oneself, with the sort of nonjudgmentalism that a loving parent or loving God would bring. With every word of encouragement and hopefulness, you find yourself calming down and softening, you find your perspective on things shifting, you find yourself catching a glimpse of something you’d lost track of, at least momentarily: who you want to be, your best self, your heart’s desire. The poet asks, and asks, and asks: 

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

And at the end of these once-a-week, hour long sessions of mutual prayer, I am able to give an answer. Or, at least I feel closer to doing that. 

Have you ever prayed with someone before, one-on-one? Have you ever felt held and known, like this? Have you ever felt intimacy, like this? 

When my prayer partner and I pray together, the subjects vary. But in essence, if I could compare them to a better known prayer, maybe it would be this one: 

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

Then there’s this prayer, which I myself wrote: 

I forgive all the ways in which my life appears to fall short.

I trust that whatever I truly need will find its way into my life.

I am grateful for what I have.

I call this my “holy trinity” prayer: forgiveness, trust, gratitude….

Again and again, the words work by directing attention and intention, and from this flows the emotion and the action. 

It can be all we have, in fact, when life goes sideways and we find ourselves in the midst of our worst fears…. 

Here is one instance of the worst.  

It comes from the harrowing story of Todd Beamer, who was an American passenger aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which was hijacked as part of the September 11th attacks in 2001. The transcript of his conversation with the 911 operator is public record. Near the end, after Todd Beamer has come to learn that the plane has, in fact, been hijacked, and that the terrorists are intending to crash it into the White House, he says to the 911 operator named Lisa: 

The plane seems to be changing directions just a little. It’s getting pretty rough up here. The plane is flying real erratic….We’re not going to make it out of here. Listen to me….I want you to hear this….I have talked with the others….we have decided we would not be pawns in these hijackers suicidal plot.

Lisa: Todd, what are you going to do?

Todd: We’ve hatched a plan. Four of us are going to rush the hijacker with the bomb. After we take him out, we’ll break into the cockpit. A stewardess is getting some boiling water to throw on the hijackers at the controls. We’ll get them….and we’ll take them out. Lisa, …..will you do one last thing for me?

Lisa: Yes…What is it?

Todd: Would you pray with me?

They pray: Our father which art in Heaven

Hallowed be thy name,

Thy kingdom come, 

thy will be done

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

And forgive us our trespasses

As we forgive our trespassers,

And lead us not into temptation

But deliver us from evil

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory


The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…

He makes me to lie down in green pastures

He leads me beside the still waters

He restores my soul

He leads me in paths of righteousness

for His name’s sake

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death

I will fear no evil, for thou art with me…..

And then Todd says, softly, “God help me…Jesus help me”

And then he clears his throat and says more loudly: “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.” 

That’s Todd Beamer’s story. Prayer was the second last thing he ever did in life, because he needed its power to strengthen him to do the very last thing he ever did in life. And though Todd used more traditional religious language, I hope you can drill down to the essence of what was happening. He needed courage. He needed faith to do a bold thing. 

No one is exempt from needing courage and faith, when we are facing whatever life throws at us. Whatever illness. Whatever sorrow. Whatever injustice. 

No one.

Prayer is just its own reward. It’s not about asking God to be Santa Claus for us, and 99% of the time feeling disappointed. Either we find our hearts already overflowing, and words of prayer are on our lips before we know it; or we use prayer when we are feeling on the surface of life or anxious and frayed at the edges, and we want to reconnect with the depths, we want to feel encouraged and strengthened to face our challenges, we want to become more of what we potentially can be. 

That’s what real prayer does. 

That’s why I pray. 

That’s how we all can learn to pray. 

And it works.