Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Cliff Reed
We gather to share
our faith in the spirit of freedom,
our doubts in the spirit of honesty.
We gather to focus
our love in prayer,
to send it to those who suffer and grieve –
in our own community and in the wider world.
We gather to strengthen
the good that is in us,
that goodness may be stronger on the earth.
We gather to worship.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point). (words by Cliff Reed)
We kindle the light of our liberal faith: may it be
the light of knowledge to dispel ignorance,
the light of reason to dispel superstition,
the light of love to dispel bigotry and inhumanity,
no matter what their guise.
Spirit of Life and Love,
Be with us as we gather for worship,
Each in our own place.
Help us to feel a sense of community,
Even though we are physically apart.
Help us to care for each other,
In this world in which Covid has not yet gone away,
And the clouds of war hover.
May we keep in touch however we can,
And help each other,
However we may.
May we remember that
caution is still needed,
that close contact is still unwise.
Help us to be grateful for the freedoms we have
and to respect the wishes of others.
May we hold in our hearts all those
Who are grieving, lost, alone,
Suffering in any way,
A prayer for all who are suffering, because of war or other conflicts… by Sue Woolley and Archbishops Justin Welby and Stephen Cottrell.
Spirit of Life and Love,
God of peace and justice,
Let us pray for not only the people of Ukraine,
Whose suffering fills the news,
But also for people the world over,
Who are suffering because of war,
terrorist action or other violence.
The people of Afghanistan, Algeria, Burkina Faso,
Cameroon, Chad, Colombia,
The Democratic Republic of the Congo,
Ethiopia, Iraq, Libya, Mali,
Mexico, Mozambique, Myanmar,
Niger, Nigeria, South Sudan,
Syria, Tanzania, Tunisia and Yemen,
To name those suffering the most at present.
We pray for peace and the laying down of weapons.
We pray for all those who fear for tomorrow,
that your Spirit of comfort would draw near to them.
We pray for those with power over war or peace,
for wisdom, discernment and compassion
to guide their decisions.
Above all, we pray for all your precious children, at risk or in fear,
that you would hold and protect them.
We pray for peace.
Reading: The Lord’s Prayer, from Unitarians: Together in Diversity by Sue Woolley
The most contentious example of liturgy for the respondents was undoubtedly the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. It had some support, but more detractors. One supporter wrote, “I find saying the Lord’s Prayer meaningful even if I don’t literally believe the traditional form of words… it transcends the individual, yet in spirit remains personal. I find the rhythm and familiarity of the traditional version calming.” Another commented, “To learn the Lord’s Prayer at a young age is a ritual, but its meaning, as life progresses, is a profound experience.”
Some simply no longer related to the Lord’s Prayer, and would not say or sing it, while respecting that it still had meaning for others. Others objected to its content, such as the person who wrote, “I don’t like the assumption that we need to pray to a ‘God’, that the ‘God’ is masculine, that he lives in heaven, that he is the power and the glory, and I don’t like the way it asks for things.” Another, disliking the sung Lord’s Prayer, wrote, “Thankfully… [it]… is on the decline – two or three well-known settings – dreadful, cloying Victoriana.” Some of the participants who disliked the traditional form of the Lord’s Prayer did like alternative, contemporary versions. One wrote, “I am very happy with alternative words that provide the same meaning.” Another commented, “The Unitarian versions of it I’ve experienced have worked well for me.”
Alternative Lord’s Prayer
Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,
May we be aware of your presence in our lives.
May our world be blessed.
May our daily needs be met,
And may our shortcomings be forgiven,
As we forgive those of others.
Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,
The inspiration and guidance to do right,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.
May we have compassion for all living beings,
And receive whatever life brings,
With courage and trust. Amen
Reading The Prayer of Jesus – considered, Part 1 by Maud Robinson, from With Heart and Mind
It seems to me that the pattern of the prayer of Jesus lays out in a simple and accessible form most of the main kinds of prayer: praise, contemplation of things eternal, hope for the future of our world, intercession on behalf of ourselves and others, acknowledgement of and repentance for shortcomings, and petition for support in the difficult task of living an honourable and compassionate life. The one mode of prayer which I think it lacks is that of thanksgiving.
Despite the value of its form, many of us find that the prayer’s language does not equate with our concepts or apprehension of God and reality. We often pray the prayer looking beyond the specific words to their deeper metaphorical meanings, but we could go a step further and actually rewrite the prayer, maintaining its form but using words more in harmony with our own intimations of what God might be.
Prayer by Maud Robinson
Eternal Spirit, Mother, Father,
ever present, if only we have eyes to see.
We stand in awe in the presence of the Universe.
In its proper time may the mystery unfurl before us.
Though fettered by our material desires,
may the depths of the Spirit uphold and guide us.
May the great gifts of the Earth sustain us.
May the Universe forgive our faults and follies,
and may we in equal measure be forgiving.
May we ever turn our eyes towards the light
to dispel the darkness, which would engulf us.
We give thanks for the bounty of the Universe,
which abounds with power and glory,
beyond our greatest imaginings.
Reading The Prayer of Jesus – considered, Part 2 by Maud Robinson, from With Heart and Mind
The fact that this prayer very firmly identifies God with a masculine metaphor is problematic for some. How about addressing God as Mother, instead of – or as well as – Father; this retains the intimacy of personal relationship with God and at the same time brings forth new and valuable ways of contemplating the divine.
For me, the statement ‘thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory’ evokes just too concrete an image of a superhuman being. My attempt towards an understanding of the divine is that of God infusing the world all around us, but also as an ineffable, transcendent mystery. The last line of the prayer could reflect this conception of God, acknowledging the awesome power and glory around us, seen and unseen, and in so doing also serve to fill that gap – thanksgiving.
Numerous people have written new versions of this ancient prayer and I encourage you to write your own. For many it has been internalised since early youth and therefore must have very different connotations for each of us – what better way to really understand a text than to re-write it as it speaks to your own heart?
Time of Stillness and Reflection Listening with the Heart by Gary Kowalski (adapted)
Maybe prayer doesn’t mean talking to God at all.
Maybe it means just listening.
Unplugging the TV, turning off the computer,
Quieting the mental chatter and distractions.
Maybe it means listening to the birds
And the insects, the wind in the leaves, the creaking and groaning of the trees,
Who else is out there, not far away but nearby;
Sitting so still we can hear our heartbeat,
Watch our breath, the gentle whoosh of air,
The funny noises from our own insides,
Marvelling at the body we take so much for granted.
Maybe it means listening to our dreams,
Paying more attention to what we really want from life,
And less attention to all the nagging, scolding voices from our past.
Or maybe it’s all about listening to each other,
Not thinking ahead to how we can answer or rebut or parry or advise or admonish,
But actually being present to each other.
Perhaps if we just sit quietly we’ll overhear a peace whispering through the centuries
That’s missing from the clamour of the moment.
Maybe prayer means listening to the silences between the words,
Noticing the negativity of space,
The vast, undifferentiated and nameless wonder
That underlies it all.
Maybe prayer doesn’t mean talking to God at all,
But listening with the heart,
To the angel choirs all around us.
Those who have ears,
Let them hear.
Musical Interlude Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address The Prayer of Jesus
According to the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus himself told people how they should pray: “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray, then, in this way (followed by the words of the Lord’s Prayer). For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
I find it fascinating that although many other denominations have updated the translation of the Lord’s Prayer they use, Unitarian worship leaders (when they include it in their services) mostly tend to stick to the traditional, 17th century version. Our readings today illustrate some of the problems of doing this… the language is seen by many as exclusionary and doesn’t fit with many Unitarians’ image of God (if indeed they have one). We have heard two alternative versions of it today – one by me, one by Maud Robinson. And in our Time of Stillness and Reflection, UUA minister Gary Kowalski suggests, “Maybe prayer doesn’t mean talking to God at all. Maybe it means just listening.”
The continuing presence of The Lord’s Prayer in many Unitarian worship services reminds us that our denomination grew out of Christianity – however far we have moved on in the centuries since. Indeed, I believe that the move towards a post-Christian viewpoint in many congregations is a fairly recent phenomenon – the last sixty years or so. Until after World War Two, I would say that most congregations were definitely ‘liberal Christian’. Today, we are far more diverse in our positions on the ‘Unitarian spectrum’ – while some congregations are still liberal Christian, others have moved away from Christianity and are uneasy about referring to Jesus (or even God) in their worship services.
Which begs the question: who or what are they worshipping? But that is a question for another time.
Of all the questions asked by my 2017 survey, a couple divided the respondents more than any others: one was about peace, the other was the invitation to “use the text box below to explain how you have found the experience of this / these rituals”, which included the Lord’s Prayer. As we saw in our first reading, some liked it, finding its rhythm and familiarity comforting and one person commented that “its meaning, as life progresses, is a profound experience.” Whereas others found it crudely petitionary, and raised many of the points that Maud Robinson shared in our second and third readings – missing elements and that its language is perceived as out of step with our modern perceptions and spirituality.
If we choose to step away from the traditional wording of the Lord’s Prayer, there are many alternatives. I have both read and heard several alternative versions, and in 2013, during an MUA Training Day, Rev Andrew Hill invited those present to write their own versions. Which I found to be a deeply spiritual experience. As Maud says, “I encourage you to write your own. For many it has been internalised since early youth and therefore must have very different connotations for each of us – what better way to really understand a text than to re-write it as it speaks to your own heart?” The nine different versions which the participants produced that day are all on the District’s website. Each is different, yet each has its own beauty and profundity.
I believe it is a natural human instinct to pray and that this was Jesus’s purpose in offering words for people to use. In her wonderful book, Help, Thanks, Wow: the three essential prayers, Anne Lamott writes,
“I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe, over the past twenty-five years, that’s there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple. Help. Thanks. Wow.
Prayer is … communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God. Or if that is too triggering or ludicrous a concept for you, to the Good, the force that is beyond our comprehension, but that in our pain or supplication or relief we don’t need to define or have proof of or any established contact with. Let’s say it is what the Greeks called the Really Real, what lies within us, beyond the scrim of our values, positions, convictions, and wounds. Or let’s say it is a cry from deep within to Life or Love, with capital Ls. …
Prayer can be motion and stillness and energy – all at the same time. It begins with stopping in our tracks, or with our backs against the wall, or when we are going under the waves, or when we are just so sick and tired of being psychically sick and tired that we surrender, or at least we finally stop running away, and at long last walk or lurch or crawl toward something. Or maybe, miraculously, we just release our grip slightly.
Prayer is talking to something or anything with which we seek union, even if we are bitter or insane or broken. (In fact, these are probably the best possible conditions under which to pray). Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up.”
And it may be that we will find it easier, not to mention more meaningful, to pray using our own words, or with a prayer we have chosen, rather than with words we have been taught. This is not to say that memorised prayer does not have its place… but it may not be the Lord’s Prayer that enables us to bridge the link between ourselves and the Divine. We may find more connection in sitting in silent contemplation, “listening with the heart”, as Gary Kowalski says. One of the wonderful things about Unitarian spiritual practices is that they are not prescriptive – each one of us is free to choose whichever bring meaning to our lives. For many of us, one of those practices is prayer. For others it may be a wide variety of things – meditation, yoga, walking in nature – even going to church or chapel!
In spite of many Unitarians’ dislike of the Lord’s Prayer, many of us have a daily prayer practice (including more than a quarter of the respondents to my survey). These usually happen either first thing in the morning, last thing at night, or both. And according to the comments, the purpose of Unitarian prayers was varied: “One wrote, ‘I pray every day, morning and evening. In the morning, my prayers focus on my plans for the day ahead, and in the evening, I review the day, apologise for my errors and shortcomings, give thanks for the many blessings I’ve received.’ Some called the practice of reviewing their day ‘meditation’ or ‘reflection’, rather than prayer. … Some believed it was important to be in conversation with God…. One commented, ‘Conversations with God are part of everything I do. In particular, I ask God’s guidance and protection every morning and always give praise and thanks if anything has gone well or I think something is beautiful.’ Another wrote of ‘a constant inward dialogue with God’.”
I don’t believe there is any “right” or “wrong” way to pray. But I do believe that reaching out in prayer can help us to remember that there is a spiritual dimension to our lives. I will close with a beautiful prayer by UU Judith L. Quarles:
Spirit of Life and Love,
How shall we pray?
- First, let us be open to the silence. Let us hear the sounds in this room, the noises outside, and the comfortable murmur from the children downstairs. Let us begin to hear the soft beating of our hearts. And let us listen intently for messages from within.
- Next, let us feel gratitude for our lives and for our beautiful earth. As hard as life gets, as sad or lonely as we sometimes feel, let us always be warmed by the gifts of this life.
- Next, let us hold in our hearts all those, known or unknown who are in need. May we find in ourselves the energy and knowledge to bring care to the world.
- And finally, let us be aware of the blessing that it is not ours alone to do the work of the world. Love and community work wonders that we by ourselves could never manage.
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we find a spiritual practice that is meaningful for us,
So that we may come into closer relationship with you.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
May we share the love we feel,
May we look out for each other,
And may we keep up our hearts,
Now and in the days to come,
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley