“Spirit” of prayer

The next time a UU asks me to join them in the “spirit of prayer,” I may scream. (Helpful hint to anyone who ever reads this; this post is gonna be a rant.) That might sound extreme, but hear me out.

Want me to pray with you? I’m happy to. Want me to meditate with you? Absolutely. Want me to be quiet while you say something? No problem. Just ask me to do something—and ask me directly.

Yes, ask me to pray. Heck, just tell me to pray. “Let us pray” has been, for centuries, the standard invocation to begin a time of prayer. It doesn’t mean everyone has to pray. Certainly, there will be people, in just about any congregation, who won’t. But we don’t need to couch our invitation in the absolute softest terms possible: “please, if you have a moment, and you don’t object to anything in what I’m saying, and if you’re feeling like it, and if you want to, but there’s no pressure at all, would you join me in the spirit, not the actual practice, no, just the spirit, of prayer (or meditation, if the word prayer scares you that much), and don’t worry, I won’t say ‘God’ or ‘religion’ or anything scary like that. I won’t even say ‘church’ if you don’t want me to.” Tell me you haven’t heard some version of that in a UU church before. I know I have.

As worship leaders, it’s our job to lead worship. That means we should tell people what’s about to happen, and do our best to encourage them to participate in the communal act. That means not soft-pedaling our worship. It means doing things that are important to the communal life of the congregation, and asking people to be a part of that in an honest, authentic way.

Think about it: what would happen if we did this “spirit of prayer” move in other parts of our life? Here’s a mini-play script that answers this:

“Hello friends, would you please join me in the spirit of eating?”
“Yes, the spirit of eating. We won’t really eat, we’ll just be in the spirit of it, you know.”
“Ummm …”

So yes, I think this “spirit of prayer” business is a little ridiculous, if I haven’t made it clear yet. I can already hear the objections: some UUs don’t believe in prayer. That’s fine. Really. But that does not mean we should not ask our congregations to pray. Prayer is a spiritual discipline that dates back thousands of years in our tradition—and yes, our tradition is the Judeo-Christian one, even if many of us no longer like to claim it.

And what’s so bad about prayer, anyway? If you don’t believe in God, so what? I don’t believe that God sits down with a prayer list to respond to everything we say. Prayer is about a relationship. It’s about acknowledging that I am not alone, I am not in control, I can not be responsible for everything. Meister Eckhart, a great man of faith, said that “if the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” Amen. Prayer doesn’t mean you have to say something you don’t believe in. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with the person leading the prayer. It means that you are taking a moment to still yourself, to acknowledge our interconnectedness, to give thanks for all the gifts we have been given, and to ask for the strength to do our best.

So, that having been said: Let us pray.

Spirit of Life,
That which surrounds and pervades all existence,
We are thankful for the gifts of life, of love, of happiness, of each other,
Grant us the strength to be our best selves, that we grow in harmony and love with each other, with our world, and with you.
We pray this in the name of all that is holy.

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