Monday, January 21, 2008

Sermon: "Prayer Follies & Meditation Misadventures" (Delivered 1-13-08)

Reading (from the sermon “What is Spirituality Anyway?” by Rev. Peter Morales)

"What experiences are part of my spiritual journey? What experiences are not? Why are we more likely to think the experience of listening to Mozart's Requiem as spiritual and listening to background music at Wal-Mart as other than that? What makes a religious retreat more of a sacred experience than being stuck in traffic? What makes reading poetry more holy than looking up a dentist's phone number in the Yellow Pages? Can dancing be a religious experience? Painting? Gardening? Making love? Writing computer code? Writing a letter? Cooking dinner? Eating a peach? What makes a spiritual experience? Are there real spiritual experiences and phony ones? Last week someone left a seven-page, single-spaced letter in my box here in the office. It was unsigned, save for a handwritten note on the outside that said simply "I'm back." The letter spoke, among other things, of a "spiritual" experience of channeling Jesus. It went on to talk about the evils of ancient pharaohs and their modern descendants, of platonic solids, and of heaven being reachable through a vortex in the Orion Nebula. The writer feels a deep connection to God and Truth. I see the evidence of a disturbed, confused mind…

"How do we know if we are growing spiritually? Can one shrink spiritually? Walk into any bookstore. You would need a truck to take home a copy of every book on spirituality. It is big business. In our own churches we have those who want more spirituality, and others who are disturbed by what they think that might mean. There is great confusion about this."


About seven years ago I performed my first wedding. The couple, aged 21 and 19, was just a few years younger than I. When I sat down for the first time to meet with them, I asked them, “So, will this be the first marriage for each of you?” They nodded in affirmation. This prompted me to blurt out, “Well, this is my first wedding too, so I guess we’re all in this together.”

That story though has nothing on the story of the first funeral I ever performed. I received a call at the church I was serving from someone who had no connection with the church whatsoever. They were asking for a simple graveside ceremony. I went to the funeral home the day before to talk with the family about their wishes. I asked the family members there (including a pair of ex-wives) to tell me a little bit about the life of the man who had died. The family was silent. Finally, one son broke the silence and stated, “Well, we were kind of discussing things and we all came to the conclusion that there is nothing positive that can be said about his life.” Now there was a conversation stopper. I took this as a challenge. I asked about what he enjoyed and one family member replied “Jack Daniels.” This response was met with a round of vigorous nods. I asked about how he spent his time. The answer was “mostly in front of the television.” Feeling hopeful, I followed up on this by inquiring about his favorite programs only to be told that he didn’t watch TV for enjoyment, but rather to yell at it. I pressed on. “Did he have any hobbies?” One son mentioned that he liked hunting. I tried to embellish this. “So, he enjoyed spending time in nature.” The son corrected me. “No, he hated nature. He just liked to shoot things.”

Over the last several months I have received a number of requests from people in this congregation to preach on the subject of prayer, meditation, and spiritual practice. I decided to turn these requests into a three part series that I’ve entitled, “Get a (Spiritual Life)”. The next sermon in this series will be delivered the last Sunday in January and the concluding sermon in the series will be delivered the first Sunday in March. This morning’s message will be more theoretical than practical, but at the end of this month I will preach a sermon introducing spiritual practices centered on gratitude. Then I will challenge the entire congregation to a daily practice of gratitude during the month of February. I don’t know if that sounds bad, but it won’t be that bad.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself here. This morning I want to explore the obstructions – the hurdles and hindrances – that so often get in the way of our cultivating a regular spiritual practices in our weekly or daily lives.

I am curious: how many of you currently engage in an activity that you would describe as a regular spiritual practice? [Answers included walking in nature, saying grace before meals, channeling ancestors through cooking, and meditation.]

I am also curious, how many of you have ever made a plan, made a resolution, to engage in a regular spiritual practice, but then abandoned that practice? [Answers included journaling, meditation, and walking in nature.]

Thanks for your answers. But, let me back up just a little bit and explain why it might be a good thing to have a regular spiritual practice. There are certainly dangers to spiritual practice; none of us want to wind up fixated on vortexes in the Orion nebula. But, the greatest danger, I might offer, has to do with becoming too inwardly focused, too self-centered. There is the danger of the practice becoming a kind of narcissism, a solipsism. A quote was recently brought to my attention by the legendary Reverend William Sloane Coffin, who once quipped, “There is no smaller package than a man wrapped up in himself.”

On the other hand, there is a sense that while “prayer does not change things. But prayer does change people and people change things.” Those of us who dedicate our lives to serving others, and especially those who are called to invest their lives in fighting for social change, for justice and against oppression are regularly cautioned on the importance of maintaining a regular and robust spiritual practice. This fact is as true for parents as it is for activists.

We are told, they are told, that a regular spiritual practice is what will keep you from growing depressed and despondent, angry and uncivil, negative and burned out. Rather than being self-centered, we’re told that spiritual practice will give us the strength to stick with the struggle. What do Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa have in common? All made time for regular spiritual practice.

I want to switch things up a little bit and approach the question of spiritual practice indirectly rather than directly. In this digression, I would like to call your attention to a remarkable article that appeared several years ago in The New Yorker. The article was called “The Learning Curve” and it was written by Atul Gawande about his experience as a surgical intern. (Gawande has since written two books on his experience as a surgeon.) “The Learning Curve” deals with a great medical irony: it is never in the best interest of the patient to have a surgeon performing the procedure who has never done the procedure before. Yet, it is essential to the continuation of medicine for surgeons to perform procedures for the first time. Even the greatest brain surgeon in the world had to do brain surgery for the first time.

In the opening paragraphs of the article, Dr. Gawande attempts the insertion of a chest tube (a relatively simple procedure) for the first time, and is unsuccessful. The attending surgeon offers him this advice. “Don’t be so tentative. Keep practicing. You’ll get it.”

Allow me to read at length from Dr. Gawande’s essay: [I originally found the text to this essay on-line, but am unsure whether it continues to be available on-line. However, you can find an audio version of the essay here.]
“Surgeons, as a group, adhere to a curious egalitarianism. They believe in practice, not talent. People often assume that you have to have great hands to become a surgeon, but it’s not true. When I interviewed to get into surgery programs, no one made me sew or take a dexterity test or checked to see if my hands were steady. You do not even need all ten fingers to be accepted. […] Skill, surgeons believe, can be taught; tenacity cannot. It’s an odd approach to recruitment, but it continues all the way up the ranks, even in top surgery departments. […]

“And it works. There have now been many studies of elite performers -- concert violinists, chess grand masters, professional ice-skaters, mathematicians, and so forth -- and the biggest difference researchers find between them and lesser performers is the amount of deliberate practice they’ve accumulated. Indeed, the most important talent may be the talent for practice itself….

“Surgical training is the recapitulation of this process – floundering followed by fragments followed by knowledge and, occasionally, a moment of elegance – over and over again, for ever harder tasks with ever greater risks. At first, you work on the basics: how to glove and gown, how to drape patients, how to hold the knife, how to tie a square knot in a length of silk suture. But then the tasks become more daunting: how to cut through skin, handle the electrocautery, open the breast, tie off a bleeder, excise a tumor, close up a wound. At the end of six months, I had done lines, lumpectomies, appendectomies, skin grafts, hernia repairs, and mastectomies. At the end of a year, I was doing limb amputations, hemorrhoidectornies, and laparoscopic gallbladder operations. At the end of two years, I was beginning to do tracheotomies, small-bowel operations, and leg-artery bypasses.

“I am in my seventh year of training… Only now has a simple slice through skin begun to seem like the mere start of a case. These days, I’m trying to learn how to fix an abdominal aortic aneurysm, remove a pancreatic cancer, open blocked carotid arteries. I am, I have found, neither gifted nor maladroit. With practice and more practice, I get the hang of it.”
This, by the way, is one of the reasons we will have an intern minister beginning next Fall. But breathe easy, she will not be doing chest tubes, laparoscopic gall-bladder surgery, or amputations. We hope. I remember my time as a hospital chaplain several years ago when I reassured myself with the knowledge that a practicing chaplain had never killed a patient.

What’s the joke... how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. The same could probably be said of spiritual growth.

So, let’s bring this whole ship back around to spiritual practice, prayer, and meditation. There are all types of stories and jokes that can be told about prayer follies and meditation misadventures. There is the one about the elementary school aged child who learns the Lord’s Prayer as “Lead me not into Penn Station, but deliver me from people.” Sharon Salzberg, a leading American Buddhist, tells a story of listening to the Dalai Lama and not being able to concentrate because she was hyper-focused on the shoes she was wearing.

I will ever so reluctantly admit that prayer follies and meditation misadventures can’t hold a candle to surgical residency horror stories. Maybe that is just as well. But the stories tend to have recurrent characteristics. People talk about falling asleep during meditation. People talk about what Buddhists call “Monkey Mind” – a mind that is unable to focus but instead jumps from branch to branch, screeching raucously all the time.

With prayer, the issues encountered are usually slightly different. First, there is always the question of whether the prayer is received. And for Unitarian Universalists, there is often an ambiguity or uncertainty about who or what is being prayed to. And there is even debate as to whether prayers need to be directed to anyone or anything at all.

My colleague, The Reverend Ken Sawyer once addressed a similar question in a sermon. He asked, do religious verbs like pray and worship require an object? Can you just worship or does something need to be worshipped? Can you just pray, or does something need to be prayed to? In the case of worship, his answer, like mine, is no. To quote Reverend Sawyer, “The other answer – and the dictionary approves of it, too – is to say that worship is not a transitive verb but intransitive. It requires no object. We don’t gather to worship anything or anyone, we gather to worship, period. It is something we do.”

He should know about transitive and intransitive verbs. He earned a Bachelors degree in English Literature from Amherst. When I checked the dictionary, I found that the verb to meditate is also intransitive. It does not require an object. However, the dictionary did identify the verb “to pray” as transitive, as requiring an object. This may be a reason that many of us are more comfortable with meditation than with prayer.

To those of you who are anxious about the transitive nature of prayer or worship, who are uncertain or cautious about exactly what is being worshipped or to whom or what we are praying, I have two responses.

The first response is not to worry, because it is not your responsibility to know. Among the dozens and dozens of pithy sayings in Alcoholics Anonymous there is a saying that goes something like this: “Take care of your side of the street.” The expression tells people to stop worrying about the things that they can’t actually change… “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.” However, as I am using this saying, it means that if the verb is “to pray” or “to worship” focus less on the verb’s object, whatever that is or isn’t, and more on the verb’s subject, or, in other words, you.

And, if you aren’t buying that, let me recommend one other way of dealing with this problem. Focus not on “praying to” but “praying with.”

In his aforementioned essay, Dr. Gawande describes a study conducted by Harvard Business School on a number of different surgical teams that were pioneering a new surgical technique. They studied why some teams adapted quickly and others learned slowly. In their study the surgical team that fared the best scheduled six surgeries in the first week, debriefed after each surgery, and remained a cohesive unit. It was the sharing of practice that made the difference. If your own spiritual practice lags, try doing it with someone else. And practice, practice, practice.

The first time I performed a wedding or a funeral I had no clue what I was doing. I did it. And then I did it again. And again. And again. Now, I’m pretty good at it. It is the same with sermons: now having delivered over two-hundred of them (201 to be exact) they come naturally. I’m sure if I had attempted hundreds of chest-tube insertions rather than hundreds of sermons, I’d be proficient at the former. Fortunately, that’s not in my job description. So, if in prayer or meditation, you have no clue what you are doing, that is OK. You can’t kill anybody, anyways, and you won’t feel comfortable until you’ve done it a bunch of times.

The input that led me to preach this message today was that members of this congregation were hungry for instruction and practical guidance in spiritual practice. The next sermon in this series, two weeks from now, will introduce a spiritual practice centered on gratitude and challenge us to a daily practice of gratitude during the month of February. Whether you pray or meditate, whether you say grace before meals or journal, whether you take time to commune with nature or read scriptures from the worlds religions, I ask you to be forgiving of yourself, to understand that it takes practice, and to keep at it. To keep at it. Blessed be.