The reading this morning comes from a sermon from Martin Luther King, Jr., in which he recounts his kitchen table call. As King was organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he received a telephone call in the middle of the night. On the other end of the line was a Klansman who told him to leave town within three days or else they would kill him and blow up his house. King recalls,
“I’d heard these things before, but for some reason that night it got to me. I turned over and I tried to go to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep. I was frustrated, bewildered. And then I got up and went back to the kitchen and I started warming some coffee, thinking that coffee would give me a little relief. And then I started thinking about many things. I pulled back on the theology and philosophy that I had just studied in the universities, trying to give philosophical and theological reasons for the existence and the reality of sin and evil, but the answer didn’t quite come there. I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born about a month earlier. We have four children now, but we only had one then. She was the darling of my life. I’d come in night after night and see that little gentle smile. And I sat at that table thinking about that little girl and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me any minute. And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted, and loyal wife who was over there asleep. And she could be taken from me, or I could be taken from her. And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer; I was weak. Something said to me, you can’t call on Daddy now, he’s up in Atlanta a hundred and seventy-five miles away. You can’t even call on Mama now. You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your Daddy used to tell you about. That power that can make a way out of no way. And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee—I never will forget it. And oh yes, I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. I said, ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right; I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak...’ And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And ‘lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’”
The progressive Christian thinker Marcus Borg has written about different ways of reading the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. The prophets include figures like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Amos and Micah. The prophets are bold and disruptive religious figures who challenge the kings and the priests, the legal and religious authorities of the day, to change their ways. The prophets claim to have received a message from God, that they are God’s messenger, and that God is telling the kings and priests to change their ways.
Marcus Borg writes that when the religiously orthodox read the prophets they make the mistake of focusing only on the vertical dimension of their message. They focus entirely on what the prophecies say that God will do in the future, but ignore the issues of justice that are immediate. But, Borg also writes that when liberals read the prophets, they make the mistake of focusing only on the horizontal dimensions of the message. They focus only the social commandments and ignore the larger religious significance of the prophets’ message.
Borg goes on to conclude that the prophets ought to be read multi-dimensionally. There needs to be both the horizontal dimension of social concern and the vertical dimension of ultimate concern. Borg writes, “Now I am convinced that experiences of the sacred do happen, that the prophets had such experiences, and that such experiences were foundational for what they were, said, and did.” This sentence seems to just as easily describe Martin Luther King’s kitchen table call.
Like reality itself, we might think of religion as having multiple dimensions. We might think of religion as having a horizontal dimension: its ethics, social teachings, and vision of community. Religion also has a vertical dimension: the sense of awe, wonder, and ultimacy it generates. And, religion has a depth dimension too, that ability to help people to become deeply introspective and to cultivate a rich inner life. If time is the fourth dimension, we might say that religion’s fourth dimension has to do with history and the future, with origins and destinations. I’ll leave it to the string theorists and post-modern theologians to identify other dimensions beyond space and time.
When I say that religion is multi-dimensional, I am of course speaking in metaphor. There are certain metaphors that we can use to describe ways in which our own life lacks fullness. We might say that we are feeling flat, that our patience is wearing thin, that our connections are shallow, or that we are narrow-minded. Flat, thin, shallow, narrow – lacking in some important dimension. We know what the opposite is like, what it means, as Thoreau put it, to live deep and cut a broad swath. Wide, broad, thick, deep – multi-dimensional.
This ability to imagine life multi-dimensionally is essential to my message about prayer for Unitarian Universalists. Prayer means different things to different people in this church. Some of us do pray, though we pray in different ways. Others of us meditate or reflect or contemplate or do yoga or create art or take a walk in nature. Some of us have deep habits of prayer. Others may try to pray from time to time, and find it frustrating or embarrassing. Others may try to avoid prayer, might even find themselves looking out the window during the time of prayer each week in church, might spend the silent time composing a grocery list while hoping that this time part of the service ends quickly. You know who you are.
On the one hand, it is probable that we’ve encountered things in our life that have turned us off from prayer. We’ve encountered prayers that are selfish; “Please, God, let me win the lottery.” We’ve encountered prayers that are shallow; “Please, God, let me find a parking space.” We’ve encountered prayers that are aggravating; God does not care if you score that touchdown. Some of us may come here with some existential angst about prayer. One person who prays to be healed recovers while another person who prays to be healed does not recover. Does God answer some prayers but not others? Does God only answer prayers if the correct formula of words is spoken? How can some people claim that their prayers are answered, when the most desperate prayers of countless people suffering from unspeakable devastation go unanswered? Has this ever been a struggle for any of you? A stumbling block? Has the thought of prayer ever left a bad taste in your mouth?
On the other hand, let’s look at the contradictory evidence. If it is your inclination to be dismissive of prayer, what about those times when prayer seems to make a major difference? Consider Martin Luther King’s kitchen table call, or Gandhi’s fasts, or Jesus’ going into the desert to pray. These prayers are of a different sort.
A few minutes ago I read from Martin Luther King’s account of his kitchen table call, his prayer offered on one sleepless night as he was leading the Montgomery bus boycott. This may seem to belabor the point, but notice that his prayer was not directed outwardly. He did not say, “Dear God, please change the hearts and minds of the mayor and the members of the city council.” He said, change me. I’m weak, I’m faltering, and I’m losing my courage. Help me to be stronger, steadier, and bolder.
I find that when I pray, my prayers are mostly of this sort. The prayer is that I may be reconnected with my true self and with the better angels of my nature. There are many forms to this prayer: help me to speak my truth boldly or help me to listen attentively; help me to be courageous or help me to be tender; help me to be steadfast or help me to be flexible; help me to be understanding or help me to be direct; help me to be honest and help me to preserve my own integrity. The prayer isn’t for anything to change, except, of course, myself.
I want to give you an example of this. It is a recent example, and it isn’t that glorious. This year’s Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly was held in Phoenix, Arizona, about two months ago. It was a justice General Assembly that focused largely on the injustice of our nation’s broken immigration system. We were asked to examine a whole host of justice issues, including racial justice, economic justice, globalization, colonialism, and empire, environmental justice, criminal justice, and more. During the General Assembly experience we traveled to hold a vigil outside Sheriff Arpaio’s Tent City Jail as a form of witness against the human rights violations that are perpetrated under Sheriff Arpaio’s watch. Before we went to the vigil, we all gathered for a time of spiritual practice and preparation. We learned a little bit, sang together, prayed together, and reminded ourselves about the behavioral expectations we had for our time together. We were not to engage the counter demonstrators bearing racist signs and brandishing fire arms. We were not to act aggressively towards the cops in riot gear outfits. We were not to get ourselves arrested. We were not to treat our fellow Unitarian Universalists unkindly either.
So, a few thousand Unitarian Universalists, despite the 103 degree heat, and despite the uncomfortable school buses of which there were not nearly enough, and despite standing all cramped together with a razor wire fence on one side and police barricades on the other side, all managed to behave peacefully and patiently and positively. And, I think prayer had something to do with it.
Martin Luther King called on those marching in Selma and elsewhere to meet physical force with soul force, and prayer – whether spoken or sung – played a major role in making these acts of non-violent civil disobedience a success. What those freedom marchers had to endure was exponentially more trying than the worst-case scenario for us in Phoenix. It is amazing to think of the strength of those marchers facing fire hoses, police dogs, and batons with such courage, such soul force.
Soren Kierkegaard is reported to have said, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” A contemporary UU minister made this saying a bit catchier by saying, “Prayer doesn’t change things, but prayer does change people and people change things.” Prayer does change people. Prayer can evoke soul force.
It has been asked, “Does prayer work?” I think it is worth reframing this question. From time to time, scientists have done studies on the efficacy of intercessory prayer, in which people prayed for other people to heal more quickly. Some number of years ago, there was one study in particular that led researchers to report that being prayed for was correlated with healing, but then other scientists called the study into question and the findings were reversed. But, while nobody has proved that prayer changes the object that is being prayed for, it is beyond doubt that prayer changes the subject that is engaged in prayer.
There are a couple of things that I might say about prayer in general as well as a couple suggestions if prayer interests you. I think the first thing to note is that many Unitarian Universalists get hung up on the question of who or what is being prayed to exactly. To that, I would offer a couple of different answers. I believe that prayer can be an intransitive verb. It is a verb that doesn’t really need an object. It is not necessary to pray to anything. One can simply pray. Take care of your own side of the street, as they say.
A second thing I might say about prayer is that it can feel foolish, awkward, or embarrassing. I would add that if you feel self-conscious, you’re probably doing it right. That is kind of the point, to become self-conscious, to let down your guard be honest and authentic. I think Jesus is absolutely right when he said that prayer is best done as private devotion, not as public demonstration, and that prayer is not about showing off your skills as a poet.
People who have written about prayer mostly focus on it having about four parts: praise, thanksgiving, confession, and asking. Those are the core four. Depending on what resource you go to, you’ll find that all kinds of synonyms are used for those aspects of prayer, and that writers have tried forcing it into catchy acronyms.
Praise involves a sense of awe, wonder, mystery, and respect. I believe that it is just as possible to praise what is natural as it is to praise what is supernatural. God, goddess, great spirit, source of life, the Holy, the cosmos, the human spirit – the point of praise is to understand that there is something bigger than you are.
Thanksgiving follows naturally from praise. Thanksgiving is basically taking an inventory of the good things, and especially the good people, in your life.
Confession does not mean beating yourself up. It means being honest with what you’re struggling with. In King’s kitchen table prayer, he says, that he is weak, faltering, and losing his courage.
Finally, there is asking, the articulation of the desire for resolution, for wholeness.