by Ricky Hoyt
Rev. Ricky Hoyt is a Unitarian Universalist minister, author, and columnist. His website can be found at: http://www.revricky.com/.
Copyright 2002 by Rev. Ricky Hoyt/ Used by permission of the author.
How to pray to the God of love and justice, who exists in everything but isn’t supernaturally powerful. Praying that the source of love fill your heart and help you decide what path to take, can be very effective.
My first semester at seminary I was required, along with all of the first year students, to participate in a "spiritual growth group." The group met once a week for an hour. We got no school credit, no grade, and we didn't pay tuition for the class, but we had to take it. The intention was simply to remind students that training for the ministry shouldn't be just about the classes we had to take: the history, the philosophy, the ethics, the psychology; but that our preparation should also include our personal spiritual development. The administration knew that most of us would be so worried about reading the books and writing the papers and studying for the exams, that we would put off or ignore entirely any attention to our spiritual lives.
The task of the spiritual growth groups was pretty difficult. Claremont School of Theology where I studied, is a Methodist school, but they accept students from all the Protestant denominations. That meant the spiritual growth group included a whole range of beliefs and backgrounds, from relatively conservative Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal, to the more liberal Methodists and UCC. And then, way over here, was me. Somehow the class had to accommodate all the different starting points and directions that spiritual growth might mean for the various students. In that aspect the group was rather like the eclectic mix of beliefs and spiritual goals that we find in any UU church. But for the school group the range, while still broad, was swung rather heavily to the right.
What they tried to do during the Spiritual Growth group was provide us with several different alternatives to deepen and enlarge our spiritual lives. They didn't demand that anyone do something they couldn't believe in, but clearly the group facilitator had assumed that people in his group would be Christian, Bible reading, and God believing. At the time I was none of the three, and if now I can claim a belief in God it's only because I've managed to radically redefine what God is for me. Fortunately, I wasn't the only Unitarian Universalist in the group. I quickly matched up with my fellow UU, a woman named Betty Stapleford, now the minister of our Thousand Oaks congregation and together, she and I, worked our way through the group.
The hardest assignment for both Betty and I during the spiritual growth group was the first one they gave us. The teacher asked each of us to select another person in the group who would become our "prayer partner." The idea was that the two of us would meet during the week on our own time, and pray together: praying for ourselves, and for each other, and anything else we wanted to pray about.
I wanted to pray about nothing. Not only was this the toughest assignment in the spiritual growth group, in some ways it was the toughest assignment I had yet had in any of my seminary classes. Ask me to write a paper on the council of Nicea, or present a theological examination of the doctrine of transubstantiation, no problem, but ask me to pray? The idea was completely beyond me.
As they announced the assignment I glanced across the room at Betty; both of us rolled our eyes. At the end of class we signed up as prayer partners and agreed to meet the next week. We told the teacher that prayer wasn't a part of our spiritual lives, for either of us, but the teacher asked us to give it a try. Betty and I figured we really couldn't pray, but at least we could meet and talk about our beliefs about prayer, and see if there was anything we could find of value in praying.
We met the next week, sitting under a tree on a bench and talked about prayer. Betty didn't believe there was any spiritual force in the universe and that the only agent of change capable of making the world a better place was the people who live here. She referred to the UU affirmation included in our hymnal that "service is our prayer." Betty's viewpoint was that sitting around asking for God to do something was a waste of time and that we would be better off going out and doing the work that needs to be done.
I was a little bit more willing to believe that there was a spiritual presence in the universe that could be addressed during prayer. So I didn't think that prayer was always a complete waste of time. But I agreed with Betty that whatever spiritual presence there was in the universe it didn't come down and intervene in human affairs. I didn't believe that miracles happened, or that prayers for intercession ever got answered, except by accident or coincidence. I did concede that prayer seemed to have power if we used it to focus our own thoughts and to strengthen our own energies. Being quiet and still and focusing on a question, might help us come to a decision, or give us the spiritual strength to go out and do what we need to do, but that was meditation to me, not prayer.
I couldn't think of any way to phrase my desire to be calm and focus my thoughts and energies in the manner of a prayer. I couldn't say, "Dear God" because that word didn't make any sense to me at the time. I couldn't say, "Dear force of the Universe" because that tended to make it sound like the force in the universe was something separate from me, and I was pretty sure that whatever spiritual force does exist that it isn't located somewhere off in the distance but that it includes everything, including me.
And my problems continued. I couldn't pray, "Please come and heal my friend who's sick," or "Please help me get an A on my mid-term" because I believed that people got sick and got well, and that I would get an A, or not, based on entirely natural processes without any supernatural interference. I couldn't even pray, "Let me study real hard and do my best on the exam," because that word "Let" still implied that there was some power out there that could decide either to grant me my request or not.
Betty and I met weekly for a whole semester and I don't remember that we ever actually prayed. We had long discussions and really struggled with the question of prayer, but neither of us ever found a way that we could pray and remain true to our beliefs. We looked at famous prayers written by spiritual heroes of ours and tried to make sense of them. We tried re-writing the Lord's Prayer in a way we could believe in. We didn't have much success or come to any conclusions.
That was o.k. with Betty, at least at the time. Like me, she's come to some different ideas after three years of seminary. But for me, even then, it saddened me, that this spiritual practice that was open to so many people, including a lot of people whom I really admired, like Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, and many UU's historically and presently, had no meaning for me. I felt that there was a power in prayers that I was missing, and that in my current intellectual understanding I just couldn't access. I wanted to find a way to make prayer work for me.
The first step for me toward that goal was when I began to think about God in a new way. This occurred during a class at seminary that included an introduction to something called Process Theology. Process Theology is rather complex and it isn't the subject of this sermon, but let me tell you about it briefly, just enough so you can see how Process Theology helped me think about God in a new way.
Process theology begins with the belief that God exists in everything. Traditional Theology tells us that God is separate from material existence living off in Heaven somewhere. Process Theology puts God in intimate and immediate relationship with every electron, atom, planet, and person. This had always been something that I felt intuitively, so I was immediately attracted to this idea.
This idea of God in everything had been given the name pantheism. "Pan" meaning material existence and "theism" meaning of God. But Process Theology goes one step further. In Process Theology God is not simply equated with the sum total of existence. God is everything, but God is also something more. Process Theologians use the word panentheism, to describe the God who includes all existing things but is more than simply the total of existing things. Because God is something more than just natural existence, it leaves room for Process theologians to speak about there being real values, like love and justice, existent in the universe, even though they don't exist materially. This also fit with my intuition. I felt that the universe was fundamentally a good and loving place. Process Theology helped me begin to make intellectual sense of my intuitive feelings.
Finally, one more idea from Process Theology helped me find a place for prayer. Process Theology maintains that God, who exists in all things, does not have coercive power over the Universe. In other words, the God of Process Theology doesn't have the supernatural power to come in and force material things to do something they wouldn't do on their own. The God of Process Theology obeys the natural laws of the Universe, and furthermore every particle of creation maintains a measure of freedom to choose their own future. Human beings have free will that God is incapable of subverting.
We talked about that a few months ago in my sermon on Theodicy. The God that makes most sense in light of the suffering of the world, is the God who loves us completely (as the Universalists believed) but who doesn't have the power to over-ride our freedom to make bad choices. Of course we're free to make good choices, too (as the Unitarians believed).
However, believing that God isn't supernaturally powerful doesn't mean you have to believe God is powerless, naturally. Process Theology says that although God does not have coercive power, that is God can't make you do something you don't want to do, God does have persuasive power, which means that if you invite God into your life, God is immediately there with hints and suggestions that you are either free to accept or not. Because God is loving, God always wants the best for us, so God's suggestions are always the ones that, within the givenness of the past and the natural laws, are the actions we can take that will lead to the best future possible.
Prayer can be helpful because the kind of quieting down and centering that we do during prayer can help us hear the hints and suggestions that God is making about what would be the best choices for us to make. Prayer can be helpful because if we invite God into our lives, then there is a loving source of advice, that can help us decide what to do next.
You don't have to call that force God. I use the word God because it's an easy short hand for me, but what it really refers to are the values of love, and justice, of healing, and wholeness, and goodness, that flow through the Universe. Praying to that feeling of love to come down and perform a miracle probably won't be effective, but praying that the source of love fill your heart and help you decide what path to take, can be very effective. The Universe is on your side. You are always free to do whatever you like, and the Universe will always stand aside and let you go and do whatever you've decided to do. But if you freely decide to ask the Universe for help, and then get yourself as quiet and open as possible so you can hear the subtle suggestions the Universe has for you, then the Universe is there.
The kinds of prayers that Process Theology leads us toward are not, "Please God let me win the lottery," but, "Please God, I want to hear your voice, I invite your presence into my heart, I want to do the best thing possible and I want your help in deciding what that would be." Process Theology says that the prayer, "Dear God, please make my mother's cancer disappear," isn't as realistic or effective as saying, "Dear God, within the bounds of what is medically possible, help my mother and all the other existing things affecting her condition create the best future available for her."
During the Summer I worked as a chaplain at the UCLA Medical Center I learned to pray in a way that made sense for me, and seemed to provide the comfort and hope that the patients and families needed.
I would pray, "Dear God, we know that you are always with us, both in times of joy and in times of pain. We know that you are here in this room, and in our bodies. Help us to open our hearts and minds to the reality of your presence, and help us listen to your still small voice by which you constantly encourage us toward the best future possible. We know that trained doctors and nurses care us and we rely on their skill and knowledge. We feel your love and hope through the love and hope of the family gathered in this room. Let us feel your power and strength that we might feel our own power and strength. We give our thanks that your Universe is filled with love. Amen"
I never prayed for a miracle. I never prayed that God take over and do something that was beyond the power of the patient and the doctors to do for themselves. Basically, I prayed that God's will be done, as Jesus recommended. In other words with my trust that the Universe is a good and holy place I asked only that everyone involved including the disease itself, plug themselves into the spirit of the Universe and let that spirit of love guide their thoughts and actions.
I told my Pastoral Care supervisor at the hospital about the revelation I was experiencing concerning prayer. My supervisor asked me if I thought my prayers would be effective if I did them silently, or if I wasn't in the room with the patient I was praying about. I said no, I didn't see how that was possible. It seemed to me that the patient had to know they were being prayed about in order for them to make the mental shift that allowed the prayer to be effective. Then my supervisor told me about a study on prayer in which patients who didn't know they were being prayed about got better faster than patients who weren't being prayed about. That's the study that I read to you earlier about the heart patients at San Francisco General, half of whom were prayed for, the other half not. Neither the patients, nor any of the medical staff knew who was who. But even without knowing they were prayed for, the prayed for patients got better, and got better faster, than did the group not prayed for.
What the study attests is that the mental activity of the praying people affected the physical healing of the patients. This requires a causal connection between the thoughts of one person and the body of another. This seems supernatural, but it really isn't any stranger than the fact that our own thoughts can affect our own physical healing. How can your thoughts, which have no physical existence, no weight, no substance, no chemical properties, no electrical charge, have an affect on the physical cells of your body? And yet they do, as the placebo affect clearly shows. I'm not suggesting that something supernatural is going on. I'm suggesting that a natural process exists that connects thoughts with physical existence.
Furthermore, every particle of the universe is spiritually connected to every other part. This is a view supported by a lot of spiritual mystics over the centuries from many different religions, and is eloquently expressed in our own UU seventh principle using the metaphor of the interdependent web of all existence. Drawing upon our real intimate connection with the physical illness, whether it be our own illness, or someone else's, it begins to make sense that our mental activity could influence their physical healing. And, if every element of the universe has some ability to make free decisions, why couldn't cancer cells, properly persuaded, decide not to grow? Why couldn't damaged heart cells decide to do whatever was possible to strengthen themselves?
I still have questions about the power of prayer, but even without having all my questions answered I have gotten to a place where I don't feel too silly or embarrassed about praying, and I'm bold enough to tell you that I pray a lot now.
I pray before meals, saying thank you to all the parts of the universe that have come together on my plate to provide me with sustenance. I pray before bedtime. I like the way the pray from our hymnal that I used in the Opening Words is formulated, "May we know once again that we are not isolated beings but connected, in mystery and miracle, to the universe, to this community and to each other." I pray that Peleg and I will be happy. I pray about the future of this church. I pray that the best thing that could possibly happen, will happen, and I try to keep my own ideas of what that might be out of the prayer so that the spirit of love can do what needs to be done without my free will and limited ego getting in the way.
I find comfort in my praying, and I find it spiritually deepening. My praying has been worth it to me in my life, even if it hasn't had any effect on the rest of the world. Prayer brings me peace and satisfaction, which even alone are good things, but I think my prayers have also helped me be who I am today, and be where I am, and be surrounded by the pleasures that I have and that I'm constantly grateful for. I offer the power, or at least the possibility of prayer to you. As Doctor William Nolan said in our reading, "Maybe we doctors ought to be writing on our order sheet, 'Pray three times a day,' If it works, it works."