“I’m On the Prayer Chain”  Mark W. Harris

 First Parish of Watertown, MA –  January 7, 2018

Opening Words – from M. K. Gandhi –

 Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.

Readings – from Home by Marilynne Robinson p. 68-69

She was less inclined to pray than she had been once. In her childhood, when her father, a tall man then and graceful, had stepped into the pulpit and bowed his head, silence came over the people. He prayed before the commencement of prayer. May the meditations of our hearts be acceptable. It seemed to her that her own prayers never attained to that level of seriousness. They had been desperate from time to time, which was a different thing altogether. Her father told his children to pray for patience, for courage, for kindness, for clarity for trust, for gratitude. Those prayers will be answered, he said. Others may not be. The Lords knows your needs. So she prayed, Lord, give me patience. She knew that was not an honest prayer, and she did not linger over it. The right prayer would have been, Lord, my brother treats me like a hostile stranger, my father seems to have put me aside, I feel I have no place here in what I thought would be my refuge, I am miserable and bitter at heart, and old fears are rising up in me so that everything I do makes everything worse. But it cost her tears to think that her situation might actually be that desolate, so she prayed again for patience, for tact, for understanding, — for every virtue that might keep her safe from conflicts that would be sure to leave her wounded, every virtue that might at least help her preserve an appearance of dignity, for heaven’s sake. 

“Prayer Chain” by Tim Nolan

My mother called to tell me
about an old classmate of mine who

was dying on the parish prayer chain—
or was very sick—or destitute—

or it had not worked out—the marriage—
or the kids were all on drugs—and

all the old mothers were praying intensely
for all the pain of their children

and for life—they were praying for life—
in their quiet rooms—sipping decaf coffee—

I bet they’ve been praying for me at times—
so I’ll find my way—so I won’t rob a bank—

I’ll take them—the mystical prayers of old mothers—
it matters—all this patient and purposeful love.


In the last year or so I have become addicted to a couple of television shows on Netflix. One of these is a series called “The Crown,” which depicts the life of Elizabeth II, Queen of England. Beyond my well known love for all things British, I find this show an absorbing look at the monarch’s life.  I waited with baited breath for the arrival of season two about a month ago, and in our season of darkness and cold, Andrea and I have watched all ten episodes.  It will be a long wait for season three. Among the shows is a compelling look at the Nazi connections of Elizabeth’s uncle David who had once been King Edward VIII, but abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, a divorced American. Once Elizabeth learned of his Nazi sympathies, the question arose if she could forgive him or not for his treasonous behavior. This difficult personal decision is directly related to her relationship with the American evangelist Billy Graham.  We see Elizabeth as a person who wants to deepen her Christian faith, and this leads to her inviting Graham to a private audience at Buckingham Palace.  

Elizabeth’s faith prior to this seemed superficial. She has a nightly ritual of kneeling next to the bedside to say her goodnight prayers. We may imagine that this is something she was taught as a girl by her mother, who was merely repeating what she had learned.  It reminds me of how I was taught the rote prayer – Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, and if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. That may sound like empty ritual to you, and it is true that I gave up my bedtime prayer long before my teenage years. While we may think of prayers such as these as mindless or pointless, and see Elizabeth repeating a tradition, we also realize in the context of her uncle’s treason that she needs religious advice, and her faith is not about how she was brought up, but rather a search for deeply held convictions to guide her life.  In the show, as in real life, Elizabeth tells her uncle she was inclined to forgive him at first, but finds his actions are unforgiveable. Later when Billy Graham returns to visit Elizabeth, she asks his views on forgiveness.  While he tells her that no man is beneath forgiveness, he also gives her a solution that is to pray for those you cannot forgive.  And so, with no other option to respond to her uncle, Elizabeth prays.

Elizabeth prays when confronted with a significant moral decision. What do you do? How many of us said prayers at night as children, and then stopped when we reached some level of maturity. But if you don’t pray on a dilemma, what do you do? Perhaps you talk it over with a friend, or reflect on it as you lay in bed waiting for sleep to overtake you. But we might consider whether that deep reflection or sharing with another is a form of prayer: “Help me discern what to do,” or “Help me figure out what is the right thing.” Are you praying to an inner voice, or praying with a friend?  This topic of prayer surfaced for me last year on a visit to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church down the street. As many of you know, there are several First Parish families and individuals who, in rotation, go to Panera bread every Sunday night and pick up the left over baked goods, what they call the donations, to bring them to the food pantry at St. Patrick’s, except now it is located at Sacred Heart, and I am grieving over the loss of relationship with the staff at St Patrick’s, especially one administrator named Carol who was always kind and helpful to me when I went to deliver the bread.

One day last year, we were discussing my medical concerns about my heart, as it turned out that one of the staff there also had atrial fibrillation. After talking about my various trips to the ER and the upcoming ablation procedure, she asked if she could put me on the prayer chain.  I presumed this meant that my name would either be printed in the order of service or announced in the Sunday litany of people who loved ones had suggested needed prayers for healing or comfort. While I didn’t expect any kind of miraculous healing, I did find it comforting to know that members of their congregation were perhaps repeating my name with positive healing energy. What harm can that do?  The irony of it all was that a certain woman in attendance at mass, heard my name, and then asked her son about me. This query came because her son was one of my son Joel’s best friends from Watertown High School. This all set in motion a series of connections between people.  The mother spoke to her son, who then connected with Joel, who he had not spoken to in some time, who then called me to find out if I was on the verge of last rites or something.  The one mention on the prayer chain meant one person reached out to another to renew relationship and it continued down the chain. Otherwise, there would have been silence between people. It is the truth as expressed in the reading, all the old mothers praying for the pain their children suffer. Perhaps like Tom Nolan we want to say “I’ll take them—the mystical prayers of old mothers—it matters—all this patient and purposeful love.”

How would you feel about being on the prayer chain? Some of us might say that a bunch of people saying my name is not going to do a thing to make me feel better. We would generally acknowledge that there is no giant ear of God listening to prayers, and deciding whether or not to answer them. Jesus said “Thy will be done,” but as George Carlin once said, “if it’s God’s will He’s going to do what He wants anyway, so why bother?  Carlin called prayer a waste of time.  I think many Unitarian Universalists feel that way about prayer. We don’t believe in the efficacy of prayer because it is not actually doing anything. True prayer we might say, is living our lives with intent or purpose. We might say that thinking kind thoughts is an easy way out because you don’t have to actually do anything. We feel sanctimonious clergy say “I’ll keep you in my prayers, or I’ll be thinking of you,” but in reality if they came to visit, or brought a meal or cleaned my house it would be a lot better than saying a prayer.  The same would be true for making a change in the world. We hear someone say, “pray for peace,” and we think that’s not going to do anything.  Wouldn’t a real prayer be marching in a demonstration or avoiding the draft, or lobbying politicians.  We think of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass who said,“I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” 

I understand that saying you’ll pray for somebody may sound like empty babble, but I know from experience it is not. Sure it is foolish to think that God is going to end slavery with a sudden cleansing of the minds of every slaveholder, and the more expeditious solution would seem to be convincing others of the truth that slavery is evil, and simultaneously changing the laws of the land. But I can testify that knowing that someone prays for you has a positive effect. The most concrete example I can think of occurred many years ago when I was minister in Palmer.  I went to visit a parishioner in the hospital.  When I got there, he said no one had been there or spoken to him, and he had a terrible headache. We began to converse.  I listened intently, told him everyone was pulling for him, and gave him as much of my attention as I could. When I got up to leave, he said, “It’s a miracle.  My headache is gone.” I responded, “oh, you just needed to know we were thinking of you, and needed someone to talk to.”  When a minister serves a parish, it is not sanctimonious to say to someone, you are in my thoughts, because I know from experience that I keep everyone of you in my thoughts all the time, especially if I know you are going through a rough time.  The problem might be that I don’t communicate the prayer chain to you often enough. But if I were to do so I would say, I feel your burden, whether it is an illness, a job loss, the death of a friend or a problem with a child or a relationship. And of course that is the whole point of a church, too.  We need to communicate to each other that we are each in one another’s prayers, even if we don’t call them prayers because that word gets in the way.

The great theologian Kierkegaard once wrote: “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” This is helpful because it reminds us that prayer is not about God granting us favors, but about using the strength we already possess whether it be from God or the spirit of life or experiences in the world or with each other. Later this month we are going to have a discussion group about the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson tells many stories about his legal practice of defending the poor, and those trapped in the criminal justice system.  Among those was Walter MacMillan, a young man sentenced to die for a murder he did not commit.  At the hearing to present new evidence in the case many of Walter’s supporters came to the court house. The first day proceeded without incident, but the second day included the state packing the courtroom with supporters of the murdered white woman, plus the use of a metal detector, and most ominously of all, a police dog. An older black woman named Mrs. Williams was among those who came in support of Walter. This strong, elegant woman who had worked tirelessly for years building and sustaining her community walked through the door, and glanced around for an available seat, and then she saw the dog. All her composure fell away, and was replaced by a look of absolute fear. Her body sagged, and then she began to tremble and shake.  She turned and walked out of the courtroom.
Later she apologized to Stevenson, saying she knew she was supposed to be there, but seeing the dog, her mind turned to 1965 and being at the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma. “They beat us and put those dogs on us. . .  I tried to move, but I just couldn’t do it.”

That night Mrs. Williams went home, and rather than eat, she went straight to her bedroom, and prayed all night. Did she pray for strength or courage or sheer willpower? In the morning, she called and begged the minister for a chance to be a community representative at the hearing. After that request was granted, she rode to the courthouse, repeating “I ain’t scared of no dog.”  At the courthouse, she kept repeating those same words, and after moving through the metal detector and staring directly at the dog. She belted out the words, “I ain’t scared of no dog,” so that everyone could hear her. Then the judge came in, and everyone stood. Usually the judge would say something once he was in his chair, but this morning people were staring at something behind the lawyer’s tables.  After everyone else had sat down, Mts. Williams continued to stand despite gestures that she could sit. Finally, she blurted out, “I’m here!” Stevenson noted that she was saying to the court that while she might be old, and poor , and black, she could still be present. She was saying, “I’m here because I’ve got this vision of justice that compels me to be a witness.  I’m here because I’m supposed to be here.  I’m here because you can’t keep me away.”  Prayer whether to an all- powerful God, or to her own conscience had brought her the realization that there was a truth she had to stand up for, and all her praying or deep reflecting had convinced her that this is what she must do. Prayer is about going deep into your own heart, and saying to yourself, I must act or I must speak my truth, my love, or my concern for your well-being. It is acknowledging that you cannot break the link in the prayer chain that you are part of.  Action is not the alternative to prayer because the prayer must happen as the motivation, or the realization for what needs to be done.

The novel Home is told from the perspective of Glory Boughton, youngest daughter of the Rev. Robert Boughton, longtime friend of the Rev. John Ames, who is central to another Robinson novel, Gilead. These novels are twin stories but told by different people. Glory has recently come home in the wake of a failed engagement to care for her dying father, and to find some kind of refuge. The stories, which revolve around the family home, also feature Glory’s brother Jack, who has often been unkind to her, actually unkind to everyone.  Glory holds to a faith that is part habitual piety and part true religious feeling. We learn that “Faith for her was habit and family loyalty, a reverence for the Bible which was also literary, admiration for her mother and father. And then that thrilling quiet of which she had never felt any need to speak.”  It seems like prayer for Glory is made up of the same elements. It is part family tradition, but then also a yearning for some deeper moral compass.  Her prayers express her love and devotion to her brother, but also her deep frustration with him and her father. She wants to be able to be honest about her feelings, and perhaps knows that she can say things to God that she cannot otherwise say and this helps her see beyond the words she utters that are true. It is like that rough draft of an email we sometimes write in anger, but we know we cannot send it, because like Glory, it will leave us wounded. Nevertheless, that email or prayer allows her and us to be honest about the brokenness we feel. In other words, there is nothing fake about prayer. It captures and expresses all of our fears, which mostly we avoid saying or expressing, and instead worry will consume us, and so we go do something instead to keep ourselves occupied. 

We humans tends to say our special human capacity is for creativity, and so we often say walking is our prayer, or running or knitting or painting, but in fact all of those are a creative or active doing.  Prayer is never a distraction but instead is deeper listening and reflecting, more wandering, more watching. Prayer is about helping us see through to what is true and what we need to do. How many times did I yell at myself in prayer like Mrs. Williams saying, “He’s there,” in reference to my brother who I did not speak with for twenty-five years. The prayer reminded me I needed to reach out to my brother, but it took 25 years for the prayer to come true, and for me to act. Prayer is about forcing ourselves to see and hear the things we are afraid of seeing and hearing.

I remember the preacher of my youth calling us to pray before the sermon saying, “may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.” We want to invoke words that will connect us to the sacred, holy words like truth and forgiveness and courage.  In some ways Home is a search for moral courage. At one point Jack asks the two clergymen, “Do you think some people are intentionally and irretrievably consigned to perdition? Yet the learned ministers seem to avoid his question. Perhaps they cannot hear it because it is too painful. Some people are afraid to reflect on who they are. But prayer is about reflecting upon the deep pains of our lives, and finding some kind of resolution.  How can we change?  How can we get out of a hopeless situation? How can we connect to that person? Perhaps it is finally convincing ourselves after saying it a thousand times, I can do this.  This is the right thing.  Prayer is about a deeper soul searching conflict in our hearts between superficiality and truth, between the easy and the hard. We pray to become a better, more compassionate person.  We are links in the prayer chain, and we do not trivialize it by accepting another’s sin or meanness of spirit.  We pray for truth and courage and strength. Prayer should be our most devoted reflection on what we should do with our lives, and how we can transform them so that we find some measure of healing and love in the days ahead.


Closing Words from Sue Monk Kidd

Prayer is . . . an encounter with a truth that has sunk to the bottom of the heart, that wants to be found, wants to be spoken, wants to be elevated into the realm of sacredness.”