“Where Do Prayers Go?”  By Mark W. Harris

 December 9, 2012 – First Parish of Watertown


Call to Worship –  “Signature” by Jacob Trapp


We awaken to the sun’s glory, praising You in the morning.

You are the blue dome above, the limitless sky beyond.

You are the warmth that embraces mother earth, the rain that quenches her thirst and gives renewal of life to all her children.

You are the brightness of sunlit leaves, the shade under a cool canopy of trees, the congregation of great rocks, giving strength, among which we stand steadfast.

You are the stillness in the mountain, the corresponding stillness in us deeper than all stirrings of self.

You are the mesas and cliffs from which birds dart down and sing.

You are the wings, the singer, and the song.

You are the listening world.

Your signature is the beauty of things.


Readings:    I Samuel I:1-20



“I Happen To Be Standing” by~ Mary Oliver

I don’t know where prayers go,

or what they do.

Do cats pray, while they sleep

half-asleep in the sun?

Does the opossum pray as it

crosses the street?

The sunflowers? The old black oak

growing older every year?

I know I can walk through the world,

along the shore or under the trees,

with my mind filled with things

of little importance, in full

self-attendance.  A condition I can’t really

call being alive.

Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,

or does it matter?

The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.

Maybe the cats are sound asleep.  Maybe not.

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing

just outside my door, with my notebook open,

which is the way I begin every morning.

Then a wren in the privet began to sing.

He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,

I don’t know why.  And yet, why not.

I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe

or whatever you don’t.  That’s your business.

But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be

if it isn’t a prayer?

So I just listened, my pen in the air.




The idea for this sermon came from a conversation I had with First Parish member Bobbie Brown about a lecture she heard at the Museum of Fine Arts by poet Mary Oliver.  While we were talking, Bobbie repeated the opening line to the poem I read today,  “I Happen to Be Standing.”  That line is “Where Do Prayers Go?”  It intrigued me because I have been thinking for some time about our Joys and Sorrows portion of the service.  This is not specifically because there has been concern about the length of the sharing or even the appropriateness of some of the content, but moreover, what exactly we think we are doing when we share and then light this candle in a Unitarian Universalist sanctuary.  It reminds me of another line that intrigued me, and inspired a sermon. Julian Barnes said,  “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”  It is like saying this about prayer: “It is nonsense to think that it does any good, but it sure would be nice if it were true.” Remember that old Dionne Warwick song, “Wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin?’”  It is all right there in those four words, and if you show him you care, Warwick sings, he will be yours.  Some of us might say, we know how well that works!

Every Sunday morning we see people come to the little box and light a candle.  It is not dissimilar from those votive candles that are all lined up in Catholic sanctuaries around the world.  At the end of the summer my family walked through the dimly lit  St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York City, where there are banks of deep red glass votives with people from all walks of life, perhaps the descendants of the Irish, Italians, Spanish and Chinese who helped build the city,  silently lighting them to pray for their loved ones who are dead, ill or in crisis, or even to pray for themselves asking, what am I going to do?.  And where were these random thoughts or rote phrases of petition or gratitude going?  When I was a child I think I imagined this gigantic ear in the sky, sort of like a cloud that could open up and absorb all my desires and my anguish, and give me all I wanted or make it all better in one fell swoop.  I suppose I thought it was God, and it didn’t matter if I was one little eight year old, and there were millions of other kids who also wanted every comic book in the world, a father who didn’t fly into rages, and classmates who weren’t so mean. Why would he listen to my prayers?  There must have been so many, sort of like that endless inbox on the email where it just keeps rising 300 unread, 400, 500. There are not hours in the day to seriously read about every need in the world that I could help solve by making a donation, or signing a petition.

So at some point, maybe after the Russian Cosmonaut said he had traveled through space, and did not see any God up there, I also decided that there was no giant hearing device in the great beyond to hear and then act upon every single prayer that each human on earth uttered.  So if God is not hearing these prayers, where do they go anyway?  Between the unlikelihood of God having a physical location where he could hear me, and the apparent general lack of response to my petitions, I gave up on what I thought of as prayer for a long time.  It wasn’t until I was in seminary that I began to seriously consider what prayer meant.  UU churches had an element in their services that was called prayer, or meditation, for the humanists. But a generation ago the idea of lighting a candle in a UU church and publicly sharing feelings, such as, please pray for my sick friend, or rejoice with me on my Dad’s 70th birthday, or I am struggling right now and I need your support, was simply out of the question.  While it may seem like second nature to us now to be lighting candles, a rational UU would have said what is this hocus pocus, quasi Catholic stuff?  Do you think the smoke from this candle is going to fill God’s nostrils, and suddenly give you relief or resolution or reconciliation from your emotional ordeal.  What do you think you are doing?  Where do prayers go?

There is an interesting story about prayer from the book of I Samuel, which was one of our readings this morning. It is helpful to know that all prayer was originally communal and ritualized, or in other words we all praise the great spirit together, and then bless or endure the events that befall the whole community.  Here we hear one of the first accounts of silent prayer.  Hannah is one of two wives that Elkhanah has.  She is the favored one, but she has no children.  In the ancient world nothing could make you feel worse than this, and the other wife naturally makes fun of her for being barren. She became very upset, and all Elkhanah’s comforting does no good.  She goes to the temple to pray, but does so in her heart, and not out loud.  The rabbi sees her silently praying.  Perhaps she is moving her lips or mumbling, but he could not hear a voice, and thinks she’s drunk because prayer was always done out loud.. He accuses her of wrong doing. Then she tells him how she has been beseeching God because she feels so badly. The honesty of her confession moves the rabbi, and he blesses her.  Somehow this sharing of her burden relieves her sadness.  And sure enough, the next year she gives birth to Samuel, a prophet who becomes Israel’s leader.

Silent prayer evolved much later in culture.  Maybe we even get a sense of this from the famous passage in Matthew where Jesus says go into your room and pray in secret.  Many of us learned that this was the proper way to pray, and even thought that God could hear those silent thoughts in our heads, because God knows and hears everything, spoken or not. I rejected the kind of prayer I learned about as a child because I focused on results, which might be an easy thing to do here because Hannah gets the baby.  What is interesting is that Hannah’s silent praying makes her look like a drunk, and causes the rabbi to doubt her integrity.  For the Jews, to speak was a sign that you were alive, you had breath, but to be silent was to be dead. For me joys and sorrows embodies this ancient tradition of prayer as initially being a public utterance that joins our hearts and spirits together in community, binding us in solidarity, while the silent prayer only serves the private need.

In the remaining time I am going to speak about three kinds of prayer and how we express those at holiday time, and how they are made manifest in joys and sorrows here in our worship service. For me joys and sorrows should embody in words the prayers of the people who are expressing a prayer of thanksgiving, of confession or acceptance.  If that is so, then I want you to think of it as a prayer before you say a single word.  It is not a narration of story, but rather the culmination of a story – It is not intended as an open microphone where I share the details of my trial, but it is the simple expression that I have been through a trial, celebrate its ending with me, or please hold me I am in need, or help me accept my situation or  my life. In the spirit of the ancient Jews, make your joy or sorrow the prayer of the community.


Thankfulness – “Thank you, God” by Maya Angelou


I want to thank you God,

For life and all that’s in it.

Thank you for the day

And for the hour and for the minute

I know many are gone;

I’m still living on.


Joys and Sorrows, and holidays together are times to express our gratitude for the blessings we have received.  They say if you have one prayer, then let it be this .  . . and so we hear at joys and sorrows – thank you for the choir, thank you for the gift of this child, thank you for this insight,  thank you for supporting me.  Many of us raise a Christmas tree, and on it we place ornaments we have collected from generations gone by. Perhaps it is like the one knit by the hand of my mother, now gone, and when I hang it on the tree I remember her.  And so the cable car reminds me of years in Berkeley, and the Yeoman Warder of my love for England, grateful for where I have come from and what has nurtured me.  So when I put up a tree it is a prayer that life will endure. When I hang an ornament on it, it is a prayer to the memory of a person whose life was a gift to me. And when I light a candle it is a prayer that I want to reach out from my heart to welcome others, and counter the dark pains of life.  This a time of thankfulness, for remembering those who have gone before, having given us the traditions of tree and gift and light and love we live by. And even Hannah sad in her childlessness, is blessed for love, for life, for a place to share her sorrow, for hope that there might be a new tomorrow. We offer up prayers of joy and gratitude, thankful for traditions that give us comfort and peace, thankful for people who give us love and warmth of spirit.  The light shines in gratitude for the life we have been given.  The joy multiplies when we give thanks. . .  .


Confession – “A Prayer” by May Sarton


Help us to be the always hopeful

Gardeners of the spirit

Who know that without darkness

Nothing comes to birth

As without light

Nothing flowers.


The harvest is over, and now comes the long night of the soul.  Hannah comes to the temple because of overwhelming sorrow that she cannot have a baby.  Take this weight she says to God, to the universe, to her community and help me bear it.  We don’t know if she asks God to grant her the gift of pregnancy, or merely shares her immense feelings of unworthiness, of failure, of sorrow.  For us the holiday season may evoke other kinds of confessions that we want to unburden our soul from.  The culture asks us to give, be generous, to spend all our money, to be happy, to do more for others, to be joyful in this season of joy, and our confession may be that we do not feel generous or warm towards others.  In fact we feel resentful and put upon. Hannah was suppose to be public with her prayer just as we feel as though we need to put on a happy public face for all the parties and the family.  But we may want to say our prayer in silence, or just have some time in the silence where no one rings a bell in our face, or tells us to spend some money or find the perfect gift.  Our confession may be, “I don’t want to do this.”  This child, or this person is a great burden on me, and I want to let go of my guilt or fear that I am the worst person in the world for wanting them to not come or go away. The confession is to lay our burden on the altar of each other’s comforting and compassionate souls.  We have all done things we ought not to have done.  We have all thought ungenerous thoughts towards others, felt unworthy as a parent, or partner or friend.  We have all been burdened with immense sadness and pain.

What sorrows do we bear that are lessened by sharing with others?  What does sharing a sorrow or lighting a candle do to us, to the community, to the universe?  Some might say it’s just a ritual. Charlyn, our music director says it opens a portal. To another world? A person? Some might say the verbalizing of a sorrow will help me unload the burden. You will support me in my pain, and I will feel relieved, forgiven, able to try again. Is there a big ear to hear your need?  Only as the people with ears and the healing earth that absorbs loving energy, warmth, and care is there. Each of us needs affirming and reminding that we are loved, that our presence is wanted, and that we can find peace even if we only have this time right now. It is enough.  So confession allows us to see that others have known this burden and we are not alone.  Confession allows us to understand that we are not perfect, and others feel their own imperfections, their own selfishness, their own failings, and together the confession helps us realize we are not alone, but are connected to each other in the mystery and miracle we call life.


Acceptance – 


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.



I am not going to get that stereo for Christmas? She’s not coming home? We can’t come visit? As children we may think of what we are going to receive for Christmas.  Here is my list. Parents, God, life, please give me what I want, what I deserve, what I should have. What?  It is not going to be that way. You don’t love me, God , universe parents. Hannah cries in anguish that there is no baby.  Did she feel acceptance of what her life seemed to give her before the pregnancy? Did she say, “This is the way it is going to be,” and feel blessed?  Can every candle we light be a sign that we are in a process of accepting what life has given us?  Can each flame be another step in a path of letting go of the losses we have experienced. Can each resentful sorrow become a joy of acceptance helping to heal us from the pain we feel from the person who betrayed us, abandoned us, or left us behind?  I think two things about prayer.  The first is the only prayer should be thank you.  You have given me this life with such beauty, such opportunity for love.  I confess that I have not always appreciated this gift.  The second is that I once thought prayer was done to change God, to make the universe or life give me this or give me that, but that prayer may only be wishful thinking.  Prayer is what I can do to change me, not God.  What is going to change me?  I am going to be more thankful.  I am going to be very clear about anger and pain and sorrow.  I am going to say, this is my life.  Then embrace the blessings I have received.

Acceptance is what truly brings us wisdom, and then we move on. Perhaps we are lucky enough to receive life’s previously denied gifts, as Hannah did. Or perhaps not. The acceptance ends bitterness, produces forgiveness, and gives us freedom. Does it matter if prayer goes anywhere or does anything?  I always say that healing thoughts will help heal the universe, or loving thoughts will make the world more compassionate. While it may not be a God healing some person in pain, or offering a special gift of life, it sure helps if we light a candle for hope, or hug a friend for love. Prayer is the foundation of the yearning to change ourselves. Prayer is first step for us to reach out to touch others, and to touch the earth. A prayer does go into the world because each of us is changed by the prayers we give, by the prayers of the community we take into our hearts. We are more open to the healing and renewing powers of life

The UU theologian Charles Hartshorne was fascinated by bird calls, and he would have agreed that a bird’s singing is a prayer.  He discovered that bird’s sing for the sheer love of singing.  This is beyond attracting a mate, or calling out a warning.  They just keep singing because it feels so great to do so.  It makes them feel good.  So let our prayers be silent or verbal reminders that we could be more thankful, and love life more each day.  Mary Oliver suggests that prayer is sheer enthusiasm made manifest in the world.  Can’t you just shout, just as long as I have breath, I must answer, yes, to life.  Christmas is all about the celebration of a baby’s birth.  It is saying yes to life, even in poverty, homelessness, and squalid surroundings. Life.  So whether it’s “Thanks” or “I’m Sorry” or “I will be okay,” make it a prayer to walk more , sing more, and work more together. Let’s get to it. For our prayer must be said with enthusiasm, with passion, with longing for life.  Pray without ceasing.  Time’s a wasting.  We’re still living on.

Closing Words –  “The Avowal” by Denise Levertov


As swimmers dare

to lie face to the sky

and water bears them,

as hawks rest upon air

and air sustains them,

so would I learn to attain

freefall and float

into the Creative Spirit’s deep embrace.

knowing no effort earns

that all-surrounding grace.