I have struggled with the idea of prayer since I was a young boy. A few years after the Second World War, I was very impressionable. During this time the general public began to hear more details about the horrible atrocities in Nazi Concentration camps. My grandparents lived in a Jewish area of West Los Angeles while I was growing up in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s. I spent a lot of time at their home. I knew many of their neighbors were Jewish because much of the local storefront signage was written in Hebrew. I also noticed that several of the boys wore caps on Fridays evenings and Saturdays. My grandmother explained they were called yarmulkes. When I asked her why they wore them, she said it was their custom. She did not know specifically why they wore them. However, she noted the men and boys wore them when they went to their house of prayer.
I made play friends with a couple of those boys who wore yarmulkes to their house of prayer on Saturdays. Somewhere along the way I started wondering why so many of their relatives were tortured or starved to death in Europe in spite of this prayer. I had been told by my parents that God answered prayers. I wondered why God could not or would not have saved them. At the time I was thinking it might have been a lot of people. It would have been unfathomable for me to believe there were actually millions of people who were tortured and murdered because the men wore caps to their houses of prayers.
By the time I was in my late teens I had concluded there was no anthropomorphic God up there who granted wishes or requests to some people and not to others, whether they wore caps on Saturdays or not. In fact, I had pretty much given up on the idea that there was any God who was some separate entity from the rest of the universe. I still held on to the idea that there was some connecting energy or force that was part of all of us and I was willing to call that energy God. But I had no idea what that really meant. I did know I no longer expected my prayers or anyone’s prayers to be answered by a faraway God in the heavens, even if they were the most devoted, religious people in the world.
After a couple of life changing experiences that encouraged me to turn my life more inward, I found myself, at 40-years old, in seminary. I wondered if I might get a better idea there of what spiritual people thought about prayer. I was already practicing meditation at least 30 minutes a day. But I did not think of that as prayer. I was simply trying to learn to be still. By that time, when I became really still, clearing the chatter from my head, I had discovered I could experience a certain kind of connectedness, or oneness that gave me in a sense of peace and contentment.
Toward the end of my first full year of studies, our school encountered a serious conflict. It involved the layoffs of two staff people. A large group of students felt it had something to do with the fact that they were African American. Others, especially those of us who had done some research, knew there was more involved.
However, the campus was about to explode. There had already been a protest when a group of students occupied the President’s office. There was talk about bringing in some outside civil rights demonstrators to expand the protest. As a result, a large group of us, black, white and other, gathered one evening to see if we could gain some clarity on the issues. My real hope was that we could at least modulate some of the tension and hostility. The business manager agreed to come to our meeting to explain what had occurred and respond to questions.
It was a tense evening and fuses were short. We tossed around words like love, forgiveness, and non-judgment but as our agreed upon time was running out, it was pretty clear there was still some lingering suspicion and residual anger in the room.
Suddenly, I got a brainstorm. I suggested to the group of about 40 people that we all stand and hold hands or touch someone nearby. And then we could pray. There was a moment of grumbling as people stood up and slowly and awkwardly started reaching for hands. Suddenly the room became totally quiet, heads were bowed and people waited. But no one offered to lead us in prayer. I finally looked over at a senior who was across the room. I had heard him preach at our chapel services and speak in class. He always seemed very confident. “Dave, why don’t you lead us?” I asked. There was a long pregnant pause and I realized he was clearly flustered. He finally stammered, “I haven’t had that class yet.”
I knew then I would not have the class on prayer in seminary. Years later I realized if there had been a course on prayer in our school, someone would have had to explain to whom or to what we were praying. They even might have had to answer the question, “Why don’t people who go to a house of prayer and wear Yarmulkes get their prayers answered.” That was not going to happen in a scholarly seminary environment.
For the first five years as clergy, I relied heavily on some of the materials provided by our liberal denomination for our services. I called upon God to bless our gathering; we praised God for creating such a beautiful world; we thanked God for answering our prayers; and we asked God to forgive our trespasses, knowing of course that he/she would. For most people these petitions, our thanks and our praise were routine. I am quite certain for many this may have been comforting. But in small groups, classes and in individual counseling sessions, the conversations often got much more complex. Although I had intentionally helped create a faith community with participants who felt free to question, to doubt and even reject religious dogma, I still had a hard time explaining why we pray to God in our services. One of my favorite church leaders once asked me with some frustration in his voice, “If you can’t explain who or what God is, why do we keep asking ‘whatever it is’ for anything?”
As I had more conversations with people who were looking for answers or at least some logical explanations, I realized I really needed to be able to explain where I stood. If nothing else, it had become clear to me there is something that gives life to that which would otherwise be dead, inert, and/or inanimate. Long before that, I had concluded there had to be a Life Source—infinite, constant and readily available to us. It is within us, around us and outside of us. It is that which gives us life and we have the capacity to maximize or increase its impact and influence in our lives. Although I am much clearer about all of this today, 20 years ago I realized all of the great spiritual teachers, including Jesus, were trying to teach us how to access and maximize that life force in our daily lives.
Somewhere in that time period one of my parishioners became terribly ill with cancer. They had already done surgery but the cancer came back. She was hospitalized several times and then they tried a new, much stronger chemotherapy that pushed her to the edge of death. It made her horribly sick. Over the years I had come to love this woman like a sister and considered her more than a dear friend. I would have done anything to help her. As I stood next to her bed in the hospital I was frustrated that I could not do more. At one point she opened her eyes, smiled and quietly whispered, “Hi Pastor Fred. Will you pray for me?”
I felt like my friend from seminary. I wanted to say something like, “I’m sorry but I haven’t had that class yet.” But this was my friend and I was her pastor. She needed something from me and it had to be authentic. I gently laid my hands on her chest just below her neck. I closed my eyes. I tried to find that place I experienced when I was meditating. I tried, with all of my being, to be still and to open myself to that energy of life. I imagined the top of my head opening up and white light pouring through my body into my hands. I simply tried to be a conduit, a pipeline and open myself as wide as I could. The only words I spoke, mostly to myself, were, “let me be a servant of your healing.” I didn’t try to analyze my words or to whom I was directing them.
At one point after about five minutes, my friend opened her eyes and thanked me. As it turned out she recovered from this bout. And although we will never know if it was the new drugs, her strong will-power or the Holy Spirit, she lived a good life for another 15 years. It was several years before we talked about that hospital experience. When I laid my hands on her, she told me she first noticed how warm they were. Then she said she felt that same warmth moving all through her body and she knew something had changed.
I want to be perfectly clear. I do not consider myself a healer. However, over the years I have learned that everything in the universe is made of the same shared atoms, molecules, subatomic particles and is actually some form of vibrant energy. I am obviously not a scientist but I have come to understand that our universe is one interconnected and interdependent creation. Maybe someday we will figure out what Dark Matter is but I am certain it will have something to do with some other vibrant form of energy.
I have come to assume there is some spirit or life force that pulses through all things. Therefore I believe we all have that life force within us and we are surrounded by it. It is in all creation and all creatures. We all have the choice to open ourselves more fully to this life force or we can shut it off as well. Eventually we can starve ourselves to a spiritual death without it. Obviously it does not matter what path I use to access this constant Life Force nor if I even want to try and change my ways to experience it more fully. The only real judge is us.
For me prayer has become finding ways to open all possible portals to that Life Force. When I am asked to pray for someone’s healing now I try and redirect Life Force or Life spirit toward the one who desires healing. But I make it clear that the person needs to open themselves to that same Life Force if it is going to be helpful.
When I am asked to bless the food at a gathering, I ask everyone to close their eyes and I focus my words on all of the sweat, tears and hard work that went into making the meal possible. I always want to mention the ones who tilled the land, the ones who worked with bent backs all day and picked it. I like to remind people about the ones who loaded crates and delivered it, the ones who purchased and prepared it. Then I ask them to consider all of the Life Force that is now held in this prepared food and to give thanks. I then ask everyone to consider as we partake of it that we might be filled with that same Spirit energy or Life Force. More importantly I like to suggest we are now bonded with all of those who have made this meal possible. We are in that sense brothers and sisters.
At weddings I ask the family and the guests to close their eyes in a moment of silence and to surround the bride and groom with light and love. Shower them with so much love they will never forget this day or this love, in good and bad times.
Well you get the idea. I do not think for one moment I have it figured out. The infinite mystery is too big for me to grasp. However, I do know what we have done for centuries is not working in our more progressive and learned lives. And I also know that people have thanked me repeatedly over the years because of the way I have approached the use of prayers in community. I have grown completely bored with any debates about whether God should be addressed with male or female pronouns. The issue for most educated people is much bigger and I believe a lot more exciting.
Just think, if we presume God is a life force that is part of all things, then we actually have the opportunity to experience God within us and in others. Just maybe that is what this is all about.