Sunday, April 26: How to Pray Without Being Religious


“L’Amore Vince Tutto” (Love Conquers All), by Dr. Joseph Rivers


Good morning!  Welcome to Hope Unitarian Church, where our mission is “seeking hope, love and justice, together in community.”

Whoever you are, whomever you love, wherever you are on your spiritual journey and whatever your life circumstance, you are welcome here.  To all who are here this morning, Welcome home!

The flaming chalice, symbol of our living faith, burns brightly.  Let’s say our unison words for chalice lighting.

We light this beacon of hope,

Sign of our quest for truth and meaning,

In celebration of the life we share together.

Hymn: Here Together (for Gathering)

On our Music for Services page


Please join me for today’s invocation:

In sickness and disease, we are hopeful.

As financial markets teeter, we are hopeful.

Even living a chaotic life, we are hopeful.

Through the love that knows no bounds, we are hopeful.

Spirit of Life, bring us the kind of hope that makes all life new.


Please join me in reciting our living covenant:

Love is the spirit of this church

And service its law.

This is our great covenant:

To dwell together in peace,

To seek the truth in love,

And to help one another.

Prayer and Meditation

I invite you to join me in this prayer adapted from the United Conference of Catholic Bishops:

For all who have contracted coronavirus,

We pray for care and healing.

For those who are particularly vulnerable,

We pray for safety and protection.

For all who experience fear or anxiety,

We pray for peace of mind and spirit.

For affected families who are facing difficult decisions between food on the table or public safety,

We pray for policies that recognize their plight.

For those who do not have adequate health insurance,

We pray that no family will face financial burdens alone.

For those who are afraid to access care due to immigration status,

We pray for recognition of the dignity of all.

For our brothers and sisters around the world,

We pray for shared solidarity.

For public officials and decisionmakers,

We pray for wisdom and guidance.

During this time, may your Church be a sign of hope, comfort and love to all.

Grant peace.

Grant comfort.

Grant healing.

Be with us.



May we sit in silence and be one in spirit. (90 seconds.) Blessed be!


“A Hymn” from Poems by G. K. Chesterton

O God of earth and altar,

Bow down and hear our cry.

Our earthly rulers falter,

Our people drift and die;


The walls of gold entomb us,

The swords of scorn divide,

Take not thy thunder from us,

But take away our pride.


From all that terror teaches,

From lies of tongue and pen,

From all the easy speeches

That comfort cruel men,


From sale and profanation

Of honor and the pen,

From sleep and from damnation

Deliver us again.


How to Pray Without Being Religious
Rev. Greg Stewart

It could have happened in any house of worship. A parishioner goes to her priest and says, “Father, I have a problem. I have two female parrots and they only know how to say one thing.”

“What do they say?” the priest inquired.
“They say, ‘Hi. We’re hookers. Do you want to have some fun?’”

“That’s obscene!” the priest exclaimed, and then he thought for a moment. “You know,” he said, I have a solution to your problem. I have two male talking parrots, which I have taught to pray and read the Bible.

Bring your two parrots over to my place and we’ll put them in the cage with Francis and Peter.
My parrots can teach your parrots to pray and worship, and your parrots are sure to stop saying that phrase in no time.”

“Thank you,” the parishioner responded, “that may very well be the solution.”

The next day she brought the parrots to the priest’s house. As he ushered her in, she saw that his two male parrots were inside their cage holding rosary beads and praying. Impressed, she walked over and placed her parrots in with them.

After a few minutes, the female parrots cried out in unison: “Hi. We’re hookers. Do you want to have some fun?” There was stunned silence.

Shocked, one male parrot looked over at the other and exclaimed: “Put the beads away, Frank. Our prayers have been answered.”

Now here’s a story from our own world. A group of Unitarian Universalists set out by boat on a three-hour site-seeing tour, led by their minister. A violent storm soon engulfed the group in water.

As the boat was sinking, the minister lifted his voice to ask, “Does anybody know how to pray?”

One man spoke confidently in answer: “Yes, Reverend, I do.”

“That’s great,” said the minister, obviously relieved. “You go ahead and pray. The rest of us will wear life-vests. We’re one short.”

It is tempting for rational and reasonable adults to consider prayer itself a big joke. But then we would find ourselves outside of an experience that has been part of the human condition since the first sun rose to warm and nourish the earth, accompanied by the chorus of birds and the cacophony of crickets. Prayers were likely uttered at the occasion of the first death, as survivors contemplate what it means to be alive. What else make sense but a prayer of thanksgiving, an expression of sheer joy, when humankind’s first baby was born? Friends, we’ve been praying ever since. In fact, prayer is our work in the world, which the poet Mary Oliver describes as “mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”

The words we form in response to our astonishment, the thoughts we think and the actions we take are all prayers at the most basic level. We pray because we can; we pray because we must. I think William James is a keen observer here. The American philosopher and pioneer psychologist of religion claimed that without prayer there can be no religious life. One time during a lecture he stunned his academic audience by stating, “Many reasons have been given why we should not pray, whilst others are given why we should pray. But in all of this, very little is said of the reason why we do pray. The reason why we pray is simply that we cannot help praying.”

It is not simply a matter of atheists in foxholes, which, by the way, is who I’d prefer to share space with when my number is up. In fact, some of my own role models for the praying life have been those who prefer no god to one God at most. You see, the atheists I know often engage in concrete forms of prayer as they seek to give of themselves, to transcend their own limitations, to work on behalf of human rights, and to respond to the needs of others.

Consider also Buddhism, as prayerful a religion as any, minus the Western, monotheism. When asked to whom Buddhists pray, the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh replied, “The one who prays and the one prayed to are two realities that cannot be separated from each other. This is basic Buddhism, and I am quite sure that in every religion there are those who have practiced for a long time and have this understanding. God is us and we are God. The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are both, by nature, empty. Therefore the communication between us is inexpressibly perfect.”

Likewise the prayers of Native Americans are not always directed to a specific deity or being. Instead, prayers often invoke vaguely, say, the spirit of a tree or river. The whole of creation is alive with spirit, with the breath of life, with the divine impulse. Why pray to a distant Creator when the spirit of life is at your fingertips, even in your fingertips? When your very heart beats with the force of life? Rivers and trees here on the ground often make more sense than deities floating above the clouds.

Even the venerable theologian Paul Tillich had encouraging words for those who find praying to God impossible. He promoted prayer among them by defining prayer differently than most of his contemporaries. He says prayer is a reflection on the depths of life, as a way of giving thought and voice to our ultimate concerns, and as a measure of what we take seriously without any reservation. You need not be religious to pray or reflect in this manner. You only need to be honest with yourself.

Of course, there are those who consider prayer a conversation with the Eternal, and I count myself among them. Still, for me prayer is not a hotline to heaven or the code to Heaven’s ATM machine, where I can get in line and get the goods, even as my enemies are systematically destroyed for God’s glory. Instead I pray to seek the deepest ground of my being so as to gain a personal experience of the deepest truths of life and death, and of faith and truth. I need to pray without ceasing if I am to sustain my involvement in the suffering of the world.

I pray because I need clarity of purpose in my mind and heart if I am to meet the complex challenges of being alive and having to die.

I must pray to coax and tease, to cry and laugh, to believe and to give up belief in the presence of Something or Someone greater than myself, if I am ever to find and live into my best self. I need spirit play to become fully human.

Of course, prayer precipitates action. Without it, prayer is mere words, not unlike a political speech devoid of legislation. The Koran reminds us that one act of social justice is equal to seventy years of prayer. Unless we embody our prayers and create the new realities that our prayers describe, we really haven’t got a prayer. Instead we have empty rhetoric and lost opportunities. But action alone without prayer soon zaps our energy and can lead to despair. Our drops in the bucket, our seemingly meager efforts to change the world for the better, often pale in comparison to the challenges we face as persons of liberal faith.

I cannot maintain a balanced life if I am feeding the hungry but starving my own soul. Fatigue will soon be replaced by depression, and then both words and deeds are a thing of the past. This is why I have always encouraged religious liberals to pray. Not for miracles, but to meet the mundane with grace and hope. We can be some of the most active agents of social change around, and yet we rarely stop to celebrate our victories, let alone offer prayers of thanksgiving in response to our good works. Instead we move directly to the next issue or cause without recharging our spiritual batteries and reconnecting with the ground of our being.

Right now, our denomination is considering huge changes to its infrastructure in attempt to slow our decline in numbers and influence. So typical, isn’t it? It must be our governance system, or the way we elect our presidents, or how we determine who gets to make the decisions, or the size of our board, or . . . the list goes on. Form a committee, set an agenda, problem solved. Congregations often do the same.

What would happen if we first held a Unitarian Universalist revival service of national or international proportions to reconnect with our highest selves and our truest purposes? What if our posture of discernment was kneeling in prayer rather than sitting in a board room? We are a religious movement, after all. In the end, I believe it is prayer that will save us, not just another round of new policies from Boston. Of course, the same holds true for congregations.

Whenever we face a new challenge, the first thing to do is gather the facts. It is futile to act without knowledge. Once we’ve done the analysis, we develop a plan to meet the challenge.

Once the plan is executed, we evaluate whether the changes we’ve made are efficacious. That seems to be the pattern in many not-for-profits: What do we know? And then, what do we do? For religious organizations, at least, there is a penultimate question that shapes and drives the response to the final question, What do we do? That question is: What does it mean? Once we have gathered the facts and done the analysis, what lies hidden beneath the facts? What does it mean? This is the place for silence, not words, and for spirit, not sanctimony. It’s the prayer of deep listening, of intuition, and of calling.

The next time you find yourself challenged by change or experience a disruption in life, try asking yourself the questions: What do I know? What does it mean? What do I do? Don’t’ skip the hardest question of all—What does it mean?—if you want your doing to make a difference. Approach this question prayerfully and be willing to wait for enlightenment. Don’t be afraid to pray, especially when it’s the only thing left to do.

Remember that the prolific writer Anne Lamont says there really are only three prayers we utter: Thanks. Help. Wow! How do we get started? Is there an easy-to-remember formula for prayer like there is for meeting challenges by asking the three questions, What do we know? What does it mean? What do we do?

You know there is, but I find the notion of prayer as a conversation to be a great place to start. Lofty language and theological genius have never been requirements for prayer and often get in the way of authentic praying. Instead my prayers often differ little from my conversations with friends.

I do like Mary Oliver’s instructions on how to pray as explained in her poem called “Praying:”

It doesn’t’ have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Notice that Oliver begins with silent astonishment, is moved to put her thoughts into words, and then she ends in silence, listening to how her heart is moved by what she’s experienced. That’s one pattern for prayer: Begin in silence. Speak from your depths. Rest in silence. If words don’t come, no worries; the silence itself is healing.

Prayer is mostly silence; often our verbosity in prayer masks the fear of knowing ourselves to the point that we must change who we are or how we live. The voices in our heads can justify just about anything. When they are silenced through prayer and meditation, it allows the silence itself to speak its truth. What would the silence tell you if you intentionally block off time each day to listen rather than to think?

When I pray, I go to a place of solitude (no easy feat) and perhaps a stick of incense. This immediately alters my surroundings from the everydayness of life, which for me is not normally big on smells and bells. I then sit in silence until my mind clears and my discomfort with nothingness dissipates. Then I sit a bit longer, now conscious of my breathing in and breathing out. I sometimes put thoughts or words to my breathing, perhaps breathing in compassion, and then breathing out neglect, or breathing in self-love and breathing out self-judgment.

When I find that I am centered I move into the verbal part of my prayer. And I use the letters from the word “PRAY” to guide my thoughts and words. Each letter provides a framework for the prayer I am praying.

The letter “P” reminds me to offer Praise. This is the place for gratitude.

I express my thankfulness for all that I have and all that I am, for the privilege of having another day in which to play on the world’s stage, for my husband’s words of encouragement, for the rain that feeds the flower garden.

The letter “R” stands for Repent or, if you prefer, “Release.” “Repent” is an often-misused word that simply means “to turn around.” This is the place for forgiveness—of myself and others. I release those thoughts and ideas that keep me from living my best life now. And as I do I notice a burden lift that I wasn’t aware I was carrying.

The letter “A” in the word, “PRAY,” tells me to Ask. This is the place for intercession, to pray and advocate for those you know who are in need or for whom you simply care about without reservation. Pray also for the causes you believe in, for the church you belong to, and for the planet that makes it all possible.

The Letter “Y” stands for “Yourself.” This is where I lay it all on the line, complain and cajole, sometimes laugh or weep, as I call myself daily to live on higher ground. It’s like looking in the mirror and seeing beyond your reflection to what is hiding behind it.Through words and silence I reconnect with a purer, more authentic form of self than I display in the wider world. With practice these two selves will merge.

When all is said and done, the practice of prayer reinforces what last month’s poet posits.

As Unitarian Universalists, our work is loving the world, which is accomplished, according to Mary Oliver, by “mostly standing still and learning to be amazed.” Look up, look out, look beyond the familiar, see the familiar as new.

Take the time to be truly amazed today at what is in the world every day. Call it a prayer or call it a walk in the park, but call on that which you already have in order to become who you already are.

Listen to what the silence yearns to teach you and realize you have known it all along.

Find your way back home to the place you’ve never left. Then soar, on a wing and a prayer, as if your life depended on it.

To the glory of Life!


Thank you for your continued financial support of Hope Church during the pandemic.  Help us build a culture of generosity as we do the work of this church in the world.

Offertory Response

Let’s read our Offertory Response together:

We build on foundations we did not lay.

We warm ourselves at fires we did not light.

We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant.

We drink from wells we did not dig.

We profit from persons we did not know.

We are ever bound in community.

Extinguishing the Chalice

Our chalice is extinguished.  Please say these words:

We extinguish this flame

but not the light of truth,

the warmth of community,

or the fire of commitment.

These we will carry in our hearts,

until we are together again.


May the love that casts our fear

And the truth that sets us free

Lead us forward, together

Till the Dayspring breaks

And the shadows flee away.  Amen.


Take good care of yourself and be a blessing to others!