February 01, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

To ask whether prayer works is to belittle prayer. Does winter work? Do relationships work? Does pragmatism work? Does work, work? That poor word work is overworked.

Prayer doesn’t work. Prayer prays. Prayer does produce interesting results that would not be there if we did not pray. Prayer doesn’t work to fix the people of Gaza so much as it lets them and us know that we know that they are there. Prayer focuses our attention.

Prayer loves the word work so much that it doesn’t want to overwork it. It lives in the larger history beyond the Enlightenment, pragmatism, rationality, control, and instrumentality. It also transcends each and all. In that case, in its transcendence of the word work, prayers work.

Prayer’s work is to train the muscles of compassion. It carries the burden and the joy of our compassion for each other. Sometimes all we can say is the mumble: I will pray for you, think of you, stop for you. Sometimes people want us to pray because they got word from another country that their 54-year-old brother died, quickly, of a heart attack. They cannot go home. So they mourn here, hoping we will pray for them. They hope we will join them in their compassion. And we will.

Other times people want to tell us that they just got engaged. Or that they are carrying a child. They want us to pray for joy for their marriage. They want us to know that when we twitter on the edge of joy, we are also afraid.

Sometimes all we can do with our enemy is to pray for him or her. Focusing our attention on our enemy is better than not. Giving compassion to our enemy is better than not.

Prayer respects the word work so much that it doesn’t want to overwork it, which is why prayer exercises the muscles of our compassion and focuses our attention. It is a humble, not a proud, work. A small, not a big, one. Prayer prays. Today we will sing and pray at tables way too small to carry the burden of either Gaza or heart attacks, pregnancy or engagement of any kind. I hope the service works for you. I hope it gives focus to your compassion. Amen.

Mary Russell, the novelist and paleontologist thinks it is theologically dangerous to imagine that God hears our prayers. And I agree. God may be watching the sparrow but the sparrow still falls. If God sees but does not prevent, what are we to make of God?

She also imagines she has discovered the reason for evil. She thinks God is a writer and evil makes a better story.

The concern about prayer is here: does God micromanage us? Do we micromanage God? If Rabbi Abraham Heschel is right, God made humanity because God loves to tell a story. It is also possible that humanity made God because humanity loves to tell a story. Sometimes fictional matters are much more real than biological ones. They focus our attention. They are the stock boiled down that makes the soup.

Many think like H. L. Mencken and imagine that prayer is somewhere in the middle of the balder and the dash, mostly twat and half noodle. Others are wise enough to know that their attention needs focusing and that compassion needs practice. Let us sit at tables today and practice prayer.


Modern Testimony ~
Maya Angelou on “The Summer Picnic,” from Now I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The amount and variety of foods would have found approval on a menu of a Roman epicure. Pans of fried chicken, covered with dishtowels, sat under benches next to a mountain of potato salad crammed with hard-boiled eggs. Whole rust-red sticks of bologna were clothed in cheese-cloth. Homemade pickles and chow-chow, and baked country hams, aromatic with cloves and pineapples, vied for prominence. Our steady customers had ordered cold watermelons, so Bailey and I chugged the striped-green fruit into the Coca-Cola box and filled the tubs with ice as well as the big black wash pot that Momma used to boil her laundry. Now they too lay sweating in the happy afternoon air.

The summer picnic gave ladies a chance to show off their baking hands. On the barbecue pit, chickens and spareribs sputtered in their own fat and a sauce whose recipe was guarded in the family like a scandalous affair. However, in the ecumenical light of the summer picnic every true baking artist could reveal her prize to the delight and criticism of the town. Orange sponge cakes and dark brown mounds dripping Hershey’s chocolate stood layer to layer with the white coconuts and light brown caramels. Pound cakes sagged with their buttery weight and small children could no more resist licking the icings than their mothers could avoid slapping the sticky fingers.

Proven fishermen and week end amateurs sat on the trunks of trees at the pond. They pulled the struggling bass and the silver perch from the swift water. A rotating crew of young girls scaled and cleaned the catch and busy women in starched aprons salted and rolled the fish in corn meal, then dropped them in Dutch ovens trembling with boiling fat.


Meditation Quote ~
“Inviting the World to Dinner,” by Jim Haynes
as heard on “All Things Considered,” January 12, 2009

Every week for the past 30 years, I've hosted a Sunday dinner in my home in Paris. People, including total strangers, call or e-mail to book a spot. I hold the salon in my atelier, which used to be a sculpture studio. The first 50 or 60 people who call may come, and twice that many when the weather is nice and we can overflow into the garden.

Every Sunday a different friend prepares a feast. Last week it was a philosophy student from Lisbon, and next week a dear friend from London will cook.

People from all corners of the world come to break bread together, to meet, to talk, connect and often become friends. All ages, nationalities, races, professions gather here, and since there is no organized seating, the opportunity for mingling couldn't be better. I love the randomness.

I believe in introducing people to people.

I have a good memory, so each week I make a point to remember everyone's name on the guest list and where they're from and what they do, so I can introduce them to each other, effortlessly. If I had my way, I would introduce everyone in the whole world to each other.

People are most important in my life. Many travelers go to see things like the Tower of London, the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower and so on. I travel to see friends, even—or especially—those I've never met.

In the late '80s, I edited a series of guidebooks to nine Eastern European countries and Russia. There were no sights to see, no shops or museum to visit; instead, each book contained about 1,000 short biographies of people who would be willing to welcome travelers in their cities. Hundreds of friendships evolved from these encounters, including marriages and babies.

This same can be said for my Sunday salon. At a recent dinner, a 6-year-old girl from Bosnia spent the entire evening glued to an 8-year-old boy from Estonia. Their parents were surprised, and pleased, by this immediate friendship.

There is always a collection of people from all over the globe. Most of them speak English, at least as a second language. Recently a dinner featured a typical mix: a Dutch political cartoonist, a beautiful painter from Norway, a truck driver from Arizona, a bookseller from Atlanta, a newspaper editor from Sydney, students from all over, and traveling retirees.

I have long believed that it is unnecessary to understand others, individuals or nationalities; one must, at the very least, simply tolerate others. Tolerance can lead to respect and, finally, to love. No one can ever really understand anyone else, but you can love them or at least accept them.

Like Tom Paine, I am a world citizen. All human history is mine. My roots cover the earth.

I believe we should know each other. After all, our lives are all connected.

OK, now come and dine.

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