Tag Archives: prayer

Update from Prison: Prayer as Pep Rally

UPDATE: PW had a clarification to the first bullet of holiday advice near the end of this post. 3:47 pm Eastern time, 12/23/14.

The two months at the end of the year are the most emotionally charged among the women who are incarcerated at the jail where we do our card-making project every Monday night. This is as reliable as the tide, and has been for each of the 17 years that PW has been leading this program. This year, these past few weeks have featured:

  • A loud woman who seemed almost boastful about her proclivity for stealing. One night she crowed about having stolen an ornament off the Christmas tree during chapel, “because I’m outta here on Wednesday and I liked the ornament and I wanted to give it to my mom!” The guard who accompanied us that night said, “You’re outta here Wednesday? See you on Thursday!” We haven’t seen her since that night. Yet.
  • Several silent, weeping women, painstakingly making cards for their infant children.
  • A table full of ebullient women who sang “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” loudly, complete with shout-outs:

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (reindeer)
Had a very shiny nose (like a light bulb!)
And if you ever saw it (saw it)
You would even say it glows (like a flash light!)

All of the other reindeer (reindeer)
Used to laugh and call him names (like Pinocchio!)
They never let poor Rudolph (Rudolph)
Join in any reindeer-games (like Monopoly)!

Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say,
“Rudolph with your nose so bright
Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”

Then how the reindeer loved him (loved him)
As they shouted out with glee, (with glee!)
“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, (reindeer)
“You’ll go down in history!” (like George Washington!)

Last night there were five women, one of whom was chomping at the bit to get started.

“I have a lot to do and I don’t have a lot of time! Come on! Let’s go!”

We hadn’t even gathered for our opening circle and her energy was spiraling out of control. PW responded by leading our usual opening prayer as though we were a football team, huddling in the locker room for a rousing pep talk before taking the field. There we were, five volunteers and five incarcerated women, holding hands in a circle, bouncing up and down to this chant:

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
Everyone: POWER!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: FRAILTY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
All: CERTAINTY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: AMBIGUITY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
All: ANSWERS!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: QUESTIONS!!

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
All: SELF-SUFFICIENCY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: INTERDEPENDENCE!!

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
All: PERMANENCE!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: TRANSCIENCE!!

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
All: CLARITY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: MYSTERY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
All: FANTASY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: GOD!!

ALL: AMEN!!

I don’t know whether PW’s ingenious Prayer-As-Pep-Rally approach was what calmed the women down, but the rest of the night was mostly quiet. Toward the end, I stood at a table counting supplies while three women complained about a particular guard who writes them up for things that they suspect aren’t against the rules.

“She says to me, ‘What’s in your hair?’ I say, ‘A floss loop I bought at canteen.’ She says, ‘That ain’t for your hair. Take it out.’ Damn. I’m pretty sure once you buy stuff at canteen, you can do whatever you want with it. If I wanna decorate my hair with a floss loop, I can! Pretty sure that’s not in the rule book. Why she gotta be so angry?!”

They went on to describe this guard in more colorful language. I didn’t say anything. Finally, one of the women looked up at me and smiled and said to the other two, “I know why she’s so angry. Her pants are too tight!”

Then they all, and I, fell out laughing.

Based on my Monday evenings in jail over the past month, here’s my advice for enjoying the rest of the holiday season:

  • When you sing a song that is intended to be joyful, don’t hold back. PW’s embellishment on this advice: If you smile when you sing “Alleluia,” it will look AND sound like an “Alleluia!” UPDATE:    PW clarified: “What I say about smiling when one sings ‘Alleluia!’ is that it makes the resurrection seem more plausible. (:”
  • Some of your prayers might work well as pep talks, complete with a huddle, shouting, and jumping up and down.
  • If you need to cry, but can’t let your guard down, start coloring something to give to someone else.
  • If you want to decorate your hair with floss, gitchyer floss on. But don’t use it before. Or after.
  • If you’re going to wear pants, make sure they’re not too tight.
  • Savor your freedom.

May your holiday season bring you some measure of joy, even if it’s fleeting and hard-won.

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Beginning the Days of Awe – edited and reposted from last year

Last summer, I was in a local Jewish bookstore looking for some of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s books to give to a friend as a present. I found both the Kushner books I was looking for, as well as a copy of “Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayer Book for the Days of Awe.”

Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe

As I continue to knit together my own travelogue of faith, I often go back to my bright red Days of Awe prayer book and flip through it. I always have some sense of internal shifting or unlocking as a result of the overall sensory experience of this book: the brilliant hue of its cover, the firm newness of the binding, the rubby onion-skin thinness of the pages, the unreadable (to me) Hebrew passages throughout, the stunning variety of the prayers and meditations, and the refreshing lack of a gendered God, which I find so tiresome and irritating in many Christian liturgies.

Tonight the Emmanuel Episcopal Church community is invited to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with our fellow seekers at 15 Newbury Street, Boston Jewish Spirit, to mark the beginning of the Days of Awe, also known as the High Holy Days.

I sheepishly confess that I knew what the High Holy Days were long before I knew that they were also called the Days of Awe. At an almost cellular level, the idea of a period of time being called Days of Awe still takes my breath away. That little word, awe, is so small and so mighty — just three letters for what is maybe the foundation for everything ineffable in human life. Lily Tomlin’s character Trudy, from her one-woman show “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” said this great thing about awe:

At the moment you are most in awe of all you don’t understand, you’re closer to understanding it all than at any other time.

I love being part of a progressive Christian community that is engaged with a progressive Jewish community. Sharing each other’s meals, ceremonies, rituals, art, music, and chores has given my faith, skepticism, questions, awe, and prayers a texture and a depth that simply weren’t there before.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Last year for my first conscious, intentional passage through the Days of Awe, I immersed myself in the writings, interviews, and speeches of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. What an extraordinary poet, agitator, visionary, and prophet Rabbi Heschel was. There are so many quotations of Rabbi Heschel’s that stagger me with awe. We’ll go out today with this one about prayer, which has been on my mind a lot since PW and I spent a lively afternoon discussing what would be her final sermon before her summer vacation last year. During that discussion, I got all worked up (as I often do when I ponder the ancient texts) and blurted, “Prayer is NOT a transaction! Prayer is a POSTURE!” Then, lo and behold, when I originally sat down to write this post, I stumbled across this loveliness, from Carl Stern’s interview with Rabbi Heschel in 1972, two weeks before Heschel died. Stern asked Rabbi Heschel what the role of prayer is if God doesn’t intervene in human life:

First of all, let us not misunderstand the nature of prayer, particularly in Jewish tradition. The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests. The primary purpose of prayer is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song and [humans] cannot live without a song. Prayer may not save us, but prayer may make us worthy of being saved. Prayer is not requesting. There is a partnership of God and [humans]. God needs our help.

L’shanah Tovah.

Beginning the Days of Awe

Earlier this summer, I was in a local Jewish bookstore looking for some of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s books to give to a friend as a present. I found both the Kushner books I was looking for, as well as a copy of “Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayer Book for the Days of Awe.”

Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe

As I’ve been knitting together my own travelogue of faith these past few months, I keep picking up my bright red Days of Awe prayer book and flipping through it. I always have some sense of internal shifting or unlocking as a result of the overall sensory experience of this book: the brilliant hue of its cover, the firm newness of the binding, the rubby onion-skin thinness of the pages, the unreadable (to me) Hebrew passages throughout, the stunning variety of the prayers and meditations, and the refreshing lack of a gendered God, which I find so tiresome and irritating in many Christian liturgies.

Wednesday night the Emmanuel Episcopal Church community has been invited to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with our fellow seekers at 15 Newbury Street, Boston Jewish Spirit, to mark the beginning of the Days of Awe, also known as the High Holy Days.

I sheepishly confess that I knew what the High Holy Days were long before I knew that they were also called the Days of Awe. At an almost cellular level, the idea of a period of time being called Days of Awe takes my breath away. That little word, awe, is so small and so mighty — just three letters for what is maybe the foundation for everything ineffable in human life. Lily Tomlin’s character Trudy, from her one-woman show “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” said this great thing about awe:

At the moment you are most in awe of all you don’t understand, you’re closer to understanding it all than at any other time.

I love being part of a progressive Christian community that is engaged with a progressive Jewish community. Sharing each other’s meals, ceremonies, rituals, art, music, and chores has given my faith, skepticism, questions, awe, and prayers a texture and a depth that simply weren’t there before.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

To begin my first conscious, intentional passage through the Days of Awe, I’ve been immersing myself in the writings, interviews, and speeches of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. What an extraordinary poet, agitator, visionary, and prophet Rabbi Heschel was. There are so many quotations of Rabbi Heschel’s that stagger me with awe. We’ll go out today with this one about prayer, which has been on my mind a lot since PW and I spent a lively afternoon discussing what would be her final sermon before her summer vacation. During that discussion, I got all worked up (as I often do when I ponder the ancient texts) and blurted, “Prayer is NOT a transaction! Prayer is a POSTURE!” Then, lo and behold, today I stumbled across this loveliness, from Carl Stern’s interview with Rabbi Heschel in 1972, two weeks before Heschel died. Stern asked Rabbi Heschel what the role of prayer is if God doesn’t intervene in human life:

First of all, let us not misunderstand the nature of prayer, particularly in Jewish tradition. The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests. The primary purpose of prayer is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song and [humans] cannot live without a song. Prayer may not save us, but prayer may make us worthy of being saved. Prayer is not requesting. There is a partnership of God and [humans]. God needs our help.

L’shanah Tovah.

Wings and a prayer, but not in that order

As I mentioned yesterday, I was 30 when I first started dipping my toes back in the church-going water after more than a decade of abstaining from all church-related stuff except special occasions.  Being a preacher’s kid can do that to you.  The only reason I felt a sudden need to go back to church was because I missed the phenomenon that is congregational hymn singing and choral singing in the context of worship.  Being a preacher’s kid can do THAT to you, too.

I had been at First Church UCC in Washington, DC for not even a year when the pastor John Mack came to me to ask if I’d lead the “front end” of the service.  This was always led by a lay person, and involved providing the Call to Worship, introducing the first hymn, praying the Invocation, introducing the Prayer of Confession, leading the Prayer of Confession, and offering the Words of Assurance after the confession.  In true Joysian fashion, I agreed and then a week before it was time for me to take my turn, I called John in a panic.  I had no idea what to do or say.  Did I have to invent everything on my own?  Was there a collection of materials I could look through?  Could I really use ANYTHING?  I didn’t know liturgy from a hole in the ground, and in addition to being somewhat baffled by the terms themselves, I had no grip on the purpose of the whole structure.

John laughed and walked me through it, using small words and little Fisher Price people to illustrate.  Okay, he didn’t really use the Fisher Price people, but that’s probably only because we were talking on the phone and not in his office.  John said, “The Call to Worship is where you are inviting people to the party.  Then we sing a hymn to celebrate that we’re all together.  Then the Invocation is where you invite God to the party.  So for those first two parts, think about how you would like to be invited, and then how you would like to invite God to join us, and just say those things.”

Easy peasy!  As it turned out, in the 10 years I was at First Church, taking on this task was rarely easy, but it was always a lot of fun for me.  Often my brain would jolt me at 2 or 3 a.m. in the week before it was my turn, rattling me awake with all sorts of brilliant ideas (I don’t know about you, but many of the ideas I have at 2 and 3 a.m. seem to border on sheer genius.)  I’d write stuff down in the dark, and then wake up in the morning and have a good laugh at my own expense.  Either I couldn’t read what I’d written, or I could and I couldn’t fathom, in the light of day, how my brilliant 2 a.m. insight had anything to do with the task at hand.

One Saturday night before my turn, I had everything but the Invocation.  None of the stuff in John’s collection was clicking with me, none of my usual suspects of spiritual inspiration were clicking with wherever I was (Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov, William Stafford, Marge Piercy, Robert Frost, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, e.e. cummings, etc.)  So I decided to write my own Invocation.  I ended up with a sort of word casserole that reflected my sensory experiences of going back to church after many years away.  It’s a series of snapshots of the different things I focused on to keep myself from running right out of the sanctuary at different times during any given service.  In those first few years (yes, years), I struggled so intensely to figure out — in between hymns — what the hell I was doing there when I didn’t believe in a singular, or even Triune, God, and I sure as hell didn’t think that God was some sort of hard-working, authoritarian single father who had only one son.

Loving maker of our days, hold us now in your heart.

For those of us with sorrows too deep for words, come as the piercing music of birdsong.

For those of us with pains too sharp for silence, come as the gentle quiet of a deep breath.

For those of us who are in several places at once, come as the singular, insistent glow of candleflame.

For those of us who float in dreams, come as the reliably solid bench of a pew.

For those of us eclipsed by darkness, come as a festival of colored glass.

You find us when we are most lost, love us when we are most afraid, and hear us when we are most silent.  To you who are ever at work in our lives, we give thanks — for life, for love, and for the daily opportunity to be at work in your life.  Amen.

When I called my mom for Mother’s Day this past Sunday, she told me that she has been reading this prayer at least once a week for years.  And, because she’s my mother, she also apparently shares it with just about everyone she meets.  For all I know, everyone who reads this blog has already received this prayer from my mom.  If that’s the case, well, just think of it as a re-run now available on a different channel.

There’s no point in having a prayer without wings, at least that’s what my buzzy brain tells me.  Maybe that’s because I think prayers, like poems, are words with wings.  As the songwriter says, why walk when you can fly?