A communion service I’d use for a prayer breakfast

Many years ago a friend and colleague invited me to join him in an ecumenical prayer breakfast with communion. I alluded to it in a 2012 article when I described the communion ware they used.

The prayer breakfast looks like one of those observances that was once more centrist and mainline but has become identified with conservatives today. Or maybe it’s that I’m in too secular an urban center. Or that I don’t like waking up early enough to have a prayer breakfast before work. Or that I’m not in the military or the Chamber of Commerce. Take your pick.

But I enjoyed that one years ago: there was an earnest, retro quality to it and the piety was sincere. I got to visit with new people. It was more of a men’s space than you normally find in devotional life, and I doubt that was accidental. (Butching up devotion has a long and mixed history.) The format can be adapted to many constituencies though, and some I’ve found online are all-women. Let your imagination roam. Church picnics or camps? It might be good for mission church starts that first meet in restaurant party rooms, even.

Surveying the prayer breakfast landscape, I don’t see communion offered as much as I would have thought, but then again eucharistic fellowship is that bridge too far, when simple prayer and singing doesn’t aggravate ecclesiastic sensibilities. Catholics might have one following a mass.

But when I found this from W. E. Orchard’s 1921 The Order of Divine Service for Public Worship I knew I had a winner because it solved the “problem” of distributing the emblems (a commonly-used term among Universalists of yore for the  bread and wine; I love it and will keep it) though you might think it creates new problems for the consecration.

The service is interesting for its simplicity, not the least because Orchard later “crossed the Tiber” and became a Roman Catholic priest. But perhaps he meant, in his developing view of the sacraments, the simplest that was appropriate and effective. Certainly the bare recitation of the Institution from St. Paul would be simpler, and you see that in the “lower” Reformed Churches, ours included, but it’s also wanting in form and piety. I do.

I’d love some feedback and (even better) links to any prayer breakfasts you’ve attended or conducted.

A SIMPLE OBSERVANCE OF THE LORD’S SUPPER

This Order provides for the simplest possible Observance of the Lord’s Supper, giving the words of Scripture to be read by the President, indicating (in brackets) the appropriate actions, and suggesting (in italics) the subjects for silent prayer and private devotion.

The President shall commence by saying.
The disciples did as Jesus appointed them; and they made ready the Passover.

(Here the elements maybe distributed, and those who are to partake may prepare themselves by prayer.)
Now when even was come, he was sitting at meat with the twelve disciples ; and as they were eating, he said, Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me. And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began to say unto him every one, Is it I, Lord?

Self-examination and Confession.
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread,

(Here the President may take the bread into his hands.)
and blessed.

Here the Holy Spirit should be silently invoked.
and brake it ;

(Here the President may break the bread.)
and he gave to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you.

Adoration.
This do in remembrance of me.
(Here all partake of the bread.)

After the same manner also, he took a cup,
(Here the President may take the cup into his hands.)
and gave thanks,

Thanksgiving.
and gave to them saying, Drink ye all of it ; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is shed for many unto remission of sins.

Adoration.
This do as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.
(Here all partake of the cup.)

For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye proclaim the Lord’s death till he come.

Prayer pleading the sacrifice of Christ and making offering
of self to God.

(The offerings for the Poor may now be collected, the President
saying: Brethren, ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might become rich.)

THE HIGH PRIESTLY PRAYER

Jesus, lifting up his eyes unto heaven, said, Father, I pray not for the world, but for those whom thou hast given me; for they are thine and I am glorified in them.

Remembrance of the saints and the departed.
Neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on me through their word;

Remembrance of the living.
That they may all be one ; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee:

Prayer for the unity of the Church.
That the world may believe that thou didst send me.

Prayer for the conversion of the world and the coming
of the Kingdom.

(Here the President may announce a Hymn, saying. And when they had sung a hymn they went out.)

[HYMN]

BENEDICTION

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

Universalist Society of Sutton, New Hampshire

I sometimes find nice Universalist bits in local histories, but in this history of Sutton, New Hampshire, you get an extended passage on the long-extinct Universalist society (think: parish) there, with organizing documents and a profession of faith.

The history of Sutton, New Hampshire: consisting of the historical collections of Erastus Wadleigh, Esq., and A. H. Worthen (1890)

And speaking of extinct, there is on page 175 this chilling note in the chapter “Casualties and Sudden Deaths”:

Rev. Thompson Barron, a Universalist minister of Newport, N.H., was found dead at the home of Jacob Nelson, about twenty years ago.

That’s all it says. What a mystery!
And that chapter. Gotta love local history.

(His 1871 obituary, reprinted at uudb.orc, is more detailed but still harrowing. Perhaps a heart attack or stroke?)

Independent Sacramental Movement: a Universalist connection

At my home church there is an abandoned copy of Leadbeater’s The Science of the Sacraments on a shelf in the pastor’s office. It’s with a deacon’s stole, a gospel book, and a box of hosts which must be so old as to be unusable now. These are evidence of an Independent Sacramental community that once worshipped in the church but is long gone and either precipitously disbanded or moved.

What kind of Independent Sacramental community? The book is a tell. Charles Leadbeater was an early bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church, and devised its liturgy. Today, it has broken up into a number of jurisdictions which I’ll get to in a moment. Also, don’t confuse them with politically or theologically progressive Catholics.

The Liberal Catholics is one of the reasons I became interested in the Independent Sacramental Movement in the first place. It would be a lie to say I understand the ins-and-outs of the Liberal Catholics, particularly what distinguishes their various jurisdictions, except to say that they are philosophically and historically dependent on Theosophy, which is also a blurry area for me, as my faith isn’t what you’d call esoteric. None of that is so important here as that the Liberal Catholics are theologically universalist.

The first Liberal Catholics I met — this was in 1994 and I don’t know which jurisdiction —were in a storefront church near my little house in Tulsa, Oklahoma. One of the bishops described (if I can recall back a quarter century) his church as being liberal in the interpretation of belief, provided that the liturgy is observed properly. We were standing at the back of the church at the time, surrounded by the largest collection of antique vestments I have ever seen, so I took him at his word about the liturgy

Here’s the Creed or Act of Faith used in Liberal Catholic rite jurisdictions, or some of them. It exists in variant forms, sometimes tweaking the sons and brothers to something that includes women:

We believe that God is Love and Power and Truth and Light; that perfect justice rules the world; that all His sons shall one day reach His Feet, however far they stray. We hold the Fatherhood of God,  the Brotherhood of man; we know that we do serve Him best when best we serve our brother man. So shall His blessing rest upon us and peace for evermore. Amen.

I’ve noticed that Liberal Catholic jurisdictions vary on particular parts: is Theosophy optional? Likewise vegetarianism? So I assume some are more forthrightly universalist (as I understand it) than others. But the Catholic Universalist Church just puts it out there. And look at that mid-century Off-Center Cross. (I had the pleasure to worship with their parish in Queens a few years ago.)  Of note, they don’t use the Act of Faith on their site. Even more of note, some of the language in their theses are used by the Christian Universalist Association (or vice versa).

And also there’s the Liberal Catholic Universalist Church, based in the northeast of England. I wonder if there are others? Well, there was that vanished community. Were they drawn to a Universalist church? In any case, and no matter how small they may be, it does my heart good. What vanishes quickly can also reappear as fast.

Sermon: “Ourselves, Alone”

I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on August 4, 2019 with the lectionary texts from Paul’s letter to the Colossians and the Gospel of Luke. The ad-libs are not included, and I named this sermon before I wrote it, so don’t make too much of the title.


Ourselves, Alone

I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, to Sean for reading today, and to you for welcoming me back.

We’re continuing our lessons in the Gospel of Luke. As I looked at our lesson today, I realized that the obvious sermon is about probate law and binding arbitration. (I’m joking of course: let’s save that for the holidays. Thanksgiving, perhaps.)

But this passage about a family squabble and an inheritance raises an important to look at scripture. Instead of looking at a passage like this as a guide for behavior, let’s think of it as a longer story that’s missing some pieces.

First, we consider who’s present. Jesus, of course, and the two feuding brothers. The crowd and presumably Jesus’ own students. Likewise in Jesus’ embedded parable, we hear about the rich man with the productive farm. Then we can ask ourselves who’s missing from the stories, perhaps implied but still important to understanding what’s going on. For example, the source of the family wealth, perhaps a mother or father, or another relative. In any case this person must be dead. You can just imagine the hard feelings born of family crisis. The same feelings played out in the parable of the Prodigal Son, and in families today. In the parable, we hear about the productive farm but presumably the rich man to not till the soil or harvest the crops himself. The missing people are the farm hands and his domestic workers, the ones who did the work to create the wealth. They’re missing. Even the rich man’s family is missing.

And then in this approach — who’s present in the story; who’s missing from the story — makes a demand of us. Who do you most identify with here? The feuding brothers and the rich farmer are what we would call bad examples; models of living which we use as object lessons of what not to do. If we see ourselves in them, we judge ourselves and (I hope) reform your lives for the better.

But we aren’t stuck with seeing ourselves in one role. What about the unnamed laborer? The unnamed benefactor? What do we make of our own possessions or work while we yet live? And do we, like the teacher in Ecclesiastes, rue the work that we do under the sun? Because this reading is not not simply about personal possessions, though possessions have their place. But rather, what values do we ascribe to possessions that they don’t deserve? If you “are what you eat” (as the saying goes), are you also what you wear? what you drive? where you live and what you own? Is our value as a producer or a consumer?

I mean this is not exactly a trick question. You are in church. Of course you value is not as a producer or a consumer. After all Jesus said:

“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

It’s really more of a warning. Because how we approach our wealth (or lack of wealth) cuts right to the root of what it means to be a human being filled with dignity and joy. And if you can reflexively know that your value as a person is not based on being a producer or a consumer while you sit in a church, is it as easily to think that about yourself the other hours of the week?

Several years ago, I was working for a government transparency and accountability organization that specialized in technological and policy. Two of my responsibilities were finances and purchasing, so I know first-hand that we used Amazon Web Services for data storage, processing and other solutions. This is the same goliath Amazon that has taken over online shopping and may provide you streaming video. What’s less well-known is that their huge computing capacity is itself a suite of products. One of which is Amazon Mechanical Turk. This was a service where real human beings would take on small discreet tasks that weren’t well suited for computers. Think of it is artificial intelligence done by human beings. The name came from a automaton in the form of a Turkish man, a mechanism that could play chess. The idea is that you would be impressed by the intricacy of the device which was in fact a human being dressed up to be an automaton. My responsibilities also included human resources, and (as you know) my first calling is in the service of God: I found this service incredibly chilling. I was at work looking at the future of work: unseen people doing that which the tools that human beings created to relieve us of unnecessary burden could not do. People being made into robots.

Was this right? Was this what we were promised? Along with flying cars and trips to Mars, one of the great science fiction promises of the coming age was the end of toil. The future where are we, well anyway most of us, would be spared difficult, dangerous, mind-numbing or repetitive work. But since so much work is difficult, dangerous, mind-numbing and repetitive, the promise has to be that we would have less work overall.

If you read articles on productivity, automation, business processes or robotics, you know that it’s a matter of time until many of the jobs we do today will be automated. We might as well plan on what we are going to do with all that free time. (I don’t think writers of those articles have much experience with manual labor, or have too much faith in robotic barbers.) I know serious people who are looking at Universal Basic Income as a policy to mop up all that excess labor, as if people were rational when it comes to providing funds for people without work.

It’s one thing to say that work gives life meaning, or to say that “idol hands are the devil’s playthings.” But it’s altogether another to realize how little we may regard one another if large blocks of the population are first unneeded, then unwanted and finally expendable. The Black Plague killed so many people that the labor of those who survived became more valuable, and so those workers could demand more money and better treatment.

I’m sort of workaholic killjoy, but because without work, experience shows that it’s way too easy to devalue the people who don’t work. If you’ve ever been out of work and didn’t want to be, and then someone asks you the quintessential D.C. question, “what do you do?” you know what I mean. If you are wanted you are valuable, if you are not wanted, you aren’t.

Without economic pull, without political pull, I think we do have something to worry about.

I am one middle-aged man with bad knees and I cannot solve this for myself let alone anyone else. I do worry about our future, particularly those who do not already have accumulated wealth. Instead, we need a new way to measure human worth. A way that doesn’t reduce us to how best we can exploit one another. And if we can’t force that appreciation on society-at-large, then at least we can’t give up on it personally, and the groups of people who matter the most to you.

It’s all that more important that we find additional ways of measuring value. And I think this is at its heart a religious question.

In today’s first lesson, we heard “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” (2:22) Ecclesiastes has a philosophical, world-weary tone that distinguishes it from the Technicolor way we normally talk about scripture. Perhaps because in was much later than much of the Old Testament.

The Teacher’s complaint in Ecclesiastes has a particular rhythm, and keeps coming back to that phrase “under the sun.” His “labor under the sun,” “wisdom under the sun” and so forth. In the middle of summer, I’m certainly aware of the sun. Seeking out shade where I can. Walking my dog Daisy with the sun to our backs so it doesn’t blind us morning and evening. There is too much light and too much heat, and we wilt under it.

Ecclesiastes was the book that the protagonist chose to memorize in Fahrenheit 451, that cautionary tale against book-burning, mass-culture and soothing consumption. Elsewhere in Ecclesiastes (12:1-8) the tension breaks as poetry:

Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; on the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.

The tone, in reading, is the tell. Shall it be read with knowing bitterness, or weariness, or surrender? Perhaps the kind of cheer that makes the best of bad situation, and in giving one’s best, does very well. Or, as I personally suspect, that disgusted tone that comes from having no choice. But that’s not be at my best, hopeful self. What does work mean? Depending on the tone, the occasion, the person you will get different answers.

But it should be what not defines us. Our lives are precious. They don’t have to be measured against an outside standard to be valid or important. They’re important because their ours. If we choose to share our lives with other people can we give a gift of ourselves to others. But our attention, our friendships our presents — these things are not rent we pay in order to justify our existence. Our lives are a gift from God. No king or president, no company or party, no “tide of history” or fashion of the day. Nothing has a mortgage against your personhood, your dignity or your soul. And because the giver has the nature of love, we can trust that we are endowed with that love from which springs all good things.

Among these are the spiritual gifts of kindness, humility, perseverance and fortitude. The kind of things that are terribly valuable and have lasting value if your sense of worth and freedom are strongly challenged.

And once we appreciate our freedom, once we have it and no one else can lay claim to it. Then we are able to fully appreciate what it means to live together. Because it is in having a full and healthy esteem for oneself that we are able to appreciate how much others value their own lives, their own paths their own hopes and their own futures. And our own worth is far more valuable than anything that the crowd can provide. Instagram celebrity is a new way to become conspicuous, but the desire to be seen and praised by others is hardly new.

The good news is that we have time to recognize these spiritual gifts. We have them already. Strengthen them; help them grow. The capacity of the gifts of the Spirit dwells within us. It’s a question of cultivating these gifts, talking about them, praising them, including them in the decisions you make. Again and again this returns us to the life of faith, which knows you and seeks you and “makes all things new.”

Up next

Up next, in no particular order,

  • A versatile order for communion for prayer breakfasts
  • The continuing series about the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM) and Universalism
  • ISM overlaps with the Unitarians from generations ago
  • Interesting finds from Universalist year books of the 1920s and 1930s: polity and public policy
  • My next sermon manuscript
  • Thoughts about shopping for church supplies

Sermon: “Teach Us to Pray”

I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on July 28, 2019 with the lectionary texts from Paul’s letter to the Colossians and the Gospel of Luke.


I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, for Shaun Loria kindly serving as the liturgist — and thank you for welcoming me back.

It’s usually bad form for preachers to talk about their families from the pulpit, but I’m going to talk about Daisy all the same.

She’s is a twelve-year old bichon frise, weighing about sixteen pounds with white curly hair and big, round black eyes.

White dog with bow on head
Freshly groomed

Today, she charms everyone she meets when we walk in the neighborhood. I’ve heard her called a teddy bear, a little lamb and a muppet. But when my husband Jonathan and I got Daisy from the then-Washington Area Rescue League, she was sick and underweight (just over six pounds), with lopsided buzz-cut, and obviously very scared. Already a “senior dog” it would have easy to look past her, and to be fair, we weren’t sure what we were getting. We didn’t know much about her background, other that she came in with other dogs and was surrendered by a relative of her original owner, who had died. But we took her home. She shook all the way, and that night she slept under our bed. She’s doing much better now, almost six years later. Now, she sleeps up top and is a good as gold. I mean: sometimes she’s fussy, but who isn’t? When she wants to cuddle, she’s sweet as all get-out.

Thin dog
Day four. So many questions on both sides.

But when she wants something, she will let you know. I will be sitting on the sofa, working on a sermon say, and I’ll hear her tip-tap down the hallway. Then arriving, she’ll stop and look me dead in the eye and whirr. And then she’ll whirr again. And tap her paw on the wood floor, and then whirr again.

What does she want? Food? To go on a walk? Attention and a cuddle? A second chance at puppyhood? Who knows.

But if I choose wrong, she’ll whirr and tap her paw and then I try again. She usually gets her way. It’s sometimes a nuisance to have a fuzzy, four-footed perma-toddler, but she doesn’t ask for anything that’s not appropriate for a pet dog. And even if she did, how would I know?

The unknowing is the hard part, particularly when she’s stressed, or pained or afraid. I still think of her on that first day. But she can’t tell us what’s wrong, and we can’t tell her how we will help, if we can.

So, it makes me wonder what she thinks of us. Are we our fathers, her pack or her puppies? Or are we simply the catering staff? Ae we something more like God, a God who answers prayer with Milk Bones and bully rubs?

I didn’t sign up to be a Dog God, and I certainly don’t have a god-like disposition. And besides we — you and I, human beings — have more in common with dogs than we do with God. There was a time when we were not alive, and are now alive, and sometime when we won’t be. We have bodies, which must be fed and cared for. We have emotions that sometimes enhance our understanding of the world, and sometimes distort it. We are social and depend on others of our own kind, and suffer when we’re deprived. All of that we share with dogs, and none of which we share with God.

And if it’s hard for me to understand the one dog that I live with, how much harder is it to understand the One God, whom none of us has seen. That’s why I want to speak to you about prayer.

Prayers are a tricky subject, and not always happy. Coming from the South, I know that phrase “I’ll pray for you” can be just as easily an insult as a real concern of one’s welfare. An insult in meaning that you need prayer because something is deeply wrong with you. There’s nothing kind about it. It also implies a kind of spiritual superiority from the speaker, and right to claim spiritual dominance, perhaps even abuse. Nobody should give that any room at all.

We also have that cultural, verbal fudge “keep me in your thoughts and prayers” to broaden what prayer means and to rescue it from sounding trite, or well-wishes from sounding sectarian. Or at least until recently when activists rightly pointed out that “thoughts and prayers” is another way of saying “let’s do nothing” about the scourge of gun violence, for instance. Thoughts and prayers cost no resources, no time, no anxiety, no stained friendships, no angry quarrels. In too many cases, it’s literally the least one can do, so I can’t say that it’s wrong to be tired and frustrated with “thoughts and prayers.” At least not in a civic arena where the full power of prayer is neither appreciated nor particularly welcome. The age of mandatory religion is, fortunately, behind us. That’s one reason that I’ll tell people that I’ll pray for them if they ask for prayer in the first place. And if they don’t ask, I’ll still pray for them, but that’s between God and me. I don’t want to come off as manipulative or saccharin. Prayers are tricky.

But that also means for those of us who do pray, who choose our faith, who sacrifice to strengthen it, and benefit from growing within it, prayer takes on a new value in a new meaning. We can’t take it for granted, and need to explore what should and shouldn’t be.

Today’s passage from the gospel of Luke is some of Jesus’ teaching on prayer.

You probably noticed in the middle of the lesson, Jesus teaching his students (the disciples) how to pray. So when I start, “let us pray, as Jesus taught his disciples, saying…” this is what I mean. We are not only worshippers, but also Jesus’ students.

The Lord’s Prayer is one of the most valuable and universal resources that Christians have. You will find it well-used and well-loved wherever you find Christians, whatever else might divide us. It’s one of the things first memorized in attending Christian worship, if only from sheer repetition. In seminary, we could joke “are you a debtor or a trespasser?” And one of the ways that Christians in the Unitarian Universalist Association have measured if something — say a church or an event — is Christian or not is whether or not the Lord’s Prayer is present. I even use it to time the silence after the pastoral prayer.

A aside: you might have also noticed that what Jesus taught the disciples isn’t quite the same as what we pray here. The form of the Lord’s Prayer is one of those things that distinguishes Protestants and Catholics: the Catholics stop with “deliver us from evil” as Jesus says in this passage, while Protestants continue with a doxology, “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.” Why the difference? Simply, the doxology was a part of the worship in the Byzantine court, and in time it got slipped into the biblical text. So by the time the Protestant reformers translated Luke into their native languages, the doxology was part of the Greek they were translating. Later generations of translators had earlier, and more authentic texts, so the doxology wasn’t present to translate. But it was by then already a fixture in Protestant worship.

But the passage in Luke is arguably about how to pray, not a particular formula of prayer. In Jesus’ time, the Temple at Jerusalem was still standing. There, priests made sacrifices of animals, grain, oil and incense. Jesus does not speak of them, but sincere and simple prayer, as in fact other Jews had made since the Exile centuries before. The Temple was gone by the time Luke recorded these words, and the sacrifices ended; prayer is what the Jewish community in its place, including its not-yet-broken-off Christian minority. Simple heart-felt petitions, directed to God as Father rather than God as Overlord, for a balance between heaven and earth, and a hope for a universal good. Paul’s lesson to the Colossians underscores this: do not be distracted by that which is optional. The prophets, speaking for God, warned their hearers about useless sacrifices, when the people lacked mercy and gentleness. The psalmist comforts us “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” (Psalm 51: 17, KJV) The age of prayer is the age of the sincere spirit.

Little wonder the Lord’s Prayer spread. But then there’s that other part of the lesson from Luke: the parable of the Bothered Neighbor. (That’s not what it’s usually called, but maybe it should be.)

Did Jesus mean that we should bother God in prayer? How else are we to interpret the passage about asking your sleeping neighbor for bread, who then relents. Or the parable of the Unjust Judge — that’s in the eighteenth chapter of Luke — who wouldn’t do what was right, but would do the right thing just to just to get this widow off my back. Or the Jesus’ words in the gospel of John, when he teaches about the coming of the Holy Spirit: “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (14:14 NRSV) There’s a theme here: bother God persistently, and you will get what you want. Except that runs counter to both scripture and plain common sense.

Anyone who has lived long enough knows that one’s wishes and desires are not always fulfilled. Not often fulfilled. Sometimes not fulfilled at all. It’s not foolish to expect God to help, especially if nobody else will. After all we profess that God loves and cares for us, and why would God want to make us more miserable or feel more alone? So we rely on God’s human community. Sometimes God puts us in the right place and right time to be the right help for others, and we should take that call. I’m not saying it’s logical. I’m not even saying it’s anything more that confirmation bias. But to those who need a prayer answered, it is an answer to prayer.

And yet prayer is more than a prelude to good work. Our good acts won’t undo hurricanes or earthquakes. They come too late to undo ethnic cleansing or structural racism. They are powerless before “the last enemy”: death.

Our prayers are sometimes answered in the ways that we wouldn’t want them answered. Sometimes there’s an absence that leads to new prayers. Or the unstated “no” forces us to abandon what seemed to be the right path for us. And sometimes we get answers when we didn’t ask the question, like an inkling of that “peace which passes all understanding” without praying for anything at all, without asking or even knowing that we needed it. All of this is tied up in the mysterious way that prayer happens. These answers and non-answers and presumptive answers drive us, in so far as in us lies, to greater spiritual depth, and more prayer.

What we should avoid is treating God as some kind of vending machine which will dispense wishes, or clear answers, or happy thought on command, and then thinking “it’s broken” if you don’t get what you asked for. Maybe you learned this kind of prayer while growing up or from your neighbors, relatives and friends, but you’re unlikely to hear that at this church.

There’s more than a couple of problems with this approach. If you don’t get what you prayed for, you can blame God. Bad theology makes confirmed atheists. Or if you don’t get what you prayed for, then it’s easy to blame your lack of faith. You should have prayed harder or believed deeper. And what kind of help is that? Or what kind of God is that? It’s just another way of saying that you’re not worthy of God’s love, and that also needs to stop right now. A God who would work on those terms isn’t worth worshipping.

Treating prayer as a payment in a transaction with God is also a violation of what God has taught us through scripture and tradition. One of the Ten Commandments is that you shall not take the name of God in vain. When Jesus went out into the wilderness and was tempted by the accuser, Satan, that he might have all things it was Jesus who reminded him not to put the Lord God to the test. Which is another way of saying that God is not our wishing box in which we pour our desires and hope to have a predictable, desirable outcome. Life with God, instead, is our reward and portion.

Looking back at the passage from Luke, there was a detail I don’t want to miss: the pesky neighbor’s particular request. Jesus could have used any example for any need, but he spoke of needing bread to give to guests who had just arrived: ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’

That, as we say, is a clue. An arriving guest. Loaves of bread. There are echoes of Abraham and Sarah welcoming the three angelic visitors. There are earlier echoes of Melchizedek, the king of Salem and the priest of the Most High God — it’s all a bit ambiguous, and ripe for a mystical interpretation — Melchizedek who greets Abram with bread; whose priesthood is seen in the letter to the Hebrews as a foretelling of Jesus’ eternal high-priesthood. And speaking of Jesus, bread and friends, one of the reasons the communion service is so powerful for so many people is in it he is made known to us in the breaking of bread. We do not commune with the bread and wine, but with the God who made it — and us.

I have to think this detail is about prayer, too. Prayer is how we meet deity, whether formal or informal, planned or spontaneous. For whatever else we can say of prayer, it is in God’s nature as we understand it to draw us toward God’s self, that we might have the divine life “on earth and it is in heaven.”

Twentieth-century Universalist records available online at Harvard

I’d known for some time that the run of printed Unitarian Universalist Association directories were available to be read online from Harvard Library’s site, so I wondered if any of the hard-to-get and not-public-domain (1924 on) Universalist directories and records, prior to the 1961 consolidation, were available there.

Indeed, there are. Here’s what I found in chronological order, and I’ll add more if I find any. Note that except were stated, the resources were published on a biennial basis.

A Universalist Catechism, part five

So, back in 2004, I set out to type out the 1921 Universalist Catechism, but gave up because I found the theology modernist and dreary. Recently, I read a reference to it, and tried to search for a copy online — only to find my suspended series. (That happens more that I care to admit.) So, I knew I had a copy and have dug it out. Now, I’ll finish the series: my theology has changed in fifteen years, and if not that, at least voice recognition software has improved.

The previous parts of this series:


What is God’s will towards all men?
He wills that all should be saved.

Can God’s will be defeated?
No. He is sure to be victorious.

Will God give up His purpose because men do not find the right way to live in this life?
No. His life is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever, in this world and in all worlds.

What becomes of man at death?
His body dies and wastes away. His spirit lives on.

Why is it reasonable that men shall live after their bodies die?
Men are children and heirs of the Heavenly Father.

Do all Christians accept this faith you have described?
Not all.

Why do you accept it?
Because it exceeds agrees with reason, is supported by the Bible, and is the best expression of Christianity that I know.

What is the name given to the church that teaches this faith?
The Universalist Church.

What are its essential principles?
The Universal Fatherhood of God,
The spiritual authority and leadership of His Son Jesus Christ,
The trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a revelation from God,
The certainty of just retribution for sin,
The final harmony of all souls with God.

When were these principles first taught?
These principles are found in the teaching of Jesus Christ. They were explicitly taught by the early Christian Church.

When does Universalism disappear from the teaching of the Church?
In the sixth century, when it was condemned as heresy.

Where was the first organized church of the Universalist faith?
At Gloucester, Mass.

Who was the first minister of this church?
John Murray, who came to America from England in 1770.

Who is called the father of Universalist theology?
Hosea Ballou, because he first stated many of the doctrines of the Universalist Church.

Where is the oldest Universalist church building?
At Oxford, Mass.

In John Murray’s time, upon what was the principal emphasis of Universalist teaching?
Upon the truth that all men will be saved.

Upon what is the chief emphasis to-day?
Upon the Universal Fatherhood of God, implying universal brotherhood among men; and upon the certainty of retribution for sin.

Why has this change taken place?
Because men have come to see the importance of applying faith to life.

What is mean by what is meant by applied Universalism?
The application of the principles of Universalism to the problems of daily life.

Who really believes in the Fatherhood of God?
He who lives as if God were his Father.

Who really believes in the leadership of Jesus?
He who follows Jesus Christ and helps to make his ideals real.

Who really believes in the Bible?
He who uses it as a guide-book to life.

Who really believes in retribution for sin?
He who stop sinning and tries to cure the sins of society.

Who really believes the final triumph of good?
He who works untiringly and unfalteringly for that triumph.

Is it enough to apply Universalism to the life of the individual?
No. It must be applied to every problem of society.

What is the duty of every Universalist?
To understand fully the teaching of his Church, to try to apply that teaching to life and its problems, and to win others to the same faith and conduct.