by Robin Bartlett Barraza
An Advent Prayer
O come, o come Emmanuel,
God-with-us; God-among-us; God-within-us.
You come with the twinkling starlight, reminding us that light returns.
You come with the slow sunlight that beams upon our dark earth in increments of hope,
You come in every human baby, naked, wailing; each and every one born to save.
You come in every evergreen bow and flake of snow.
You are in-dwelling and in every person we meet, and in all of the arching branches of trees,
Ground of our being, You are the ground that will soften when spring’s full light shines down upon our world after the coming winter.
Come, light. Come, peace. Come, Emmanuel.
This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent, which means “coming,” is my favorite time of year because it marks a time of anticipation – of uncluttering our homes for the coming winter – of making space in our hearts for the coming light as it returns to the earth – of anticipating the coming kin-dom of heaven on earth, where peace and joy and justice reign.
This is also the month that we explore prayer at UU Area Church in Sherborn. This is a good thing for me because this twinkling time of darkness and over-consumption and dysfunctional family gatherings makes me want to pray – for light, for transcending earthly desires, for the healing of past hurts.
Sometimes I hear from my fellow UUs that I “pray too much” for their taste, and that I “say God too much.” As someone who grew up as a UU atheist, who never prayed a day in her life until adulthood, it never ceases to amaze me that I am thought of as particularly pious among my fellow UU brothers and sisters.
So I’d like to tell you a little bit about my history with prayer, and by extension, with God.
Prayer is a hard-won and difficult practice for me…one that helps tenderize my somewhat hardened and forgetful heart; a discipline that helps me carve out time in my day to remember human suffering, to focus on something greater than myself, and to give thanks for all that I have.
Prayer is fraught for me, as well. I often stop to question who or what I’m praying to. I worry that I am an imposter; that God will know I often don’t believe in God. I worry about what I mean by “God” when I say that name aloud. After all, I use “God” as a symbol to express ultimacy and mystery, knowing full well that any symbol we use to describe ultimate meaning is faulty and flawed by definition. Of course, then there are the inevitable questions about whether or not God hears or answers my prayers; whether God is oriented towards Love; whether God cares about me or any other praying person.
And I stumble and mumble when I pray. As someone raised atheist, it likely makes sense to you that I was never taught how. My mother still finds it surprising that she managed to bring me up without my learning.
She asked me last year when I was working as a hospital chaplain for the summer if she had ever taught me the Lord’s Prayer. “No,” I told her. “We didn’t say it at church growing up, remember? I actually learned it as an adult. I mean, sure, I had heard it a lot growing up in a culturally Christian country, but I always got it mixed up with other prayers. I’d try to say it and it would come out something like “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Blessed are the fruits of thy womb, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me, for your’s is the kingdom and the power and the glory (I always loved that part) forever and ever. Amen.'”
My mom said. “Huh. Yeah, I guess I never taught you to pray because I didn’t want you to be as disappointed as I was in God when my prayers were never answered.”
You see, my mother’s older sister died at age 6 of meningitis. After her death, my mom had prayed the Lord’s prayer every night, at the end asking for a little brother or sister. Twice, my grandmother got pregnant, and told my mother that her prayers had been answered. Twice, my grandmother lost the baby at 30 weeks. After the second miscarriage, my mom stopped believing in God, and praying the Lord’s Prayer. It felt like another death to her.
My mom eventually found the UU church as a young adult, vowing to raise her children without God and prayer, not wanting her children to suffer the pain of a God who doesn’t listen, or worse, listens and doesn’t care. As a result, my mom spared me from ever being hurt by an all-powerful, all-loving God who also allows babies to die. As a UU atheist kid, I just wasn’t wounded the way my mom was by God, and I am grateful to have escaped that pain.
And yet, I taught myself how to pray as an adult because I needed a way to express my gratitude for un-earned gifts; to decry my brokenness and the brokenness of the world; to ask for mercy; to express my wonder; to have a symbolic working language for ultimacy. I think we all do this in our own way. My mom sings; I speak, reclaiming a symbolic language that was largely foreign to me, and therefore contains mysterious power.
I teach my children to pray, too. We say grace at meals, and we pray at bedtime. I worry that I can’t explain my nuanced, adult version of God to them; that I will damage them the way my mom was damaged. I soldier on anyway, wanting them to have daily expressions of care, empathy, humility and gratitude; and wanting them to have the symbols to reject, and break, and return to when they need them.
This is how we organize our bedtime prayers. We reflect on three things together in bed. 1) What am I sorry for today? 2) Who am I worried about today? and 3) What am I grateful for today? Sometimes we begin our prayers with “Dear God” and sometimes we begin our prayers with nothing at all. We always end with “Amen,” since that is my two-year-old’s favorite word to say emphatically. And yes, we usually conclude with the Lord’s prayer, because I want them to have some rote prayers to say when they don’t know what to pray. They love the “kingdom, power and glory forever and ever” part, too.
Do you pray in your family? Have daily “thankful fors”? Please continue the conversation in the comments; I’d love to hear your reflections on fumbling through parenting faithful kids, or your own journey with prayer.
Many blessings for peace, hope and love this Advent,