Rev. Tess Baumberger: What does it mean, to pray?

Rev. Tess Baumberger

I have been preaching about our purpose as a religious community. As we celebrate Memorial Day, it seems right to consider, as part of our purpose, the traditional spiritual act of mercy that is “praying for the living and the dead.”

This is tricky in a religion where so many people identify themselves as agnostics or atheists. If we do not agree whether there is a divine being, how could we pray for the living and the dead? This is another case where the inclusiveness of our faith calls us to find new meanings for classic religious terms.

Here is how I did this for myself around the word “prayer.” My journey started with a crisis. A few years ago, it became clear that I was powerless over people, places, things, problems, relationships and even myself. It became clear that I needed to turn my life, problems, worries, faults and failings to the care of the something more powerful than me.

The problem was my theology. Years before I had arrived at the belief that the Sacred does not control things. Instead, I believe that the Divine is there for us in our worst times, as a source of comfort, creativity and healing. That worked for me. It helped me cope with difficulties in my life and in our world. However, it has a big limitation when it comes to prayer. If you don’t believe the Divine controls things, how can you ask it to do stuff?

Just as it became clear that my beliefs needed to change, I ran across the article “The Flow of Intention” by Nina Utne. She describes a river-rafting trip she took in the midst of some serious thinking about the power of our intentions. She was pondering whether and how the things we think and do can shape our world. If everything is connected, then the energy of our hopes, dreams, wishes and prayers must have some effect, right?

Utne writes, “At the heart of intention lies the idea that everything in the universe is infused with a creative power.” Her river trip gave her the idea that this creative power flows like a river. Utne links this insight to a religious idea called process theology. Process theology holds that God is more a verb than a noun – a creative process that is constant, yet evoloving.

Process theology claims that we are part of this divine creative process. If the Divine is the flow of river, then we are the earth shaped by its current, that also gives shape to the river. Where the earth is soft, the water can flow through easily. Where the earth is solid rock, the water finds its way over and around. We can be like soft earth, or like rocks in the stream. Either way, we shape the river even as the river shapes and moves us.

I began working with this river image and came to think of different types of prayer are like different ways of entering the stream. Contemplative prayer is like entering the stream and sitting there, letting it flow over or through us. We become aware of the water and we appreciate its power.

Praying for the living and the dead in this way we enter the stream and become aware of how sacredness flowed through that other person. We can rest in the flow of creative love, recognizing that others have blessed us with their love, attention, loyalty, play, laughter, and companionship.

Intercessory prayer is like making our selves channels that direct the stream. You enter it and then move its loving flow around the person, living or dead. You might direct its current over, around and through any problems that exist between you that require cleansing, healing or creative solutions.

Conversational prayer combines these two approaches. You enter the stream intending to cross it, and are prepared to let it carry you. You may end up at a different place than you intended, but you trust that wherever you end up will be the right spot. We trust the flow, remembering all those times when where we wanted to end up was not the best place for us. In conversational prayer we accept the possibility of being changed by the conversation. It has an element of surrendering. You pray this way when you ask for guidance and assistance, or when you turn problems or worries over to be carried in a direction you may not expect.

Whether we let the flow of intentions surround us, or direct its flow, or move with it, I believe we are always part of a grand, flowing, ever-changing, evolving and beautiful pattern of life. We may disagree about what to call this pattern. We may disagree about whether it is more than just the sum of all life and our human intentions.

However, it seems to me that any of us can consciously enter into this awesome pattern as both creators and created. It seems to me that if prayer means conscious, reverent attention to that kaleidoscopic pattern, then all of us can pray for the living and the dead. In entering this magnificent flow of living, interweaving intention, we are both blessing and blessed.

The Rev. Tess Baumberger, PhD, is minister at Unity Church of North Easton, Mass. For more information and links to this and other Unitarian Universalist churches, please She can be reached at