Different Ways to Pray (Winton Boyd) 4.29.18

Today’s entire worship service was steeped in the poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye.  For this reason, we’ve included all the poems used in worship.  As you prepare to read this sermon, it would be good to spend a few minutes just reading the poems.



A man crosses the street in rain,

stepping gently, looking two times north and south,

because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.

No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo

but he’s not marked.

Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,


His ear fills up with breathing.

He hears the hum of a boy’s dream

deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able

to live in this world

if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing

with one another.

The road will only be wide.

The rain will never stop falling.

from Red Suitcase. Copyright © 1994 by Naomi Shihab Nye.


Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

and then goes with you every where

it is I you have been looking for,

like a shadow or a friend.

Kindness from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye

We continue our journey through the season of Easter by listening to voices outside the Christian faith. Today we celebrate the writing of Naomi Shihab Nye. I love that we can hear her words in multiple ways. Susan will read one more in just a minute.

Nye was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and lived in Ferguson, MO for a number of years when it was a new suburb! Her father was a Muslim Palestinian refugee and her mother a Missouri Synod Lutheran of German background. Her experience of both cultural difference and different cultures has influenced much of her work. Nye has said that, for her, “the primary source of poetry has always been local life, random characters met on the streets, (and) our own ancestry sifting down to us through small essential daily tasks.”

“My poems and stories often begin with the voices of our neighbors, mostly Mexican American, always inventive and surprising. I never get tired of mixtures.”

(All of my introductory quotes from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/naomi-shihab-nye)

Jane Tanner in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “Nye observes the business of living and the continuity among all the world’s inhabitants…She is international in scope and internal in focus… With her acceptance of different ‘ways to pray’ is also Nye’s growing awareness that living in the world can sometimes be difficult.”

Victoria Clausi summed up Nye’s approach. “Her best poems often act as conduits between opposing or distant forces. Yet these are not didactic poems that lead to forced … moments. Rather, the carefully crafted connections offer bridges on which readers might find their own stable footing, enabling them to peek over the railings at the lush scenery.

Finally, Nye told Contemporary Authors, “I have always loved the gaps, the spaces between things, as much as the things. I love staring, pondering, mulling, puttering. I love the times when someone or something is late—there’s that rich possibility of noticing more, in the meantime…Poetry calls us to pause. There is so much we overlook, while the abundance around us continues to shimmer, on its own.”

Different Ways to Pray

There was the method of kneeling,

a fine method, if you lived in a country

where stones were smooth.

The women dreamed wistfully of bleached courtyards,

hidden corners where knee fit rock.

Their prayers were weathered rib bones,

small calcium words uttered in sequence,

as if this shedding of syllables could somehow

fuse them to the sky.


There were the men who had been shepherds so long

they walked like sheep.

Under the olive trees, they raised their arms—

Hear us! We have pain on earth!

We have so much pain there is no place to store it!

But the olives bobbed peacefully

in fragrant buckets of vinegar and thyme.

At night the men ate heartily, flat bread and white cheese,

and were happy in spite of the pain,

because there was also happiness.


Some prized the pilgrimage,

wrapping themselves in new white linen

to ride buses across miles of vacant sand.

When they arrived at Mecca

they would circle the holy places,

on foot, many times,

they would bend to kiss the earth

and return, their lean faces housing mystery.


While for certain cousins and grandmothers

the pilgrimage occurred daily,

lugging water from the spring

or balancing the baskets of grapes.

These were the ones present at births,

humming quietly to perspiring mothers.

The ones stitching intricate needlework into children’s dresses,

forgetting how easily children soil clothes.


There were those who didn’t care about praying.

The young ones. The ones who had been to America.

They told the old ones, you are wasting your time.

     Time?—The old ones prayed for the young ones.

They prayed for Allah to mend their brains,

for the twig, the round moon,

to speak suddenly in a commanding tone.


And occasionally there would be one

who did none of this,

the old man Fowzi, for example, Fowzi the fool,

who beat everyone at dominoes,

insisted he spoke with God as he spoke with goats,

and was famous for his laugh.

from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Portland, Oregon: Far Corner Books, 1995).

As we considered this series, it struck me that Nye’s poetry might help us explore our complex and uncertain relationship with prayer. One of the reasons I love our approach to Sunday School here at Orchard Ridge UCC is that we are teaching them at a young age that faith, and prayer, are embodied, tactile experiences.  Children are invited to pray with zen sandboxes, candles, wooden bible characters, books and sharing. We’ve moved away from the model that suggests the only way to pray is with hands folded and heads bowed. That’s one fine way rooted in our history, but by itself it is pretty limiting.

But for many of us, if prayer is not that form, or if it is not the presentation of a list of needs for our lives and the world to a God somewhere out there or up there – we are not exactly sure what it is. We may experience a personal connection with the One we call God, but many of us understand God to be much less anthropomorphic, more illusive and complicated to name.

In this kind of environment, there is much to ponder and much to noodle around when it comes to the experience of prayer. So, at a minimum, if you get nothing else today, I’d invite you in these moments to reflect on your own ‘experience’   with prayer. Not your theological opinion, but your lived experience.

The poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye invites us to consider prayer not head on, but slant. She names a truth many of us know – that life is lived in the spaces, those ‘gaps, and spaces between things’…our ‘staring, pondering, mulling, puttering.’

There is so much wisdom in her poetry how we live as prayerful people.

  • Through kneeling and raising one’s hands
  • Through formal and intentional pilgrimage, and the daily pilgrimage of our lives
  • In a way that includes the disinterested, the disengaged
  • In a manner that embraces the deep awareness which prompts us to carry the fragile child AND the acceptance of sorrow as the ‘other deepest thing.’
  • Mindful that it sometimes includes words, but is usually rooted in committed action
  • Did you notice how few of her descriptions used overtly religious language – dreaming wistfully of bleached courtyards, fragrant buckets of olives and thyme, the mystery of lean faces, a great laugh?

It’s all prayer; it’s all prayerful living. If Nye writes from an embodied multi cultural life experience, she reminds us that prayer or prayerful living is complex and nuanced; and centered mostly in our awareness and openness to the movement of the Spirit. Whatever formal structure it has must be supported by this deep awareness to have real meaning in our lives.

In this context, weekly worship offers some practical support, but maybe not in the way we’ve often described it. First, it can re-center us into this life of prayerful awareness. Through music, preaching, joys and concerns and informal connecting – we remember who we are in this world. We remember what animates our Spirit and what connects us to the holy.

But secondly, worship can also be practice – whereby we seek to name the gaps and spaces that are holy. We do this not because they only happen in church – but rather because practicing here helps us see and experience such holiness throughout the rest of our week.

Author and former Episcopalian pastor, Barbara Brown Taylor, comes at this idea as she describes the transition from a Christian faith centered on of believing to a Christian faith rooted in “beholding.”

If we think in historical terms, she notes, then beholding came first, as many who encountered Jesus in the flesh, experienced things that they had never experienced before.

  • They “beheld his glory” without knowing what it was all about, and they followed him without being able to explain to their adversaries why.
  • Believing in Jesus meant trusting him, even though trusting him meant deviating from central aspects of their belief systems.
  • Those who beheld him did not behold the same thing, either.
  • Some beheld a human messiah, while others beheld God incarnate.
  • Some beheld a faithful Jew, while others beheld an anti-Jew…

“If it is true that the most important things in life cannot be explained, then is it too big a stretch to declare that dumbfoundedness is what all Christians have most in common?” Might we allow …”God to go on challenging and refreshing our beliefs through what God gives us to behold.” (Beyond Belief: Beholding Christ, Christian Century, January 13, 2004)

The invitation of both Nye and Taylor, I think, is to live more fully into our progressive faith tradition. As such, we are invited to cease talking about prayer in terms of ‘good and bad’ or ‘right or wrong.’ We approach it less through words and more through awareness, less through formal patterns and more through compassion for the world around us. Less as ‘outsiders’ to a faith defined by belief and more as those who embrace a ‘beholding’ faith.

What Nye’s poem, Different Ways to Pray reminds when and is that if we give up on organized religion, including prayer, because some have shaped religion into a tight and confining box – we cut ourselves off from a long history of beholding life and God that may be a resource to us today.

If we too casually embrace ‘I’m spiritual’ as though we can do it by ourselves – we fool ourselves into thinking we do not need the power of community. If we are going to grow in our ability to behold the holy, to behold God in our midst, we need others who are practicing, struggling and rejoicing in that ancient practice. Of course, if being religious means creating systems of belief that become litmus tests for spiritual maturity, none of us want that. However, if being spiritual, or religious, or a Christian means beholding the divine in the world, such beholding only deepens in community.

And let’s remember that no word suffices to describe those experiences. If nothing else, progressive religion at its best has long cherished the inadequacy of language. Where Taylor said ‘dumbfoundedness binds us,’ we can also say that ‘inadequate language to hold all of life’ binds us even more.

To quote Nye,

We’re not going to be able

to live in this world

if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing

with one another.


The road will only be wide.

The rain will never stop falling.


The sorrows we know inform what it means to be alive, to be kind in large and small ways, and give us the heart to behold Grace in ways that transform us.

And so – in this place and in this community, let us pray. Let us in these next couple of moments call to mind the ways we have beheld holiness this week. Whether in moments of sorrow, or joy; in community or in solitary silence. Let us bring these moments to mind, offer a word of gratitude, and a plea that through it all, we would well up inside with kindness to all – near and far, known and unknown.


Prayer of Response, by Dan Rossmiller

Gracious God,

As we prepare to go out into a noisy, often confusing world, we thank you for quiet spaces, and the gentle poets who inhabit them.

We thank you for their different way of seeing and sharing the subtle nuances of everyday moments, caught in time, and the way they fill in the gaps and spaces we so often overlook as we hurry about our busy lives.

Be with us here in our church community as we re-center ourselves, each in our own way, and invite us into your story and your poem.

Be with us and strengthen us as we go forward. Help us to appreciate both sorrow and compassion, to see and experience what is holy in the world, to behold Grace in ways that transform us and to radiate kindness until (next) we gather here again.



  1. This is wonderful, Wint! New life for The Church, the kind Orchard Ridge has been nurturing for a long time! I’ve had the privilege of spending time with Naomi, and she’s as marvelous in person as her poetry is on the printed page. Many blessings, Parker

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