This month we find ourselves at the intersection of “Attention” and “Prayer.”  This Sunday we will look at how each influences the other!


A Sermon Offered to All Souls Church; UU

 November 10, 2019

Rev. Shayna Appel


Welcome & Announcements

Chalice Lighting by Rev. Harold Babcock [adapted]

As we light our chalice this morning

Let us be quiet, without and within.

Let the stillness be in us.

May we find the deep places of the soul and begin to let go of the

distractions which plague us…

Here, may we find peace.

Hymn #352  Find a Stillness

Opening Words   Do Not Fail To Notice”  by Rev. Gretchen Haley

Do not fail to be surprised

By the catching of your breath

The quickening of your heart

The fullness of your eyes

Wide and suddenly awake

With awe

Here is a place filled with wonder

That still there might be

Something new

born today

That we might be born anew


Do not fail to notice

The changing

The life full and abundant

Already beginning

By our coming together

Already possible

By the promises we make

To give, to receive, to become

more together,

and to forgive: again, and again

the falling short

that is always/already here

Here we find ourselves

among the courageous

feeling ourselves

Trying to become brave

With each in, and out, of breath

Each word, each pause, each song

We give thanks,

To be on this journey

In this faith


Come let us worship together


Time for All Ages

Reading #1: 1 Kings 19:8-12

He got up, ate and drank his fill, and set out. Nourished by that meal, he walked forty days and nights, all the way to the mountain of God, to Horeb. When he got there, he crawled into a cave and went to sleep.

Then the word of God came to him: “So Elijah, what are you doing here?”

“I’ve been working my heart out for the God-of-the-Angel-Armies,” said Elijah. “The people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed the places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I’m the only one left, and now they’re trying to kill me.”

Then he was told, “Go, stand on the mountain at attention before God. God will pass by.”

A hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn’t to be found in the wind; after the wind an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn’t in the fire; and after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper.

Reading #2: Sometimes It Takes a Little Craziness by Angela Herrera

When you arrive at the store and can’t remember why,

and you forget the vet appointment and almost miss the dentist, even though they called you yesterday,

and the bills are late and your kids need homework help and you are behind at work and haven’t exercised in weeks,

and you’ve been eating fast food while vegetables wilt in your fridge and your garden is turning into compost and the one time you try to cook you leave the granola in the toaster oven, setting the damn thing on fire,

and you double book yourself again and laundry forms mountains around your home and you begin to look askance at your beloved because you haven’t had fun together since you can’t remember when,

and then, just as you are starting to wonder about signs of dementia, you find yourself placing a metal spoon in the microwave and turning it on…

just breathe.

Sometimes it takes a little craziness to get your attention.

The prophet Elijah fled from a hundred pursuers.  He hunkered down in a cave on the wind-whipped mountainside, trembled through an earthquake, and shielded his face from a wildfire.  He looked for God in the chaos.  But when the storms blew over, when the shaking stilled and the flames died down, he crouched, panting, and thinking he’d missed it, his heart pounding in his ears.  Then he finally noticed the still small voice.

The holy waits in your world too.  Maybe today it will find you in a listening posture, and will whisper to you.

“You tumble like a leaf,” it will say.  “And yet by some miracle you are still here.  Now what is the purpose of that?”

Sermon “Focus!”

In her poem entitled ‘Summer Day’ the late, poet Mary Oliver confesses:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields…

I think many people assume that most ministers have a contemplative side to them.  And I imagine it will shock no one here to find out I do not.  But, like Mary Oliver, and I imagine many of you, I do know how to pay attention.

I don’t know when or where this particular skill began to emerge, but I know that it was well honed throughout the time I spent in the medical field.  Even in the earliest days, when I was just starting out as an Emergency Medical Technician, it was imperative that we pay attention to the scene as we arrived, less we do something really stupid like park the ambulance amidst downed wires or where additional emergency vehicles couldn’t get by us. Of course, buy the time we arrived on scene we had already been in a hyper-attentive state brought about by first getting the address right over the radio, then getting the directions right in order to get to the scene, and to do all of this while avoiding having an accident as we broke many standing traffic ordinances to get there. Once on scene we had to be attentive to any changes in scene safety, all while tending to our patient or patients, who may or may not be able to speak to us. 

My capacity to pay attention was greatly deepened during the time I worked as a respiratory therapist.  I spent most of my time in the ICU and NICU with patients who absolutely could not talk because they were attached to ventilators.  Indicators that they were about to go into crises could be as subtle as slight changes in vital signs, developing a tinge of grey around their lips, or a slight cooling of their extremities.  

I honed my skill of paying attention further in the years I worked as a paramedic.  And, believe it or not, these skills still serve me as a fire department chaplain.  You see, in an emergency, when my crews are busy doing their jobs, I’m usually standing around with nothing particular I need to be doing.  This allows me to wander about a scene taking everything in.  

Once we responded to an unconscious elderly woman in a grocery store parking lot.  Of course, given her age, we assumed she was suffering a medical emergency.  The crew was in the ambulance attending to the patient.  I went to scope out the car we pulled her from.  I couldn’t help but notice that the car was kind of a mess.  And not the sort of mess one would expect to find in the car of a sixty something year old woman.  In my fifteen years of pre-hospital emergency medical responses, I had seen messes like the one in her car.  I ran back to the ambulance and suggested that the crew administer an amp of narcan – the drug used to reverse opiod overdoses.  The crew looked at me like I was nuts…for a moment…then they administered the narcan.  Moments later, the woman was conscious, alert and oriented to day, time, place and event, to everyone’s surprise. 

As I said, I don’t know where or when the skill of paying attention began for me but that skill was well honed throughout my time in the medical field.  However, it was just paying attention. In her book “Our World,” Mary Oliver notes that, “Attention without feeling is only a report.”  I’d have to agree, and for the longest time, my focused attention was largely that; without feeling and only a report.  Which is fine for a firefighter-paramedic, not so great for a wannabe minister or chaplain! 

Thank goodness for seminary, and the seemingly endless patience of all those professors and ministers who guided us in the process of ministerial formation.  Thank goodness for their patience because some of us were slower than others when it came time to marry feeling with attention.  And this was especially true of the UU students because along with our total cluelessness, many of us brought along a healthy measure of headiness and skepticism. 

Add to this the fact that, while we were attending a Christian Seminary, we were clear that we were NOT Christian’s…so why allow the likes of the Desert Fathers of Egypt, Palestine and Syria, St. Augustine or St. Gregory the Great to have any sway over us.  If contemplative prayer existed soley in the realm of Christianity, we felt comfortable turning our poorly formed theological backs on the likes of such contemplative giants as Bernard of Clariveaux, Hildegard, Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, the Jesuits, the Benedictines and even Thomas Merton.  After all, these were NOT our guys.

Thank goodness for seminary and the patience of those who guided us through the process of ministerial formation.  They just kept looking for doors to open for us.  Doors through which we could walk and experience the Great Mystery.  Thankfully, those doing the teaching were far more tolerant and open minded than some of we students were.

To be honest, I don’t remember who first opened the Mary Oliver door for me, but it was a total game changer.  In The Summer Day, which I began todays sermon with, Oliver asks;

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I thought I had skills at paying attention, but Oliver?  She was a graduate level course to be sure. How long did she sit that day, watching one lone grasshopper?  The poem continues;

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Ahhhh…I began to get it.  Prayer doesn’t need to be done with rosary’s or recited from memory or even read from a book of common prayer.  Prayer could be paying attention…to a grasshopper, a sunset, an ocean, or even a stone, as Annie Dillard taught us.  But, for our attention to be prayerful, it has to also have feeling.  Oliver draws us in deeper to The Summer Day;

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

The first time I read this poem I confess I was not ready for Oliver’s questions – not at all! 

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?…

…Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Oliver’s attention – this deep and focused attention – revealed a contemplative practice through which the deepest rewards of our humanity could be accessed.  It concluded not with some shallow report of what she observed, and not necessarily with answers, but with questions and observations that lead me to stop and think deeply…to wonder. 

In our second reading for this morning, Angela Herrera promises us that, “The holy waits in [our] world too.  Maybe today it will find you in a listening posture, and will whisper to you.”  I think that’s what happened to me in the process of ministerial formation when I came upon Mary Oliver’s work.  I stumbled backwards into the holy of my world…a holy that had been waiting for me for a very long time…but this time it found me in a listening posture.  Now I know the holy is everywhere, and all I need to do to encounter it is stop and pay attention.

I also know the difference between attention without feeling and attention with feeling.  One, if done well, enables us to report fully on what it is we have seen.  It may even, with a bit of practice, enable us to see things others miss.  But attention alone is not, in my opinion, prayer.  Prayer requires something more.  It asks that we stop, breathe, pay attention, AND listen.  Listen for the holy, for the mystery, for our deepest yearnings, for the urgings of the Spirit, for that still small voice within.   

My friends, the Holy, the sacred, waits for us all.  Perhaps it is whispering to you, amidst the craziness, “You’re still here.Now what’s the purpose of that?”

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Hymn #112 Do You Hear?



Blessing Candles of Joy & Sorrow

Unison Affirmation

Hymn #208  Every Time I Feel the Spirit

Extinguish the Chalice by The Soul Matters Team

[As we extinguish this chalice, remember]

The work ahead demands much.

Persistence is a must.

But don’t forget to pause, friends.

From our quiet and still centers

comes the vision to see clearly,

and the strength to repair the world.

Closing Circle