Thursday, March 28, 2013

Our Prayer is as Important as Our Action

This blog post is the third in a series of three posts inspired by the most popular post from the archive of 99Brattle, “Do Progressive Christians Pray?” by Chris Glaser, published two years ago. The first installment was by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas ’88 and the second installment was written by Dr. Kwok Pui Lan

By Christi Humphrey '08

The line that stands out for me in the blog post, “Do Progressive Christians Pray?” is the following: "God brings justice and mercy into the world one person at a time."

Hidden within this line is the belief that God’s work was not completed in seven days, but rather, God continues to create in the world today. God works in and through each of us—as co-creators—and our individual transformation ripples out into the world. The foundation for this transformation is our own prayer mixed with God’s grace. 

Prayer comes in many forms. Some prayers are dear to us because of their familiarity, the memories and tradition associated with them. “Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be your name,” or “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”

There are prayers offered in a worship service—corporate prayers offered for the Church and those in authority. Prayer for the welfare of the world and for those who suffer, are in any trouble or have died.

There are also spontaneous prayers offered throughout the day, for the need of a loved one or in confession. And there are those moments of silence and meditation when the prayer simple rests in the presence of the Divine, whether it is behind the wheel of a car, in response to a beautiful sunset, or on a meditation stool as part of a daily practice. 

All of these forms of prayer make up a conversation with God—a conversation as unique as we are and the basis for our transformation into the beings God intended us to be.  Through a dialogue with God—if we are open to it—we can learn about ourselves and our place in the world. 

For centuries, people of faith have stopped throughout the day to pray, to commune with God. The way we pray, what we pray for, and how often we pray, says something about how we understand our place in the world and who we believe God to be. 

If we are to be co-creators with God in realizing the dream God had for the world at its creation—a place of unity, mutuality, and beauty—we must know ourselves.  We must understand our gifts, talents, and passions, our shortcomings and our dark places. We must know God—God’s love, grace, strength, comfort, and encouragement. In the same way that we are in relationship with those we love, we must be in relationship with God, through prayer. 

George Herbert says the following in his poem “Prayer”:
“God’s breath in man returning to his birth, The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage. . .reversed thunder. . .A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear; Softness, and peace, and joy, and love and bliss,  . . . Heaven in ordinary man . . . the soul’s blood . . .” 

Do progressive Christians pray?  Yes, because our prayer informs our action. Our prayer is as important as our action.

Christi Humphrey ’08 is the Director of Alumni/ae and Constituent Engagement at Episcopal Divinity School and a certified spiritual director and ministry developer.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Why Progressive Christians Need to Pray

This blog post is the second in a series of three posts inspired by the most popular post from the archive of 99Brattle, “Do Progressive Christians Pray?” by Chris Glaser, published two years ago. The first installment was by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas ’88 and the third installment will be released next week.

By Dr. Kwok Pui Lan

Prayer, meditation, and contemplation are pathways to God. During these moments, we are less obsessed with ourselves and the world around us, as we dwell in the loving kindness of the one who creates us and calls us into being.

Progressive Christians have to learn to pray, so that we will not lose heart. The world’s suffering is immense and our human effort doesn’t seem to make a dent. Prayer is a discipline, through which we learn to cultivate our hearts and minds to believe in the impossible, to hold out for hope, and to listen to the voice from the whirlwind.

Over the years I have taught generations of students about the spiritual life. They have taught me about the vulnerability of the spirit, the weakness of the flesh, the restlessness of the soul, and the bottom pit of despair. From them I learn the importance of prayer, the solace of God’s healing, and the companionship we need to walk the spiritual path together.

Prayer is more than “asking God for something.” Prayer opens up a vista. The German mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg wrote, “It draws God who is great into a heart which is small.” Many spiritual teachers, past and present, have taught me how to pray and I would like to share some of the best advice I have received and invite readers to share theirs.

Prayer transforms us, not God. Chris Glaser has taught progressive Christians to pray and written a practical guide to prayer. He points out that the Desert Fathers and Mothers believed that prayer is about our transformation, not God’s. “When we pray for someone who is ill or in prison or mistreated, I do not believe God “fixes” these things, but that we become better caregivers, liberators, and advocates,” he writes.    

Jesus teaches about prayer beyond words. Franciscan priest and best-selling author Richard Rohr was the Kellogg Lecturer at the Episcopal Divinity School some years ago. I was so mesmerized by his lectures that I bought two of his books afterward. In Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, he says that Jesus has taught us to pray with words—the Lord’s Prayer. But many of us forget that Jesus also taught prayer beyond words: “praying in secret” (Matt. 6:5-6), “not babbling on as the pagans do” (Matt. 6:7), and the “predawn, lonely prayer of Jesus (Mark 1:35). These are pointers toward what we would call contemplation today.

Prayer for serenity. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer is well-known: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” While progressive Christians want to transform the world, Niebuhr’s Christian realism reminds us to accept with humility that there are things we can’t possibly change. Serenity comes when we know that it is ultimately not up to us, but God. In his original version of the prayer, Niebuhr included the Zen-like advice, “Living one day at a time. Enjoyment one moment at a time.”

Ecstasy in prayer. No one has described their prayerful and spiritual life in more ecstatic and joyful language than the mystics. Too often we think of prayer in terms of meekness of the soul and restrained emotions. But the mystics open a window to a spiritual life full of passion and buoyed with love. Mechthild of Magdeburg prayed, “Lord, you are my lover, my longing, my flowing stream, my sun, and I am your reflection.” Catherine of Siena prayed to the Holy Spirit, “come into my heart; draw it to Thee by Thy power, O my God, and grant me charity with filial fear. Preserve me, O ineffable Love, from every evil thought; warm me, inflame me with Thy dear love.”

Prayer as blessing. The Irish philosopher and poet John O’Donohue draws on Celtic spiritual tradition and blends elegant, poetic language with spiritual insights. One of his many books has the loving title, To Bless the Space Between Us. He observes, “A blessing evokes a privileged intimacy. . . A blessing is not a sentiment or a question; it is a gracious invocation where the human heart pleads with the divine heart.” In one of the blessings, he invokes:
            May we discover
            Beneath our fear
Embers of anger
To kindle justice.

The universe responds. Alice Walker grew up in Georgia attending church with her family. Later, she became interested in Native American spirituality and Buddhist meditation. In The Same River Twice, she talks about honoring the difficult and records a trying moment in her professional life and separation from her lover. Toward the end of the book, she says we may pray to God and the divine with many names. For her, the intention is not to have God answer prayers, but to beseech the universe to respond.

Kwok Pui Lan is the William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School and her most recent book  Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude is published by Rowman and Littlefield.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Liberating Prayer: Examining Four Half-Truths

This blog post is the first in a series of three posts inspired by the most popular post from the archive of 99Brattle, “Do Progressive Christians Pray?” by Chris Glaser, published two years ago this week. We will publish the next installment of this series next week and the third installment the following week.

The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas will be participating on a panel entitled “Faith and Environmental Justice” during “Religion in the Public Sphere” which takes place at EDS on May 8-9, 2013.

By the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas ’88

At its best, prayer is vital, lively, even wild, setting us free for intimate encounter with the Divine, who is always new. But our notions of prayer can be so small!  Prayer can be hobbled by misconceptions and half-truths that prevent us from experiencing our soul’s freedom in Christ (Galatians 5:1). That was certainly the case for me, and over the years my ideas about prayer—and my way of praying—have radically changed. There are many half-truths about prayer, and here is a starter list of four. Each statement contains elements of truth, but needs to be dismantled and expanded if we’re hoping for a breakthrough in prayer.

1.    Prayer is full of words

Yes, Christians are people of the Book, and we trust the Word of God. Elegant words honed over centuries can convey God’s presence, connect us with the faithful of every generation, and articulate thoughts that give comfort with their accuracy and beauty. When we’re flailing around in prayer, not sure how to begin, reading someone else’s words can help to settle the mind and open the heart.

But prayer is much more than words. Prayer can be expressed as a sigh, as a sob, as laughter, and especially as silence. It is only when our minds grow quiet and we touch the silence that lies within, beneath, and beyond words, that many of us can sense the living Presence of God. As the 14th century Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, put it, “There is nothing so much like God as silence.”

2.   Prayer is polite.

Yes, we approach the living Mystery with reverence and awe. Honest prayer is never off-hand, slapdash, or casual.

But let’s not limit our prayer to sharing only our “best” selves, our noblest thoughts and warmest feelings! What if God wants to encounter who you really are—not just the self you wish you were? C.S. Lewis wisely counseled: “The prayer preceding all prayers is ‘May it be the real I who speaks.  May it be the real Thou that I speak to.’” Our intention in prayer is to be our real selves and to encounter the real God. As in any relationship, intimacy with God depends on our being willing to be vulnerable and real, not just formal and polite. I like to imagine God whispering in our ear as we sit down to pray, “Get real!”

3.   Prayer is peaceful

Yes, taking regular time to pray can help us to discover within ourselves a place of deep stillness. Even in the midst of a hectic, fast-paced world, we can learn through prayer how to stay inwardly steady. “Never fail, whatever may befall you, be it good or bad, to keep the heart quiet and calm in the tenderness of love,” wrote the 16th century mystic, St. John of the Cross. Equanimity and balance are often a fruit of prayer.

Yet prayer also releases deep feelings, memories, and energies. Prayer can be as turbulent as a storm, as fierce as a wrestling match. If we consider God a friend, someone who welcomes and loves us, just as we are, then we can explore whatever arises in prayer, without trying to control or dominate the process. 

4.  Prayer is a luxury

We all know the argument: in a world full of hunger, poverty, and pain, prayer can become an escape, a self-centered, bourgeois, navel-gazing enterprise in which “spiritual” types focus on cultivating their inward garden and ignore the suffering around them. Prayer becomes an exit strategy, a way to hide out.

But when prayer draws us into the heart of God, we discover that the whole world is there, too. We awaken to the divine love that embraces, sustains, and infuses all things. True prayer is subversive to the powers-that-be within the self, for it dethrones the reign of the ego. True prayer is also subversive to the powers-that-be beyond the self, for it sends us out into the world to bear witness to the love that has found and formed us. The mystic becomes a prophet. Prayer is an ongoing source of energy and hope to all whose faith urges us to heal and transform the world. And prayer purifies and prunes our intentions, so that the search for justice is not converted into and reduced to just another ego-project.

The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (MDiv ’88) taught courses on prayer at Episcopal Divinity School for many years. She now serves as Priest Associate of Grace Church, Amherst, MA. A retreat leader, writer, and climate activist, her latest book is Joy of Heaven, to Earth Come Down (Forward Movement, 2012). You can learn more at her website:

Copyright © by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas.  All rights reserved.