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.

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