The Evolving Faith of a Liberal Christian Minister (8): What I Believe about Prayer

Rev. Jerald Stinson First Congregational Church

July 15, 2012 (#1483) (Long Beach, California)

Reading: I Thessalonians 5:14-17


This current series of sermons offers me the opportunity to examine and reflect upon my own faith – and I share those reflections with you, not to tell you what you should believe, but to challenge you to examine your own religious convictions.

Eleven years ago, I preached a sermon here about what prayer meant to me. Then in a series of several sermons five years ago, I shared a very different and new understanding of prayer – one in response to my belief in a God beyond theism. Today’s sermon will repeat some of what I said in that 2007 sermon series – because my understanding of prayer hasn’t changed since then.

Listen to what Paul wrote to the early Christian community in Thessalonica:

We urge you, sisters and brothers, to warn the idlers, cheer up the fainthearted, support the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure no one repays one evil with another. Always seek what is good for each other, and for all the people. Rejoice always and pray constantly.

Pray constantly!

In the dark days of American slavery, the creator of today’s first hymn felt a real need for prayer. Prayer was not something for others – preachers, deacons, neighbors or strangers. The song said. “It’s me, I stand in need of prayer.”

Slaves experienced no freedom, little joy, and scarcely any hope. Any possibility of a better day came through trusting that God, an all-powerful supernatural being, could change things, could intervene in human experience, could help those held in bondage.

And prayer was the link to that God. In prayer, slaves spoke directly to life’s creator. Maybe if God heard enough prayers, God would answer and the suffering would end.

Belief in the power of prayer remains at the heart of the three Abrahamic faiths. The vast majority of Christians, Jews and Muslims see God as a supernatural being – an all-powerful, all-knowing entity “out there” somewhere. And whether prayers are addressed to Adonai, Allah or spoken in Christ’s name, they are seen as channels of communication to and from God – or for many Christians, to Jesus as part of a triune God.

When a hurricane approaches, when drought spreads across a continent, when nations are at war, people fall to their knees asking God to intervene, to suspend the laws of nature or perform a miracle. When a child falls ill, when a job is in jeopardy, when a diagnosis is not good, prayer seems the best or only source of hope.

Our second hymn today captured that well: “I must tell Jesus all my trials … in my distress my Jesus will help me … I must tell Jesus all my troubles … If I but ask, my Savior will answer; all of my troubles will quickly end.”

But if, in spite of prayer, a hurricane reaches land and spreads devastation, a passenger jet falls from the skies, a loved one dies in surgery, some of those praying struggle.

Does God play a numbers game, caring more for a celebrity for whom millions pray than for someone on skid row for whom no one prays? If I pray for a loved one’s healing, and that person doesn’t get better, does that mean God didn’t hear me, or doesn’t want the one for whom I was praying to live? Or if the one for whom I was praying did get well, but the person in the next bed didn’t, does that mean God liked my person more?

If I pray for a child hurt in an auto accident and the child miraculously recovers, did God do that? And if God helped the child recover, why didn’t God just stop the accident in the first place? Does God send tragedy to test us and then call forth our prayers in response to that tragedy? Could God have stopped the Holocaust? If so, why didn’t God do it?

Those words of Paul – “Pray constantly.” Praying constantly was what I thought was essential in Christianity as I grew up.

But my mind has always been filled with questions and doubts about prayer. Psychiatrist Ann Ulanov wrote: “Many of us feel that if we have been praying for a long time, we ought to have progressed through certain stages. There should have been some grand illumination.” Well, that hasn’t happened to me.

I find consolation in Episcopal Bishop Jack Spong’s admission that he has faced the same struggle. He has gone on prayer retreats, taken classes on prayer, built a prayer corner in his home, read every prayer manual – all without success. He said, “My ambition was to be one who lived in a significant awareness of the divine knowing the peace that comes from communing with God.” But he hasn’t found that peace.

As I indicated in the sermon about God in this current series, a theistic supernatural God has always been problematic for me, so obviously prayer to that kind of God has been a problem also.

Many of you probably believe in God as a supernatural being. That’s the normative Christian understanding. A Time magazine survey said 77% of Americans believe that God directly intervenes to cure people of illnesses. A couple lines in one of our Transition Planning Committee reports talked about a desire that this church’s next Senior Minister “help us feel comfortable about God and make prayer a more comfortable part of being church.” I think that probably means affirming a more traditional view of both God and prayer. And if that is where your faith journey puts you, hold on to that. I can’t, but I could be totally wrong.

In the 1960s, I retained my fascination with the human Jesus as one whose life and teaching shows us how we can live with meaning. I also retained my hope for the church as a community of caring. But I let go of God.

Upon entering the ministry, I began to speak again of God, but I wasn’t comfortable with that. Then perhaps a couple decades ago, as I found myself increasingly involved with the Westar Institute’s Jesus Seminar, I reached a point where I gave up my belief in a personal God. I began to use the word “God” in new ways I could really affirm.

I began to think of God as theologian Paul Tillich did as the Ground of All Being. God wasn’t personal but God was the life force or spirit of love underlying all of life. God was the essence of Being itself. God for me was not “out there” somewhere but was instead at the core of all that is. God was the creative energy that enabled life. God was the spirit or eternal presence of love connecting all living things.

But then three or four years ago, I found myself using the word “God” in yet another new way – perhaps much more radical. Instead of trying to point to an objective reality for God, God became for me a metaphor, a word-symbol for life’s most important and enduring values – values I find in the teaching and example of the human Jesus.

But how do you pray to a Ground of All Being or a Life Force, little alone a metaphor?

Well, Bishop Spong faces that same dilemma. He sees God as the Ground of All Being which is how I used to see God. He hasn’t made that radical shift to seeing God as just a metaphor. But nevertheless he has struggled to define what prayer means in relation to a God beyond theism. Much of the remainder of this sermon will grow out of Spong’s 2001 book, A New Christianity for a New World.

He wrote, “In the more traditional and theistic phase of my life, I developed a habit of spending the first two hours of the day in prayer and study. As I moved beyond theism into a post-theistic understanding of God, I discovered my commitment to starting my day with this focused two-hour time slot did not change, but my understanding of what I was doing changed dramatically.”

He went on: “The primary shift came in what I thought the prayer part of my day was. Prayer ceased to be identified with those first two hours and shifted to embrace the balance of my day.”

He said: “My actions, my engagement with people, the facing of concrete issues – these became for me the real time of prayer. Prayer came to be identified with my living, my loving, my being, my meeting, my confronting, my struggles for justice, my desire to be an agent of transformation. That was where I met and communed with God. God was no longer found in places of retreat; God was in the [midst] of a busy, sometimes troubling life. God was found not in the stable rocks but in the rushing rapids.”

When we sing our last hymn today, we will encounter some of that theology. The hymn speaks of prayer in the work-place, home and mart, in the worlds of science and art.

Spong went on: “If prayer is the act of engaging God and if God is the source of life, then my prayer time became my time of engaging life. The prayer pattern created by a theism that located God outside of life, an understanding that suggested one must withdraw from life to pray or be holy, was turned upside down.”

Now here is Spong’s definition of prayer which I now claim for myself. Using his words, this is how I understand prayer. Prayer is the way I live, love, struggle and dare to be.

Since I see God as a metaphor for life’s most important and enduring values, prayer is the way I try to live by those values. Prayer is the way I seek to bring meaning to my life here and now by living, loving, struggling and daring to be.

Now Spong carefully differentiated between prayer and preparation for prayer. He said: “Preparation for prayer is the time I spend in my office each morning recalling who I am, remembering where God is and how God can be met.” You see, he still spends that quiet time each day, but he sees it as preparation for prayer, not prayer itself.

Dorothee Sölle, a German liberation theologian for whom I have great respect, once wrote: “Praying is intensive preparation for life.” I totally disagree. I think prayer is the living of life, not preparation for it!

Joe Driskill, who teaches spirituality at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, once said: “Spirituality is concerned with the lived experiences of faith. It is a matter of experiences obtained in the community which shares the faith, in the practices that sustain the faith and in the moral life that embodies the faith.”

That definition of spirituality stands side-by-side with Spong’s definition of prayer as the way I live, love, struggle and dare to be.

South African liberation theologian John de Gruchy wrote: “The Christian life, while intensely personal, is always communal … The privatization of piety undermines the Christian life.” He contends that prayer is not a private act done in seclusion, but is rather what we do when we live our lives in community.

This church’s classrooms and courtyard are full of prayer each day that our Summer Day Camp continues to bring hope, justice and wisdom to young people from the neighborhoods around us. The person who faithfully drives one of our members to every doctor’s visit is praying through that driving. Folks gathering support for a living wage proposition on November’s Long Beach ballot are praying when they seek to help the working poor.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran minister executed by the Nazis in Germany, once said, in the context of the Holocaust, “Only those who cry out for the Jews have the right to sing the Gregorian chant.” He saw spirituality linked to justice-seeking activism. We pray with our hands, with our feet, with our lives.

Dag Hammarskjold, who served as General Secretary of the United Nations, said: “In our age, the road to holiness passes through the world of action.”

To pray is to act – to live, love, struggle and dare to be.

More words from Bishop Spong. He sees himself as a “God-bearer,” giving witness to God the Life Force. And I would say a “God-bearer” could also give witness to that God as a metaphor for life’s most important and enduring values. Spong sees himself as a “God-bearer” through the way he lives and acts each day.

He said, “My private time equips me to do that task [God-bearing] more fully, more adequately and more completely. I know that I am changed, opened, sensitized and strengthened to act by setting aside this preparation time each day. But I no longer think of that as prayer time. [It is preparation.] Prayer for me” he says, “is living. Preparation time is a time of discovering who I am and who God is within me, so that I can live my life out of that knowledge.”

So the preparation for prayer is what we have traditionally called prayer itself.

I prepare for prayer as I sit quietly and engage in confession, reflecting on ways I have fallen short of living out those most important enduring values. Then the actual prayer comes as that reflection leads me into new ways of living.

I prepare for prayer as I quietly reflect on that for which I can be thankful. And that reflection, steeped in gratitude, leads to action through which I live differently, acknowledging my dependence on others and my gratitude to them.

I prepare for prayer as I envision in my own mind those I know to be are struggling – who are ill, anxious, frightened or in some of life’s deep valleys – and perhaps in some way beyond my knowing, my thoughts centered on those people for whom I care somehow connect with them. But those thoughts and that meditation are still preparation, and the real prayer comes when that preparation inspires me to do something – visit the person in need, join a justice effort to help others, any action aimed at reaching out to those I have lifted up in my reflection; in my preparation for prayer.

Bishop Spong said: “When [my religious critics suggest] that I no longer pray, what they are suggesting is I no longer understand and practice prayer as they do. I no longer expect a theistic deity to work for me, but I do expect to spend my days working for the expansion of life, for the fullness of love, for the enhancement of being.”

He continued: “That is, I expect to do the work of God – a God I believe is real.” He went on: “I no longer define that God as a supernatural person. I believe, however, that I experience this God when I am an agent of life, love and being to another. For the God I see in Jesus of Nazareth, is revealed in the personhood of everyone. This God is present in the love of everyone. This God is encountered in the being of everyone.”

He said: “This God calls me constantly to be the incarnation of this God’s love. I do this by working to enhance the humanity of every person, to free the life present in every person, to increase the love available to every person, and to celebrate the being of every person. It is in those actions that I discern the very presence of divine footprints and know that God has been in this place before me and sometimes because of me.”

As the sermons in this series make clear, my understandings of the authority of the bible, of God as a metaphor, of Jesus as a human teacher all radically depart from traditional Christian orthodoxy. But ultimately those notions are liberating for me because otherwise my heart could not be moved by what my mind cannot accept.

And as my faith has evolved, those new religious understandings have forced me to redefine prayer. For me, I prepare to pray by those private spiritual practices that traditionally have been seen as prayer itself. And then I actually pray as I seek to live, love, struggle and dare to be.

And I leave it to each of you, to figure out what prayer means in your life. Amen.

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