Thoughts and prayers
A few years ago, when I was serving in a big urban church, a parishioner who was also a screenwriter explored the possibility of producing a television drama about a church. She interviewed the staff and wisely decided one of two things. Either the show would be really boring or no one would believe what goes on. Maybe her angle was wrong. Perhaps it should have been a comedy. As an aspiring cartoonist who does a lot of drawings about the church, I note no shortage of material.
As an example, the small non-Episcopal Church in which I grew up provided grist for such a show. Our family lore has preserved this story. It has to do with an older woman in the parish, influential in our small community, a bit eccentric. (It’s church, after all.) She was glad to let everyone know the depths of her piety. On one occasion, she was speaking with a friend at coffee hour. A third woman approached to share concern about some personal struggle. This older woman, let’s call her Jane, said “Oh, I pray for you every day!” As the third woman departed, moving out of earshot, Jane turned to her friend and asked, “Who was that?”
It’s easy to say we pray. We’ve heard a lot in recent days about thoughts and prayers. Tragedies striking our common life (shootings in Las Vegas, fires in Northern California, storms in Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas) have been on our minds and in our prayers. I suspect we all have personal storms, private turbulence that weighs on our hearts, minds and spirits. We know those struggles in the lives of people we love. As we’ve heard people express their concern, offering thoughts and prayers, the question has been raised: Is that enough? Is that too easy? Is it a dodge? A bromide? A dismissal?
All of this points to the connection of prayer and action. How do we pray not only with our lips but with our lives?
All of this leads me to think about the mystery of prayer, which is more about changing us than it is about changing God. It calls me to draw on the wisdom of spiritual heroes who knew no separation between contemplation and action in the world, people like Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day and Richard Rohr.
And the brothers at Holy Cross Monastery folks. Decades ago, a few of them made their way to South Africa as apartheid was unraveling. Church leaders there invited the brothers to come to the country to model life in community, since the violence of the previous regime had left people without those skills. A few of them went, like many characters in the Bible, not knowing where they were going or what they would find or what they would do when they got there. As they describe that time, they say they went and simply said their prayers, observing the monastic hours throughout the day.
They began with prayer, waiting for God to show them what it is they were called to do. Before long, the tragic death of an unattended child on train tracks bordering the monastery’s property revealed the mission. It would be about caring for the poorest in this town, tending to children too often left alone for too long. It would be about starting a school, providing quality education equal to the best schools in the country. It began with thoughts and prayers, which were indispensable. But it didn’t end there. They’ve done something beautiful for God.
These days, our thoughts and prayers are with victims of a mad shooter, victims of nature’s fury, victims of abuse by people in power, victims of indifference, victims in a world with devils filled that threaten to undo us. The thoughts and prayers, contemplative acts, are the beginning of a response. They lead us as baptized persons to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being. What specifically can we do towards that end?
If you’re not sure, pray not only for those who suffer. Join me in prayer, asking God to show us how to respond, how to help, how to heal, what to do.
Heard yesterday in church:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved,
whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
-From Paul’s letter to the Philippians
Action and contemplation are very close companions; they live together in one house on equal terms. Mary and Martha are sisters.
-Bernard of Clairvaux
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
-from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6)
Discipleship Matters Conference 2017
Oct. 16-18, 2017
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