Tag: prayer

Praying for political leaders makes a difference

A former Texas legislator told me the other day of sitting in his chair on the House floor, considering a bill, and thinking about what the Bible says. This man is not a regular churchgoer now, but that day in Austin he remembered the Bible talking about loving the children. He voted for the children of Texas in a vote that shocked some people and promised to cause him political difficulties.

I don’t share his name because we were just visiting about different matters, and this was a passing part of the conversation.

He next said something important for today. Someone complained to him recently about one of this year’s presidential candidates. The former legislator asked the complainer if she had been praying for the candidate.

Two good points come from this brief conversation. Let’s go backwards from what is said above.

It’s important that we pray for people running for office and for those who win, even if we don’t like the winner. When we honestly pray for someone, we begin to identify with that person. We think about his or her struggles, abilities, and opportunities. We begin to feel a genuine closeness with the person.

I have heard public prayers for public officials that are more political statements that entreaties to the God of the universe. Prayer, at its best, includes deep humility. The Creator is allowing me to have a conversation. That’s amazing. That should be humbling.

God understands our world, our nation, our state, and our communities better than we do. God is sovereign, so we should not act like we are.

One of the things I’ve told my now-grown kids is that Jesus is never on the ballot. We are voting for flawed individuals in need of God’s grace and guidance.

We pray for politicians because it matters to them. The men and women we elect are thinking and working to do the best job they can for their constituents. Your prayers may ignite a reminder to care for children, pursue justice, or restrain evil in the mind of a legislator or other official, as it did with the former lawmaker I cited above.

The issues governments address are massively complex with all sorts of unintended consequences to actions. Government has an important responsibility, but it is never going to solve all of our problems — never. We invest time and money in pursuing good government because anarchy is destructive and dangerous. The Bible notes that God uses government to restrain evil. But it is wrongheaded to think government can solve all of our problems.

What all of us need most in regard to politics is humility and civility. (Click here for a CLC resource about civility.) None of us have all of the answers. We need God’s help and guidance.

Let’s put our faith in God, not politicians, but then let’s pray for and work with the politicians to pursue the wisest courses possible. It’s part of God’s plan and our responsibility.

(This post originally appeared on the Texas Baptists website.)

Holt: Thirsty for God

There is a great deal of talk about spirituality in today’s North American culture. Much of it is associated with what typically are called Eastern or New Age forms of religious expression, but Bradley P. Holt, in his book, Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality, shows that spirituality has been part of Christian theology and practice since the very earliest days of the faith.

It also was part of the church’s first great global expansion after the death of Jesus, its contraction to Europe and Western culture, and now its worldwide spread again. Christianity is a religion with a rich spiritual heritage, and Holt offers a roadmap of sorts to begin understanding that heritage.

Holt sets out to “survey the variety of Christian spirituality in both space and time.” The story of Christian spirituality covers two millennia and five continents. It deals with both the inner life and the connection of that inner life with how one lives in the world, and the survey tracks closely with the theological issues of particular times and places. The author also states on page 12 that his aim is to “bring together two fields of knowledge that do not often connect”—the history of European Christian spirituality and the study of missions and new indigenous movements.

“Spirituality” is a word used across varied religions, but Holt deals with Christian spirituality, which he describes as both a “particular style” of discipleship and a “style of walking in the Holy Spirit.  “It therefore involves the whole of life, not some private segment. It is our relationship with God, ourselves, others, and the creation.” Christian spirituality should keep those four relationships in balance, but much of church history has “focused on God and others, distorting the relationships to self and creation.” These four relationships provide a backdrop for the entire book.

The study of the tradition and present-day reality of Christian spirituality serves three functions, Holt says. First, it makes “us aware of our own narrowness, our own parochialism.” Second, it displays a variety of approaches to the subject. And, third, it “presents norms and boundaries for that variety.”

There are both theological and practical norms, the author says. He comes closest to stating theological norms on page 127 when he says he expects an “authentic theology to reflect the Scriptures; to give a central role for Jesus as the Christ; to value faith, hope, and love; to be understandable within its culture; and to challenge the idols of that culture.” Practical norms have to do with how helpful a practice is in a given situation.

The book is structured in eight chapters. Between introductory and concluding chapters, the author essentially progresses through Christian history, beginning with the Bible and then moving to an initial global stage before focusing on Europe and North America before a twentieth century chapter that includes spiritualities associated with other continents.

“What then shall we do?” Holt asks on page 129. “Having a wider horizon for our practice of the Christian life, it is up to each of us to select, to experiment, to evaluate, to adapt. A kind of knowledge is available to us from books, but personal knowledge, the kind that really counts, can come only from experience.”

Holt definitely achieves his purpose of providing an introduction to Christian spirituality by giving brief glimpses of many theological and practical movements and the key practitioners in those movements. The names associated with Christian spirituality in the early church and Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East are all here—Tertullian, Origen, Antony, Augustine, Benedict, Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, Thomas  a Kempis, and George Fox, to name but a few. And he adds to that list some names that will not be as familiar to a North American audience—Gustavo Gutierrez, Kosuke Koyama, and others. The names of all of the many spiritual leaders he sites are listed in a helpful “Time Line” appendix. The list includes the names of more obscure personalities from the West and some well known figures who are generally thought of as great theologians.

The author weaves this story of spirituality very closely with the story of Christian theology, and this is a helpful connection. For instance, in dealing with the spirituality of Martin Luther on page 71, Holt says, “Luther called for a ‘spirituality of the cross’ as well as a ‘theology of the cross.’” He says Luther believed that in Christ’s crucifixion God reveals his loving grace to humankind—a theological point. He then says, “A spirituality of the cross likewise is a following of Jesus through suffering and pain, not a triumphal vicarious thrill that elevates one to the heavens.”

Holt provides a similar connection with John Calvin’s teachings. The famous Reformation theologian “taught that humans are joined to Christ in baptism and that people grow in that union throughout life,” Holt says on page 74. From that theological point Calvin moves to the spiritual with the idea that “mystical union is given to all Christians by faith. … Thus every Christian is a ‘mystic,’ living in union with Christ. …”

The author goes back to the New Testament to provide his own theological connection to spirituality. “Whatever else the Bible says about God this is relevant for spirituality, this is fundamental. God is to be loved with the whole self,” Holt says on page 17. Then, he adds, “Spirituality is welcoming this love into our lives; allowing it to change our habits, feelings, and thoughts; and thus returning the love to God who started it.” While Thirsty for God is primarily a survey of Christian history, connections such as this by Holt make the book helpful for the believer who desires to connect right theology with right spiritual practice.

Christians in the West typically think of spirituality as dealing with the interior life of prayer, meditation, contemplation, and possibly worship. Holt deals with those aspects of spirituality, but he also is persistent in connecting these spiritual experiences with outward expressions of Christian love and activity in the culture. “It is important not to separate ethics from spirituality, lest spirituality be a private escape from the real world, a self-fulfillment at the cost of others,” he says on page 20 in his discussion of spirituality in the New Testament. “Ethics and spirituality belong together.” It would be hard, however, to support this connection in looking at some of the great spiritual leaders of the past who withdrew from their cultural context, for instance with the desert fathers, but many others definitely made the connection, such as Francis of Assisi.

Origen actually coupled the ethical, theological, and spiritual, Holt says on page 36. Origen set forth three-stages of the Christian life—moral, natural, and contemplative. The first has to do with behavior, the second with the intellect, and the third with spiritual union with God.

These are helpful connections for the Christian context of North America today because it provides a balanced, holistic means of seeking to understand the Christian life. It also can break down some of the fears of and resistance to spirituality when it is simply seen as otherworldly experience often associated only with Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

The ethical component connects to another of Holt’s emphases—the relationship of spirituality and Christian living to culture. “This book asserts that it is possible to be authentically Christian in any culture,” he said on page 96. “There will indeed be tension between Christianity and any culture …, but there will also be gifts that every culture can bring to the understanding of Christianity. …” Holt illustrates this in relation to the early years of Christian globalization on page 49 when he says, “Christianity in the early centuries developed in a number of cultures and was expressed somewhat differently in each of them. The foundational developments occurred not only in Greek and Latin contexts, but in Syriac and other lesser-known contexts.” This has happened in more recent decades as the churches in Africa and Asia have slipped the bonds of European Christianity with the passing of colonialism.

This is a fundamentally important subtext to Holt’s book—that other cultures have much to offer in understanding Christian spirituality. The reason this is important is because of the Enlightenment’s impact on Western thought in general and Western Christianity in particular. Holt is convinced that the Enlightenment is what separates the West from the rest of the world. (84) “Missionaries from the North Atlantic countries generally taught Christianity on the basis of their own post-Enlightenment, modern assumptions and addressed their answers to the kinds of questions they were accustomed to at home,” Holt says on page 109. “Christianity became a classroom religion of many people. It taught reading and writing and the correct answers to the question in the catechism,  … but it often did not address the questions Africans raised.” He probably would say the same thing about questions raised in Latin America and Asia. Understanding such differences offers a way forward as East and West, North and South are more frequently being brought into contact with one another. The potential for a more fully orbed understanding of the spiritual life and Christianity in general is made possible by these coming together of cultures.

The potential benefits of this can be illustrated by some speculation. Metaphors of light are often used to speak of God and spiritual understanding. There are related metaphors that speak of cleansed souls being made white as snow. There is nothing wrong with these metaphors, and they have often been seen as very helpful by Caucasians. On the other hand, darkness is often associated with evil. There is nothing wrong with such metaphors, but what impact does such imagery have on darker-skinned persons? Then, in Thirsty for God, the reader encounters a European mystic, John of the Cross, who uses the “dark night” as a metaphor to “describe the inability of the intellect to grasp God and to describe the experience of the soul on its journey to the mountaintop, to union with God.” Suddenly, the light-skinned person is jarred with a new way of seeing darkness, and the dark-skinned person is brightened with a positive image relating darkness to intimacy with God. Such things are important in bridging cultural barriers.

The author helps break down another misconception of spirituality when he speaks of its communal aspects. Part of spiritual practice includes heavy doses of solitude, silence, and stillness, but this is not the whole picture, Holt says. Christian spirituality is “not only personal but communal,” he says on page 20. “The Bible does not know of separating individuals from the people of Israel or from the church; our relations with God are as members of a body, not as isolated individuals.” And this connects spirituality to corporate worship. The church began this way in its earliest years as it adapted Jewish synagogue worship to a Christian context. Worship was next exercised in small groups and eventually in large congregations. (26) Holt points out that corporate worship is the primary means of spirituality in the Anglican tradition. The importance of corporate worship is one of the ways in which Christian spirituality is differentiated from Hindu and Buddhist spirituality.

One of the most helpful aspects of Holt’s text is his discussion of various metaphors of spirituality. It is impossible to delineate them all here, but he groups the metaphors in helpful patterns. For instance, the process of Christian living is illustrated by growth, unification, and healing, which all describe gradual changes. (125) Each conveys different nuances of Christian living, and they become even more powerful when considered together. Each stands alone, but each gives richer meaning to the spirituality behind Christian living.

Holt has written a very assessable text both in length and complexity, or the lack thereof. It provides an introduction to the subject with all of the strengths and weaknesses normally associated with such types of literature. Since he is covering such a broad subject spanning millennia and continents, and he has done so in relatively few pages, the condensing is substantial. He gives more space to the more influential persons, while some persons or movements receive only a paragraph. This actually is a strength of the book because Holt provides some quick, helpful information on these figures. It can help direct a person’s further reading or provide a quick introduction to such reading.

At the beginning of the book, Holt says, “Spirituality is easily misunderstood.” This is partly because it is a “transreligious” word not tied to a single faith. “Furthermore, ‘spirituality’ looks suspicious to some Christians because it sounds like ‘do-it-yourself’ salvation,” he says on page 2. Because it can be misunderstood but yet is an important part of Christian tradition from the earliest decades, it is important to understand spirituality. Holt’s survey can be part of that understanding. A reader likely will come away from the book no longer afraid of the term or its practice. Better yet, it can be hoped that the reader will come away with a growing desire to pursue varied spiritual practices in a way that honors Christ.

Today’s North American culture has a high degree of openness to spirituality. It generally reflects a dissatisfaction with organized religion coupled with a sense that there is more to reality than can be comprehended through reason and the sciences. This presents an opportunity for those interested in pursuing the New Testament Great Commission of making disciples of Christ. When Christians realize that “organized” is not the most important adjective to modify the noun “religion,” that “spiritual” may be the most essential modifier, then the church of Jesus Christ may stand ready again to have a substantial impact not only on people’s spiritual lives but on their cultural lives, as well. Holt provides readers with a primer for such a change by helping the cognitive part of their minds to understand the tradition and present day reality of Christian spirituality. The other essential steps are for readers to actually experience such spirituality and then to let it affect how they live their lives.

Wisdom speaks

Walking under a canopy of oak and elm trees along a blacktop road, I found myself praying–literally verbal prayers spoken to the sky that peaked through the leaves. But the prayers were not really to the sky; they were to the divine beyond the sky.

The words, though spoken aloud, are private between the speaker and listener, but an interesting thing happened as I reached the end of the canopy. I heard an owl hoot off to the left ahead. It was the only sound. And I thought of the owl that must have uttered the sound, and I thought of wisdom, which, of course, is another way of naming God. Two simple words came to my mind, “Wisdom speaks.”

That is no simple thought; that is magnificence.

Then another owl off to my right hooted back to the first. Wisdom not only speaks, wisdom hears.

Sometimes it does not take much to be enough.

FDR’s prayer: ‘Let our hearts be stout’

Franklin Roosevelt

The president of the United States: “Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.”

Thus spoke Franklin Roosevelt to the nation on June 6, 1944, as Allied forces were in the midst of the D-Day invasion. He prayed to God on the airwaves.

This great prayer was broadcast and recorded for all to hear, even today. And across these years, some might find it inappropriate for a president to pray in such manner — in fact, to pray a prayer that could not be prayed at some public school graduation ceremonies.

Roosevelt began and ended his prayer with “Almighty God,” a rather generic appellation that would have been inclusive of all three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He also did not utter the name of Jesus; once again a bow to inclusion.

Of course, today some courts have indicated similar use of “God” language in a prayer is inappropriate for public school functions. This just seems patently wrong-headed and inconsistent with the best of our history. We do not need or want a government that is pushing Christianity or any other faith on people, but to go the extreme secular path that some courts have gone is to prevent free exercise.

I am OK if some atheist valedictorian wants to say he doesn’t believe in God, just as I am OK with a Christian valedictorian saying he believes Jesus is the Son of God. God talk, including anti-God talk, simply must be allowed in this country if we are going to have freedom of religion.

We can, however, draw the line when people begin to use God language to incite behaviors that would be destructive of the principles on which this nation are founded. In other words, if someone says God told him or her that America is evil and people should go kill their neighbors, that has no place in civil society whether the person invokes God’s name or not.

I obviously am no attorney nor an expert on church and state, but the ideas expressed above seem self-evident and consistent with history of this nation, as I understand it.

Roosevelt’s prayer was no violation of separation of church and state as expressed in the First Amendment — then or now. It is not an “establishment” of religion for a president to pray in public and to invoke the guidance and protection of God. It also is not a violation of others’ “free exercise” for the president to do this. Likewise, such actions by other individuals in public forums are not a violation.

On the opposite side of this equation, we don’t need a government — or school — pushing one faith and denegrating others. If we do, someday and in some places something other than Christianity will be pushed and Christians will be persecuted. I surely do not that to happen to me, and I surely do not want that to happen to others.

Roosevelt’s prayer points to the reality of a powerful nation that is still not the ultimate power. In his prayer, Roosevelt asked God much for Allied soldiers and the nation.

“Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.

“They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.

“They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest — until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.

“For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and goodwill among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.

“Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.

“And for us at home — fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas, whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them — help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.

“Many people have urged that I call the nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.

“Give us strength, too — strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.

“And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.

“And, O Lord, give us faith. Give us faith in Thee; faith in our sons; faith in each other; faith in our united crusade. Let not the keeness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment — let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.

“With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogances. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace — a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.

“Thy will be done, Almighty God.

“Amen.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt – June 6, 1944