Thursday, October 21, 2010

Prayer and Justice

I'm behind, I'll admit it.  I haven't been preaching much lately, and I've had a little mini-vacation, to boot.  So, instead of thinking about this Sunday's readings, I'm thinking back to last Sunday.

We are in Stewardship season already in our congregation, so we haven't been preaching on the texts.  We've been talking about generosity and giving and why we should pledge and our congregation's mission and ministry. 

But I caught myself listening to the texts, and especially the gospel, with special interest on Sunday.  I listened to myself reading the story about the unjust judge and the persistent widow in light of our visit to the Martin Luther King Center last week.  We toured the old Sweet Auburn neighborhood, the house where Rev. King was born and raised, checked out the exhibits about the history of the civil rights movement.  (Among other tidbits, I learned that, as a child, Martin hated doing the dishes.)

At the gift shop, I bought a book,  No Turning Back: My Summer with Daddy King.  The book was written by an Episcopal priest called Gurdon Brewster.  I had read a review in the Christian Century magazine about the book, so I looked for that one in particular. 

I ended up reading the whole book on the plane home.

In the summer of 1960, Gurdon Brewster was a seminary student in New York who spent the summer working with Martin Luther King Sr. and his son at Ebenezer Baptist.  He worked with the youth group at Ebenezer, and tried to put together some special events for integrated youth groups.  He had a couple of successes and a lot of setbacks, and some close calls.

He also learned to pray.

When he first got to Ebenezer, he had never said a prayer out loud, except for those written in the Book of Common Prayer.  He  relays his fear of speaking, his stilted language, and his progress in prayer as he gains more and more experience throughout the summer.  In particular, he tells the story of a young teenager who is in the hospital, dying of an unknown disease.  It is as he prays for and with her, that he begins to pray intimately, as if he were in conversation with God.  This dying young girl teaches him how to pray.

Prayer and Justice.

I don't know about you, but for some reason I rarely think about them in the same sentence, or even the same breath.  My friends who are passionate about social justice:  I don't think of them as being passionate about prayer. Social justice is Doing Something, and prayer is, well, isn't prayer just the opposite of Doing Something?

On the other hand, the people I know who are passionate about prayer, for the most part look at me blankly when I talk about social justice.

Prayer and justice.  Those were the two things that Gurdon Brewster learned from his summer with Daddy King.

And, as I listened to the gospel reading on Sunday, it seemed to me that these are more connected than I had thought before.  Is the parable about the widow beating on the door of the unjust judge about persistent prayer?  Or is it about seeking justice?

Yes.  I think the answer is yes.

Persistent prayer and seeking justice:  both of them, it seems to me involve struggle, involve wrestling, involve honest questioning.  When we come to God in prayer, we learn to speak honestly, to ask questions, to persist despite failure, despite silence.  And when we persist in seeking justice, we also struggle, become more honest with God and with others and with ourselves, and persist despite failure.

In both cases, we persist because, somehow, we have learned to trust God.  We believe that God is just, that ultimately, God is on the side of healing, or reconciliation, of the poor being lifted up and the silent finding a voice.  I don't know why we keep believing it, sometimes, but we do.   There's so much failure, so much silence, so much injustice, so much death -- except for that strange story that intrigues us, that we keep coming back to, you know the one:  about the Son of man rising on the third day.  So, despite ourselves, we keep praying.  Or we keep seeking justice.  But usually, not both.  Why not?

Prayer and justice.  If we put them together more often, what an explosion the world would hear. 

In the meantime, the question remains:  "When the Son of man appears, will he find faith on earth?"

5 comments:

Crimson Rambler said...

oh my, Diane. This chimes with so much that I've been reading and mulling...
do you know "Primary Speech" (about prayer) by Ann and Barry Ulanov? It's a kind of stiff read in some ways but very strong on the utter candor that prayer demands of us.
and then I think about Gustavo Gutierrez laying out how compassion must be balanced and ballasted by contemplation -- justice and prayer, prayer and justice...because they "keep each other sweet".
thank you for this!

Rev SS said...

yes, thank you for this.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

The book sounds excellent and so is your reflection. I was thinking today in church, during (yes) the prayer that is used during the service from the ___ and Seasons book, usually prayed by a lay person, how it is too high falutin and too disconnected from the reality of the day to really be about what we need to be praying about. Does that make sense? Seems to me that prayer needs to bare the soul and show some guts. That said, there is a good thing about praying from a book, if we do so sincerely: we might be led to pray for things that are less selfish than we would think of ourselves.

OTOH, if prayer is led by the Spirit, like doing justice work can be led by the Spirit, then we would be/should be led to things that we wouldn't think of on our own.

Diane said...

P.S., I had not meant that I thought that praying from a book was "wrong", because there have been times when I have been using a prayer book, and I prayed just the thing that I needed to pray, but not what I would have thought of on my own. I'm kind of a both/and person regarding prayer. I think as well, if we only pray from a book, that we sometimes get the feeling that God only likes certain language. The honesty and intimacy of the prayer Gurdon learned affected me.

Also, I like what you are saying about justice -- being led by the Spirit, instead of by ourselves or society... what would that look like?

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

I think that you and I agree about prayer. When I wrote that, I was in a hurry and thought, Oh Oh, I might be misunderstood. As with many things, there are at least two ways to look each aspect.

Prayers from books help us to pray for things we wouldn't think of otherwise, and they might help us gain some perspective on a topic. But they can be "too easy" or "too superficial" or not connected to the reality of the moment. They could also be deeper or wiser than we might realize, which could be good. If a congregation has only heard these types of prayers, some members might be afraid to try praying on their own.

Spontaneous prayers could possibly be more Spirit-led. They could be more connected to the joys and hardships of the pastor and people present in the room. The flip side is that some people might get into a too-self-centered mode. Or as one book put it, bless the food and our journey home mode.

Prayer isn't performance, but obviously, hearing another person pray can be helpful to our own faith and prayer life. I think a good Faith Leader does well to model using good written prayers and spontaneous prayers.

I think that I was in my early 20's before I ever heard anyone pray a spontaneous prayer. And at the same time, I learned about studying the Bible with other believers, without a teacher holding forth in front of the group. This wasn't modeled in the Lutheran background I grew up in, nor in the Lutheran college I attended. However, the Bible Study group I was with when I first learned these things was initiated by a Lutheran pastor who called together several people of faith from several churches to study and pray without him being in charge.