To Pray Or Not To Pray Right Now

One day I was having lunch with several class mates at Princeton Theological Seminary. During this particular year (1977) there was a lot of controversy on campus regarding the greater recognition of women in ministry, supporting the establishment of a Women's Center for Feminist theological education and support and also for advocating for women representation on the seminary Board Of Trustees. I thought at that time, and still believe, that these were all important issues that needed much discussion, dialogue and debate and needed action that would support women and everyone in the seminary community. Right when the debate over lunch was really getting interesting, one woman nervously suggested " Let's pray right now." We proceeded to all join together in prayer. I believe that this woman's intention and desire to pray for the seminary community was sincere, the prayer was certainly heart felt. I have to admit, however, that I felt hijacked at that moment. It's not that I don't believe in the power of prayer, I sincerely do. But I felt that the timing of prayer at that moment wasn't appropriate. I felt like we needed more debate and more listening to one another. I believe that God wants us to pray as people of faith, but God is also calling us to do some other things , including at times sitting with our own un- comfortableness.
Yes, I am here to say that faith is messy. As much as I would like to believe that our spiritual journey can be one of beauty and wonder all of the time like looking at a Christmas department store window or having a nice pretty package with a bright red bow; the reality sometimes is that the journey of faith can be anything but pretty and can take us into some pretty gritty places.
The current struggles that we are witnessing regarding terrorism in our country and in the world may lead us to say " We need to pray about this. " Sure enough we do, but there is also the message that maybe we need to do other things. Perhaps, people of faith can begin to get more education why religious extremists believe what they believe and why they chose to act in violence. Maybe, people of faith can begin to have dialogue with poor communities, especially poor communities of color to better appreciate why there is so much hopelessness with young people in these communities and why the incarceration rates are so high ?
Henri Nouwen was a Dutch-born Catholic priest. He taught for years at Yale Divinity School. He was interested in pastoral counseling and pastoral theology. Nouwen was dedicated to contemplative thought, in the tradition of Thomas Merton, but he was also committed to action. In his book " The Wounded Healer ", Henri Nouwen reminded people that you have to pay attention to your own wounded condition in order to be able to be a healer for others. This is a startling idea, in order for the world to get well, I also have to work on getting well. Here is where the gift of dialogue, discussion, debate, disagreement , controversy becomes important, even critical in the life of any effective faith community. One of my seminary classmates, Martin Bolton, a strong ,energetic African-American male seminarian would always remind us " if we can't get it together here in this seminary community, how can we expect that we will help other people to get it together out there in the church ? "
His wisdom still resounds today in its relevance.
Communities of faith, if they are going to flourish in the twenty-first century, need to get over the fear of talking among themselves and talking with other communities, theological and other wise, including those communities who don't think or believe like people of faith.
There is this tendency to look at those who are not like us, who don't look like us, who don't think and believe like us as " the other ." What can be even more infuriating is that you can have a heated debate with someone, realize that there are major points of disagreement and then have the other person tell you " I'll pray for you." At that moment, you may not find feel the balm of Gilead, instead you may feel a hot coal.
Ben Myers has noted that there is truth in Jean-Paul Sartre's remark "L'enfer, C'est les autres" ( hell is the others ). But Sartre was not quite right. Hell is not the other; hell is the place where everyone talks about the other. Faith and Theology: Excluding the other: 10 theses Jun 1, 2009
We need to pray for ourselves and for others, but we also need to discern when not to pray, at a particular moment, when instead it might be more appropriate and holy to listen, to struggle and to debate, in order to see hopefully more clearly what might be the best course of appropriate action that could benefit all concerned.
May it be so.