Prayer, study, action (why my theology is public)

In his book, “Evangelical Theology”, theologian Karl Barth stressed that “theological work can be done only in the indissoluble unity of prayer and study.”  Theology should always be accompanied by prayer.  Prayer purifies the work, keeps us focused on God, and keeps a check on our egos.  I like Barth’s discussion on prayer and theological work.  It reminds me of a kind of spiritual beam to stay balanced on.  “Prayer without study would be empty,” says Barth, and “study without prayer would be blind.”

I’m finding, as I commit myself to a spiritual life, and to writing as a kind of ministry, that prayer is becoming more and more like air and water, a necessity.  There’s some kind of rigor that is lost, some integrity dulled, when I neglect it.  I work better, and my product is better, with it.  In ministry and in standing for or against something as a matter of faith, I’m able to do so with much more integrity when I’m grounded in prayer, and I believe my actions are more potent and useful as a result.

I find that prayer and contemplation spur me to action in ways that would not even be on my radar otherwise.  When I am living into the ideal of spiritual discipleship, turning my thoughts to the presence of God, I’m more awake to what is happening around me. I hear conversations about discrimination in Arizona, or political oppression in the Ukraine, or about a professor who was let go at Earlham College; I see the old woman who falls down in the snow; I notice that news about violence in Venezuela gets no coverage in the paper; I’m moved by a gorgeous sunset.  Contemplative prayer helps me to be more awake and being more awake makes me sensitive to these things.  I care more.  I tune in to the way people are affected.  I tune in to the presence of God in other people. I listen more deeply.  I’m less wrapped up in myself. The action part is that I’m freed up to not only notice more, but to write, speak and act from a very present place–a place that prayer lends wisdom to.  Prayer and faith make an activist out of me and sustain my engagement.


In an interview I watched with Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest who some call a modern day mystic, she mentioned the gospel story of how the church elders tried to trap Jesus by asking if taxes should be paid to Rome.  Jesus’ response–taking out a coin and asking whose face was on it–was a wisdom response, Bourgeault says.  “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s”, was an answer that didn’t come from years of intellectual study or philosophical training.  It came from being very present in the moment, and being very grounded in his relationship to God.

Relationship is an important word when thinking about prayer and activism.  Engaging with others, showing up, being part of conversation–these things change me, and hopefully impact others.  I can be a witness, a facilitator, an agitator only in relationship with others.  Prayer and contemplation also help me to be fully present in and for myself; my life becomes more integrated when I am not split into my study self, my work self, my church self, my out in public self, my family self. I bring my whole self into all my affairs.

Relationship is also important in my writing life. Writing has always been a way for me to communicate with the world, to join a public conversation that’s been going on for thousands of years.  Public theology is like that, too.  I add my voice to the conversation.  The world needs more contemplatives, more prayerful action, more of us who are willing to say what is sacred and what is not.

When Sister Ilia Delio came to ESR, I had the privilege to drive her to the airport and get some personal time with her.  We chatted about faith, and the church, and prayer.  I told her that most days I feel like faith requires me to be willing to jump off a cliff, into an abyss of unknowing.  She told me, yes, but said that this is where prayer comes in, and becomes a trusted resource and foundation.  I often forget this.  When I find myself flailing, feeling like I’m falling into the darkness, whether my own personal darkness, or from this sometimes seemingly hopeless, violent world, I remember.  Oh. Pray.


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