Prayer

Instapray App Puts Our Best (and Worst) Prayer Impulses on Display

Photo via LDprod / Shutterstock.com

Photo via LDprod / Shutterstock.com

As long as people have been praying, they have also been asking for prayer from one another. In the Bible, the New Testament is full of requests from Paul and others to pray for them; contemporary places of worship often offer time in their services to pray for the specific needs of their parishioners.

A new app called Instapray makes sense as a digital heir to that tradition.

Praying for Prisoners with Jesus

Photo via Gwoeii / Shutterstock.com

Silhouette of a prisoner behind a barbed wire fence. Photo via Gwoeii / Shutterstock.com

Jesus not only knew how to pray; he knew what it was like to be arrested. When he had finished his table prayer, Jesus and his disciples went out across the Kidron valley to a garden. Judas knew about that garden because he and the other disciples often met there with Jesus. This time, Judas didn’t come to pray, but brought a detachment of soldiers and religious police. They arrested Jesus, bound him and took him away to be tried.

Jesus escaped prison only because he was executed by the state the next day. This crucified, risen, and wounded Jesus has returned to the heart of God. He continues to pray for us. Why wouldn’t Jesus be praying also for those who are in prison? Why wouldn’t we?

No Dice Required: A Medieval Prayer Wheel Surfaces, but How It Was Used Is Anyone’s Guess

Photo via Les Enluminures Ltd. / RNS

The Liesborn Gospel Prayer Wheel with Latin to English translation. Photo via Les Enluminures Ltd. / RNS

If much of life in the High Middle Ages seems foreign to us, the detailed workings of the wheel — along with four others like it that have survived to the present — are a real riddle.

Schematic prayer guides were more common in later centuries, said Lauren Mancia, a medievalist at Brooklyn College who has examined the Liesborn Wheel.

“Monks and nuns in the Central Middle Ages often get a bad rap for unsystematic thinking — doing all this prayer by rote, mumbling, and not caring about the sense,” said Mancia.

“This diagram suggests that they’re not just mumbling, they’re using a mnemonic device to remember and internalize, or even to make an inner journey.”

Why I, a Protestant, Pray the 'Hail Mary' and Use a Rosary

Image via nadyatess/shutterstock.com

Image via nadyatess/shutterstock.com

As part of this year-long effort to better understand what we mean when we talk about following Jesus, I’ve been making a more concerted effort to pray every day. Even though my tendency is to focus on silent, contemplative reflection, I’ve actually taken on a number of prayers that I do several times each, over a half-hour period or so.

Along with the Lord’s Prayer ("Our Father/God, who art in Heaven…"), the Jesus Prayer ("Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"), the Serenity Prayer ("Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…") and the Prayer of St. Francis ("Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…"), I also recite the Hail Mary. Not only that, but I use a rosary to go through my prayers.

I’ve shared this with some folks, and inevitably someone is surprised by this. I’ll get something like, “I didn’t know you’re Catholic.” Or, “Why pray to Mary? After all, she’s not actually God.”

Or is she?

Not that I think Mary personally was “God with skin on,” like we sometimes talk about Jesus. But like her son, I do tend to think that she pointed us toward God, which seems to be the one of the most important things Jesus did. In fact, when I’m asked what’s different about Jesus — as compared with other prophets and miracle workers in the Bible — I tend to respond that he, unlike others who preceded him in the biblical narrative, was more like the needle of a compass, pointing us in a common direction, rather than making himself the X marking the spot, the ultimate destination.

For me, Mary does this as well. There’s no story about her in the Gospels that suggests anything other than total devotion to God and to Jesus. In fact, in her conversation with God about becoming Jesus’ mother sounded much like Jesus prayer to God in the garden of Gethsemane, just before he was handed over to be crucified.

Both offered humble submission: Not my will, God, but yours be done.

Canadian Supreme Court Rules Against Prayer at City Council Meetings

Photo via Peregrine981 /  Wikimedia Commons / RNS

The Supreme Court of Canada building. Photo via Peregrine981 / Wikimedia Commons / RNS

Canada’s Supreme Court has ruled that a small town in Quebec may not open its council meetings with prayer.

In a unanimous ruling April 15, Canada’s highest court ruled that the town of Saguenay can no longer publicly recite a Catholic prayer because it infringes on freedom of conscience and religion.

The case dates back to 2007, when a resident of Saguenay complained about public prayer at City Hall.

Just last year, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled that legislative bodies such as city councils could begin their meetings with prayer, even if it plainly favors a specific religion.

But the Canadian high court ruled that the country’s social mores have “given rise to a concept of neutrality according to which the state must not interfere in religion and beliefs. The state must instead remain neutral in this regard. This neutrality requires that the state neither favor nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non belief.”

The court said a nondenominational prayer is still religious in nature and would exclude nonbelievers.

What I Learned From Praying at the White House

The closing prayer. Image via Justin Fung.

The closing prayer. Image via Justin Fung.

I got the call on the morning of Maundy Thursday: Would you be interested in giving the closing prayer at the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast?

Uh. Yes. Wow. Absolutely. I actually don’t even remember what my response was, but it was probably something like that.

My feeling upon hanging up the phone — and the underlying sense all through the emotion and significance and spiritual intensity of our Good Friday and Easter Sunday services at my church — was, Who, me? 

I felt the same way walking into the White House with a bunch of leaders whose names and faces I’d seen before on social media or the news but never yet in person.

The other presenters that day were Rev. Amy Butler from Riverside Church in New York City, Sister Donna Markham of Catholic Charities USA, Fr. Anthony Messeh of St. Timothy and St. Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Church, and Pastor Ann Lightner-Fuller of Mt. Calvary A.M.E. Church, and as we met and chatted in the Blue Room while we waited for the President and Vice President to greet us before the breakfast, we shared this common feeling. Who were we to be doing this? At one point, Fr. Anthony said, “I’m just waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me they made a mistake!”

Eight years ago, a 25-year-old, grad-school-student, fanboy-and-campaigner-in-chief Justin would have been unreservedly and unabashedly over-the-moon about an opportunity like this — and please don’t get me wrong, I was excited. There were a lot of things I thought about saying to the President — “Big fan, sir!” or “We’re praying for you!” or “Come visit The District Church — we’re just a couple miles up the road!” or “How about that Championship game last night?”

But all that came out was, “Great to meet you, Mr. President!” And then I had nothing.

The breakfast itself was a fun thing to be a part of, too. From Vice President Biden’s opening remarks to President Obama’s reflections (and jokes, the man’s got a great sense of humor!)to the song by Amy Grant (a childhood musical hero of mine) to the scriptures read from 1 Corinthians and Mark’s Gospel to the homily on having the courage to hope and keep moving forward, the event was a thoroughly Jesus-saturated. It felt like an extension of Easter Sunday.

And I guess that’s what God has impressed upon my heart this weekend and through the prayer breakfast: we all need the gospel and the gospel is for us all. Before the breakfast, I met Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, and we both commented on how even famous people need Jesus, how even nice suits and dresses can’t hide the things that we all have to deal with.

Hozier's 'Take Me to Church' As a Holy Week Reflection

Hozier, photo via Hozier.com

Hozier, photo via Hozier.com

All Holy Week, I've been listening to Hozier's “Take Me to Church” — an odd sort of spiritual exercise, I suppose.

At first it was the hauntingly catchy refrain: “Take Me to Church” — and after all I would be going to church all week this week, the holiest of weeks in the Christian calendar. Maundy, or Holy, Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunday.

The refrain was jarring against the artist's desired impact of the song, that in fact no one would be taken to church, that no one would trust the institutional church that has proven so dogmatic, divisive, violent, and decidedly un-Christlike in its practice as to become "a fresh poison each week."

“Take Me to Church” is about sexuality, about dogma, about prayer, about worship, about heaven, hell, life, death, sacrifice, sin, confession, and absolution. It’s about Catholicism and Protestantism and Jesus and atheism and fear and hope and love.

We each see pieces of it. Many American viewers saw Hozier's music video and wrongly assumed he was gay — that the sum of his message was about the church's persecution of homosexuality. And even though Hozier is not gay, he did mean to indict the church for its horrible treatment of the LGBTQ community — but the message of his song goes beyond sexuality.

Hozier is an Irish singer, a man who grew up with the deadly legacy of Catholic-Protestant war, a man whose national church was beset by sexual abuse scandals and pews full of dogmatic believers who had never read the Bible. Masses in many cases were dominated by ritual and women and babies sent away to church-run facilities, like the one where the bodies of nearly 800 infants were recently found in an unmarked mass grave.

Americans can look on the Irish church with judgment, yet our own church scandals and hypocrisy can fill even more pages.

As a pastor looking toward Easter Sunday 2015, I see something else in these lyrics. I see and hear a deep longing. Not only for sex. But a longing for the God who came to earth in Jesus, who died and rose again because of love.

I asked colleagues and friends about their responses to this song, as it dominates airwaves during Holy Week, and no one seemed to want to broach the topic. Too sexual, some said. Another, that "it could not be redeemed." Another, that "people would be too offended."

This is Praying

You hear a voice speaking
about a bird dragging its dark universe
of feathers across your yard,
and you realize it must be you

telling the boy how you carried its body
beyond the ambit of your dogs.
One eye, round as a coin,
fixing fear upon you, the other,

half shut. How the bird hauled
its body back into your yard,
dying with a will you could only
admire. Am I the bird?, the boy asks.

7.5 Million Americans Lost Their Religion Since 2012

Photo via Wouter Tolenaars / Shutterstock.com

Sun shines inside an empty church in France. Photo via Wouter Tolenaars / Shutterstock.com

A new survey shows in stark relief that what some are calling the Great Decline of religion in America continues: Since 2012, the U.S. has about 7.5 million more Americans who are no longer active in religion.

Last week, the 2014 General Social Survey was released. The GSS is the gold standard for sociological surveys. Funded by the National Science Foundation, this multimillion-dollar study gives us the most accurate data on American society — including religion.

(An important point to remember as you see the data: Each percentage point increase represents a growth of 2.5 million adults. So a 3-point rise in secularity, for example, means that about 7.5 million people left religion since 2012.)

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