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The human story is God’s story. When we pray, we connect with not just one human story, but with God’s story.
10 things progressive christians DO
The sun was pouring through my minivan, its warmth distracting me from my favorite NPR broadcast, StoryCorps. I was only half listening to the voices of the parents of an Iraq war veteran. In my line of work, I already know too much about PTSD. Did I want to hear more?
Then something happened. My heart tuned to the father’s voice. The father spoke: On June 21st that evening about 11:30 he came into the front room, and he asked me if he could sit in my lap and if we could rock. Which we did.
Tears streamed down my face. I thought of my own boys. I thought of the men they will become. I thought of their already long bodies folding into my lap. I thought of the deep voice of a tormented veteran, asking his father if he could sit in his lap. I thought of how this strong body curled into his father’s lap, knees drawn, seeking protection from haunted memories, trying to remember innocence, as they rocked back and forth.
The next day, on June 22nd, the father found his son Jeff Lucey hanging in their basement. After the must-be-done-work of untying his son’s body, Kevin Lucey held his son in his lap for the last time.
Prayer is not my natural spiritual inclination. Yet in that brief moment of space, that separated the father’s final reflection from the broadcaster’s voice, I prayed with every fiber of my being:
Please dear God care for this mother and father. Surround them with your love. Do something to help them bear such grief, such loss. Hold them in your lap and rock them until they can laugh again.
I don’t understand prayer. Half the time, I think my prayers are token gestures, ineffective distracted ramblings. Somehow, at some point, I became convince that to be faithful you must pray. So I pray with my kids, we say grace before dinner, I lead communities in prayer, and always, I assure people who seek my spiritual counsel that I am praying for them. But often I feel like a spiritual faker. Are my prayers effective or emotionally empty?
When someone asks me to pray for their cousin’s husband who lives in California who was recently diagnosed with cancer my “prayer conviction” kicks in, my “faith manners” take over. I take the request seriously and include it in community prayer. Yet I still feel like a faker; my heart is not stirred, my spirit is not open, I just string a few words together about a nameless man with cancer.
Either at this point you believe me to be an ordained imposter, or you are relieved to know someone else feels like a faker. If you think I am an imposter, that’s okay with me. Don’t read on. If you are relieved—welcome to the club. It’s pretty normal to question the efficacy of prayer. It’s even more normal not to pray, but still desire others to pray for you.
So why in the world is a spiritual faker, such as myself, writing about prayer? Why did prayer make it onto the “Ten Things” list that progressive christians do?
I have set out to blog about prayer, but I cannot talk about prayer without talking about story.
I do not know the Lucey family whose son hung himself. In the same way, I do not know the cousin’s husband in California diagnosed with cancer. Rationally, my conviction about prayer tells me prayer is needed and comforting in both situations. Then why did I feel like a faker when I prayed for the cousin’s husband, but not the Lucey parents?
I think it is about story. I knew Kevin’s story as the father of a PTSD veteran. I knew he rocked his adult son the night before he killed himself. In the same way, I know the courageous struggle of a friend undergoing IVF treatments. I hold my breath with her, praying that IVF will be successful this time. On the other hand, I was not given any glimpse into the cousin’s story.
When we pray, we offer an individual human story, or even a collective human story, to God. When we pray, we ignore the walls that separate us as individuals and instead recognize how tightly our stories are knit together into one story. The human story is God’s story. When we pray, we connect with not just one human story, but with God’s story.
Progressive christians pray because we believe that the human story, each and every individual story, is one story. And that one story, and all the individual stories that comprise it, is God’s story. We believe that each and every story matters, especially to God. Prayer is simply our way of placing these stories inside God’s larger story.
Stop worrying if you are a faker like me. Instead, listen to the human story, all of them, and offer those stories to God. Offer your story to God. Watch our stories weave together. Before you know it, you will be praying.
To learn more about StoryCorp or hear Kevin and Joyce Lucey’s story: StoryCorps.org
In my new role, I began identifying myself as a Progressive Christian. I no longer apologize. Instead of defining myself against conservative Christianity , I began to identify myself with Jesus.
I am a progressive Christian. Some might argue identifying myself as a progressive Christian creates unnecessary barriers. I disagree. Besides, I honestly can’t call myself a Christian in the current religious culture. Here’s why:
For the past twenty years I have spent far too much time apologizing for Christians who spread hate, create discord, and declare judgment. If asked my profession, I would often begin with, “I am a pastor, but I’m not a bible thumper.” Or “I think other religious traditions are fine.” Or “I’ve married gay people.” I can never simply identify my profession without qualifying. (Yes, there is a certain amount of this I need to own as an individual, but I don’t think this is only about my professional hang ups).
In graduate school, I had to visit the University Clinic. I was certain the doctor caring for me was gay. My heart ached in her presence. It was well known that the Seminary I was attending had a number of outspoken students and professors who publically condemned homosexuality. I felt complicit. What if this perfectly able doctor who was caring for me assumed I was part of the loud, angry religious voice condemning her life and love?
I kept apologizing during graduate school, after graduate school, in social circles, among family, in friendships. I defended myself. I defended my faith. I explained how I was different. I published articles and preached sermons in support of gay marriage, abortion rights, women’s ordination, interfaith relations, environmental justice, and modern science. I continued to define myself against the conservative Christians that received all the media time, instead of with Jesus.
Then I became the pastor of Grace Community Boston where I was free to shed worn out religious language and traditions. In my new role, I began identifying myself as a Progressive Christian. I no longer apologize. Instead of defining myself against conservative Christianity , I began to identify myself with Jesus. If asked now about my profession, I answer simply, “I am a progressive Christian pastor of a really whacky and wonderful emergent community.” If asked about my religious beliefs, I answer as simply as I can, “Jesus has a hold on me. I try to follow his message of love.”
Grace Community Boston also identifies itself as a Progressive Christian Community. It is clear, from the moment anyone attends a gathering at Grace, that we are progressive. It is evident when you click through our website or visit our facebook page that we are progressive. Perhaps this turns some people off, but it invites more people in. Tragically, so many assume they are not welcome in the Christian tradition because they are gay, or practice yoga, or prefer hip hop to hymns, or love Harry Potter, or hate dressing up, or don’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection, or had an abortion and don’t regret it, or would rather walk in the woods than read the Bible, or support stem cell research, or aren’t sure what prayer does . . . The list is endless.
I am a progressive Christian, and I am tired of apologizing. I am tired of refuting the opinions of conservative Christians who dominate the media. Instead I want to share with you what makes me a Progressive Christian.
Over the next ten weeks I will let you know ten things progressive Christians DO. But before I do that, be warned, there will be one more blog about how belief and actions relate. And if you want a sneak peek at Grace Community Boston’s top ten list, click here, or check out the tab entitled Ten Things Progressive Christians DO on this site. .
My reasoning is quite simple: if I could somehow achieve cool-hood my emergent community would thrive.
I am not cool. I teeter on the edge, possessing perhaps the potential to enter cool-hood, but I have never pulled it off. In the span of five years in my early twenties I became a wife, ordained minister, and mother. At that moment, I wrote off cool forever; it was no longer even a fleeting dream. I wore a robe, drove a minivan, and my husband was pleased to just have me naked whenever he could (what I wore had no relevance to him).
I am still a wife, ordained minister, and mother. I still drive a minivan and worse pay a mortgage in the suburbs. And yes, my husband still prefers me naked making cool clothes irrelevant. I have no tats, no interesting piercings (in fact, I am a little squeamish about gauges), and I prefer to wear solid clothing. The potential exists: I have solar panels, am a member of a CSA, and send my children to Montessori school. But if you could just see me, you would know this only makes me a suburban want-to-be hippie. And if you saw my husband it would make it worse. If you looked up WASP in the dictionary his picture would appear. We just aren’t cool.
If I haven’t achieved cool-hood at 38, the writing is on the wall, right? So why does any of this matter now? Recently, I have been in earnest pursuit of cool-hood, because it has become clear to me that the emergent ministers getting media coverage are SUPER cool and very edgy. Rob Bell does not buy anything, I am positive, from LLBean. He wears big glasses and dark t-shirts under his blazer. Very cool. Nadia Bloz-Weber has more tattoos than I have fingers and toes. Exceptionally edgy. Shane Claiborne has dreads! All three are so beyond cool they are cool.
My reasoning is quite simple: if I could somehow achieve cool-hood my emergent community would thrive. (Yes, I am aware this is delusional and shallow thinking). Since I have no interest in tattoos, cannot afford a personal shopper (really I can’t make the dressing thing work), and dreads take too long, I decided I would seal the deal with Chuck Taylors. They would be my signature look. I love Chucks. I have since I was in sixth grade when I bought my first pair with my own money. The plan is quite streamlined and simple: I will wear different colored Chuck Taylors every time I preach and viola: I am cool!
It hasn’t worked. I started preaching in my chucks back at Christmas. And this Pentecost I spent an ungodly amount of money ($50 to be exact) on red chucks. I have not achieved stardom or cool-hood. I am still just a lonely emergent church pastor out there working like a dog, loving my people, wrestling with God, and trying desperately to breathe new life into a worn out institution. I still wonder every month if this will be the last month our community can afford my salary. Chucks have not sealed the deal.
Yesterday as I caught a glimpse of myself on facebook, preforming a recent marriage of two women in my red chucks, I realized something besides just how delusional my grandeur is. The kids in my community, including my own biological, will never think I am cool. However, I am positive that one day they will look back on their faith community with pride. They will scroll through old facebook pictures and laugh at my red chucks. They will point out to their secular friends that actually there were faithful and progressive people working for justice back in 2014. They will tell of hot bread communion for all in a coffee house in which they tripped over chairs just to get an extra piece. They will remember the spoken words of Jesus about love and justice. They will describe people of all sorts: young, old, poor, rich, faithful, agnostic, gay, straight, trans, undocumented, lawyers and laborers sharing a common conversation about the God of love. They will speak of a community shaped by laughter and prayer more than rigid formality and doctrine. And I am hopeful, they will regale (yes this could be my new delusion, but please do not wake me up to reality yet) their children and friends and partners with stories about a pastor who loved them.
I think I have achieved cool-hood. I just may not enter the fullness of its glory until I am 80. I think I can wait. In the meantime, I am still wearing Chuck Taylors in case I am discovered.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.