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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
"Are we Christians because of what we do believe or what we do? ...My belief system has emerged as a result of my practice--of my doing. I can claim to be a christian (although I still may not be a member of the capital “C” Christian community, but rather a Progressive Christian*) because of what I do."
The summer before 6th grade I went to a little Methodist church camp on Finley Lake in Western New York. The days were filled with swimming, grace before meals, water skiing, evening bible studies, late night games of capture the flag, sneaking into the boys’ dorm, and real, serious conversations about Jesus. The head counselor, Ned, a Methodist pastor who volunteered his entire week just to share his faith with us, had a heart for youth and an inflexible set of beliefs. Nevertheless, he earned my respect because he loved his campers.
I was reared in the Christian faith, but that first summer at church camp I felt called to identify myself as a Christian. Perhaps there was a little too much talk about judgment that week, I don’t remember. What I do remember is that I wanted to make sure I was “in.” I wanted to make sure I was a capital “C” Christian. I asked Ned what I needed to do and his answer was simple, Take Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.
That was it. One easy clear formula. Seven words: Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior. I didn’t know who to say that to, so I wrote those words in a letter to my mom and dad (I can only imagine the worried conversation they had about their newly converted daughter). I am sure some would mark that as the true moment of my conversion. I think of it as a moment when I tried on someone else’s idea of Christianity. I wore it for a few months, but quickly shed it like an old coat. It didn’t fit.
Instead, I have spent the years since Finley Lake Methodist Camp struggling to understand what it means to even call oneself Christian. I have sought after the man from Nazareth with love and commitment, but not with any stronger conviction that I was a capital “C” Christian than when I was 12 years old. This is ironic, especially when considering I have spent my professional career in service to the church as an ordained minister.
Are we Christians because of what we believe or what we do? For Ned becoming a Christian was adopting a set of beliefs. Claiming Jesus as your Lord and Savior represented a belief system. This belief system unlocked membership into capital “C” Christianity. Sadly, even though I was given the password/phrase which granted me membership, I never felt like I was a capital “C” Christian, even though I desired deeply to follow Jesus.
For years now I have been “doing” Christianity. I have been an active member in churches, prayed, volunteered, advocated, and served. And at the end of the day I have done my best to bind up the brokenhearted (Isaiah 61:1). My belief system has emerged as a result of my practice--of my doing. I can claim to be a christian (although I still may not be a member of the capital “C” Christian community, but rather a Progressive Christian*) because of what I do.
For those of you who are unsure what you believe, overwhelmed by old biblical stories, conflicting Christian beliefs, and evangelical domination of the media, I advise you to ignore it all! I wonder if belief doesn’t more naturally follow practice. I wonder if we shouldn’t first do and let our thinking follow.
As a twelve year old I didn’t need a belief system. I needed a faithful community that volunteered together and adults who openly prayed in front of me. I am certain if some adult had openly shared their imperfect faith practice with me, I would have known deep in my heart that Jesus had claimed me. Offering me a set of beliefs which to adhere never turned my heart to the Gospel. Instead, practicing the Gospel with other stirred in me a ceaseless desire to follow Jesus.
Over the next ten weeks, I will write & preach about the ten things progressive christians DO, not what they believe. The list is not comprehensive, but it is a start. May it serve as an invitation to explore your own faith, so that you can come up with your own list. 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.
*See early September 2014 blog entitled I am a Progressive Christian
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. .
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.