Prayer: Words or Heart?

As far as I’m concerned, prayer is one of the hardest topics to discuss. Before I begin, let me be clear that I honor wherever you are with prayer, as I’ve probably been there myself. Having said that, I am in a different place with prayer than I’ve ever been before and it is not easy to share because it flies in the face of much of what traditional Christianity has said about prayer. So, this is where I am in my journey with prayer today. If it doesn’t make sense or fit for you, just ignore me.

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I have a confession to make… I’ve always wanted to be someoneprayer1 who prays well and diligently, but I’m not. Whenever I’ve been with a family that diligently prays before every meal, I’d inwardly cringe at myself and feel shame that I didn’t institute prayers at mealtime with the family. Nor have I ever said prayers with my kids before bed. Two black marks against the pastor right there.

Professionally I’ve tried to be the praying pastor I was supposed to be. I’ve led hundreds of prayers over the last 20 or so years, participated in prayer vigils, sat in sanctuaries and talked to God, prayed at bedsides, blessed babies, animals, homes, motorcycles, and communion elements. But the traditional form of prayer as supplication or intercession has always felt awkward and not quite right…

I’ve tried, but I’ve had many experiences with prayer over the years that have caused me to question and doubt. Let me share just a few.

At 17 when my mom was dying of breast cancer, I prayed for God to take her, just let her die, because she was in so much pain. She passed away later that day. Because I prayed it, or just because it was time?

At the young age of 24 my then-brother-in-law got very ill and went into respiratory failure. I sat in the waiting room of a hospital praying the rosary out loud with my former Catholic in-laws for Pat to live and be healed. But Pat had severe brain damage and lived the rest of his life, another 20 years, in a basically vegetative state. Was that God keeping him alive because of the prayers? Did we condemn him to that? Or was God not answering? Or was that just how things happened?

Fast forward a number of years when I was asked to lead a small, private prayer service for a young mother who was dying of cancer. I wanted to give her all the support and care that I could, and so of course I agreed. But part of me felt like this was setting her up for disappointment and I felt like a fraud doing it… I didn’t have healing powers, nor a magic wand, and the God I knew wasn’t a magic genie granting wishes. However I hoped and prayed I was wrong, perhaps God could be swayed by words and touch, and a miracle would happen. But she died anyway.  Was it because I didn’t have enough faith? Did I fail? As far as I could tell she was a good woman who did everything right…where was God?

Bishop John Shelby Spong tells a story in his book, Why Christianity Should Change or Die, about how his wife Joan was diagnosed with cancer in 1981. It was mostly likely to be fatal. Because he was such a public figure the news spread to all the churches in the diocese, as well as to the media. People everywhere began to pray for her in prayer circles and in worship services. Care and concern and love were given to them through these actions. Remission was achieved for a time and she lived 6 and a half years before she died. As that prolonged remission became evident people began to take credit. “Our prayers are working.” Spong said that despite the gratitude he felt for the caring that people showed, he struggled with their explanations. What if, he wondered to himself, a sanitation working in Newark, NJ, had a wife with the same diagnosis? And because he was not a high-profile person, with a large social network of people, socially prominent or covered by the press, his wife never comes to the public’s attention. Perhaps he’s not religiously oriented, or is quiet about his faith, and her illness never comes to the attention of hundreds of petitions and churches? Would she live a shorter time? Endure more pain? Would God be responsible for this because of God’s capricious nature to only help those well-connected, socially elite, high status folks? Was that the type of behavior he wanted to attribute to God? The answer was “no.”

In Matthew 6:5-15, Jesus instructed the people on how to pray, and a slightly altered version of this prayer has become the standard, go-to prayer for millions of Christians throughout the centuries. But the world, science, and theology have evolved and we’re not those people. For me and perhaps for many of us, the words to this prayer (while familiar and maybe even comfortable) don’t really fit our understanding of God anymore, especially if we’ve moved beyond a theistic God – a being that resides apart from us watching over everything.

The Lord’s Prayer hearkens back to a time when God was male residing in the clouds (heaven) far removed from humanity. This God delighted in hearing how sacred “his” name was, and “he” judged who would be worthy of having their prayers answered based on their sacrificial offerings, their adherence to the religious law, and the quality of their prayers.

Basically, none of these things work for me.

Do I want God to be a magic genie in the sky granting my every wish? Absolutely.

Do I want God to give me preferential treatment for being a pastor ? Heck yes!

Have I found it to work that way? Nope.

Now, the other thing I notice about this passage on prayer, as well as the passage preceding it about charity, and the passage following it about fasting, is that Jesus is very clear that it isn’t about making sure everyone else knows you’re giving, or praying, or fasting. He says all those folks who did those things in public already got their reward… they received recognition and a boost to their ego. But for those of you who aren’t trying to prove how pious you are, but are simply giving out of the goodness of your heart, or praying a simple prayer of connection, or fasting as a spiritual discipline, you will receive an internal reward. Your souls will know a deeper connection to all of life.

Joan Chittester, in her book In the Heart of the Temple, says “When we are young religious, we “say” our prayers. When we get older in the religious life, we “go to prayer.” But when we begin to see prayer as the undergirding of life, the pulse of the universe in the center of the soul, we become a prayer. First, as Gandhi says, we have words and no heart; finally, we grow into a heart without words.”

I believe that the intention of prayer is to connect to the flow of energy we know of as God, the Divine, Ground of Being, Essence, Spirit, Goddess (whatever you want to call it). Jesus seemed to be intimately connected to God on a fairly consistent basis. And that connection manifested in his teaching, his compassion, his love, the way he included and brought hope to the outcast and marginalized, the way he confronted the religious and political powers-that-be in bring freedom from oppression. If prayer is connection with God and we see his connection in all these ways, then prayer is much more than words. Prayer is how we live.

Becoming prayer… being a heart with no words… is about being a living prayer. When we show compassion to another we are connected to God and are a living prayer. When we bring the light of hope and positive thinking into someone’s life, we are connected to God and are a living prayer. When we stand up for the underdog, the bullied, the outcast, the rejected, we experience God and are a living prayer. And when we open ourselves to receiving love, compassion, generosity from others we participate are a living prayer. Perhaps this is what to “Pray without ceasing” means in 1 Thessalonians 5:17.

Spong says, “We are to live as if everything we say and do is a prayer, calling others to life, to love, and to being.”

So, I haven’t stopped praying, instead I’m trying to live prayer… and I’m better at it sometimes than others. Sometimes I fail miserably. Sometimes I’m humbled by the prayer that others live.

Know that I still trust in a mysterious flow in the universe that connects us, and brings what we consider to be synchronicities into our lives. And, yes, I pray for many people, I just do it a little different than may be expected. When I pray I simply open my heart and without words hold others in light and love.

Love & Light!


Work: sanctity or suffering?

work guyThe Bible seems to have two conflicting viewpoints on work. In Genesis 3:16-19 God punishes Adam and Eve because of their little transgression in the Garden of Eden. God tells Eve that her pain in childbirth would be greatly increased and that she would be subjugated by men. And God tells Adam that he was now destined to painstakingly labor on the land which would yield thistles and thorns. Only through hard labor and toil would there be bread to eat. Work would merely be suffering and punishment for their disobedience.

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Then Paul, in his letter to the Colossians 3:22-23, puts a new spin on work. He says, “Do whatever you do from the heart. You are working for Christ, not for people.” It makes work sound like a holy enterprise.

That’s an interesting dichotomy. Work as suffering or sanctity… which is it?

Think for a moment about the work you do (and if you are retired then this includes volunteer work, taking care of the house, or caring for grandkids, or hobbies – however you define it for yourself). Now, do you feel that there a sanctity to that work – a sacredness, a holiness – or not? What is it about the job that brings a sense of the sacredness to the work? Perhaps it is one of the following:

  • Gives value to life
  • Gives meaning to life
  • Help others
  • Grow self
  • A way to give ourselves to the world
  • Fulfilling
  • A place to feel connected, a place to belong and build community
  • Empowering to support oneself, to be responsible
  • A gift to the future.

According to a survey of the Center for Ethics and Corporate Policy, most Americans believe “that their work is very important to their spirituality…”And Joan Chittester, in her book The Heart of the Temple, also concurs that “work is holy,” we’ve just lost sight of that in a culture and society where the worker is valued less and less, wages don’t keep up with inflation and the cost of living, there is no company loyalty, age and experience are no longer valued, more and more jobs are shipped overseas, and the worker is a commodity, not a human being. It appears that the corporation certainly doesn’t see work as a holy endeavor.

But can we?

We’ve often heard that you need to follow your passion in order to feel a spiritual connection in what you do, but that probably leaves out the majority of workers and denies them any spiritual value in working.

What if what we do has less to do with our feeling of the sanctity of work than how we do the job and how we think about the job?

If the Divine continues to work and create in and through us in this world, then we are co-creators with God in whatever we do. And then, in just about every job, it is possible to see the bigger picture of how we are co-creators, how what we do serves a higher purpose and has spiritual value.

When John F. Kennedy’s visited NASA and saw a janitor mopping up the floor, JFK asked him what his job was at NASA and the gentleman said, “I’m helping send a man to the moon.”

In another story, a traveler came upon three men working. He asked the first man what he was doing and the man said he was laying bricks. He asked the second man the same question and he said he was putting up a wall. When he got to the third man and asked him what he was doing he said he was building a cathedral.

Seeing our jobs as creative endeavors that serve humanity can change how we look at them, and consequently bring even more purpose and value to them.

So if you are a truck driver hauling salt… you are working to keep people safe on the roads.

If you are a teacher… you are shaping future generations.

If you keep a home that is beautiful, well-cared for… you are nourishing the people who live and gather there.

If you are a realtor… you are helping people fulfill dreams and build families

If you are a healthcare professional… you are keeping people healthy.

If you are an artist… you challenge humanity with new perspectives and/or lift people up with art that is aesthetically pleasing.

I could go on and on…

My point is, if we begin to acknowledge our work as sacred – in the sense that we are co-creators with God to help humanity – then I think that changes how we feel about work, the energy we put into work, and the way we treat people we work with. Work is not simply a means to make money, it connects us to other human beings, is an exercise in love, and feeds our souls.

There is a story about a master woodcarver who was commissioned by a Prince to carve a bell stand, a task that probably carried the weight of his life should he fail. The stand he carves is so beautiful that people claim it was made by the spirits. But the woodcarver insists that he is merely a workman with no secret to what he did. But we can see in his approach that he treats his task as a holy task.

You see, as the woodcarver pondered his task, he deliberately kept his spirit from getting caught up in the storms and temptations that surrounded the task. His process was to fast to quiet his heart and soul. It took three days of fasting to forget about gain and success. Five days of fasting to forget about praise and criticism. Seven days of fasting to forget about his body and move into the mind of the soul. By then all thought of the Prince had vanished.

Only then, in a place of connection with his heart and true self, and therefore in connection with the Divine, did he seek the right tree for the bell stand knowing that he would know it when he saw it. With eyes to see, the right tree appeared, and the bell stand appeared within it. He seemed, at a spiritual level to become one with the wood and then he used his skill to draw forth the bell stand that was ascribed to the spirits.

In some ways this story may feel out of reach. Who of us has the luxury to take 7 days to get our hearts right before starting a task? And clearly the heart and soul is very unruly for it to take that long! He seemed pretty disciplined, I think it might take me a month!

Still, I think the message is important. For us to work at a level of true self, in connection with “the truth as it is” (God) we need to forget a whole bunch of things:

  • Pleasing others
  • What we’ll get out of it
  • Fear of failing
  • Being praised or criticized

My sermons come easiest when my heart has moved beyond these things. When I’ve become one with the process and the flow of thought.

Gardening, or painting, or working through a problem all goes better when my heart has forgotten the distractions that can trap us. Teaching or helping others or designing things or working with animals… they all got better when we move into a clean space of being, uncluttered by the things that distract the mind.

I think this is what Paul was getting at: “Workers, work diligently in everything you do – not only to win favor, but wholeheartedly and reverently, out of respect for Christ. Do whatever you do from the heart. You are working for Christ, not for people.

Christ is an energy, a presence within each of us… work for that, work from your heart, because all work is holy.

Lenten Blessings,


Complexity or Simplicity?

What do you think of when you think of a day to live simply? Perhaps it involves relaxing on the beach, coffee and a good book, no work, a glass of wine and a good friend, or a walk in the woods with your dog. Whatever it is, it probably evokes peaceful, relaxing, calm joyful feelings.

While we dream of these scenarios, we’re resigned to the fact that most of the time, life is not simple, life is complex. Here are three simple things to prove my point: cell phones, television remotes and health insurance. Any one of those things is just about as bad, if not worse, than untangling the dreaded Christmas lights. And that is just the tip of the iceberg in the category of “life is complex.”  Add relationships, jobs, feelings, and personalities to the mix and it’s like untangling a whole box of Christmas lights every day!

(For the full video version, click here.)

Mark 7:1-8 is a good example of how complex and complicated the Jews had made their religion. There are 613 laws that Orthodox Jews are required to follow including: wash your hands (in a certain way) before you eat, only eat certain things prepared certain ways, sprinkle your food before you eat it, wash your dishes a particular way, and on and on.  When the Pharisee started in on Jesus because his disciples hadn’t ritually washed their hands before they ate, Jesus pretty much replied, “Seriously, that’s what you’re going to nit-pick about? Whether they follow a man-made precept? Don’t you really think God is keeping track of who washes their hands and who doesn’t? What God really cares about is what is in your hearts.”

In the same way, Joan Chittester, in her book, In the Heart of the Temple, also urges us to focus on what is in our hearts:

If we lack simplicity, if we fret at every delay, become miserable at every change of plans, become miffed at every imagined slight, become irritated at every lapse of deference, become despondent over every lack of gadget, then God has been replaced in us by a god of our own making. Then the simple life, the sanctity of the present moment, the contemplation of the divine in the mundane, the “purity of heart” that centers us on the eternal that is in the now, disappears into oblivion.

She goes on to say that no matter what we try to DO to make our lives simpler, it’s a false sense of simplicity if our heart isn’t in on the deal. So, how do we foster a simplicity of heart? Chittester gives us four things to work on that she says are essential in cultivating a simplicity within:

  • Honesty
  • Being unencumbered
  • Opening to a consciousness greater than ourselves
  • Serenity in the midst of chaos


She says honesty is the foundation of all of it. And that doesn’t mean not telling lies, it means not pretending to be something we aren’t. It means living with integrity and authenticity. We can’t have simplicity within if we’re dealing with the complexity of trying to be what everyone else wants us to be, trying to please everyone, putting on masks so people only see what we want them to see, or being self-centered and believing that having what we want, when we want it is the goal of life.


Chittester shares an Arab proverb that says, “We own only what cannot be lost in a shipwreck.” Whatever we own, all those things we cling to and put value on, are truly only temporary. Anyone who has had to clean out someone else’s house when they’ve passed away or gone into a nursing home intimately understands this. Yet, we acquire more and more stuff without getting rid of anything.

Let me be clear here… it is not the things that are the problem. They are a neutral party in all of this. The problem is our clinging, our attachment, our fear of letting go, our need for things to fulfill our needs and desires. Instead we need to cultivate an appreciation of the beauty in each moment regardless of what we perceive our lack to be.

Simplicity of heart understands and accepts that there is NO thing that can give us value, truly fulfill us or make us whole. So, we can take things, but we have no problem leaving them either.


Living with a simple heart means learning to walk through life aware of the Divine Presence, in and around us and then root ourselves deeply in the Ground of our Being so we walk gently, with kindness and compassion, unperturbed by the “clutter of the commonplace.”


Do you remember going to the park as a kid to play on the merry-go-round? merry-go-round1If you sat in the middle, someone could spin you as fast as they could and you wouldn’t move. But, if you left the middle, the force of being spun gradually pulled you to the outside until you were handing on for dear life. Serenity is like sitting in the middle of the merry-go-round despite the way the world spins around you. Achieving true simplicity of heart, Chittester says, requires the ability to cultivate serenity despite the aggravations and agitations of life.

Mark Nepo, in his book, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, has a slightly different take on this:

I’ve been listening way inside, where the Universe rushes through me like wind through a hole in an old door in a hut near the edge of a cliff. I’ve been going there and listening, on the inner edge of everything. There, I’ve heard two irrevocable truths: the truth of life, the very fact of it, how it comes out of nowhere like a strong breeze to lift our faces, how it goes on its way; and the truth of how life like a storm can rough up our hearts, how we have no choice but to feel that wind move through us and around us. Trying to give words to this is difficult. But the first truth can be offered as the truth of things as they are, and the second as the experience of being human.

We live in this challenging place between “the truth of how things are” and “the experience of being human.” Simplicity of heart is the “truth of how things are” – that God, the Universe, the Ground of our Being is intimately connected to our souls and that is the eternal, foundational truth. And the complexity of life is “the experience of being human” – where we’re faced with the storms of life, large and small, the agitations, the irritations, the fears, the dramas, the tragedies, the life-altering decisions.

He suggests that perhaps the path to dealing with this is not to run from the storms or try to shut them out (because truly even acceptance of the storm does not necessarily stop the destruction or the pain), but to learn to be a container for the peace that comes from simplicity of the heart and groundedness in the Divine, AND for the storms. To be a container for both simplicity and complexity. What happens then, I think, is that we sit in the center of our merry-go-round of life, bringing love, peace, patience and compassion to the chaos, until the spinning slows down.

So… live authentically, learn to let go, be consciously aware of and open to the Divine in the NOW (whatever that now may be), and strive for serenity, so that we develop a simplicity of heart that we bring to meet the storms in life.

Lenten blessings,