Prayer and Social Justice Aren't Enemies

The other day I stumbled upon a conversation where people were critiquing a well-known spiritual writer. The basic point being made was about his linking of spiritual practice with social justice. The problem that these people saw was that this writer tries to substitute contemplative practice for activism. I myself don't read this person's work in this way, but that's not the point.

The point I want to raise, rather, is that underlying several comments in this discussion was something I’ve found common to certain progressive Christian spaces, which is that prayer has its place, as does social justice, but mixing the two will somehow dilute or neglect the latter.

For believers, this attitude results in a pursuit of causes (which, let’s be clear, are important, needed, critical, and urgent regardless of faith or non-faith) where those who profess that their faith is what drives them to participate are unable to articulate how or why.

A favorite analogy of mine is that of shooting an arrow and then painting a bullseye around it. We know where we want to end up as Christians involved with important issues, but we don’t know how it is that our spirituality as an influence gets us there.
And it is often implied, if not outright stated, that we can worry about the theological stuff later; that we can engage in the work of prayerful discernment later.

As a result, the void where that articulation goes is filled with DNC taking points, or angry hyperbole, or defining ourselves solely by what we are against. The ability to describe how our interior life or the communal interpretation of a faith community has led us here goes unaddressed.

In Prayer in Motion, I tell the story of taking a group of confirmands to a food pantry to pack boxes to be delivered to families before Thanksgiving. Before we actually begin our work, however, we paused to partake in the sacrament of communion to remind ourselves of why we'd gathered that night. The God who feeds us also calls us to feed others. 

We could have packed those boxes without such a reminder, but it was important for the organizers to first ground us in a faith practice that tells the story of where our ministry of service begins.

Again, the pursuit of social justice is important regardless of faith persuasion, and there are many examples of people reaching across such lines to accomplish such things.
But if progressive Christians choose to cite their faith as a cause for activism, then it becomes important to do the work that allows them to say how.

How has your prayer life led you to pursue justice, to feed the hungry, to advocate for the excluded? How does Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection inspire you? How could a regular spiritual practice or act of worship or time of study deepen your pursuit of this work?

One more time: the work of activism and justice and service is important regardless. And for progressive Christians, our grounding and our source for that work--as well as renewal and hope--is Jesus, the church, the Holy Spirit, scripture, and the observation of prayer in one form or another.

Spiritual practice and social justice are meant to be partners, not adversaries. The former informs and grounds the latter. The latter feeds back into the former. And both contribute to a holistic faith life.

(Image source)

Vintage Post: Saturday Cartoons and Spiritual Practice

I wrote this post in January 2016 as part of my ongoing attempts to figure out how to serve in local church ministry in the midst of changing times, particularly where church attendance or involvement is far from what it used to be. That certainly means one set of things, but we must be careful not to think it also means another.

As with many children my age, I looked forward to Saturday mornings the most. We grew up in the 80s and 90s, when that time of the week brought with it a ritual that by that point had been observed by kids across the country for a few decades.

This ritual had a simple quality to it: we'd wake early in the morning, pour ourselves a bowl of our favorite marshmallowy cereal or unwrap a package of Pop Tarts, turn on the TV, and flip between the channels that showed cartoons.

Every. Saturday. Morning.

I fondly remember many shows from that era. I especially looked forward to The Real Ghostbusters, a cartoon based on the 1984 movie. Over the years the morning featured other film-based cartoons as well (Back to the Future and Beetlejuice come to mind), with varying levels of success. The classic Looney Toons characters were always prevalent, as were Ninja Turtles, heroes from DC and Marvel, Gummi Bears (oh yeah, a show based on a candy), Smurfs, Transformers, Care Bears, Garfield, and countless more.

My parents weren't big fans of my sitting in front of the TV for so long every Saturday, but as a time-honored tradition in those years, I couldn't stay away. Part of growing up in that era involved keeping up with when your favorite shows aired, watching some of the others on principle, and breakfast that involved sugar. Lots and lots of sugar.

My own children don't know this experience, at least not in the way that I did. For one thing, there are many more channels today than there were when I was their age. The main networks on which we relied to provide those large blocks of cartoons have replaced them largely with news shows, but so many other channels--even many devoted only to the animated genre--have filled the void.

Kids today aren't beholden to only the "big four" to get their cartoon fix, and they don't have to wait until the hours of Saturday morning or right after school. The treasured ritual has passed away due to the innovation of the times. Those of us who lived it hold our memories close, but cartoon lovers today find satisfaction in different ways.

In addition to those who mourn the loss of this Saturday observance, many lament the loss of a Sunday one as well. The drumbeat of books and articles and conversations and church council grumblings is constant: worship isn't what it used to be. Attendance isn't what I remember from years past. Sports teams and shopping and brunch and a host of other options have cropped up around this formerly sacred time of the week.

As with Saturday cartoons, many of a certain era will recount how the sanctuary used to be full (or at least more full), how there seemed to be no end to the volunteers willing to step up to lead the bake sale, how everybody knew the hymns and memorized prayers. Now nobody does. Nobody remembers because so many other activities and interests have usurped this special hour, and people have taken after them instead.

The Saturday morning experience many of us knew has ended, but that doesn't mean kids no longer watch cartoons. Instead, they find them in different places all week long, just on different channels, as well as on station websites and streaming services. The networks that served as gatekeepers to this experience have given it up, but cartoon-watching pleasure is still readily available and even in greater abundance than before.

Churches also served as gatekeepers for spiritual experience for decades, even centuries: you show up on Sunday morning, you worship this way, you memorize these words, you sing these songs played on this instrument, you hear from the person up front in the robe. But along with the increased options to buy groceries and run the kids to soccer practice has also come the realization that many more opportunities for connecting with the divine exist outside of what many of us knew growing up.

Many are discovering--or rediscovering--spiritual practices beyond Sunday worship, many of them long-observed and rooted in ancient tradition. Practices such as lectio divina, walking the labyrinth, meditation, and many others don't depend upon time and place. They also embody the notion that we can experience God in so many moments outside of the one set aside on a particular day.

I'll be honest: I miss the days of eating toaster pastries while getting my weekly Ghostbusters fix. It was a fun and formative part of my childhood years and I'll always remember it with fondness and gratitude. Many may miss the prominent status that churches once enjoyed on Sunday mornings for similar reasons.

But people still love and enjoy cartoons. And people still pursue a connection with God. It's just that the times have changed, what's available to offer that experience has changed and has become more varied and expansive.

We can remember and give thanks for what used to be. But we can also give thanks for what's now possible.

Book Review: Shameless by Nadia Bolz-Weber

I propose a sexual reformation for those who have been hurt. I also propose it for those who have done the hurting, for those who doubt my authority and those who are certain they know all there is to know about what God thinks of sex. It is time for us to grab some matches and haul our antiquated and harmful ideas about sex and bodies and gender into the yard. It's time to pay attention to what is happening to the people around us, and to our loved ones, and it's time for us to be concerned. And I'm not suggesting we make a few simple amendments; new wine in old skins ain't gonna cut it. I'm saying let's start a bonfire, gather around it, tell some stories, and toast marshmallows over the flames. Because it's time. - Nadia Bolz-Weber, Shameless

If you've had any kind of brush with evangelical Christianity the past few decades, you may be familiar with what has come to be known as the "purity movement." This is a massive campaign within that religious strand that advocates abstinence before marriage. Depending on what books you read, conferences you attend, or speakers you hear, such "purity" messaging always uses sex before marriage as the baseline, but then may add on any number of requirements up to and including not even kissing or holding hands until you meet your new life partner at the altar.

In recent years, the backlash to this movement has been growing and gaining more traction as people who grew up hearing these messages have been telling their stories. These include tales of awkward physical and sexual interactions between newly married couples once they were allowed to be together, crippling amounts of guilt and psychological abuse, and, from women in particular, observations that this messaging is very patriarchal in nature. Girls suffer the most in this movement as they are treated as objects meant to remain in their virginal packaging, unused until their first night with their husbands.

This backlash has produced some worthwhile reads the past few years. Good Christian Sex by Bromleigh McCleneghan offers an alternative spirituality of sex. Tina Schermer Sellers wrote Sex, God, and the Conservative Church, which focuses on how therapists may best work with individuals and couples struggling to develop healthier sex lives. And Pure by Linda Kay Klein presents stories from a variety of women who had to unlearn the messages of their younger years.

And now, Nadia Bolz-Weber is adding a new volume to this discussion with Shameless: A Sexual Reformation. Nadia is a Lutheran pastor and speaker perhaps best known for her biting honesty. She has previously written about the imperfect yet dedicated souls who make up her former congregation and her own struggles with life, faith, and vocation. While she didn't grow up in the purity movement, she has seen its effects, and this book is her endeavor to speak pastorally to those who need to hear about a different approach to sexual ethics.

As in previous works, Nadia seems most comfortable when she is sharing stories, and this book has them in abundance. She recounts conversations she's had with people in her church and with friends from elsewhere who either had to deconstruct their own experiences with purity culture or who never felt like that message was really for them. Helpfully, this includes people who identify as LGBTQ+, as purity culture assumes from the beginning that sex should only be between heterosexual married couples. Near the beginning, Nadia gives an illustration of rotational irrigation where the corners and edges of farmland never get watered. This book, she declares, is for those unwatered corners: people who never felt like their lives could adhere to what this abstinence messaging taught.

In Shameless, those corners turn out to be quite large. As mentioned, she includes non-straight and non-cis voices who were excluded in their church communities. She includes those who have ended up divorced and have had to wrestle with their sense of worth. She includes those who have struggled with whether to have an abortion. And she includes those who thought they were doing everything right only to find that they had no idea how to handle themselves or each other once they finally got married.

Much of this book is anecdotal, and that is likely by design. After all, Nadia wrote this while serving as pastor of a faith community and her reflections stem from a pastoral concern for people who aren't being served well by the information--or lack thereof--provided by many churches. As a pastor myself, I could recognize the movements from illustration to Biblical interpretation to encouragement or critique that often characterize sermon preparation. With equal parts care and challenge and irreverence and humor, Nadia is preaching to the large corners in desperate need of a life-giving, affirming, holistic, and holy approach to sexual health.

Shameless releases on January 29th.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)