Saturday, October 20, 2007

Praying is NOT a Passive Activity!

Prayer is about refusing to believe that the way things are now has to be how they will always be, about imagining how the world could be, and gaining wisdom and the energy to bring it about. ~ The Rev. Douglas Fowler

This morning I was reading the Rev. Doug Fowler’s sermon for tomorrow—yeah, I am privileged: I get to read his sermons even before he preaches them—and that quote above jumped out at me from amidst many quotable words. From my experience I have found that some folks perceive prayer as a passive activity. Some religious leaders reinforce that when they teach folks to “turn your worries over the God in prayer.” As if that’s all there is to it!

I rather suspect that you have heard the humorous stories about the religious man trapped on his roof during a flood who tuned down several means of rescue as he waited for the miracle with which God would save him and of the rabbi who prayed to the Lord that he win the lottery in order to have a good retirement. (If you haven’t heard either of these, let me know and I’ll re-tell them). Both stories reflect a valid theological truth: prayer is not passive; it should never be passive.

Before I attended Eden Theological Seminary, I, too, bought the concept that prayer is a passive act. When I was taking a course on the book of Psalms during my first semester, I wrote a paper chiding the Orthodox Jews in the Warsaw ghetto for, as I saw it, passively sitting and praying for God’s deliverance while the Nazis destroyed the ghetto around them, transporting any living Jews to the death camps. My professor, the Rev. Dr. Walter Brueggemann, in turn chided me and suggested that I check my knowledge of the history of World War II.

At a later time, when the stress of class work was less, I did some reading about the Warsaw ghetto and was amazed when I found a story about a group of Jewish Orthodox rabbis who did gather together to pray for God’s intervention and salvation from the Nazis. While they prayed the rabbis poured gasoline into glass bottles to make Molotov cocktails to be thrown at the Nazis by younger fighting men and women. Prayer is not passive; it should never be passive.

I hope you hear that I believe that prayer is not a passive activity and is best when linked with action. During my years of ministry I developed a form of bidding prayer that I often used as an intercessory prayer during worship. After a list of We pray for…, I would conclude the prayer with this line:

Forgive us when we do nothing except pray for them.

We can pray for the needs of others, but we can also put our prayers into action by feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoners, housing the homeless, and sharing what we have with the poor.

And, even when we can’t be on the spot to walk with the monks in Burma or minister to the survivors of the bombing in Pakistan or stand in unity with the poor around the world, or intervene directly on behalf of abused children, we can listen to their stories and retell them so that others are aware of their plight. For me, that also means praying for them, because I believe, as Thomas Merton wrote:

There is no such thing as a kind of prayer in which you do absolutely nothing. If you are doing nothing you are not praying.

Enough said.


  1. I have read that piece where the Rabbis in the Warsaw Ghetto were making molotov cocktails while they were praying...very proactive prayer!

    That's a good post, Nick. Makes us think...I bet you gave some really good sermons in your life as a Reverend. Some of the priests I remember just liked the sound of their own voice, I think, because their homilies were really hard to sit through...but maybe that was me...wishing they would hurry up and finish so I could go to the beach. (tut, tut)

  2. That's how I get through my day, by praying. The Lord knows what I'm going through. I tell Him all about it.

  3. While reading this, the saying "truer words have never been spoken" came to mind. I have found this out before, through my volunteering, and am living it now through my struggle with Brady & his family.

    Thank you. For this post...and for visiting me - which in turn, sent me this way.

  4. Well said--and done, Rev Saint.

  5. I thing every act that we do can be done 'prayerfully'.

    Even in out simplest of acts we can be prayerful and be always be full of attitude of gratitude.

    Alex, your cat is cute! :D

  6. Hi Nick ~~ Great post that gives us the idea of proactive prayer. We can all do better at what we do and pray
    but also DO something.
    Thanks for your visit ~~ That blonde painter just proved the theory!!
    Take care, Regards, Merle.

  7. This was an excellent post- thank you for writing it!

  8. This is something that I have never heard in church. What you say makes a lot of sense.

  9. Nick, this reminds me of the adage, "Pray as though everything depends upon God; work as though everything depends upon you." The combination is pretty unbeatable, I believe.

    Of course, I also know there are times to "wait on the Lord," but I don't think we're ever penalized for trying to help ourselves. Or others.

  10. Beautifully done. Thought-provoking and inspiring. I am always happy and grateful to receive "light". Thank you for ringing the bell.

    An aside:
    I've long been fascinated by patient reports of not engaging in "prayerful" activity "because it's been so long since I've done it, it would be wrong to just start doing it now."

    As if there is a statue of limitations, as if there is a time limit, as if there is no room for forgiveness (of self by self, for starters).

    Guilt. What a killer.

    /bodhisattva bowing in gratitude


  11. I was going to say what Susie said. 'Pray as if it all depends on God; work as if it all depends on you.' (And thank God it doesn't!)