Purpose-Driven Centrist: The Problem with Prayer

One of the things I like about being a centrist is sometimes I can take on provocative topics. In fact, the more I try to find middle ground in controversial issues, the more I like to read form both sides. Sometimes I find that I learn more from those I agree with the least.

Last summer I read a book by an Episcopalian bishop named John Shelby Spong called Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Knowing nothing of the author, specifically the extreme philosophy, theology, and scriptural interpretation he had previously published, I dove into the book because I thought the title fit a theme in my own faith struggles; something clearly had to change for me. The book was certainly a challenge, especially given most of the first half is discussing how to view God not just in a postmodern perspective, but in a post-theistic perspective of the non-theistic manner he considers God “The Ground of All Being” and not as an external and parental-type God in a physical place we call heaven. I don’t have the patience or the understanding to review the book, but that viewpoint was a huge stretch for me to follow. I spent much of the first eight chapters wanting to ask Spong, “How do you keep saying you are a Christian if you say you believe this rather than that?” But when I got to the ninth chapter entitled “The Meaning of Prayer in a World with No External Deity” my eyes and ears and heart perked up. Maybe there was something here I could at least translate to my own situation.

In the first part of the chapter, Spong gave historical examples of prayer from the Old Testament, summing them up as “making their deepest yearnings known” and, sometimes, offering a bargain in order to gain some control over their situation or destiny. Citing a prayer specifically in Micah 6, Spong describes this prayer as a prayer to a God who is an external being to whom sacrifices are offered in order to change the outcome of an event or course of history. A look at prayers recorded over the centuries, the presence of human hopes and fears are very present.

Then Spong describes his own struggle of wanting to be a prayerful person, which greatly resonates with my own struggle. He says that prayer addressed to God as an external supreme being in order to change something or event had little to no meaning to him. His first analysis for this was that he lacked something essential in his own spiritual development and he just needed to work harder at prayer. Despite my own differences with Spong’s opinion of God, I have made this same self-analysis over and over. Spong and I share a continued striving to meet this ambition of living in significant awareness of God through more and more discipline and perseverance. But that simply led to more failure, and for Spong, a renewed belief that there had to be another way.

The tipping point for Spong’s conversion of prayer from traditional prayer to living prayer was his wife’s battle with cancer. At the time of her diagnosis, he was already in a public position, and thus many people were praying for her. She lived for 6 ½ years, which was much longer than her doctors had thought possible. What troubled Spong and his wife was not how people embraced them in prayer, but that people took credit that their prayers were working.

So Spong began to suppose a situation where a sanitation worker in Newark, the city he lives and leads as a bishop, had a wife with the same diagnosis. But sanitation worker’s public profile is much smaller than being a bishop, and maybe his community of prayer is much smaller or non-existent. Would this affect the course of his wife’s sickness? Would she die sooner, have more pain, or have a harder battle because they did have these same quality or quantity of prayers on their side? If so, Spong supposes, what would that show us about God? Does that show that God patterns healing and blessing based on human status or number of prayers or pray-ers? Spong concludes his hypothetical scenario by asking if he wants to attribute this pattern of behavior to God? To this final question he answers a thousand times no!

So out of this, Spong began searching for a new perspective on how to pray, and to how he envisions God through this new way of prayer. He describes this process as painful, yet also as a great relief. He goes back in examination of Jesus - not through Jesus' instruction on prayer - but looking for what the aspect of Jesus' life created "his sense of living what is holy." By this point I was hooked despite that he and I are different planes on our view of God, though maybe I am closer to his perspective than I realize.

In summary, the presence of God in human life, which Jesus embodied in his own life, is depicted as wholeness, and that is something that I know I have no sense of in my own life. Out of this Spong lists theses characteristics of a new perspective of prayer:
  • The conscious human interaction to relate to the depths of life and love
  • To be an agent of the creation of wholeness in another
  • Offering of our life and our love through simply our friendship and acceptance to another
  • Our being called to another, giving the other the courage to dare, risk, and be whole in a new way
  • Active opposition to prejudices and stereotypes that diminsh others
  • Active recognition that the sacred core in every person must not be violated
  • Facing life's circumstances with the realization that we are subject to situations where we have no control
  • Embracing the fragility of life and transform it, even as we are victimized or killed by it
  • Shredding the delusion that we are the center of the universe
  • A calling out of childish dependency into spiritual maturity
I find these characteristics beautiful, which is not an adjective I have ever used for my own prayer. More importantly, they describe a new perspective of prayer which motivates me to live into. A theme of living into has been something pervading my thoughts and spiritual explorations. In a recent conversation with some friends about doctrine, I spoke up that I understand why people are tired of talking and hearing about doctrine; they just want to live life. And prayer full of doctrine, per se, is exactly what I’ve failed at over and over.

Spong comes to the conclusion that prayer and living deeply, richly, and fully are indistinguishable, and this may be exactly what Paul means by “pray without ceasing.” We are to live everyday “as if everything we say and do is a prayer, calling others to life, to love, and to being.” I can understand now how this may have been a painful process for Spong because as I sit here and think about just how often things I say are the opposite of calling others to life, or love, or being, I see just how much that needs to change in my life. Yet at the same time there is a huge sense of relief lifted off of my soul that maybe faithfulness in prayer can have life-meaning rather than doctrinal or religious fulfillment. Maybe the simple act of preparing dinner for my wife to give her a night off is a more faithful act of prayer than the repetitious and cloned prayers of grace before we eat. Maybe just being in conversation with people at work, giving them room to live their own lives without subjecting them to my own interpretations of how to live life is a more faithful act of prayer than telling them “I’ll pray for you” or always giving my “Christian opinion”. Then maybe, as time goes on and relationships grow, the freedom shown them to life, love, and being will call them to explore the life of Jesus more closely.

Balancing a faithful life and prayer has never been successful for me. Finding the balance of faithful life as prayer and prayer as faithful living is something I am motivated to center my journey on.


  1. My small group was just debating the purpose and meaning of prayer last night, so it's perfect that I read this post this morning! One friend seemed to be trying to articulate almost exactly what has been summed up here. While the rest of the group could sort of grasp at what his frustrations with prayer were, we spent probably an hour talking in circles about our opinions of prayer. I forwarded this post to them this morning and I suspect that one guy will especially appreciate this dialogue on prayer. And it does pretty much demonstrate that in all our talking in circles we were basically saying the same things, just not as clearly as this post! ;-)

  2. Emily, I'm glad to read that your small group was discussing this and the context was so similar. It is my hope to spark discussion, and this particular area of prayer is one I struggle with the most. If you feel comfortable sharing more l'd love to read more about how your group continues to wrestle with prayer. You can comment here or email me at timmcgeary at gmail dot com.

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  4. Your comment that maybe preparing dinner for your wife so she can have a time of rest, that this might be an act of prayer, reminded me of Isaiah 58, where the prophet discusses true fasting. This is one of those "rubber hits the road" passages because the initial description of fasting seems very good, very pious, and then the prophet says, "That's not what pleases God...go and DO these things instead." I don't think he's telling us not to practice spiritual disciplines, but God's passion for our HEARTS always amazes me.

  5. I find it amazing, but not totally surprising, that a writer here has embraced Spong. We find it so easy these days to refer to any fundamentalist, anyone who believes the bible is 100% true, who believes it to be the final word on everything it covers, to be an "extremist". Spong is just as much as extremist in the other direction. He has no use for anyone who takes the Word of God seriously; he stands for many things that Orthodox Christianity is against, and has molded God into his own image, one that is very, very far from how Scripture describes God or His ways. Spong is much more of an extremist than Pat Robertson or Falwell could ever try to be.

  6. James, I appreciate you taking the time to comment. I want to invite you to re-read the first two paragraphs of my column. I hope that lines like:
    Sometimes I find that I learn more from those I agree with the least
    Knowing nothing of the author, specifically the extreme philosophy, theology, and scriptural interpretation he had previously published...
    I spent much of the first eight chapters wanting to ask Spong, “How do you keep saying you are a Christian if you say you believe this rather than that?”
    will remove the perception that I have completely embraced Bishop Spong, rather recognize he is certainly not in the center, just as I recognize Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell are not in the center.

    But while all of them have taken their respective extreme perspectives, that does not exclude any of them from the ability to speak the truth of God.

  7. in light of the exchange between James and Tim, I would go so far as to say that reading and engaging those with whom you disagree or are so off yours or my version of the deep end might simply be another form of the very kind of prayer this is all about.

  8. Spong aside, pray is a running dialogue with God. Perhaps what Spong is offering is an agenda to pray through.

    My serving the poor isn't prayer.
    But praying for a particular poor person, and then actioning on that prayer, that's prayer and life aligned.

  9. Tim, I did read every word and took all that into consideration before posting my comment. I stand by it, though. Spong isn't just another guy I disgaree with. He is dangerous. He's leading untold thousands of people away from Christ, while disguising himself as a Christian minister. Many believers who wouldn't for a moment entertain the words of someone representing a non-Christian religion are swallowing his heresy.

    Yes, he might say something correct about prayer in this case, but that's the way Satan works. Throw in some truth, then lead the reader/listener down the wrong path.

  10. Thank you again, James, for taking the time to participate. I have no problem with your assertion about Spong. I find much of his theological and philosophical foundations to be really "out there" in ways I cannot comprehend. At the same time, it is important to me to try to understand, or at least give good ear to various opinions, and in this particular area, he presented a spiritual formation that met me where I was struggling. This is going to be key for me next week when I attend a balanced discussion our church is hosting about the upcoming (and seemingly recurrent) vote on ordination standards in the PCUSA denomination.

    I agree with Angie that this is very much like Isaiah 58, and I'm slightly embarrassed I didn't make that point myself, as Isaiah 58 was a key passage for me during my college years.

    I hope that I dispelled any personal alignment with Spong in my original post. The point of this column is to purposefully and provocatively be centered, which is a moving target of both right and left steps. Clearly, that purpose was fulfilled based on all of the comments so far. Trying to find the center by examining both sides of issues is challenging, but I find it much more rewarding that staying in my own corner, like I had done for so much years in my former tradition. The senior pastor of our church has a motto that sums it up nicely, which I'll paraphrase: it's not always an either/or scenario; often it's a both/and.

  11. James, you're just not "Spong' worthy."