On April 9 the church and world remembered German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who died in the Flossenbürg concentration camp on that day in 1945. I shared this Bonhoeffer quote, posted by the Lutheran World Federation, on my Facebook Page ,“Our being Christian today will consist in only two things: in praying and in doing justice among people.”
I have been reflecting on the relationship between prayer and doing justice regularly since last February. I attended a training in California with Mark Yaconelli, founder of The Hearth in Oregon, a nonprofit committed to community storytelling. Yaconelli trained a group of us ELCA church leaders from across the American West to lead groups on Zoom through a series of spiritual practices. We all thought we were going to be part of a big and relatively new experiment—could we create genuine community online? Little did we know that the rest of the world was going to quickly join the experiment.
Central to the spiritual practices I led my Northwest Intermountain Synod group through was the relationship between prayer and doing justice. Readers of Richard Rohr’s daily devotions might use the language of contemplation and action (like the name of the center Rohr founded in New Mexico). Every Sunday, after a time of checking in, I led the group through a spiritual practice, different each week. Then we would reflect together on our experience. Finally, we would discuss what action the spiritual practice might be leading us into the next week.
I had several moments when I was humbled, honored, and simply grateful for our time together. My group included three pastors and four lay people. Among us was a grandma and college student. One person was preparing for her wedding. Another person took on a new job. And every week we all paused, took a breath, and explored where God was in the midst of our lives and how we were called to faithful action.
Our group met for twelve weeks in the fall of 2020. When we reconvened for a reunion Zoom call in January, we decided to meet monthly. This time, instead of me leading each practice, every group member is taking a turn leading. We are experiencing the practices differently because we have more experience. Further, each person brings a unique perspective to the practices and leads in their own way.
These faith practices are not a list of things to check off. This is not a different spin on earning eternal life or forgiveness through good works. I see the practices as a response to the abundant love of God we have already received. Trying them, making them part of our life of faith, nurtures our relationship with God, a relationship we are already in. Participating in these faith practices in community, rather than individually, helps create new relationships with other disciples. Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly to me, the spiritual practices impact our relationships with self.
Pieces of the spiritual practices group have woven their way into the life of my congregation. During a healing service last spring and a second one in the summer, I used spiritual practices in place of my sermon. Our Zoom sessions also taught me some etiquette which helped me with congregational groups brought online. In the beginning I called on everyone, so we did not have people speaking over one another or guessing when to speak. Later, we moved into mutual invitation: I invited someone to speak, then they invited someone, and so forth.
A huge piece of the spiritual practices group has in fact been listening. We do a lot of listening—to one another, to God, and to our own selves. And this brings me back to the relationship between action and contemplation or peace and justice. Listening is crucial to both prayer and justice. It is, in my humble opinion, a key part of following Jesus. I share this as someone with multiple platforms to share my voice: a pulpit almost every Sunday, newsletter articles, reports to council, and even tvprays.org devotions. I also share this as someone who has, for a variety of personal and cultural reasons, not always trusted her own voice and knows the importance of equipping people to speak up. And yet, a huge part of the Christian calling is to listen—to the Word of God through scripture, to neighbors and strangers and friends, to the stirrings in my own soul, to other followers of Jesus, to people who society tries to mute, and to the Holy Spirit.
This brings me back to Bonhoeffer, who wrote this about listening, “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear,” Life Together.
Holy Spirit, be with us in our discernment. Open our ears to listen. Guide us in our prayer. Move us to do justice. Amen.