Posts Tagged ‘prayer’

“Pay to Pray?”

Got this in my email inbox this morning. Good Lord. What would $3.95 a month buy a starving kid in Africa?

More later. I have a class this morning and will return and see what you all think about this.

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The first 20 minutes of last night’s “The Colbert Report” was all about religion. Stephen had been selected by a dubious (my opinion) celebrity-focused prayer ministry as the “media leader” the faithful should pray for on the day of the taping, Feb. 23 ,because, in a paraphrase of the ministry’s press release, prayers  can influence the morality of the  decisions media leaders make.

Okay. Sure. If I am gonna pray for someone, it’s gonna be a starving child or a victim of genocide. But, whatever.

Anyway, Stephen put on his magic miracle prayer hat and his big prayer hands and gave it a try. His hilarious performance is a lesson in how not to pray. Take a look – go to the link above and look for Feb 23’s show. I can’t figure out how to link to it without making the video run.

So, what does Stephen teach us? That we should not ask God for material things, like, in Stephen’s case, an Audi with cotton candy air bags so you don’t care how long it takes the ambulance to arrive. The cool thing is Colbert is a devout Catholic who, one would assume, does believe in faith and prayer. Stay tuned to the show to watch his interview with Rev. Jim Martin, a one-time GE mover-and-shaker who is now a Jesuit priest. Their discussion on materialism slyly undercuts the satire of the previous prayer sketch.

Have fun. Then go put on your giant prayer hands and miracle cap and pray with beads.

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Do any of you listen to music when you meditate or pray – with or without prayer beads? I usually require silence, but at the last Book Expo, I came across Allegro Media Group‘s booth, where some very nice people from NewSound Music were offering CDs of world music that has a spiritual bent. Once I explained the purpose of my blog, account manager Paxton Scott very nicely gave me a stack of CDs to review as potential prayer bead music.

Here is what they gave me – each link has a place where you can listen to samples

Buddha Chill: Soulfood

Global Rhythms Collection (multiple artists)

Peace of Mind (Steven Halpern)

Celestial Mozart (Gerald Jay Markoe)

Healing the Holy Land (Dean Evenson)

Sacred Blessings: Sacred Music Inspired by the Worlds Great Faiths (selected by Anthony Robbins)

I am happy to report that all the CDs they gave me were lovely, of not all were to my taste. Lilting piano melodies, driving (but not too driving) ethnic drums, soft strings and where there were vocals they were smooth and serene.

I tried praying my beads with one of these CDs playing in the background until I went thru the whole stack. Not every one was to my taste. Buddha Chill was my least favorite because I don’t connect with electronic music. Sacred Blessings gave me a bit of a shock because the first track was an intro by Tony Robbins, the self-motivational guru, and I just kept wondering what he was doing on this CD while I was trying to pray. The rest, though, was lovely, and I give Robbins, who I believe is a Mormon, credit for including the songs and prayers of many faith traditions.

My favorite CD was Celestial Mozart. For one thing, it had very few vocals, and those it did have did not distract me from my prayers because they were just syllables or in Latin, which I dont understand. I think it also helps that Markoe is a yoga teacher and intentionally arranged the music to be 28 to 60 beats per minute, which he identifies as “the best tempo range for deep relaxation.” Then there’s the fact that I just like Mozart – thank you Dr. Dietz and your music appreciation 101 I took at the University of Texas 25 years ago. Some things stick.

Praying with music in the background may not be the thing for me. It is hard enough for me to focus my energy on what I am doing and not start thinking about my grocery list or my workload or how badly I want to eat a chocolate donut. I tended to get lost in the music. But maybe I just need some practice. I’d be interested in hearing back from those of you who do listen to music while you use prayer beads. Do you have any tips for those of us who find it a challenge? What are some of your favorite things to listen to? How do you stay focused on the prayer and not the music? Or, do you focus on the music and let that become a prayer?

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My husband and I are visiting Seattle this week – he for a conference and me for the free hotel room. So while he confers, I bop around the city looking for bead stores, places to pray with beads and great yarn stores. Oh, then there’s the eating. There are way too many good bakeries in this town.

One of the accepted truisms of the religion beat is that the Pacific Northwest is the least religious place in the United States. It has the lowest religious affiliation per capita and is the place where people are more likely to say they are “spiritual but not religious” than anywhere else. So I expected it might be a little more difficult to find great places to pray. I was, I can happily tell you, totally wrong.

This morning, I walked about 8 blocks from my hotel to Seattle’s St. James Cathedral, a Roman Catholic church and the jewel in the Seattle Archdiocese’s crown. I hoped to go inside and find a nice, quiet, meditative place that would inspire me to prayer. JACKPOT.

I stepped inside the church at about 11 a.m. to find a cool, quiet sanctuary with only two or three people scattered in the wooden pews and chairs. But what immediately struck me was the music – the organist was practicing what sounded like Bach, flooding the cool, dim space with music that came from all four corners of the church. I took a seat – a wooden chair – in the second row before the altar.

Then I noticed something very interesting. The church’s interior seems to be dominated by a theme – that of the circle. The sanctuary is illuminated by a skylight – a round hole at the top of a dome over the altar. Around the skylight is written the following: “I am in your midst as one who serves.” Directly below the skylight is the altar, which is also circular, with three steps leading up to another circular dias on which the communion table sits. This, it struck me, would mean that when people come up for communion, they might kneel in a circle about the altar and table. In other words, this is a church where the action does not take place in a line across the front, with the people separated from the communion supper by a rail, but where the people are in the midst of the action. I like the inclusiveness this implies.

Then I looked about me and saw the circle theme echoed elsewhere – in the medallions that ringed the church for the stations of the cross, in the rounded tops of all the stained glass windows and the arches, in the round bowl of holy water that sits right at the beginning of the main aisle, and in the round lamps that hung over the altar.

About this time, I got out the beads I put in my backpack for my trip. I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to what beads I was bringing with me, just throwing a set in both my purse and my backpack. I felt a little shiver run down my spine when I pulled out my beads and found I had brought an Anglican rosary with no cross, but with a glass bead that was round, smooth and cool – just like the inside of the church. If you have a copy of Bead One, Pray Too, it is the one pictured on page 28. I love it when stuff like that happens.

So, what to pray? One thing I like to do when I visit a church is to look for something in the pew that contains the congregation’s prayers. I try to incorporate one of their prayers into my own with the beads. I like to think that this links me to them in some way – I am a guest in their house of worship and wish to show my respect and thanks by using one of their prayers. I looked in the rack on the back of the chair in front of me and found a church bulletin from last Sunday. Inside, I found a verse from a song the congregation sang together, and I used it on my cruciform beads. Here is what I prayed:


Glory to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. Amen.


The Lord’s Prayer


Glory be to God in heaven,

Songs of joy and peace we bring,

Thankful hearts and voices raising,

To creation’s Lord we sing:

Lord, we thank you, Lord we bless you,

Glory be to God our king.


Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

I prayed my Anglican rosary three times around. When I returned to the invitatory bead, I said a Hail Mary, as I was in a Catholic Church and it would further link me to all the people who had prayed with the Catholic rosary in these same pews. When I was done, I was struck by how completely silent it was in the sanctuary. The organist had wrapped up and left – I heard him jangling his keys as he left – and all the other worshippers had disappeared. It was just me and my prayers and the presence of the divine I could feel all about me. Here I was, in the middle of a major metropolitan city, and it was utterly quiet, peaceful, calm and still. Only my beads occasionally clicked.

When I was done, I walked to the font of holy water at the front and dipped my beads. I then held them as they dried and walked around the perimeter of the church. In the Mary chapel, I lit two candles – one for my friend Darrell, whose 44th birthday would have been a week ago Sunday, and one for Sandy, to whom Bead One, Pray Too is dedicated.

When I left the sanctuary, it was only because I needed to get moving if I was going to get everywhere I needed to me today. I stopped in the church’s excellent bookstore and bought a rosary made with multi-colored crystal beads and little book of prayers written by the church’s former choir mistress. Their bookstore wad a wonderful selection of books, including an especially good section on prayer. Check it out online. And while you are there, be sure and visit the church’s excellent prayer resources. I am particularly fond of the Mary Journey page – how wonderful to have all those images of a strong woman to pray with! And note that all the images are found in St. James.

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The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released the second part of its U.S. Religious Landscape Study today, a broad survey of the way we Americans think about and live out our various faiths, including those who profess no faith.

I am a national correspondent for ReligionLink, and as such, was given an advance copy of the study’s findings so that I could write up what we call a “tip” to help other reporters decipher the findings and write deeper and more intelligent stories about it. You can see the tip, if you like. As part of the assignment, I also wrote up a long list of story ideas culled from my reading of the study, which we hope reporters will follow. (This was a team effort, with lots of help from ReligionLink’s assistant editor extraordinaire, Mary Gladstone, and our fabulous websmistress, Kate Fox. Nothing would get done without them).

One of the things that interested me about the study – at least in terms of this blog – is that Pew found that 58 percent of all Americans say they pray daily outside of a house of worship. Another 17 percent said they pray weekly. That’s a whopping 75 percent of us – 3 out of four people – who pray regularly.

What I want to know from you who read this blog is, do you think that number is high, low or about right? I have to admit I found it a bit high, especially the daily number. If I had been polled, I would have said weekly and I’ve written about book about prayer! I just don’t manage to do it every day. Do you? In any kind of a formal way? Discuss . . . .

But the headlines you will all see tomorrow – or hear tonight on the evening news – will be that we are an incredibly tolerant nation when it comes to religion. That’s because the study found 70 percent of people said they believe there is more than one true path to eternal salvation. Yes, that’s interesting, but what was fascinating to me is that when Pew broke the number down by religious groups, more than half – 57 percent – of evangelicals agreed with that statement. That is shocking, because the definition of an evangelical Christian is that he or she believes Jesus Christ is one true God. As I suggested for a story idea in the ReligionLink tip, does this mean the evangelical community is largely ignorant of what its doctrine really states? Or are individual believers redefining what it means to be a 21st century evangelical?

The study was full of other interesting facts, if you are a religion geek like me. Here’s my favorite tidbit – 21 percent of of people who identify themselves as atheists say they believe in God. Among agnostics, the number is 55 percent. Go figure. Again, is this ignorance or a willful blurring of the lines? I dunno. What I do know is that this study is going to be fodder for stories, debates and conversation about religion in America for a long time.

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My husband and I just returned from The Sea Ranch, where we went to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary for four nights. We did not have internet access while we were there, or cellphones (yeah!), so it was a very low tech long weekend. But I did take my computer and wrote and stored some blog entries. Here is the first . . . .


My husband and I have been coming to The Sea Ranch once or twice a year since we were married. Maybe even before. We have come alone, with the boys, with other members of our families and with friends. Everyone loves it – even the teenagers. It is just a magical place where the elements seem to be intensified in the blue of the water, the clarity of the air, the fecundity of the earth and the fire of the setting sun.

Every time we come here, I experience some sort of spiritual jumpstart. I have always found my deepest connection to the divine while looking at the ocean. Don’t know why, just do. Maybe because it seems the beauty and power and, most of all, the mystery of the ocean most clearly represents God to me. I only know that when I am at the ocean, I unfailingly feel the impulse to pray.

It is no different on this trip. We are staying at The Garden House, a small house we have rented a couple of times before. For one thing, it is a house that welcomes dogs, and Bella has come with us on this trip. It isn’t the most modern house, it isn’t the most luxurious house, but we find it a most comfortable and welcoming house. It has the most wonderful wall of windows overlooking the meadow and the ocean, and it is here that I sit right now, early Sunday morning, with my prayer beads.

Let me tell you what I see as I look out this window. There are two bird feeders on posts just outside the window, and a couple of blue birds come to eat there every ten minutes or so. I call them “pig birds” for their enormous appetites. They are the size of jays, with the color of the sky on their backs and the white of the clouds on their breasts. When they are not on the feeder, they flick around under a hedge that runs to the left of the window at a right angle. Sometimes they are joined by a pair of partridges or a pair of small yellow and black birds, and on two days we were visited by a large pheasant with a bold turquoise and green neck.

Beyond the birds and the feeders there are green and brown wild grasses, dotted here and there with yellow and some small purple wildflowers. Beyond that is some green brush that runs down in a slope to the Pacific Ocean about one-quarter of a mile away. The ocean has been alternately gray and calm when the fog has rolled in, or blue with white wave caps when it has been sunny and the wind has joined us. Today is it sunny and the blue and white of the ocean and the green of the meadow are brilliant and cheerful. A row of houses – all of weathered wood – run down to the ocean in my line of vision on the right.

Sitting in this window is my favorite thing to do in this house. It is one of the places I like best to pray in the whole world. I sit in the window seat with my back to the room and my face to the sea and I let my prayer beads slip through the fingers of my right hand one by one. I keep my eyes open, letting them fall on the birds that drop by, the waves of grass moved by the wind, the white caps on the ocean moving ever from the right to the left, from north to south. Looking at the ocean, I cannot help but feel the presence of God. My breathing soon becomes as regular as the waves, and my consciousness of my connection to the all that is and was becomes as deep as the blue of the sky.

In this state, it hardly matters what I pray, only that I pray. Sometimes, I start with something more formal – meaning I have not memorized it but refer to it in my prayer bead journal, where I write down prayers I like. This week, I have been inspired by all the natural beauty around me to pray with St. Francis of Assisi, and chose a section of his Canticle to Brother Sun, which I adapted to the Anglican rosary in Bead One, Pray Too (page 80-81). My eyes on the ocean, I repeat, “Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.” My eyes on the meadow or the sky, I say, “Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.” Other times, I begin with something simpler, something memorized, like, “God with me lying down, God with me rising up, God with me in each ray of light,” from the Carmina Gadelica (Bead One, Pray Too page 96). But it isn’t long before I slip into something more rhythmic, drawn by the constancy of the ocean and the awareness of my own breath. Then I pray The Jesus Prayer: “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” And later I will change the prayer to the most basic of all, the Hindu “Ham Sa.” “I am THAT. I am THAT. I am THAT.” I lose track of time, I lose track of myself, I lose track of everything but the glory of creation and my own breath that ties me to it. I do this every day we are here.

When I am done praying, I will rise and take a shower and make some breakfast. Then I’ll sit back in the window – or perhaps on the small deck in the back yard – and wait for my husband to wake up. We’ll hike along the beach and maybe up in the hills. Then home to dinner and wine and it all starts again tomorrow. Our rhythms here are as a regular as the ocean, set by the regular slip of my prayer beads through my fingers each morning.

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Hope you all saw David Brooks’ most recent column in May 13th’s New York Times. I was pleased to see him recommend the work of Dr. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania, who I had the pleasure of interviewing once for a story I wrote for USA Today about speaking in tongues. In his research, Newberg had shown that the frontal lobe – the area associated with language skills and voluntary bodily control – goes dim when people speak in tongues. It seems we humans are in some way hardwired for mystical experiences (I am not about to touch the does-God-exist debate).

Anyway, the column reminded me of Newberg and made me think that perhaps this is what happens in our brains when we pray with prayer beads – that we shut down the part of ourselves that is keeping score, if you will – taking our emotional temperature, worrying about what to have for dinner and wondering where these last 5 pounds came from. The trick, though, is getting there, and after practicing almost daily sessions with my prayer beads I still have time reaching that pure, focused state. But I am encouraged to be reminded by the column that the path there exists – embedded in my brain.

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He Stinks at Prayer

If the pastor of a huge megachurch can admit he stinks at prayer, I feel better about knowing that I have prayer issues, too. For me, prayer is work – worthwhile, valuable work that usually brings me a sense of peace and calmness – but work, nonetheless. That’s why I picked up prayer beads – a tool that I find helps ease the work.

The article that Pastor Pete links to is by Greg Boyd, a pastor I once interviewed for a story I was writing about his then new book, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church. I found him an amazingly brave person who spoke truth to power from the pulpit and paid a price for it.

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eatpraylove.jpgMaybe I should start a blog called “Behind the Curve” because I am always the last one to read the book everyone else is reading. Partly this is because I have to do a lot of work-related reading (latest requirement: Jim Wallis‘s “Great Awakening”) and partly because I am a terrible book snob. I mean, if everyone is reading it, it can’t be that good, right? I came to this snobbishness after being burned – I read “The DaVinci Code” by Dan Brown only because I couldn’t, as a responsible religion reporter, hold out any longer, and I do not have the words to describe how foul I found it. What trash! Read like a screenplay – a bad screnplay. And I waited quite a while before reading “The Historian” (in a book about Dracula, shouldn’t he appear before the book is three-fourths gone?) by Elizabeth Kostova. I’ll never get back those hours wasted on rural Romanian folk customs that had NOTHING to do with the story. Sigh. Still, Brown and Kostova don’t need my endorsement. They and their bank accounts are doing just fine without me, thank you very much.

egilbert.jpgDitto Elizabeth Gilbert, whose spiritual memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia” has topped the NY Times besteller list for more weeks than I have teeth. I’ve heard she was also on a little daytime talkshow called “Oprah.” But this time, I am happy to report, that I thoroughly enjoyed this book, not the least because of what she says about contemplative prayer, one of the subjects of this blog. It is also just a damn good read by a very fine writer. I have been thinking about it a lot since I finished reading it earlier this week. (For a summary of the book, click here.)

hindu-mala.jpgFirst, I was bound to like this book because its cover image includes a Hindu mala curled into the word “pray.” A mala is the Hindu form of prayer beads, consisting of 108 beads. In the introduction, Gilbert describes some of the symbolism of the mala – how its 108 beads have all sorts of hidden three’s – a very symbolic number in many religions. The number 108 can represent perfection because it is not only divisible by three, but its individual numbers add up to 9, which can be divided into three 3’s. I discuss the meaning and symbolism of the Hindu mala in the first chapter of “Bead One, Pray Too. “

The numbers are important to Gilbert, too. She describes her travels through the three countries of the subtitle in 108 sections, almost like dateless diary entries, charting her spiritual progress from a sobbing, depressed blob to a wiser woman who has learned perspective. Each section is marked by a black-and-white image of a mala bead. My favorite was number 58 for this depiction of the nature of prayer:

“Prayer is a relationship; half the job is mine. If I want transformation, but can’t even be bothered to articulate what, exactly, I am aiming for, how will it ever occur? Half the benefit of prayer is in the asking itself, in the offering of a clearly posed and well-considered intention. If you don’t have this, all your pleas and desires are boneless, floppy, inert; they swirl at your feet in a cold fog and never lift . . . Prayers can become stale and drone into the boring and familiar if you let your attention stagnate. In staying alert, I am assuming custodial responsibility for the maintenance of my soul.” (page 177)

This sent shivers down my back. In my own prayer practice, the biggest thing I battle is boredom. “It’s time to pray, so what do I pray? That again? Oy. ” But Gilbert reminded me that it isn’t enough to say the words, or even to sit in prayer. I have to be present in what I am asking for. If I don’t take it seriously, how can I expect God to?

Since I finished this book I have been trying to bring a new freshness and immediacy to my daily prayer bead session. I am not always successful, sometimes getting fidgety, sometimes finding my mind has wandered halfway around the world before I remember to call it back. And Gilbert tells us that is okay, too. Her own daily meditation is filled with frustration. But she sticks with it and comes out at the end a much more peaceful person. This was a GREAT read.

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Ron Sider’s Prayer

Ron SiderOne of the great joys of being a journalist is that you get to talk to all sorts of interesting and important people and ask them impertinent questions. Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ron Sider about his forthcoming book, “The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: Why Are Christians Missing the Chance to Really Change the World?” for a short piece for Publishers Weekly. Mr. Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, is one of the founders of the progressive evangelical movement and a thoughtful Christian. He is the author of “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” a book that, when it appeared in 1977, sent shock waves through the Christian community and led to a major rethinking, in many circles, of what a truly Christian life should look like. We talked for about 30 minutes about the subject of his new book, what a biblically-balanced political philosophy for American evangelicals could and should look like (think more concern about poverty and justice and less about personal morality). At the end of the interview, I asked if I might ask him a totally unrelated question. Being the classy guy and gentleman that he is, he said certainly. “Do you, by any chance, use prayer beads in your personal prayer practice,” I asked. I knew this was a long shot, as most evangelicals would be suspicious of such a practice. Mr. Sider said he did not use prayer beads. Like any good journalist, I had a follow-up question: “May I ask you what is your favorite prayer?”

He was very quick with his response, perhaps because a good prayer is ever close at hand. “My favorite prayer comes from second Cornithians 3:18 where Paul says that with unveiled face we look directly into the face of Christ and reflect his glory as in a mirror and are day by day being transformed into the image of Christ.”

Here’s the scripture he’s referring to:

“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (NIV)
“So my prayer,” Mr. Sider continued, “which comes from that, is, ‘Lord, please make me more like you.'”

I like it. Short and simple, direct and strainghtfoward. Easy to remember, too. A good prayer for weeks or decades beads, or any other bead on any set of prayer beads you may come up with.

The same day I interviewed Mr. Sider, I also spoke with Jim Wallis, another titan of the progressive evangelical movement. I’ll write about his response to my question in a future post.

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