Women Praying Together: a book review

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The first thing I did when I received this book was to skim the Table of Contents; the immediate second was to deliver my extra copy as a gift to a colleague whom I was sure would enjoy it.

A compilation of prayers ~ some accompanied by Scripture, some by essays, some by quotations you might recognize ~ by seventy or so young (that means under 40!) United Methodist clergywomen, We Pray with Her: Encouragement for Women Who Lead is for all women in leadership roles, whether in families or classrooms or board rooms, or hospitals or offices or nonprofits or churches.  The book is a small paperback and would easily slip into a purse or briefcase; the prayers are short and easily fit into many of life’s dilemmas.  The titles are little windows into the lives of women, and remind me of the gifts women in ministry bring into our lives in the form of intimate familiarity with pregnancy, miscarriage, and childbirth; with the care of children and parents, with divorce and dismay and, as two of the section headings point out, with resistance and persistence.

Here is a woman praying for that “one day when [she] will shout with joy.”  Here is a woman praying with Hagar for the quenching of thirst and for the knowledge that she is seen by God, even if not by others.  Here is a woman quoting Brene’ Brown in the midst of her life as a single mom and pastor who sometimes feels a bit of judgment coming her way: “If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”  Here is a woman  I am privileged to know as a colleague in real life, praying about the task of persisting in the face of one challenge after another.

Down to earth, intrepid, hopeful, and faithful nevertheless, the women who wrote these prayers make excellent companions in the life of the Spirit.

 


I received two review review copies of We Pray with Her from Abingdon Press, and made no commitment in exchange other than to review the book.

Rev. Howard Gray, S.J. (1930 – 2018)

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As a middle and high school teacher (my second career) fifteen years ago, I was in need of a graduate course in literature or history, which I could not find.  Hmmmm . . .  Spirituality and Narrative sounded interesting.  “Who is this Gray professor?” I asked the department secretary.  “He’s new,” she responded.  “But people seem to like him.”  He was out of town for our first two classes, and a friend and I wondered distractedly about missing the date for a course refund.  What if we didn’t like him?

We did.  In fact,  I was mesmerized by the eloquent, well-read, humorous, and delightful 70-something Father Gray.  I took another course in literature from him.  And then a third, on Ignatian spirituality.  It was early in that semester that I asked him if he would serve as my spiritual director and help me make the Spiritual Exercises – a long adventure in prayer and one-on-one conversation.  I knew that my request would mean an hour of his time every week or so for months, so I was sure that he would turn me down.  But I so wanted whatever it was that filled this brilliant and elfin-like man with such an infectious joy.  “Oops,” I thought, when he said, “Sure,” and pulled out his calendar,  “Now I have to do this!”

That “Sure” changed my life.

As it tuned out, that was a year of relative peace and lack of drama for me, a leader in my local PC(USA) congregation, a teacher in a Jewish school, and the mother of three college students.  A perfect time to spend hours on a practice of prayer devised by a Catholic saint nearly 500 years earlier.  A couple of months in, it occurred to me to google Howard’s name and I discovered, to my astonishment, that this gentle and unassuming man was known across the globe as one of the foremost scholars and teachers of Ignatian spirituality.  Oops again.  What should I do?  How could I continue to take up so much of his time?  Eventually I concluded that, since he didn’t seem to mind, I would press on.  A few months later, I threw all caution to the wind and announced that I was going to seminary.  Howard, who was not supposed to say much of anything beyond a few suggestions as I made my way through the Exercises, exclaimed, “Will you get going?!”

Months later, I finally made it to seminary in Pittsburgh, and also started a program here in Cleveland for would-be spiritual directors.  Howard moved on to Georgetown, but we stayed in touch via email — I mostly complained about my courses in Greek, and he offered encouragement and witty commentary.

My darling Josh, my tall and blonde and blue-eyed and funny and brilliant son, died of suicide just before the beginning of my second year of seminary.  Howard was one of the first people I emailed, and he became one of what would eventually be a group of three Jesuits who encircled me with listening hearts and occasional words and hours and hours of presence.  It’s no exaggeration to say that I would not have survived those early years without Howard and his brother Jesuits, my personal lifesavers.

As I’ve written on FB, some months, maybe a couple of years, after Josh died, I was  ready to give up on everything – quit seminary, quit ministry, go live in Greenland or someplace. “Well, of course you can quit,” said Howard. “Or you can keep going for what may turn out to be the most productive years of your life.” I don’t know yet whether or not he was right. But he inspired me to try.

That’s the thing about those Jesuits.  They seem to be under the impression that one can do impossible things where God is concerned, and they don’t make a big deal about it.  Most especially, they don’t tell you that you can’t move forward just because your life is a mess.  They think that you can.

It’s been nearly 15 years since that first class with Howard, nearly ten years since Josh died, seven and one-half years since I was ordained in the PC(USA).   I have a stack of emails, most of them offering counsel and encouragement after my son died, but many others filled with humor and recommendations for poetry and other reading.  I often preach and teach things I learned from Howard, and I hope that when I am with people who are suffering or dying, I remember what he taught me, mostly through example, about presence.

I know that, with his death two days ago from injuries sustained in a car accident on Friday, the accolades will pour in.  He held positions of enormous responsibility and influenced thousands of people.  But to me, Howard Gray is that white-haired man with the gleam in his eye, the wicked sense of humor, and the capacity to be present to any experience of faith, from the highest mountaintop of exuberance to the most vast desert of desolation.

I will miss him very much.

 

Image:  Georgetown University, 2014.

A Prayer for Tomorrow

A work in progress . . .  after a day like this, I would usually re-write the entire service.  But the congregation I have been serving this summer has just learned that its pastor’s medical leave has been extended indefinitely, and he is going to speak with them tomorrow ~ his last opportunity to preach and share with them.  So I have been working on the Prayers of the People off and on all day . . .  it may look completely different sixteen hours from now . . .

God of All Peoples,

When you came among us as Spirit Wind, you did not come to a small group of like-minded people who knew what to expect.  You came as a surprise of power and a mystery of awakening to people of all sorts from all places in the world as they knew it ~ people who came by different routes, people who looked different from one another,  people who spoke different languages from one another.

You called us, this conglomeration of all peoples, to gather as your church.

You called us to follow the way of your Son, who was never intimidated by illness or disarray, and to align ourselves with your healing presence.

You called us to follow the way of the prophets, who again and again called your people to the justice which is care and provision for all peoples, to the kindness which embraces all peoples, and to the humility required for ourselves to become instruments of the way you set for us.

And so we pray for Pastor — and for his family, that they may recognize and deeply know the community, the hope, and the healing, whatever those things may look like, that come across the winds and the waves of life with your Son.

We pray for the people of Charlottesville and of our nation, for the killed, the injured, and the heartbroken, that they may know the determination of a nation set on hope and justice grounded in the abundant love and care of God..

We pray for our leaders, that they may find the patience and wisdom and courage to guide us toward peace at home and abroad.

Grant us the patience to gather in community and to seek and offer healing, even and especially where healing does not look like that which we ourselves seek and prefer.

Grant us the strength and confidence to condemn racism and violence wherever we encounter them.

Grant us the courage to pursue justice and peace, in our community, in our nation, and in our world.

Help us to become the people you want us to become ~ people who follow the One who rose victorious over death and who reigns over the new creation of heaven and earth into which we are all called.

 

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