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Saturday, June 02, 2007

Prayer Studies

Here is one from last year reported in the New York Times. It is held up as being very carefully done--reflecting Matt's comment to an earlier post--and conclusive that praying for a stranger did not effect the target of the prayers. (Also reported here.)

This sort of megastudy came out after the article from Sojourner I quoted below. Also, here is a link to an interview with Dr. Larry Dossey, cited by the article as documenting how Western science is catching up in this area.

So, in addition to the value prayer has for the person praying, including the as yet unmentioned therapeutic value of verbalizing what concerns you, prayer may help a person you know while praying for him. I have not yet foreclosed the notion that a person who knows other care for him will be more capable of helping himself heal. Just as I think it is reasonable that a person may "give up" in a struggle against an illness after his spouse dies. (Although, according to Wikipedia, the placebo effect I was hoping to reference my not be real. Ug.)

In moments like these, my dad would say he was letting the spirit move.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Religion & Politics

CNN is running a story about the increased importance of religion in the politics of both parties, but particularly the Democrats, for 2008.

I think this is okay:

Jim thinking to himself, "I'm a Christian, and as a Christian I support the poor, I support equality for all people, I support peace . . . Candidates X, Y, & Z and ballot measures 1, 2, & 3 will further those causes." Not only is it okay, it is essential.

I think this is okay (although it is certainly not a reality at this time):

Chalice Christian Church believes in equality for GLBT community, in humane treatment of the poor, in peace and in caring for the Environment. We ask Legislator A, B, & C to further these causes.

I don't think it is okay for me to say, "Candidate X is not a Christian, I wont vote for him." I don't think it is okay for Chalice Christian Church to say, "Members, vote for candidate X."

Is this a legitimate distinction?

Getting there

In intercessory prayer, there are three actors: Me, God, and Other. I think the value of intercessory prayer for Me is easy enough to consider. We need to train our spiritual/emotional functions just like our physical and intellectual functions. There is value in exercise, reading, and prayer. I have not fully developed the idea here, but I think I have it.

The next step is reaching God. To relate this idea I believe I need to turn to experience. I need to remember those times when I looked to what was beyond myself when faced when a problem I could not address. For example, on September 11 I was in New York State and was able to donate blood, but I also turned to God and prayed for healing. I needed to do that in a way that is hard to explain.

Last weekend I helped people who were legal permanent residents take the next step toward citizenship. There were many tragic but stories, but in one particular case, after the woman had told me everything and after I gave her all of the advice I had to give and after knowing that her case was a lost one, we prayed. Again, we needed to bring God into the picture.

Again, underdeveloped, and I know less convincing to the non-believer, but I am confident that it is meaningful to say God hears our prayers.

That leaves the tough part.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Tough Assignment

While our Pastor is on sabbatical, Chalice is putting on a series of services dealing with prayer. The first one, and the one I'm presiding over, considers intercessory prayer. Intercessory prayer is asking God to intervene in a situation on behalf of another person. Here is something from an author at Sojourner on the topic.

While scientists are coming into agreement with religion that prayer can affect the person who prays, spiritual leaders are pushing science to take it to the next level: examining the effects of prayer beyond the one who prays. “When an individual generates great levels of compassion within herself,” said the Dalai Lama, “then we say that the Buddha is awakened within and this produces compassionate changes beyond the individual self.”

One Christian manifestation of the ability to produce compassionate change beyond oneself is “distance healing.” Recent scientific studies of intercessory prayer, mental healing, non-contact therapeutic touch, and spiritual healing show statistically positive outcomes. Larry Dossey’s books Prayer is Good Medicine and Healing Beyond the Body provide an excellent overview of how Western science is trying to catch up with our spiritual traditions and practices.

Bringing scientific inquiry to bear on spiritual practices can give us—the practitioners—new ways of understanding what we do and how we do it. As Christians, we have received a prayer tradition. It’s important that we continually exercise our prayer muscles, that we pursue a variety of ways of opening ourselves to God, and that our churches be prayer laboratories for social-spiritual experiments. For example, how can liturgy physically enhance the compassion centers of our brain? How does developing a state of energy-balance in our frontal cortex allow us to minister more effectively in situations of conflict? Perhaps the next level of scientific study will be on the power of prayer to effect non-personal change—prayer as a tool for social transformation.

From Prayer: It Does A Body Good, by Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

So, what do I think happens when a congregation prays for the sick? That is a tough, but important assignment for me. The first paragraph of the excerpt is referring to the fact that prayer helps one develop the natural sense of empathy. I think that is valuable, and a specific and unique benefit of faith. The rest of the passage is the hard stuff for me. I've got Friday & Saturday left to figure it out though. I'm sure it will be fine.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


This is the name of a Montessori exercise for preschool children. It is their introduction to science, and it accurately reflects a dichotomy that Western Civilization has enjoyed since Aristotle.

I suggest that there are issues we face as a society for which this dichotomy loses its usefulness. Abortion being the most significant. This occurred to me over the weekend when my family and I watched the Imax film, The Human Body. (Also, super cool teaching aid available here.) The film literally shows an egg being fertilized. You see the tiniest embryo & fetus forming.

You also hear a mom talking about feeling the life within her. In contrast to the never-before-seen nature of the pictures of blood and cells, this is striking because it is familiar.

I've always felt that the notion that life begins at conception or birth is silly. I've always felt that it had to begin somewhere in between these markers. I think it is better to realize that life does not begin. Nature is more complex than that.

Of course, this frustrates the hell out of the law that is always looking for neat Aristotelian divisions. I suppose it is one reason I think the law is not capable of regulating this area of human life.

NOTE: How do you know when life begins? is one of the six questions I put out in cards at coffee shops as Discussion Starters. Now, I wonder if it is badly phrased.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I would vote for a Mormon

I find stuff like this pretty frustrating. Some guy in a restaurant refused to shake Romney's hand and said he would not vote for a Mormon.

Okay, a couple of things here. One, not voting for someone based on their religion is less ugly than not voting for them because of their race or gender. We do, after all, pick our religions. And two, as is the point of this blog, religion impacts ones politics.

So, if you are a progressive, it is cool to ask more questions of a person who belongs to a religion in which women are not treated as equals. Fine. But to come to a conclusion about an individual because of the religion he professes is wrong. Mit Romney is a good example. Until recently he was pro-choice despite being Mormon. Rudy is Roman Catholic, does that mean he's against the death penalty? (I wish someone would ask him, then ask the Bishop if he can still take communion.)

Point is--this is obnoxious and everybody needs to stop it. Members of every faith have a variety of views. The way a person merges the tenets of his or her religion with his or her own personhood is always unique.


Well, the assault on reason continues.

We’ll begin the Museum experience by showing that “facts” don’t speak for themselves (click here for a proposed drawing of this exhibit). There aren’t separate sets of “evidences” for evolution and creation—we all deal with the same evidence (we all live on the same earth, have the same fossils, observe the same animals, etc.). The difference lies in how we interpret what we study. We’ll then explore why the Bible—the “history book of the universe”—provides a reliable, eye-witness account of the beginning of all things.

This is the mission of the Creation Museum. Curiously, they now accept that dinosaurs roamed the Earth. I think that is new within my lifetime. Obviously they accept that the Sun is the center of the solar system. That is new in that last few hundred years.

This makes me sick for a couple of reasons. I must confess that one of those reasons is jealousy. How can a group that just lies, that is unfaithful to the words in the Bible, and that is working hard to destroy something as important to our daily lives as science and critical thinking be thriving, while my little church that encourages thinking, that actually words hard to understand the words in scripture and that tries to make the world a better place for the poor, the homeless, and those who are strangers in this new land be struggling to reach critical mass?

It also makes me sick because it is so illegitimate. It is such an assault on our faith as well as our science. We have to be loud about why this is clearly inconsistent with the scripture. I think I need to write a letter to the editor. I think everybody does.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Memorial Day

First things first on Memorial Day: it is a day to honor the service men and women killed during war. Not to be confused with Veterans' Day, which celebrates all who served in the military, nor Independence Day, which celebrates our country and patriots--military and civilian.

Next, in a recent poll:
"Which of these comes closest to your opinion? Congress should block all funding for the war in Iraq no matter what. Congress should allow funding, but only on the condition that the U.S. sets benchmarks for progress and the Iraqi government are meeting those goals. OR, Congress should allow all funding for the war without any benchmark conditions."

Block All 13 %
Fund With Benchmarks 69 %
Allow All 15 %
Unsure 3 %

For me, this confirms the much repeated claim that people are against the war but support the troops. They have bought the lie that unfunding the war would somehow leave a soldier in the desert without bullets for his M-16. And so while they really want the guys to come home, they also don't want to block all funding. (I don't have a perfectly developed opinion on this, but I do know that if the U.S. Congress didn't fund the war it would NOT endanger anyone. It would force the President's hand. Maybe a bad policy decision; but not a danger for the troops.)

And this leads me to what I really want to write about. I want to write about why I think that the men and women in Iraq are honorable, and why I think we should memorialize the lives sacrificed for this war. For one, they are the ultimate example of selflessness. They believed in a higher cause--ideals like liberty and duty to country. They gave everything they had in pursuit of that cause. There is a purity in that sacrifice that transcends the lesser motivations of our political leaders.

It is also good to remember such acts of sacrifice because it should engender a sense of responsibility in all of us. If others loved this country enough to risk and lose their lives in service to it, surely we should do everything in our power to make this country better.

I don't think any of this is new or unique. But I think it is helpful to examine why we believe what we do.