A Conversation with Tom Steagald

March 29th, 2014

You are a blogger and an author. How did you begin writing?

I have been writing in some form since college. I’ve always loved words and the way words form perspective.

From the start, part of my writing has been the weekly discipline of sermon preparation—I write a full manuscript every week. But early in my pastoral ministry, I began writing for devotional magazines and newspapers. A modest few invitations prompted me to seek other opportunities and outlets, and by the spring of my graduation from seminary I (with a couple of my buddies) had published my first book.

Over time, I have written for journals and periodicals (such as Circuit Rider, the United Methodist Reporter, the Christian Century, the Journal of Biblical Preaching and Preaching). I also started blogging, which led to other opportunities (for 3 years I blogged 3 to 4 times a week for Good Preacher; I contribute to the Upper Room Books blog). I have written for preaching commentaries, such as the Abingdon Preaching Annual, Feasting on the Word, and Feasting on the Gospels. A House of Prayer is my fifth book.

Blogging has been of particular importance to me. One of the reasons I started blogging is that I had gotten so many rejection letters, but felt so called to write, that blogging seemed a way to self-publish. As it turns out, the content of my blogs has often found its way, refined, into other materials I have written.

One of my editors at Upper Room Books says I have a “blogging style with scholarly substance.” I really like that. My early books and commentaries were probably overwritten. I have tried to maintain a more nimble style of late, but I am so influenced by Barbara Brown Taylor, Frederick Buechner, Annie Dillard and Fred Craddock, Kathleen Norris and Anne Lamott, that I am sure I revert at times! I want my prose to be poetic, but accessible.

How has your experience as a pastor influenced your writing?

They are one and the same. Which is to say, my experiences as a pastor give me occasion to think and write about the matters I discuss; and writing through it allows me to be careful and thoughtful about how to pastor. At least I hope that is so. I forget the writer (it may have been me!) who said that s/he writes to find out what s/he thinks about something. Sometimes writing forces me to change an opinion, or firm up a conviction, or see how it applies. One of my books, in particular, shows the intersection of prayer, ministry, study, family life, even choir practice—for me they are all parts of the whole, each one informing the other. In A House of Prayer, there are intersections of prayer, Bible study, memoir, travel, worship, psychology, social critique, and evangelism!

You note in A House of Prayer that praying together is crucial. What would you say to someone who is satisfied with an independent prayer life?

I might say, “Have you tried the raspberry sorbet?”

I remember how, when my son was little, he was a picky and timid eater (he grew out of both! WAY up and out of both!). We were on a cruise in the Gulf of Mexico, and our waiter brought raspberry sorbet to the table. Jacob was not interested. I showed my delight, kept encouraging him, and when he tried it, he LOVED it.

Corporate prayer is different, of course. There may be no immediate sweetness to the experience, though there can be. How many of us remember a moment when we joined hands or laid hands or gathered round to offer joint prayers? With time, practice, and effort, we come to see the lasting value of the corporate experience.

Plus, the biblical witness begins with corporate prayer and praise—“the morning stars sang together and the children of God shouted for joy!” Praise and worship are fundamentally corporate. That corporate prayer, as Eugene Peterson has said, “continues at other times in other ways,” but the call to prayer and faith is a call to community, not isolation. Prayer helps us form community, which pleases the heart of Jesus, since Jesus called his disciples to be a church and taught them corporate prayer: “When ‘y’all’ pray, pray this way…”

Plus—and I hope this does not sound critical—a person of faith is never satisfied with their prayers. Or any other part of their discipleship. All of us are called to more and better, or if not better, then deeper and more unselfish praying. Community prayer affords a context for more and deeper and more selfless prayers. That’s why Bonhoeffer said something to the effect that those who are content to be alone need to be in community—and that those who are content in community need to be alone. We all need both kinds of praying, which Wesley saw so clearly.

Alone, we tend to focus on ourselves and our own little stuff. Together, we are reminded of the greater, wider world of both human need and God’s gracious action.

Time constraints, physical constraints, and other issues can make commitment to communal prayer difficult for some. What alternatives are there for Christians who want to pray together, but cannot be physically present in a house of prayer?

The key part of your question is the last: physically present. As I try to iterate in the book, anytime we pray the prayers of the church (not the extemporaneous prayers we so often pray, or the prayers we have memorized, but the given prayers of the church, as found in the Book of Common Prayer or any of the daily breviaries), we are praying communally.

The new book opens with a story of my praying in isolation, only to become wonderfully aware that I was not praying alone precisely because I was using an Order for Evening Prayer out of the United Methodist Hymnal. Though I was physically by myself in a cold sanctuary, when I said the word “we,” I was mindful that many were praying with and for me, as I was praying with and for them, even if we could not see each other. “Praying together, apart”—that is one of Lauren Winner’s phrases. She also says that the patterned prayers of Jews unite Jews who are divided by time (and even the centuries) and place.

So, even when we are alone, we can be praying together by availing ourselves of the historic resources of the church.

That said, there is “great reward,” as Paul would say, in praying, physically, together. I do this in two ways:

  1. I schedule three prayer services each Wednesday and invite whoever will to join me. It’s interesting how many want to do so, as if they are hungry for the experience. So many people feel so alone and unheard in their prayers; praying together in the same place overcomes both situations!
  2. At the same time, I personally need to pray in a context where I am not the leader, and so I pray at least once a month with a group of monks at a nearby monastery. They have no idea who I am—I just show up with a handful of other United Methodist ministers—and they would probably be amused (though charitable) that I am writing about what they do all day long every day. Still, it is good for me to join their choir, as it were.

I would suggest both strategies for anyone, clergy or layperson. Schedule a time and invite others. Find a monastery or convent (if it is uncloistered) and go. Here and there. Now and then. And in the meantime, pray the Office.

You advocate for praying the Daily Office. For those who are not familiar with the practice, how would you summarize it?

Prayer is a patterned practice, even for those who only pray before meals or bedtime. Almost instinctively we know that there are times when we need to pray, words to say at those times (“God is great, God is good…,” “Now I lay me down to sleep…” ).

The Daily Office is a historic pattern with many variations between traditions, but all of them are designed to make the day holy by calling believers to remember certain scriptures (mostly Psalms) and specific prayers of praise to God and intercession for the world. In the strictest expressions, there are eight “hours” of prayer each day (predawn, dawn, early morning, midmorning, noon, midafternoon, evening, night), and each hour has a particular emphasis. For non-monastics, morning, noon, and evening become the main hours. The value of the Office is that it makes prayer intentional and corporate, forming us into praying members of the praying community.

And for those who are afraid they will forget, there is even an app available for phone and computer, reminding us it is time to pray and giving us the scriptures.

In A House of Prayer you write of the society and the church: “The culture works to divide us, one against the other, into interest groups, factions, affiliations . . . We have been taught well and have come to believe that we are on our own mostly; that we stand alone, that whatever we suffer or celebrate, enjoy or have to endure, we do so privately.” What are some implications that have grown out of a culture where we grow more and more isolated from one another?

Atomizing isolations, narrow “kinships,” factionalizations and specific-interest affiliations are sheering forces in the world and in the church. Some implications? Distrust. Enmity. Gridlock. Animosity. Am I describing the halls of Congress, the churches in our community, our own families?

Race, gender, wealth/poverty, orientation, religion, political platform—these (among others) are the predicates of our culture. Which is to say, so much of the “energy” of our “common life” is actually just heat generated by the frictions between these aspects of individual and corporate life. We can find no common purpose or platform because there is money to be made and power to be wielded in a society overaware of its many differences.

Peace, meanwhile, is the result of an undergirding awareness of unity and similarity. Even the church trades in the divisive currencies of the culture—this situation occurs even though Jesus lived and died that we might be “one.”

You currently pastor a church full-time, but in the past you preached revivals. Do you find any difference in communal prayer in a more formal Sunday morning worship service vs. a revival setting?

What an interesting question!

I would say that Sunday worship has the potential—the potential—to be more corporate and formational, and that revival settings have the potential to be more “privatized” or personally experiential. That said, Sunday morning worship, in many places, is often designed (by preachers and worship leaders) to appeal to and reinforce personal/private tastes and to proffer personal blessing and benefit. And revivals, while often focusing on personal salvation or discipleship, have a “formational” and “transformational” effect (we see each other as members of the body of Christ, set apart together to be Jesus’ hands and feet and heart in the world)—and an invitational aspect as well, providing a safe place for others who are looking for shelter from the atomizing forces in the world.

I love preaching revivals and camp meetings, much as I enjoy leading seminars on prayer. I love Sunday morning worship. Both can unite. Both can isolate.

If you could write a personal note to other pastors and laypersons, what would you say to encourage congregations to read A House of Prayer?

You have seen it, too: the narcissism that has altered Christian spiritual DNA in our time and society.

You know as well as I that Jesus called us to be a people, a nation, a church, a body— to unite our prayer and our work, our love of God with love of others. But you also know and feel how the culture works to divide us, telling us even in the church to look only (or mostly) to our own interests, to fear and distrust the “other.”

The way it is in many churches—and in many Christian hearts—where the culture of individual preference and partisan reinforcement holds sway, is not the Way Jesus intended us to walk.

Could prayer—praying together, again—be the means by which we begin to reclaim Jesus’ vision and call? Looking back, and ahead, and around: across time, and place, and race and doctrine: praying as one? With Jesus and the church?

Give me a few minutes of your time. Let me help you think about prayer as formation (what makes us a people), as transformation (an antidote to the culture), and as invitation (to others weary with the burden of self who want to be a part of something more, something lasting).

I will do my best to make your time an investment. Along the way you will journey with me to Israel, enter baptismal waters, and eat holy food; you will explore old scriptures and new ways of looking at them…

This book is not a “how to” for corporate prayer as much as a “why to.”

The time for this discussion could not be more ripe, the need more urgent, or the stakes any higher.

comments powered by Disqus