Activism & Prayer

The Benedictines had a motto, ora et labora which is Latin for work and pray. They believed that work and prayer were partners. Prayer and work are both efforts toward the future and world that we are longing to see. They are both methods by which we may produce events. I once read an essay by CS Lewis in which he argued that work and prayer a very much alike. What we do when we weed a field, he argued, is not all that different than what we do when we pray for a good harvest. He said that the key difference is that work is divinely guaranteed and prayer is a place where God left himself a discretionary power. Thank God he has too because one might only imagine how dangerous of a thing prayer would be otherwise. He said that prayer not always being 'answered or granted' does not point to the fact that prayer is a weaker method but that it is a more powerful one. When it 'works' at all it is not limited by time or space. He used the analogy of your boss telling you you can do whatever you need to at work as long as it falls within specific guidelines but that in 'such and such cases' you need to come see him about it and talk it over together. This is the discretionary power that God has reserved for himself. Prayer is powerful and it is a partner to work. They are both the exercise of the longing within us. The hungry man who prays for food does not stop working, begging and scavenging for it as well. Work and prayer are to work in unison.  

There is a reality that one who studies church movements will find. There are two streams of passionate Christians who express their faith very differently. On the one hand you have young zealous Christians who have been formed by a prophetic call to prayer and dependence on God. Many movements have emerged that have committed themselves to 'keeping watch' and established 24 hour a day prayer movements. These communities are leaders in worship, liturgy, the prophetic and demonstrating the place for contemplation in the Christian life. On the other hand you find young, equally zealous Christians  who have been formed by the prophetic call to justice. These movements tend toward activism and direct action. These communities are leaders in corporeal acts of mercy, mission, and demonstrating the central call to the poor and weak for Christians. Both types of communities play a needed role in the life of the church. Both communities are often committed to evangelism.  Both communities are radical and Christocentric. Why is it that these two streams of committed believers differ so much from one another? It seems to me that they come up with different conclusions about the role of prayer and work. While these two strands may be 'partners' in the larger and universal work of the Church with a capital 'C', we do not often see them partnering together. We do not see them desiring the same goals and working hand in hand like the man who both prays and scavenges for his bread. 

There was a  foundational paradigm shift that emerged during the enlightenment that has worked itself out in all of western culture.The major characteristic of this shift has been the dichotomy that emerged between spiritual and physical domains of life. They have been made separate and often unrelated. There is a spiritual realm where God lives and acts, along with other cosmic Gods like Allah. This is the world of religion. On the other hand there is the real world: the material world where we hear and see, feel, touch and smell. This is the world of science. This is not just an attribute of the west anymore but is a main tenet of what has come to be called modernity.This dominating assumption controls almost every area of intellectual inquiry and results in many tragic reductions. For example, poverty is reduced to a lack of material goods such as food, shelter, clothing, and water. It is materially defined and understood, therefore development work is reduced to the meeting of these material needs alone. When this happens the development worker no longer sees prayer and fasting as crucial tools alongside their food and medicines. This kind of materialism seems to have been a response to much in Hellenist philosophies that devalued the materialistic world. Dualism separated  spiritual and physical realms long before the enlightenment but tended to devalue the material world in Greek philosophy. Socrates wanted his spirit to be set free from the prison of His body and the Gnostics would go so far as to say that the material world is evil and that only spirit mattered. The enlightenment would seek to make a correction that resulted in a pendulum swing into our current materialism in which spiritual realities are considered secondary or unimportant. You can see how the dichotomy developed and how the church would either walk in the modern 'real world' or pendulum swing back to placing a singular value on the spiritual. 

The trouble in both cases is the dualism itself. Jewish people would define man in holistic terms. Man was a soul and a body, hence love the lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. There should not be a tug of war between the idea of saving souls or feeding the hungry. Both of these are answers to a specific poverty in man. We are physical and spiritual beings. Just as we need to interpret the world with a holistic understanding rather than this dualism in which we have been saturated, the Church must embrace this holistic truth as well. Even if we understand this theologically and philosophically we have not yet gotten our lives to demonstrate this reality. Our lives betray our understanding and we still either hide away in prayer rooms or spend everything on behalf of those that are hungry. Both are right and both are weakened without the other. The activist must pray and the prayer folks must do mission. We must weed the fields as well as ask God for the harvest. Pray for justice and do justice. Pray that His Kingdom would come and will be done on earth and do his will on earth. Pray and work. Jesus had an interesting way of calling us to both, he said "ask the Lord of the harvest to send workers into his harvest field." 

ora et labora 



  1. Jesus is our example; He preached to thousands and then fed them the bread and fish. Then he told the disciples to gather up the left overs.


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