Prayer of Illumination
Over the course of 19 dangerous journeys, she covered thousands of miles through woods and
rivers with death and punishment breathing down her neck. In the recent movie Harriet, we see
an enslaved woman named Araminta Ross make the journey North to freedom. Once she made it
to freedom, she was given the liberty to choose a new name, picking Harriet Tubman. Yet
freedom for herself was not enough as Harriet says in the movie, “If I am free, my family ought
to be too. I’m going back.” It takes courage, humility, perseverance and sacrifice to go back,
again and again, and risk your life so that others might be liberated too. Though I’m sure many
times she was tempted by her own fears and by the discouragement of others to stay put in the
North where she was relatively safe, she chose otherwise. As Maya Angelou says, “Love doesn’t
hold (that’s ego), love liberates.” A liberative love is what Harriet Tubman believed every person
When Jesus was in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, the devil tempted him to test his divine
abilities and exchange trust for power and control. Being fully human and fully God, Jesus could
have had all the bread he needed, he could have preserved his own life, and he could have had all
the power in the world. But for what? Who would it have benefited for Jesus to do this? Only
himself. But love doesn’t hold on to resources, security or power, love liberates resources,
security and power to be shared. After Jesus’ time in the wilderness, he embarked on his ministry
and continued to demonstrate this.
In the Gospels you notice Jesus unbinding religious laws, so that the hungry could be fed and the
broken healed, even if it was on the Sabbath. We see Jesus opening access to tables and
conversations rather than holding on to social norms that kept people separated. But it wasn’t
without difficulty and sacrifice. Everyone didn’t agree with him and eventually some wanted him
dead. He could have used his power to get his way and to be what everyone wanted him to be.
Instead, he resisted and showed a love that aimed not to control but to liberate us all, from the
grips of evil and sin that separate us from God and one another. His love frees us from trying to
prove our worthiness and instead invites us to freely trust in who God is and who God made us
“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Famous civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer is quoted
with saying this. I can imagine Jesus saying something similar, ‘I am not free, if the world that
God loves is not free.’ Fannie had a deep faith and her spiritual practice of singing spirituals was
something that she put into action while she worked for the right to vote for all African
Americans. During her speech at the National Democratic Convention, the current president,
Lyndon B. Johnson, worried that attention would be taken from his reelection campaign and so
he interrupted the live TV broadcast for a contrived announcement from the White House.
It seems like it’s human nature to want to control things. We try to plan out our events so that
nothing will go wrong or so that it will go the way we want. From our children and projects at
work to political decisions and our favorite church hymns, we want our own desires to be met.
But this desire often leads us to discredit or discriminate against others.
Many may wonder why we need to prepare year after year for Easter by journeying through
Lent- this season of reflection, repentance and refocus. I’m sure we can all think of a habit of our
own (or of the church) that creates separation between people and God or that tries controls the
way love is shared between communities (or not). Lent is a time to repent and refocus on the
liberative love of Christ.
The Christian church has often struggled with their need to control. In every point in history
there has been a need for the church to repent and relent their control over others. Perhaps it
started with debates on whether or not Gentiles could be welcomed in the church. Then it moved
to controlling the language in which mass was conducted, no matter that local language of the
people. As Western forms of Christianity became more powerful, explorers and missionaries
were sent around the world to conquer lands and peoples in the name of Jesus. The need to
control was and is a serious temptation that plagues the church. Indigenous children in the
Americas were taken from their families and placed in boarding schools. Missionaries at these
schools attempted to Christianized Native Americans. They banned their native languages and
cultural practices in an attempt to control the land and subdue its people. On continents like
Africa, Christian missionaries outlawed the use of African spiritual practices like dancing or
drumming and they infiltrated their racists ideologies to further control the people and the
resources of their lands.
Some of our Christian practices over the years have just been flat out wrong and unjust. As
Christians and as a church, we need to repent, even now, of the perspectives that have been
passed down to us that convey some people and expressions of faith as better than others. If we
perceive a group of people or style of worship or type of prayer as the “gold standard” (or only
standard) we must stop and ask ourselves: Where is this coming from? And is this version of
“loving God” allowing everyone to freely love God?
Through his life, Jesus shows us a love that isn’t coercive but given freely and to which we can
freely respond. Every day we have the freedom to respond to God’s liberating love for us. But
we must acknowledge that this freedom has not always been entitled to everyone, and that there
are still persons who are constrained from freely and authentically responding to God because of
Church or government decrees. Are we really free, if everyone is not yet free?
Growing up, my understanding of spiritual practices included mainly reading the bible, going to
church and praying sometimes. I didn’t view other things that I did as spiritual practices. In
college I got very involved in community service through campus and church activities. I
completed over 200 service hours, not as a conscious spiritual practice, but in order to achieve
the public service scholar award when I graduated. I’m sure growing up in church had taught me
to do good things for others, but I don’t recall if that was the primary motivating factor.
Things with lists and clear trajectories make us feel like we can control and master them.
Completing a certain number of service hours can be just another box to check. Genuine spiritual
practices though, like service, don’t lead us not to seek accolades or to check off boxes, they lead
us into a more expansive relationship with God and others.
A sincere spiritual practice doesn’t need a certificate of achievement or the stamp of approval
from scholars. It needs only to lead us to do what we love in ways that convey love to God and
others. So often, our spiritual practices end up being a road aimed at accomplishments and
making ourselves feel “good.” Spiritual practices can hold us captive to proving our identity or at
their worst, demeaning others who do not follow the same path. But in their best sense, spiritual
practices release our need for control and send our spirits to float free in sea of God’s liberating
love. A spiritual practice that models after Christ’s liberating love, may start with a desire
personal growth but then it departs from the solitary wilderness and follows Jesus out into the
world, where many people still seek freedom in body, mind and spirit.
When I was in seminary, it felt like the only worthy spiritual practices were memorizing the
Bible, reciting theological beliefs and practicing silent, centering prayer. Even into my early
ministry, new clergy groups were required to use the Daily Prayer book as our spiritual
discipline. Now, there is nothing wrong with the Daily Prayer book and I agree that spiritual
practices like this are important for pastors. But giving us one option was limiting for me. Some
days I tried the daily prayer book and I felt connected to God when the prewritten prayers
resonated with what was going on in my life and the world. Most days I struggled to connect
with the materials in the book though. I began to feel inadequate as a Christian and as a pastor
because I could not seem to make this practice work for me.
It was not until I went to a CREDO retreat for new pastors when I finally experienced liberation.
I remember hearing one of our leaders tell us, “Faith is always changing. Faith is an unfolding
mystery. So, enjoy freedom in the way you pray, be free to change the way you pray, seek fresh
perspectives.” We took a short quiz to help map out our spiritual type and spiritual practices that
In my quadrant were spiritual practices like outdoor exercise, service to others, social witness
and cross-cultural mission and interaction. Finally, I started to see my life through a new lens.
Rather than viewing my spiritual life as 2 nd class, I began to see that I could connect with God in
the things I was already doing. Intentional walks without headphones or listening to inspirational
music- a spiritual practice. Walking along side refugee students and their families- a spiritual
practice. Teaching and leading others to advocate for social change- a spiritual practice.
Now this is not to say that the practices from the other quadrants are not valid too.
But I finally was set free from seeing the opposing quadrant with the daily prayer book and
scholarly Bible study as being the ONLY true spiritual practices.
We were encouraged to feel free to embrace the practices that resonated with us and to try one
that might challenge us. So, I began to see my morning walks as my connecting time with God
and I also challenged myself to try journaling or meditation.
As humans (especially in the Western part of the world) we like to be able to control everything,
we like rules and clear-cut answers. This seeps into our Christian faith and practices too. We
want to be able to say, if you just do this, this and this, then you will be a good Christian, then
you will experience God’s presence. But faith is not something we can master or control.
Encountering God’s liberating love releases us from the need to control and be good at
everything. It frees us from needing to prove ourselves or to insist that the way we understand it
is the only way. As one of my professors said to me this week, “There is so much we will never
know about Christian spiritualities that are different from our own! And when we finally are ok
with this, we are able to love more freely, we are able to hear more clearly the stories and
spiritual practices and commitments of others because we no longer have the need to see
ourselves in that story. In this way, we begin to have a multiplicity of communities and are
liberated to let go of the colonial mindset of mastery, even mastery over the self!”
So, when you look over the Spiritual practice menu for Lent- choose freely. Don’t feel forced to
pick the one you think you “should” but be challenged too, to try one that might be different or
difficult for you. Acknowledge that the way you connect with God might be different from
someone else and release your temptations to control. There might be two people here today who
decide to make prayer playlist using two totally different styles of music. Let us celebrate this
freedom that God has made possible for us in Christ! And whether it be in our spiritual practices,
business choices, political decisions or perspectives towards others- may we seek to embody the
liberating love of God shown to us in Christ. For Christ did not live, die and rise again just for
some but for all. “Love doesn’t hold…love liberates” and none of us are free until we all are free.
May it be so.
Rev. Allysen Schaaf
Associate Pastor for Youth & Their Families