Another Scholarship-Winning Essay!

The following essay was a second-place winner in our Second Annual Scholarship Contest. It was written by Kieran Hogan, a high school senior from Pensylvania. Kieran was among 450 applicants from 44 states who wrote about a personal prayer experience and how that experience impacted their thoughts about our national tragedy of school shootings. He will be using his scholarship at the University of Vermont. This essay has been slightly edited for punctuation and space considerations.

Since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, one year before I was born, we, as a nation, have slowly come to accept and normalize this unacceptable behavior. Is anyone really shocked when they read about the latest attack in the newspaper?

Do you scan Exits, like I do in a public assembly, in case you might just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time? I do not have the perfect solution to this nightmare, but I think that if the young men who are, by and large, the biggest offenders, felt more connected to their community, and had a positive outlet for anger, these senseless killings would diminish. This problem is multifaceted but I truly believe the power of prayer, and a connection to God and community is as good a place as any to start to dismantle this crisis. I believe my own experience in finding God and prayer in my everyday life has given me peace, connection, and purpose, and that this is possible for anyone who wants it. They just need to look.

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First Place Winning Essay!

The following essay was the First Place winner in our Second Annual Scholarship Contest. It was written by Samantha Grady, a high school senior from Florida. Samantha was among 450 applicants from 44 states who wrote about a personal prayer experience and how that experience impacted their thoughts about our national tragedy of school shootings.

Prayer. A word associated with protection, faith, and hope. Protection as we travel; Faith that our pleas and petitions will be heard, and Hope that desires will be answered. While writing this essay, I asked a friend of mine what prayer meant to them. Almost immediately, they responded and said “a connection line to God”. And while that is notably and profoundly true, prayer is so much more than that. In my life, prayer is everything. Earlier this year, I had an experience which tested my reliance on prayer, and my general belief in God, which flipped my world around completely. After this particular day, the world as I knew it was never the same. On February 14th, 2018, at 2:21 p.m., someone came into my school and started shooting.

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We Have Winners!

Our Second Annual Scholarship Contest has concluded, and what an amazing experience it has been! Congratulations to our First Place winner Samantha Grady from Coral Springs, Florida! We will be publishing Samantha’s winning essay in this space soon.

In this year’s competition, we asked high school seniors to focus on a personal prayer experience and how that experience informed their own thoughts about violence in schools. We received over 450 essays from students in 44 states, and which reflected a wide range of spiritual and religious experiences including Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Pagan-Wiccan, Agnostic and Atheist. They included essays from teenagers like Samantha, who survived a school shooting, and others impacted by the continuing and terrifying reality of violence finding its way to their school.

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A Scholarship, School Shootings, and Prayer

The Prayer Soup, Inc. Board of Directors is proud to announce the Second Annual Scholarship Essay Contest. Our first one was so successful that we all decided to continue the tradition.

The mission of Prayer Soup, Inc. is to encourage people to talk about prayer by sharing their prayer experiences rather than personal belief systems. We know teenagers have a lot to say and we wanted to include them in the conversation in ways that are relevant to their education and their lives.

We are again asking high school seniors to share a significant prayer experience and how it has impacted them by submitting a 600-1200 word essay. This year we are adding a specific context: our national tragedy of school shootings.

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"Let Us Play... Um,...Pray"

Here’s what I particularly like about the Summer: we give ourselves a break from our routines; we relax a little; we walk outside after dinner; we eat ice cream. You might occasionally fall asleep outside in the afternoon or read a book with, let’s say, less social implication than you would in the winter. You take time off.

So I wondered if something similar should happen to our prayer practice during the lazy, hazy days of summer? Should we shed our prayer routines along with our long pants and sweaters? I can remember admonitions from long ago that God didn’t go on vacation in the summer so our prayer practice shouldn’t either. Of course, at Prayer Soup, our experience of prayer is a very wide net so it includes peace of mind, random acts of kindness and creative ideas, which makes the summer a very good setting for those forms of prayer. And I like the idea that this wide net can also include play.

In her book, Holy Listening, The Art of Spiritual Direction, the Episcopal priest Margaret Guenther talks about the connection between the words “play” and “pray” and notes that her keyboard often reminds her of this connection when she inadvertently writes, “I should play about this”!

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What Are You Reading?

On a recent pilgrimage, I spent some time contemplating sacred texts.

I wonder what your images are as you read this sentence? Does it change if I mention that the pilgrimage was a trip to Atlantic City? This is not the usual place for contemplating much of anything beyond the slot machine, I suppose. But I was attending a professional conference there and a workshop I took referred to the “reading of sacred text” as a common basis for prayer practice and this naturally, caught my attention.

Nothing really radically new there - obviously, all major religions have their sacred texts on which not only prayer, but belief, is often anchored. The Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, the Vedas, the Sutras - we all have some connection with some of these texts - either directly through our own religious upbringing and practice, or being familiar with others through friends, or our studies, not only of the world’s religions but of history, art, literature and culture as well.

I have a natural resistance to narrowing concepts and the revolutionary in me wanted to deconstruct this term and make it available to the masses! What actually does “sacred” mean and who gets to decide what is sacred and what isn’t?

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Another Kind of March Madness

In March, we notified the winner of our first scholarship contest! Thanks to a generous Board of Directors, we were also able to award 5 additional honorariums for excellence. These notifications were the culmination of seven months of focus and hard work for our Prayer Soup Team, including our Board of Directors, and ten additional intrepid souls: our Board of Advisors.

After seven months, there was more than one happy dance going on around here! We also had a lot of fist pumping! Wooo Hooo! A job well done! Some of this had to do with the satisfaction of completing a project, but also with the joy we felt at being able to recognize some of those who had shared their significant prayer experiences with us. We all agreed that it felt good to give money away! We liked it!

However, these seven months have not been all wine and roses!

We ran into an unexpected reality when judging the essays, and that was the level of excellence in the writing, story-telling and applied critical thinking.

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What's Love Got To Do With It?

Ah, me. I planned to write about "love" for Valentine's Day but, alas, that date has come and gone. I didn't forgot; I simply realized that I have no idea how to write, or talk about, love. I am in an actual love tunnel;  it is dark and I can't perceive light at either end!

Perhaps the problem was Valentine's Day itself; perhaps that is the worst time to write thoughtfully about love. As many would argue, it has nothing to do with love at all, but commercialism. We are all well versed in actual commerical messages that co-opt love to represent a car or a soft drink.

To move love out of the commercial realm, I know that often people say "God is love", and I sometimes relate to this better than to the imposing visual figures we know from Michelangelo, say. But then this gets tricky when ideas of who or what God is veer drastically from religious beliefs to secular understandings. Recently I had a break though of sorts, I thought, when I had a conversation with a pastor friend. In a recent sermon, I thought I heard him say that "Love is Justice" and I jumped on board! This seemed like love at its best and most concrete: don't send me flowers, just treat me fairly!

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Try It! You'll Like It!

As I have been talking and listening to people around the country talk about prayer, I am realizing a few things. One is that "prayer" is a verboten word in the vocabulary in our culture now. This word pushes so many buttons in so many people across belief and political systems that judgement is swift, and listening, an abandoned art.

I recently read a column in the New York Times called The Workologist (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/24/jobs/a-boss-wonders-have-you-prayed-about-that.html?). A woman wrote that she was enraged that a manager had asked her if she had "prayed about" a situation at work. The columnist's answer talked at length about the Civil Rights Act and religious litigation although the manager didn't order the employee to pray, or treat her unequally when she didn't. But we can get crazy with that word!

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'tis the season...

Years ago, I heard someone say that if Christmas didn’t exist, it would have to be invented!

I think of this comment every year at this time when the spirit of the season begins to gather steam, rolling toward its conclusion, and bringing most of us along with it, regardless of our cultural and spiritual beliefs.

It’s true that there is a lot of grumbling about the meaning of the season, and who owns it; and sometimes divisiveness about sharing the excitement and the good will, and the calendar. But my experience is that sometime this month, most of us will experience some feeling, some behavior, some insight that moves us out of our ordinary place. This is so universally true that we have words to describe outliers. (Grinch and Scrooge!)

What is it that makes this possible?

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You "Don't Pray"? I Beg To Differ!

After the mass murder in Las Vegas, I noticed a post on Facebook that said something like this:

"I don't pray. I do dream and I do hope for gun control. And I will follow this with action."

This is meant as a political statement and I most certainly get the implication - that action, not words, is needed in the face of repeated tragedy. But this statement refers to a lot more than words and although I don't think this was the intention, it actually provides a wonderful example of what prayer is.

If you are dreaming and hoping for something you consider the common good, and following that with behavior and action, then you are most certainly praying ! Of course, it is hoping! Of course, it is dreaming! I love the quote we have on our website from Martin Sheen, the actor and activist who says about prayer: "...that's where it all starts; it starts in my imagination." Of course it does!

If you were standing in line in Las Vegas to give blood, or crossing state lines from California to offer your services as a surgeon, weren't you responding to some powerful pull in yourself to connect with others, to transcend your own heartbreak and the devastation of others? Weren't you hoping and dreaming that your small act would contribute to healing in some way, to your own, and to others? How is that not praying?

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Two $64,000.00 Questions

How do you get yourself into a prayerful state when you are in that place that is anything but? I mean when you are fatigued or vengeful, enraged, bored to tears or jumping out of your skin? Or tethered to the material delights or devastations of this world? You know, on a typical day.

In that state yesterday, I went for a walk.

Now, right away, I want to say that you could substitute "I went for a ride", or "I started dancing" or "I got down on my knees" or "I pulled the covers up higher". Walking is not a panacea for everyone, everywhere. But for me, more often than not, when I leave the house to walk in any of the above states, I return home, different.

From experience, I am a believer in endorphins, those mysterious substances that start cookin' when I move more. Something shifts and when that movement happens, it seems to weed some things out and to open some portals. And in this way, room is made for prayer.

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Of Light and Darkness

I woke up this morning thinking about darkness and light – two states that surround us each moment but ones we may not actually notice very often. I suppose the catalyst for thinking of  this now is the solar eclipse, due tomorrow, since there are daily media references to it as the event approaches.

Also, candlelight vigils abound these days as well – a literal and metaphoric"lighting the way" in the midst of painful and dark events.

I am surprised to find my heart sinking when I witness these efforts to light the world anew. It is true there is usually some indication that prior to most community candlelight ceremonies, something has gone terribly wrong.  But usually at the sight of these, I feel new hope and revel in this first step of bringing back the light in the midst of darkness.

But today I am just weary from the need for more candlelight vigils; we seem to be standing again, or still standing, for things we bore witness to generations ago. I suppose I have believed that some of those causes were so obviously done, that at the very least, we would be standing for something else, something that has evolved from our progress, bringing light to the next layer of darkness as we make our way into the history of our planet and our humanity.

In the midst of this weariness though, there is something interesting and comforting in the reporting on the eclipse. There is a clear and simple understanding of the phenomenon of it and yet the pull to witness it, to stand and bear witness to it, is as strong as when we assigned it magical or primitive powers. Even the most recent eyewitness accounts seem to record an astonishment at the event itself, and even those without a spiritual bent seem to ascribe some transcendent experience to this decidedly scientific event.

 

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Out of the mouth of babes....

Recently, a little person came into my bedroom the first thing in the morning and shared an observation. She outstretched her arms with a joy befitting the occasion and said, "I wake up!"

I have decided to use this as my earliest morning prayer.

I have also decided to use it at various times during the day when I do, in fact, wake up to something I was unaware of the moment before: a problem solved, any of my senses previously unused, insight into anything I may or may not have been searching for.

I have promised myself to use this prayer even if what I'm waking up to is not what I've hoped for, or feels painful, or opens a door to more complication. My hope is to not lose sight of the fact that waking up itself is the thing that I celebrate.

I believe this is where my connection to divinity is located. And I look forward to meeting it many, many times a day.

Amen!

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Atlantic City

Recently, I was in Atlantic City, NJ, staying at a famous hotel/casino. The place was rife with prayerful experiences! Who knew?

As a rule, I’m not a fan of gambling meccas. I don’t know how to gamble and so, no, my transcendent experiences in AC were not a result of hitting a jackpot and winning a lot (or even a little) money.

I was there presenting a workshop on how and why mental health clinicians can integrate spirituality into their practices, so my first layer of transcendence was the ability to carve out an oasis of kindred spirits.  And if that wasn’t enough, I was travelling with a childhood friend with whom I have a long and rich history. When I am lucky enough to be in an environment like this, I often think of an article I read once by Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who speaks about friendship as a basic tenant of Christianity, as modeled by Jesus himself.

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Wonder Woman!

Today, I saw the movie Wonder Woman and the official Prayer Soup review is a "thumbs up!"

Perhaps you are wondering about the connection between prayer and film review! Yes, this is a movie version of a comic book; it has special effects, lots of action and wildly attractive actors portraying a variety of characters. But - spoiler alert - it is essentially a cinematic version of prayer.

Don't let this put you off! Consider this: the story is the classic struggle between "good" and "evil". It starts with innocence and moves into the longing we develop for more: more knowledge and understanding of the world and our purpose in it. There is resistance and pain when life refuses to conform to what we think we know and literal "baptism by fire". And finally, truth is revealed and new strengh is found. The answer to the longing turns out not to be an end, but a beginning, and we understand that the journey continues, clearer, but more complicated. We experience the ultimate revelation that the struggle takes place not only on the outside and around us, but inside us as well.

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Anatomy of a Prayer

Today is a Snow Day - a good excuse to loll around in my pajamas and do nothing, although there is plenty to do. Instead, I have spent the morning watching a herd of deer take refuge in my back yard. I'm fascinated by them. There is no real shelter or food here, no leaves on any of the trees or bushes. There is just the group of them (five) and the icy pellets that have replaced the earlier flakes. One of them jumped the fence a few minutes ago to chase birds in the neighbor's yard. I swear this is true even though I would understand if you accused me of borrowing from a Disney film.

Otherwise they stand or sit in complete stillness. They look eerily like statues but it would be a mistake to confuse this stillness with sleep. I know this because the slightest sound - it could be me turning on the faucet inside the house from 200 yards away - and their heads go up and they laser me with their unblinking eyes. They are still but completely aware and in tune with their environment on a moment to moment basis.

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Alone, Together

Recently, I have been thinking about the way we pray. Specifically I am wondering about the merits of communal prayer and individual prayer and if one way is more satisfying or powerful than another.

I don't have a lot of experience with praying in a group. Personally, I feel more connected with the Divine when I go one to one with It. I am less distracted for one thing, and this is no small thing for someone whose mind is usually dancing to a merengue beat.

Our friend, Rev. Tom, sends a reference from Matthew 6:5-14, and a part that resonates with me says: "But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen."

And here's a poem entitled (appropriately enough) "Prayer", by an Orthodox Jewish poet, Yehoshua November:

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Pleeeeze!

In my town, there are neighborhoods that literally have a place of worship on every corner. Many have billboards out in front to inform passersby of the services offered, to quote scripture or to share some thought provoking ideas: "Exercise for Christians: Run from Satan!"

I often find myself mulling over these messages. In front of the Christian Science Reading Room is this quote: "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much." (James 5:16 KJV). This is a plug for prayer, and for me, it brings up a lot of the questions I have about prayer, particularly about prayers being answered, or perhaps not being answered, and why sometimes people have "success" with prayers, or they don't.

Perhaps, like me, you are often in your least righteous form when you need prayer the most. And, of course, "availeth much" doesn't mean "everything, always", the way we want it, when we want it. But I am definitely on board with "fervent" because it has its roots in "love with energy".

Personally, for quite awhile, I thought I had discovered the secret of successful prayer. I had given up the idea of asking for specific, material things and instead asked for "clarity and wisdom" whenever I had a problem. I can tell you that this particular prayer has been foolproof, that it has never not been answered, that it arrives like a lightning bolt and that I am instantly changed by it. It was clear to me that this was the secret to successful prayer and a no-brainer; after all, what couldn't be made better in this life with more wisdom and clarity?

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More Than Our Daily Bread

As I continue to think about, and talk to others about prayer, it has become obvious to me that prayer is far more than words and thoughts. I am deeply attracted to the idea of prayer as action, a behavioral manifestation of what we believe, hope, honor and celebrate in our hearts and spirit. It seems to me that work, the jobs we do for a living, offers a perfect petri dish in which this can happen.

On one hand, work is usually a "daily practice", with many opportunities for connections with others, and/or long periods of time for free-flowing thoughts. But also, like prayer, work can become rote. We can do it without thinking, without connecting it with a larger picture. And this can become boring and tedious. It can become difficult to do, and sometimes may feel as though it is yielding few results. We can often feel trapped in work by the paycheck or lack of opportunities to do anything else.

Feeling this way may bring us into counseling, or motivate us to Google "graduate programs" or "jobs abroad". It may also find its way onto our prayer list.

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