New book of Prayers by Gary Gunderson
By Gerry Winslow
Most prayers never become famous. There are exceptions, of course. The one taught by Jesus that asks for debts to be forgiven “as we forgive our debtors.” Or the one, often attributed to St. Francis, expressing the desire to become God’s “instrument of peace.” In the last century, the Serenity Prayer, penned, prayed, and preached by Reinhold Niebuhr, became widely known.
But of all the billions of prayers offered today in every human language, within the belief systems of many different religions (or no religion at all), it is entirely unlikely that any will become famous. Mostly, these everyday prayers will be simple, earnest expressions of the human spirit reaching for a connection to the sacred—to some mysterious, transcendent reality known to be greater than the one who is praying.
The prayers Gary Gunderson shares with us in this little book foster in anyone willing to enter fully into their spirit a sense of new possibilities for engagement with the sacred all around us in the communities where we live and serve.
These are prayers for action, not for armchairs. There are prayers here for families, for essential workers, for first responders, for scientists, and for healers. They are filled with hope and with vision. Above all, they abound in compassion and in love. They awaken two kinds of wonder.
First, there is wonder at the goodness of the world created for us—astonished joy in the “leading causes of life,” and amazement at life itself. Gunderson prays “Thank You for weaving in ways we could not know to hope. Give us pause to be grateful at the wonder.”
We join in this wonderment when we read “Walnut, oak, sequoia and bristlecone taste your soil and call it good, rising up in praise to give shelter to the birds and playground for squirrels, each grateful in their life.”
Like the ancient Psalmist, our author welcomes awe at the beauty and the bounty of life.
But there is another kind of wonder here—puzzlement over how things have gone dreadfully awry. How could we fail to join Gunderson in wondering about the unnecessary suffering of vulnerable people whose needs are unmet, often because of greed or insensitivity of those in power? Nor are such questions addressed vaguely to others who should know and do better.
The perplexing queries are addressed first to ourselves: “God, how have we come to this, so distant from each other and all the rich life flowing from You the Generous One?” If we hear in these prayers the voice of a poet, we also hear the words of a prophet calling for social justice, knowing for sure we should do better: “How do You stand it, God? What holds back your wrath and vengeance on all of us who care so little?”
So we find lamentations that jolt the conscience and also touch the heart:
The words ring false as tin, Color off in light aslant,
How can I keep on singing In this strange land?
In the end, however, the lament turns toward hope:
That pain itself is witness to what
might be birth, yet.
Come my father, mother,
sister, brother, friend.
Come close now.
Gunderson knows that prayer can be questionable in a world like ours. Just how does one offer prayers for the whole public during a time of deep divisions, growing secularism, and remarkable religious pluralism? Our author does not ad-dress these prayers nebulously To Whom It May Concern.
These are not prayers to an impassive Force that might be with us. They are addressed to God—to one Gunderson calls You. Elsewhere, he refers to Maker God, Generous One, Surprising God, Ultimate One, and Weaver. It is evident throughout that these prayers are personal.
They are also richly social, intended for the “ragged gaggle called public.” They are offered in the hope they might be useful to all the members of the beautiful quilt of a culture we call home, regardless of the religious labels we wear or reject. This is a book of prayers for all people of spirit.
But it is expressed in Gunderson’s mother tongue, a lan-guage of somewhat uneasy faith, glimpses of which become clearer as we enter the book’s final sections. He writes and prays, he says, “in tension with Jesus and those following in his Way.”
The tension, it seems, largely results from the distance be-tween ideals of the Way and our complicity in the realities of social injustice. So we pray not just for ourselves but for a society desperately in need of change.
Throughout this book there are many reasons for prayer, stated or implied. We pray to be emboldened, to seek clarity, to protect us from distractions, and “to be fully present to the world You are creating.”
Of all the reasons, perhaps none is clearer than this: “We pray because the world is unfinished and we are still un-finished, our spirit still emerging and shaping.”
Just so, let us pray.