Think about all the unintended biases that shape our faith!
I’m not talking about full-scale bigotry, although that obviously is a problem for some people. More common, however, are little fences that we string up around our religious lives: We may envision God as looking a certain way. We might need a particular kind of music to set the mood for worship. We may keep relying on the same passages of scripture – or a particular style of inspirational reading.
There also are personal biases about prayer. We may start to think of prayer as solely focused on our weakness, for example, when there’s a whole lot more to prayer than our needs. Or, consider the people who most commonly lead us in prayer – and I’ll bet we’ve got unintentional biases about male voices, don’t we?
That’s why this colorful new paperback by Bonnie St. John caught my eye –- and I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it as well.
In her title, Bonnie pushes us over at least two fences. She reminds us that “Strong” people need to pray as much as those who we assume are “weak.” She also focuses entirely on “Women” in her book –- and gives us 26 fascinating mini-portraits of prayerful women from athletes to an admiral, from politicians to poet Maya Angelou.
Bonnie weaves chapters that tell her own dramatic life story between the portraits of other women. And she’s got a compelling story to tell! You’ve probably seen her on television at some point over the past two decades, either as a champion skier or talking about other aspects of her life on “The Today Show” or “CNN,” “Discovery” or “Montel.”
Here’s how Bonnie describes herself on her Web site – which will give you a good sense of her up-beat, positive-thinking approach to faith:
“With a plan, hard work and the right attitude — dreams can come true. They did for Bonnie St. John who, growing up in California far from snow, wanted to be a competitive skier.
“The bigger challenge was that Bonnie only had one leg. An African-American from a family of modest means, Bonnie became an amputee at age 5. That made learning to ski a bit tricky. She fell down — a lot. But she learned that her success on the slopes, as in life, was largely determined by how fast she got up after a fall.
“Her determination kept her focused on her dream — to win an Olympic medal. Bonnie pushed past the limitations of her disability and became the Silver Medal Winner in downhill skiing in the 1984 Paralympics in Innsbruck Austria.
“Bonnie has always thrived in situations where the path ahead is not clearly marked and the competition is intense. A Rhodes Scholar and Harvard graduate, Bonnie has a rich background that spans the gamut from sales at IBM to Wall Street and from the White House National Economic Council to success as owner of her own motivational speaking, coaching and writing business.”
So, here is our Conversation With Bonnie St. John about her new book …
David: I was so glad to see this collection of women’s voices celebrated on the cover of your book with the title, “How Strong Women Pray.” Because, in reporting on religion for many years, I’ve visited thousands of congregations and the truth is – without strong women, congregations wouldn’t survive.
Women are the backbone in most congregations, but I don’t think their contributions are appreciated nearly enough. So, why do you think congregations turn to men more than women when it comes to learning about prayer? The message about prayer is different when we hear it mainly from men, right?
Bonnie: One of the things that’s problematic, and I hear this in preaching all the time, is that male preachers will start talking about prayer in a way that talks to the male ego.
You’ll hear men preaching about the dangers of ego, or they’ll talk about breaking down your ego and being more subservient. And, that’s more of a message that men need to hear. The situation for women is almost the opposite. There are so many signals in society that call on women to be subservient and to keep their egos in check that they need to hear almost the opposite message.
Strong women who are already out there in the world being successful – they’ve had to build up their egos.
I think our goal should be “ego neutral.” I think that many women tend to be below ego neutral. When we have low self-esteem and insecurities, that’s an ego problem that gets in the way of leading successful lives. So, women need to work to get up to ego neutral.
With many men, it’s different. We send a lot of signals to men that say things like: You can go out there and lead the country. You can make a million dollars. Men have been told since birth that they have the keys to the kingdom, so in prayer they need to be humbled to get back down to ego neutral.
Women need to be strengthened and that’s what I’m saying through the stories in this new book.
David: That’s interesting and I did wonder when I read your book whether men’s experiences and women’s experiences in prayer tend to be different. What do you think?
Bonnie: I don’t have enough data to answer that. I wrote about women in this book. But I am interested in doing a book on how strong men pray or expanding this idea to look at how strong Jews pray and so on with other groups. I’ve had a lot of conversations with a lot of different people about this.
I’ve actually done some interviews with men.
David: Are you finding differences in those interviews?
Bonnie: I think there is a tendency for men to pray in a more routine, rote way — whereas what I saw with women was a complete freedom to just talk out loud while driving in the car or in a bathtub, wherever we are.
David: And when you add the issue of strength – what’s different about how strong women pray?
Bonnie: Thinking about the women I admire most, what comes out of my interviews for the book is that these women are not saying, “God, please solve all my problems for me!” And, these women are not giving God a “To Do” list. They’re asking God to increase their strength and their wisdom and to make their hearts better and to help them become more of a role model for others. They’re asking God to change them so they can be instruments of God. In retrospect, yes, these are really positive ways that these women pray.
You see these women on a journey and they become stronger on that journey through prayer. Over time, they become strong women and then we look up to them. But what they are praying for is wisdom and strength, rather than easy solutions.
David: When I think about all of these interviews you conducted with women – many of them famous people like Barbara Bush and Maya Angelou, Amy Grant and Marilyn McCoo – it must have been a very exciting project!
Bonnie: Well, not always. It’s interesting that I’m in New York City, which is possibly one of the most cynical places in the U.S. to talk about religion.
I have been at dinner parties here in New York where people were not aware that I was working on a book about prayer, and I’d hear people say such cynical things about prayer. Like, they’d say, Oh, prayer is only for the weak. Or, prayer is only for people who can’t afford psychiatrists. Or, prayer is like having an imaginary friend as a kid.
I’ve heard people say that they think prayer is basically really dumb.
So, I’ve heard the cynical comments, too.
David: Where did you decide to go to church in New York? What’s your religious background? Your denomination?
Bonnie: The church where I went when we were little was a nondenominational church. …. My heritage is nondenominational.
Since I’ve been in New York, I’ve tried a number of different churches. And now I’m a member at Marble Collegiate, which is nondenominational, too.
David: The book doesn’t seem to come out of a particular Christian tradition.
Bonnie: I wasn’t concerned about different denominations. I really didn’t even focus on that. I really was not interested in telling people about the dogma about prayer.
I was interested in talking to real women, strong women, and finding out how they pray. So, there’s a governor in the book, a college president. If these women are finding time to pray in their busy schedules, there must be a reason for it. It really is integral to their lives. That’s where my hunger was in writing this book: Finding out where the rubber meets the road in prayer.
I think it helped me that I don’t have a career in the organized structure of religion. I came to this with an openness and an acceptance of all of these different women and was able to embrace all the different ways that they prayed. I didn’t feel that I had all the answers when I talked to them.
David: Do you have favorite stories?
Bonnie: Some of the not-so-famous people had amazing stories. Colette Branch, a woman who saved over 100 people from Hurricane Katrina has an amazing story. People were telling her that she didn’t need to evacuate all of these disabled people who were in her care, but she prayed and had this simple faith and this simple relationship with God that convinced her she should help all of these people leave New Orleans.
She was listening in her prayers and she heard that she should get all these people out of town. She got all the vans she could rent and she told people to pack into these vans. She had a lot to do, but she did it and she got all of those people to safely out of town before the rest of the traffic started. She was an ordinary person, but she was listening in prayer.
And she was so sure of what she’d heard that she convinced all of those people that they had to go – lots of lots of people. They all were safe because they got it.
When I was talking to her, it was so funny. I thought I was talking to Noah!
David: Anyone else who you stands out?
Bonnie: Immaculee (Ilibagiza), the woman in Rwanda during the genocide. She was trapped in a bathroom with other women for so many days and she prayed unceasingly. She had such a profound strength from her prayers.
David: Let’s talk about the end of your book, the end of your own story, a little bit. You describe this elaborate routine that you did for a while of exercise and yoga and prayer.
Bonnie: For a while it was a wonderful routine, because I would do this 15-minute yoga routine and then I would sit and meditate and pray and then I would go work out, so that my workout became part of the prayer as well.
I would sometimes pray for strength if I felt that I was going to fall over while I was jumping rope. I could feel God coming into me. And the whole thing would take two hours.
I did that for a couple of years at least, but I kind of burned out on that and part of it is that it took so long to do.
David: It sounded great as you described it in the book, but it became a problem.
Bonnie: Yes, it became a burden. With the morning routine, I felt that if I missed it, I had really missed the boat. There was this guilt that came with it.
I had become dependent on a particular form of prayer. I would get to feeling that if I wasn’t doing my routine, then I wasn’t having quality time with God and what happened was that I was worshiping the prayer routine rather than God.
But, while doing the book, I got to a place where I was praying much more throughout the day, instead, praying with my family, praying along the way, so prayer became much more integrated into my life as I learned from these other women.
I felt that God was telling me, I’m not in that routine you had. You don’t need to do that.
David: You write about your daughter Darcy. How old is she now?
Bonnie: She’s 12 now. She was younger when I started working on the book.
It’s interesting that she would see me doing this routine every morning. She would get up and get her breakfast and see me doing all that.
But, when I was interviewing some of the women about praying with their spouses, they talked about how intimate that is, how special it is and how it works. At first, I was amazed to hear that.
Then other women talked to me about having a community of prayer around them and that, too, was alien to me. So, coming out of my other experience of this personal routine, I began to realize that I needed more connection with other people in prayer and that by trying to do it all by myself, I was making prayer harder than it needed to be.
So, I looked for prayer communities, too, and that strengthened me.
David: And you started to do family prayer?
Bonnie: Yes. I tried a number of things before I started working on the book to get my daughter interested in prayer. In the course of working on it, she was hearing some of the interviews I was doing. We talked and I realized that my daughter was seeing me pray and I was telling her about prayer –- but what changed everything was when I started praying out loud with her. Then she became a part of praying with me.
That was a change for me, getting comfortable praying out loud with my daughter.
David: So, what’s next for you? Another volume in this series on prayer?
Bonnie: The next thing I’m doing is launching a Web-based TV-and-radio show. I have a Web site up now at www.bonniestjohn.com, but the new site will be up at the beginning of November. We’ll be relaunching what you see on the site now.
On the front page of the site, we’ll be posting videos that we’ll be producing. And, there will be links there to an hour-long radio show with interviews with different people. It will be an online resource center with all of the resources right there for you to watch or listen to on the site.
David: Will it be a religious site?
Bonnie: A tag line will be, “Live Your Joy,” and the goal will be to give people more tools and support for overcoming obstacles and difficulties, especially emotional obstacles. I’ve overcome so many things in my life that I’ve been through a whole lot of stuff. Prayer is really important to me, but there are a whole lot of other resources people need, too.
It’s a dream come true to me, after all that has happened to me and the many people who have coached me through my own journey, to be able to make many of these things available to other people now.
AND, that’s the end of our Conversation With Bonnie St. John.
Click on any of the book covers shown in today’s story to read more about terrific inspirational reading that focuses on heroic women of faith.
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