344: At Historic Transition, Conversation on The Treasury of American Prayer

mericans are praying.
    Our calling — yours and mine — is to join with our families, friends and neighbors in shaping our prayers for a brighter future in the midst of some very tough times.
    The evidence of this blossoming spirit is everywhere. Look at our recent coverage of spiritual activism, the history of inaugural prayer — and a new inaugural prayer for 2009 that we all can share.
    Here’s another example: On Tuesday, as we were preparing to publish this Conversation with James P. Moore Jr. — one of the leading experts on American prayer — a regional radio network telephoned our ReadTheSpirit offices to interview me, as Editor here, about this hopeful groundswell we are seeing.
    I was asked: Why are Americans feeling this way?
    My answer was: Because change is in the air and we turn to prayer in anxious times like this. It’s a distinctive part of what Americans do.
    If you want to explore a huge, diverse anthology of these American prayers, click on the Amazon link you’ll find below and get a copy of Moore’s “The Treasury of American Prayer.” It’s a terrific book to read and re-read over a number of years, because you can pull out this volume at almost any crossroads in life and find prayers lifted up by men and women facing the same challenges you’re facing.


    DAVID: James, your own journey is inspiring, so let’s begin with that. You spent years in government service and in business. Right now, you’re still teaching international business at Georgetown University. And yet, here you are — one of our top experts on American prayer. Many readers already know you from your earlier book, “One Nation Under God: The History of Prayer in America,” and the TV series, “Prayer in America,” that was shown on PBS.

    How did you make this leap from public service and business — to exploring prayer as a kind of spiritual glue that holds Americans together?
    JAMES: This new book is a continuation of the project I began more than a decade ago. It was in the midst of my father’s death in 1997, which came very unexpectedly, that I was tying to deal with so many things all at once in my life. I was suddenly praying for guidance.
    When I received the news by telephone of my father’s death, I thought: How does this work? I’m trying to find answers in my own business. I was in investment banking. And, now, my father is taken away from me. So much was happening in my life. I traveled back and forth between my home in Washington and my family home in Pittsburgh. I thought a lot more about my father, and about how beautiful the county was that I was traveling through — and I began to think a whole lot more about prayer and how important prayer has been throughout our country’s history.
    I began to look for a book that collected American payers. I found there are lots of books about payer: Who? What? Why? How much prayer? But I couldn’t find a really good book out there on prayer among Americans.
    I began to look around and I did find prayers from individuals, people like Mary Pickford, Benjamin Franklin and Tupac Shakur. I wound up writing a book on American prayer: “One Nation Under God: The History of Prayer in America” and that led to an audio version of the book and through a grant from the Templeton Foundation we completed a mini-series for PBS. We’ve also developed a program for schools on the significance of prayer in America.

    DAVID: People will be surprised by some of the names in your book — Bob Dylan, David Crosby among the musicians. Throughout your work on prayer, and again in this book, you point out that prayer is woven deeply into American art forms.
    JAMES: Of course, prayer really is the basis of the blues and even of jazz. The hymns of Appalachia, full of prayer, became Country-Western music. I’m working now on a series of CDs about the voices of prayer in America specifically exploring prayer’s connection with music.
    DAVID: This new book really is one more piece in this years-long effort to highlight the diversity of prayer.
    JAMES: This is the latest in that long endeavor, yes. In this book, we’ve thematically laid out the kinds of prayers where one would see some kind of connection with a higher power — Faith and Trust, Thanksgiving, Forgiveness, Courage, Endurance.
    DAVID: One thing I liked immediately about this collection is that you open many of these thematic sections with prayers by American Indians. You’ve got Chief Seattle here and later in the book we hear from Black Elk. There are quite a few throughout the book.
    JAMES: I tried in each chapter to give a chronological flow and America’s history really started with Native Americans. We want to show American prayer over time – and what you’ll find is that some of the same sentiments uttered by American Indians are sentiments uttered today in prayer.
    American Indians had an intense prayer culture. It’s very striking. When they got up in the morning, there was a prayer at the door of the tepee — for those who lived in that kind of structure. There was a prayer for seeing the sun, a prayer for going out to hunt bison, a prayer for gathering crops. There is one prayer that I think is of particular interest right now — an American Indian prayer in preparation for taking on an enemy and you can almost see one of our soldiers right now in Iraq or Afghanistan going through the same kinds of thoughts and anxieties at such a moment, thinking of family back home and trying to put all of these feelings and fears in a prayer to God.

    DAVID: That “Prayer of a Lenape Warrior” is a powerful part of the book. Most of that prayer is a humble admission that the warrior going out to battle is laying down his life for his family and his people.
    There’s actually a great deal of humility throughout these prayers.
    I’m impressed, for example, that you sought out Swami Vivekananda’s prayer at the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893. I’ve read a lot about that event but I wasn’t aware of the words of this prayer until I read them in your book. This appearance by Vivekananda was a huge milestone in Americans’ acceptance of religious diversity. With his appearance at the Parliament, which was part of the World’s Fair in Chicago that year, American leaders really had their first formal introduction to Hinduism.
    You’ve got these words that Vivekananda spoke before the crowd:
    “Lord, I do not want wealth, nor children, nor learning. If it be thy will I will go to a hundred hells, but grant me this, that I may love thee without hope of reward — unselfishly love for love’s sake.
    JAMES: I thought it was important to show how progressive in many ways Americans were to hold that kind of conference in Chicago in 1893. It took weeks and weeks for the swami to travel to Chicago and it was the first time most people could experience what it was like to be a part of the prayer culture of the Hindus. He was extremely sensitive to his audience. He did a beautiful job in his public remarks to make his audience feel comfortable with the fact that he was from a different culture. In a short period of time, he was able to help root Hinduism in America.

    DAVID: I am pleased that you included so many immigrant voices in this collection. You’ve got a passage from Khalil Gibran from 1923. He came to America as a child, went back to Lebanon for a while, then came back to America again.
    JAMES: It’s important to remember that we are a nation of immigrants. When people come to this country, they set down roots. They have made a conscious decision to become Americans and they become a part of the fabric of America.
    DAVID: And we’re thankful for such brilliant people.
    JAMES: Gibran is an extraordinary figure.
    DAVID: Certainly. He still ranks among the world’s most widely read poets. A moment ago, we were talking about the impact of prayer on music and popular culture — well, Gibran’s reflections influenced so many other writers and artists. John Lennon used some of his words in lyrics.
    JAMES: I can remember as a child seeing my mother read Gibran’s “The Prophet.” He had such an impact on so many people. Being Lebanese-American and a Maronite Catholic is an interesting combination of cultures and, of course, there were times that he was in conflict with his church. I find his approach to prayer fascinating.

    DAVID: One of my favorites in your book is Elvis’ prayer. It’s just one line: “Send me some light — I need it.” And you say that he often prayed this before performances, in particular.
    JAMES: Yes, before he went on stage, this is what he would express in prayer. These words come to us from a very close friend of his. Most people realize that Elvis was very spiritual. In fact, the only time he ever received Grammy Awards was for his gospel music.
    He was on a spiritual voyage throughout his entire life. He would visit Buddhist shrines and he really seemed to be pulled in all sorts of directions in trying to figure out his own spiritual character. But one of his close friends describes that, before he was went on stage, he would find a quiet corner for just a few seconds and utter this prayer. He always believed that God had put him here for a special purpose.
    DAVID: Then, I have to mention the passage in your book about J.C. Penney. Remarkable. I hadn’t read these stories about Penney’s spiritual life before, but he nearly ended his life in a severe depression. He simply couldn’t find any solace and was on the verge of killing himself — then you explain in the book that he heard a group of people singing, “God Will Take Care of You,” and he had this powerful transformative experience.
    You’ve even got Penney’s own prayer here: “Help me to love mercy, to go beyond what is acceptable in earthly society, and to do more than is expected.”
    Given the turbulent changes that so many Americans are experiencing right now, the Penney example may be stirring for a lot of your readers.
    JAMES: That story is true. J.C. Penney at one point was facing some very serious problems and was about to commit suicide. Then, he heard those people singing and the words went through his mind over and over and over again. He decided not to take his life. He decided to continue, to persevere. If it had not been for his ability to find help in prayer, how different American culture and commerce would have been.

    DAVID: I’m intrigued that, in addition to your work on prayer, you teach courses on business. That’s got to provide some very unusual connections.
    JAMES: Yes, every day when I walk into the classroom. I teach international business and global ethics at Georgetown on the undergraduate and graduate levels. Over the last decade as I’ve been developing this prayer project, it feels to me as though I’m able to bring many things together.
    One thing I’ve learned is that Americans always — always — have faced major challenges, all kinds of challenges. And Americans have believed that through all of this they could maintain hope and perseverance.
    There is no reason to believe that Americans today can’t still find in prayer the comfort and the courage to endure.


    TALK WITH OTHER AMERICANS: Dr. Wayne Baker, a values researcher at the University of Michigan, is hosting an ongoing discussion with readers about the many issues surrounding the inauguration. Visit http://www.OurValues.org/ to join the discussion.
    OVERVIEW AND WEB LINKS FOR THE PRAYER PROJECT: The overview of Moore’s life and work on Wikipedia is useful and includes a series of Web links to his projects. Web sites were launched to expand upon various aspects of his work, over the years. I’d suggest zeroing in on a Web site Moore established in support of the PBS series, www.PrayerInAmerica.org On that site, you can watch a short video, read some recently posted prayers and find some of the interfaith connections Moore makes in his work.

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