Dr. Robert Moore was the first person I met in seminary who told me to pray.
That fact may sound strange, depending on your perspective on ministers. Chicago Theological Seminary is the school where I was trained to be a pastor, and every day I spent there was filled with conversation and learning about God, the spiritual life, scripture, and church history and praxis. We talked from early in the morning ‘til late at night about how people can best relate to one another in the sacred spaces of worship, counseling and community life.
I was taught to think theologically, to deconstruct the religious language I received from others, and how to articulate what I believe the truth of God really is. I was taught to listen to diverse perspectives, and especially seek the voices of the abused and dispossessed as I applied Christian stories and ethics to contemporary social issues and causes. I learned to examine my own background and biases, and to perceive how my social location shapes my thinking about Jesus and the Gospel. I was trained to lead small groups and congregations in prayer, and I was advised, “When you pray with others, here are the cultural realities and linguistic nuances that you’ll want to pay attention to, so as to both honor people’s differences and celebrate our shared humanity.”
I learned all about prayer and it was all good. But I am here to tell you – you can learn lots and lots about prayer, or marathon running, or financial planning or cake baking. It doesn’t mean you’ve actually done it.
Near the end of my first semester in seminary, after I’d finished a class project that I worked on harder than any academic assignment I’d ever had in my life, my professor, Dr. Moore, told me, “Good job. You seem to have a decent understanding of this material. Now all you have to do is pray, and be fierce!”
He was the first, not the last, to tell me to pray. I had other professors and pastors and friends encourage me in my prayer life over my seminary years. But I was shocked by Dr. Moore’s words when I first received them, because I had to acknowledge that I had not been praying, really at all.
I had not been allowing my training as a faith leader to shape my own faith. I wasn’t seeking God in my own life, even though I longed to lead others to God. In the seasons that followed Dr. Moore’s comment, I came to understand that I needed to develop my own fundamental, personal spiritual orientation. And I did. By the time I finished seminary, I had not only gained skills for religious leadership, preaching, teaching and counseling, I had become stronger and more devoted in my personal faith in God and relationship with Jesus than ever before, and my faith has grown stronger still in the years since then.
Now I’m eager to encourage others in the way I was encouraged by Dr. Moore, that first semester. Offer your own life to God, first and foremost. Pray on your own time, for and from your own soul, regardless of how much you lead others in prayer. Grow your own spirit, develop your own faith, know your own story and your own identity as God’s beloved, even as you nurture the spiritual naming and journeys of other people. Pray and be fierce!
Okay, this blog post is about to take a big turn. Sorry if this is abrupt.
This week, I am mourning the death of Dr. Moore, who died last Saturday by murder-suicide. He shot his spouse and himself. It is just so perfectly dreadful, and it’s real. Although I was never personal friends with Dr. Moore, and didn’t know his wife, and I haven’t spoken with him in over five years, this is one of the most traumatic losses I’ve ever personally experienced. He was my teacher, and someone who shaped me as an aspirational Christian peacemaker. But his life ended in this most horrifying way.
This awful truth has been a brutal blow to my entire seminary community. Although there is a some quite-limited information about a possible mental health crisis or some kind of dementia developing since Dr. Moore’s recent retirement, there is really no way for the thousands of his students, friends and colleagues who loved and admired him, to make any real sense of what has happened.
Wait. This is real? This is not real. Him? Him.
We cannot believe it. It is fully and resolutely unbelievable. And yet it is true.
It hurts like nothing else I’ve ever felt, and there are many parts to the hurt. The pain of losing someone I cared about is strong, but familiar – manageable. The knowledge that all people, even the best among us, are capable of the worst actions imaginable, is truly terrifying.
Another dimension to the hurt is a fundamental sense of instability – this was a person whom I trusted, whom I asked fundamental questions about meaning and direction in life. I learned from him about how to live well, serve honorably, and contribute to the transformation of society toward greater justice and mercy. If, when all is said and done, he is a person who did this thing, what does that mean for everything I learned from him? Are the truths I received from him not true, after all?
It’s been a hard few days.
I’ve been thinking about Dr. Moore almost constantly since I heard the news. In the time I knew him, we had many conversations, and he said many things to me that I thought were profound and helped shape my path as a future pastor. But I have thought about his instruction to pray, that time in my first semester, over and over, more than anything else he ever said to me. I keep coming back to it.
I think the reason is that Dr. Moore wanted me, and all of his students, to know and embrace the source of our life. God is many things – the ground of our being, our shelter and strength, our rescuer and redeemer, our shepherd and guide, our light in darkness. We pray because God is God, and because we need God.
Faith is essentially the practice of making sure God is the only God in our lives, but truly contending with God as the source of life is somewhat terrifying work, and who are we kidding, God as Ultimate Reality is a mostly incomprehensible proposition. It’s much easier, and therefore ubiquitous, for people to mistakenly invest temporal things, like money or power or status or acclaim or tribe, with the standing of God. Whether we say it or not, we treat these things as the source of our life and meaning and salvation.
Because, at least some of the time, we trust in the wrong things, our faith is at best corrupted, at worst demonic.
And when we love someone dearly – a parent, a spouse, a friend, a teacher – if he or she has provided a critical part of our formation, this person’s wisdom and grace, as well as their mistakes and hurtfulness, can be imbued with a superhuman power in our lives.
The failures of the people who loom largest in our lives seem like God-sized failures.
That’s why it hurts so bad to know my teacher died this way. And it’s also why the necessity of prayer is probably the most important thing Dr. Moore taught me. Because seeking God as the only God orders everything else in life.
Relationships can be sacred and holy, but people are not God.
I asked a friend, ‘How could he do this?’ and she said, “I don’t know, but he did. He was not immune to all the trouble we know is real. He was not beyond the forces of violence that we’ve all been working against. None of us is.”
What she said is true. And so I pray.