Prayables.com spoke with this ecclectic preacher to learn why the interfaith message became so important in his ministry.
You were a minister for 30 some odd years. What was the biggest lesson you learned
about spirituality during that time period?
The most important spiritual lesson I have learned is that no matter how broken life appears on the surface, if we go beneath the surface we can touch the hidden wholeness. Over the course of my ministry I've had the privilege to glimpse this hidden wholeness (call it God if you prefer) when sharing with many people in both precious and painful moments. This hidden wholeness has taught me to trust that there is always a deeper Presence awaiting our discovery if only we are open to it.
Do you think there's a right way to pray? How do you pray? What does it do for you?
There are many forms of prayer and all of them are right. Every attempt to connect to the Holy One reflects the desire to find our true spiritual home. When we hear the word prayer, we typically think of someone speaking to God. That is one kind of prayer.
Mostly, I pray by sitting in meditation every day. I have been practicing prayer as meditation for over 15 years and I do it mostly every day for up to an hour, sometimes longer. I find that the practice of quieting the mind to be very helpful as a way of opening up to the Divine Presence. The chattering mind is our biggest cause of suffering.
In the 46th Psalm we read the words, "Be still and know that I am God." I try to practice being quiet. When the mind is still the heart opens to the Divine Presence, the hidden wholeness that holds all of our lives.
You're also a local Examiner.com writer for Spirituality. What has that experience taught you about faith and prayer?
Whenever I write I always discover what I have been thinking! Writing about spirituality has taught me how hard it is to put into words that which cannot be put into words. It is life itself that teaches me the very most about faith and prayer.
When it comes to faith and prayer, I love the saying: "first you leap, then you grow wings." Experience is what teaches us. My experience has taught me that we cannot think ourselves into a new way of living. We must live ourselves into a new way of thinking.
Your content doesn't always seem like traditional pastor-type speak, and you yourself describe yourself as a little unconventional. Have you received any backlash from your tone? Do you think a more open-minded approach to faith is important?
I find myself feeling put-off by formulaic religious language—or dogma speak. I believe that the supreme spiritual challenge is not to get the dogma right but rather to live a human life in a way that helps us to see how we are connected to the Source of life.
People who find their security in religious dogma generally do not appreciate my approach to religion and spirituality. The Dalai Lama puts it well. "Religion is handed down but spirituality (the capacity to connect, to experience love and compassion and the willingness to forgive) is innate to our humanity." The highest purpose of religion is to create a container for spirituality. It's easy to worship the container and forget the contents. An open-minded approach to faith respects the container not as an end in itself, but as a way to express and give meaning to the spiritual.
Particularly in the bigger world religions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism, relatively few of the traditional prayers pertain to the experiences of women. Can you think of any specific traditional prayers that might resonate with women looking for a connection with God?
It is helpful not to imagine God as the "Father in Heaven" separated from us but
rather as the "Womb of Life" from which we are all born. Here are a few prayers that
point to this truth.
May all beings be filled with joy and peace.
May all beings everywhere,
The strong and the weak,
The great and the small,
The short and the long,
May all beings everywhere,
Seen and unseen,
Dwelling far off or nearby,
May all be filled with lasting joy.
Just as a mother with her own life
Protects her child, her only child, from harm,
So within yourself grow
A boundless love for all creatures.
From the Christianity:
Let nothing upset you.
Let nothing frighten you.
Everything is changing;
God alone is changeless.
Patience attains the goal.
Who has God lacks nothing;
God alone fills every need.
In the name of God,
Give purity to our minds.
Aspiration to our hearts,
Light to our eyes.
Out of thy grace and bounty
Give us that which thou deems best.
On the way to God the difficulties
Feel like being ground by a millstone,
Like night coming at noon, like
Lightning through the clouds.
But don't worry!
What must come, comes.
Face everything with love
And your mind will dissolve into God.
A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Bob Thompson graduated from Berkeley Baptist Divinity School (Graduate Theological Union) and was ordained an American Baptist minister in 1973. He has served American Baptist Churches in Kansas, Ohio, and for the past 30 years as Senior Minister of the Lake Street Church in Evanston, Illinois.
During the 1980's he became an activist pastor focusing on issues such as homelessness, racial reconciliation and advocacy for LGBT rights. In the 1990's he became disillusioned with the spiritual constraints of mainstream American Protestantism and embarked on an exploration of several Eastern spiritual traditions and the Christian mystics. This vision led him to accept the role of Chair of the Parliament of the World's Religions from 1999-2004.
Over the years he has contributed articles to periodicals including The Christian Century, The Chicago Tribune, Sound Vision, and others. He is the author of , and a contributor to the book for preachers, Feasting On the Word.
This article is part of a series of interviews with spiritual experts from a wide breadth of areas. The goal of the series to help us all learn a little more about different faiths, prayer practices and spirituality today and yesterday from the mouths of those who study it religiously (no pun intended).
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