Prayer and service

Jonathan L. WaltonBy Professor Jonathan L. Walton

“Prayer is not a substitute for work, thinking, watching, suffering or giving; prayer is a support for all other efforts.” — The Rev. George A. Buttrick

Several events this fall remind me of the importance of prayer as a spiritual discipline. In the few months since the opening of the Term, hurricanes ravaged Texas and Puerto Rico and domestic mass shootings occured with pathological regularity. And the Harvard College community experienced the agonizing effects of terrible injury and heartbreaking loss. Couple these devastating catastrophes with quotidian pressures that quietly, but no less destructively, erode the human soul, and it should be self-evident why we all need moments of mindfulness, meditation, and prayer.  

Unfortunately, it appears that too many in our society employ the language of prayer as a tool of inaction. Prayer becomes a cliché talking point or social media hashtag. Rather than prayer strengthening our resolve, emboldening our courage, and fostering our compassion, it distances us from the problem. Appeals to prayer thus serve as an empty promise rather than a call to action. 

We have a different view of prayer at the Memorial Church. For us, hands that serve are as valuable as lips that pray. Prayer should never supplant our service. Prayer ought to catalyze us to pursue justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before our God. (Micah 6:8) 

Here at the Memorial Church, we seek to help students understand the power of prayer and the importance of service. Instead of defining a successful life as “how much I will earn when I graduate from Harvard,” we emphasize that it’s not about earning a living, but rather it’s about living a life that’s worth living.

This is why, in marking the 85th anniversary of the church this fall, we focused on the theme of service and sacrifice and what it means to live a successful life. We heard from many who have had the courage to reimagine achievement. As I reflect back on this past Term, I hope that these kinds of messages inspire all of us to think about what we are contributing to this world in the service of others. 

May our prayers revive us to answer the call of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets to bring the good news to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, and work to set the oppressed free. (Luke 4:18-19)

One Luv,

Jonathan L. Walton signature

Jonathan L. Walton
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church

See also: Pusey Minister