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Professor Thomas Troeger: a walk, a prayer followed by silence, and then the Spirit

By Marina Hayman ’09 M.A.R.

Every morning, 365 days a year, Professor Thomas Troeger, pictured left, enters into what he calls “elemental prayer,” a communion with God that he engages during his beginning-of-the-day power walk.

TroegerThe words he prays are these:

“I thank you, God, my heart is beating
I thank you my lungs are breathing
I thank you there is air to breathe
And water to drink and wash with.
I thank you for the love of Jesus Christ,
Especially as it is incarnate in my wife, Merle Marie.
I bless you,
I praise you
I thank you. Amen.

This prayer is followed by silence, and then, says Troeger, he waits "upon the Spirit."

Troeger, a professor of homiletics, shared these insights into his spiritual life with a group of Yale Divinity School students gathered, at the end of March, in the RSV Room.  His talk was one in a series of lunch encounters between YDS faculty and students aimed at shedding light on the connections between academic work and ministry.

The program is coordinated by William Goettler, assistant dean for assessment and ministerial studies, who described some of the other 2007-08 student/faculty gatherings:  a session with Assistant Dean for Chapel Siobhán Garrigan who described   “the experimental work at Marquand as a prompter for worship life in congregational ministry.”  A music session with Director of Chapel Music Patrick Evans, focused on “the musical life of a congregation and how to help a congregation find its own voice.”  A conversation with Titus Street Professor of Theology Serene Jones, centered on “claiming your own theological voice.”  Goettler described Troeger’s talk as being about  “a way of living faithfully for preachers who will then preach faithfully.”

Troeger, a poet and flutist, went on:   “And what do I get for all this?  I see the sun is trying to break through the clouds.  I hear the crows setting up a ruckus...I note there is a spot of gold light... Sometimes I receive much less than this: nothing.  I hear...see...nothing...but then nothing becomes something...my words of prayer come back to me... transfigured into realizing that...my own being and the being of the world around me is all a gift.”

For Troeger, this morning ritual is at the heart of his preaching.  Immersed in his power-walk and prayer, he loses awareness of himself as  “Reverend Troeger” or “Professor Troeger.”  “I am bellows,” Troeger explains.  “I am air sacks... God is filling me with breath...I am in a state of elemental prayer”.  And he hears “the music of that walk” resonating within him.

When he returns home, he plays the silver flute that has been his companion for nearly a half-century.  “In the music,” Troeger says, “I receive something: strength to do the ministry God is calling me to do... elemental prayer has prepared me to prepare to preach”.

Troeger’s presentation was taken from an essay he wrote for an upcoming volume on preaching. He opened his remarks with the rhetorical question,  “What is your best advice to colleagues about preaching?”   He warned that advice-giving runs the risk of becoming “theological tyranny,” if an advisor has the attitude of  “I have the answer and here it is.”  At the opposite extreme is being too vague to be helpful.

Troeger does not suggest that YDS students mimic his pattern.  “I have told you
what I do, hoping that you may discover in the specifics of my life what you need for the specifics of your life as a preacher,” he said.  “You may not need to walk in the morning... you may not need to listen to the crows... but you will need what these represent: you will need elemental prayer.”

For Goettler and other supporters of the student-faculty lunch series, academics are only half of the educational equation at YDS.  Simultaneously a university and multi-denominational seminary, YDS is responsible for the spiritual formation of its students as well as the intellectual development, particularly since many go on to professional careers in ministry.  The series is one way of helping students integrate the scholarship at YDS into their developing ministries.

--Updated July 8, 2008

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