From the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches private prayer and gives us the words to pray in "Our Father." A discipline of prayer, meditating on the words of Scripture, transforms a doulos who serves in the Lord's household, to seek and do His Father's will. Prayer supports the transformational process of self-emptying, where we might truly pray, "Not my will, but Thine be done."
Michelle Moujaes, Director of Faithtree Resources, shares The Encounter - a prayer book, app, and community initiative to support a discipline of transformational prayer.
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, Executive Director of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative, and co-host of this Doulos podcast along with Fr. Timothy Lowe. Hello there, Fr. Timothy.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:23
Hello again, Hollie. Good to be here.
Hollie Benton 0:26
And we're delighted to be interviewing Michelle Moujaes today. Michelle is the founder and executive director of Faithtree Resources to equip churches, church leaders and the people they serve, to know and to live the Christian faith for the common good and the glory of God. They've developed and launched a new prayer app called The Encounter which you can download for free on any mobile device. And prayer will be the focus of our discussion today. Michelle, tell us a little bit about why and how Faithtree provided The Encounter prayer app.
Michelle Moujaes 1:00
Absolutely. And good morning. And Fr. Timothy, good morning to you. It's an honor to be with both of you today. So thank you for having me. So Faithtree, our organization actually exists, to put it simply, to help Orthodox Christians bring their faith to life. That's the easy way that we say it. Because for many of us, it's too easy to simply borrow the faith of our parents, but never truly engage as full participating members in the life of the church. And so at Faithtree, we're always very interested in why that is and how whatever efforts we participate in can actually support people as they become more like Jesus Christ and draw closer to Him. So we asked questions that lead us to think about, like, what did he do? Like, how do we think like he thought or relate to God and others like he did? And so when The Encounter came about, it started, as we always do, by polling our clergy and asking them what their greatest needs were, as they were serving their flock, and for most of them, and it's so interesting how God provides because we typically get a very unanimous response when we poll our clergy about their needs. For most of them, they told us that they were seeing that many of their parishioners were struggling to grow in their personal prayer life. And so they were looking for support in that area. Because the personal prayer life is so important. So it was a perfect fit for us. Because again, we're super interested in supporting people as they become more like Jesus Christ. And we all know he was a praying man.
Hollie Benton 2:28
So the prayer app, The Encounter, I have to say, we may have confessions of a Luddite among us. I teased Fr. Timothy that there were likely criticisms against the printing press, once Bibles, and eventually prayer books were printed en masse for popular consumption and use a few hundred years ago. And now, I doubt that we're the only church that electronically pulls up the daily troparion and chants it directly from a mobile device. Having gone through this pandemic, it seems like digital is definitely here to stay. What do you think about this Fr. Timothy?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 3:01
Well, you know, I'm a little bit older than both of you, which means that I have fond memories of life before the computer. I have one specific point where I absolutely knew that we had moved on to a new generation and development, and I was sitting, you'll get a out of this Michelle, I was sitting in a Bedouin tent, in the middle of the Negev desert. Fire was going, you know, hospitality, the Bedouin there was hand grinding his coffee ready to put it on and in comes another Bedouin on his camel, you know, just floating, floating, floating, pops down, comes in, and immediately he takes out a cell phone and makes a call. I said, there it is, you have the old and new meeting each other. And the question is, what do we do with it? So you know, I'm in the 21st century, I realize I can't go back, even though my wife and I discussed life before the computer, but here we are. I'm here to listen.
Hollie Benton 3:55
Did you get any pushback on the digital front, Michelle?
Michelle Moujaes 3:58
Oh, absolutely! Actually, to be really honest with you, and Father, I think this will show where I'm aligned with you. A lot of the pushback came from me, I actually hate screens, hate them. I am openly opposed to phones, I'm anti social media. I mean, by all things digital, largely because I don't know how to use most of it. But also because I actually think there is more risk than there is benefit for a lot of the devices that we use. So I can't tell you how much what you're saying resonates with me. I use all tech as sparingly as I'm able. And I actually believe that tech has made prayer so much harder for all of us. Our day and age is one of the most difficult times in all of human history to pray, for all sorts of reasons, but certainly because of digital distraction. One of the things we talk about, and again, we're an organization that creates content that is largely released and put out through technology. But one of the questions we ask ourselves is what actually is the way our systems of delivery, is it benefiting? Is it hurting? What's the cost because we're in the middle of what we call the attention economy. And there are literally multinational corporations that spend billions of dollars on marketing and research and development with the singular goal of distracting us and addicting us. And so we really don't want any part of that. Certainly not as it comes to encountering God and coming before Him in prayer. So we really do make every effort to balance that tension. But we had a bit of a long and lengthy discussion that happened over the course of actually about two years, when a board member on Faithtree Resources board of directors really pushed me hard, because he felt very strongly that we needed to meet our audience where they were if we were to serve them best, and that both our audience and our parishes, and our organization actually could be blessed by figuring out how we find that balance to utilize the tools of technology in a way that honored our faith tradition. And so his contention that we could actually drive people to deeper personal prayer in a useful and meaningful way. I'll be the first to admit he was right. So I'm really glad that I heeded his advice. But to your question, Hollie, I was the skeptic, I was the one pushing back. You know, it's been humbling to see how God has used an app and this kind of digital tool. I mean, we have a section in the app where you can actually make a prayer request. Obviously keeping confidential so much of what we've seen, but we've been reached out to in ways that are significant and often we've had several life or death situations that we've been able to kind of intervene in. That has been humbling, because there's no way that it could have happened, were it not to have been used through technology. So But I understand your father. It's a big pain point for me.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 6:38
Well, I'm glad to hear you entered it with fear and trembling,
Michelle Moujaes 6:41
Absolutely. Well, and everything that Faithtree really does is designed to push people back to the local parish. We have zero interest in people sitting and doing church alone at home. And actually one of the things we're pushing hard on is, we truly believe one of the biggest urgencies in the church right now is to get people back in person in relationship together, and how we can do that safely and in a way that honors so many different scenarios. But what this board member pushed me to consider and I think we found a pretty strong balance is that if we can loop in the parish priests, which we do have parish priests working very intimately with us, if we can work with the parish priest, and we actually have mechanisms where you have families involved, and you have communities involved, praying together, we can deter people from letting it be the stopping point. It's only the starting point where we come daily together in prayer, but hopefully the ideas that would lead us back to our parishes, where we could become more fully engaged as members in the life of the church.
Hollie Benton 7:41
So on this Doulos podcast, we aspire to root our conversations in Scripture, a daily bread. And Michelle, we thought this small passage taken from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew might be a great place to frame our conversation around prayer. Here is that excerpt now. "And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you that they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And in praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them. For your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this." And then the Scripture continues with the Our Father, a prayer so simple, yet so comprehensive in seeking the Lord's Kingdom and His will, seeking His mercy and His grace to extend it to others. And to give us a little context here, the Sermon on the Mount is situated early on in the Gospel of Matthew, shortly after we hear of Jesus's birth and his baptism, temptation in the wilderness, then he begins to teach in Galilee, outside the temple of Jerusalem, the place where we might expect to have the ultimate instruction on prayer and fasting and almsgiving. Instead, Jesus teaches to the crowd on the mountain, beginning with the Beatitudes, and from his mouth comes much wisdom. In fact, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, it says that "The crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority and not as their scribes." And looking specifically at these few verses of Jesus's instruction on prayer here, there's just so much to learn and discuss. And a couple of things that stand out for me is this phrase, "And when you pray." Prayer is assumed it's not, "And if you pray." It's not IF. And the other thing about it is the privacy of it. I mean, we were talking about bringing people back to church and relationship, praying together. But in fact, the three pillars of Orthodoxy here: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, are all mentioned here on the Sermon on the Mount. And Jesus teaches that all of them should be done in secret. It's not about the show. It's not about receiving the reward and praise in front of men. In fact, if we took this teaching seriously, I think it would be hard to see the difference between a Christian and a non-believer or an Orthodox and a Protestant. We so much like to wrap our identity in how we pray and how we fast and give alms, that it becomes much more about the trappings of religiosity than about the Lord transforming our hearts and guiding our steps. So with this teaching on prayer, it should be enough to know that "My Father who sees in secret knows what I need before I even ask him." What I really appreciate about the prayer app is that it supports this aspect of private prayer. And it prescribes, through written prayer, much of it being the psalms that we pray, what I should need. It's not about gazing into my navel and figuring out what do I really want in life? And how can God help me achieve it? It's really about transforming even my desires by meditating on his word, by praying his word that is written that sustains me as daily bread. So what stands out for you, Michelle, about this teaching on prayer?
Michelle Moujaes 11:18
There is so much. It is so rich, especially when you go through the wisdom in the Sermon on the Mount and actually all over Holy Scripture. I mean, we hear it all the time. You talk about praying in secret. I mean, Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. Right, they say he went to a mountainside to pray, or he spent the whole night praying to God. And so if you look through the Gospels, one of the most beautiful stories is a story of the Transfiguration. He takes Peter, James and John and he goes on the mountain to pray, and his face and the appearance of His face changed and his clothes became bright as a flash of lightning. They were literally seeing him speaking with God. I mean, the voice of God came and said, "This is my son whom I have chosen," right? "Listen to him." And so as you think about this, and the Sermon on the Mount, and how he was teaching all of us to pray, take note that prayer was the center point of his life with God, like it was woven into the fabric of his day to day existence. And he made time for it even if he was really busy, he'd stay up all night, right? Because for him, prayer was even more important than sleep. I think my takeaway, and actually, as we begin to develop The Encounter, what occurred to us was this question, which is, if we're reading that story, right, the stories of the Gospels or the Sermon on the Mount, it wasn't a drag for Jesus, he didn't look at prayer as an item to check off to eliminate like guilt or shame, or, you know, he just really enjoyed being in his father's company. And so if you look back to the story of the Transfiguration, and the times of prayer, he would literally encounter God and be transformed. So for most of us, I guess the takeaway is, is that our experience? And I can tell you for myself and many members we've polled in our audience, because again, we always poll our audience and certainly our clergy before we create any products at Faithtree. But it was obvious that that actually wasn't our experience, where we were just kind of rocking it, a vibrant prayer life, whether in private or actually back in parish life. Why is it that we're not being transformed? Looking back to that example and looking to the example that Christ left us, which we know is perfect. God has called us to something different than sometimes we're participating in. And so for me, the takeaway is this. Prayer is a human need. It's a hunger that's innate in all of us. And actually, when we began The Encounter, we ended up partnering with another effort that was coming out of the Antiochian Archdiocese. In fact, it was from Charles Ajalat, who I know you know, he is my uncle and huge mentor and one of my biggest heroes. He called when we began this effort, and he and Fr. Theodore Puccini from Pennsylvania, were beginning another prayer effort and at this point, we were almost two years into what is the current effort of The Encounter. He was considering reviving an effort called the Common Prayer Discipline of the Fellowship of St. Philip the Evangelist, which was a movement that sought to help invigorate people's personal prayers and private prayers daily that had started in the 1980s in the Antiochian Archdiocese. And this is the important piece, the Fellowship of St. Philip the Evangelist was really steeped in a foundation of prayers from the church. I think it's so important what we hear in Christ's words and with what you just read. The Church has taught us how to pray. Oftentimes, I know I myself tend to find myself praying sort of in American, I call it, which I don't mean in English, but sometimes there's a me focus or a self focus. I think we're called to something much different. When I think back to Christ words, I love that he's given us the example and called us to wisdom that's far greater than we could ever know or create on our own.
Hollie Benton 14:56
Yeah, I love the reference to the American style of prayer the me focus and I myself grew up in a Protestant tradition. It's so funny coming back to the Gospels after having studied at seminary and just realizing the sin of desiring fireworks, desiring to see the bright lights and the flash and the miracles, when Jesus was all about doing his Father's will, and what was his father's will? How did he find it? He knew it by the scriptures, by knowing the scriptures by aligning himself to the instruction of his Father, which he was taught, which he was aligned to. I think, sometimes we so desire to have our face shine like light after a prayer than to just, quite frankly, say, "Not my will, but Thine be done." And we've got some heavy work to do.
Michelle Moujaes 15:49
That's actually a piece that I think is so critical for many of us, especially here in North America today. But I think we forget that prayer is a skill. And it's an art. And it's a process where you don't just wake up and are a super good prayer. At least, I haven't seen that yet. But it's a process where you're constantly growing, and you seek the wisdom of your spiritual father or mother or you're working to grow in your own personal prayer life. It doesn't, just like so much of what we are able to achieve in our lives today, you can't just download it and call it a day. So it doesn't do us a bit of good if anybody downloads The Encounter app, and doesn't use it. Right? There are a lot of features, there is a huge and growing library of prayers. There's music that's been commissioned from the church, there's all sorts of features that are added, but if you're not using it, or if you expect it to be sort of a magic wand, so that we can achieve what we're looking for in our own lives and not aligning ourselves with God's will, it doesn't really do any good.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 16:43
You know, thinking, listening, of course. And obviously, we've read the Scripture. And I sometimes think the key, and I think Hollie was perhaps hovering around it as well. It's this idea of emptying yourself, not seeking something, not having a crisis of faith and therefore needing a personal experience to reignite. It's simple, this idea of emptying yourself, and that's why I think the key of at least the focus on the private part of prayer, and the Sermon on the Mount, is that you're by yourself, something you encounter, it's nobody else's business, what you do in your closet, it's your business, I don't need to know about it. Back to a Middle Eastern story when I was a 19 year old Protestant white guy living in amongst Arabs, working with them, because I didn't have a work permit. And I was living in what's now called the modern State of Israel. And it was grunt work, because that's the only kind of job, heavy construction, make $7 a day. But of course, prayer times, right? There are times when you stop what you're doing and you pray. Christian, Muslim makes no difference, but these were all Muslim workers. And so you can imagine, again, not being exposed to this as someone you know, just growing up in a very white America. Time to pray, right? The guys stop. Mostly the old guys, because you know, young guys, we don't pray, wash their hands, do their things. Of course, it gives them an extra break, because that's a cynical part of me. But the fact that they would stop, they would do it. They had their set prayers,. It was just something they did, it was part of their life. It wasn't negotiable. It wasn't they were having crisis, it was, and of course, the prayers are said. And there was actually something quite impressive about it, in it's simplicity, something they know, something that they've memorized. In other words, it's just that much a part of them.
Hollie Benton 18:31
Thanks so much for your work at Faithtree and in developing useful resources like this Encounter prayer app. As you know, with the Orthodox Christian leadership initiative, our focus is on servant leadership. Michelle, how do you see the connection between regular private prayer and leading as a Doulos in the Lord's household?
Michelle Moujaes 18:50
Well, prayer is essential to leadership in the Lord's household. I mean, it's essential to everything. But certainly if we're going to lead, I would say our relationship with God impacts everything with each other, impacts how we serve. And the more deeply we can mature in our own personal private prayer lives, the more fully we can engage in the fullness of the life of the church and be aligned with God's will, as you mentioned earlier, not our own. Prayer is the fountainhead of the Christian life. And without it, I think this is important, our spirits shrivel, and our hope fades, and our joy diminishes. But through prayer, our souls are quickened, and our visions are clarified, and our Christian life is fulfilled. So yeah, I would say that prayer is essential to leadership.
Hollie Benton 19:33
Yeah, and I really appreciated what Fr. Timothy said too about the self-emptying, and just the habit, and in many ways, just the accountability to not my will, but Thine be done. That's always what we should seek no matter who we're serving in whatever context of leadership. So Michelle, let our listeners know what your hope is for this app and how they can find it, how they can use it.
Michelle Moujaes 19:56
I love it. Well, thank you. The first thing to make clear is that the app is a portion of The Encounter effort. The effort actually really is threefold. So it has a physical prayer book. It does have an app. And it does also have a parish effort where we can draw closer and pray with those in our communities, including our spiritual leaders and pastors. But if they want to find it, they can go anywhere they have any Android or Apple products. You can look for Faithtree Resources or The Encounter, and what's coming we pray is ongoing education and learning not only in the behavioral changes, we hope, where we have three short daily sessions every day, each one is under ten minutes. Some of them are as brief as two minutes. So very light impact on people's schedule. But if they actually commit to the three prayer sessions a day, we are seeing it again and again, there is great fruit that God is allowing to be born through the effort. And what's exciting for us is we actually pray for every priest in every diocese and metropolis and jurisdiction throughout the Orthodox world through the app. So every day we are bathing all of our leaders in prayer. And as one voice of the church we are lifting up our petitions to God, asking him not only his continued blessings on the church, but we're praying as the church which is exciting.
Hollie Benton 21:14
Glory to God. Thank you, Michelle!
Michelle Moujaes 21:16
Thank you both. It was a joy to be with you. Nice to have met you, Father.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 21:20
Likewise. Take care.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai