This is the first real step into the meat of my diaconal project!
This summer I’ll be looking at the primary arenas of public worship – Gather, Word, Meal, Send – together with that which precedes it all (Baptism) and the two things that are present throughout in some form (Prayers and Sharing of Peace).
In his fantastic book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics Anglican priest Samuel Wells talks about each of these arenas as places of discovery and development for the purpose of forming character. My premise is that in such formation, what we actually experience by the working of the Holy Spirit is transformation. We are changed by an encounter with the living God and formed to be the people of God in service to the world.
One of the most basic ways to enter into such an encounter is through prayer. In all of our life together as Lutheran Christians, there is prayer, even if we don’t specifically take on a posture or speak words that look or sound “prayer-y.” Martin Luther’s theology of vocation (what we feel we are called to do as our life’s work) saw all of daily work as a form of prayer.
In worship, prayer is very diverse. It weaves in and through the entire ordo (order of service) and can be a direct address to the Divine or something more abstract, such as a time of silence. Our prayers might be individual or corporate (by the entire assembly). They might be a plea or they might be intercessory (praying for the needs of others and all creation).
What do we discover when we pray?
*A sense of embodying care for the other. One of the suggested intercessory prayers for this coming Sunday is:
“Gracious God, we pray for the nations. (A brief silence.) Work in and through governments, humanitarian organizations, and local partnerships to cast out the forces of evil and establish your life and peace. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.”
Notice how the petition calls out to God to be active through human institutions to effect change – yet by naming the institutions we are reminded that we are co-workers with God in effecting that change. We don’t sit idly on the sidelines; we care for others.
*A sense of embodying patience. “The arc of the universe bends slowly – but it bends toward justice.” When we pray, it is important not to see God as a capricious puppet-master, but as Emmanuel – God-with-us – walking with us patiently. The reality of evil and sin means that change for the better is a time-intensive process, but it is one that we are called to undertake.
Understanding our work in the world as a partnership with God is critical. Are we praying to ask God to act, or do we need to be moved to do our part? Patience gives us the space to discern.
*A sense of embodying persistence. This is another angle on discernment. Persistence in prayer can be like persistence in other areas of life – new skills are developed and new vision is made possible. There are lots of references to persistence in prayer in Scripture, particularly in the Epistle letters.
*An experience of the providence and the kingdom of God. When we sing an offertory response, the lyrics speak of our gratitude to God for all of God’s gifts. This is a form of prayer. One option in the intercessory prayers, or Prayers of the People (the prayers offered on behalf of the assembly by the pastor, assisting minister, or reader) is space for prayers of thanksgiving. This is a nice contrast to a series of petitions (sections of the prayer) that take the posture of request.
The intercessory prayers are comprised of petitions that lift up the images of the in-breaking of God’s peaceable kingdom. This Sunday’s images include “how much you have done for us”, “the vitality of lands and waters”, and “Christ’s freedom and healing” among others. We acknowledge where these things are happening and look towards the day when they will be our way of life. This is the Lutheran paradox known as “already/not yet” – God’s peaceable kingdom is happening and is still yet to happen.
*The idea of an advocate. When we intercede (pray for) someone else, we are advocating for their needs. This can go forward in countless ways, but the formative thing happening is our understanding that we are called to be advocates, following Jesus’ example of giving voice to the voiceless. I love how Wells uses the term “the IDEA of an advocate” – it’s intentionally vague, so as to get us thinking about what it means to be an advocate.
What are the skills we develop when we pray?
*Distinguishing pain from sin. One of my professors did his dissertation on the healing rites in the Lutheran Church, and cautioned us to be careful not to allow the language of pain/illness and sin to become conflated. A theology of an earlier era would tell me that my ankle pain must certainly be punishment for something I have done, when in reality my ankle pain is because I have terribly flat feet and they’ll hurt if I don’t wear my orthotics.
The opposite can be just as damaging. If we “mask” sin by calling it pain or illness, we hurt those with genuine pain and illness. If we deny that sin exists, whether in ourselves or others, we aren’t being truthful and that in itself can be damaging.
Prayer gives us space to contemplate the difference. The language we use in our corporate prayers works to enunciate that difference.
*Distinguishing suffering from evil. This is similar to the previous point. One is cause, the other is effect. Discerning suffering calls for a response of accompaniment – praying with, walking with the one who suffers. Evil, on the other hand, calls for action. We are seeing both in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre; the response to the suffering has been widespread and deeply felt. The challenge comes when we must respond to the evil – in the process of defining the evil and figuring out a response, it is critical to be in prayer.
*Distinguishing need from want. I could teach an entire class on this. It is far more complex than it seems, or than advertising might want to make you believe. In our society, a great deal of our identity is wound up in our “stuff”, and so making this distinction takes time (there’s that patience thing!). It isn’t something to approach from either a guilt-trip or clinically-detached perspective, but rather something about which to be in prayer.
*A pattern of spiritual discipline. Engaging in regular prayer is a spiritual discipline that can take many forms. My home congregation, Bethlehem-Encinitas, is home to a wide variety including our quilting group and a new Centering Prayer group. The repetitive nature of ongoing prayer (that’s the persistence) also gives us a chance to disengage from the fast pace of our lives and learn to listen. In all fairness – developing this pattern takes time, just like any new habit takes time to anchor (I am told it’s 90 days of repetition to build a new habit).
Learning to listen. That may be the primary skill we develop in prayer. We tend to be quick to speak; what if instead we worked on listening?
What difference might that make in our world?
I invite your comments, thoughts, questions as we travel this road together.