Please read with me from Paul's Letter to the Romans, chapter 13:
"Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers."
Let us pray.
Almighty God, whom heaven and earth adore and glorify: open our hearts to love you and our mouths to bless, praise, and entreat you. Grant us patience and steadfastness in our prayers. Give us words when we lack them, and hope when it is far from us. Guide our words and our works toward you and each other, today and always. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
Christ Lutheran Church celebrates its 75th anniversary this year--though for obvious reasons the "celebration" has been rather muted so far. So much of history, locally and globally, has been experienced and prayed through by our community: the end of the Second World War, the movements for civil rights and gender equality, the assassination of President Kennedy, the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the financial crash of 2008. And yet even our congregation is too new to have experienced the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Late in 1918, churches in Dallas (and many other cities) were closed along with many other public spaces. I would love the chance to read the thoughts of clergy and lay leaders at the time. Even more, I'd love to learn more about what people did during that time, when the city (and the whole world) was ravaged by a public health crisis and churches could not gather for public, communal prayer and worship.
There is, to be sure, a special power in praying together. The times when I hold the hands of someone having a crisis or waiting for surgery and pray with and for them are some of the most powerful moments in my work. The feeling in a small gathering or even a full sanctuary when we are concentrating together can be quite intense.
Likewise, individual prayer can be an intense experience too. When I'm on retreat or have the opportunity for relatively extended silence and solitude, I find myself praying more deeply and reaching places in my own need, or praise, or grief that I am not normally aware are present. If prayer is, first and foremost, an offering to God of ourselves, whether it is our needs or fears or gratitude, the more we give, the more powerful our prayer will seem to us.
Reflect: When do you pray? Where do you pray? Does prayer feel different when you're alone and with others? What do you "pray for"?
Christians have had a lot to say over two thousand years about when, how, why, and for what purposes we pray. I wrote about this in a magazine a few years ago and revisited the question in chapter six of my book. Those are all good and interesting questions (I promise!), but for now I want to focus on Paul's exhortation to the church in Rome to "persevere in prayer." In 1 Thessalonians (possibly the oldest text in the New Testament), he tells the church to "pray without ceasing." When I first read Romans it was in the King James Version, whose translators rendered "persevere in prayer" as "continuing instant in prayer." That phrase caught my imagination. It's as if prayer is an ongoing, maybe eternal moment and we step into and out of it.
Paul tells his hearers to pray all the time. I don't think he does this because prayer is a sort of incantation or shortcut that gets otherwise difficult or impossible things done. At least I'd warn anyone away from thinking that. These exhortations to prayer come in the context of lists of things Christians should be aspiring to do and to be: showing honor, not lagging in zeal, and so forth. Prayer is supposed to form us as believers. It's a dialogue with God in which the first step we take is to ask, often without knowing or saying it, to be the kind of people who trust God and come before God with all we have and are and wish for.
This is why we are not just told to pray fervently or passionately or earnestly but continually and with perseverance. We should, in fact, lay our cares and needs before God with as much earnestness and openness as we can manage. There is nothing wrong with urgent or emergency or last-chance prayer. But one important lesson from Paul's guidance here is that prayer changes us over time. The tedious times of showing up and saying our prayers with cold hearts do not, in the moment, feel very gratifying or effective. But it's by persevering through those times--when we really don't feel like praying--that we truly grow in our faith and in the oft-discussed "power" of prayer.
Reflect: When do you least want to pray? What are your go-to, default prayer practices? When was the last time you did one of them?
For years now I've tried to keep a regular schedule of Morning Prayer from the Episcopal version of what we call the Daily Office. This is a daily cycle of prayers, consisting of psalms, Scripture readings, and common prayers that is meant to make each day holy. And the truth is that over many years of keeping this schedule I've missed it about as often as I've kept it (maybe more), and of the times I've kept it, I've often felt bored or resentful.
But here's the thing: I never, not once, have regretted taking the 10-20 minutes I spend on doing it. It's remarkable how high a hill those twenty minutes can look from the bottom. And I've at times been glad when it's over. But if I had another chance at the last four years, I'd only try to do it more often.
So for this season of shutting down and staying in, I've decided to try to do the Daily Office every day. Right now that's on Facebook Live through our church page (please like or follow if you haven't already, and remember that if you wisely avoid having a Facebook account you can still watch the page without logging in). I already missed morning prayer once but we will keep it up as much as we can. And we've made a resource for you to download and use to follow along or pray on your own. One of the hardest aspects of prayer for people is the sense that they can't find the words. But the truth is you don't have to. The words are there for us. All we have to do is join ourselves to them.
Please pray for:
those in prison or immigration detention
those who have lost income
people struggling with anxiety and depression
children home from school and their parents.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Our Father, who art in heaven...
God's Work. Our hands.