Most weeks, I have the ‘prayers of the people’ written by Wednesday. I always send them on to our assisting ministers by Thursday afternoon so they have a chance to look them over before worship on Sunday. (Yes this may seem early, but my normal day off is Friday and some weeks I can actually stretch it through Saturday without going into the office.) Almost always I include the caveat that things could change. And almost always they do.
Sometimes it is a last minute phone call, an email or a hand written note handed to me just before worship which has me penciling in a special need. Lately, the world has seemed to blow up all over again between Thursday afternoon and Sunday morning and I am adding in names and places where the suffering is beyond profound. Orlando. Florida, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Dallas, Texas. Nice, France. Istanbul, Turkey. And on and on and on we pray.
Oh, it is so that on occasion, I have heard and resonated with those who have wondered if prayer makes any difference. And, if honest, I have confessed the truth that sometimes my promise of prayers is only that: a promise unfulfilled. And in the end, I can’t help but wonder if the point of prayer is not to change God’s mind — no matter what our Gospel lesson offers today — but to change us.
And yet, as God’s people in the midst of doubt and fear and questions, still we pray. For we follow in the footsteps of the one, Jesus, who prayed.
It is these experiences of prayer which my memory has been revisiting in these last couple of weeks:
In the days after the massacre of the Charleston 9, I was in communication with the pastor of a local Baptist Church whose membership is mostly African American. I was mortified that the one who brought such carnage to a holy place was a confirmed member of the denomination I call my home. Pastor Joe’s reply was, “Let’s gather our people for worship and prayer.” And so we did.
After Orlando, I received a text from Joe. His message was the same. “Let’s gather our people for worship and prayer.” This time people representing Muslims and Unitarians and Presbyterians and Jews and Methodists and Lutherans and United Church of Christ and Episcopalians and others all came together for a night unlike any other.
After the tragic deaths of Anton and Philandro and the targeting and killing of five police officers in Dallas, I texted Pastor Joe once more. This time I asked permission for some of our people to join them for worship on Sunday morning. I asked for a minute to speak. In spite of his own struggle in the wake of all of this, his response was immediate; “You are welcome.” And 14 Lutherans and others from area congregations showed up for the 7:30 service. Some of us made it back for much of the 2 hour and 45 minute 10:45 service as well.
I can’t say I was not afraid, for I was. For the most part that fear was rooted in a sense of uncertainty about how we would be received, no matter the pastor’s kindness. More than that, I wanted my words to be true and to bring comfort, not offense. And so I spent much of Saturday walking and fretting and praying and mulling over what I would say. And praying. Finally what I wound up offering was this:
Thank you for allowing me a moment to speak to you this morning.
The world has felt especially broken to me in these last days.
And if this has been so for me, I can only imagine how it has felt to you who have lived with very real terror — perhaps all of your lives. For I know that it is so that you have grown up in and lived in a very different experience of this country than I and others who who look like me have. I know this. I say it out loud to you in a spirit of deep sorrow. And I ask your forgiveness for having held my silence in the face of it for far too long.
Which is why today it did not seem as though it would be enough to only send my thoughts via text message to your pastor. Or to only pray in the safety of my sanctuary across town. It seemed important to come and stand with you. And hear God’s Word with you. And pray with you. And sing with you in the face of the fear that threatens to overwhelm us all.
For I know that we hold a great deal more in common than that which makes us different. I know that we are loved by and seek to follow the same God. I know that we are family in all the ways that matter.
I also know that in spite of the brokenness we all are experiencing today, God is not done with us yet. I believe that God promises to be our strength in our weakness, our faith in the midst of doubt, our stubborn hope driving out all fear.
I do not know what it will mean if we can see a way to stand strong on those promises together. But today I want you to hear me say that I — and others from First Lutheran and other communities of faith — are standing with you and beside you. And we are listening hard to what it means to be ‘children of God’ as peacemakers alongside all of you.
Indeed, may we never forget those who have senselessly died at the hands of violence and fear in these last days:
- Alton Sterling
- Philando Castile
- Patrick Zamarripa
- Brent Thompson
- Michael Krol
- Lorne Ahrens
- Michael Smith
- Others whose names and memories we hold in our hearts.
- And countless others, perhaps known only to God.
May our pain be a catalyst for new hope and not despair.
Finally, I would offer a blessing that was shared among Lutherans in Chicago as they gathered for prayer and lament a few days ago:
May God give you grace to never sell yourself short,
grace to risk something big for something good,
and grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love. Amen.
And as for my first fear? It was entirely unfounded. For as I checked with those from the congregation I serve who made their way to worship with these dear people across town, their over-riding response was one of being overwhelmed at the welcome we received. It was, indeed, something to behold.
Back to Jesus’ teaching about prayer today:
- We hear a lot about the faithfulness of God in today’s Gospel reading.
- We are offered words which give us a way to frame our prayer.
- I wonder now what Jesus would have to say about who it is we are to actually pray with. And I wonder if it makes a difference. I surely hope it does.
For these days when so very much threatens to drive us apart? It does feel like an answer to prayer to find myself praying with those whose backgrounds and and experiences and often at least nuances of belief differ so from my own — among those who pray to the same God but where perhaps the substance and style of our prayers differ. In spite of all that would drive me to my knees in despair, this gives me hope. It does. Indeed, perhaps this answered prayer alone gives us the strength to keep on praying. And who knows what will happen next?
- What do you think? Jesus surely doesn’t address this in his teaching today, but does it make a difference with whom we actually pray? Why or why not?
- What do you think is the main point of Jesus’ teaching on prayer today? What gives you hope? What raises more questions for you?
- This question may be unrelated to the text, but I am wondering how you and/or your faith community have responded to the challenges we face in the world today. What has been your experience? What would you offer the rest of us who are trying to find our way through this time which feels like no other?