December 2017

Dear friends in Christ,
It has become commonplace after all manner of widely publicized tragedies (mass shootings,natural disasters, terrorist attacks) for people from pastors to politicians to talk about their “thoughts and prayers” being with the victims. It’s become so commonplace that there is now a predictable backlash in response to the many in leadership roles who tweet their “thoughts and prayers” but fail to translate that into actions that might prevent the very same kinds of tragedies or actions which might tangibly support those affected. I share their frustration, and know that I too sometimes pray and move on. So I wonder if, as people who believe that praying matters,we might reclaim prayer as a response to tragedy that is more than words that make us feel better or let us off the hook.

Now we’ve all probably at some point said a prayer we didn’t fully mean or think about. This isn’t all bad. Sometimes we need habitual prayers to shape and form us over time. For instance, we pray the Lord’s Prayer at least every Sunday, if not more often, and it’s hard every single time to mean every single phrase, but over time it shapes us and we do absorb its richness. Or when we follow Jesus’ injunction to pray for our enemies it may not always at first be with genuine goodwill, but the act of praying for them over time puts us into a different relationship with God and with our identified enemies.

But how can we transform those other kind of less-than-thoughtful prayers – the kind that get tweeted by leaders or even prayed in our own assembly without accompanying transformation and action? For me, one of the most helpful shifts I made was to understand prayer as a dialogue. Growing up I was focused on and mostly taught how to construct a prayer with words.
I learned to address God, thank God, ask God for things, and say “Amen” at the end. Well and good. But it wasn’t until much later that I understood that God talks back to us in prayer. Rarely do I experience that in words, though sometimes in prayer thoughts that seem to originate beyond my own understanding emerge. But I believe that God is in conversation with us in
prayer.

I also believe that prayer does have some affect on God. Now, surely God acts without our prayers. In Martin Luther’s words: “God’s good and gracious will comes about without our prayer, but we ask in [the Lord’s Prayer] that it may also come about in and among us.” But we also have the story of Moses interceding for the people of Israel in which God relents (Exodus
32:14) and the parable of the persistent widow in which Jesus invites us nag God with our prayer (Luke 18:1-8). These and other Biblical examples invite us to pray with urgency, even if as a way to cheer God on in the work that God is already bringing about.

But in all of this we understand that though God acts miraculously and without our help, God also often acts through human hands and voices. Whether our prayers are floods of words or hours of silence, still or in motion, musical or monotone, communal or individual, God speaks back to us and invites us into the transformation that God is bringing about. When we pray, God responds with peace, comfort, challenge, invitation/calling, hope, and sometimes all of the above and more all at once. This is the essence of the ELCA’s tag line: “God’s Work. Our Hands.” As we pray, we ought to expect like so many Biblical characters, many of whom we read about this Advent season, to be called into service. Maybe to something big and public and maybe just to an attitude shift in our own hearts and minds.

So how might we listen better? I find making room for silence helps. A full deep breath between “Let us pray” and “Dear God…” is one thing I do in worship. Or an entire prayer that consists of simply naming to ourselves and to God one big and troubling thing (cancer, gun violence, anxiety…) and then sitting with God to contemplate it together. This season of Advent our Sunday prayers of intercession will include fewer words and more silence to invite us both to speak (silently or aloud) and to listen to the needs of the world.

Or what if our daily prayer included a question to God about what I might do this day to be a part of God’s transforming the world? Or what about something different like turning the actions we do in our daily lives into prayer? When we go to write or read or cook or teach or serve or drive or talk to pray simply something like “In the name of God. Amen.” How might
that help us listen to the work of God in our actions, that helps us see our daily movements as prayers?

If that’s what we mean by “thoughts and prayers” in response to tragedies, let us do more of it. We must continue naming the pain of the world and the pain of our hearts to ourselves and to God, sitting with it, listening to God’s comfort and challenge to us. And if we do that with intention, I suspect we will better see the work that God is doing to fold us into the coming reign of Christ.
Peace,
Pastor Steven