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Posts Tagged ‘prayer’

Such as I pray

trail sunset summer sky

So, how do you pray? he’d asked her once.

She’d thought about it a long moment. She always listened, always took his questions seriously. Say what you believe, she said. Say what you’re thankful for. Say what you love.

—Julia Spencer-Fleming, I Shall Not Want

I don’t find myself doing a lot of praying these days.

For a person raised, as I was, in the Southern Baptist church, where we toss around phrases like a little talk with Jesus and you can ask God anything and prayer is a conversation, this is (nearly) tantamount to heresy.

I don’t know when it began to slow down, exactly: maybe somewhere between the heart-cracking headlines (which are still getting worse all the time) and the many smaller, quieter griefs of the last few years. I’d never really understood about prayer, anyway, never quite been sure what it did, what it was supposed to do. I was tired of asking and pleading, hearing only silence.

So I slowed down, until I almost stopped altogether.

It’s not that I have stopped believing, exactly. I can’t quite seem to quit God, even when I think life might be easier or at least make a little more sense if I could.

I have, however, stopped believing in many of the platitudes I used to hear about prayer, because who really knows how it works, anyway? Like most conversations, it does not have a guaranteed outcome. Like most things we do, it is not formulaic. Like most of our attempts to be honest and faithful, it does not always make a lot of sense.

I have (mostly) stopped saying I’m praying for you to people, because sometimes it is a lie anyway, and I also (see above) have lots of questions about what that means. I have (mostly) stopped asking my friends and family to pray for me, though I know and appreciate that some of them do. I have more faith in their prayers, sometimes, than my own.

The irony here is that I still, most Sundays, lead the public prayer at our tiny church, taking requests from the handful of souls in the pews and offering them up to God or whoever is listening. I am perhaps not the best person to do this, at the moment, but it is my job and I love this community, so I get up, pen and bulletin in hand, and stand in front of these faces, familiar and unknown.

I usually begin with a line borrowed from my friend Amy, who can often be found in the front pew with her husband and twelve-year-old twins: we are so grateful for all that we have been given. I continue with a paraphrase of an old song I sang as a child: we know that you see and love the whole world.

And then, usually when my voice starts to crack under the strain of it all, I invite everyone to join me in the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t have to think of the words for this part, and the community’s voices often help carry mine. Depending on the week, certain lines can make me break into tears: on earth as it is in heaven. Forgive us our trespasses. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.

Such as I pray, then, it can look like that: coming together with my community to follow Clare Fergusson’s advice in the Spencer-Fleming quote above. We say what we believe, what we’re thankful for, what we love. And I suspect I have not stopped believing in prayer altogether, or those lines – from the Lord’s Prayer and elsewhere – would not move me the way they sometimes do.

Such as I pray outside of church, though, it looks different.

It can look like texting a friend who lost a loved one recently, or checking in on another friend who’s going through a lot. It can look like sharing joys with loved ones, via text or in person, because prayer isn’t only sadness and asking; it is praise, too, or at least it can be.

It can look like the tasks I do around the house that ground me: folding piles of laundry, standing at the kitchen sink washing stacks of dishes. Sometimes, as I stand there scrubbing and rinsing, I end up humming one of the hymns that have lived in my bones since I was a little girl.

Sometimes I pray one of Anne Lamott’s few essential prayers: help or thanks or simply wow. Often I run right out of words altogether. I don’t know when they will come back. But then I remember Clare’s simple, solid advice, and I think: I can usually find something I love.

I don’t know if prayer moves the world, or even tilts it forward. I don’t know much about it at all, these days. But maybe it, too, is a form of love.

Maybe that’s all it needs to be.

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memorial church window light candles

I go for the sunlight shafting through the high windows, sometimes flooding directly into my eyes as I sit or stand. It feels like its own sort of benediction, like a blessing I didn’t earn and can only receive.

I go for the voices of the dozen students dressed in long black robes trimmed with scarlet cord. They sing a different anthem every weekday, and their voices soar clear and pure above the carved pews to the cream-colored ceiling.

I go for MemCafé on Wednesdays after service: a paper cup of Lady Grey tea, a granola bar for the road, a warm smile and chitchat from a college student who has no idea how much his kindness means to me.

I go for the words of the ancient texts: a psalm to begin the service, the Lord’s Prayer near the end. Sometimes I participate in the responsive readings or the prayer, my voice blending into the chorus. Other times I sit and listen, letting the community speak for me.

I go for the talks by members of the Harvard community and guests: always varied, often surprising, usually carrying an insight I didn’t expect.

I go because it’s good to be known and welcomed, to see other familiar faces in the pews even if we never speak to one another.

I go to let the ritual anchor me, to breathe deeply before the workday begins, to find a bit of hope and peace among the crowded tasks of ordinary life.

I go for the benedictions, every day: May the Lord bless you and keep you. May he preserve your going out and your coming in. May the peace of God rest, rule and abide in each of us until we meet again. Amen.

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texas sunset sky december pump jack

“I was going to ask if you believe praying can really help at a time like this.”

Clare folded her hands together and pressed them to her lips. She paused. […]

“I believe that God hears our prayers, and cherishes them. I believe He answers by sending His spirit, giving us strength, and peace, and insight. I don’t think He responds by turning away bullets and curing cancer. Though sometimes that does happen.”

Harlene frowned. “In other words, sometimes, the answer is no?”

“No. Sometimes the answer is ‘This is life, in all its variety. Make your way through it with grace, and never forget that I love you.’ ”

—Julia Spencer-Fleming, In the Bleak Midwinter

I don’t usually expect to find theology in mystery novels. Though perhaps I should have seen it coming in this book, the first in a series featuring Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson (flawed but faithful, like all the best human beings I know). I enjoyed the book – a solid mystery set in upstate New York, in which new-to-town Clare solves a murder case alongside longtime chief of police Russ Van Alstyne. But I found this exchange, between Clare and police dispatcher Harlene, particularly moving and deeply human.

I don’t pretend to know what prayer does, or exactly how it works. The older I get, the less sure I am of what God is up to in this world, or how the presence of the divine intersects with our lives. But Clare’s final statement to Harlene rings true to me: when we are faced with life in all its variety, all we can do is try to make our way through it with grace. In spite of the darkness, I still believe this too: we are not alone, but deeply, wholly loved.

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pink tulips boston public garden spring 2017

This spring weather, y’all. I don’t even know. We’ve had temperature swings worthy of my native West Texas: 80s and humid, 40s and raining, nearly every point in between. Swift-moving clouds, flashes of sunshine, sudden downpours and so much misty rain.

In some ways, the weather is reflecting the state of my soul: fitful, unsettled, often unpredictable. I am dealing with a lot of recent transitions and the fallout from the past year-plus of big changes. Sometimes it’s all I can do to keep up, brew myself a cup of tea and keep going. (Donia Bijan’s words about “the only thing to do” are running through my head every single day.)

In that spirit, I decided it was time for another list of what’s saving my life now: because something, or someone, always is. My lifesavers, in this topsy-turvy spring, include:

  • That benediction I love at Morning Prayers on Tuesdays. “May God go before us to lead us…”
  • My favorite black ankle boots: good for nearly all weather and comfortable for long walks.
  • Poetry by John Daniel, John Terpstra and Brian Doyle.
  • A recent visit from some beloved college friends and their little boy.
  • Tulips in all shades of lipstick red and pink. (See above, for evidence from the Boston Public Garden.)
  • Also: budding lilacs. The first lilies of the valley. Every new green leaf I see.

lilacs may

  • Playing Twenty Questions with my friends’ 10-year-old twins the other night and laughing ourselves silly. (Partly because they’re still figuring out how it works.)
  • The wise, funny, earnest Senior Talks at Morning Prayers, given by graduating students as we wrap up for the year.
  • My daily walks around Harvard Square to my places, especially the florist and my beloved Darwin’s.
  • Lauren Winner’s wise words about middles.
  • My umbrella, fingerless gloves and sunglasses, all of which I’ve been keeping handy. (See also: crazy weather.)
  • Long, long walks around Cambridge with a dear friend.
  • The hilarious sixth installment in Jodi Taylor’s series about time-traveling historians. (I’m the crazy person cracking up on the train, reading it.)
  • Unexpected moments of connection with friends and strangers.
  • As always: lots and lots of tea.

What’s saving your life these days? Please feel free to share in the comments.

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A blessing

holden chapel reflection harvard yard

My favorite part of Morning Prayers these days is often the benediction, which comes at the end of the service: after the choral anthem, after the Lord’s Prayer, after the brief address by the day’s speaker and the hymn of the morning. Benediction means blessing, and we stand quietly in the uneven rows of chairs, ready to receive it.

Sometimes the benediction is a familiar one, from the book of Numbers: the one that begins, “May the Lord bless you and keep you.” Sometimes it is a prayer or a blessing from an entirely different source, often unknown to me.

About once a week, this fall, it has been this prayer, delivered by a young seminarian who is particularly fond of it. (He might have written it. I don’t know.) It bolsters me up every time I hear it, and yesterday, I stood in front of my small church community and spoke it over them.

We are heading into a contentious election week here in the U.S., and I am as anxious as the next person about what’s coming our way. But in the spirit of sharing what is saving our lives these days, I wanted to pass this blessing on to you:

May God go before you to lead you.
May he stand behind you to push you,
on the side of you to guide you,
above you to protect you,
beneath you to sustain you,
and in you to keep you.

Amen.

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church candlelight vienna

Come ye sinners, poor and needy, bruised and broken by the fall
Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pardoning love for all
He is able, He is able – He is willing, doubt no more
He is able, He is able – He is willing, doubt no more

I had grand plans for Lent this year: perhaps giving up Facebook, or even all social media as my friend Laura did for the month of March. I heard about friends giving up cheese, ice cream, alcohol. I finally decided to give up hitting the candy jar at work, because it seemed like a challenge I could handle.

I pulled out a book of Lenten readings, intending to read one piece each morning as I often do during Advent. Eight days in, I closed the book and never reopened it. The readings did not speak to my tired soul.

Come ye weary, heavy laden, weak and wounded, sick and sore
Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, love and power
He is able, He is able – He is willing, doubt no more
He is able, He is able – He is willing, doubt no more

Every Thursday night, my husband and I sit down after dinner to plan Sunday’s worship service. We are half of a part-time ministry team that keeps things running for our small, scattered church body of 50 or so people. We organize potlucks, wash dishes and communion trays, send out weekly email messages, print service bulletins. It is important work, but it is also deeply mundane. By Thursday night we are often tired, frustrated, not particularly excited about shaping a coherent service out of this week’s lectionary readings or the emphasis of the current church season.

This Lent has reminded me of my own brokenness, not in dramatic fashion but in the small trials of each day. I hit the snooze button almost every morning, despite my attempts to kick the habit. I snap at my husband when he gets home late yet again, after another evening of the therapy work he loves. I sleep in and skip yoga; I neglect my long-distance friends. I resent being asked to do the same humdrum tasks, at home and at work, over and over again. I fail. I am weak and wounded, sick and sore.

We are still nearly two weeks away from Easter, and while joy is on the horizon, it hasn’t quite arrived yet. Even after Easter, the petty frustrations and the larger hurts will remain. We live in a flawed and beautiful world, caught between blessed assurance and the stark reality of a creation that groans. But we still sing the words of salvation and new life, not because they always reflect our present reality but because they embody the hope we are holding onto.

Saints and angels join in concert, sing the praises of the Lamb
While the blissful courts of heaven sweetly echo with His Name
Hallelujah, hallelujah – here we now His love proclaim
Hallelujah, hallelujah – here we now His love proclaim

We include different words in our order of service every week: Bible readings, poems, always the Lord’s Prayer. We do our best to vary the hymns, so people don’t get bored. But during this Lent, this song – especially the second verse – is the only song I have wanted to sing.

“Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy” arranged by the ZOE Group, after Joseph Hart’s original hymn

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Our names for God

brookline church of christ

On a recent Sunday night, we gathered around the long wooden table at Ryan and Amy’s, the kids squirming, everyone holding hands for a brief pause in the chaos of our evening together. It was Amy’s turn to pray, and she began as she always does: “Almighty God, we are so grateful for all that we have been given.”

I’m fascinated by the different ways people address God, especially since most people tend (consciously or not) to pick one and stick with it. I wonder if a person’s name for God, the way they address him (or her), reveals how they see God, the kind of deity they picture when they pray.

Amy’s prayers always begin at that place of reverence and gratitude, the place of acknowledging our blessings. She is one of the most honest and realistic people I know, but she is also good at being amazed, and good at being thankful.

Ryan, Amy’s husband and a chemistry professor, always begins with “Our Creator God.” Ryan spends his days teaching undergraduates about the tiny building blocks of our universe, and has spent a fair amount of time over the years thinking about science and faith. He deals with creation all day, every day, but what I love about his form of address is the “our”: for Ryan, the “our” is inextricably linked to the “Creator.”

My friend Julie, a warm and lovely soul who grew up with a cold and abusive father, addresses God as “Holy Father.” Her phrase reveals the twin aspects of God’s character that she holds most dear: his vast, mysterious holiness, and his closeness as the kind of father she desperately needed. My own dad also addresses God as “Father.” He learned early on, as I did, what it meant to have a loving human father, and he believes simply and completely in God as that same kind of Father.

My dad’s parents prayed the same table prayer for many years, the one that began, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.” They were humble people, who worked hard and lived simply and raised their three boys to love God and love others, and they acknowledged Jesus both as Lord and guest.

My other grandpa, my mother’s dad, prays his own table prayer before every meal, usually with the same words and always with the same inflections. I can chart the words by the rise and fall of his deep voice, and he, too, begins from a place of gratitude: “Heavenly Father, we thank you for this day.”

I learned the Lord’s Prayer as a little girl, but rarely prayed it (either alone or with others) until I found my way to Highland as a college student. At that church (in West Texas), at the big Anglican church I attended in Oxford, and at our tiny church here in Boston, the congregations recite the Lord’s Prayer together every week. We pray the ancient, resonant phrases of gratitude and praise and supplication, and we always start the same way: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

When I pray alone, sometimes I call him Father. Sometimes I repeat the “Come, Lord Jesus” prayer; sometimes I borrow a line from Shane & Shane and pray, “Be near, O God.” Sometimes I begin a prayer from the Compline service: “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work or watch or weep this night.”

Most often, it’s simply “Dear God,” the way I learned to address God as a child. He is holy, mysterious and infinite, a big God whom I can’t define or explain. But he is also dear, an entity I have known all my life.

These days, I usually begin there, and then I often borrow Amy’s phrase: I am so grateful for all that I have been given.

If you are a person who talks to God, what names do you use?

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