Sunday, September 21, 2014

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Praying in Community

Church Matters: Praying
Ephesians 6:18-20; Colossians 4:2-3; James 5:13-16

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        Two weeks ago I met with the 6 youth from this congregation who were preparing for their baptism that took place last Sunday at Brethren Woods. At Ross’s request, I joined them for a pizza lunch, and then shared with them on the topic of “prayer”.  I consented to do this, not because I am an expert on prayer, but because I believe our prayer life is important and I know how challenging it is to maintain a regular rhythm of prayer in our busy lives. I wanted to share with these new young believers a variety of ways we can pray,(breath prayer, intercessory prayer, conversational prayer, centering prayer, prayer walking, labyrinth prayer,..)  and even different postures for prayer, practices that may help them have a larger view of prayer than what I had at their age.  The fact that I did this on a Sunday afternoon around 1pm after eating pizza, as they sat in comfy chairs, might not have been the best timing! But maybe they will remember at least 1-2 things.

In my teenage years, I tried to have my devotional time. I tried to read the Bible daily. I tried to have prayers regularly. It was always a challenge.  When I forgot, or ran out of time at the end of the day or got up late, I felt guilty. I often felt like a total failure in my prayer life.  It hasn’t become easier over the years, but my understanding of prayer and my attitude about it has changed and grown.  Maybe some of you have experienced similar feelings and challenges.

Recently I was re-reading a book by Barbara Brown Taylor, “An Altar in the World”, about her experience.  BBT is an Episcopal priest, a professor of religion, a prolific writer and preacher.  She knew as she was working on this book, that a chapter on prayer needed to be included but she dreaded writing it.  She goes on to explain that she has shelves full of prayer books, shelves of books on prayer, notes and files on prayer from classes she has taken or taught, candles and icons and incense, etc., but wrote “I am a failure at prayer.”  In a confessional way, she admitted that when people ask her about her prayer life, she tries to redirect them or to say admiring things about prayer so they know it is important to her, but all the time trying to change the topic!  She writes,  “I would rather show someone my checkbook than talk about my prayer life.  I would rather confess that I am a rotten godmother, that I struggle with my weight, that I like gin martinis than confess that I am a prayer-weakling.  To say I love God but do not pray much is like saying I love life but I do not breathe much.  The only way I have found to survive my shame is to come at the problem from both sides, exploring two distinct possibilities; 1.)  that prayer is more than my idea of prayer and 2.) that some of what I actually do in my life may constitute genuine prayer.”

Her words resonate with me.  My idea of what prayer is has changed considerably and continues to over the years.  I also have embraced the fact that my music, my listening, my waiting in silence, my learning scripture, my telling scripture, my prayer walks, my breath prayers are all various ways that I genuinely pray throughout my day.  But those are my private, personal prayers.

What about how we pray in community?  What about the practices we do as a congregation, as a community of believers? 

Arthur Paul Boers, a Mennonite pastor, writer, seminary professor, reflects on similar questions in his book, “The Rhythm of God’s Grace”.  In his early years as a Christian, he admits knowing the difficulty of being prayerful.  He describes his own prayers as ad hoc, made up without paying attention to the Christian year or the priorities of the church or the needs of the wider world.  His prayers, he writes, were self directed, disconnected, subjective.  He admits it was pretty easy to set aside his prayer time when life became overwhelming or schedule was too tight or he wasn’t in the mood.

What changed his life and direction was uncovering the practice of fixed hour prayers, or the daily office, at a time of real crisis in his life.  His only sibling, a sister, died from leukemia at the age of 18.  He found himself unable to pray.  He had nothing to say to God and couldn’t voice his laments and pain.  Then someone handed him a Taize prayer book.  It gave him words to pray.

Ruth Haley Barton, who was the keynote resource person last year for School for Leadership Training here at EMS, expressed similar thoughts in an article she wrote several years ago, stating, “when I participated in fixed hour prayer, I felt like I had come home to a place that I had never been and yet a place in which I truly belonged.”..and admits that it has become one of the richest aspects of her spiritual life.

So how can we continue to encourage one another and keep alive the practice of praying as a community, when we live in a culture that has many obstacles to prayerfulness?

Arthur Boers would say, let’s uncover the practice of morning and evening prayers and restore the “missing link”!  Christians offer worship to God and our prayers in three ways: (falls on a continuum)
1.)  Public, corporate worship and prayer - involves a large group, less participation, more formality.
2.)  Common prayer - “the missing link”. - involves smaller groups, more dependent on voluntary initiative and participation, some formal structure, but allows room for one’s own responses.    It falls in the middle between what we do corporately in our public worship and what we do individually, privately in a ‘free form’ kind of way.
3.)  Free private, personal, spontaneous prayer - individual, informal, subjective and dependent on one’s own initiative.

Boers believes that the absence of this common prayer practice has led to much distortion for Christians in both corporate worship and personal prayer.  He writes:  “Praying together at a similar time (even when separated geographically) can profoundly reverse unhealthy individualism in our prayer.”

He emphasizes, and I would concur, that we need a balanced 3 fold worship and prayer life.  We need to honor and embrace and encourage one another to practice, or to continue to practice our 1.) corporate, public worship and prayers (as we do right here Sunday morning), 2.) private spontaneous prayers, but then also uncover/restore the missing link, 3.) regular rhythm of morning and evening prayers/common prayer/daily office.

Two parts of this 3 fold prayer life we understand.
1.)  Public, corporate worship and prayer:
Sunday morning service:
-invocation-a prayer that invites God to be present
-thanksgiving-gratitude for specific gifts
-confession-a prayer that acknowledges our sin or guilt, followed by a request for forgiveness
-dedication-a prayer offering our tithes, dedicating our children, our school kits, our items for MCC relief sale
-litany-responsive prayer addressed to God
-pastoral prayer-includes thanksgiving and intercession
-Lord’s prayer-
-prayers to commission/bless mission workers
-special prayers during times of natural disasters and local tragedies
-benediction-blessing prayer to send people forth

2.)  Private, personal prayer - incorporates all of those prayers we utter on the spur of the moment, when we receive an e mail from the church or a friend with a request, the prayers we voice on our walks, when we lie awake at night and can’t sleep, prayers we sing in our songs, or when we are folding the wash, peeling the potatoes, mowing the yard, pulling weeds.

But what about ‘the missing link”, the common prayer, the fixed hour prayers, the divine hours, (has many different names for it), that Arthur Boers and Ruth Haley Barton and many others are rediscovering and enthusiastically embracing?  It is an old, old Christian practice that is rooted in Jewish tradition and in the patterns of the early Church.  Jesus and his disciples, as practicing Jews in the first century, would have been familiar with this.  The Psalms were the Hebrew prayer book and practicing Jews prayed from this daily.  We read in numerous scripture texts about prayers at certain hours.  We read of Paul’s words in many of his letters, encouraging prayer for a variety of reasons and continually.

Common prayer is composed of prayers that the church has prayed throughout the ages and around the world.  They will be prayed until the end of time.  When we pray them, we are joined with the body of Christ, the communion of saints, present and absent and future , here and gone and still to come.
The common prayer or fixed hour prayer went from being one of the most important ways that Christians worshiped and prayed to disappearing for most Protestants.  The understanding of it and the practice of this type of prayer was lost during the time of the early church and the Reformation.  Our forebearers as persecuted believers, were forced to hide and worship secretly, and much of what was a common practice in the early church was abandoned.  In that process we lost a rich avenue of prayer that is rooted in Scripture and was practiced faithfully by the early Christians.
Can we uncover this practice and restore this missing link?  Do we want to?

The elements of the fixed hour prayer model usually contain, an invocation, a psalm, a scripture reading, the Lord’s Prayer, silence, prayer of the church, parting blessing...or a combination of these elements.  It doesn’t have to take long, one can adapt and try some variations.  They can be said alone or when a few gather together.  As pastors and office staff, we gather weekdays at 9am to have morning prayers, that follow this format.  Anyone is welcome to join us in the conference room.
What would it take for us as a congregation to try, even minimally, to recover the practice of a daily rhythm of prayer for the church?  What about deciding as a SS class to prayer at a certain time of the day, or commit as a small group to do this?  What if ever PV member would stop for 10 minutes at noon to pray for the church and its leaders during this time of discernment, stress and tension?  

Ruth Haley Barton writes: “Fixed hour prayer anchors our daily lives in rhythms of prayer, Scripture reading, and silence, ensuring that we do not get too far into any day without reorienting ourselves to the presence of God.  Praying at least some of the fixed hours in community can shape our identity as communities of believers.” ( P.37 Sweet Hours of Prayer article)

In Arthur Boers book he share a true story about Nelson Kraybill, former president of AMBS and now pastor at Prairie St. Mennonite Church.  
Nelson was traveling by plane and ended up sitting next to a young man.  Enroute he began to engage in conversation with him and discovered the young man was a seminary student, preparing for the priesthood.  During the flight the young man pulled out his Roman Catholic liturgy of the hours book and invited Nelson to join him for prayers.  They didn’t sing the hymns aloud, but they did read the antiphonal liturgy and spoke prayers of blessing for each other’s ministry.  At 30,000 ft., two strangers recognized each other as brothers in Christ sharing a journey.  More than anything else it was that shared prayer that established common ground and bridged denominational differences between us.

Maybe it is time for us to recover, uncover, restore a daily time of common prayer that helps us pray as a community, even when we are separated, a time to remember the church, the needs of the world, the global communion of saints.....a time to embrace and immerse ourselves in the rich tradition of the early church for a time such as this.

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