Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Prayer That's Enough

Today, I had lunch with our local ministerial association. I know many preachers out there may be groaning, but I'm telling you the truth: this group ain't normal.

We get together once a month for an hour of prayer and then lunch. Usually there is a presentation from someone in the area during lunch, someone who would like all the area clergy to hear about a particular program or offering.

In case you fell asleep during that second sentence, let me urge you back to the first. We get together once a month for an hour of prayer.

It's almost stereotypical to say this, but the truth is that most clergy really struggle with their personal prayer lives. When you get paid to lead worship, it's apparently very easy to forget to worship on your own as well. When you often wind up as the designated prayer leader, you forget how to craft your own prayers.

In the Episcopal Church, individual prayer lives are often as simple as a recitation of names on Sunday, the people who you mention during the "other intercessions" and the people you mention during the prayers for the departed. And while there's a kind of beauty in that, that's not enough prayer. Not for me at least.

For years now I have had a passionate love for the Daily Office. It's what first brought me into Anglicanism and has been an essential part of my piety for a long time. But, like most people who try to keep the Office as a discipline, I'll be the first to tell you that the real struggle is consistency. Some weeks I'm there, with my book open each morning, working my way through these ancient prayers and readings. Other times, I get halfway through my morning e-mails before I realize that I haven't prayed the Office in weeks. I don't give up, I keep trying, reminding myself like almost anything of worth in life, I need to take it one day at a time. The question is not how well I've prayed it the past several weeks or months. The question is: Will I open the book this morning and spend time in prayer?

But even the Office, even when I'm really on top of it, a true daily prayer rockstar, even that is not quite enough prayer.

What I love about our pastor gatherings is the style of prayer. We pray "extemporaneously." That is, we don't use set prayers, instead we each frame our own on the spot for whatever concern we want to speak to God about. You are supposed to speak "from the heart."

I used to do lots of extemporaneous praying, it was all we did in my former tradition. I know now that we were often just remixing the same words and phrases we'd heard all our lives, but still, there was an attempt to speak "from the heart" to God.

And while I adore the Book of Common Prayer, while I am an ardent supporter of solid, good, traditional liturgy... it's still important to remember how to speak "from the heart" to God.

God, of course knows my heart. God knows my sitting down and my rising up. God discerns my thoughts from afar. God traces my journeys and resting places and is acquainted with all my ways. Indeed, there is not a word on my lips that God does not know it altogether.

God knows all of that.

But sometimes I don't. Sometimes I don't know my own heart. Sometimes I don't even know my sitting down and rising up, much less my thoughts, journeys, and resting places. Some days I'd really love to know my resting places.

Good extemporaneous prayer, the sort that our pastors' prayer gathering does, that's the stuff. Not because it tells God anything new. Not because it contains ancient words spoken by God's people for centuries. It's good because it reveals our hearts. That time of extemporaneous prayer invites us to stand honestly before God and witness the wonderful and amazing truth that the whole of us can stand in the presence of the divine and not be consumed.

At the end of the prayer time, we always gather around the pastor who hosted us. We lay hands on them and pray for their work.

I hosted the gathering a few months ago. We went around, sharing what was on our hearts. I then led simple noon-day prayer from the BCP with a Taizé song thrown in as the hymn (hey, I need to do at least something more than just the extemporaneous stuff). Then we spent over a half hour, maybe almost forty-five minutes, just praying for one another. In our own words. From the heart.

And like every other gathering, as we concluded, the various pastors of this area gathered around me. Lost in a sea of hands touching my head and my back and my shoulders, they all prayed for me. Many from traditions very different than my own, with their own beliefs and practices, probably significant doubts about crazy Episcopalians, they still put their hands on me and spoke to God on my behalf. They prayed for St. John's. They prayed for God's ministry in this place and that God would guide and lead me as I sought to be a faithful pastor.

And I got to hear their hearts. I got to hear their thoughts, the words on their lips. And as they prayed, I heard my own journeys and resting places, all my ways, whispered back to me.

The pastors in my area get together once a month to pray. Anything I can come up with on my own might wind up falling short. Prayer with them, however, might just be enough.

*Some of my words and phrases here come out of my own prayer with Psalm 139 (Domine, probasti). Go take a look at it. It both terrifies me and heals me all at once.

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