"Prayer: Attending with openness to God and the world"
By Ron Matross
I find it difficult to write about prayer because I often find it difficult to pray. Sometimes I'm disheartened because the things that I most fervently pray for don't happen--my lab tests look bad or my friend dies. At other times, I'm doing structured prayer like the Daily Office, and my mind wanders off. And sometimes I'm busy and I just forget to be bothered with the chore of prayer.
But there are times, despite my stumbling language and my skeptical and easily distracted mind, when I do feel like I've connected, like I've gotten through to God, and God has gotten through to me. One day last summer I was standing on the Lake Street bridge, staring down at the river below and feeling rotten. I had broken bones, broken dreams, and a broken spirit. And that's just what I told God: "Lord, I'm broken. I've made a mess of my life, and maybe my family would be better off if I was gone." No, Clarence the Guardian Angel didn't appear to me, but I did find myself suddenly saying, "No! You're listening to the negative force. There is a positive force in this world and you must turn toward it." I pasted a smile on my face, walked to the coffee shop across the river, chatted with the barista, and started to think about how God was calling me to use my experience to reach out to others.
So, was that episode a prayer, and was God answering me? I think so. I don't believe in a clockwork God, who manipulates the space and time continuum to orchestrate the details of my life or the lives of the billions of other sentient beings on this planet or the billions of other planets likely to inhabited by intelligent life. Stuff happens to us, good and bad, all the time and I don't think God has anything to do with it. But I do think God is always there for us, ready to speak to our hearts and minds to help us to deal with all that stuff, if only we can reach out and connect.
Lately, my best prayers have occurred when I'm on a daily walk, out in nature and moving, what I love best. They start with gratitude--giving thanks for all the blessings in my life. Only afterwards do I feel like I've opened the channel enough to start making requests of God. And my requests are not for specific outcomes in my life, because intellectually I just don't believe that God will intervene to make my lab tests good or my children safe on their travels, any more that I believe God will intervene to help the Gophers beat the Badgers. Rather, I pray for the three things that I know in my heart I have received from God, on that day on the bridge and on several other occasions.
The first is guidance. I believe that this force or presence that we call God is directional-that if I am open to it, I will be pointed toward that which is positive and life-affirming and away from that which is negative and life-denying. The second is comfort--God will bring me peace and comfort, regardless of what I have encountered. And the third is strength--God will strengthen my will and spirit to deal with whatever obstacles have come before me. I ask for these things not just for me, but also for my family and others for whom I care. Maybe I will be part of the way God delivers guidance, comfort and strength to them.
In this season of giving, I believe that these three things are God's great gifts to us, available unconditionally to us if only we can open ourselves to them. If you wish, you can think of them in terms of the Trinity. Jesus, the Great Guide, who came to show us the Way, will continue to guide us in our daily lives. The Holy Spirit, the Holy Comforter, will calm us when we are disturbed and ease our pain. And God, the Mighty Creator, will share the strength that created the "vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home".
Could we ask for anything more?
by Gail K. Noble
I first sang sacred music in a country church in Greenburr, PA. Hymns were the only music there. Each hymn ended with an “Amen” that followed upon the last note and word of the hymn. I thought nothing of this amen. It was “normal”, unremarkable. But the practice has become remarkable to me in my time spent in St. Matthew’s Parish Choir. Noting the absence of a hymn amen in the Episcopal Hymnal coincided with an understanding of my prayer life.
I have always struggled with praying in words. My flitting mind allows for back talk when I pray in words. It might go like this: “Our Father in heaven. [Wonder when they got rid of “art”. “Art reminds me of “ain’t”. “Our Father who ain’t in heaven” ? NO!] “Hallowed be Thy name”. [Wonder why they didn’t change “hallowed” when they changed “art”.] . . . . “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. [GAIL, when have you ever forgiven. Do you have a clue about what that means?] Well, you get the idea.
About midway in my time in our Parish Choir I suddenly realized that we were singing prayers--in the service music, in the anthems, and in the HYMNS without the amens. A hymn is a prayer. My childhood church singing of an ending amen meant that! Every hymn is a prayer, with or without an amen! In this musical prayer practice there is no opportunity to indulge back talk. The words flow with the notes in tempo and rhythm, with instruments and all other singers in church, with a director, sometimes accompanied, sometimes a cappella—all sometimes quite speedy or tricky. This praying in song is communal; individual offerings happen by accident except for the rare solo. We just roll along. We pray without self-doubt, my specialty, or any other verbal intrusions. And I believe we pray during the week when we re-sing hymns or service music or parts of anthems—whatever still resonates with us in the week between Sunday services and accompanies whatever we are doing. I do not believe this is mindless praying. For me, it lends sanctity to mundane matters.
By Barrett Fisher
I am not a native Minnesotan. On the one hand, I have had to adjust my East Coast sensibilities—especially my ironic sense of humor—to the earnest culture of Midwestern Scandinavians. On the other hand, one benefit of being an immigrant of sorts is the opportunity to see and appreciate aspects of my surroundings that may be invisible to native residents. As a newcomer to the Twin Cities, I was more likely to visit locations or engage in activities or simply notice things that lifelong citizens took for granted. What does this have to do with the Book of Common Prayer? As with my move to Minnesota, I am not a native Episcopalian. And as a recent “immigrant” to the church who has spent most of his life in a different tradition, I may be especially aware of its distinctive attractions. The Book of Common Prayer is my ecclesiastical equivalent to “Spoon Bridge and Cherry”!
I was raised with the most nominal of church upbringings, attending Sunday school in a Congregational church until I was 10 years old, spending a few years in a Unitarian setting, and then just drifting away from contact with Christianity until graduate school. My conversion occurred in Ithaca, NY, where I was working on my Ph.D. in English Literature. The doctrine at Faith Bible Church was fundamentalist and the liturgy was essentially three hymns and a 45-minute (at least) sermon. Over the next 30 years I joined churches that were more evangelical than fundamentalist, but nearly all were Baptist and none was traditionally liturgical.
About five years after my conversion, I read Thomas Howard’s Evangelical is Not Enough. Howard was a Wheaton College English professor and a C.S. Lewis scholar whose journey from evangelicalism to Anglicanism then Catholicism cost him his tenured position. His description of the rich resources and spiritual sustenance of a liturgical tradition appealed to me, perhaps because my study of literature reflected an appreciation for well-chosen words arranged in a carefully designed structure that created a predictable but pleasing form—in many ways pleasing because of its predictable form. Several years later I led a study abroad semester in England, where I was able to visit an Anglican church nearly every Sunday. While I did initially stick to the Low Church tradition of evangelically-minded ministers like John Stott, I felt a strong pull towards Anglicanism in general.
But that was in 1993, and I did not join St. Matthew’s until 2012! There are number of reasons why the journey took so long; another semester in England nudged me further along the road to Canterbury, but it wasn’t until I began to wonder with some seriousness why I was driving eleven miles each week to my Evangelical church that I decided to reconsider my assumptions about worship. To state the situation negatively, I felt that Sunday morning had to consist of more than a few contemporary songs (or older hymns adapted to sound more contemporary) and a sermon (part of a series determined by topics of the pastor’s own devising). There is a contradictory element to this situation: while the liturgy was simple and predictable, it was constantly tinkered with, as if some originality was required each week. At the time I was given the opportunity to preach and plan some of the services. However, when my modest proposals for a responsive reading or a corporate prayer were rebuffed, that was the push I needed to pursue a different liturgical approach. Paradoxically, it was the apparent flexibility of this worship that revealed its rigidity (and implied its underlying theological structure).
Perhaps any movement, spiritual or otherwise, is both a movement “away from” as well as “towards.” Of the many positive elements that drew me toward the Book of Common Prayer and the church that it animates, three in particular stand out.
First, its affirmation of the authority of scripture. I resonate with the Reformation’s rallying cry of sola Scriptura. While the modern phrase “Bible-believing” to describe a congregation or the designation “bible church” may be alarming, inaccurate, or divisive, it is certainly true that one’s Christian faith and practice must be rooted in knowledge of, and faithfulness to, the Biblical narrative. However, every Christian tradition also creates its own terms on which it deals with scripture, both hermeneutically and pragmatically. I recently read The Rapture of Canaan, a novel in which the founder of “The Church of Fire and Brimstone and God’s Almighty Baptizing Wind…. used the Bible, of course, but only the parts he liked.” While it is impossible not to “use the Bible” in one way or another, the Book of Common Prayer ensures that every Sunday we hear a reading from the Old Testament, a passage from a New Testament epistle, and verses from a Gospel, along with a plainsong setting of a psalm. When I visited Anglican or Episcopal churches in the past, it had always struck me as ironic—coming as I did from an evangelical background—that a typical Episcopal service actually includes more scripture than any other I have participated in.
Not only does one encounter both the Old Testament and the New Testament each week, but the preacher’s choice of material is necessarily limited or, I would prefer to say, disciplined by these selections. In many contemporary churches preaching is usually topical, as the pastor focuses on one book or pursues a theme for a certain number of weeks. While selecting specific topics is not necessarily a bad thing, one potential result is both a limitation of scope—using only the parts of the Bible that serve a predetermined purpose—and a narrowing of perspective—the congregation hears only what the pastor wants to talk about. I realize that the choice of lectionary readings is not inspired by God, that they are themselves the result of human decisions about what to include and what to omit. And I also realize that the preacher’s homily may avoid the more difficult passages. Nonetheless, in their reliance on the lectionary both the Episcopal preacher and congregation exercise a kind of spiritual discipline in allowing their choices to be constrained by the authority of tradition. Of course healthy traditions must allow for change. As an outsider, I can enjoy the 1979 Book of Common Prayer with little sense of the agony that revision may have caused many, but by and large I think that locating one’s present in the stream of the past is beneficial.
This affirmation of the authority of tradition leads to a second reason that the Book of Common Prayer has both gained my affection and nourished my faith: the escape from subjectivity. In my previous churches, it seemed that a primary function of worship—especially the music but often the preaching as well—was to evoke or to provoke an emotional response. Obviously, emotion is not an illegitimate element of worship, but if it is the motivating goal of worship, then failure to engage the emotions may result in a sense of “failed” worship. Paradoxically, this approach actually leads to closer attention to my own sensations than to God! If emotion is equated with transcendence, the path by which one is lifted out of one’s self and closer to God, then such worship focuses on a performance by the worshiper rather than an adoration of the divine.
But note this irony: I have actually felt in the Episcopal liturgy a deeper sense of emotional response in worship, perhaps precisely because feelings of transport or joy or comfort are produced by the liturgy, not pursued as its goal. I do not generate emotions in order to worship; I feel emotions as a result of having worshiped. In former days, when I entered church angry, tired, or distracted, I also carried an additional burden: if a genuine worship experience was going to occur, I would have to lift myself by my own emotional bootstraps. In short, my worship was fundamentally subjective. Now, however, because of the structure and order of the Book of Common Prayer, because of the things that it asks me to do, whether I feel like it or not, I find that my emotions follow my actions. How I am feeling about God is of no consequence when I stand to recite the Nicene Creed; I do not need to rely on my own eloquence when I kneel in confession; I don’t need to feel especially worthy (or unworthy) when I take the Eucharist. The love of the triune God, my sinfulness, God’s forgiveness, Christ’s death and resurrection are real, regardless of how I feel about them. And proclaiming their reality by my actions and through my words inevitably changes how I feel.
Perhaps it is an effect of aging, but for me this escape from subjectivity is one of the most liberating aspects of the Episcopal liturgy. It reminds me that the God who is the object of my belief is reliable, unchanging, eternal, no matter how my feelings wax and wane, my convictions ebb and flow, my devotion increases and decreases. In my former churches, using set or written prayers (and, of course, reciting creeds) was anathema, since such practices suggested insincere prattle, stale formality, and—worst of all—“vain repetition.” I am grateful that that the gift of a common language enables me to speak with eloquence; I am permitted to borrow and even to claim the words of other believers as my own. The critique of using composed prayers reminds me of a routine that the comedian George Carlin performed, in which he responds to a request to describe something “in your own words.” “You have your own words?”Carlin asks incredulously. “I’m using the ones everyone else has been using!” The equation of spontaneity and sincerity in prayer rests more, I suspect, on a Romantic notion of individuality than on a biblical conception of the communal language of faith.
While I certainly believe that one needs to speak to God with genuineness, sincerity, and authenticity, spontaneous prayer is not always the best or only way to do so, especially in public settings. N.T. Wright notes that “the resistance to using a prepared, written liturgy in prayer” may be “compare[d] to being unwilling to dress in any clothing we did not make ourselves, or being unwilling to drive a car we did not construct entirely by ourselves.” In addition to the fact that a written prayer makes use of the linguistic gifts of another believer, it also creates an address to God that is much more easily shared with an entire community, since it has been composed with other congregants explicitly in mind. Rather than being distracted by the verbal tics or poor word choices of those who are praying, I can focus on the One being prayed to. Moreover, I find it inspiring to participate in prayers that others have carefully composed and to say those words along with a company of saints that includes both those physically next to me and the cloud of witnesses who have been sharing in this faith for nearly 2000 years. That is genuine transcendence!
This aspect of the liturgy is also a salutary reminder that I do not—I cannot—follow the way of Jesus alone. In many instances of Jesus’ healing ministry— the centurion’s servant in Matthew 8; the paralytic lowered through the roof in Matthew 9; Peter’s mother-in-law in Luke 4; and the royal official’s son in John 4—the faith that healed the sufferers was not their own but that of their friends and families. I value the collects that we pray together, the Nicene Creed that we recite in unison, and the weekly prayers of the people that we share aloud because they remind me that I am part of the Body of Christ, and that God uses the faith of others to strengthen and uphold my faith—and vice versa. Again, another irony: I have found in the rite of baptism a much more powerful affirmation of that observance than I did when I was in a Baptist church (though I might still quarrel over the mode!). The opportunity to renew my own baptismal vows with others, as well as offer support to a new member of God’s family, stimulates me to gratitude towards God and a recognition of our mutual responsibility for each others’ well-being.
If I had more time, I would also discuss how in Episcopal worship I have found a robustly Trinitarian view of God, or how the simple act of “passing the peace” encourages a sense of community, or how I appreciate the rhythm of the church year, but I want to focus instead on the weekly celebration of the Eucharist—and its placement as the climax of the service. I know that before 1979 the Eucharist was not celebrated as frequently, but I am grateful that it is now a regular occurrence for three reasons. First, it shifts the center of gravity away from the sermon. It is not that the sermon is unimportant or inconsequential; at St. Matthew’s I hear excellent preaching and I look forward to the homilies. Rather, given my earlier experience of a “pastorcentric” service, I appreciate worship that is no longer judged by the quality of the preacher’s message. (No more “roast pastor” for Sunday dinner.) I know that no matter what else is said or done, each Sunday we will commemorate and celebrate Christ’s self-sacrifice. Second, the congregation serves one another with simple but powerful phrases that remind us of the supernatural significance of the natural elements. I am privileged to receive these gifts from others and, as a chalice bearer, to give them as well. To meet the eyes of fellow Christians as they offer bread and wine, and proclaim the body and blood of Christ, is a ritual that never becomes rote but consistently refreshes my faith. Third, as I noted earlier, I am invited to the Eucharist regardless of my mood or feelings. I am reminded each week that God’s grace is offered freely and constantly if I am willing to receive it; my experience of going forward to the common table has clarified for me why the bread is called “the Host.” Moreover, at St. Matthew’s Jesus hospitality is made explicit in the declaration of open communion. To be frank, this was something of an adjustment for me from my previous tradition, in which it was quite clear that only certain individuals were allowed to partake. But it has been a joy to embrace this fuller and more generous understanding of Jesus’ invitation to “those who have much faith and those who would like to have more.” As we are reminded each week: “It is Christ [not the rector, not the Vestry] who invites us to meet him here.”
I feel that I have indeed met Christ through the Book of Common Prayer, not only in weekly corporate worship but in private times of reading and reflection as well. I will never be a native Minnesotan, but I am glad that it is my adopted state. I will never be a cradle Episcopalian, but I don’t entirely regret my late homecoming, as I needed all the experiences that led me to the place I did not realize I was seeking. In describing the archetypal spiritual journey, T.S. Eliot says in Four Quartets that “the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” This sense of joyous arrival at an end that is also a beginning—and note that here that I appropriate the Anglican Eliot’s words to describe my own emotions—has certainly characterized my experience of worship with the Book of Common Prayer and drawn me into the Episcopal church.