June 8, 2021

The Way of Love (redux): Prayer + Worship

Note: You might first want to read this and this.

This is the third in a series reflecting on Bishop Curry's Way of Love as a model for starting new faith communities. In my mind, there are 3 stages for making this useful: pre-engagement, engagement, gathering. The first stage, which I'm calling "pre-engagement" is designated as such because this applies 4 of Curry's practices before engaging the context in which a new community will be started. In this stage, a small group of people who will start a new faith community together begin gathering. Last time I talked about the practices "turn" and "learn." Here I'm writing about "pray" and "worship."

Pray - Dwell intentionally with God

Whenever I think of prayer, I think of the film Gravity and one of Sandra Bullock's lines, "Will you say a prayer for me? Or is it too late... ah, I mean I'd say one for myself but I've never prayed in my life. Nobody ever taught me how..." Teaching people to pray is one of our duties in a day and age when an increasing number of those around us share the sentiment of Bullock's character. This is one of the gifts of the Book of Common Prayer; it is a guide to prayer not the limits of prayer. 

The work of prayer is the re-framing of how we engage the world; not being bound by how the state or marketplace marks time but instead marking time with periods of prayer. In my tradition—the Episcopal Church, prayer is not bound by my will or emotional state but by the shared commitment to prayer with countless Christians around the globe who at the same time stop and pray, often sharing the same words as mine. It has less to do with how we feel compelled to say but about signaling to God and others that time, along with all of creation is in the hands of the Creator. This is not to say that prayer should not incorporate our feelings and desires. It is just that, for those within the Anglican tradition, it is not driven by this.

Maybe the simplest way to explain prayer is as a conversation. A conversation requires as much listening as it does talking. I grew up in the evangelical environment where prayers were most often extemporaneous. Prayers were not read or prepared ahead of time. Rather, prayers were the thoughts and expressions of the person praying at that moment. I learned to talk to God by listening to others talk to God in prayer. Scripture establishes that we are each seen and known by God. The Christian faith is relational and in any relationship there are certain things that ought to be expressed time and again. Affection. Apology when required. Gratitude. Asking for help. The fact that I tell my wife every day, “I love you” the exact same way at the same time doesn’t make it any less meaningful. The ritual of this expression of my love for her is part of what sturdies our relationship–even when we fight. What I have found is that both types of prayer–the written and my own immediate expression–are equally as important. Either of these forms stops us in our tracks and acknowledges God's presence in the world.

Worship - Gather in community to thank, praise, and dwell with God

For Episcopalians, a conversation about "prayer" and "worship" may seem natural. This is not necessarily the case for Christians of other traditions. In the Episcopal Church the two terms are almost synonymous with each other. Similarly in evangelical traditions, terms such as “music” and “worship” become interchangeable. As my friend Mike Angell once responded when I posed this distinction to him, worship in our tradition is the "public dimension" of prayer. But what is happening in worship? I've found it helpful to think of worship as the act of people coming together to acknowledge God at work in the world together. We do so by setting aside time to do so. Yet, rather than separated from "normal time" this sacred moment tethers the events and occurrences of the week past to the one coming. I think of it in 3 phases:

Memory: remembering (being reminded of) why we do this
In the first phase, we read Scriptures that remind us who we are and why we are gathered together. We confess where we've messed up in the prior week and lift our concerns and celebrations to God collectively. We are reminded that God’s story is the story we are living out in the rest of our lives.

Community: reuniting (and reconciling) with God and each other
In the second we find the “peak” of our time together. In most Episcopal congregations on any Sunday morning you can be certain that the gravity of the service is around the Eucharist table, not the pulpit. This is significantly different than many reformed and evangelical traditions where the sermon is the central point of the service. I was drawn to this because it demonstrated a central value in what it means to be the church: it is not disparate people fixated on an individual, it is a community gathering around a common meal where each participates equally. We are reminded that we are not alone; that we go about life with each other and with God. During this time we offer reconciliation with God and each other, and celebrate the Lord’s Table–we feed on the Word through the bread and wine, through the reflection of Scripture... together.

Mission: re-engaging with our world
In the third, we begin to ease our way back out into the world. It’s when we remember that this “separate” activity is done publicly and for the purpose of our lives--that are lived “out loud”, or in public.

I offer these explanations rather than a step-by-step approach merely because I think we have enough of that in the Book of Common Prayer. It is more important that we recognize why these rhythms of prayer and worship exist; what they are for. When we understand the purpose of these forms then we can begin to riff on them, making them fit better for the context we intend to serve in. This is why I recommend that small group of those intending to start a new community begin to live into these routines before they gather those from the context they serve. Prayer and worship isn't performative. It's a practice, a routine and rhythm that will shape how we go about our work of reaching out to others.

More to come.

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