There Has To Be A Better Way To Pray

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This winter has been hard on my congregation. So many people are sick with COVID, respiratory viruses, and other diseases that it’s becoming difficult to keep up with everyone. When I combine my congregational concerns with my father’s recent lymphoma diagnosis, I start dropping the balls I’m supposed to juggle daily. I went so far as to create a spreadsheet of prayer concerns (versus a list). It didn’t help. Once I got them down on paper, isolated in illnesses, homebound and hospitalized, church members, family, and friends, adults and children, life-threatening and chronic conditions, humans and pets, Ukraine, and America, I was even more overwhelmed. Where do I start? At the top? With the sickest? With my dad? The sheer human misery before me is too difficult to describe. I’m at the point I don’t know what to say to God about these concerns because I don’t know what to say. I am literally out of words.

I gather with a small group of church members to pray through our concerns and celebrations each Thursday at 10 am. After a few moments of Lection Divina, we read through each name and concern on our church’s prayer list. There are nearly 100 names. I wonder why we are reminding an omniscient and omnipotent God of realities of this God is already fully aware of. The exercise feels pointless. If God requires the constant repetition of my father’s name and the fact that he has Leukemia to bring him daily healing and comfort, are we praying to a God? Or are we just talking to ourselves? Is prayer, in the means we’ve constructed it, little more than a supernatural protection racket? We keep giving God our best words in the hope of blessings and eternal security, so bad things don’t happen to us. There must be a better way to pray.

Is there a means of prayer that does more than make us feel better by acknowledging our helplessness in the face of illness and tragedy? Are there prayers where we partner with God to help those who pray create and become the answers to their prayers? It’s gotten to where I don’t look forward to asking for prayer concerns and celebrations in our worship services. These are the most soul-crushing minutes of our worship hour. I do not want to deny anyone the opportunity to share their concerns. Yet once we share our pain, the joy leaves our sanctuary like air from a punctured tire. Persons with blessings feel too ashamed to speak up because they feel their prayers aren’t worth mentioning considering the “serious” concerns previously shared. That’s wrong as well. We must rethink how we pray, for whose benefit we pray, and if we’re praying to be heard by God or each other.

The most honest and genuine prayer I’ve been able to offer recently is this: “Look!” “Help” hasn’t gotten me anywhere. I’ve settled on the model of the minor prophets. If I’m asking God anything, I’m asking God to do what I know God is already doing: see the mess we’re in and, if possible, relieve some of this interminable suffering. I’ll be glad to do anything. I am burned out. I can’t keep repeating names and recounting suffering. Something has to give. Point me toward one person who needs something tangible. That’s a doable place to start. We can answer prayers together.

–Richard Bryant

Start With Forgiveness

Have you ever wondered why we say the prayers of confession and proclaim forgiveness before celebrating our congregational prayer celebrations and concerns? Is that just the way United Methodists worship? Yes, that is true. You’ll probably find that pattern in most congregations. However, there are theological, Biblical, and spiritual reasons we speak this way.  These reasons could impact your Thanksgiving dinner.

Forgiveness precedes gratitude. It isn’t easy to be genuinely grateful if we need to forgive someone or something. In church, we begin our prayers of confession by addressing God, acknowledging our brokenness, and our need to be forgiven and forgive others. Forgiving others is a central component of what Christians call the “Lord’s Prayer.”  How can we honestly acknowledge gratitude for our lives, blessings, families, and friends if there are some we cannot forgive? Can we share a common table and proclaim our genuine thankfulness to God and others if there are those sitting around our table that we need to forgive? If our hearts are burdened with hatred, remorse, and vengeance, is any of our gratitude nothing more than empty words? Without forgiveness, some internal or external acknowledgment of the need to move beyond past wrongs and hurts, gratitude grows in shallow soil. Life is too short to waste on superficialities. Jesus calls us to forgive from a place deep within ourselves where our emotions are raw and fragile. It’s in that same place, where we’d prefer not to go, where we begin to understand the depth and gravity of the forgiveness embodied in his life, death, and resurrection.

While I write out of the Christian tradition, I see this as an idea rooted in our shared humanity; not solely unique to a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple.

Before you sit down tomorrow, who do you need to forgive? Is it yourself? Is it a sibling, parent, or friend? Thanksgiving should begin with three words, “I forgive you.” Say it in any manner you feel led. Free yourself, your soul, and the lives of those around you for genuine gratitude.

Happy Thanksgiving.

–Richard Bryant