Essential: Prayer

Scripture: James 5:13-16; Acts 2:42

“New normal” is the word of the day these days. All around, everyone seems to be figuring out what their new normal looks like. Some of us are going back to work, or sending our kids back to daycare, or deciding on alternate school plans for the fall. Maybe we’re starting to expand our quarantine bubbles to include close friends and extended family in a way that seems sustainable for the longer haul. We’re getting comfortable with going some places again, getting used to wearing those masks. Maybe we’re getting back into some of the habits and patterns that got eaten up for a while by pandemic anxiety. Or maybe we’re just making peace with what the medium-term future looks like and the reality that this virus isn’t just going away. Things could still change at any time and almost inevitably will, but all the same, COVID-19 is here and we’re learning to live with it.

Part of what this “new normal” looks like for me is trying to get back into a good rhythm of prayer.  I’m not saying I haven’t prayed for the past four months. I have. Like most things since about March, however, prayer tended to be crammed in wherever it would fit, here and there, as the need arose for myself or for others. My previous daily Panera devotional routine was actually one of the things I missed most – but when everything got turned upside down, there was simply no time or space for something like that anymore, or at least so it seemed. So when my kids went back to preschool and daycare this week and I found myself suddenly able to hear myself think again, one of the first things on my list was to get back into a rhythm of prayer.

Prayer has looked different ways for me at different times of my life, but some of the main ways it looks now are journaling and long quiet walks where I just get to have a stream-of-consciousness conversation with God. I’m also realizing that these have the potential to be fairly individualistic practices of prayer, where more than anything, I talk to God about me. And I’m wondering, now, if my new normal needs something new.

We’ve been spending the past few weeks looking at the description of the first post-Pentecost church in Acts 2, and what it says about the most basic and essential things that made that church the church. And we’re asking what those essential aspects of church might look like for us now, as we settle into our own new COVID-normal of life and ministry together. So far we’ve talked about the essential aspects of worship, learning, and communion, and today, our next essential aspect is prayer.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Being devoted to prayer is almost a description that makes me picture each of these new believers waking up early and going straight to their prayer closet, making coffee and writing in their prayer journal or going for a walk in the woods to have a long talk with God, except I don’t think that’s exactly what it means. The fact that it says “the prayers” makes me think that there are preexisting prayers they are devoting themselves to – namely, daily Jewish prayers at the Temple: gathered, liturgical prayer at set times of day. Later in the passage it says they continued to be in the Temple daily, and even later, at the beginning of chapter 3, Peter and John perform their first recorded healing miracle on their way to the Temple for prayer.

We think so much of prayer as a practice of individual piety, but for the early church of Acts, prayer was unequivocally part of life in community.

And, of course, that wasn’t unique to the early church – corporate prayer, or prayer in gathered community, has been part of the life of God’s people since there was a Temple, and before. And the church has continued to pray together. We gather each Sunday and pray for each other and the needs of the world. Some of you have been gathering on weekday mornings to do the same. Prayer in community wasn’t unique to the early church, but it was essential to it.

That’s not to say that all prayer in the early church consisted of gathered liturgical prayer. Far from it. The Old and New Testaments alike are full of stories of people bringing their own needs to God. Paul wrote to his churches that he remembered them constantly in his prayers, and he asked them to pray for him too. In the passage from James we read this morning, we hear James exhorting the people in his community to pray in all circumstances. Are you suffering? You should pray. Cheerful? You should pray. Do you need healing? You should pray. But James also talks here about prayer as a community effort. Have the elders lay hands on you. Confess to each other, pray for each other. Prayer may not always mean reciting Psalms together in the same room at certain times of day, but it was meant to be an act of community.

I know “thoughts and prayers” get a bad rap these days, and for good reason, when that’s no more than a catchphrase that we use to excuse ourselves from actual repentance and healing action. James says that the prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve, but in the face of a global pandemic, or centuries of institutional racism, or whatever intractable challenge we may be personally facing this week, mere prayer may seem like a weak offering. Yet there is a reason prayer was essential to the early church, as it has been throughout the story of God’s people – it was the basis of their dynamic and ongoing relationship with God, a way to ground themselves in who God was and what God wanted and what God was doing and how God was drawing them together. The church can’t be the church in the world, we can’t be the church together, without prayer to ground and guide us.

I wonder if, as part of our new normal, we might hear the call anew not just to pray, or just to be individual people who pray, but to be a community grounded in prayer.

Here are some ways I think that could look. As always, I invite you to respond in the chat function or talk to me later if you hear something that resonates with you, that you’d like to be a part of, or if you have other ideas.

First of all, join in Morning Prayer on Wednesdays and/or Saturdays! I’m so grateful that Barbara H. has initiated and taken leadership of this which provides an extra chance for people to connect and hold each other and the rest of our community and world in prayer each week. The link is, as always, in your e-note.

Maybe that schedule or format doesn’t work for you. Maybe you’d be interested in having a prayer partner from the congregation, someone to intentionally share and pray for each other and develop that relationship over time.

Maybe you’re an introvert like me who’s pretty attached to your quiet prayer and devotional time. You can still make your prayer an act of community. You can commit to praying for this church as part of your own prayer time. Do you do that? Pray for each other. Write down the concerns that are lifted up on Sundays. Use the prayer requests section of the e-note. Pray for the needs of our immediate neighborhood and community around us and how we might help meet those needs. What vision might begin to emerge if we all committed to doing this, to asking God what our next steps might be or what God wants from us next? What if we were able to bring what those questions reveal to us to discernment together?

In a time when we are all asked to reassess what community means and what it means to be together, we can make our prayer more community-oriented, too. As you settle into your new normal, how will you engage in prayer as an act of community?

I believe that prayer is essential to who we are as a church, something to undergird everything else we do. I believe it is a way to share one another’s joys and bear one another’s burdens, to make our fellowship go deeper than just coffee. I believe prayer can shape and form us, making people into God’s people. I believe prayer can ground us in who God is and what God wants from us. I believe that prayer can be the unique offering of the church to the world around us. And I believe it’s something to do together. Today, may we hear this call anew.

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