An unusual thing happened in church last Sunday. At least it felt unusual to me, in my progressive congregation of “believers, seekers and doubters.” Of course it has been an unusual week. And “unusual” is probably the wrong word. Profoundly sad. Disorienting. A week of feeling lost. Those word seem like a better fit for me.
Last Tuesday was for me a time of profound dislocation. What I thought I knew Tuesday morning about the progress that has been made in resisting hate had all changed by Tuesday night. I am not referring to whether or not my particular candidate won an election. I have been through many times of “winning “and “losing “in the elections. I am talking about the hatred, fear, ignorance and division on which Donald Trump built his campaign. I am talking about the immediate increase in xenophobic, racist, and homophobic hate crimes which began the day after the election. I am talking about the fact during that the warmest year on record for our planet, this country elected a man who believes that climate change is a hoax.
So when my congregation gathered on Sunday morning, most of us were feeling a sense of deep grief and shock. The values of inclusion, and earth care, and welcome, and resisting racism, are faith values we all share. It was good to be together. And the hymns held us, as music and singing together does at such times. And the words held us as well. At the end of my sermon, the congregation stood together and some from the back began to sing: “Amen, amen, amen, amen.” My congregation almost never talks back to the preacher, and I don’t think any of them has ever spontaneously sung back to her. It was a profound and precious moment. But that still is not the unusual thing I am referring to here.
After the sermon in my congregation and after singing together, our usual order of worship moves into prayer. And so my colleague Peter stepped out and began to lead us there. He named our concerns: people we are holding in our hearts, people who were ill, or frail, or in their final days. People who were grieving individually, even as we had named our communal grief. A family celebrating a birth, signified by a rose on our communion table, put there whenever we get such good news. On this Sunday news of a birth was a deep sign of hope.
Here is where it helps to know the particulars of my congregation’s flow of worship. The children are in worship with us adults for the first ten to fifteen minutes of our service. Before they head off to their various classes, we sing together, have a time of blessing (lifting up something in the life of our church that all of us are celebrating, or wondering about, or living into) and pray. We close by saying the Lord’s Prayer together. It is one way we offer our children words we know they will carry throughout their lives. I once heard someone say that we all pray the Lord’s Prayer in the voice that first taught it to us, and I think in many ways that is true. Even now, more than six decades later, I still hear the rhythms of my family’s recitation of that prayer when we gathered around the Thanksgiving table. It is the only time my family did anything “religious” together.
But this Sunday, during our blessing time, we received new members into our church. And when we do that, we switch the order of our worship service. We say our covenant together at the blessing time (more words that we would like our children to know) and we move the Lord’s Prayer to the end of our prayer after the sermon. So last Sunday it was Peter’s job to lead us in the Lord’s Prayer.
But it is hard to break habits. So it is understandable to me that when Peter offered his powerful prayer, for us, for our neighbors and friends, even for those we might think of as enemies, he ended with a simple “Amen.” He forgot to lead us into the Lord’s Prayer.
When Peter finished praying, and sat down, there was silence. Our organist David was still waiting. All of us were, in fact. David even asked softly, “The Lord’s Prayer?”
But Peter didn’t hear him. Peter, on the other side of the chancel, just looked across to David and said “We sing the song,” as if it was David who had lost his place in the service rather than Peter.
After another moment of hesitation, David began to play and we all began, tentatively, to sing. It looked like our worship was going to continue without the Lord’s Prayer. Sometimes that’s just what you do. When something doesn’t go exactly as it says is supposed to go in the worship bulletin, you just move on. I figured that was what we would do now.
Then, after our singing, Peter stood up again, this time to welcome visitors. He invited anyone there for the first time to raise a hand, if they were willing, so we can make a special point of reaching out. From the center of the congregation, Rock, one of our long-time members, raised his hand.
“Are you visiting today, Rock?” Peter asked, laughing.
“We didn’t say the Lord’s Prayer.” Rock said.
Peter was puzzled. He still did not understand what folks were trying to tell him.
“The Lord’s Prayer.” someone else said. “We skipped it.”
And then Peter got it. He looked at his bulletin, and he looked back up at the congregation. He was at a moment of choice. Would he insist on moving ahead, in a service that was already running a little long? Would he just keep going, like we are taught to do in normal circumstances?
But this is not a normal time. This is a time of dislocation. And Peter’s heart knew that. He trusted his instincts.
So we stopped. We took a step back. Peter invited us back into prayer.
“But this time,” Peter said, “let’s pray this differently.” It was Walter Wink, author of books about the powers of hatred and greed and domination in our world, and the call to Christians to resist those powers, who suggested a way of praying together that included eyes wide open, and voices raised in protest.
“Keep your eyes open while we say this prayer,” Peter invited us. “Say this prayer loudly, as loud as you want, as loud as you can. And let’s look at each other while we say it.”
So we began. Eyes open, voice raised, I began the familiar words.
“Our Father, Our mother, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” I insisted.
“Give us this day our daily bread,” I asked in the name of my deep hunger for justice.
“And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” I said, wondering what forgiveness might or might not mean in the days to come.
“And lead us not into temptation, (don’t let our spirits fail, keep us faithful to the call to love and justice), but deliver us from evil, (how we need such deliverance.)”
“For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever. Amen.”
As the words came from my heart, my eyes met the eyes of those around me. I turned to the choir. I turned to the ones standing right next to me. I looked out across the congregation. I heard us all insisting on bread for all. I heard us all crying out for compassion. I heard us all acknowledging together a power greater than the power of hate.
Of all that happened in worship on Sunday, that is the moment I want to remember. That moment when my progressive, mostly liberal community of believers and seekers and doubters all turned their hearts to prayer. They insisted that they would not leave until we had shared this together.
Some of that energy was probably habit. After all, we do like to do things the same way, and change is not easy. Some of it might have come from a sense of obligation or ceremony. This prayer is just what we do together.
But I believe that in that moment, something else was happening too. The work we have before us will be difficult. We will get tired and discouraged. We will have to keep going even when our energy flags. We will need to be strong, and to speak up, loudly, and to hold on. And for all of the varieties of our definitions of prayer, and what we could spend hours arguing about, what prayer does or doesn’t do, I love that my congregation recognizes that we are not the only ones in this place. God is right here with us. I love that we insisted on a moment to acknowledge we are not alone. There is a hope that is bigger than this moment of grief. We can call out for that hope together. I love that on this Sunday of dislocation, my congregation got disruptive, and talked back. We stopped everything, and set aside whatever awkward feelings we polite folks get when things have to be stopped, and we prayed.