Every week, after the offertory, I stand behind the altar and raise my hands like this. I launch into the Great Thanksgiving standing in this posture. Why am I doing this? Take a minute to turn to someone near you and share your ideas about why I do this…..
This is an ancient posture of prayer. The fancy name is the orans position. I have a photo near my desk of a painting from inside a cave where early Christians gathered. It shows a woman in this posture, leading prayer. It “means” many things. But when I pray in this posture, it helps me remember my dependency on God’s grace. This is the posture of a child asking her parent to pick her up – reaching up to the caring embrace of a loving protector.
I do this on behalf of you, but there is no reason you can’t do it. Feel free. It’s not a gesture “owned” by the clergy.
For me it’s a really helpful posture that recalls me to the vulnerability from which all prayer should start. I’m a youngest child: I spent a lot of time as a child declaring to my older sister, “I’ll do it myself!” I’m a Leo: naturally too proud to admit I need help. I’m a human: I tend to turn away from the source of my life and healing and to put my trust in false gods.
In today’s gospel story, Jesus tries to help his disciples get a rest. “Come away and rest a while,” he says to them. But they can’t. There are too many people too intent on being healed, and they just can’t get away from the “madding crowd.”
I think it would be easy to simply read this story from the point of view of the disciples. As church-going folks who try to be helpful most of the time, we bemoan his disciples’ inability to get a nap in. We can relate! The needs of the world are overwhelming; the needs of our families are overwhelming; our prayer list is long and it could be so much longer!
But what happens when we read this gospel from the perspective of the crowd? What about these people who are so in need of a shepherd, a healing, a savior, that they find out where Jesus is going and “hurry there on foot to arrive ahead of them.”
When was the last time you said, “I can’t wait to pray”? When did you last thing, “Let me hurry to God! Let me get to church early so I can get a good seat and start basking in the presence of the holy One”?
The crowd in today’s gospel flip our program on it’s head: We have a “Church to 5 k” program. They have a “5k to Jesus” program! They know they are sheep. They need a shepherd. A good one.
And notice Jesus’ reaction. He has compassion on them. He doesn’t even sigh. He “suffers with” them. That’s what compassion means: to suffer with.
In my work as a pastor, so often I hear from people, “Who am I to burden God with my prayers and needs?” But here’s the thing: God wants to hear from us. Whatever it is, it matters to God. And by asking, we acknowledge that we need God just as much as anyone else. How can we carry intercessions for other people if we ourselves have not experienced the gift of taking our cares and our hopes to God?
So, how do we bring our prayer to God?
First, we can pray on our own: this is the prayer of petition. In our daily round, we can share with God whatever is on our minds and hearts, we can ask for what we believe to be our needs and trust that God will respond out of love and out of a greater knowledge of our needs than we could ever have.
Second, we can ask others to pray for us. Our brothers and sisters in Christ are the Body of Christ, and we should trust that and entrust them with our concerns. As Paul reminds the Ephesians, “the whole structure (of the Church) is bound together into a dwelling place for God.” God dwells in this community, and so we can bring our prayers here.
Let me say a few words about the challenges of letting yourself be prayer for:
Some people feel guilty asking other people to pray for them. “They are already so busy,” they say. But what I hear from folks in this church, and what I feel myself when entrusted with a prayer is that people are so glad to be asked to pray. They are honored, sometimes. “Thank you for thinking of me, for trusting me,” is a common response.
Moreover, when you ask someone to pray, you are simply asking them do do what they’ve already pledged to do at their baptism. You are simple asking the church to be the church, not taxing them with work over and beyond their vocation.
You can help the person you’re asking by being clear about what you want them to do: Should it be kept in confidence? Is there a time limit?
You can consider who should carry which prayers for you. You don’t have to ask everyone to pray everything for you. And we need to respect one another’s decisions in this regard.
Allow people the freedom to be vague. “Would you pray for me? I’m going through a hard time.” Let that be enough, and trust that the person is working on the specifics in the ways they need to.
Sometimes it’s helpful to write out the prayer or talk to someone when they can focus with you. I know it’s hard for me to remember clearly prayer requests people make of me while I’m rushing about on Sunday morning.
Here at Good Shepherd, we do a lot of praying! Here are some of the avenues open to you to share your prayer requests:
- person to person prayer – always available, and you can ask it of people as you are moved.
- The prayer board in the narthex – Here you can leave a written prayer request where everyone coming in and out of the building can see it and respond to it. Prayers remain posted for two months.
- The parish prayer list – These are the names we pray in church on Sunday. This is a good place for praying for those with an ongoing need. We ask permission of the person whose name is added, if possible, so that their autonomy is respected.
- Healing prayer – Once a month during Eucharist, we offer a prayer with the laying on of hands, which is especially helpful for those carrying brokenness or ailment.
- Our pastoral response team – This group meets weekly. We pray for those on the prayer list, and we also pray for those who want to know people are praying, but don’t want their concern to be fully public.
- Sending a prayer request to the parish in an email – This is best when someone is in crisis or immediate need, and it goes to everyone on the mailing list.
Prayer is a central vocation of the church. It is at the heart of how we follow our Savior’s example of compassion. It is a mysterious but real way of connecting our intentions and our wills to God’s. And it is how we lift our hands to be picked up by our loving Parent.
Let us run ahead to meet Jesus when he comes to town. Let us go, walking or on our sick mats. Let us beg to touch even the fringe of his cloak. And let us invite the Body of Christ to pray for us and be healed from our isolation, our pride, and our fear.