Dearly Beloved Friends: While I am working on Doctor of Ministry assignments, here is a personal favorite from the archives. This week I've been learning more about prayer practices and postures, which brought to mind that old admonition in church to bow our heads and close our eyes. I hope you enjoy this piece originally published on February 26, 2016.
When I became a United Methodist pastor, I fell in love with its liturgy.
The Great Thanksgiving. The Apostle's Creed. The Prayer of Confession. The Psalter. Many of my parishioners have shared in these words every Sunday for all of their lives, but much of it was new to me.
I spent many of my younger years in churches with the following "Call To Worship":
Leader: God is good...
People: All the time!
(Now reverse it!)
Leader: All the time...
People: God is good!
The preacher encouraged feedback throughout the sermons with the question, "Can I get an amen?" That question would wake me up from my daydreams to declare, "AMEN!!" -- even if I didn't know what I was "amen-ing." I loved the simplicity of these "liturgies." Their repetition instilled in me basic truths of God's goodness and availability.
Another part of the service I can still quote is the altar call. The pastor would invite people to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He would ask them to raise their hands. Then they came forward for prayer at the altar.
Before any hands lifted or feet walked forward, there were three simple commands woven into this liturgy:
1. Every head bowed.
2. Every eye closed.
3. No one looking around.
I peeked once. My family was eating at Waffle House, and Dad was saying the blessing. Faithful churchgoers, we followed the liturgy all the time--even over eggs and raisin toast at Waffle House. Head bowed. Eyes closed. No one looks around. On this particular day I got curious. Was my sister peeking? Was anyone watching us pray? I had to know! Keeping my head down, I opened my eyes and turned my gaze upward -- into the eyes of the waitress. She was patiently waiting for the prayer to end and to fill my parents' coffee cups. She smiled and mouthed the words, "I'm gonna tell on you!" She winked.
Panic followed. I closed my eyes so tightly that they watered, and I squeezed my hands into a prayer pose too stressful for a yoga class. I didn't even hear Dad say "Amen," and my sister had to kick my foot to awaken me. When my vision cleared, I saw the waitress pouring coffee. She winked at me again and walked away without saying a word.
I felt a little caught and a little relieved. Caught because someone saw me "breaking the rules of prayer." Relieved because I didn't get in trouble (although I realize now my parents probably would have laughed).
There was a beauty in that early understanding of prayer's posture. Looking penitently within yourself. Respecting the needs of others. Giving each other space and privacy to hear from God.
Two weeks ago, while leading the Prayers of the People at Shipman Chapel, I found myself looking not down at the pulpit as I normally do. I looked up at the congregation as we prayed.
What a glorious sight.
Each person in the small congregation had their heads bowed, their eyes closed, and no one was looking around. It is hard to describe what I saw other than to say that each one had their entire attention on prayer in that moment. In Matthew 18:20, Jesus tells his disciples, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them." What power there is in the unity of prayer. Sometimes that unity is best expressed in the simple turning of our attention away from what we see with open eyes to what we can't see with closed eyes. Jesus is present in such unity.
My parishioners at Shipman Chapel reminded me of the liturgy of my childhood. I loved how their closed eyes reflected open hearts. I thought of the people who gave their lives to Jesus during all of those altar calls, while most of us in the congregation sat in the dark. I wonder how the Church today offers safe spaces for people to look within, to change, to commit, to experience healing, and to mature in the faith.
Sometimes we need to close our eyes in reverent prayer--only with the knowing we will open them again. When we do open them, how will we help one another get up from the altar rail and move forward?
all good things to each of you,