“The answer to our prayer for others may be that our compassion is enlarged, that God carves out in us the place that others need if they are to find a home, a safe place where they can experience God’s love in their particular situation.” Christopher Cocksworth & Rosalind Brown, On Being a Priest Today
In the Anglican communion the “Prayers of the People” are a part of our eucharistic liturgy recited every Sunday. We pray for the Church and for the world, for the sick and the departed, the poor and the imprisoned. We ask for peace among nations, and for our leaders in government. We ask for unity amongst Christians.
Most of us are familiar with the six different forms we pray each week. Since the Eucharist is celebrated every day at Nashotah House, seminarians are very familiar with these prayers. Most of us probably don’t need to look at a Prayer Book to know what’s coming next…
Hear our prayer.
I love these prayers. Reciting them with one voice before God emanates with beautiful resonance in our historic chapel. I would imagine God also enjoys hearing the unison of his children’s prayerful voices. But to be honest, sometimes I struggle with them. I mean, the prayers are beautiful, yes, but aren’t we praying for unrealistic things? If we’re honest with ourselves, don’t we know that in this life some of these prayers aren’t going to come true?
Guide the people of this land, and of all the nations, in the ways of justice and peace; that we may honor one another and serve the common good.
This is God’s vision for the world, of course. I know that. But humans have free will, and those wills are incredibly corrupt, making it awfully difficult for people to get along. And quite frankly, I just don’t foresee this peaceful vision we pray toward. I mean, look at Syria, or Palestine, or anywhere else for that matter. Violence and terror reign. Men kill for gain. Children are forced to kill relatives to save their own lives. Our daily news reports inform us of the latest religious fundamentalist bombing or mosque-burning. The nations are financially indebted to one another and weapons of mass destruction are created and hoarded, awaiting a time when they may be used to rob thousands of innocent civilians of their lives. Just turn on CNN for ten minutes and look at what is going on around the world. You have to ask yourself, “Why do I bother praying these prayers?”
Even God’s Church is at war. Denominational lines divide us. Theological arguments lead to schism. Lawsuits amongst Christians make the media spotlight. We even kill each other over our disagreements. And we pray…
For all who fear God and believe in you, Lord Christ, that our divisions may cease, and that all may be one as you and the Father are one, we pray to you, O Lord.
Suffering abounds in our world. The poor and homeless are left to fend for themselves. Thousands of prisoners live in isolation, never visited by a loved one. Children die daily of starvation at a disturbingly high percentage. And we pray…
For the poor, the persecuted, the sick, and all who suffer; for refugees, prisoners, and all who are in danger; that they may be relieved and protected, we pray to you, O Lord.
So, why do we pray these prayers? What are they going to change?
As I wrestled with these questions during the liturgy last week, God silently spoke: These prayers should change YOU.
Truth hit me square in the heart. I realized we pray these prayers not so God will shake his magician’s wand and fix all the problems in the world. We don’t pray these prayers simply because it’s our Christian duty to ask God to take care of the world’s hurts. We don’t even pray them because we think that the near future is going to get significantly brighter.
We pray these prayers to be changed by God. We pray toward a vision of peace and unity, yes. But we pray toward change in the world that begins with us. We pray, pleading with God to empower us as individuals, as local church bodies, as a group of seminarians, that our lives would be a microcosm of heaven on earth. We pray as God’s people who believe in his promises of a New Creation where all strife and brokenness will be absent, where lion and lamb will lie together, where people “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Is. 2.4). We pray for this, then we work toward it!
Augustine spoke of “cooperative grace” – the grace that comes from God alone but empowers us to willfully cooperate with his purposes. The Prayers of the People invite us into this state of cooperation.
God desires to answer the Prayers of the People, and one of the greatest means he will use to do so is his people. We are called, not to just speak prayers aloud, but to bear our crosses through self-denying service to a broken world. We must have the vision we read in our prayers, but we cannot just sit around and expect peace and justice to materialize. This is an opportunity to let liturgical prayer shape our character and empower us to do God’s work in the world. The Prayers of the People forms a vision in us, and we go out and act to bring that vision about, no matter how difficult or impossible it seems to achieve. The word liturgy means “the work of the people”. During the eucharistic liturgy we recite “the work of the people” and when we go out into the world we do “the work of the people”.
During the Prayers of the People, if you ever find yourself asking, “What’s the point,” ask the Father to form a vision in you – one you can faithfully pray and work toward. If we cooperate with what we ask God to do in our prayers, he will create in us a greater capacity to love and a fearless audacity to live out the merciful vision of the resurrected Lord whose Spirit dwells within us. We will become agents of reconciliation, “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5.20).
Bless all whose lives are closely linked with ours, and grant that we may serve Christ in them, and love one another as he loves us.
Lord, in your mercy
Hear our prayer.