A Confusing/Amusing Prayer
Bill Long 11/12/06
There is perhaps no Protestant denomination that does prayers quite as well as the Episcopal Church. A quick survey of the Book of Common Prayer indicates that there are prayers for nearly every time and occasion of life. We have morning prayer, noontime prayers, evening prayer (in two rites), compline, and collects without number. There are prayers for the penitent, for the sick, for marriage for birth/adoption of a child, for the dead. Episcopalians also know how to bless animals and buildings and homes and couples deciding to separate and still be nice to each other. Usually all the congregation has to do when such prayers are spoken is to intone "Amen" or "Thanks be to God" at the appropriate time. But there is one occasion that can lead to confusion, and that is what we had today in the delightful church I attend in Wilsonville, OR.
Setting the Worship Context
We had gone through about five or six prayers, which meant that we were only about halfway through the service. The liturgist had just spoken the Prayers of the People--a number of short sentences giving thanks to God for various things (e.g., "For our daily food and drink, our homes and families, and our friends"), to which the people respond, "We thank you, Lord." Everything was going swimmingly, to use a Dick Cheney word. Then there is a chance for the congregation to add its own individual prayers to the general prayers offered by the liturgist. But, as is the case with Episcopalians, there are two possible forms of prayer that can be offered at this point. Here they are:
Option 1): For _____________, let us pray to the Lord.
All: Lord, hear our prayer.
Option 2: In thanksgiving for _______, let us pray to the Lord.
All: Thanks be to God.
The first is offered if the person praying had what you might consider a "prayer request;" that is, a desire that the entire congregation join in prayer of assistance or support for the individual mentioned. The second is offered if the person praying had "good news" to report. The congregation would join them in a hearty "Thanks be to God."
Creating a Theological/Prayer Dilemma
These forms are straightforward, and everything works smoothly, especially if the intercessors follow the form. But not everyone follows the form. That is, someone who asked for prayer for her father about to go into surgery just said, "My dad is about to go into surgery tomorrow." Nevertheless, the congregation immediately knew that it was an "Option 1" prayer request and said: "Lord, hear our prayer." But then someone offered the following words: "XXXX just turned 92 years old." The flow of the service demanded an immediate congregational response, and there was a response, but we were clearly confused. Half of the people said "Lord, hear our prayer," and the other half intoned, "Thanks be to God." When you think of the dual response of the congregation you see the interesting, and amusing, theological dilemma which we faced.
The congregation immediately had to "interpret" how the statement "XXXX just turned 92 years old" should be understood. Was the person mentioning her 92 year-old friend in order to ask for intercessory (helping) prayer (indeed, since so few of us have attained that age we can well imagine that a person of those years would be craving a prayer of support or mutual assistance)? Or, did the friend mention her 92 year-old friend as an indication that God should be thanked for prolonging the person's life this many years? If this was the case, then "Thanks be to God" would have been the appropriate response. Since we really had no time to sort through all of these issues, we divided right down the middle, some of us thanking God for XXX's life (I think it was "Millie") and some of us praying for assistance for her. Maybe this was actually a good thing since Millie had all her prayer bases covered as a result of the ambiguous request. But it was probably not what was intended.
Thinking Further About Aging
To have achieved a certain age milestone is usually seen today as a good thing. But it is not universally so. For example, each month I meet with a group of friends, whom I affectionately call the "Salem Liberals," who, before ritually bashing the Administration in Washington, spend several minutes complaining about aches and pains that are gradually sapping their strength. For them, aging isn't a good thing. As one of them told me recently, in typical laconic fashion, "Bill, aging sucks." So frequent have our conversations about bodily malfunctions become that I was thinking of taking the name of Chinua Achebe's award winning book (Things Fall Apart) and applying it to my group of friends and calling my group: "Liberals Fall Apart."
For me, still a spry 54, I would argue that the key to whether aging is a good or bad thing is the quality of my hope as I arise each morning. Do I hope to learn, to love, to deepen friendships, to broaden my humanity, to look for people whom I can affirm and encourage? If I can say "Yes" to all of these questions, then aging is a good thing, one of the true, even if sometimes mottled, gifts of God. I think that was the reason that when someone said that Millie was 92 in Church today, I instinctively said: "Thanks be to God."
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long