As Paul is wrapping up his first letter to the Thessalonian Christians, he gives them a long list of things they should be doing between that time and the time of Jesus’ return. I won’t go through the whole list, but here are the central verses:
Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances,
for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Right in the middle of the central verses is “Pray continually.” “Pray without ceasing” in the older translations. That is the central verse in the central verses of this passage – and it should be, because prayer is central to all that we do as the Church of Jesus Christ. Everything else hangs on prayer.
I’m happy to say that the Church has taken the command to pray continually seriously in the way she worships. At times, it seems as though we do pray without ceasing.
We have an invocation near the beginning, then a prayer of confession, a prayer at the end of the time with our children, the prayers of God’s people followed by the Lord’s prayer, the prayer for the offering, and the prayer for understanding before the sermon. That’s seven – plus two more prayers during Communion. And then there are the hymns – many of which are prayers set to music. That explains the “Amen” traditionally tacked onto the end of hymns.
To be honest with you, I have wondered if that isn’t a bit of overkill. And I have wondered many times if it isn’t redundant to have you share your prayer requests out loud, then have me repeat them in “proper prayer form” – if there is such a thing.
But again, prayer is central to what we do as a church – both in our individual walks of faith and in our worship together. When Solomon finished building the first temple in Jerusalem, the dedication ceremony was dominated by his lengthy prayer.
The snippet we read this morning covers all main categories of our prayer together as God’s people: Praise and Adoration, Personal Requests, Inviting God to be present among His people, Confession and Forgiveness, and Intercession on behalf of others. We see all these elements coming together into one public, corporate prayer.
We also read in Paul’s first letter to Timothy that we are supposed to pray for others – including unbelieving world leaders. The goal is to create unity in the Church – where people everywhere “lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing” – and to demonstrate our concern for all of God’s world.
This kind of comprehensive prayer in worship may have started with Solomon, but it continues to this day. The “Prayers of God’s People” – as we call it in our bulletin – is vital to our life as the Church. Through it we are connected to each other, because we pray for ourselves, for each other, and for others we may not even know.
Prayer and Communion are the two most intimate acts in our life as the Church. Prayer for and with each other breaks down barriers as we take on other people’s concerns and confirm their celebrations as our own.
Hughes Oliphant Old – a former professor at Princeton and Erskine Seminaries – wrote in his book on Reformed worship: “All the personal concerns like little streams finally join into a great river of corporate prayer.” What a beautiful picture of what happens here, as we share our joys and concerns – which we then pray about together.
In the great old hymn “Blest Be the Tie that Binds,” we sing, “We share our mutual woes, our mutual burdens bear.” And if we are giving them more than just lip service, then the following verse comes true: “And often for each other flows the sympathizing tear.”
Whether we do it as part of a larger prayer or in a series of individual prayers doesn’t matter. What matters is that we do it and do it together. We are called to pray for and with each other.
To that end, I would like to try something that you may have never done before. St. John’s Methodist Church in Dover, New Hampshire – where my late Aunt Harriet’s worshipped – has a moving and meaningful tradition for the Prayers of the People: When someone shares a joy or concern, that person finishes by saying, “This is my prayer.” Then the congregation responds, “This is our prayer.” The pastor then offers a more general – and usually shorter – prayer.
This gets everyone involved in prayer together, and helps us to avoid the trap of thinking that the pastor has to pray for someone or some situation for God to hear it. Pastors do not have a cable internet line to God while you have DSL or dial-up. All our prayers are heard equally. The pastor is not the go-between for you and God. Jesus Christ is. Paul wrote that to Timothy: “There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus …”
Even when I am the one doing the praying, you can join in by quietly repeating what strikes you most when I pray, or whispering “yes” or “amen.” Just don’t say “Amen” to loudly – we are Presbyterian. And you can certainly join together on “Amen” at the end of every prayer.
Because we all should be praying together – and praying continually.