I continue to look at prayers my church, the United Church of Christ, suggests as prayers in times of crises and trial in our Book of Worship. Since finding faith for myself as a teenager, the experience of prayer has been a life-giving place I have found to turn to both in times of joy and sorrow to gain perspective, direction, and energy to go ahead. As an adult though, facing times of great loss personally and working both as a pastor and chaplain with those facing times of unimaginable pain, I have become struck by the reality that as good as those heartfelt words of the heart I began to use for prayer as an adolescent awakening to an awareness of God are, often in the deepest times of darkness and even the most overwhelming times of wonder or joy in our lives, words won’t come.
When we hear the words “it’s cancer”, when we stand by helpless as one we love faces debilitating and life-taking illness over months or years, when we experience the joy of a new child or new lover, we can find ourselves so overwhelmed by the experience we cannot speak. It is for this reason the words and acts of prayer in our communities take on significance. They allow those who have walked this journey with us to be present with us in the communion of the saints, take us by the hand, and help us find the steps, words, and acts we need to reorient ourselves to the new thing breaking through in our lives.
And so I’m focusing on the communal prayers of my own church community. I hope it invites you to consider your practices of prayer, meditation, and spirituality in your community of faith or spiritual community which help you find your way in such times of disorientation, both disorienting losses and even joyful gains.
I continue today to look at the words of prayer my church tradition uses for communion, which so often guide my own taking of communion in the church I am a member and my offering of communion as a chaplain:
““God be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your heads.
We lift them up to God.
Let us give thanks to God Most High.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.
Our loving Creator,
Close to us as breathing and distant a the farthest star,
We thank you for your constant love for all you have made.
“We praise you for Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection
And for the calling forth of your church for its mission in the world.
“Gifted by the presence of your Holy Spirit,
We offer ourselves to you as we unite our voices with the entire family of your faithful people everywhere:
Holy, holy, holy God of love and majesty,
The whole universe speaks of your glory,
O God Most High.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God! Hosanna in the highest
“Merciful God, as sisters and brothers in faith,
We recall anew the words and acts of Jesus Christ.
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples
And said: ‘Take, eat: This is my body’.
“Jesus took a cup, and after giving thanks, gave it to the disciples and said: ‘Drink it all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin.’
“We remember Christ’s promise not to drink of the fruit of the vine again until the heavenly banquet at the close of history, and we say boldly what we believe:
“Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
“Come, Holy Spirit, come. Bless this bread, and bless this fruit of the vine. Bless all of us in our eating and drinking at this table, that our eyes may be opened that we may recognize the risen Christ in our midst, in each other, an in all for whom Christ died. Amen.”
And then following communion, we pray: “We give thanks, almighty God, that you refreshed us at your table by granting us the presence of Jesus Christ. Sustain our faith, increase our love for one another, and send us forth into the world in courage and peace, rejoining in the power of the Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.”
What strikes me if where we find God in these words and acts of prayer.
God is as near as breathing and as distant as the furthest star. This powerful poetic statement clearly expresses a reminder we need in all our lives. At times our image of God can be so big. God is high and lifted up, above all of creation to us. This can give a comfort. God is seeing all that is, orchestrating everything with fine precision. God is the Unmoved Mover, moving the cosmos in the way it must go.
And yet, how distant is such a God. How can an Unmoved Mover be moved by my sorrow? How can such a one shed tears for me as Jesus says He did when He weeps over Jerusalem, saying He wishes to take them under his arms like a mother hen takes her chicks under wing or as He did when Lazarus lay dead? How can such a One feel my pain, my sorrow?
So we are reminded that God is as near as our breathing. Often when I pray for patients I express this sentiment by saying “God, who is nearer to us than the air we breath or the sunshine that falls soft on our shoulders in spring”. God is nearer to us than the elements that touch and make up our bodies.
Jurgen Moltmann in his beautiful book The Source of Life suggests a helpful image for this experience of God is less as God as daddy/king in the sky but more as God as Mother pregnant with life. It is as if our relationship with God is as a developing child to his or her mother while in her womb. All about them is mother, surrounding them on all sides and yet also inside them for it is the very life of the mother that flows through them in that unique closeness of mother and child. All of life, from my life here in this moment, to the life of Syrian refugees, or the life of people in distant parts of the earth, to whatever life circles that distant star in the prayer, is as near to and surrounded by God as a child in its mother’s womb. There is nowhere we can go outside this space of life and not find God right there with us, right there within us, right there near to us.
And yet the image of God as present not just so intimately to us but also present at the farthest star reminds me that if God can have such nearness not just to me but to the creatures at the most distant end of the cosmos, however strange and unimaginable they might be, and even to that star itself, I have to realize that even in the intimacy of my prayerful encounter with God, I must realize this God who embraces me so fully in every moment, knows my inside and out, has a bigger vision for life than me.
Such a reminder to me is helpful as I face loss. When family close to me face illness, when my late wife died suddenly in her sleep from an illness that wracked her for years with pain despite all my prayers, when I faced in the past hurdles in my career that since led me in new paths of work, such realization reminds me: I cannot see all the picture. No, I do not believe as I once did that there is this one, complete plan God is working out in which I must be fit like some puzzle piece. I do not think God took my wife, or my rabbi friend who died a year ago, or caused illnesses in my family. I believe instead that God is fully present to me, to them, to all of us. I believe because this God sees a bigger picture. God sees how each thing we do, each thing God does, can cause butterfly effects that ripple out. And as us, there are things because of this that even God cannot do, which God must sit alongside us and weep over. And having wept, having held us close – and held in that moment each grieving creature in all the worlds close – God does not just sit with us and weep. God is present to give us the strength to “lift up our heads”, to see a picture of life beyond our pain. To see there is more. To open up to life.
With the loss of a few dear friends and my late wife these last few years I have felt this. I have felt the comfort of knowing God near, beside me, holding me and weeping alongside me, in God’s own way powerless as I was to stop these losses from happening. I have also felt that drive in me, heard that silent whisper saying “lift up your head”. I have felt that prodding to “go, live”, to realize that though my friends and though my late wife do not have breath in their lungs, I do. And that breath is a responsibility to choose life, choose giving, choose love, choose care, with all I can. To let my eyes be opened to see where Christ is breaking forth in my midst, turning death to life, loss to new beginning, opening my life, my world, and others to what may lay ahead.
Let us all find this hope, this new beginning, together.
Your progressive redneck preacher,