I continue looking at prayers that have both pulled me and others through personal trials and struggles. In the last several posts I have looked at the Lord’s Prayer itself.
Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
Today I want to focus on the last word of this prayer “Amen”.
I can’t speak for you, but growing up “Amen” is a word I learned to say at the end of prayer, with little thought for what it means. Saying “Amen” felt like signing “sincerely” or “yours truly” at the end of a letter. If I had grown up in the day of cell phones, I think “Amen” would have felt like pushing the “end” button on a call.
I think as we come to the end of reflecting on the Lord’s Prayer and prayers that have pulled us through, it is important to take a moment and reflect on what we are saying when we say “Amen”.
Amen is the transliteration of a Hebrew and Aramaic word that in other forms is often rendered “truly”, “faithfully”, and “securely”. Its basic meaning is “so be it”, or “let it be”.
The fact Amen is related to words rendered “truly,” “faithfully,” and “securely” suggests to me that in our saying of amen we are making a claim, even if only in hope. The claim is that in our praying we are being true, faithful, and secure.
On the one hand we are being true and faithful to ourselves, so that the words we speak are a true reflection of who we are. This is an interesting thing for me to consider. Growing up in the tradition I grew up in within Adventistism and coming to faith for myself among evangelicals, there was a big emphasis on speaking to God from the heart, just as you would a friend. For me, learning to do that was freeing. I didn’t need to worry about fancy language, big theology, or getting things right. God knew my heart and knew me. God would accept whatever I needed to say. What God sought was my authentic self.
I still think there is some wisdom to this approach to prayer, even if it is not exactly what my prayer life always looks like anymore. If you read the model prayers of the psalms carefully you will see they show the full range of human emotion – joy, sorrow, belief, doubt, anger, rage, vengeance, love. Though the psalms themselves are beautiful works of poetry they do not shy away from what often looks and feels like the uglier sides of who we are.
I was speaking with someone recently who shared, a spiritual but not religious person I’d met, about their uncomfortability with the communities focused on spirituality around her. “It feels like they are trying to appear more together than they are, and just using spirituality to avoid their own less pleasant emotions”. That is not just true in her community of spirituality, but true all over. In Christian circles it is easy to overlook the lesson of the Psalms and this call to be true and faithful to ourselves in prayer and present ourselves through prayer in ways that are escapist, leaping outside ourselves beyond our experience of pain, rather than truly bringing our pain or even our temptation directly to God, just as it is. The example of extemporaneous prayer from the heart is one way we free ourselves to do this type of making space for uncomfortable emotions in our spirituality. For, as I wrote about earlier, when we suppress those emotions they do not go away but simply take on lives of their own which, like the wild beasts of the wilderness and the Tempting Enemy of the desert which Jesus confronts, can trip us up.
This way of hearing “amen” can make it not seem to fit in a pre-written prayer like the prayer Jesus teaches us here. But we can pray such a prayer truthfully and faithfully.
In fact, I have grown in the last few years to appreciate the way in which praying the ancient words of others, especially as a part of my mindfulness practice of Christian meditation, can be an aid to truly making space for sides of my life and experience I can then offer to God which I otherwise would not. The model used to teach extemporaneous “prayers of the heart” which I learned in Adventistism and evangelicalism was to speak to God as a friend. But in reality, do I really open up about all of who I am with friends? I might do this with my therapist, perhaps, but I know there are aspects of my life my friend might not find interesting. There is a heartache too heavy for them to bear. And there are things I don’t want to think about, from which my conversation with them even then can be an escape.
The prayers spoken by others in the history of our faiths, such as this Lord’s Prayer, can push us to make room for aspects of our lives we can face into and offer to God we would not think to share on our own. I know, for me, the prayer each Sunday we do at United Church confessing our failures and frailties often lead me in the moment of silence that follows to think about, face into, and offer to God parts of myself I did not realize until saying such words I had been working hard to avoid facing all week. So pre-written prayers which have guided others in their spiritual life can also lead us to more truly pray, if they open us to face sides of our hearts, lives, and world we have not been facing so we can offer those to God.
Another way in which we can pray faithfully such prayers is letting such prayers shape us. It is said that Pope Francis one quipped that we pray for the hurting, then we help them. That is how prayer works. Such a simple yet profound truth! When we pray, it is not just about wishing for things to happen to us, others, and our world. It is about us being changed by the encounter, so that we begin to change how we look at and engage both our inner worlds and the world in which we live.
For example, truly praying the Lord’s Prayer means not just repeating empty words but also beginning to become mindful of the concerns it lifts up. So I cannot pray it truly without becoming aware of my need to be a part of the “us” it continually mentions, to see myself as not just the atomistic pulling-myself-up-by-the-bootstraps Western culture particularly here in America teaches me to see myself, but instead to see myself as a part of this wider community in which I find myself. I cannot pray truly this prayer until I let myself embrace the call to be a partner in building the shalom, the peace which flows from wholeness within and in my web of relationships, about which Jesus’s language of Kingdom speaks. To truly, faithfully, pray this prayer may not be to perfectly express it, but it certainly is to allow it transform us.
In this way praying is not just asking for things for me, others, and the world. It is not just venting my concerns to God as a friend. It must also become a practice of mindfulness, in which I allow myself to become more fully aware of myself, God, and my world while also allowing the words of my prayer to cause me to encounter all of these in new ways.
This leads to the final significance I can see this morning to the word “Amen”. Amen means “so be it”, or “let it be”. At first glance, this makes it sound like some magic incantation. “God, make what I want and ask for happen for me”. Kind of a hocus-pocus, abracadabra for our magic spell.
Clearly, if that is what prayer is for, it doesn’t work.
But if prayer is about repositioning us and our relationship to our inner and outer worlds as I suggested above, “so be it” or “let it be” can be something else. It can be agreeing to partner with God in the work God is doing to birth the reality we are brought in touch with through our prayers.
One of my favorite saints, preachers, and activists, the late Walter Rauschenbusch, oft said “the kingdom is always but coming”, speaking of the reality we pray to be brought into this world in the Lord’s Prayer. He suggested that we people of faith have a calling to partner with God in working to bring this social reality into our world, into pushing down oppression and building up the community around us so it becomes life-giving.
To say “Amen” is to commit to partner with God as God is always, ever, at work to do what this prayer pictures – to repair the web of life, to birth shalom, to bringing healing in relationships, in lives, in God’s earth.
You see, as Pope Francis suggested, to pray is also to commit to be one who shares a part in that prayer being answered. This is as true for prayers of healing in our inner worlds, which though only possible through the grace present in the universe which Christians call “the love of God” but other faiths know by other names. Sure. But it also is only possible as we do our part, doing the work that brings healing.
Similarly as we face broken relationships, hungry people, people without health care, those facing oppression, and the systemic destruction of the web of life upon our planet, we must if we pray God’s kingdom to come in this place, both trust that grace will be present to make our work possible while also taking up that cause.
Let us be the “Yes” to the world’s prayer.
Your progressive redneck preacher,