What does prayer do?

Who do you pray for? Who do you think about and ask God to bless, lead, guide, strengthen, or nurture?

Someone called me this week to ask me if it was all right to pray for me. She said she felt led to lift me up in her prayers.

            My reaction was one of gratitude.  “Thank you,” I said, “I need all the prayers I can get.” And then, more seriously, I told her that I appreciated her concern and that I am thankful for her prayers. In this time of isolation, caution, and distancing, I love to think of someone remembering me in their prayers. It means so much to know that love, concern, and care are being offered on my behalf.

            What happens when someone prays for you? I don’t know. I don’t have concrete results or any tangible proof to offer. I’m not sure I write better sermons or lead more interesting Bible stories because of someone’s prayers. But their prayers hearten me. They lift my spirits. And in this discouraging, overwhelming time we are living in, that is a powerful gift. Those prayers make me feel like I am receiving encouragement, compassion, and caring. We live in a world where those qualities are often lacking. It is a humbling and wonderful thing to know that someone is thinking about me and asking God to surround me with blessings and strength.  

            My best advice would be – do not underestimate the power of prayer. We don’t have to understand it to participate in it. We don’t have to scientifically prove its effectiveness to trust it. During this pandemic, which has left so many of us feeling isolated, tired, and helpless, here is something we can do.

We can pray.

            Pray for people you know. Go ahead and pour out your love and concern, your worry and your gratitude, your hopes and your fears. Dare to pray your wildest dreams and deepest desires for them. Trust that God loves those people you keep in your heart even more than you do.

Pray for people you don’t know but you hear about in the news. People whose lives have been torn apart by the virus or by wildfires. Pray for the helpers – doctors, nurses, firefighters, paramedics. Pray for our schools and for the vast web of people connected to them – teachers, administrators, students, parents, and grandparents.  Pray for those who are belittled or put down every day because of their skin color, gender identity, or abilities. If you’re not sure what to pray, just ask God to be with them.  Prayer isn’t about giving God directions – we can trust that God knows what God’s beloved people need.

I believe prayer changes things. I believe it helps the “pray-er” and the “pray-ee.” Even if I can’t explain it, it’s one of those things I have experienced and now take on faith.               And let us promise to pray for one another.  Amen.

Fill-in-the-blank Prayers

It is not always easy to pray, even when we really want to. Even when we need it most. When we are stressed or anxious, prayer can be even more challenging.

So here are some “fill in the blank” prayers for you to try. Think of them as “prayer prompts” – you can fill in the blanks and personalize them with whatever is on your heart and mind today. Use the ones that speak to you, skip the ones that don’t.

            Your prayers may change day by day or even moment by moment, so fill in the blanks as often as necessary.

Loving and holy God, thank you for your promise to be with us always. Today I am finding that very __________ to believe. Thank you for loving me just as I am.

Compassionate God, you meet us wherever we are.

Holy God, today I am feeling ______________.

I’m alone in my house and I feel ___________.

I’m usually alone in my house but now it’s full of people not in school or at work. That makes me feel _____________.

Creator God, thank you for the glory of this earth and the mystery and miracle of spring. Today when I look outside, I see you in ________________.

Generous God, thank you for the gift of music, art, and poetry that comfort my spirit. Thank you for artists of all kinds. Today I rejoice in this song/image/expression: ____________.

Thank you for the helpers in the world. Please bless first responders, doctors, nurses, and health care workers who are facing extra challenges. Give them strength and resilience. Today I especially pray for _______.

God of all people, across the globe, everyone is impacted by this virus, no matter their culture, language, sexual orientation, economic status, or beliefs. Surround all of us with your healing presence. Please bless _______.

Loving God, you care about our worries big and small. So many people are affected by workplace closing and loss of income. I lift up prayers for _____.

Even before the pandemic began, many already had concerns and worries. Help us not forget those who are mourning, sick, or struggling. God of compassion, I ask you especially to be with _________.

You told us to love our neighbors and to love ourselves. Knowing that you love me today and always, I lift up a prayer for myself. You who created me in your holy image and you call me your beloved child, I ask you to be with me. Please help me ________________.

And God who knows my heart, I add these prayers: _________.

To you be the honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.

Pray boldly!

John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.  When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?”’ (John 1: 35-38)

You might expect Jesus’ first recorded words to be preaching or teaching or expounding on some ancient text.  But in the Gospel of John, none of that happens. The first thing Jesus says is a question. He turns to his would-be disciples and asks them, “What are you looking for?”

            Jesus – the Messiah, the Son of God, the Light of the world – wants to know what is on their minds. What are you looking for? It’s another way of saying, “What are you seeking? What do you lack?”

            Jesus looks his potential followers in the eye and wonders, “What do you really, really want?”

            It is an invitation to powerful prayer. And yet how often do we hesitate to say out loud what is on our hearts and minds? We are so good at praying polite prayers that list the needs of others, never ourselves. We pray tentative prayers couched with caveats like “If it’s possible…”. Yet Jesus demands, “What are you looking for?” What do you want?

            When I hear this invitation to honest, from-the-heart prayer, I think about the good work my congregation with our local homeless shelter. Like so many congregations, we provide food, clothing, toiletries, gift cards, vouchers, and holiday gifts to the residents. That is a good thing to do. But if I were to pray an honest prayer – if I were to state what I really want – I would say, “I want affordable housing. I want job coaching. I want abundant access to mental health care.”

            But I often hesitate to offer that prayer because those things cost money and I don’t know how to make any of them happen. The complicated situation causes my heart-felt desire to die on my lips. But Jesus didn’t ask his disciples to come up with solutions. He wasn’t asking them if they deserved anything or if their requests were logical or even possible. Jesus simply asks, “What are you looking for?” What do you want?

            If we can’t name what we want, we can’t visualize it. If we can’t name what we are lacking, we might miss opportunities God is offering to us.

            “Pray boldly,” Martin Luther declared in 1517.

            “I have a dream,” Martin Luther King celebrated in 1963.

            Those are both invitations to trust God with our needs, our lacks, and our dreams. Saying it out loud is not a guarantee that it will come true. But offering our deepest needs to God is a step of faith. It is offering our hands, our hearts, and ourselves to the work of God all around us. It is trusting that God will hear our prayer and do marvelous things.

            And that is what I am looking for.

Praying for strangers

Who do you pray for? Would you pray for someone you don’t know?

 On October 6th we celebrated World Communion Sunday. It is interesting that this celebration was originated in 1936, which was another time in history when countries and individuals needed to be reminded that we are all beloved children of God. World Communion Sunday celebrates our inter-connectedness as we remember that our actions (or lack of action) has an impact on others.

World Communion Sunday is, by definition, a Christian commemoration but our worship lifts up countries, religions, and people across the globe to ask for God’s blessing.

            One of our practices on this special Sunday is to use a variety of breads during communion. Instead of the usual white bread that symbolizes the Body of Christ, the congregation was invited to choose from breads representing different parts of the world. South American tortillas, Asian rice cakes, and Israeli matzos graced our communion table. Breads of different colors and textures like pumpernickel, rye, corn, and Italian represented the diversity of God’s people and the richness of our unique cultures and heritage.

            As people entered our sanctuary, everyone received a slip of paper with the name of a country. In the days ahead, we are all encouraged to learn a little bit about that country and offer prayers on behalf of the people who live there.

            “My” country is the Maldives. While I recognized the name enough to know that they are islands, I couldn’t have told you much more than that.  I have since learned that the Maldives are a collection of 1,190 islands and atolls (my new vocabulary word: a reef made out of coral) southwest of India in the Indian Ocean.

 After watching a number of travel videos, I was tempted to put a trip to the Maldives on my bucket list but I suspect the expense will prevent any first-hand exploration of this beautiful country. My first impression of this country was “island paradise.” However, when I learned that their highest point of elevation is a mere 8 feet, my second thought was “island on the brink of disaster.” Rising sea levels cannot bode well for this fragile environment.

So I will pray for the people of the Maldives. Why might we pray for people we don’t know? These prayers are not so much to nag an already compassionate God to care about God’s people, but are much more a celebration of our connection to one another. They are also a much-needed reminder that when I am personally powerless to lend a hand (in the Maldives or elsewhere), I can trust that God’s Spirit of love, peace, and comfort is with those in need.

These prayers ward off feelings of despair and helplessness and may well nudge me to take action where I can.

So go ahead and pray. Pray for your loved ones and pray for those you’ll never meet. And trust that the God of yesterday, today, and forever is moving in and through the lives of God’s people.  

Pause. Breathe. Pray.

Good Friday is a day for prayer and contemplation. Our sanctuary remains open and everyone is invited to stop by to immerse themselves in some moments of silence, rest, prayer, and reflection. It is an opportunity to literally seek sanctuary from the relentless press of schedule, emails, worries, and obligations.

            As you enter the silence, it is clear that this is a reliable place to slow down, breathe deeply, and be aware of God’s presence. Although it can be a thrill to celebrate worship in a packed church on Easter morning, there is something special about being – simply being – in the quiet, simple beauty.

            Most sanctuaries are designed to make mere mortals feel small. Although we are a simple country church and not a grand cathedral, the soaring ceiling and openness of the sanctuary remind us of the majesty and power of our Creator. We bring our hopes, fears, and fervent prayers to One who is greater – bigger – than we are. There is comfort in that.

           On Good Friday in our sanctuary, there will be “prayer stations” which invite participants to spend time in prayer. Since there are many ways to pray and encounter God, each station offers a different way to engage in reflection. Participants can choose to light candles to ask God to shine light in particularly dark circumstances. They might choose to write a confession on dissolving paper and place it in the water of the baptismal font as they remember that God washes away the sins of the world. They can reflect on events of Holy Week by reading Scripture or lift up prayers for their life’s journey by using a finger labyrinth. Each station invites us to offer prayers for ourselves and others as we remember God’s love for the world.

            Prayer and quiet offer a respite. Whether you visit the East Woodstock sanctuary, another church of your choosing, or discover God in another way altogether, it is life-giving to be reminded of who and whose we are. We can then re-enter the world with a renewed spirit and a reminder of God’s promise to be with us always. Revived by God’s love, we can share Good News of hope and new life.

Praying for tail lights

As my busy family comes and goes, I find myself praying for them…

He inches down our icy driveway while it’s still dark, heading off to work. It’s an hour drive, back roads and highways. Will other drivers be distracted? Has someone been drinking? Will they be careful of the precious (to me) cargo contained in that ancient car? As I see the tail lights pull away, I pray for God’s protection and comfort.

She’s off to her new job, dressed to impress, and eager to make a difference. This baby adult, I’m not sure she realizes just how many dangers are out there. Brimming with confidence, certain she can meet the challenges of the day, she drives off; I watch the tail lights disappear into the dark. Peace, I pray, safety and love travel with her.

I pray for headlights, as well. Waiting for the late-night arrival after a long restaurant shift, never knowing exactly when he will get home. I only half-sleep as I wait for the headlights to flash across the ceiling, announcing his arrival. Will he be tired after work? Will he stay awake as he drives? What about the deer that dart across the road? As I wait to see the headlights, I pray that he be filled with alertness and the reassurance that a warm, loving home is waiting.

headlights

I pray for the headlights that drive across the state as a long school semester ends. A long drive across crowded busy highways, filled with people intent on arriving first and fastest.  I consider all the activities that await his arrival – choosing the Christmas tree, baking cookies, making apple sauce. All of that is on “hold” until the headlights appear, making our family complete again. I look out the window – again – waiting. Send my love to him, I pray, and surround him with your guardian angels.

It’s all we can do, sometimes. Just pray. Wait and watch.

And pray some more.

While they are out of my sight, I entrust them to God’s loving care.

Windjammer retreat: a time to renew my spirit

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.  Mark 1:35

Where do you go for quiet time?  What do you do when you need to “recharge your batteries”?  Where do you find God?

It’s important to make time for yourself, to slow down the busy pace of your life, and take some time away from all the electronic distractions of our lives. During the last few summers, I have been fortunate to lead a retreat aboard the windjammer schooner Lewis R. French. I would like to invite you to join me on July 10-14, 2016. It is a unique way to follow the commandment to take a time of Sabbath. Sailing along the coast of Maine provides a wonderful opportunity to enjoy good fellowship, delicious home cooked meals (including a lobster bake on the beach!), and the glory of God’s creation.

Each year I join with 20 other people to rejuvenate our spirits as we relax on board this beautifully restored 1871 schooner. We start each morning with worship and reflection as we gaze out on Penobscot Bay. We are well cared-for each day as we feast on home-cooked meals brought up on deck from the galley below.

The time slips by; days are filled with reading, knitting, chatting or simply watching the stunning scenery as we catch glimpses of Maine wildlife. There is even the option of trying your hand on deck if you want to hoist the sails, furl the jib or take a hand at the helm.

Each day includes optional “shore leave” when (depending on the setting) there might be a chance to shop, hike, or sit on the beach. In the quiet of the evening, you can lie back and be amazed at the spectacular array of stars as you enjoy the sound of waves splashing against the boat.

I would love to share this experience with you – please be in touch with me if you’d like more information.  In the meantime, enjoy the changing seasons and be on the look-out for ways to feed your spirit and nourish your soul.