The Why’s and Wonders of Worship: The Power of Prayer

“The Why’s and Wonders of Worship: The Power of Prayer”
Job 30:20 and 1 John 4: 7-8
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
August 26, 2018

It does not have the prominence in the worship service as the sermon nor does it have the popularity in the service as the music. But I would argue that it is one of the most significant aspects of our worship together – the pastoral prayer.  While most pastors spend hours on sermons each week, relatively few spend quality time on the pastoral prayer – maybe just jotting a few notes down – or worse, simply “winging it.” But I would argue that the pastoral prayer is one of the most important things a pastor does every Sunday and it requires thoughtful preparation.

America is living stormy Monday, but the Christian worship service is focused on happy Sunday. In the words of Otis Moss III, “The church is becoming a place where Christianity is nothing more than capitalism in drag” (Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World, p. 4). Yet, the pastoral prayer beckons us to address the pain of the week – school shootings and terrorist attacks, immigrants and refugees, wildfires and hurricanes, illness and grief.

We are in the middle of a sermon series entitled “The Why’s and Wonders of Worship,” recognizing that every aspect of the worship service from the Prelude to the Time of Reflection has something to teach us about God and one another. How do we encounter God / the Divine / Spirit in the Pastoral Prayer and how do we grow our love for one another during that sacred time in the service?

First, our image of God shapes our prayers.  The predominant image of God in the Judeo-Christian tradition has been of an Almighty Deity sitting in the Heavens above, one a throne, judging the good and the bad. The good will prosper. The bad will be punished. It is this image that Job argues against in the book of Job.

Job was the man who did everything right.  He was blameless and upright, the Bible tells us.  He had a loving wife, ten children, seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred pairs of oxen, five hundred donkeys and enough servants to look after the whole zoo.  His misfortune came about through no fault of his own.  Job was quietly minding his business down on earth – praying for his children and feeding the homeless – when disaster struck.

Job lost everything.  His oxen, donkeys, and camels were stolen.  His servants were killed.  His sheep were struck by lightning.  His children all died.  Itching sores erupted all over Job’s body, from the soles of his feet to the top of his head.

Job’s friends then show up.  And Job spends 37 chapters pleading his case.  And they responded by saying to Job that he must have done something wrong since God does not make mistakes.  Instead of defending their friend against God, they defend God against their friend.  “God is just,” they tell him.  “Therefore, you must be guilty.”  This frustrates Job even more because Job needed sympathy, more than advice; Job needed his friends to hold him rather than scold him. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

The book of Job was quite revolutionary in its day. God is not one to reward the good and punish the wicked. Rain falls on the just and the unjust. Bad things happen to good people. “Sickness and tragedy are not punishments; sickness and tragedy are facts of life. Viruses attack. Wars kill. Tumors are formed. Leukemia strikes. Blood vessels wear out and rupture. Innocent people are killed by psychotic people acting out a drama that makes sense only within their sick minds. Accidents occur…”  There is not a Judge sitting in Heaven rewarding the good and punishing the bad (Spong, John Shelby, A New Christianity for a New World, p. 192).

How we address God matters and shapes our prayers. Instead of beginning prayers with “Almighty God in Heaven,” I often address God using incarnational language: “Holy Mystery,” “Sacred Spirit,” “Divine Presence,” “Immensity of Love,” recognizing in the words of 1 John, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” God is the name we give to a powerful force that lies deep within each of us and is experienced in relationship.

The Pastoral Prayer, then, is not about placating, begging, flattering, petitioning the God above, but above recognizing the Divinity that lies within. The God of love works through us and as us in the world. We are the hands and feet of God.

Therefore, in the pastoral prayer, I will often pray that we will have the courage to take actions against war; that we will take the time to comfort the sick with our own presence, that we will work to create systems of justice that will alleviate poverty and hunger, that we will dedicate our lives to transforming our communities, nation, and the world. O God, may we be instruments of peace, may we be vessels of love, may we be channels of healing.

If God is love, then the pastoral prayer, what we call intercessory prayer, leads us to experience empathy, solidarity and compassion for others. The pastoral prayer / intercessory prayer is the process of bringing individuals into one’s consciousness and identifying with the situations of their lives – their joys and concerns, their trials and successes, their fears and failures. Intercessory prayer is in itself an act of love and serves as a prelude to love and compassion in action.

Prayer can be a powerful instrument of transformation. It can rouse us to action. Theologian Karl Barth said, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” Austin O’Malley puts it this way, “Practical prayer is harder on the soles of your shoes than on the knees of your trousers.”

Instead of prayers directed toward the heavens, prayer is really directed within. Prayer changes me. Through prayer, I live a life of compassionate action which brings healing to the world.

So, praying and living deeply, richly and fully have become for me almost indistinguishable. Perhaps, this is what the apostle Paul meant when he said, “Pray without ceasing.” We are to live as if everything we say and do is a prayer. When life is lived in this way, this spiritual energy brings wholeness and even healing. I don’t completely understand how it works (which is why I often address God as “Holy Mystery”), but when I express my love, concern and caring in thought, word and in deed, somehow that expression has the opportunity to make a difference. I see examples of lives being turned around. I see the brokenness of a relationship healed. I see the fear of death, if not death itself, dissipate when the dying person receives the love of another. Yes, I believe in the power of prayer.

I am reminded of a most remarkable prayer story from WWII that really captures the essence of prayer for me. During WWII,  a German fighter plane made its way through the English and American fighter planes and began to attack the English and American bomber.  The crew of the bomber prayed fervently to be saved from the bullets that began spitting from the German plane.  The bullets pierced the body of the bomber and penetrated the fuselage, where the gas tanks were located.  The crew of the bomber waited for an explosion or a fire to break out.  But nothing happened.  Not one spark or puff of smoke appeared. It appeared that their prayers had been answered.

The bomber managed to land safely at its English airfield.  The crew climbed down from the aircraft and carefully removed the shell of the fuselage.  Inside were nearly five perfect bullets.  They hadn’t exploded; they had merely crumpled.  The crew took the bullets back to their barracks for inspection.

When the soldiers opened four of the bullets, they found something amazing.  There was no gunpowder inside.  They were completely empty.  When they opened the fifth bullet, they found something extraordinary.  Rolled into a tiny wad inside the bullet was a note that read: “We are polish POWs — forced to make bullets in factory.  When guards do not look, we do not fill with powder.  It’s not much, but it is best we can do.” The note was signed by four Polish prisoners of war (Story told by Jeff Borden, Hot Illustrations for Youth Talks 4, p. 176).

Those four prisoners of war made their lives a prayer and saved hundreds, if not thousands, from destruction. It was not so much an “Almighty God sitting on a throne above” that saved the lives of those English and American pilots, it was the Divine presence working in and through the Polish prisoners of war. May we, too, be open to the divine presence who is called “love” working in and through our lives as well.  For God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God and God in them. May we be God-bearers – a source of life, love and healing for others. And may our pastoral prayers prepare us for such a high calling. Amen.