Happy belated 4th of July, Incarnation!
For many years, we lived within walking distance of the Air Force Memorial (and before that, the Iwo Jima Memorial) and could easily walk to amazing views of the capital fireworks. I loved sitting on a crowded lawn surrounded by languages from all over the world, watching the fireflies come out, and then sharing in the collective "ooooh"s of the crowd as the show begins. It always stirred me to pray for our country with renewed hope for our common life.
I so appreciated Johanna's prayers for our nation on Sunday, that we would truly be a place of "liberty and justice for all." Amen! And speaking of Sunday prayers, I recently read this article (h/t Elena S) which referenced the uniqueness that is Prayers of the People:
"Burge told me a story about his church that illustrated organized religion at its best. He described a section of the service where they asked for “prayers of the people,” where members of the congregation would describe a tough situation and ask for prayers. A young man, probably in his early 20s, with a baby, said he had just lost his job and wouldn’t make rent that month, and asked if the congregation would pray for him. Burge said an older man in the congregation went up to the young man after the service and said, “Son, if you need a job, you can come work for me tomorrow.” While that might sound like a scene from a Frank Capra movie, church really does wind up being one of the few places that people from different walks of life can interact with and help one another."
Although our Prayers of the People is structured differently, it is intended to create a space in the service in which the needs of our community can be heard, shared, and prayed — much like the book of psalms, as I mentioned on Sunday.
I probably get more questions about Prayers of the People than any other part of the liturgy. So I thought I'd take this week's letter to answer a few FAQs about this important part of the service.
Where do these prayers come from? Our Prayers of the People usually follows the format in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). There are two formats provided; the one we use most often is found on page 128; another format is found on page 110. Both formats serve as a sort of outline to cover major categories of prayer. However, we also give each week's prayer leader freedom to structure these prayers however they like, so everyone prays slightly differently. Some people simply read the format from the BCP; others compose their own prayers from scratch; and most people do some combination.
Why are there sometimes awkward silences? The Prayers of the People in the BCP are called "biddings" — they are intended to invite (or bid) people to add their own prayers and petitions. It's appropriate for the prayer leader to leave a pause after each bidding to allow people to add their own petitions, silently or aloud. These silences also allow the congregation time to process what they've just heard, which is always helpful when praying! In some churches (including Incarnation, from time to time), those silences are filled by voices from the congregation briefly calling out different prayer needs, sometimes just naming a person who needs prayer. I would love for our congregation to grow in comfort with this practice! As the article above mentions, church is one of the few places where people from all walks of life can voice their hopes and needs to be shared by a community. Church is also one of the few places where silence is created and protected. Don't worry about it feeling awkward; just take a deep breath and enjoy it! (I wrote a bit more about silence here, during Lent.)
Where do the specific prayer requests come from? Often, the prayer leader will name specific prayer requests. Sometimes those come from the congregation if a public prayer request has been shared in one of our WhatsApp groups (side note: we have a women's, men's, and all-church group chat in WhatsApp — let me know if you are interested in learning more or joining!). Sometimes they come from the clergy; we often ask the leader to pray for a specific need. Sometimes they come from the prayer leaders themselves, if they have a pressing concern for something happening in the news or in the church that week. Our outreach prayer requests come directly from our partners. If you would ever like the congregation to pray for a need on a Sunday, please just let me or Katie know!
What if someone prays something I disagree with? Because these are Prayers of the People, there's always a risk that not all people share the same concerns or viewpoints. It's very likely that you will occasionally hear prayers that make you uncomfortable, prayers with which you're not sure you can join your voice. (Side note: this is also true in the psalms; Psalm 137:9 is one particularly challenging example.) What can you do if this happens? First, you can use this discomfort as an opportunity for reflection and self-examination. Is there an area that you're hesitant to pray about or a person you're reluctant to pray for, and if so, why? Bring this discomfort into God's presence and allow him to help you sift through it in prayer for as long as it takes. Second, you can use this discomfort as an opportunity to better understand the concerns of others in the church. Perhaps you'd like to invite the prayer leader for coffee so you can learn more about why they prayed the way they did and how they are thinking about a particular area of concern. One of the gifts of community is the opportunity to pray with others for things we never would have thought to pray ourselves, because we all bring different perspectives and concerns with us on Sunday morning. Finally, you can always come and talk to the clergy. We are here for wrestling through tough issues in prayer together, and we are always grateful for these kinds of thoughtful responses to Sunday prayers.
Why do we pray for leaders by first name? It can feel surprising, weird, and a little...wrong?...to pray for "Joe, our president" and "Glenn, our governor," but this is actually standard practice in Anglican churches. Praying for leaders by their first names emphasizes that our leaders are, like the rest of us, named and known human beings. Anglican priest Tish Warren wrote a lovely reflection on this first-name practice a few years ago here, and I loved this line (Donald Trump was president at the time): "For those tempted to deify the president, using a first name appropriately diminishes him. He is just Donald. For those tempted to see him as evil incarnate, using his first name calls us to remember he is just a man, someone’s son."
Are there other times and places that the church prays for prayer requests? Yes! We also pray for the prayer requests of our community every Tuesday and Thursday during midday prayer on Zoom. Everyone is welcome to these brief and refreshing times of prayer; links to join available on the Online Worship page of our website. Our pastoral staff also prays for needs every Wednesday morning.
I'm looking forward to Sunday and continuing our series on the psalms, scripture's very own "prayers of the people." Bring your concerns, joys, and questions — see you then!