Of course, we all know it is a travesty for prayers and sermons to chant on about this and that abstraction. We heap up metaphors but cannot, for the life of us, speak in an apposite way or about practical truths. Saved by the blood of the cross? We explain it using ten more abstractions, and in our prayers we dance around, but never seem to touch the pain of the people.
But what may be just as bad is the heaping on of worldly concerns in a superficial way. This can smell like pandering—like pretending to be in the world for the world when we are really only dressing up our language to look the part.
Church conventions are great at this. In their busy schedules they include quick hearings on heady topics such as same-sex ordination and marriage, mental illness, or conflicts in Palestine, followed by 15 minutes of debate and a resolution about how bad things are and how good people should all be very, very concerned.
Then, in worship, we run through prayers that touch momentarily on a laundry list of the causes of the week: earthquakes in Nepal, or the tornado on the other side of the county. “O Lord, pour out your healing.”
Next week it will be the next big crisis. And they all fly by with predictable rapidity. Riots in the streets, famine here, drought there, and terrorist atrocities just about everywhere.
It fits the formula of the prayers. “Let us pray for the church, the world and all people in need.”
When my son was little I would pray long prayers with him at bed time, and when turned matters over to him for a change, he wanted nothing of long-laundry-list prayers, and so would say, “Bless the whole world, Amen,” and be much more efficiently done with it.
The question is, can we Christians be too worldly?
William Wordsworth seemed to be describing the ways people had become so sated and jaded by “getting and spending” that they were soul-dead to the divine raging of the waves and winds of nature. He put it all in a poem “The world is too much with us.”
Then, in 1975, Saul Bellow added, “To say the world is too much with us is meaningless for there is no longer any us. The world is everything.”
Bellow was longing for more brave souls who would take up the vital task of the poet and novelist—people who would take the time necessary to meditate and discover the essence of things. The novelist, in particular, cannot play the game of the pandering politician or preacher and spew out platitudes. She must think deeply about how humans act in the real world. For Bellow, this is truth: simply the way things really are.
Worship leaders need to practice such a commitment to truth–such a meditation on the true nature of things, and on what is required of the human soul. They need to take more time both preparing and speaking prayers. They need to put more “us” into the worship equation.
When the world is too much with us—so much so that there is no “us” left, we drown in the daily tsunami of crises, and we have no idea of our own appropriate place in it all.
So, should we be praying like this in worship’s Prayers of Intercession? Should we be heaping up prayers about the whole church and the great big world, including concerns for nature, healing, global climate change, and our military spread across the globe, and then top it off with prayers about saints and dead ancestors? Should we pray about so much world and neglect us? With so much world and so little concern about sense of self are we not thereby complicit in the craziness and chaos? Are we not making people more twitchy, cynical and fatigued?
Should our prayers not strive to calm the waves and wipe away the clutter? Should we not be more content with less comprehensiveness–with simply opening a tiny crack or two for the Spirit to blow through onto our spirits so that there can be something more to “us” and something more to our character?
When my son, Jeremiah was young, and we said those long prayers at bedtime, more than once we would take to bed with us vivid reminders, compliments of television news and documentaries, of the extremes of inhumanity in this world: Nazis and the holocaust, terrorists, politicians who could wreak untold havoc just by selling their votes to the highest bidders. I would say to my son, “Jeremiah, there are so many things you can do in life that will make a little goodness or a little kindness happen. Just don’t—please don’t sell out. Don’t make excuses for inhuman acts. Don’t give in to such evil. If you can simply be a decent human being you might help turn the tide or stop the drift or the stampede into darkness. You may never get hero billing, but you will truly make the world a little better.”
I wanted my son to live his life without doing evil. I wanted him to be a decent person.
Martin Luther King Jr., now has those signal words “Free at last, free at last, great God almighty I’m free at last” on his tombstone. But in one glorious sermon close to his death (called “The Drum-Major Instinct), he tried to be honest about his own urge to be out front and to be something great, and advocated instead a desire to do humble, consistent, and lasting service. He said that his own choice for his eulogy at his funeral would be, “He tried to love somebody.”
Can we find ways of praying for this for ourselves as Christians? When we live with the constant threat of too much world and too little “us,” wouldn’t it be a good thing to simply pray that the “us” that we present to the world might be a little more thoughtful, a little more human, a little more grace-full, a little more loving? Yes, our humble acts of service, with hammers and nails and sewing needles and five dollar checks, when collected together, can make sizable dents in this week’s celebrated cause. But even more will be done if the way we worship affords us more self to pour out–if prayers are shaped less like laundry lists and more like poetry. If our prayers help us see our selves as clay vessels that carry into the crazy world a great treasure, or as leaky cups into which the Christ is constantly pouring a fresh supply of sacrificial love.