In any given congregation on any given Sunday, there are likely to be people waiting . . . for an estimate from the mechanic, for word from the college or employer of their choice, for news from the adoption agency, for a phone call from the doctor, for an important email from the next town, or the next continent…
In any given congregation on any given Sunday, there may very well be people who have just that morning snapped at their kids, argued with their partners, lost an important piece of paper, their glasses, their car keys. There may be people who just that week have lost a coveted business account, or their job. Or people in just that moment who are reeling from a broken relationship, or the loss of a parent or a friend.
On any given Sunday, people of faith gather to worship God with friends they’ve known and loved for years, and with folks they’ve never, or only just, met. And if there are 50 adults in a congregation, more likely than not they’ve come from 50 different places, been reared in 50 different homes, and in the past 24 hours have experienced 50 different combinations of emotions. Someone stands up and calls all our individual souls to worship and just like that, we begin to pray with one voice. In speech. In silence. In song. And your concerns become my concerns as together we form the words “Lord, hear our prayer.”
In any given congregation on any given Sunday, there’s already a lot going on in the hearts and minds of those who gather for worship. . .
And then there are those Sundays when a single issue affects everyone in the room. It can be an event specific to a local church: a staff member’s retirement, a new staff member’s introduction, having to say goodbye to a treasured family in our congregation. Or it can be something we’ve all just heard in the news. How many Sundays have we entered this sanctuary with our hearts breaking for the victims of the latest outbreak of gun violence here in the US, most recently of course in Orlando, where we can’t help but think this morning of so many grieving families and friends. Sometimes when we arrive on a Sunday morning one of these issues might even weigh so heavily on our hearts that it is difficult to worship. . . yet here you will find us once again, praying together.
This is significant as we approach our two texts for this morning, for the psalms were produced and prayed in worshipping congregations. And the prayer Jesus taught us is framed entirely in plural “us” language: “Our Father…give us…forgive us.” These prayers “train us to pray with others who have prayed, and are praying: put our knees on the level with other bent knees… join our voices in lament and praise with others who weep and laugh.”
There’s a lot to be said for praying together. For one thing, “left to ourselves,” we can slip into selfish prayer. As Eugene Peterson puts it, “with God as the Great Sympathizer, the Great Giver, the Great Promiser, we [are tempted to] go to our knees and indulge every impulse for gratification.” Praying together, as part of a worshiping community, reminds us “that there are others to whom God speaks . . . [that] others in the family also have needs … and that I am neither the only nor the favorite child.” The “us” language in the Lord’s Prayer, the fact that the psalms have been used since the very beginning by communities of faith, cautions us against an overly individualistic focus in prayer. Biblical prayer doesn’t allow me to think this conversation between heaven and earth is all about me.
And that the conversation is far bigger than I am can also be tremendously encouraging. I understand there’s an Orthodox Christian tradition in which worship services last several hours. No one is under any illusion that individual worshipers will pray for the whole time—they expect each other to take breaks—but the understanding is that at any given moment, someone will be praying. Throughout the ebb and flow of personal prayers, the prayer of the community continues on.
What a beautiful image for our prayer lives. Particularly for those times when you or I might feel unable to pray. When the words simply won’t come, whether because we feel distant from God, or because we’re too angry, too fearful, or too sad to pray. We can rest assured in those moments that the family of faith carries the conversation for us. In Annette Dunlap’s words, “being brought into Christ’s presence is one of the gifts of the Christian community.”
I am grateful too, for the ongoing prayers of a community of faith that extends far beyond any particular church’s walls, all around the world and back through history. The amazing thing about the Psalms, Eugene Peterson reminds us, is that “even when we pray [them] by ourselves, we are not by ourselves: community is always implicit in the Psalms and the moment we pray them we are drawn into [that] community. David danced these psalms before the ark and the Hebrews in Solomon’s temple chanted them. Children running down the slope of Olivet waved palm branches and shouted these psalms and Jesus in his upper room with the disciples sang them. The Corinthian Christians celebrated the eucharist with these psalms and [saints of every age] fill heaven with them.” I think, too, of the Lord’s Prayer, of all the times and places it’s been prayed. Of all the places it’s being prayed at this very moment: “Our Father who art in heaven. . .”
On any given Sunday, there’s already a lot going on …in our world, in our personal lives, as we pray these ancient words. And we’re invited to broaden the picture even further, remembering what’s going on in the biblical story as well. The story of an infinitely powerful Creator God who is at the same time intimately concerned with the life of each and every one of God’s children. The story of an Almighty God who chose to live a human life, to talk with us face to face, and to teach and heal, to model for us what living in God’s way could look like. The story of a resurrected Lord who conquered death, bringing hope to a despairing world. Throughout the centuries, people of faith have prayed these same words, finding in them reminders that “God is [always] greater than the circumstances that imprison us.”
So today, and every Sunday, we are invited to join the chorus. When we are able, to lift up fellow children of God who in this moment are struggling to pray. And in those moments we cannot seem to pray ourselves, to listen for the voices of brothers and sisters in faith, as we lift our eyes to the hills:
“From where does our help come?
Our help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth. . .
The Lord will keep our going out and our coming in
From this time on and forevermore.” (Psalm 121:1-2, 8)
 See Eugene Peterson, Answering God, pp. 89-90
 Peterson, p. 19
 Peterson, pp. 91-92
 Peterson, p. 84
 From Upper Room Daily Devotional Guide for March 11, 2003.
 Peterson, p. 91
 Irene Anway, from Upper Room Daily Devotional Guide for March 13, 2003.