By Rev Sally Douglas, Minister at Richmond Uniting Church
Why do we gather, online or in person, as church? What are we here for? For ministers and congregations, COVID-19 has brought a sharp halt to much of our busy work and created opportunities to engage with such questions. While being busy can make us feel important, indispensable even, pausing to attend to these core questions is crucial.
In Everything Belongs by Richard Rohr and The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson, both authors suggest that what people are longing for in church is meaningful connection with the Divine. We might describe this as learning how to ‘tune in’ to the vibration to God. We might call this prayer. Recent news reports indicating that web searches for the term ‘prayer’ have increased significantly during COVID-19, bears witness to the truth of these authors’ claims.
While providing things like food security can be an important aspect of being church (as it is at Richmond Uniting), there are also good secular programs offering food security. What these secular services cannot offer, is opportunities to engage with the strange story of Jesus and to explore how people might authentically ‘tune in’ to the Source of all, who loves them and calls them by name. Imagine if we reclaimed prayer as core work for ministers and congregations?
In order to do this, we would need to create spaces for people to explore what prayer is and how to do this in meaningful ways. This would require all of us, lay and ordained alike, to engage in the frightening work of attending to our own prayer lives. Learning to be still and open to Spirit is difficult. It is confronting, in part, because this inevitably entails facing hard things about ourselves and the communities we are part of. In order to live more deeply into Christ’s wholeness, we need to acknowledge our brokenness, so that Spirit can pour in with her cleansing and healing.
On a practical level, prayer can also be frightening because people don’t know how to pray authentically. While we ‘say’ prayers and tell one another ‘I will pray for you’, as a church we have often not created spaces for people to ask questions about what prayer is, to talk about the fact that prayer can feel empty, or to discuss the reality that there are a whole range of prayer styles that will better connect with different personalities, at different times in life.
While it might be assumed that prayer is ‘natural’, this does not mean that prayer is easy. Walking comes ‘naturally’ to most people. However, as toddlers learn to walk, they need encouragement, couches to cling to, hands to hold and (hopefully) someone to scoop them up when they fall. We are doing ourselves, and one another, a disservice when we do not create spaces to safely discuss prayer, to experiment with prayer practices, to fall over, to learn and to be supported.
One of the life-sapping consequences of not prioritising practices of prayer as a church, is that people are often left with the shallow notions of prayer that they were taught as children, or have seen in movies, in which prayer is caricatured as reciting some words or bringing a shopping list of issues to God that we want fixed. Such practices are not likely to sustain in the long dark night of the soul, or in the midst of a global pandemic.
Daring to reclaim the centrality of ‘tuning in’ to God in authentic prayer, might be the greatest gift we can offer in our anxious world right now. Furthermore, it is something we can engage with and share even in the midst of lockdown.
Here are some resources for the curious:
- ‘Praying in Real Life’
- Lacuna (UCA VicTas) explores different prayer styles – there may be an old copy in your church office.