As a child I was fascinated by worship. I observed the pastors and congregation closely on Sundays, not only listening for the sounds of worship but watching for its movement, too. As we gathered in the sanctuary, the organist would enter and begin playing. Some would quiet down and listen, but others would continue to chat or greet one another. When the prelude ended the organist started a hymn, and all the people rose in unison (some standing in body, some standing in spirit). We opened our hymnals to the right page and then stood there, waiting. And at the right moment, again, nobody telling us when, we all knew to start singing. The choir, in white robes and stoles, processed in from the back, splitting at the front of the church to enter the choir loft from either side. The clergy and lay leaders followed in their wake.
When the hymn ended, we all remained standing for a responsive reading. Then, without being told, we all sat down. There is a particular sound that a congregation makes as they take their seats together, putting away their hymnals, shifting and settling into place. When the sanctuary grew still the minister would say, “Let us pray.” All across the congregation, as if in one motion, every head bowed and all the eyes closed. Well, that is, every head but mine. I was observing! Occasionally my mother observed, too, touching me on the arm and whispering for me to bow my head.
When I became the chaplain at Boy Scout camp (I spent 9 summers there), I always introduced prayers with “let us pray.” In fact, I used that phrase at the first churches I served, too, back when I still was in undergraduate school, two years before I entered seminary.
I’m not sure when I changed the words I use, but at some point, perhaps in graduate school, but maybe after ordination, I evolved from saying “let us pray” to “please pray with me.” It feels more egalitarian, more invitational. “Let us pray,” can sound hierarchical to me – at least some of the time. It’s something one says with authority and power. Granted, the pastoral office does have both authority and power, and it is an important, even necessary part of serving as clergy in both church and community. Yet still, my preference is to lead from a more invitational posture, asserting our covenant to be in ministry, life and faith together, equals in the quest to be faithful and loving in Christ’s name. And so, at some point, I shifted to saying, “Please pray with me,” be that in worship or a meeting, or even when offering pray in the community.
While we have grown accustomed to Facebook Live and YouTube as platforms for our weekly worship, and appreciate the sense of connection it affords us both with God and with each other during this time of global pandemic, it is a far cry from the sights and sounds of our church family gathered on Sunday morning. With the rise of infection rate across the country, it may be that the present pattern will need to continue for some time. The Board is paying close attention, taking seriously their responsibility to help us to be safe as we further our church’s life and ministry through these days and beyond.
Each Sunday morning, as I sit in front of an iPhone’s camera and lead our congregation in worship, be it from my office or from the parsonage back yard, I hold in my mind’s eye, and in my heart, our whole family of faith. I remember the “regulars” who never missed a Sunday. I call to mind the folks who come a little less frequently, too, and even those who are able to come only occasionally. And as the pandemic has progressed, I have found other people coming to mind during our virtual worship. I am aware of friends and loved ones from other parts of the country or world, many of whom have joined us regularly in our online worship. But additionally, I’ve started to sense the saints of the church – folks who have died and gone to their heavenly reward, yet somehow are coming to mind for me. Some are people from this congregation, and others are from other churches I have served. Even my parents have come to mind, sometimes separately and sometimes together. It has been an unexpected blessing through these months of virtual worship, this sense of connection that has grown, week by week.
Every Sunday, when I start a prayer by saying, “please pray with me,” I bow my head and close my eyes, remembering, imagining the sound of a gathered congregation settling into place, each of us tuning heart and mind to be present together before God. And every Sunday, without exception, I feel empowered for life and faith, not only in the moment of worship together, but throughout the week, too. I hope you feel the same. Please pray with me...