Praying by Name for School Teachers and Staff

On Sunday my congregation prayed for the teachers and staff of our community’s schools. We prayed for them by name – over 100 of them.

I asked each student in my church to make a list of their teachers and their school staff – office staff, cafeteria staff, maintenance staff, etc.. To help them with this task, we had an online form on our website that families could use to submit names. We also had a My School Prayer Worksheet kids could download, complete, and bring to church. We also had blank forms at church that many kids filled out that morning.

The prayer took place during the Children’s Message, and also included a Blessing of the Backpacks (a “back to school” theme for the Children’s Message). I spoke briefly with the kids about the good and holy things they are doing at school, and the people whose holy work it is to care for them and help them learn.

After thanking God for all who care for our children and help them grow and learn, I read all the names that were given to me. It was a bit ridiculous, and it took some time to read the 100+ names (which I tried to do with speed yet also with dignity), but it was so worth it. Praying by name for our teachers and school staff was a powerful experience, and a very vivid reminder of all the people in our community who are committed to the care and education of our children. One member of the church commented that it was great not only to pray for her kids’ current teachers, but to pray for teachers her children had in previous years whose names were submitted by younger children in the congregation.

At the end of the prayer the congregation cheered and let out an enthusiastic applause. It may have been a cheer of relief at the end of such a long prayer … but I’m much more inclined to think that the congregation was truly joy-filled by naming in prayer so many teachers and caregivers whose vocation it is to nurture our children in learning and growth. Such people truly merit not only our prayers but also our cheers. I’m glad we did both.

11870924_10206321051079286_7337353756989982197_nAfter the Children’s Message and prayer, I spread the prayer sheets over the altar. Those names were there as I preached (yes, I preach from the altar), led the Prayers of Intercession, and as I presided at Holy Communion. It was particularly powerful for me – and I shared this observation with the congregation – to prepare to serve the food and drink of the Lord’s Supper as the names of cafeteria workers graced the altar. Holy Food. Holy People. Holy Callings.

It was a good Sunday, and an experience I’ll certainly do again in the future.

Morning Prayer Following the Elections

Tomorrow at my congregation, Grace Lutheran on the East Side of Saint Paul, we will gather to pray for our state and nation following the elections. Please join us – in person, or in spirit.

Morning Prayer On the Occasion of Local, State, and National Elections
Wednesday, November 7, 10am
Grace Lutheran Church, Saint Paul, MN

Order of Prayer adapted from the Church of England’s Common Worship materials. Hymns numbers refer to Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

Prelude

Gathering Dialogue
O Lord, open our lips
and our mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Your faithful servants bless you.
They make known the glory of your kingdom.

Let us pray.
Silence for reflection
Blessed are you, Sovereign God,
ruler and judge of all,
to you be praise and glory for ever.
In the darkness of this age that is passing away
may the light of your presence which the saints enjoy
surround our steps as we journey on.
May we reflect your glory this day
and so be made ready to see your face
in the heavenly city where night shall be no more.
Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Blessed be God for ever.
Amen.

Hymn #771 God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens

Scripture refrain (Philippians 3:20)
Our citizenship is in heaven,
and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior,
the Lord Jesus Christ.

Psalmody
Psalm 42

As the deer longs for the water brooks,
so longs my soul for you, O God.
My soul is athirst for God, even for the living God;
when shall I come before the presence of God?
My tears have been my bread day and night,
while all day long they say to me, ‘Where is now your God?’
Now when I think on these things, I pour out my soul:
how I went with the multitude
and led the procession to the house of God,
With the voice of praise and thanksgiving,
among those who kept holy day.
Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul,
and why are you so disquieted within me?
O put your trust in God;
for I will yet give him thanks,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

Glory to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning is now
and shall be for ever. Amen.

Prayer
The night has passed, and the day lies open before us;
let us pray with one heart and mind.
Silence is kept.
As we rejoice in the gift of this new day,
so may the light of your presence, O God,
set our hearts on fire with love for you;
now and for ever.
Amen.

A Song of the New Creation
Isaiah 43.15,16,18,19,20c,21

I will make a way in the wilderness,
and rivers in the desert.
‘I am the Lord, your Holy One,
the Creator of Israel, your King.’
Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
‘Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
I will make a way in the wilderness,
and rivers in the desert
‘Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
‘I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
‘The people whom I formed for myself,
that they might declare my praise.’
I will make a way in the wilderness,
and rivers in the desert.

Glory to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning is now
and shall be for ever. Amen.

Scripture refrain (Philippians 3:20)
Our citizenship is in heaven,
and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior,
the Lord Jesus Christ.

Message

Hymn #887 This Is My Song

Gospel Canticle
The Benedictus (The Song of Zechariah)

Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel
who has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty Savior
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets God promised of old
to save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all that hate us,
To show mercy to our ancestors,
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of all their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Glory to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning is now
and shall be for ever. Amen.

Prayers
Let us pray for the church, the world, and all those in need. In particular, we pray for our state and nation, asking God’s grace and blessings following yesterday’s elections.

God of the heavens and the earth, you are Lord of all. Give us the strength to resist putting too much hope in any one political party or ideology, for you are the hope of the world. Fix our hearts on you and on those whom you love. Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, you raise up leaders and give those in high office great responsibility. Bless those whom we have elected to office, especially (names). Grant them your wisdom and grace in their holy calling of leading this nation. May they use their authority to seek not the narrow interest of small groups, but the interest of all. Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

God of reconciliation, bring together the people of this land to accept, embrace, and pray for our newly elected officials. Give us the eye to see this nation not as a people divided by Red and Blue, Republican and Democrat, but a nation that strives together to live into its greatest hopes of liberty and justice for all. Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

God of healing, unite the people of this state under the banner of your love. Grant your wisdom to the state legislature as it seeks to implement the state constitutional amendment(s) approved in yesterday’s election. May (any) legal challenges or re-counts proceed fairly and justly, and may all who advocated for or against the amendments seek the best for this state, and interpret the actions of their political adversaries in the best possible light. Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

God of the poor and marginalized, you sent prophets to call out on behalf of the poor, and your own Son proclaimed Good News to the poor and captive. Give all who hold positions of authority, and the citizens who elected them, the will to use their power for the good of the poor. Give your wisdom and care to business owners and community activists, to church leaders and to school officials, to managers and to laborers, that we might all contribute to alleviate the plight of all who suffer. Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

All these things and whatever else you see that we need, grant us, O God, for the sake of him who died and rose again and now lives and reigns with you in unity with the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Amen.

Uniting our prayers with the whole company of heaven,
let us pray with confidence as our Savior has taught us:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
forever and ever. Amen.

Scripture refrain (Philippians 3:20)
Our citizenship is in heaven,
and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior,
the Lord Jesus Christ.

Hymn #888 O Beautiful for Spacious Skies

The Conclusion
May Christ, who has opened the kingdom of heaven,
bring us to reign with him in glory.
Amen.
Let us bless the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Postlude

A Prayer for Memorial Day

I noticed that in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the worship book of my church, there are no specific prayers for Memorial Day or the occasion of remembering those who died in service to our country. There are prayers for the armed forces and for our nation's leaders and other related topics, but nothing that quited seemed to me to fit for Memorial Day. So, I crafted a prayer for Memorial Day. Feel free to use, adapt, edit, or ignore. 

Almighty God, you are our strength and our shield. We give you thanks for the men and women of our armed forces, past and present, and especially for those who have died while serving. May their sacrifices serve the cause of peace, and may our nation be ever grateful for their service. With your wisdom and strength guide our military's leaders, and give to all people a desire for justice and peace. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen

A good and safe Memorial Day weekend to you all!

Kneeling During Lent

On Sunday at the closing of our Sunday School ministry – a gathering of all the children's Sunday School classes we call "Closing Devotion" – I talked with the kids about bending down. It was the First Sunday in Lent, and I used this ocassion to talk about what our Lord Jesus does in relationship to us: namely, to bend down to be with us where we're at, in our struggles and our suffering, in our lonliness and our sadness. Thus, rather than use the "we journey with Jesus" metaphor for Lent, I turned it around, and shared with the kids that during Lent we remember that Jesus walks with us and comes to us.

As an example, I had all of the children gather in a large circle in our Parish Hall. I asked one of our Confirmation Ministry students to come into the middle of the circle, and to fall down, as if injured. I then ran to the other side of the room, far from the "injured" youth, and asked her, "How are you doing? Can I help you? Gosh, you look hurt!" Then I asked the children, "is this a good way to help her?" Of course, the kids responded that it was not. So I walked half the distance closer to her, but still 15 feet from her, and repeated the charade. And of course, the kids saw right through it.

Finally, I came to her and knelt down next to her, asked her how she was doing, and offered assistance. Then I turned to the kids and asked if that was a better way to help her, to which they responded enthusiastically, "Yes!"

I then explained that this is how Jesus works. He isn't far off but rather comes to us, bends down to be with us, and is alongside us in our pain and struggle. I rattled off a number of situations in which I hope the children would take comfort knowing that Jesus is near them – when they have nightmares, when they get scraed, when they get hurt, etc. etc..

Then I had them kneel, all of them. I asked them what we can do when we kneel. Several said that we can pray. A few others said that we can help people when they're down. Pray and help. Pretty good things.

We talked about all those people who were knocked down, literally, by the tsunami in Japan, and how there are rescue workers who, like Jesus, are bending down to help those who have been beaten down.

After I was done with the message the kids stood up and sang a song, and we shared some announcements. But when it was time for our prayers, I invited the kids to kneel once more. There was some groaning, of course, but I think that kneeling hightened their focus. When I asked "for what shall we pray," several hands went up with great suggestions – more than usual – from "the sick" to "the people of Japan" to "peace in the Middle East" to others.

During Lent our children will be kneeling during prayer, to remember that our Lord comes to us when we're feeling low, and to form us, through a posture of prayer, for lives of bending down to reach out to those who have been knocked down by suffering.

Praying at the Foot of the Flag

I recently received a brochure encouraging me to attend or organize a See You at the Pole event in my area.  See You at the Pole is a national movement organizing Christian prayer events on school campuses, usually at a flagpole, prior to the start of classes.  This year the event is on September 22.

Though I pray for our schools and our nation frequently, I have serious misgivings, both theological and social, about organized public Christian prayer events to take place on school campuses at the foot of the American flag.  In short, I worry that See You at the Pole risks turning the discipline of Christian prayer into a segregated rally that can unnecessarily divide the school community.

First, let me be clear that my critiques are about the event itself, and not the youth who participate.  The youth who participate likely do so for a variety of reasons, including the urging of their pastors or youth leaders, and many genuinely find it to be an exciting, faithful event bringing diverse Christians together to pray.  What Christian kid, when invited by their friend to a prayer rally, would say no?  And what Christian pastor or parent would say "no" to a child who wants to pray with other kids?  But despite the enthusiasm and faith that might be cultivated by See You at the Pole, and the great intentions that might be held by those who organize these events, I fear that See You at the Pole is so rife with problems that we should caution our youth before they participate.

See You at the Pole almost can't help but become a platform public posturing.  After all, it seeks to gather Christian kids in front of the school to pray, allowing fellow students, teachers, and passerby's to see and hear them pray in the name of Jesus.  Yet when teaching his disciples how to pray, our Lord Jesus instructs them to pray in private, so that the one who prays isn't tempted to turn an act of faith into an opportunity for "look at me" pious grandstanding (see Matthew 6:1-18).  And note that this event is not called Pray at the Pole, but See You at the Pole.  Clearly, seeing and being seen is central to this event.  (The See You at the Pole FAQ page responds to the Matthew 6 critique, with an argument based on one's motive for public prayer rather than the act of public prayer itself.)

But I also question the wisdom of praying at the foot of the American flag.  Our faith is a universal faith, not tied to or identified by any national or ethnic identity.  When Christians pray, we are addressing the Lord of all nations.  Thus, prayer should not be done in a way that conflates our Lord with our nation; but praying at the foot of a flag does just that.  National symbols are not appropriate gathering places for Christian prayer (see past post, Praising God, Honoring Country).  (The See You at the Pole FAQ page explains that the flagpole is a meeting place simply because nearly every school campus has a flagpole.  Some See You at the Pole events meet at other locations on campus.)

There is also a significant social aspect to this event.  The event's name – See You at the Pole – makes it clear that this event is about being seen in prayer, just before the start of the school day.  But what about those kids who will not be seen at the pole?  Essentially, See You at the Pole gathers Christian kids at the flag pole to pray, to the exclusion of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics, Christians who don't believe in praying outside of their fellowship, and others.  And what about Christian kids who don't participate?  Will they risk being accused by some participants of not being true Christians?  I fear that drawing faith lines so dramatically and so publicly at this age,
over and against the diversity of the public school environment, is harmful to the school community.  The last thing we need is for Christian prayer to become an opportunity for division in our school communities.

And more.  By gathering at the foot of the flag to pray in a Christian manner, these kids are identifying the American flag as a gathering place for Christian prayer, thus alienating Americans of other faiths from their own flag.  It's a way (however unintentional, perhaps) of claiming the flag as a Christian symbol, rather than lifting it up as a national banner that flies over Americans of all faiths and traditions.

The organizers of See You at the Pole could faithfully and wonderfully encourage prayer in many other ways, without running afoul of the problems outlined above. 

  • They could invite children and families to pray at home, behind closed doors, in accordance with our Lord's teaching.  An organized, at-home prayer event joining millions of households in prayer would be quite powerful.
  • Or, if they really want to gather people for prayer, they could hold events behind the closed doors of a local church one morning before school. 
  • But if they insist on holding an event on a school campus, they could do so on a weekend, when they are less likely to start a school day by dividing the student body according to religion. 
  • But if they truly insist on holding these events on a school day and on campus, they could at least pick a different spot, a more modest spot, away from the main doors to the school building where the flag is usually located, and away from the bus lanes or other very visible locations.

From what I can tell, See You at the Pole is a well-intentioned but flawed event that has the potential to sow division in our school communities, and which seems to be just as much about being seen as it is about prayer.  I hope and pray that I am wrong, and that those who participate find it to be a powerful experience of Christian unity and prayer that leads them closer to God, and that through God they draw closer to their neighbor.

The Kingdom of God is like Two Target Gift Cards

Lectionary 17 (9th Sunday after Pentecost)
Genesis 18:20-32; Luke 11:1-13
Sunday, July 25, 2010

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

I was out shopping with my girls the other night. 
They each received for their birthdays a great gift, one they couldn’t quite quantify –
    $50 gift cards to Target from their grandparents.
So I took them to Target, gift cards in hand, and set them loose in the toy section.
Go ahead, girls, pick out what you want. 
And remember, thanks to this special gift,
    you can spend more money, and get more toys,
    than you ever do with Mommy and Daddy.
So they wandered up and down the aisles – looking at the Barbies and the dress up clothes,
    the stuffed animals and the games.
Finally, after about ten minutes of deliberation, they came back to me, each holding one toy.

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Funerals: For the Living or for the Dead?

"Funerals are not for the dead, but for the living."

That's a popular sentiment, and one which I've uttered many times.  After all, at the funeral we speak words of comfort to those who are mourning, and words of hope to the living that death is not the end of the story but simply one part of the everlasting life we have in Christ Jesus.  We proclaim that "nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord," not even death.  These are words for the living.

Furthermore, we don't tend to believe that in the prayers and worship of the funeral liturgy we actually do anything for the deceased.  Again, a popular sentiment – which I've uttered – is that God has already taken the deceased into his loving care, so that there is nothing we can do for the deceased because God has already worked in and for the deceased.

The burial of a lonely woman with no living relatives, with no one to grieve and thus no one to comfort, has caused me to question these sentiments which, until now, I had never examined in any depth.

If a funeral is essentially for the living, but there is no one living who really cares about the deceased, then is there a need for a funeral at all?  And if God will do what God will do whether or not we pray (I think of Martin Luther's explanation to the second petition of the Lord's Prayer), then why bother with all this funeral stuff – especially if there is no one who needs to be comforted by the Gospel?

I'm still working on how I would answer my own questions, but let me start out with these words: We bother with the funeral because, though God will do his thing, "nothing is so necessary as to call upon God incessantly and to drum into his ears our prayer." (1)  Indeed, we are commanded to pray, whether or not we see a "pastoral need" to pray with the living.  As Luther wrote in his Large Catechism, "[God will not] allow our prayers to be futile or lost, for if he did not intend to answer you, he would not have ordered you to pray and backed it up with such a strict commandment." (2)  I also think of Abraham, bargaining with God for the life of the righteous in Sodom (Genesis 18).  Our prayers, our appeals, our words to God matter.  God listens, and God promises to respond.

As I pray this day for a deceased child of God and lay her body in the ground, I do so in obedience to God's command, to ask God to fulfill the promises he made to her in baptism, and to give thanks to God for the promise of resurrection life in the new heaven and new earth of God's coming kingdom.

—–

Some of these questions get to the matter of what happens in the act of worship.  Is worship just for
our comfort, as
I've suggested in the past
?  Is prayer a
means to an end
– in this case the end of pastoral comfort – or is prayer an
end in and of itself?  Does our worship and prayer actually affect
God in some way?  Yes, I believe it does, for the Bible is filled with stories of God being
moved by the prayers and appeals of his people.  But this conversation is re-opening my eyes to the ways that we often use prayer and liturgy merely as a means for personal comfort and not as an end to which we are commanded and to which God promises to respond.  Indeed, our Lord's command to pray is filled with promise.

OK, more to think through on this matter …

—–

1) From the Introduction to the Lord's Prayer, in Martin Luther's Small Catechism – pg. 440.2, Book of Concord, trans. Kolb/Wengert, Augsburg Fortress, 2000).

2) Ibid, pg 443.18