Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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“He’s got the whole world in His hands,” the old song goes. But when it comes to congregational prayer, it seems that our priorities for God’s attention shrink to a close circle of family, friends, and co-workers in a rather contained geography. It isn’t that I don’t think Aunt Joan’s cancer should not be of powerful concern to a congregation or to God, or that the death of a beloved teacher at the school little Billy attends is not weighing on the heart of the Holy One. Surely prayer must embrace the intimate relationships of life. “God’s eye is on the sparrow,” not simply the universe.
But how I long to be in congregations where concern for Uncle George’s bypass operation is accompanied by deep anguish for the refugee from violence in Syria, where prayers for a good beginning to our Sunday School year are joined by prayers for the struggling Christian communities of Palestine or Pakistan, where prayers for the grieving friends of brother-in-law James are followed by prayers for the grieving friends of children killed by a drone in Afghanistan or for parents who worry every time their children leave the house in a violent neighborhood across town. It’s not so much that God needs our prompt or that God’s love is limited to our named concerns. No, the concern is that often the horizon of a congregation’s prayer concerns also tends to reveal the limits of its spiritual and mission horizons as well. And just as the concerns we name often reflect the boundaries of our mission, so, too can the expansiveness of those petitions school us in the broader horizon of God’s care.
Churches that use established liturgies from published and authorized prayer books or missals may find their horizons stretched by the prayers written and assigned by persons not limited by our own familial circles. A regular calendar that includes partner churches in another part of the world, the bishop or a named congregation in the diocese, a regular rotation that names different nations each Sunday disciplines congregational prayer beyond parochial boundaries. Free church traditions have the liberty to perhaps be even far more expansive in the naming of the joys and sorrows of the wider world, but they are also free to shrink those boundaries to what happens to be most pressing on the minds of worshippers which is, quite understandably, often the next door neighbor, the family member, the friend.
Many denominations observe World Communion Sunday this week. First celebrated in 1936 by Presbyterians, the observance became an ecumenical one when it was embraced by the Federal Council of Churches in 1940. Breads from various cultural traditions, the use of varied languages and hymns, sermon themes and, of course, the shared celebration of the sacrament all become ways for congregations to be reminded that they are part of a global Christian community and, therefore, engaged in the struggles, hopes, and burdens of people beyond their own cherished but limited circle. It does not take great liturgical innovation to ensure that the limitless threads of global community are woven through the fabric of Sunday worship and daily prayer. It could be as simple as the presider regularly inviting the worshippers to include in their spoken petitions the joys and sorrows of those they see or hear about in the news. Before long, prayer’s horizons begin to forge deep communion and spiritual solidarity.
Lutheran scholar and pastor Gordon Lathrop reminds us that “every Christian is invited to pray. The Christian community has classically understood itself as a priesthood standing together before God, interceding for the needs of the world.” Standing together. The needs of the world. Prayer may quite naturally, perhaps even of necessity begin with the comforting assurance that the very hairs on our head are numbered. But it cannot be complete until we can say a resounding “Amen” to the testimony that “God has the whole world in God’s hands!”
John H. Thomas