This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Church as prayer

Grace and Truth: A word from pastors

Villegas Isaac(1)When we get together for church, we pray. The worship leader invokes the Holy Spirit with an opening litany, another person offers a congregational prayer on our behalf, the preacher prays before the sermon, various people speak joys and concerns during an open time of sharing and, finally, the worship leader returns for a prayer of benediction before we depart. We pray for the world, for the needs in our community, in our neighborhoods, in our homes. We ask for the peace of Christ and the comfort of the Holy Spirit. We pray against oppression and violence, against sickness and depression, against the insidious powers of sin and death in all their manifestations. There’s so much to pray against—and for. “We pray for those who have lost hope and for those who have gained hope this week,” I remember a church member, Rebecca Buchanan, saying one week as she led our congregation in prayer. Church is a corporeal prayer. The Spirit of God breathes through us as we pray, enlivening us, drawing us into the life of God as we become the body of Christ, “flesh of Christ’s flesh and bone of his bone,” as Menno Simons wrote. In prayer, we yield ourselves to the Spirit, who weaves our lives into the identity of Jesus Christ, the one whose life is an embodied prayer, a ministry that calls upon God to redeem and restore, to inaugurate an era of healing and salvation, of peace. Jesus lives out a prayer for heaven to fill the earth, a prayer against the demonic forces of hell that ravage creation. His preaching and healing, his walking and speaking—all that he says and does—comes together as a single prayer for God’s will to be done. “Thy will be done,” we hear Jesus say in the garden of Gethsemane as his hope for heavenly life on earth is threatened with crucifixion. This is the moment of Jesus’ life I am drawn into during worship. Church, for me, is the body of Jesus in prayer, there in Gethsemane, staring with horror into the overwhelming violence yet refusing to escape from the suffering of the world. In the garden, Jesus invites his friends, he invites us, into his posture of vigilance: “I am deeply grieved, even to death,” Jesus says. “Remain here, and keep awake.” Prayer is a summons to remain awake to the pain of others, to the pain from which I would shield myself if I could live as I wanted, caught up in routines of work and rest and pleasure. Worship draws me into the passion of Christ as the people at church pray us into the agony of the world, into the pain and sorrow of friends and strangers, into solidarity with the oppressed, into the presence of Jesus—the one whose afflictions, as the apostle Paul wrote, are completed in the suffering of human flesh. Recently, during worship, someone shared how, when he opened the newspaper that morning, he saw a picture of children in Gaza, surrounded by gray smoke, surrounded by destruction, terrorized by adult war. “My heart breaks for them,” he said as he cried, “Lord, have mercy.” With this prayer, among others, we let Christ’s life flow through us, a life of protest against the forces of death. We let Christ’s agony become our agony, God’s pain our pain. To be afflicted with God’s compassion arouses in us the power of hope. Not cheap hope. Not escapist hope. But hope engendered by the anguish of the world as it awakens us to God’s pain; as the theologian Dorothee Soelle writes, to experience God’s pain in the suffering world is to touch “the power of life within pain, which is the biological protest of life against sickness and death.” In our prayers of protest, of pain, we feel the life of God flow through our church body, life that sustains our hope—that God will hear our prayers and answer by restoring life, reviving creation, redeeming our world. This column is adapted from an article for the spring 2013 issue of Vision: A Journal for Church and Theology,

Isaac S. Villegas

Isaac S. Villegas of Durham, N.C., is president of the North Carolina Council of Churches and an ordained Mennonite minister. Read More

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