The Never-Ending Story
The evening was warm. Seated at the small desk by the windows I opened my Bible and started to read from Jeremiah, "Seek the welfare of the city to which I send you." The passage was also inscribed over the entrance to the cloisters of Richmond Hill, the old convent turned retreat center in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Va., overlooking downtown. I was on retreat and seeking a little inspiration.
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Seek the welfare of the city, said Jeremiah. Pray for the city, say the people of Richmond Hill. Love the city. Work for the good of the city. This is the city of God. Every city is the Holy City.
The verse from Jeremiah actually continues on. It's a bit more involved than the brief passage inscribed over the entryway:
"But seek the welfare of the city
to which I have sent you into Exile,
and pray to the Lord on its behalf,
for in its welfare you will find your welfare." (Jer. 29:7)
Oh no ... I'm gonna have to work this out.
I was on retreat again. It had been years since I had been able to enjoy the place and it's rhythms. The bell rang calling everyone to prayers three times every day. The community gathered. Varying ages. Varying denominations. People of all stripes. The Church. They gathered in the midst of all their labors to pray, to be together, to be with God in this particular way.
In my brief time there I was reminded that the Church prays and the Church works. It's really quite simple. Prayer and Work aren't two sides of a coin. They aren't two aspects of the community. They aren't competing Virtues. They are simply the two things that we who are the Church are called to do. We are called to pray. We are called to work. This is how we seek the welfare of the city to which God sends us. Our welfare is bound together. We rise and fall together.
Such a spiritual realization can draw us to one another. It can engender compassion and a desire for justice for all of people ...
... even when we aren't sure that we belong at all like Exiles, strangers in a strange land. We are bound to one another, strangers and exiles alike.
I sat there at my desk on that warm June evening in Richmond, Va., and opened my heart to the possibilities of what truths this verse might hold for me ... for us. Together we're exploring what it means to worship. We're focusing on prayer, specifically the prayers we offer when we come together. And when we come together why do we pray what we pray? This question is not all that different from what the disciples asked Jesus that day so long ago.
Jesus had been praying as he was wont to do. He worked and he prayed for his friends and for his city, Jerusalem, and it's surrounding towns and villages. Jesus prayed for the people of God. Jesus prayed, talking with God, listening for God's voice.
To seek the welfare of the places where God sends us is no small task. Jesus would give his whole life to this task. Such a vocation demands all of who we are.
The disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray as John the Baptist taught his disciples. This is a really interesting request, don't you think? The scriptures are not clear whether Jesus prayed in that way himself or not (though we assume he did), but that's how Jesus' disciples wanted to learn how to pray. So, Jesus told them what John the Baptist taught his disciples.
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
They were taught to pray for God's kingdom to come into their lives, for enough bread (or the necessary bread, as some translations read ... in short, what is necessary for today), for forgiveness, for the strength to forgive others, and for an escape from all that might tempt us to live otherwise.
Sometimes I wonder if the author of Luke omitted the part of the story where the disciples say, "Well, that sounds difficult. So, how do you pray, Jesus?"
Following this famous passage that even the earliest Christians adopted as their prayer (The Lord's Prayer), there's this elaboration upon John's prayer. Jesus said, "Ask. Seek. Find. Knock. You cannot imagine the goodness of God."
Has there ever been a time in the history of humankind where we did not need such a word as this from Jesus? The prayer of John the Baptist encourages us to ask for God's reign to begin now. And Jesus, again and again in his ministry, claimed that the time of God had already begun.
There is no need to wait. There are no more excuses. There is no need to hide ... to hole up in the corner somewhere and wait to be good enough, rich enough, or smart enough. The call is the same to one and all and God is reaching out to us to help us fulfill the call “to seek the welfare of the city.”
God is here. The time of God's Kingdom is now. This is the God Time.
Don't shy away. Never shy away from God. Desire God. Knock on God's door. Pound on the door. Ask — put everything out there before God. Desire. Long.
This is what it can be like to pray for the Kingdom of God.
Long for God. Long for God.
Hear again the words of the 14th century German theologian, Meister Eckhardt:
We need to pray in such a way that a longing should be aroused in our bodies, in our strength, and in all our senses, eyes, ears, mouths, and heart, that they should all be directed toward the same end; neither must we give up before we feel that we are about to be united with that which is always present, and to which we have been praying, namely, God.
So often we can relegate our faith and our prayers to the realm of ideology or an interior space that will never see the dirt of the streets or the light of day for that matter. We protect that part of ourselves from the world. The trouble with that when we do seek to do God's work we may find ourselves cut off from our Source in the process. So, our desires to do the will of God may become distorted somehow. Perhaps we find ourselves hurting one another for the sake of God. We see examples of this all the time.
But what does this have to do with our praying in worship? I hope it's clear that it has everything with how and why we pray in worship. From the Invocation and Call to Worship to the prayers we share at Communion all the way to the Benediction where we receive Christ's blessing for the work we are called to do for this world, every prayer reminds us of Jesus' insistence that this is the Kingdom of God. It's here. Now. We seek the welfare of all of cities, towns, villages, and neighborhoods God sends us.
The earliest records we have of Christian worship include some version of the Lord's Prayer. Those believers knew themselves to be in the end times, in the eschaton...that strange and evocative “God Time.” We too are in those times. The prayers of our our worship services remind us. All our prayers in worship are, in the end, for God's Kingdom to be present here and now and that we who pray such words might be instruments of God's Kingdom.
The evening was warm in Richmond. The bell rang calling me to prayer...and we gathered, young, old, every color and hue, bringing with us the world and our work, and we prayed.
"Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done."
This desire is the essence of God's Time,
the fruition of all things.
"On earth as it is in heaven" is our prayer and our promise.
Give us this day what is necessary.
Help us to give and receive forgiveness
and may we know that when we come to the time of trial
that You are Whom we seek
it is Your door upon which we knock.
And in the End, it is You Whom we find.
All of us. Stranger. Exile. Friend.
Tripp Hudgins is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif. You can read more of his writings on his longtime blog, "Conjectural Navel Gazing; Jesus in Lint Form" at AngloBaptist.org. Follow Tripp on Twitter @AngloBaptist.
Photo: Hands clasped in prayer. Lincoln Rogers / Shutterstock.com