We were gathered in MacGregor Park in Derry, New Hampshire for the second of our “Summer Services in the Park.” It was damp and the weather uncertain – rain was forecast for later in the day The sound system was up and running and people had begun to arrive, most bringing their own lawn chairs.
The Service is a blend of traditional worship in an easy going outdoor setting – simple symbols of worship – familiar songs – scripture and ‘sermon.’ Pastor Catherine Sprigg, speaking about the story of ‘the bent-over woman’ in the Gospel of Luke, was inviting us to look at our own ‘spiritual dis-ease’ … to look at how we lived up to the potential God has for our lives. She observed: “We are so focused on our own little patch of ground that we donut see the vastness of the world and the possibilities of our life in it.”
As she was speaking, a jet, hidden by the low hanging clouds, circled low as it made its approach to the Manchester, NH airport. The loud whine of the engines was intrusive and distracting. At first I was annoyed and then I remembered leading worship in a church very near a firehouse. From time to time the pulsating fire horn would go off, followed by the sirens and horns of the fire and rescue trucks. We simply had to stop whatever we were doing and wait. One Sunday, it happened during my sermon, and inspired I am sure by the Spirit, I paused and said: “As we wait for the sound to pass, let us be in a spirit of prayer – for those whose emergency has caused the response, and for those who are responding.” That day something shifted – an intrusive noise became an occasion for prayer.
The sound of the jet’s engines began to fade, but, instead of being annoyed, I began to pray: pray for the pilots and crew who were working on Sunday; and for the travelers, some of whom may have come in response to a family emergency, some of whom may have come for a long needed vacation or on business. I began to look around at the park. The flag was at half-staff, and I recalled that a young New Hampshire soldier had died in Afghanistan. The POW-MIA flag and the cenotaphs reminded me of the fallen of other wars, and I was moved to pray for the fallen, and their families, and for peace. Soon, the traffic passing by, walkers and runners, the adjacent library, the homes and the apartments all became occasions for prayer. And I realized that when you worship outdoors in a public park, you can’t hide from the needs of the world.
Marty Haugen has written: “Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven, light years away, but here in this place the new light is shining, now is the Kingdom, now is the day. Gather us in and hold us forever, gather us in and make us your own; gather us in all peoples together, fire of love in our flesh and our bone.”
I love church buildings. The great cathedrals lift my spirit. The country chapels ground me in the earth. The neighborhood churches connect me to communities. When it comes to worship, words are important, but we can also learn a great deal about a people’s faith from the buildings they use. A worship space always communicates our faith, whether we intend it or not. And, as Haugen rightly observes, buildings can be dark and confining. Buildings can lock us in, or shut others out. Buildings can insulate us from the world where we are called to serve. But they donut have to. Instead of being focused on our own little patch of ground, we can choose to set our worship and prayer in the context of the vastness of the world and the possibilities of our life in it. Whether we like it our not, the world will set an agenda for our prayer.
Prayer was integral to Jesus’ life, but when he commended the righteous, he looked at what they had done for the hungry and the thirsty, for the stranger and the naked, for the sick and those in prison. Paul, speaking of the marks of a Christian [Romans 12:12-16], writes: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” And he connected it to extending hospitality to strangers, blessing those who persecute you, weeping with those who weep, living in harmony with one another, associating with the lowly.” Prayer has its personal dimensions, but it is always connected to the world, challenging us with possibilities, showing us that here in this place new light is shining, and gathering us together with all people as God’s own.
We are called to be people for whom prayer is integral to our life of faith, but the world will set an agenda for our prayer, and it should.