As advertised, I am Pastor Casey Dunsworth. I’m ordained in the Christian tradition through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States. I serve at The Belfry, a little yellow house on A Street, home to our Lutheran Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis. I also direct a program called LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network, a year-long faith-based service corps for recent college graduates.
Being in ecumenical ministry—two different flavors of Christianity living in harmony together—is a delight and a challenge. We have similar postures and practices for many facets of our life of faith, and we also diverge in several places. One of my favorite things about the Episcopal tradition, which I’ve learned from being adjacent to it for four years now, is that they believe that the way you pray shows what you believe. They have an important prayer book—the aptly-named Book of Common Prayer—which, ostensibly, contains all of the prayers, scripture readings, and orders of service an Episcopalian might ever need. While this is not my tradition or posture, I appreciate their consistency and the way they honor the church that has come before them as they continue on the way.
As a Lutheran, I agree with the Episcopal idea that the way we pray shows what we believe about God. How we communicate with God and what we expect to receive from God say a lot about who we think God is. Martin Luther, the 16th-century “founding father” of our tradition, was a man of many, many, many words. It is a bit ironic, in fact, that Martin Luther is quoted as having said, “the fewer the words, the better the prayer.”
In the Christian tradition and the Jewish tradition before it, we have always been in conversation with God. Our holy scriptures are teeming with thanksgivings, laments, joys, sorrows, celebrations, grievances, discoveries, questions, and answers. The beauty of our scripture is the richness of this language. One of the blessings of the modern Christian life is that so much has already been written and prayed and proclaimed, that the inspiration we need is likely within those pages. And it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows! There is real, deep angst in the words of our sacred texts. The people of God for generations have cried out in joy and in grief.
Two of my Lutheran clergy colleagues, Tuhina Rasche and Jason Chesnut, have a project whose titles I’ll let you Google later, but whose subtitle is “To convey a visceral Gospel, we must sometimes use visceral language.” When we pray, we need not self-censor. There is perhaps nothing we can say that God cannot hear.
Whether we want to “Praise God with trumpet sound; praise God with lute and harp! Praise God with tambourine and dance, with strings and pipe, with clanging cymbals; Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:3-6 ish)
Or if we want to groan, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalm 13:1-2)
Or if we want to “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me praise God’s holy name.” (Psalm 103:1)
Martin Luther is also quoted as saying that those who sing pray twice. For me, personally, this is most certainly true. Singing praise or lament, singing by myself or in community, there is no experience holier. At the Belfry, before we sing and pray together on Wednesday nights, I remind everyone that God asks of us a joyful noise, not necessarily a beautiful one, and so everyone should feel welcome to sing out.
And why, then, do we pray? Søren Kierkegaard is a famous Danish Christian philosopher, and Lutherans claim him ever so carefully, as he was born into a Lutheran family, but later denounced the State Church of Denmark. Somewhere along the line, he wrote brilliantly on a number of topics and, most meaningfully to me, wrote these words: “the function of prayer is not to influence God, but to change the nature of the one who prays”.
When we pray, our petitions do not coax God into action. Our prayers engage us more deeply in the communities for which we pray; in the relationships for which we pray; in the world for which we pray.
...it is time, now, for prayer. I will invite you to participate as you feel moved. Each petition, or section of the prayers, will have a theme. I will say the phrase, “and, for this, the people pray,” at which time you can speak aloud for the room to hear, quietly to yourself, or silently in your heart.
Let us pray. Good and gracious God, we come before you this evening in gratitude for our lives, our communities, and our freedom. As we enter into this Thanksgiving Week, we remember all the people, places, and things for which we are grateful.
For this fragile earth, our island home. We pray for the enjoyment, care, preservation, and restoration of our environment. We pray for the creatures of the seas and skies, forests and fields. We seek your wisdom as we discern the courses of action necessary for the sustainability of life. We grieve for all those affected by wildfires and lingering smoke. And, for the earth, the people pray…
For our leaders; locally, nationally, and internationally. We give thanks for those in authority who wield their power for liberation, equity, and joy. We remember the courage of your prophets, who spoke truth to power. We seek your wisdom in our own leadership, that we may be accountable to one another and to you. And, for our leaders, the people pray…
For our communities; our siblings, parents, cousins, friends, and all whom we love. We pray for the safety, welcome, and celebration of all whom we encounter, that we might invite more and deeper cooperation. We grieve relationships that are painful, are ending, or are beyond repair. We give thanks for our communities of faith and shared values, that we embolden one another to live fully. And, for our communities, the people pray…
For peace; in our hearts, in our homes, in our schools, in our public squares. We pray for an end to violence, war, oppression, and degradation. We pray for those who are fleeing violence, that they may find safe harbor. And, for peace, the people pray…
We know, O God, that you are the healer of our every ill. We give thanks for healers in our communities, of our minds, bodies, and spirits. We grieve that which cannot, in this life, be healed. We pray for healthcare providers, researchers, faith healers, prayer teams, and all those who contribute to our wholeness. And, for healing, the people pray…
For our ancestors, elders, saints, and all the dearly departed. We give thanks for their lives, their witness, their teaching, and their blessed memory. We name aloud those we love who have died.
Into your hands, gracious God, we commend all for whom we pray, trusting in your mercy. By the many names you are known, we pray, Amen.