I often hear people complain about how boring church is or that the prayers are long and boring, or even that the pastor says the same prayers each week. I’d like to offer some insight and possibly change your perception of prayer and church.
Things can be boring for people for several reasons. Take a baseball game. If you know nothing about baseball, of course it may be boring especially if you were dragged to a game. Every game is the same, some could say. If you do know how the game is played you can appreciate it. If your city owns a team you may have patriotism for the team because of this geography. If you have a friend, child, sibling on the team or if you enjoy playing yourself, you will find tremendous interest in the game. You will be interested because you are somehow connected to it and understand it.
Just being present at the game can be boring so, most of us, when we go to a game we engage in active participation. We are not playing the actual game but we are cheering, booing, standing or stomping. Some of us may hold our breath while someone is up to bat or if the ball looks like it is going to go out of the stadium. We talk about what is going on with the people around us. We make note of the score, the innings, the balls, fowls, who is up to bat, how many people are on the bases and which ones. This is all important information. Simply paying attention to what is going on makes the game interesting for us because our minds and maybe our bodies are actively participating.
“Church is boring because the pastor says the same prayers each week.” Well, is a baseball game boring because the team uses the same players each game, they run the same bases, the same balls, often in the same stadium, the same innings? Yet, why is every game new and fresh for many people each week? Each game, borne of the same matrix, is different. Even though everything is the same, somehow everything is different.
How come we can listen to a favorite song over and over again? Why don’t we get bored with it? The answer is because we actively participate with it. We may listen to the lyrics, tap our foot, sing along, or simply get lost in the flow. As a musician, I can listen to the same song every day but each day hear something different. Why? Because each day I am a different person. I may be more alert or more tired. I may be in a good mood or a bad mood. I often find myself breathing with the performers. A lyric may resonate more deeply with me because something new happened in my life. I never thought my football playing-car mechanic friend, William, would sing nursery rhymes but now he sits with his four your old singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” complete with hand movements. Why this new full and active participation with nursery rhymes when four years ago his satellite radio was always tuned to Ozzy’s Boneyard? Something changed him. He became aware of something.
So how can you fully and actively participate in the boring prayers the pastor or priest says each Sunday when all you do is stand there? I’m going to break apart the most boring of prayers: The Eucharistic Prayer. It is long and boring and exists in most churches in most denominations in some form or another. You’ll probably be surprised that most of these segments have their own names and movements. Watch your clergy and what they do with their hands and gestures as they plow through this prayer.
The first part of this prayer is the Kaddosh. It is the opportunity for you to enter into the holy. The cleric says “Lift up your hearts” and our response is “We lift them up unto the Lord.” But do we? This little segment of prayer goes by very fast and there isn’t much time to “enter into the Holy.” When you enter a baseball stadium there are a few thousand people there and it is noisy. You can probably feel the excitement of the crowd and within yourself almost immediately. When Isaiah entered into heaven in his dream, there were thousands of angels there singing. What is holy and sacred to you that gives you a special feeling? Was it being present at the birth of your child? Scaling the summit of some great mountain and taking in the view? Could it be holding the hand of a loved one as they pass away? Is it like watching the sunset with someone you adore? Whatever it is, you need to know it and practice it so when your cleric invites you to lift your heart into a holy place, you can do it. To further augment this action of your mind, heart and soul, consider lifting your hands a little as you say “We lift them unto the Lord.”
The next part of the Eucharistic Prayer is the Eucharistia or, the giving thanks. Here the clergy will recite some of the wonderful things God has done. If someone does something nice for us, it is common to actively participate with them by saying “thank you.” So as the pastor reads a list of wonderful things God has done, think to yourself “thank you.” So, it may sound something like this: Father in heaven, it is right that we give you thanks and glory. You made the universe (thank you), you put an end to death (thank you), you created all things (thank you), you do not abandon us (thank you), you invite us to serve the family of mankind (thank you), your spirit changes our hearts (thank you), nations seek peace (thank you), you put and end to strife (thank you), you’ve created the moon and stars (thank you), you created all living creatures (thank you). A lot of times the clergy will read or recite these things which we should be thankful for way too fast for us to think about them or even think “thank you” to ourselves. For this I am sorry for, even clergy can be bored, not know what they are doing or even want to get out of there.
This section ends with the reference of Isaiah dreaming about being in heaven and he hears the choir of angels singing. What are they singing? “Holy, Holy, Holy” or the Sanctus. Here, we can fully and actively participate by singing that same song which has been sung for thousands of years. Know this, singing oxygenates our blood which goes to our brains and muscles. If you sing, you can’t help but be a different person as your body too, becomes transformed and energized by fresh oxygenated red blood. A transubstantiation of sorts.
The next part is called the Epiclesis or, evoking the Spirit to transform and sanctify all things especially the gifts. What is the greatest gift you can offer God? No it is not your money in the collection plate but, your self. Here a priest will say something like “We come to you Father with praise and thanksgiving through Jesus your Son. Through him we ask you to accept and bless these gifts we offer you in sacrifice.” The priest will then do a sign of the cross over “the gifts.” I was in a Protestant church once where the pastor did the sign to the congregation. That was powerful for me. It meant that all the gifts I offer in sacrifice such as volunteering at the hospital, the homeless shelter or answering the suicide hotline – are blessed and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. When Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit descended upon him “like a dove.” This is your opportunity to also be sanctified by the gifts you offer God. What did you offer God? Was it money? I bet it was money. Some churches love money.
The next part for you to participate in is the Institutional Narrative or Anamnesis. This is the story telling time. It is the time to remember and participate in what Jesus did by re-telling his story. Have you ever gone camping and sat around the fire and listened to people tell stories? That is what this is like except our fire consists of a few candles. I bet each one of us can remember huge childhood meals with our family such as Thanksgiving where the turkey is carved, bread is broken (and smeared with butter), dishes are passed, wine is poured . . . This is the Institutional Narrative and it tells of the day before Jesus suffers, he takes bread, looks to heaven, gives thanks and breaks it and passes it. He then says to “Do this in memory of me.” Do we? Or, are these just words whizzing by at breakneck speed? We then actively participate by saying or singing an acclamation of memorial, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” I hope you’re ready.
The next part which goes by quickly is the Offering or Anaphora. It is the invitation or offering our gifts and self with, in and through Christ. We ask God to look with favor upon these offerings and accept them.
The next long section goes way too fast. It is the intercession to include all our friends, relatives, living or dead in this action of salvation even if they are not present. We ask God (and ourselves) to remember the church, a list of clergy, maybe a dash of politicians, in the Roman Catholic church a specific person whose family paid the priest to mention them, all our brothers and sisters who have gone to their eternal rest, maybe a list of people in our congregation who are ill, Mary, the apostles and all the saints. I say that this section, despite its length, goes too fast because when it comes time to remember my deceased relatives, there are far too many to think about in the one second the cleric as allotted me.
Even more rapid is the Doxology where we praise God in union with everyone just mentioned and give God glory through his Son, Jesus Christ. If you are quick, you can sneak in a thought of praise to God for everyone and everything just mentioned.
The next part is the Renewal of the Covenant. This is the moment of truth. A covenant is a binding agreement. It is your contract with God. A verbal handshake. If you break a contract in everyday life you could be sued, forced to pay restitution, fired or even sent to prison. Break this contract with God – He’ll give you another chance next week – He is not as vengeful and punitive we humans are. Your acceptance of everything God promises you is your saying “Amen.” In return, your “Amen” is a promise to God to live, be and spread the Good News. That means you won’t leave church and judge others, ostracize, abandon, ignore, cheat or lie. You will use the gift or yourself to feed, clothe, visit, heal and comfort. Don’t say “Amen” if you don’t intend to hold up your end of the bargain. That would mean your word is worthless. Even though God will forgive you, your word is still worthless and you will know it. That is why this is called “The Great Amen.” If you beleive in the salvific power of this prayer and the resurrection, this is a life and death proposition. Will you break this contract when you leave the church parking lot and someone cuts in front of you? How do you feel when you break your word? Buddha called that karma.
Prayer is not something to stand there and listen to, it is something you do even if it is only in your own mind. To sum up your full and active participation in the act of worshiping God during the Eucharistic Prayer, it involves: entering that place which is holy, giving thanks to God several times for what he has done, invoking the Spirit of God upon us (or the gifts), listening to the stories and giving them meaning, offering in Thanksgiving, interceding for those who are not here and remembering each of them, giving thanks, and finally, renewing the covenant and affirming it with an amen. And of course, keeping your word the rest of the week.
Hopefully if you want to fully and actively participate in the prayers that your clergy is reciting, he will be going slow enough so that you can take the time to respond and remember and affirm in your own mind what he is saying. If he is going too fast or you don’t really care to participate, may the force be with you, na-new na-new.
If you do fully and actively participate, you’ll leave church a different person, a better person a more compassionate person. A person trying to be better. A Eucharistic person. A person of transubstantiation. A person of metanoia.