Amen. Or is it Amen? There is an interesting paradox about us here at OPC. On the one hand, we are not the most demonstrative bunch when it comes to worship. We sit in our pews, most of us in the same pew, week after week. We sing, but not too loud. We bow our heads when we pray. We would never, ever lift our hands up in praise.
And then, we pass the peace. For five minutes, this place is a beehive of activity! People walk up and down the aisle, shaking hands and giving hugs. The children get in place for their time up front, because they know what’s coming next, and still, the grown-ups keep milling about. As one of you once said to me, “OPC is most itself when we pass the peace.” And I think that’s true. We love on each other, genuinely show that we care for each other. It’s not a perfunctory turn around, shake the hands of your neighbors, and sit back down. It is almost as though we actually believe that peace is being passed, one to another.
And yet, once we are finished, we settle back in to “worship” mode…that is, until John sits behind the drum kit, when we do our best to clap along, but always still enough in control that we worry about whether or not we do it right.
One of the things about us at OPC that I love is that while we take our ministry seriously, we don’t confuse that with taking ourselves too seriously. That’s an important distinction: serving God and following Jesus is about many things; one of them is joy. Amen?
Now, don’t misunderstand me: this isn’t to say that we do worship “wrong”, or that others do it “more correctly” than we do. After all, worship isn’t about us: it’s about the one whom we worship. For some, it is energy that brings us closer to holiness; and for others, it is quiet; contemplation. For some of you, I know, the passing of the peace is the high point of the service; for others of you, it’s an interruption in an otherwise reflective time. For many of us, it depends: it depends on what we bring with us today, what we are leaving outside the door; the questions, the concerns, the hopes, the anxieties. Some days we need to know that it’s OK to laugh in church; and other times, we need to know that it’s OK to cry.
With all of that in mind, the truth is that there is an aspect to worship that is more about habit than any kind of theological grounding. And the truth is that, at times, it’s hard to figure out which is which.
That whole contradiction has been a kind of subtext of our conversations this summer about the Lord’s Prayer. Many of us, if we are honest, have come to take it for granted. We say it week in and week out, and after a while, we are not as aware of the words as we would like to think. And so, as we have worshiped together this summer, we have broken the prayer down in a hundred different ways. We have seen it through the eyes of artists. We have heard it spoken and sung in different languages. We, ourselves, have sung it responsively. We have analyzed it phrase by phrase, even, at times, word by word. And the hope behind it all is that we have all come to find new or renewed meaning in the prayer itself.
Then again, maybe not; maybe you don’t agree with me that habit has infected the Lord’s Prayer. And you might be right. But I’ve got a hunch here that I’d like you to explore with me. There are three groups of us at OPC: those who grew up Presbyterian, those who grew up in another Christian tradition, and those who grew up with little or no tradition at all. In each case, I’m convinced that we know something of the habit-forming mode of the Lord’s Prayer.
For those who were grew up with little or no tradition, what was it like the first time you came to OPC? When we got to the Lord’s Prayer, and it felt like everyone but you was reciting it for memory, what was that like? Did you wonder how it got to be that way? Certainly not osmosis; habit, perhaps?
And for those who grew up in another tradition, what was it like that first visit here when we got about halfway through the prayer and, as you were ready to talk about “trespasses” everyone else is talking about “debtors”…where did that come from? Could it be…habit?
And for my Presbyterians: what was it like the first time you went to another church, a non-Presbyterian flavored variety, when they took forever to get through forgiving those who trespass against them while you just forgave the debtors? Or maybe you’ve been to a church where they actually stop in the middle of the prayer, after being delivered from evil? What kind of weird habit is that?
What I am not saying is that habits, by themselves, are wrong. They are, simply put, habits. And that’s the thing about the Lord’s Prayer – or any prayer, for that matter: it’s habit-forming. If we pray regularly enough, then it becomes second nature; and if we neglect it as a regular practice, it becomes an alien, uncomfortable concept.
I remember taking a typing class in 9th grade. On a typewriter. It was the most absurd thing I could imagine: hour after hour, page after page, of aqaz swsx dedc frfv fgtgb; all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. And yet, you put me down in front of a keyboard, and my fingers go into formation – asdf, jkl; – habit. Without that, then I’m sitting down to what amounts to a random configuration of letters, hunting for it, one letter at a time.
Friends, what is your prayer habit? Is praying for you as natural as banging out sixty words a minute, or do you feel like you’re hunting your way in the dark each and every time? And what in the world does any of this have to do with the word “Amen”? Is it, like so many other things, a word we say at the end of the prayer because, well, we’ve gotten in the habit? Or is there some meaning to it that we’ve forgotten, some reality that has lain hidden from us?
Since this is my last chance to play dictionary geek this summer, I’m going to take advantage of it. “Amen”, or “Amen”, whether we get it from the Hebrew or Arabic, comes from the word for “faith”. In essence, what we are saying when we say “Amen” is that we really and truly believe that what we are praying for is absolutely going to come true. I don’t mean that we know it, like the way we know, when there’s 10 seconds left and a 22-point lead, that Georgia’s going to win the game. I mean that we know it in the way that Martin Luther King could say with all conviction “the arc of the moral universe is long…but it bends toward justice.” It’s an aspirational faith, a world that we not only wish to be, but one that we are willing to work for.
It’s the conviction of that one verse we read from Revelation today that says, “Yes, Lord Jesus! Come soon!” – not in a wild-eyed, apocalyptic kind of way, but one that sees the world as it is, knows it can be better, and also knows that if the things we lift up in the Lord’s Prayer are really going to come perfectly true, it can only be so if Jesus is in the mix.
We want God’s kingdom to come. We want God’s will to be done on earth. We want everyone to have enough sustenance each day. We want to be forgiven. We want to forgive. We want to avoid temptation, to avert evil at each and every turn. And we want all of this to be done for the sake of God’s glory, not ours; for God’s kingdom, not ours; and for God’s power, not ours.
Is that something we can say that we want to dedicate ourselves to? Or even that we can say that we want to want to dedicate ourselves to it?
If you can, if there’s any hint of Amen in any of this, then would you say it with me?