Halfway through my third year of ministry, I tried to run away to the convent. Now, I forget the specific reason. Perhaps it was that my Annual Conference had yet to to decide if it would ordain openly gay candidates. It might have been the approaching first anniversary of my grandmother’s death.
Whatever the motivation, one rainy February night, I found myself driving five hours to the rugged Northern California coast, the last of which was on a winding road in the pitch black. When I arrived at Our Lady of the Redwoods Monastery for a discernment weekend, the vocational director was standing on the front porch with a flashlight. She said she would be our host for much of the weekend, and she invited me to join the sisters, and the guests, for 5am mediation, followed by Lauds. Just a few hours later, I was sitting with the sisters cross-legged on a mediation cushion. And through the sanctuary skylights, I watched the stars set in a way I have never seen before, or since.
The days that followed were holy and wholly devoted to prayer. We only spoke with each other on a few occasions. I learned about the other women who were there for the weekend. I shared a bit about my ministry. All of those words have long since left me. What I remember was the silence and the setting starts. And how, at the end of the weekend, I expressed my grief to the sister, Why is it that I cannot meditate and pray like this at home? Is this a sign that I am on the wrong path?
She never answered my ridiculously earnest questions. She simply reminded me that prayer takes many forms, and that they would be praying for me and for my ministry.
She said, You need us here, and we need you in the world.
He words were such an elegant expression of the Christian understanding of the relationship between faith and works; rooted in the Benedictine understanding that prayer is both contemplation and action. According to St. Benedict, Christians ought to pray always, in all that they do. And Christians can pray wherever they are.
This particular Benedictine teaching is present in many other Christian traditions, including United Methodism. That’s because it is faithful to the practice of the earliest Christian church. The first followers of the Risen Christ met in homes, praying with their families. They were fortified in their faith by sporadic correspondence from church leadership. Sometimes, the letters traveled by sea from half a world away.
They prayed in their homes, and they prayed in their field. They prayed by holding all of their wealth in common. They prayed by distributing their alms to the poor. When they were imprisoned, they prayed for their captors. They prayed silently in their beds. They prayed with their arms open, looking at the sky. They prayed in the midst of joy. They prayed at the hour of death. But they never prayed in a Christian church building.
In other news, yesterday, I found myself in agreement with our president. He said,
In America, we need more prayer, not less.
Unequivocally, we do. We need all sorts of prayers. We need over-the-phone prayers to those in hospital beds. We need the kind of prayers that exhausted parents mutter under their breath. We need the prayers of sorrow that children grumble, for school missed and summer lost. We need the prayers that come in a phone call or an email to someone who feels isolated and alone. We need the kind of prayer that addicts say (O, God, take this cup, or this cigarette, or this whatever). We need the prayers of those who are in chronic pain (Jesus, Jesus, have mercy).
We need prayers from many people, and prayers of many faiths. We need the action prayers that allocate more resources for those who are unemployed or uninsured. We need the accountability prayers that say it is unacceptable for anyone to economically benefit from this pandemic, and that work for justice. We need all of these prayer.
And none of these prayers need to be said in a large gathering, and none of them need to be said in church building.
My agreement with the president was brief. Because he followed his call for prayer by saying that churches are “places” that hold our society together. They’re not. Churches are people; people who are trying to follow Jesus the best that they can in their daily lives.
United Methodists follow Jesus with these three simple rules: Do no harm, do good, attend to the ordinances of God. The order of the rules is important – you cannot do good without first doing no harm.
Just like with prayer, United Methodists (and Christians) do not hold the monopoly on upright living. On a Zoom call this past week with county officials and other clergy, a rabbi reminded us of the Jewish concept of pikkuah nefesh, or the preservation of life. It is commandment that takes precedence over all others, because to follow other commandments at the expense of one’s own life, or that of another, is a “piety of madness”.
No doubt, many of us long to be with our congregations again. I miss my church folks. I miss breaking bread with them, and gathering with them in a circle. I miss hearing children fussing through my sermons. I miss the way they all buzz with excitement when they are together again for the first time in a while.
So many beautiful things happen in church buildings, and so it is reasonable to miss being in them. It is reasonable to be restless to return to what we know and love. And it is more than reasonable, it is good, to pray that we might gather again safely soon.
But it is madness to risk one’s health, and moreover, the health of others, simply to enter a particular building now. It is arrogance. There are scientific reasons why attending a worship service is so dangerous, and to ignore these reasons is to contribute to the theatrical politicalization of a real pandemic. It is not piety at all – because a pious Christian would seek first to do no harm. A pious Christian would pray without ceasing, would pray for their enemies, and would pray wherever they are.
I do not claim to be pious, because I am not. I, too, am guilty of arrogance, and God knows, I have get caught up in political polarization myself from time-to-time. I am simply trying to follow Jesus. I am still learning how to “do no harm” and still aspiring to “do good”. And I am always learning new ways to pray.
This past week, Dr. Antohy Fauci taught me such a prayer. (Seriously, what doesn’t this guy do?) In a surprise commencement address, he told graduates from John Hopkins and Holy Cross:
Now is the time, if ever there was one, for us to care selflessly about one another.
If that is not a prayer, I do not know what is.
And I hope that you will pray this prayer: At home, in your yard, outside at a safe distance from other people, or on a Zoom call with members of your congregation, whom you miss terrible.
I know that I will be praying this prayer, too, and hoping that we all learn to care more selflessly for one another, not less.