I didn’t grow up with much formal prayer training. We just did it a lot, and I picked up the feel for it. Although we had our pick of standard lines – guide, guard and direct us; bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies – there were no overtly prescribed forms or words.
In studying worship, getting to know some other prayer traditions, I find formulas I once thought dry and rote to be rich and dynamic. A line I pretty much assumed priests only said in movies has recently become a deep prayer of mine. It closes a podcast I occasionally pray with, as well, which is where I heard it today:
Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning,
and ever shall be:
world without end. Amen.
It’s a phrase that may have emerged among fourth century Christians. Although “world without end” could earn some theological nit-picking (“to ages of ages,” goes another version), it ultimately speaks to the constancy and faithfulness of God forever.
“Forever” is a really big idea to end a prayer. As I heard these words this morning, I reflected on what I presented to God before this was said. Was I fearful? Was I anxious? Was I hopeful? Uncertain? Selfish?
Suddenly, all of those improvised words echo back to me in a space so big, yet only as eternal as my imagination goes. And all of it filled with God, and all of it full of glory.
And, here I am, in the palm of his hand, with the whole rest of the world. Not “from a distance,” but intimately woven into something that only God has the perspective to see and understand. Earlier versions of this prayer said “to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit,” demonstrating the movement of God’s love that we are invited to enter. Not three lofty titles looming down at me, not three theological entities unattainable and daunting, but my life’s destination, path, and transport all with and for me; even now, even in the past and future beyond my control.
What words should fill a prayer that ends with gracious “forever?”
Friday wraps up “Dead Week” for Seaver undergrads, and our graduate programs begin their staggered season of graduations tomorrow. The bleachers on Alumni Field signal the transition of our current students to alumni status, and all the coming great words that will mark that move, from one age to another. Right now, though, the mid-assembly stands are a good reminder of what’s left to do before the end, and the work on the other side of it.
Many of these students are by now repeating their rote formulas to answer what comes next, and some of them believe themselves. Some can’t wait to begin, some are still in denial about the end. It is the thickest time of the year for hope and anxiety. It’s time to get packing, which means we often have all our baggage out. Yes, both kinds.
When I am uncertain, in a period of anticipation or change, I can fall into desperate inventory mode. If I’m really caught off guard, it might look more like hoarding than stocking. What do I have that I can take with me? What can I rely on if everything and everyone is different in the next place? Are you there, God? Are you here?
Anne Lamott says her two favorite prayers are “Help me, help me, help me!” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Sometimes that’s all I’ve got to go with, and the Spirit just has to intercede beyond that. I even participate in a bit of Spirit’s groaning on my behalf.
When I pour out my heart in prayer, sometimes in a panic, sometimes in resignation, sometimes expectantly, I often need something good to end with, so as not leave with the burdens I brought. The Psalms are brilliant for this. Usually I need more than one. I don’t know how to wrap up and move on without a good script.
Lately, I find that bringing all those words and feelings to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, who was, and is, and is to come, grants some radical reorientation. Here I am, loved so deeply, seen so clearly, attended so faithfully; so small and so precious. Yes, actually, that’s exactly true. If I can trust those words, I may even see that it’s exactly right.
The end is near. But when is in God’s hands. What’s next is in God’s hands. Those good, good, forever loving hands.
The Bible closes, not with a stabilizing dénouement, but with a dazzling, promise-perfect Revelation. And then an “amen,” a “let it be” to carry with us into our own pages of God’s story.