Are we there yet? Praying our way through Advent

November 19th, 2021

Many of us will remember road trips when we were young, especially when they were long. Impatiently we would ask, “Are we there, yet?” Those providing transportation would roll their eyes. “No. Not yet. Be patient and stop asking!” But we didn’t stop because we were excited to reach our destination. We could not get there soon enough. 

These days we hear congregation members say, “Can you believe it? Thanksgiving has already come and gone. Christmas is just around the corner. It’s time to decorate the sanctuary. Yay! Get out the greenery and the candles.” Dutifully we pastors and leaders remind them we are not there, yet. Before we reach Christmas, we must first travel through Advent. Be patient.

A challenge such as this calls for prayer. Prayers for patience. Prayers for tempering our enthusiasm. Prayers for remembering not everybody enjoys this season. Prayers to slow down and think.

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So, if you are a pastor or one who leads others in prayer, how might you help your people pray through Advent? I suggest you begin with your own prayer. “Lord, help me help my people pray. Give me words that lift to you what they are thinking and feeling, their highs and lows. Use me as their coach, their ambassador, their priest. And may our combined prayers draw us closer to you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.” 

Familiarize yourself with the lectionary scriptures and themes for Advent—preparation, repentance, making the crooked straight, anticipating joyfully the birth of a baby. Review the lyrics of our traditional hymns, like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light.” Listen for key words and phrases that might give voice to our people’s experience. 

What are you hearing from your people? Where are they celebrating? What is their sadness? How are they struggling with their faith? Stay tuned to local and national news. What’s going on in the world that everybody is talking about? Where are we sensing God’s presence, and where are we pleading with God to show up? This is all prayer material. 

Advent is a time for giving praise for what God has done, is doing, and promises to do. In composing a public prayer, I suggest we start here, with God the divine initiator. We focus first on the One who was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, as we sing in the Gloria Patri. The One who breathes into us the breath of life, who sustains and guides us through our years and receives us when we die. The One who comes again each year at Christmas that we may never lose hope. When leading our people in prayer let’s help them focus first on God with words of praise.

Thanksgiving naturally follows. We thank God for being God, for coming into our world to be One with us—Emmanuel. We thank God for God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. God who understands us when we do not understand ourselves. God who is patient with us when we have none. God who receives us back when we wander away, rejoicing in our return, embracing us in arms of grace. 

God steadfastly believes in us when we are unable to believe in ourselves. God casts out fear and sets the prisoner free. God rights the wrong and reconciles us, so we become reconcilers. God mends broken hearts and heals wounded souls. God showers us with peace, hope, light and joy. Praise and thanksgiving become the infrastructure of our prayers, especially during Advent.

This, too, is a season for confessing sin, individual and corporate. Imagine what breaks God’s heart. Living and dying with Covid. Political divisiveness. Economic injustice. Fear of the stranger. Quickness to judge and slowness to listen. Gun violence. Sexual exploitation. Infidelity and divorce. Climate change and mediocre environmental stewardship. Housing and food insecurity. Racial intolerance and misunderstanding. Depression and suicide. Social media out of control. War. Conflict within the church. There are so many reasons we need Christ to be born into our world as Savior. Lots to lift in prayers of confession and petition. 

Praise, thanksgiving, confession and petition. Remember also to build in pauses for silent prayer, that the people may add their own. I suggest these be included every time we prayerfully lead people through Advent and patiently work our way to Christmas. We’re getting closer, but no, we’re not there, yet. 

And what about those who do not enjoy this season and hope it will be over soon? How do we rediscover our enthusiasm while acknowledging the reality of painful memories? Two years ago, my 25-year-old niece, a social worker serving in a local women’s shelter, was shot to death. Our family will never be the same. Holiday gatherings are overshadowed by endless grief. Two days after her murder I led our congregation in a pastoral prayer, one of the hardest I have ever composed. 

I began with praise. “O God, we are here to worship You. We worship You in good times, knowing nothing can separate us from Your love.” I followed with a list of multiple blessings. I then continued: “O God, we are here to worship You. We worship You in bad times, knowing nothing can separate us from Your love.” I followed with a list of the strongest angry adjectives I could find, ending with “we know in our hearts it cannot ultimately separate us from Your love.” 

I believed it essential that I honestly name evil alongside goodness. Sorrow alongside joy. Agony alongside hope. I gave thanks for God’s incarnational, suffering, resilient love, no matter what happens.

I concluded, “Receive our prayers today—You know what we mean; You know what we need; You know how we love You. And so, we worship You, in good times and in bad, in the name of Jesus.” 

This is how we pray our people through Advent and Christmas and beyond. In all things we believe God is working for good. So, we pray to God honestly, but not always patiently. We won’t stop asking because we are confident we will reach our destination. No matter how long it takes.

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