O Lord, support us: Pandemic prayers

In the circles I travel, there is a prayer by John Henry Newman that has a certain cult following among us. Perhaps “cult following” is not the right language to be using about a prayer, but Newman’s prayer has a status in shaping our lives and in being uttered from our lips that gives a word to our season, and enables us to lift up our lives before God — at the end of the day, at the graveside, in times of trouble and in times of tranquility. I have prayed this prayer at every graveside service before adjourning, and I try to pray this prayer at the evening before turning out the light and slipping off to sleep. “O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and this busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in your mercy, grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Newman was one of the founders of the Oxford Movement a group of church reformers in the 19th century who sought to recapture pre-Reformation Christianity in a way that transcended the entrenched and hardened theological and spiritual habits of 19th-century Protestants and Roman Catholics. Eventually it would lead Newman to swim the Tiber himself and convert to Roman Catholicism, but the Oxford Movement led to a retrieval and renewal of practices that continue to shape Protestants today: appreciation for liturgy and the liturgical calendar and seasons and of hymns like “Good King Wenceslas,” which sought to rehabilitate Christmastide and Christmas practices, and “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” which translated an ancient 5th-century prayer into a plainsong hymn.

I am not sure whether “O Lord, Support Us,” is a product of the Oxford Movement. It can be found in the Book of Common Prayer as well as our Presbyterian Book of Common Worship and in Roman Catholic liturgical resources, so perhaps it has served Newman’s original purpose most fully by transcending the narrowness of our ecclesial divides. At any rate, I do not believe it is a prayer that shall soon fall out of favor. It is a prayer for the evening of the day, a prayer for sleep, a prayer at the end of a life gathered around the sick bed and it is prayer to say together as we commit a body to the ground and commend a life to God. But Newman’s prayer needs a companion; a prayer to offer to God at the beginning of the day, before the day unfolds, and the fever of life takes over. So, with humility, I have been praying this companion prayer to Newman’s prayer at the beginning of the day. “O Lord, support us all the day long, as the sun comes up, and the promise of a new day begins, and the busy world returns to life, and our work beckons. By your grace, grant us strength to serve your purpose this day, vision to see dignity in every human life, and perseverance to run the race that is set before us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

In March of 2020 when all our preconceived notions about church were having to be reconfigured and reimagined, and everything we thought was stable was coming undone, grasping for straws, I was reminded of the Old Breton prayer, once given to sea captains and given to President Kennedy by a navy admiral. Kennedy favored the prayer and had it made into a plaque that sat on his desk in the Oval Office. “O Lord, the sea is so wide and my boat is so small.” And so, we took this prayer and made it into our own. We have prayed this prayer as we have asked for guidance in our session meetings. We have prayed it as we have had to make decisions we never thought we would have to make. This prayer has helped give shape to this season of our life together, and has given us comfort in knowing that the Lord who calms the winds and the waves of our swirling world is also the One who can find peace and purpose in the chaos, even while sleeping in the stern of the boat. O Lord, the sea is so wide, and our boat is so small. In the challenges and opportunities that confront us, help us to walk into them with joy, confidence, and courage, knowing that you are already walking toward us on the other side; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Predicting the future is an absurd and futile game to play. Who knows what is around the corner? I am certainly glad all of my predictions are not on the record. And perhaps what matters now is not predicting or preparing for the next crisis, but living faithfully in the midst of this one, asking our Lord to support us all the day long, at the beginning of the day, at the end of the day and throughout the challenges of the day, even as we confess and know all too well that the sea is so wide and our boat is so small.

And in the midst of our tightly held anxieties of the moment, as well as our ironclad predictions about what is to come, our Lord keeps walking toward us before we ever got to where we thought we were going, redirecting us and reshaping us, through prayers without ceasing, turning us “until we come round right.” Amen.