The Art of Public Prayer
The Art of Public Prayer
And an art it is. One that requires time, effort, and imagination. I know this idea flies in the face of the accepted wisdom in "low" Protestant churches, those communions which find liturgy, litany, and read sermons straitjackets on the Holy Spirit. Prayer according to this "low" perspective should be spontaneous, thereby giving immediate evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus describes (in a very famous text) as blowing where it will.
Well, yes, prayers should be offered from the heart. Prayers should be almost stream of consciousness, a moment by moment awareness of transcendence. Don't we have it on apostolic authority that we should pray without ceasing? Didn't Jesus commend to his hearers the example of the importuning widow who wouldn't let the judge sleep until he addressed her plea, that our prayers should be as insistent as hers? When reaching out to heaven in need, sometimes desperate need, one will not be concerned about felicity of expression. Just do it.
But these urgent prayers are personal. They are between the self and God. They express the heart's desire. They are like a child's needy demands on a parent. They can be said aloud or kept in the secret place of the soul. Above all else they are profoundly personal.
Public prayer is something else. It is communal. If its ideas and impulse arise in the solitary heart, then that solitary heart shall take as its duty a full evocation of the experience of the community. The leader, in other words, is an intermediary... or, if that thought is too catholic for evangelical ears, as a catalyst. To borrow a phrase from John the Baptist, the public prayerer will say, with the community in mind, "They must increase and I must decrease."
Having subjected myself to other people's prayers during Sunday worship forty times in the past nine months, I can report that those leading worship have gotten it right maybe one-third of the time. Many still labor under the misconception that the Holy Spirit only graces extemporaneous prayers. My experience with the Holy Spirit screams "Au contraire!" The third person of the Trinity invades my consciousness most often when I think I am at wit's end, when I have mulled and culled and searched my thesaurus and come up empty. But before I can say, "I give up," a thought or a phrase insinuates itself into my consciousness. Not just any thought or phrase but one that pleases my critical faculty. In such moments I can be seen shaking my head and looking heavenward with a smile of recognition, along with a whispered "thank you."
Public prayers, like sermons, should be given plenty of forethought, then worked and, if need be, reworked. After all, its going to be the vehicle by which other souls are to be transported to the throne of grace.
In the working and reworking certain literary tendencies (to which preachers especially are addicted) are to be avoided:
(1) Chumminess with the deity: strike that impoverished and familiar address, "Dear God." Oh, I'll relent a tad: it can be uttered once, but only once, in a prayer said with children. Otherwise avoid getting cozy with the Lord. There are other ways to convey the closeness and the tenderness of eternity without making God seem like a beneficent grandfather, touching not only your heart but your hands and shoulders and brow and... whatever.
(2) Cliches, that is, tired and overly familiar phrases: the recognition granted by their use is purchased at the price of numbing the listener's brain against the right phrase in the right moment.
(3) Stylistic flourishes: originality is fine, in fact, encouraged, but not to the point that those with whom the prayer is being said stop in mid sentence and think to themselves, "My what a singularly beautiful phrase!" The words should flow like a swift current catching up those riding on the ark of faith and delivering them into God's presence with their needs and their hopes, along always with their expectation that God will have something to say to them.
(4) Adjectives: verbs, yes, adjectives and adverbs no... or as little as possible. Congregants respond to the directness of verbs. So does God. Consider The Lord's Prayer: "come... give... forgive... lead... deliver." But this advice for prayers is also good advice for any kind of writing.
(5) Specificity of time, place, and persons: few things jar me out of prayer like the naming of names, unless it is an intercessory prayer. The issues and personalities of the moment can be alluded to. Those being led in prayer will catch your veiled reference.
(6) Preaching: that's what the sermon is for, preaching, not the prayer. One can always spot a prayer that is a sermon when the phrase is uttered, "Let us remember that..." Declarative sentences are also suspect. Imperative sentences beginning with verbs are the best.
(7) Lengthiness, especially when it is the consequence of wordiness: one of the first questions I am going to ask the Lord when and if I get to the Kingdom is: "Why do so many religious people violate your clear command to make our prayers short?" The frequent consequence of ignoring this rule is drowsiness. One would think that seeing others nod off would be incentive enough to says "Amen" sooner.
(8) A rigid adherence to any of the above rules.
Luther long ago postulated the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. That doesn't mean that each person is his own priest. It means that each of us is a priest to his neighbor. And there is no more priestly office, whether ordained or lay, than leading a prayer for others. Considering the eternal dimension of this endeavor, it behooves us to do it not just well but with the greatest care.