Sunday, March 21, 2010

Creating Liturgy

In a previous post I championed the cause of moving beyond only adopting the liturgical texts of the Book of Common Worship (1993), wonderful and useful that they are, to adapting them occasionally to one’s own worship situation and setting.

Now I’m encouraging another step or two beyond that. It’s not enough just to re-work an existing text and just up-date its images or language. Creating liturgy from scratch is the goal.

In the late 1960s, I was given a chance to work on the Worshipbook. My assignment was to re-cast the prayers of the day into “contemporary language.” One of the things that meant was to change every “thee” and “thou” into “you.” It also involved relating the prayers to lectionary themes for the year, and really required in most cases a completely new prayer.

I took a week to go to Princeton Seminary and concentrate on the project, and to catch up on reading related to worship. A number of people there, when told what I was up to, took considerable umbrage at my youthful precociousness and chastised me for abandoning the King’s English for pedestrian vernacular. Even a couple of professors decried my project as mere “tinkering.” I knew the difference between “tinkering” and “re-casting,” however, and persisted in spite of sometimes strenuous objections. There was more to it than just changing “thee” to “you.”

Perhaps that’s the first lesson in learning from the liturgical models in the Book of Common Worship (1993) or any other prayer/worship book. No “tinkering.” Instead, “re-cast.” That is, you’ll have to re-write the prayer fully. Look at content and structure, and then write your own version in your own words.

Another thing to remember when writing prayers that will be spoken by the congregation is that the language has to fit relatively comfortably in their mouths. You won’t use complicated syntax or esoteric vocabulary. Straightforward expression is best.

Whatever else you do in writing your prayers for Sunday services, don’t try to be clever or cute. When preparing prayers for a meeting of the Daily Prayer task group, I was proudly pleased with one prayer in particular. It was wonderfully clever, no kidding. I couldn’t wait to read it to the group. Which I did. And when I heard it coming out of my mouth, I realized how awfully clever it was—and how really awful it was. The turn of phrase was so cute that it drew attention to itself, and the prayer itself faded into nothingness. I tore it up right then.

Write in your own voice. Be the same person in writing a prayer as you are representing the Lord in the rest of your life. When you write, write as you speak. The advantage in writing a prayer is that you can go over it again and actually write it better than you speak. Anyway, let your written prayers be as natural and straightforward as possible. Elegance and eloquence can obfuscate (big words are hard to understand).

Notice that the prayers printed in the Book of Common Worship are formatted so that there is one phrase (or so) to a line. Writing a prayer a phrase at a time helps you write in a more conversational manner, and helps avoid lengthy prose sentences that run on and on. When you see the prayer printed this way, you can almost see how it will sound. It’s a good format to follow.

When you’ve written your prayers for Sunday, stand up and speak them out loud. Praying is a physical activity as well as spiritual, mental and emotional, so experience the prayers physically. Listen as you speak and you’ll find rhythms in your words, perhaps even music in the intonations. You’ll also hear the glitches, the parts that you want to do over.

One more thing, pray the prayers yourself. You will not just lead prayers on Sunday, you will pray them. They may be prayers of the people, but first of all they are your prayers. Your praying makes your leadership of worship authentic.

What have you learned about writing prayers? Any hints to pass along? Where do you find strong and helpful models of prayers for congregations?

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