Sunday, September 11, 2011

Turn on the Light

The Prayer for Illumination is used in many churches these days, but it is too easily slid by in a rush to get to the main event. So it would do us well to step off to one side for a few minutes and consider what we are doing in this particular act.

First of all, where does the Prayer for Illumination go in the order of service, and what does it do?

I’ve heard preachers (although I am pleased to report not so many lately) who start the sermon with a biblical quote or paraphrase of Psalm 19:14. In the NRSV it reads: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” It’s probably a worthwhile prayer for any preacher to make, but just before speaking from the pulpit is a little too late. Better the preacher should pray that prayer every time he or she cracks a commentary or puts pen to paper. The proclamation of the word doesn’t begin when the preacher climbs into the pulpit—it starts with study. And “illumination” is needed from the start.

The other problem with placing the prayer here is that it is left in the singular—it’s a prayer only for the illumination of one person in the room. It’s just a guess, but probably everyone could use the prayer. So, it’s best used as a corporate prayer.

This requires some alteration, a slight paraphrase, so that it includes all worshippers. I’ve heard some keep it as a prayer articulated by the preacher before the sermon, with a few word changes: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O LORD, our rock and our redeemer.” Still, it’s in the wrong place.

In many churches, the liturgist or lay reader is responsible for the Prayer Illumination immediately before the reading of the Scriptures. This is the proper location for the prayer, and it should definitely be inclusive of everyone in the room. It is the people’s prayer. That leaves one to wonder why everyone should not say it together.

There are other verses from Scripture, like Psalm 24:4,5, that can be adapted for this purpose, but there is a plethora of such prayers available in resources such as the Book of Common Worship (1993) that have been accumulated for our use.

The Prayer for Illumination is best selected by a worship leader (perhaps the Lay Reader or Liturgist) in advance, so it can be printed out and prayed in unison by all. If the prayer’s intent is to be a corporate one, then the whole worshipping body should be actively involved.

What would be even better is to make this prayer into service music. Sometimes a single verse from a hymn can be co-opted for this. I pawed through my hymnal for quite a while, however, without coming up with one that really worked.

Coupled with a familiar hymn tune, a simple text can allow the prayer to sing. For example, to the tune Munich (“O Word of God Incarnate”):
O Word of God incarnate,
in Scripture now revealed,
Illumine all our spirits,
until to you we yield.
Then teach us your compassion,
and show us paths to peace,
so we will live out your love
and blessings will increase.
This is my own modest effort, and a challenge to better poets to give it a try.

You don’t need to be told why this prayer is so important, but let’s rehearse the reasons anyway.

For one thing, it’s not a matter of intellectually understanding the Bible—it’s a matter of listening with our hearts and letting the Word confront us and get deep inside us. For something as serious as that, we need help, Divine help. The prayer is our acknowledgement of our own limitations and our need for the Spirit to grab us, get our attention, and make it possible for us to listen and really hear.

The prayer also slows down the proceedings of worship and keeps us from lunging forward. It’s a “stop-look-and-listen” kind of prayer, telling us to watch where we’re going next, and prepared for the Scripture-Sermon duet.

The Prayer for Illumination, when said by all, is a reminder that the Bible belongs to the whole church, not just the clergy. The Spirit does not just whisper in the preacher’s ear—the Spirit shouts in the souls of people in the pews as well.

Do you have a Prayer for Illumination in your church service? Where does it come from? Is it spoken by one person or everyone?


  1. We have a prayer for illumination, said by a lay leader before scripture is read. I agree it is appropriately placed. I agree, too, that the preacher needs to be praying through the sermon process, the research, brainstorming, and writing are all (hopefully) inspired. We need to be asking what God is saying to the congregation through this particular sermon and because preaching is embodied, through this particular preacher.

    I think one reason many of us (myself included) used to begin with the words from Psalm 19 has to do with the significance of the moment. I don't say, "May the words of my mouth..." anymore, but sometimes I miss it. I feel the significance of that moment, standing before God and the congregation, even one I love, as a time of expectation. Will those who need comfort receive it? Will the words spoken challenge complacency but in a kind way? I could go on, but I think you get the idea. I think there is a moment when the preacher realizes he or she has done what preparation can be done and now is the moment to hope that God will reach the congregation and us. That's a daunting responsibility. Perhaps there is no one time when there should be a prayer for illumination- we always need it.

  2. Dear Don,

    This day of your posting I was telling our congregation that the Prayer for Illumination is the Reformed tradition's contribution to worship.

    Carolyn wrote a hymn, inspired by the Confession of 1967's section on the Bible, that can be used as a sung prayer for illumination:

    Your Word is Like a Lamp, O Lord
    CANONBURY LM “Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak”

    Your word is like a lamp, O Lord,
    And like a light to guide our way;
    For in this ever-changing world,
    It bears your promise every day.

    You showed your love to Israel,
    And to the world you sent your Son.
    A witness without parallel,
    The scriptures tell what you have done.

    You speak your word in history,
    To cultures bound by time and place.
    Yet in the Bible we can see
    The boundless reaching of your grace.

    God, open wide each heart and mind
    By your own Spirit, now we pray,
    That in your scriptures we may find
    New strength to serve you every day.

    Tune: Robert Schumann, 1839
    Text: Copyright © 1999 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.
    Copied from Gifts of Love: New Hymns for Today’s Worship by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette (Geneva Press, 2000) A complete list of Carolyn’s 190+ hymns can be found at

    Blessings on you, your family and your ministry.

    Grace and Peace,
    Bruce Gillette

  3. Thanks to Carolyn for a beautiful contribution, and a useful one. This is an example of a fresh way of approaching the Prayer for Illumination as sung by the whole congregation.
    And Bruce, thanks for mentioning the Reformed background of the Prayer for Illumination. It's been hanging around for nigh onto 500 years because it is essential to worship.


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