Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Form and Freedom

It’s the old, old debate all over again. You’d have thought we’d resolved this long ago. But it seems to be relentlessly persistent.

The issue is this: When we worship, should our prayers be ad lib or written in advance? Just to make it a little more complicated, what about prayer books full of petitions composed generations before? Then, is it “either/or”, or is there perhaps some turf where both can meet?

Let’s start with the obvious: God wants our prayers and welcomes them any way they come. When you and I address the Deity with our heartfelt desires and deepest needs, certainly there is no necessity to be eloquent or elegant in our compositions. In fact, if we spend a lot of energy trying to make prayers “good enough” we are wasting energy. Fancy language is not what impresses the Almighty, and it is silly for us to try.

What God wants of us, so we’ve been told, is candor in our prayers. Straightforward asking and praising are the order of the day, every day.

All of that applies certainly in our personal prayer. But it’s another situation when we are the People of God at worship on the Lord’s Day. Together we are a single body, not a collection of individuals each worshipping coincidentally in the same place at the same time. As an assembly called together by God, our worship takes on a different tone.

Communal worship calls for prayers that are “ours” not just “mine”. We are in this together and share common prayers. There are two ways this is handled in corporate worship.

One is to have someone, usually the pastor or someone who really knows the community well, to speak prayers in language that the people in the pews can relate to, can accept as their own words. Sometimes the pastor or worship leader will launch into such a prayer ad lib, without any preparation whatsoever. There are those who consider this a virtue. It allows the Spirit to come in, they say, and inform the prayer by inspiring the speaker. Maybe so. On the other hand, often these are less prayerful words than thoughtless ramblings. My personal observation is that, as often as not, such ad lib prayers are irritatingly repetitive.

The other way to handle this is for the person who will speak the prayer for the community to write it out before. He or she should give it some thought, but more than that, pray about the prayer itself. Preparation for prayer by the leader does not deny the participation of the Spirit, but actually makes it more likely that the Spirit will be able to aid in the prayer’s composition.

Then there are unison prayers, written out for all to read aloud together. Again, just because it is written and said in unison does not deny the presence of the Spirit. Such prayers can be written with sensitivity to the people in the assembly, and be very helpful to all.

The issue becomes more sharply define when prayers in a book are used, prayers written generations, even centuries ago, are put in the mouths of worshippers. Objectors complain that they are too far removed from the present reality, and become to most folks mere empty prattle. Whoever wrote them way back whenever, they say, didn’t know us here and now.

Of course that’s true, to a point. What’s also true, however, is that prayers preserved in worship resources today, especially those of the quality of The Book of Common Worship (1993), have survived by being meaningful. People use them, old as they are, because they are still prayable.

What is more, preserved prayers from previous eras of the church serve as models for us in our own prayers. The one written in the church bulletin that worshippers read together this morning can be valuable to me at home this week—so I tuck the bulletin in my pocket for future reference.

And the historic prayers in our resources can teach us the language of prayer, so that we learn to dobetter than thoughtless rambling. We can find outlines of prayers, see different styles of prayers, and learn a variety of ways to express our thanksgivings and intercessions and petitions.

The curious thing is that printed prayers can give us even more freedom to pray with enthusiasm. Guided by the wisdom and faith of those gone before us, and taught by their prayers, we’ll be better able to pray ad lib when the situation calls for it.

Does the pastor of your church write prayers out in advance, or make them up on the spot? Do you have printed prayers for all to say in unison? Do you use forms and prayers from a worship book or other resource?

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