Sunday, January 27, 2013

Pastoral Prayers

When I was growing up, it was expected that kids would attend regular worship with their parents. One of the more memorable parts of the service for me as a teenager was, believe it or not, the Pastoral Prayer.

The reason I found the Pastoral Prayer noteworthy was on the average it lasted about 30 minutes. My junior high mentality found such theological appeals tedious and tiresome—I got some relief by timing them so I could report to my dad whether or not a record was set. Dad confessed that he often tuned out as well because the list of petitions seemed rambling, disorganized and never-ending.

Shifting the scene, I remember a different story about pastoral prayers told by a friend named Don. He was living and working in New York and became a regular worshipper at the Riverside Church when Harry Emerson Fosdick was Pastor.

The most memorable part of the service for Don was not necessarily Fosdick’s preaching, but more especially the Pastoral Prayers. Don would close his eyes to focus on the prayers he was hearing, and every time would have the sense that he and Harry were the only two people in the room. Fosdick’s prayers somehow had an intense intimacy, touching Don in meaningful and relevant ways.*

The contrast between these two experiences is instructive. Quite apart from the immature teenager’s view versus the grown-up adult’s approach, Fosdick’s prayers suggest a process of preparation worthy of consideration.

First of all, preparation of pastoral prayers begins before the pastor is even thinking of crafting a prayer. The seeds of such petitions are found in counseling situations, in hospital rooms, in social settings, in chance encounters at the grocery store, and many other times and places as pastor and people engage in the common events of life.

A good pastor is alert and cultivates the skill of listening so that it is second nature. Listening, however, is not simply to words, but to the depth of meaning behind them. Pastors learn to hear the anxieties and fears, the hopes and dreams, the joys and frustrations that are kept in the hearts and souls of the people.

At the same time, pastors become increasingly aware of the same unarticulated prayers rumbling about in their own souls. There is a kinship between pastor and people, not only in mutual humanness, but in receiving and rejoicing in the grace of God.

The time comes then that the Pastoral Prayer must be written down. The temptation may be to rattle off any old list of common petitions a là the pastor of my youth. A better approach is to focus on the people who will occupy the pews, recalling them personally.

I always had a church directory within reach at my desk, and before I started on the Pastoral Prayer, I’d flip through to remember the real people, with real needs and longings, who would be praying along with me on Sunday.

But the Pastoral Prayer is not just about church folks. There is a world of people beyond the walls where we worship who deserve our prayers, people who are worthy of our commitments because they, like us, are God’s children. Someone once suggested that sermons should be written with the Bible in one hand and the morning newspaper in the other—that is a formula that would hold for the Pastoral Prayer as well.

Finally, the actual writing of the Pastoral Prayer requires special attention. It’s not ordinary scribbling or pounding at the keyboard. Writing the Pastoral Prayer, like most other liturgical creations, is an act of prayer itself. The Spirit guides us in prayer, and the pastor should be alert and receptive to the Spirit’s promptings in the crafting of the Pastoral Prayer, spending some of the time in reflection and meditation.

The Pastoral Prayer is not incidental to worship. In many ways it is one of the most critical and essential liturgical acts. For here the people as individuals find their prayers articulated, and at the same time discover their commonality in needs and hopes, and their unity in faith that God’s grace comes generously to all.

How is the Pastoral Prayer presented in your church? Spoken by the pastor only? Prepared or ad lib? A series of brief prayers with responses? Something else?

*See A Book of Public Prayers by Harry Emerson Fosdick, Harper and Brothers, 1959. The prayers are couched in the language of a past generation, but they are nevertheless very instructive today.

Friday, January 25, 2013

What Worship Will Be

Monday-morning-quarterbacking is a common activity among pundits and prophets in the religious realm.  Anyone can look back and have the eyes of an eagle to spot the problems and issues that have got us into the present situation.  

This is particularly true when thinking about worship.  Reviewing the past and critiquing it is a usual approach to the current state of Christian liturgy, but to project one’s thoughts into the future is an altogether different and more difficult exercise.  

So, for your consideration here’s some positive speculation about what our worship might be in the next generation or so, if we were to focus our attention and put real effort into reform and renewal of liturgy. The underlying premise here is not new: If liturgy is renewed and reformed, the church will be also.

Therefore, what I offer are hopes, dreams, perhaps even some wishful thinking – dare I suggest, “a vision”? – about what worship might be, could be for our grandchildren and their children.  There’s no definite schedule—but we can glimpse it coming, over the horizon.

The church in the future will define itself by its worship life. For example: The Sacrament of Baptism will be the motivator for its education of Christians young and old. The Confession of Sin and reception of God’s  forgiveness, will give each one personal release and the capacity to forgive others. The Word in Scripture will be the guide for the church’s witness to the Good News of God’s love for all people.  The Lord’s Supper will be the feast to which all are invited to receive God’s nourishment for the journey of life.  The Prayers of the People will rise up as individual and corporate commitments to perform caring acts, and dedication to carry out a healing mission to a hurting world.

Future Christians will be drawn to common worship each week—every week, in fact.  They will be inwardly committed to attending, barring only sickness or urgent necessity.  Should they miss a week for whatever reason, they’ll experience an emptiness, a loss of something important in their lives.

What is more, they’ll see their hour or so at worship as an active experience, requiring effort and energy and personal engagement.  They’ll sing with emphasis and pray fervently.  They’ll rejoice not only with volume and voice, but at the depths of the heart and soul. They will listen intently and take within their thoughts the Word proclaimed and interpreted. They’ll rehearse and relive their own baptisms along with every new disciple bathed in the holy sacrament.  They’ll take and share food and drink with one another, and with the physically and spiritually hungry of the world. Their celebration will be in common with the praise and prayers of those around them, as well as with Christians in every land. 

Christians of the future will not confine their worship activity to one day a week, but will accept or define self-discipline to lead them toward “praying without ceasing.”  Such personal prayer will include prayers with others as well as solitary times.  This daily prayer activity by individuals and small groups will compliment, support and continue the Lord’s Day worship of the whole church. 

This coming generation of Christians will carry their worship experiences, Sunday or weekday, into their lives.  They will leave the church building, or rise from personal prayer, energized and enthusiastic* to carry out the particular mission with which God has entrusted them.  They’ll do so courageously and foolishly, risking all for the one who gave everything for them.

If this is the vision, then the task is to aim our liturgy in that direction.  It’s not so much to wag the finger of criticism of the past practices, as it is to see what needs to change to get better results.  (Although, it’s helpful to keep history of past failure and foolishness in sight so as not to repeat it.) 

For your church, what would “perfect” worship look like? What do you personally hope for in congregational worship life?  How do you project your personal prayer life into the future?

*The word enthusiasm has its origins in Greek (en-theos, or having God within).

Sunday, January 20, 2013


The First Sunday of Christmas I was the guest preacher (and worship leader) at a lovely church in a rural community not far from my home. The pastor who had invited me to fill in for him, so he could go to a family wedding out of town, gave me a head’s-up about a change from the Book of Common Worship order that he had made.

This was the change: The Passing the Peace was set at the very beginning of the worship service, preceded only by a few announcements and the Prelude.

And this is what it looked like: People gathered a few at a time, greeting one another, getting various things ready for the service. As the appointed time approached, one gentleman took himself to the balcony at the rear of the room. And when the minute hand on the clock hit twelve, he pulled on the chord and rang the bell to summon the faithful. The chit-chat ended, and people took their places. A few quick announcements were given. And then…

The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
And also with you.

Whereupon everyone rose, greeted those around them with the words, “Peace be with you,” or other similar words.

It was a small congregation of about fifteen or so. Almost all had arrived early and had a chance to exchange friendly “hellos”. When they came to “pass the Peace”, they stuck to the script, as best I could tell, and only blessed one another with the Peace of Christ. In a very few minutes, everyone was able to give the liturgical greeting to everyone else.

What happened was that in starting the service with the Passing of the Peace, a transition was made from one realm to another. Before that ritual took place, the group was a bunch of friends and a few strangers who came to church. During the Passing of the Peace they became the Church of Jesus Christ.

Granted that the small size of the congregation made the transition, from a gathering of friends to God’s people assembled for Christian worship, rather simple and smooth. Nevertheless, it was clear that the nature and purpose of the group had shifted from mundane to special, from ordinary to extraordinary.

This experience raises the question about how we deal with this transition from the worldly sphere to the time and place when we enter the promised presence of Almighty God.

In most Sunday morning situations, the place of worship is reserved for the event of worship. Merely entering the room helps worshippers to make or at least start the transition. The friendly gathering can take place in the narthex or vestibule beforehand.

Yet in some churches, the worship room is also used for other things such as a class or choir rehearsal. A shift needs to be made so that the room itself is transformed. And, for those who come early and see the room used for another purpose, the experience of transition is somewhat more difficult.

Presbytery meetings often provide another illustration. In our neck of the woods, presbytery meetings almost always take place in the worship space of a church. Screens on the wall show agendas and resolutions and charts. Pews are strewn with papers, and the pulpit becomes a podium. Microphones and speakers and other electronic materials are in evidence. The room has clearly become a meeting hall, and is only barely recognized as a place for worship.

So, when the time arrives for the body to stop being a council of the church debating and deliberating, and become the church of Jesus Christ at worship, a great transition needs to be made. In this case, first and foremost the space needs to be reclaimed for its intended purpose and use. That means collecting all the scattered papers, reinstating the liturgical furniture in the proper places, removing distractions from the room’s focal and symbolic centers, getting unnecessary electronics out of the way, and so forth. More than a reclaiming of the worship environment, however, there needs to be a transition from a group of people doing business to a particular expression of God’s people gathered as Christ’s Church.

Over and again such a transition takes place, sometimes clearly, other times without much definition. So it’s important that those responsible for worship planning, preparation and leadership pay attention to how the transition may be encouraged if not enabled.

What happens to help the transition from worldly activity to worship in your church? Do you see the transition take place in other settings?