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.

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