Sunday, February 3, 2013

Writing Prayers

Even if you’re a compulsive ad-lib sort of worship planner/leader, the time will come when you have to write down and print out the words of a unison prayer.

Now, you can get away with copying prayers from the Book of Common Worship (BCW) or other similar resource for a while, but you’ll discover that they have a shelf life and go stale after repeated use. Besides, prayers in the BCW are essentially models to be emulated, and not intended to be eternal substitutes for prayers created on site.

So often I run across unison prayers in a church bulletin that contain sentence fragments, strange syntax, subjects and verbs out of sync, and other distractions. Even when everything is “correct”, the prayer itself could benefit from more clarity.

Prayers in a worship service should be suitable to the people in the pews as well as the leaders. A unison prayer is made up of sentences designed to fit comfortably in the mouths of the people saying it. After all, it’s their prayer—the leader is just their coach.

Even the prayers spoken only by the leader on behalf of the people need to be stated appropriately for everyone. Petitions articulated solo by the presider should be written down as well, put together just as carefully as any unison prayer.

In either case, unison by all or solo statement by the presider, the prayers represent conversation between the people and the Almighty, and should, therefore, be shaped accordingly.

This is not to say that prayers should be expressed in jargon, slang or common clichés. Good grammar and crystal clear vocabulary used in a fashion worthy of the God addressed is obviously desired.

Writing prayers for worship is an art as much as it is a craft. One continues to learn how by doing—practice may not make perfect, but it sure helps. Here are a few suggestions:

Psalms It’s always a good idea to consult experts, and biblical sources of prayer are the places to begin. Maybe that’s why the Psalms have been so much a part of Christian (not to mention Jewish) worship through the centuries. The Psalter provides an education in prayer, not as a text book, but as a prayer book. Learn to pray the Psalms and you’ll write better prayers.

Poetry not Prose Remember that praying is more akin to poetry than it is to prose. Prose prayers often come out sounding like the phone book. Poetic prayers, drawing on biblical metaphors and symbols, carry more freight than humdrum prose. But poetic prayers are not so easy to come by. Read on.

Phrase-lining Many, if not all, the prayers in the BCW are laid out in a format called “phrase-lining”, that is, one phrase to each line. You can do the same, and find that even if you print it in prose format, it will read better. For example, this morning where I was visiting, the following prayer of confession, said in unison, started out this way:

Sometimes, God, we do not know what to confess. We seek to keep your law, but the right course is not always clear. We want to follow your direction, but it is hard to discern what is true….

Now, reversing the process, look at it in phrase-lined format, to see why it works so well.

Sometimes, God,
we do not know what to confess.
We seek to keep your law,
but the right course is not always clear.
We want to follow your direction,
but it is hard to discern what is true

If it were up to me, I’d leave it in the bulletin that way, because even visually it looks more poetic and the substance more clearly stated.

Rhythm You’ll notice that in most good prayers there is a rhythm. No, not rap—just the natural rhythm of conversation. One of the ways you can check the rhythm of a prayer you’ve written is to read it out loud in your study (or other private place) while you walk around the room. If it’s out of rhythm, you’ll be the first to know.

Listen The best way, of course, to check the quality and appropriateness of your written prayer is to listen to it. You could use a recording device and play it back to yourself. Even better, however, is to ask your spouse or good friend to read it to you. Listen several times, and revise as you go.

Giving time and energy to writing prayers for worship is well worth it. It’s easy, among the multitude of tasks the church throws at worship planners and presiders, to neglect something as obvious as prayers. But the Audience of our prayers wants to hear from us, and so we should do our very best.

Do you review and re-write unison prayers before printing? Do you write out your pastoral and other prayers? Do you prepare any prayers for worship, memorize them and recite them in the service?

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