Sunday, October 8, 2017

To whom do we pray. . .

Having had the experience of being there while some evangelical and Southern Baptist folks pray, it has provoked more than a few questions from the Lutherans who were present.  The prayers were certainly enthusiastic but more commentary or description than prayer, directed more to the people present than necessarily to God, and more about giving thanks and appreciating things and people than asking the Lord to do anything specific.

Example #1

Lord, I just love being here today and coming to you in prayer.  And I just love (name).  I love her as a godly woman and I love her as a neighbor and I hope we all love her and she knows that we love her.  I am so happy to be here today and to raise up (name) to you and to give thanks for her.  I love living neighbors to her for so many years and I am so grateful for all the things she has done for me and my family over the years. I just pray that (name) knows how much we appreciate her and love her and want You to watch over her and care for her through us.  In the precious name of Jesus.  Amen.


Now it is true I did not have a recorder going but to the best of my memory this was the the prayer prayed.  The elderly woman in question was a member of my parish and his neighbor and evangelical pastor.  We happened to overlap visits at her house.  The occasion was the death of her son which hit her particularly hard since it came after the death of her husband and her daughter very close together.  My point?  This was barely a prayer.  It neither acknowledged the aching heart of grief in this woman nor did it even mention the circumstances that had brought us together.  It was spoken ostensibly to God but it seems to have been spoken more to the woman than to anyone else.  It did not ask for much (not necessarily a bad thing) but it was all about the person praying and the people listening.  It was heart-felt but it was not much of a prayer.

Example #2

Father God, we just thank you for this moment and for these people.  We just love them and love that you have given them a baby even though she will have daddy wrapped around his finger.  We hope that she will look as much like momma as she looks like her dad.  We just bless you for them and for this stage in their life together and for the family they have become.  We love them and we know they love You and they will raise this child to love you, too.  We are so happy to be here today with them and to celebrate this wonderful chapter in their lives.  We expect that they will raise her in the nurture of the Lord and to serve You as Your child.  Bless them and bless all of us, in the holy and precious name of Jesus.  Amen.


The occasion was the birth of a child to a family that had a small connection to their Baptist but non-Baptist named church. As I sat there listening (I find it hard to say he was praying but I know I wasn't) it occurred to me again that this was not a prayer in any formal sense and I was not sure to whom the prayer was directed (it certainly seemed more directed to the people in the room than to God).  It was sincere, as far as I can tell, and earnest but sincere about what and earnest about what?  Sentiment?  That is the struggle I have with such "prayers" and those who pray them.  They have assumed the posture of prayer but have failed to learn from the ancient collect of the great history of people who prayed (in Scripture and outside of Scripture) and confused spontaneity with depth and sincerity with truth.  At least where I live, this is the kind of prayer I hear all the time in civic and semi-religious functions by evangelicals and Baptists alike.

I recently led a workshop on formulating the Prayer of the Church.  Perhaps it might be good to refresh some of the points made there.  The Church is not culture neutral.  We have a culture and a vocabulary.  It comes from Scripture, to be sure, but it has been milled and shaped by the tradition of prayers passed down to us (think here the great collects of the Church).  Learn this vocabulary and use it until it becomes part of you.  Second, learn to pray the prayers of the Church and it will help you to form your prayers and shape your words.  Before you venture to write, read and prayer the old General Prayer that served Lutherans so well.  Remember not to start with you or your prayer concerns but with God has done, in a spirit of thanksgiving.  Pray not only your needs but God's promises.  So the collects, for example, begin with what God has done or promised or an attribute of God and then pray based upon the saving actions of God, His promises, and His character.  In doing this, we learn not simply to pray for what we think or want or need but to pray based upon what our Lord has already promised to do for us and to give us.  Finally, remember that all prayers of the faithful are prayed in confidence of God's mercy but also in the assurance that God will supply what is good and right for us (especially when that is not what we prayed for).  I am no expert and I am not trying to ridicule the sincere efforts of those whose prayers I have mentioned above, I do know that I am not the first person to pray and that the Lord teaches us the faith as we pray back to Him what He has first said to us. . . with the petition that the Lord lead us to know and believe this without fear.


Anonymous said...

Your examples needed a few more "Father God" and "We just want to lift up.." and "I just want to lift up.."

Chris Jones said...

We Lutherans don't use the catchphrases of the evangelicals ("We just want to ...", "we lift up so-and-so ...", etc) but we have the same issue of "who is the prayer addressed to." With the "Prayer of the Church" left for the pastor to compose each week, it often becomes as much "News bulletin of the Church" as "Prayer of the Church." It becomes a liturgical way to inform the congregation of who is sick, who's getting married or has had a baby, and what items in the news of the nation and the world the pastor thinks are worth our attention. I can't count the number of times that my first inkling of some natural disaster or other tragedy in the news was when the pastor mentioned it in the Prayer of the Church.

I think there is something to be said for the more traditional litany-and-collect pattern for the Prayer of the Church, where the litany is mostly or entirely invariant. In which, for example, we pray for the sick in general or at most mention the congregation's ill members by first name; but not include the details of diagnosis and prognosis of each one. God already knows those details, and if the pastor includes them the prayer starts to take on the character more of a "news bulletin" for the congregation, than of a prayer to God.

Anonymous said...

Prayer is a heart to heart talk with God. We thank Him for the
spiritual and physical blessings He has given us. There is no
need to analyze another person's prayer. The New Testament even
tells us that the Holy Spirit will help us out in our prayer life.

Anonymous said...

I am continually mystified by the use of the word "just" as in these prayers. It seems to imply that the only thing I have to say to God is this one item; there is nothing else. Why would anyone so limit their communication with God?

Is it perhaps intended to imply humility, not wishing to impose very much on God, but limiting my request to a single item? If so, this utterly fails to recognize the nature of God!

I have heard this for years, and I'm utterly baffled by it.


William Tighe said...

"Prayer is a heart to heart talk with God. We thank Him for the
spiritual and physical blessings He has given us. There is no
need to analyze another person's prayer. The New Testament even
tells us that the Holy Spirit will help us out in our prayer life."

This is, at best, a half-truth, and insofar as it is true, it is true of personal private prayer, not the public prayer of the Church, or of public vocal prayer for particular persons, situations, or problems. In those situations, such prayers as Pastor Peters cited come over as nothing more than thoughtless emotional effusions.

William Weedon said...

Pastor Peters is often one of our fine drafters for LetUsPray, but I would like to underscore Chris’s point: the shift to the Intercessions becoming a “proper” and not an “ordinary” in Lutheran liturgy has not, in my opinion, served us all that well. We are taxed each week (or someone is!) with coming up with a way to ask the same gifts and mercies from God, tying the way we ask into the readings and their language and imagery. Sometimes this works well and sometimes not. But the old General Prayers were gold and folded into themselves all the needs we would ever ask for, and the thanksgivings we wish to offer. I hope that folks who use LetUsPray will still provide opportunity for their congregations to raise those beautifully stated petitions on at least some Sundays or Festivals.

William Weedon said...

P.S. Here is what I wrote up on General Prayer 2 in LSB a while ago:

On General Prayer 2
- it's found in the LSB Altar Book, p. 441, or in the old TLH, p. 23,24. First, its provenance. It appeared in the Common Service Book and Reed believes it to have been written by Seiss based perhaps on some German antecedents. Second, its concise and beautiful content. It thanks the Almighty and Eternal God for his innumerable blessings, counting chief among them the preservation of His saving Word and the sacraments. It intercedes for the Church and for her mission and asks for strength for all Christians to set their hopes fully on the grace revealed in Christ and for strength to fight the good fight of faith and in the end receive the crown of eternal life. The Lord's blessing on the nations and our country and the education of our young is sought. His gracious defense from all sorts of perils is asked, and in a most beautiful phrase his mercy for those in need: "Be the God and Father of the lonely and forsaken, the helper of the sick and needy, the comforter of the distressed and those who sorrow." Individual needs may be listed. Then a prayer for acceptance of our very selves and of the gifts we have brought and presented as our humble service. A prayer for the Holy Spirit to be given to all who approach the Lord's Table so that all communicants receive in sincere repentance, firm faith and to their abundant blessing. Finally, since we are strangers and pilgrims on earth, a petition that we might by a true faith and godly life prepare for the world to come and a final plea that when our last hour comes God would support us by His might and receive us to His heavenly kingdom through Jesus Christ, our Lord. It's all there, so rich, so full, so beautiful. I'd encourage our pastors to use it often. The people of God will thank you for it.

Ken said...

One thing a good liturgy does is train Christians how to pray.

The groups that claim to have no liturgy actually have bad liturgy and thus teach bad praying. My experience in such groups is that the extemporanous prayers use similar phrasing of the "just lift you up" variety.