Thursday, June 7, 2012

Writing prayer

So this Sunday I am tasked with leading the Prayers of the People and the Lord's Prayer at the church we've been attending of late.  There is no set prayer, and not a tendency to use one from the Book of Common Worship or other such source.  In other words, I create a prayer and pray it.

It strikes me, and has for a long while, that praying in front of the congregation is a funny thing.  A person of even modest biblical literacy can hardly avoid recalling the mandate about going to your closet and praying in secret, even if one doesn't remember where it is found (Matthew 6, and yes, I had to double-check that).  Depending on one's perspective, one might also be made uneasy by certain public-spectacle types of prayer that occasionally make headlines or touch off controversies, and want to shrink back from the whole idea.

Prayer, though, is a needful and important part of a service of worship, and not something I can really avoid in my not-exactly-chosen profession-to-be.  Still, one can find all sorts of arguments to have; should it be led by one person?  Should it somehow be responsive or responsorial, with the congregation called upon to participate?  Should it simply be a time of silence in which each individual prays him- or herself?

What has occurred to me at the moment is the degree to which, at one time in my life, I'd have been shocked and maybe even horrified at what I am doing about it; I am writing the prayer in advance.

There are of course many traditions at work today in which such an act would somehow be seen as less than faithful, evidence of a weak or nonexistent faith, or otherwise somehow lacking in authenticity.  At one time I probably believed such things or something similar.  Now, though, I find such attitudes not terribly helpful and perhaps a bit prideful in some cases.  Writing prayers makes too much sense to me now.

For one thing, I know my memory to be something less than fine, and I do not want to leave anything out; I know that will happen if I'm up there engaging in "holy winging it" and I don't want to be the person who does that.  Also, the act of writing prayer is, if done right, prayer itself.  Whether for this specific kind of occasion or others, the process of thinking about the needs and concerns of this particular congregation, that family, this place in the world, the country, the denomination; all of these drive me further and further into praying for the congregation, family, world, country, denomination.  By the time I say anything Sunday morning I will have already been praying for these things for most of the week.  I can't specifically say that will benefit the congregation, but it is certainly better for me!

I find something similar to be true in my still-developing practice of hymn writing, even as another hymn was brought into being last weekend.  The time spent letting the inspiration form itself, then molding and shaping that initial inspiration into something more organized and communicable, even the fussing over a single word or stray syllable, all become prayer and prayer again over whatever subject the hymn addresses.  Hymns are not strictly prayers, though some may take that form; their purpose and function are as likely to be instructive, evangelistic, encouraging, or maybe even reproaching as they are to be prayer of any specific sort.  Still, I am finding that the act of developing and shaping such a text drives me into more prayer on that subject.

Written prayer is nothing new for liturgical folk, and to be honest I've been accustomed to such for a while, though I've not been called upon to do it much.  There is a time and place to be able to pray extemporaneously.  For me, that is not this Sunday.

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