Monday, February 11, 2013

What's the deal with written prayers?

[From Pastor Ed… 2/10 and 2/17]

One of the topics that I've noticed has come up somewhat regularly in the last several months is that of "written" prayers. Are they unbiblical? Are they good for us? Are we allowed to use them in worship? How about outside of worship?

It's interesting to me that this would come up recently, because (from what I have been told) written, prepared prayers have been used by Dove Mountain Church in worship from the very start: at very least, our corporate prayer of Confession of Sin has always been a written prayer. During the time when DMC was without a pastor, I understand that the Ruling Elders would regularly close the worship service with a "closing prayer" wherein they essentially took a word of Benediction and converted it, so to speak, into a prayer — which I suppose amounts to another kind of written prayer. Likewise, the Pastoral Prayers that we have are, if not fully written out, at least "scripted" insofar as they are based on a prepared list and (at least some of the time) the one praying has made extensive notes on how and what he shall pray for this list.

So why has it come up more recently? I think there are two reasons: first, we've begun to use more of them, especially adding them into our Prayer of Thanksgiving at the beginning of the Communion celebration, and also for our Prayer of Consecration immediately following Communion. This increase in prominence and use has necessarily drawn attention to our use of written prayers. Secondly (and perhaps more significantly in some people's minds), some of the written prayers we use for our Prayer of Thanksgiving are very similar to prayers that are also used in other Christian traditions, most notably the Roman Catholic tradition.

I suppose it is understandable that the second reason raises serious concerns for some. In many church traditions — and, frankly, especially in many of those that our people grew up in — anything to do with the Roman Catholic Church is considered caustic and dangerous. For others who grew up Roman Catholic, anything that echoes that tradition in any way may stir up memories and feelings that are challenging and perhaps distracting to worship. So it makes sense that artifacts that "feel" Roman Catholic are polarizing, fairly or unfairly.

Nevertheless, one of the great identities of the church is that we are "catholic" — not in the denominational sense, so much as in the sense that the word means "universal". Which is why we make use of some of the same prayers as Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans: all of us are drawing on a tradition that is deeper than any of the various expressions of denominational identity for the last 500 years. That particular prayer is called the Sursum Corda which means (in Latin), "Lift up your hearts" — so called because that phrase is one of the opening lines. The content of that prayer is almost entirely taken from Scripture, either as direct quotes or as paraphrase.

And that leads us to the question, "are written prayers biblical?" The answer, unequivocally, is YES! In fact, between the Lord's Prayer and the 150 psalms (which were something like a Book of Common Prayer for the Old Testament church, the people of Israel), it would be difficult to make a case that there is no example of written prayers in the Bible.

Which is not to say that every written prayer that we use, or that is "out there" in some form (including in books like the Book of Common Prayer and the more Presbyterian-oriented Book of Common Worship) is a direct quote or paraphrase of Scripture, though many are. But it does show that written prayers are not unbiblical in principle.

Are they good for us? Are we allowed to use them in worship? Well, first consider that the alternative is what we might call impromptu prayer or, at best, extemporaneous prayer. In other words, we pray whatever comes to mind with little or no guidance. Sometimes this can go very well; at other times, not so much. Most of us have probably been in circumstances where someone is praying aloud, in public, and they either a) prays with many words, but saying very little; b) prays the same thing over and over, or c) prays something inaccurate, inappropriate, or even unbiblical! (Or some combination of these three.)

On the other hand, prepared prayers give the "pray-er" a freedom to devote himself to the act of prayer, because he doesn't need to concentrate on the content of his prayers. In the context of a corporate prayer, it allows the congregation to participate in praying aloud, rather than leaving all of the vocal praying to the leader. And — as I alluded to before — it also enables us to embrace historically-significant prayers and texts that connect us with the wider church.

Can we use written prayers in other contexts besides worship? Absolutely. Some have found that written prayers and prayer books introduce a discipline of praying in new (to them) and different ways than the methods that they learned previously. Sometimes we feel stuck in a "rut" of prayer, and written prayers may in those times introduce us to new directions of prayer that help us get unstuck. At other times, some have said that circumstances — perhaps especially difficult and trying times — are so challenging that they find they cannot pray on their own; in such times, written prayers can be a guide and friend, leading us back to Christ when we feel distant from Him.

Over the years, I've used a variety of collections of written prayers in my own devotional life, I believe to very helpful effect. Early on, I learned that many hymnals contain (usually toward the back) a sort of miniature version of the books of "common prayer" or "common worship" mentioned earlier; these can, of course, be used devotionally for private prayer (as can the hymns themselves!). While in college, I was also introduced to a beautiful collection of puritan prayers called The Valley of Vision. I have used the daily offices printed on the Book of Common Prayer, as well as collections such as Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours set. There are others, too, as well as books such as Eugene Peterson's Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer and Stanley Jaki's Praying the Psalms: a Commentayr which are helpful in learning to use the psalter for personal (and corporate) prayer, and Phillip Graham Ryken's When You Pray: Making the Lord's Prayer Your Own for deepening our use of the prayer Jesus taught His disciples.

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