|"Old Woman Praying" Theophile Lybaert, Belgian (1848-1927)|
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” (John 17:26)
The last time I was given the great honor of preaching the Divine Service for Saint David’s Day by the Philadelphia Welsh Society, the Society’s musician, a brilliant Welsh-American named Jack Williams, made the very pious request that the worship leaders gather in prayer before the start of the service. He made this request—quite naturally—to the Society’s chaplain, a distinguished (and stunningly beautiful, may I add?[i]) Episcopal priest named Anne Thatcher. The Rev. Ms. Thatcher demurely suggested, “Perhaps Pastor Griffiths will lead us in prayer..?”
I was more than happy to comply, and I launched into an orison beseeching the Almighty to grant us cheerful singing voices, accurate instrumentation, faithful preaching, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Of course, as I now reflect on it, this prayer had been answered before I opened my mouth as Welsh people always sing cheerfully, the musicians were excellently trained and talented, and whenever two or more are gathered in Christ’s name, the Spirit is always with us. The only need for divine intervention might’ve been for the preaching which, as it fell to me to deliver, would be as faithful as my theological and homiletical abilities could make it.
But what struck me as I later pondered that exquisite worship experience was the Rev. Thatcher’s polite request vouchsafing of me the prayer duties. I recalled that I had never actually heard an Episcopal cleric pray extemporaneously. The Episcopal rector in my Ministerium read his prayer out of the Book of Common Prayer for our ecumenical Easter sunrise service. The Episcopal priest who taught one of my pastoral care classes at the seminary also refused to lead our class in prayer, requesting that the students take turns offering morning petitions.
I mentioned this to my music director, Frank, who opined that Episcopalians are taught that the Book of Common Prayer has brilliantly and elegantly phrased every praise, petition, intercession, or word of contrition which need be directed to God’s attention, and that all a supplicant need do is consult the appropriate page in this august tome for exactly the words most pleasing to God’s ears.
I’m not sure Frank is correct in this assumption, but I think there’s something to be said for teaching the faithful how to pray. In his day, Martin Luther railed against the vain repetition of prayers, excoriating believers who falsely thought of prayer as a good work, the repetition of which would please God and lessen time in Purgatory. He encouraged the faithful to pray honestly to God from the depths and longing of their hearts, and to do so boldly and often as a child approaches a loving parent. Although he rejected the recitation of written prayer, Luther would compose hundreds of prayer himself in order to give Christians an idea of how to pray[ii].
In my own time as a parish pastor, I’ve noted that, five centuries after Luther, there is still a huge reluctance among the faithful to pray extemporaneously and publicly. When I began my ministry at Faith Lutheran in Philadelphia over twenty years ago, I would ask members of the congregation to say a prayer to bless the Sunday morning sermon. This request met with such great resistance that I dropped this practice within the first few years.[iii] Subsequently, I have often asked Confirmation students to write prayers of their own or to lead prayer at the close of class. Public prayer is a phobia which we in the church have to stamp out, and I try to be as good a therapist as I can be—leading by example, gently encouraging, and pointing out how simple a conversation with God can be.
In the Gospel appointed for Easter 7 Year C in the RCL (John 17:20-26) Jesus is concluding what Bible scholars call the “High Priestly Prayer.” It can very well be used, as the great Johannine scholar Karoline Lewis[iv] points out, as a blueprint for prayer. In verses 1 – 7 Jesus prays for himself. This is not a bad idea, as he’s about to be crucified.[v] In verses 8 – 19, he prays for the disciples—knowing that they are also about to undergo excruciating trials, the likes of which would discourage anyone who lacked a lovingly bonded relationship with Jesus. Finally, as Dr. Lewis so wonderfully notes, Jesus is praying for us. He prays, “on behalf of those who will believe.”
I ask you, how splendid a thought is that? Jesus included us in his prayers while we were still unborn and unbegot. He knew in advance that we would feel, from time to time, the dark separation from God and others, so he asked the Father to put his love within us. When we pray, we access this love. Our faith approaching God unites us with Jesus, and it also unites us with all the saints who have believed before us and with those who are yet to come.
I really like Jesus’ three-petition outline. First, I pray for my own needs. Second, I pray for the needs of those around me. Finally, I send a prayer out into the void for the needs of those whom I don’t know or the needs which are yet to arise. Far from being a “message in a bottle,” such a prayer is a lifeline tying me to others and reminding me that God’s love has been given to me and all the world. Beautiful, artful phrases are not necessary. What matters is the certainty that, whenever I lift my voice in prayer, I am united with Christ and with all the saints—past, present, and future.
Pray boldly, my friend! Thanks for visiting.
[i] Perhaps I need not add this. We Welsh are just naturally an attractive race of people.
[iii] I haven’t asked anyone to do this in eons, but the memory of it is still alive—a sort of congregational form of PTSD.
[v] In such a circumstance, I’d be praying my butt off. Wouldn’t you?