Prayers Not Our Own

A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, Vermont

February 18, 2018
Text: Matthew 6: 7-13

My Pentecostal-leaning grandmother knew a good preacher when she saw one. Modeled after the televangelists with whom she spent much of her time, her standard for a good preacher was one who just “preached the Word,” spontaneously and extemporaneously, not with a sermon crafted in the week before but in a heartfelt connection with the Bible that lived from the moment. Good preachers, she would say, prayed the same way. A good prayer isn’t written out; it comes from the heart—spontaneously, with words that come directly from the Spirit in that moment.

When I was in college, the campus chapter of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship was my main community of friends, and there too the evangelical model of prayer was consistently lifted up and practiced. Good prayer was heartfelt, personal, spoken in the moment, with a generous use of the word “just” that I never quite understood—as in “Jesus, we just thank you for your love.” Good prayer finds its expression in the moment and from the heart.

Then I went to seminary and discovered a number of things, including that on the topic of prayer and worship, I was a closet Catholic. Or so it seemed, because I fell in love with another kind of liturgy and prayer. In seminary I discovered prayers that are old, standardized, and passed down from one generation to another. I discovered the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, chock-full of prepared prayers that were used in common in many different places and many different times. I learned the art of crafting prayers carefully, ahead of time, with attention to language more like poetry than conversation. Prepared, shared, standardized prayer became authentic and good to me.

Prayer is, of course, a central practice of Christian community. It always has been, though Christians have understood it very differently—what it means, why we do it, and exactly what we are doing or “accomplishing” with prayer. Traditionally Lent is a time of prayer, of spiritual refocus, and of Christian learning, making Lent a natural time in the church calendar to think about the importance and meaning of prayer for the Christian life.

In my own reflections on what prayer means to me, I want to consider the use of prayers that are not our own, prayers that are prepared—sometimes in moments and places quite distant from ours—and that might feel like rote recitations that we engage in each week. To be sure, some denominations do much more of this kind of prayer than we do. All you have to do is slip down to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church or over to St. Mary’s Catholic parish to see what a worship service dominated by standardized prayers looks like. We don’t host these kinds of prayers nearly that much, but we do a bit of it in our worship, and the quintessential example of that kind of praying comes from Jesus himself.

The story in the Gospel of Matthew suggests that Jesus was asked by would-be followers how to pray, and after giving some tips about things to avoid doing, Jesus instructs his hearers in what is a good prayer:

Pray then this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

This is how we should pray, says Jesus. And being the dutiful followers that we are, we Christians have taken him at his word, reciting his instructions largely verbatim each and every Sunday. Yes, different Christian communities translate the Lord’s Prayer differently; should it be “debts” or “trespasses”? And some Christian communities like ours slap an ending onto what we have read today: “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.” But most Christians recite some version of this prayer every Sunday. Why?

Yes, Jesus told us to pray this way, but it’s quite possible he meant this as a model or outline, not that we should recite it verbatim each week. Why do we do so? Well, for one thing, it is a good prayer. Its template includes a number of elements of good Christian prayer, from praise of God (“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name”), to commitment to God’s ways (“thy kingdom come, thy will be done”), to trust in God’s provision (“give us this day our daily bread”), to a petition for virtue (“forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”). Praise, trust, commitment, and obedience—these are hallmarks of good prayer.

But besides the reminder of what good prayer looks like, I think there are other things we receive from the weekly recitation of this same prayer. In saying the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday, knowing that this same prayer is almost identically recited in Christian congregations all around the world, and recognizing that this recitation has been standard practice through the ages, we connect ourselves with the Church of every time and place. The standard use of the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that the church is bigger than this place. I say this in love, but this is a particularly useful exercise for New England Congregationalism, where an ethos of localism dominates both denominational culture and public culture. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that this church is part of a larger Church—a community with global presence and a complicated richness through the ages.

The Lord’s Prayer is not our only liturgical connection with this Church of every time and place. When we invoke the Psalms for our call to worship, we connect ourselves with our Hebraic roots. When we use prayers of confession borrowed from earlier generations, we remind ourselves that the failings that plague the human community are persistent and enduring. When we sing the Doxology, we lift our voices in praise with other Christians who have done and are doing the very same thing. And when we share our Communion prayer—also called the Great Thanksgiving Prayer—we testify to the grand narrative of divine grace that brings us to gather around the Table with Christians of every time and place to sing “Holy, holy, holy. God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the Highest.” The standardized moments of prayer in our worship may feel like mindless recitation, but they certainly don’t need to. Instead, they connect us in religious practice with the cloud of witnesses that is the Church universal.

But still, we must admit that some of these old and foreign prayers use words and invoke ideas that sometimes don’t speak to us now. In fact, sometimes they use words and invoke ideas that we happily have moved beyond, and that we no longer consider good or unproblematic.

When we sing the Doxology in this congregation, for instance, we don’t sing the version that I and many of you probably remember from your childhood: “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow, praise Him all creatures here below.” We have changed the words to respect the ways in which the gendered language for God is disturbing for many Christians these days. We avoid altogether the Gloria Patri, I suspect, for the same reason. Our prayer of confession and assurance of grace today use words and formulas that have become problematic for some people in our congregation. Sometimes those old prayers don’t speak in our native language.

But one of the reasons I have come to love these standardized worship moments is that the very disconnections that may distract us also become moments for thoughtful reflection. The disjunction in prayers that are not our own presents a chance to learn from the Church in other times and places. For instance, there is an old prayer of confession from the Book of Common Prayer that includes these lines:

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.

I actually considered using that prayer this morning, but I decided against it because I thought the harsh declaration of moral disease would find too strident objection here. But then, after I had submitted my bulletin information for the week, seventeen people in Florida lost their lives in yet another mass shooting, perpetrated with an assault rifle that remains unjustifiably easy to access, and as a moral indictment on a nation that finds it grotesquely easy to do nothing at all to curb the carnage. And suddenly a prayer of confession that declares “we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and there is no health in us” seems apt and enlightening. The disconnect we sometimes feel between where we are and words from another time or place can be instructive in that it provokes us to think, to ask hard questions about ourselves, and to wonder whether those old, foreign words actually disclose some truth about ourselves or about God that we have become too numb or lazy or modern or rational to see.

The use of prayers not our own invites us to be in conversation with the Church universal, to acknowledge and celebrate the complexity in the Christian community, and to grow in wisdom and grace from being a part of that community. A conversation with our pastor some time ago sticks in my mind on this point. I was complaining that we had changed the words to the Doxology and mourning the loss of that traditional version from my childhood. In response he advised, “Then sing the one you know.” The cacophony of those different versions, unresolved but noncompetitive in their performance, that chaos itself between the old and the new is a beautiful testament to the wonderful difference in Christian community. Prayers not our own, in the ways they speak to us and in the ways they don’t, remind us that the Church is a wonderfully complicated community that, in all its diversity, testifies to its unity as the people of God—a people whose first language is poetry and prayer.