Wednesday, August 07, 2013

New Ways to Pray

A Wordle of all the Psalms (World English Bible)
One of my church's unique and beautiful characteristics is our life together in prayer.  Many churches (though not all, sadly) have some part of their church service dedicated to some form of the traditional practice of "prayers of the people."  Ours typically takes the form of an open mic, passed around to those who want to pray aloud.

This last Sunday, I was asked to direct the music (our regular music director was on vacation) for our two "contemporary" services.  This being the first Sunday of the month in a Methodist Church, it was Communion Sunday.  Our typical order of service on these days is:

  • Annoucements
  • Three Songs - two standing, loud, fast; one seated, more reflective
  • Prayers of the people
  • Offering
  • Scripture Reading
  • "Table Talk" - a short sermon
  • Communion, served in the front, by intinction
  • Closing Song
The topic of this service was a continuation of the previous week's lectionary gospel reading, Luke 11:1-13.  Specifically, our pastor said he intended to focus on the obvious problem of what do with with the promise that "whatever you ask for, you shall receive," in the face of many prayer requests that go unfulfilled.

My own understanding of worship is that it does and must include these tough questions.  Few songs in the popular worship repertoire do this justice, but the Psalms give us many good examples of what do to with grief, despair, questions, and anger.  I tried to put together a set of songs that focused on capturing and expressing these things as the Psalms did. 

Some of my favorite Psalm-based songs for worship: 40, by U2, Down in the Lowlands (Originally by Charlie Peacock), Who will ascend (this is the one I know, but there are others from this Psalm). We tried doing Third Day's My hope is you, but it is so musically boring, and we didn't have an electric guitarist.
There are many, of course, based on the more joyful songs--Better is One Day by Matt Redman, Forever by Chris Tomlin--but I find laments much more rare.

I think communion is a very appropriate response to the question of unanswered prayer.  The person, life and suffering of Jesus is the only answer that carries any weight in the face of it, I believe.  To lead into that, then, I chose At the foot of the Cross, a song that speaks deeply about Jesus's solidarity with us in suffering, and his ultimate redemption of it.

But I can't leave it at just music; I'm too adventurous.  So I began to think of how I could invite others to pray in a new way, in the way of the Psalms.  What came to mind was the magnetic poetry you see on refrigerators or espresso machines at coffee shops.  So I put together my own list of words that could serve as a foundation of piecing together our own Psalms.  The Wordle above helped me a bit.

My basic format for creating a psalm was this: 1) Where I am, or what questions I have;  2) Who I acknowledge, believe, or experience God to be; and 3) What I ask or thank him for.  As I talked this idea over my with brilliant, creative, insightful, and practical wife, she suggested that I prompt people a little more specifically.  So for each of these sections of a psalm, I gave a couple prompts:
  1. "My Soul is..." and "How Long will..."
  2. "The Lord is..."  and "Our God is..."
  3. "Grant us..." and "Save us from..." and "Thank you for..."
Instead of our typical prayer time, I invited people to come piece together their own psalm, in the format provided.  I also had blank cards for people to write their own words if they needed.  Our pastor decided that it would work well to have people come take communion right after that, so we did that. It was an open space, a different kind of feel than what we usually do, and took about 15 minutes all total.  

The benefit, I think was encouraging people to think of prayer more broadly, and to give room for other kinds of participation. This format is especially good for younger worshipers, since it is hands-on, and for those who don't feel comfortable praying into a mic for the whole gathered body to hear.  In addition, there is something spiritually formative about having to create prayers with a limited amount of words.  I found the prayers people put up were less specific, but often speaking of deeper things.  This is what art can do--express something deeper and more profound than what we normally express verbally--and this activity allowed everyone to be an artist, if only for a moment.

I am grateful to be at a church where there are enough people willing to try something new that I don't have to worry if people will participate.  One member suggested making these magnetic and making it a permanent installation.  We'll see, but I love the idea.

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