In the dying days of 1958 I was a “just from the boat off” eight-year-old immigrant p.k. in a small town in Ontario, Canada. That had its rigors. It also had its rewards. The prayers during worship were especially profitable. In fact, on one notable Sunday afternoon between my dad’s opening “Dear Lort, on dis Sunday afternoon we haf com togesser . . . and his closing “Ah-men,” I came out 35 cents richer.
No, it wasn’t because of a miracle. We kids caught onto English much quicker than Dad did, so he made us a standing offer. He’d pay us a nickel for every mistake we heard him make from the pulpit. We didn’t get rich on the sermons because the principal of the Christian grade school helped him with those. But Dad refused to write out his prayers. He preferred to take his lumps from the congregation—and shell out some cash—so that he could speak to God from the heart. Being on an intimate footing with God was very important to him, especially when he was talking on behalf of all of us in the congregation. So he didn’t mind if we snickered or, on occasion, even doubled over in the pew.
Dad was convinced that God was laughing right along with us too. After all, it was the Lord’s own masterful sense of humor at the Tower of Babel that precipitated the immigrant preacher’s language predicament in the first place.
I wouldn’t blame you at all if you find that a touch improper, maybe even offensive—paying off the kids to help you get your prayers right. But all his life Dad deeply owned the words of Jesus in Matthew 11. He still prayed them a few months ago, just before he died: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure” (vv. 25-26).
When children get together at a family reunion, they get so excited that they cry, they laugh, and they make mistakes. But at least they’re honest. If earthly parents are tickled and blessed by that, why wouldn’t God be? What better place to trip over our tongues than when we’re together in church? As long as our prayers come from the heart and as long as they’re the best we can make them, then our not-so-good is good enough. Paul assures us that the Holy Spirit “helps us in our weakness. We do not know what to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Rom.8:26).
Guess Who’s Coming to Worship?
This issue of Reformed Worship offers lots of help on how to improve the way we pray when we get together as God’s family. Edith Bajema reminds us of the centrality of prayer in worship. Al Vander Griend shows us how to reclaim its power. There are also articles on the prayer of confession and the congregational prayer.
Read those articles. Think about them—hard. We need to take care with our public worship prayers, because when we worship together, the God of heaven and earth is there with us in a remarkable way. Jesus tells us that “if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:19-20).
How does that square with what we confess about the omnipresence of God? Isn’t God everywhere already? So why should God’s presence in our worship prayers be so special?
The omnipresence doctrine doesn’t intend to saddle us with a homogenized God, spread out ever so evenly, who isn’t free to come and go at will. Why else do we plead with God to “turn your face towards us?” That teaching only intends to protect the reality revealed in Scripture that reassures us that we’re never out of God’s reach. Nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39). In that sense, through the presence of God’s Spirit, our Savior is there for us everywhere.
In the Breaking of the Bread
So what’s so special about the way in which the Lord is with us when we pray during worship? The Bible doesn’t really spell that out. It just says that’s the way it is. Our Lord is there with us in a uniquely intimate way in the reading and proclamation of the Word, in the breaking of the bread, and when believers put their heads together to pray.
Maybe God’s there in worship in the same way that parents are “there” at one of their milestone wedding anniversaries. They were there for us all along, of course, but on these occasions we honor them and celebrate their presence. The whole family gets together, traveling from hither and yon. We rent the fancy restaurant and put on the fancy duds. We may even go all out and write them a song or a poem or a speech. Maybe we buy them a gift—something expensive that they probably don’t really need.
Isn’t that what we do in church? We gather to celebrate another “week-aversary” of Christ’s victory over death. We gather for another family get-together to fete the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. So—like the speeches we make at those biggie family celebrations— we want to get our prayers right. Especially when we address our heavenly Father on behalf of everybody there.
From the Heart
In college I managed to avoid Phys. Ed. 101 (I hate push-ups!) by taking a course in golf instead. I never did take it past the “turf-hacker” stage, but I remember one piece of advice that really stuck. Our coach told us to work hard at our skills on the driving range. Practice those swings, he told us, until you get them right. Then go and practice ’em again. Go to the practice green and learn to “putt for dough.” But, and this is the kicker, once you’re on the course, just go and have fun.
That’s a valuable lesson for our Sunday worship prayers. Whether we’re pastors or other worship leaders, let’s work hard in the planning. Let’s learn from our mistakes. Let’s dare to risk the post-mortems, even if we have to pay a knuckleful of nickels week after week. But when we’re actually there face-to-face, talking to God, the time for preparation is over. It’s game time. Even though God already knows what we’re about to say, God delights in this heart-to-heart family talk.
God delights, that is, if our hearts are in it. Our omnipresent God is also omniscient. He sees right through snooty, frilly whitewash. Our prayers need to go straight from our hearts into God’s.
Let’s Risk It . . .
It’s this quality of authenticity that often makes us unwilling to critique worship prayers. The worship team may have no compunction at all about doing an autopsy on the music or the liturgy. The elders may be eager to a fault to give the sermon a thorough going over. But we get queasy about dissecting our worship prayers—it seems wrong somehow.
Yet it’s worth the risk. If there’s anything we can do to help the congregation really speak to God from the heart, let’s do it. If we can somehow manage to “get out of the way” to let the people talk to their Savior, then more (Holy Spirit) power to us.
And if we can help each other as worship planners and prayer leaders to improve the way we help God’s people approach their Lord, let’s go for it. Let’s ask the Lord to give us enough humility and boldness to risk stepping on each other’s toes. That kind of open, nondefensive reflection is worth a ton of nickels.
Speaking for Myself
I’m too chicken to critique other people’s prayers. I admit it. But taking my cue from my dad, here’s a standing offer. I promise to pay a nickel every time anyone catches me praying these phrases from the pulpit:
- “Dear Lord, in the morning hour of this day . . . ” God already knows what time it is and so does the congregation. If I need to stall for time, I can just be quiet and know that my sisters and brothers are praying right along with me. And if they aren’t, the Holy Spirit sanctifies that quiet time by fervently praying on our behalf.
- “I just want to pray . . . ” What, I’m the only one that counts here? Am I going to give equal time to the other three hundred worshipers, or will I acknowledge that I’m voicing our prayer, not just mine?
- “As we just heard from your Word . . . ” I know this one will cost me big money. I’m a real sucker for giving that main sermon theme one more pass in my applicatory prayer. But we’re talking to God here . . . God heard the sermon (scary thought!). And our Lord got the point better than I did. It still amazes me how after twenty years of worrying about whether I actually “got through,” God applied that Word in somebody’s life better than I ever could have managed or even intended.
- “As you know, Lord, Mrs. Smith is in Memorial Hospital . . . ” I have got to learn to make the announcement before I start praying. Prayer in worship is not some kind of holy bulletin board.
- “You, who drowned the obstinate Pharaoh and all his hosts in the Red Sea . . .” By all means, let’s use prepackaged prayers from a variety of sources. But let’s read them through ahead of time so that we don’t naively assume they must be okay because we cut and pasted them out of the back of our hymnals. (Find me a single place in Scripture that claims that God drowned Pharaoh in the Red Sea and I’ll double your fee.)
Where will you start paying out nickels? Will you pay them out each time you bore the socks off the twelve-year-old because you didn’t reach for the word “amen” in time? Or will you pay out a nickel for each time you forget that the hymn you rush God’s people through is actually a real, honest-to-God prayer that we are singing together?
Careful planning so the Father and the family can talk heart to heart—that’s the bottom line. It all begins and ends with the astounding good news Jesus brought into our lives and into our worship. Pray like this, he taught us: “Our Father in heaven . . . ” (Matt. 6:9). Think about it when you haul out next week’s service planner.
Reader: I’m invited to a party—
a party to praise God!
What will I need to take along?
I will praise him with the CD that I love to hear.
I will praise him with the video game that I love to play.
I will praise him with the food I eat.
I will praise him with the clothes that I wear.
I will praise him with the words I speak.
I will praise him with the friends I hang out with.
All: I will praise him with all that I am,
all that I do,
and all that I have.
Praise the Lord!