After the thrill of ordination, the reality of week-to-week pulpit ministry suddenly seemed much more difficult. Not only was I responsible for preparing two sermons a week, but I also had to develop seasonal liturgies and special Sunday liturgies, pick hymns, and, perhaps most challenging of all, lead the congregation in prayer. Besides the opening prayer, the prayer of confession, the prayer for illumination, and the applicatory prayer after the sermon, there was the congregational prayer. How do I prepare that many prayers each week? Do I write them? Do I just "let them flow"?
Somehow, the debate between written prayers versus "free-flowing" prayers came to a head during one of our worship committee meetings. I had challenged the members of the committee to write a prayer, choosing from any of the prayers used in a worship service. They were to write the prayer out so that it could be used in an upcoming worship service. The prayers were quite good, and as we discussed them in a later meeting, we began to notice a common thread. Each of the prayers tended to address God with the same names over and over again, especially LORD, Father, Creator, Almighty. Each of these is a beautiful way to address God, but when we limit ourselves to these terms, our prayers become repetitive—even if they have very different content.
How can our prayers reflect the awe, wonder, majesty, glory, privilege, honor, and delight we have in meeting our Master and Friend in prayer? This question began to trouble me as I prepared for Sunday liturgies.
During my own devotional times I have begun recording names of God as 1 encounter them. The list continues to grow. Each name gives me a deeper appreciation of who God is—a new delight in the privilege of being in relationship with my Maker. I have also tried to incorporate various names for the Most High in my public and private prayers. So far the list is about 249 names long! Following are a few of the names from my list and their Scripture references:
God the Father
God Most High (Gen. 14:18)
Our Shield (Ps. 59:11)
My Father's God (Ex. 18:4)
Sovereign Lord (2 Sam. 7:18)
Holy One (Ps. 71:22)
God of Heaven (Neh. 1:5)
Great and Awesome God (Neh. 1:5)
My Strength (Ps. 59:9)
My Loving God (Ps. 59:9)
God Who Avenges (Ps. 94:1)
Judge of the Earth (Ps. 94:2)
Abba, Father (Mark 14:36)
Only True God (John 173)
God of Peace (IThes. 5:23)
God the Blessed and Only Ruler (1 Tim. 6:15)
God of all Grace (1 Pet. 5:10)
God the Son
Desired of All Nations (Hag. 2:7)
Master (Luke 17:13)
Son of Man (Luke 19:10)
The Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25)
Teacher (John 13:13)
Way, the Truth, and the Life Gohn 14:6)
Bread of Life (John 6:35)
True Vine (John 15:1)
Our high priest (Heb. 5:10)
God the Spirit
Spirit of Truth (John 16:13)
Spirit of Holiness (Rom. 1:4)
Spirit of Life (Rom. 8:2)
Eternal Spirit (Heb. 9:14)
I've discovered that using a variety of names for God in liturgy can enrich congregational worship. For instance,
- In the prayer for illumination, address the Holy Spirit as the "Spirit of Truth, who will guide us in all truth." This name for the Holy Spirit focuses our prayer and thought upon the work of the Holy Spirit especially well as the pastor and the congregation prepare to consider the Word.
- After a time of confession, the assurance of pardon can include this comforting description of God: "O God, who is able to keep us from falling and to present us before your glorious presence without fault and with great joy!" (Jude 24).
- In the time of dedication, what could be more assuring than to think of God as the One who will guard us against falling until we are in his glorious presence!
For me, the challenge continues. When I lead my congregation in conversation with Yahweh, will I continue to cultivate awe and wonder in the presence of God? Will I strive to teach them and myself to focus more fully upon the Alpha and Omega, upon the fullness of the revelation of the Triune God?
To the LORD of Hosts be glory and majesty and honor and praise and worship and power forever and ever more, certainly also in our prayer.
THE LANGUAGE USED IN PUBLIC PRAYER
In modern evangelical churches there is a widespread form of "prayer language," namely, the use of worn and irritating cliches. For example, "we just pray" is often heard. (Does "just" mean "only," "barely," or "really"? No one really knows—it's just a habit!) Another example is "how we thank You" (calling attention to the manner or intensity of our prayers). "Dear Lord," a phrase not found in the Bible, has become the most common form of addressing God for many people. Even worse is the practice of punctuating our prayers with "Father," "Lord," or "Jesus." This practice borders on taking God's name in vain and the meaningless repetition which Christ condemned. We certainly should not discourage anyone from praying or encourage anyone to stop praying until they break these habits, but it would be best to purge our prayers of these phrases, particularly our public prayers.
-A. Michael Schneider, III, "Prayer Regulated by God's Word," Worshipin the Presence of God (Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Press, Greenville, SC 29604), p. 236