Advent is coming, bringing with it the Advent cantata—and our discomfort.
For us, worship centers on the “worth-ship” of God, with God being the “audience” for our worship. In the past, the cantata has felt less like worship and more like just another Christmas concert, with members of the Chancel Choir as performers and the congregation a passive audience. Is this consumer role appropriate for people worshiping God?
We wondered: How might we bring the congregation’s worship alive during the cantata? How could the cantata focus the congregation’s worship rightly?
We decided to involve the congregation as participants along with the choir. Readers presented Scripture, the choir sang sacred pieces, and the congregation responded antiphonally with meditation and prayer. The result can be described as a “concert of prayer.”
This Concert of Prayer included the following elements:
- Four movements, each involving an image or action
- Praying for our light
- Praying for our hearts
- Praying for our wholeness
- Praying for our peace
- Choral pieces serving as moments of reflection
- Three unfamiliar modes of prayer: listening prayer, being prayer, and action prayer
- Three traditional forms of prayer: examen, centering, and lectio divina
- Communion as active prayer
- Explanations of unfamiliar forms of prayer and confession
- Finger cymbals for auditory transitions
The Concert of Prayer at First Congregational Church was a ninety-minute service. We notified our congregation of the event several weeks in advance, and had previously introduced examen prayer, centering prayer, and lectio divina. To foster a tonality of prayer, the words of the service were spoken with deliberation.
The Concert of Prayer was warmly welcomed by our traditional, small-town congregation. Feel free to adapt it to fit your own context.
For more about the three types of prayers, see these suggested web pages.
Welcome to our Concert of Prayer. Let us quiet our minds and bring our focus to this time and place of prayer. Beginning with the end in mind, we turn our attention to the story in which all our stories are found as Christians: “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” Let us open our hearts to God as we listen.
Moments of Reflection
Organ: “I Know That My Redeemer Lives (DUKE STREET)” arr. Ferguson
In anticipation we gather.
With expectation we wait.
We gather to watch for the coming of the good news
into our world and into our lives.
We wait to see the fullness of God’s revelation.
O God, open the doors of our hearts,
that this Advent we may have more room for you within us.
O God, as we marvel over all that you are doing,
overwhelm us with so much wonder that words, attitudes,
and actions of prayer pour forth from our spirits.
In this time of waiting, let true worship begin in our hearts.
Let our praises rise up to the heavens!
Let our celebrations spread new hope
over a weary and chaotic world!
Let us be one in spirit, one in prayer,
as we gather together all our dreams
and all our prayers as we fellowship with God.
—Adapted from And Everyone Shall Praise: Resources for Multicultural Worship. R. Mark Liebenow. United Church Press, 1999. © 1999, R. Mark Liebenow. Used by permission.
Introduction to Prayers of Confession
We have all heard an orchestra or ensemble tuning up. As musicians tune their instruments before they play, so we tune our hearts to God before we pray. Then we submit to the Holy Spirit, who “orchestrates” and “conducts” our prayerful spirits.
God is our audience. We want our concert of prayer to be pleasing to our Lord, to be in praise of God. If one of us is out of tune, then the concert will be dissonant.
God is also the instigator of our worship, working through us by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit prompts us to tune our hearts by confessing our sins—all those words, deeds, and desires that are signs of our rebellion against God’s Spirit. Our prayer work is to confess and receive Christ’s cleansing. We are sinful people, and that is why we need the Lord. With clean hearts we can intercede in harmony.
Now is the time to let God examine your heart and point out any attitudes that aren’t pleasing to God. Do this with your full attention. Thank the Lord for the privilege of praying. Commit yourself to be God’s servants through prayer. Invite God to pray through you.
Let us pray in the silence of our minds and hearts.
[Extended pause for silent congregational prayer.]
Prayers of Confession and Prayer of Dedication of the Concert of Prayer
Let us continue in prayer:
God of all good gifts,
you have gifted us so we may praise you.
You have given us yourself in our Lord, Jesus the Christ.
His coming is our cause for praise.
that we have tuned our hearts
to the melody of the world,
and not to the songs of heaven.
that we have been reluctant to praise you,
seeing it as a duty
rather than a joy and privilege to be in your presence.
that even now part of our attention
is drawn away to the cares of our lives.
fill our hearts with your music,
with your Spirit.
Fill us with the desire to pray.
We dedicate this time to you.
We turn our desires toward you.
We worship you.
Introduction to Moments of Reflection
In this time of chaos and brokenness in our world, we look for the advent of our Lord Christ to restore order and wholeness. We gaze toward the heavens, seeking a sign of God’s light. Like the Magi beginning their journey to the Lord Jesus, we follow the leading of God.
Let us take some time to reflect on our own spiritual journeys, on where God might be leading us and to what or whom God is calling us.
Moments of Reflection
Organ: “The Eastern Star” Scott
Introduction to the Concert of Prayer
Our Concert of Prayer will include four movements: Praying for Our Light, Praying for Our Hearts, Praying for Our Wholeness, and Praying for Our Peace.
It will include three kinds of prayer: listening prayer, being prayer, and action prayer.
Listening prayer is hearing God, an often neglected but essential aspect of prayer. It involves God’s thoughts, intentions, energy, and heart being directed toward you and speaking to you.
Being prayer is neither speaking nor listening. It is just being with God, abiding in God, enjoying God.
Action prayer embodies prayer in a physical action. In it we pray with our bodies as well as with our spirits.
Each of the movements will involve one of these three kinds of prayer. Finger cymbals will serve as cues for transition.
[The finger cymbals give a mysterious, invitational sound that helps keep the attention on the work of the Holy Spirit.]
Praying for Our Light
[An image of a star is projected.]
We begin our first movement with listening prayer.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the darkness in this world. Advent is a time of darkness in which we wait for the light to appear. Listen to the words the choir sings, inviting us to wait in expectation:
Choir: “A Star Will Soon Shine” Price and Besig
Examen Prayer: A Time to Listen
Have you seen the light? When all around you has been dark, what light have you walked by? If you are a follower of the light of Christ, when did it first appear to you? If you are not a follower, have you seen it in others? Do you desire to find a way out of your darkness and into the light?
As Christians we walk in the light of God; we are the light of Christ. As such our whole lives serve as a witness to the presence of God. Take some time to reflect on your life. In what ways have or haven’t you been that light in the darkness, God’s witness? The name given to this inward reflection is the Examen Prayer, which is often practiced daily. Let us take some time to examine our hearts and lives.
I invite you to place both feet on the floor and to sit in an upright but relaxed posture. Relax in God’s presence. Be aware of how God shows love for you in all God’s gifts to you. Ask the Holy Spirit to come into your heart and to help you enjoy God’s presence.
Turn your thoughts to yesterday—specifically to yesterday morning. Use that as the starting point to review your day before God.
[What follows is spoken slowly and carefully, allowing worshipers time to thoughtfully review. If you know that those gathered will include children, youth, or other particular demographics, make sure to adapt the following to incorporate their daily experiences as well.]
Review your day and give thanks to God for God’s gifts. Try not to choose what to be thankful for but rather to see what springs to mind as you reflect. Think of the concrete details of your day: the aroma of coffee brewing, a smile from a coworker, or a beautiful, snow-covered vista. Recall the gifts God has given you that you can share with others: your ability to help in a crisis, your sense of humor, or your patience with children. Pause and express your gratitude to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Ask yourself: What gifts did God give you today? How did you receive and enjoy those gifts? How did God’s gifts touch your needs?
Again review the events of the day and notice how you acted in the many situations in which you found yourself. Ask yourself when you were conscious of God’s presence and guidance. Think about opportunities you had to grow in faith, hope, and charity. Be grateful for the occasions when you freely chose a course to help others. What specific events, thoughts, and experiences are you drawn to from the last day? What aspects of the day repel you? What moments speak to your deepest desires? When did you notice God during the day?
After you have asked for the Holy Spirit’s guidance in recalling and reflecting on the actions of your day, spend time talking with God or Jesus. Distinguish between your mistakes (unintentional) and your sins (intentional). Express sorrow for the times you failed to follow God’s direction, and ask him to be with you the next time you encounter a similar situation. Feel the sorrow and gratitude in your heart as you converse with God. What are the mistakes I am to learn from? For what sins do I need forgiveness?
Ask God to help you as you look forward to a new day tomorrow, a day that moves you closer to the advent of your Lord. Resolve to cooperate and trust in the loving guidance of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. What are the activities, actions, or attributes that God may be drawing you toward? What does this past day tell you about who God is calling you to be?
[Finger cymbals cue transition.]
Praying for Our Hearts
[An image of a heart is projected. Building paper is unrolled down the aisle of the church as a symbol of preparing the way for the Christ.]
The heart is the center of your being, where you really live. One of our tasks as Christians is to make our hearts ready for God.
For all our good intentions, competencies, and accomplishments, our hearts can be a wasteland where we lie to ourselves about who God really is and who we really are. The call to the wilderness is a call to be vulnerable to the God who loves us enough to pursue us relentlessly. It doesn’t matter what God has to do or how long it takes. God intends for us to be fully his.
As the choir sings, let the music open your heart to hear the voice that leads us into wisdom and guides us into the presence of Christ.
Choir: “Prepare Ye!” arr. Page and Shafferman
Centering Prayer: A Time to Be
In music, silence is as important as sound; music is a balance of sound and silence. We call the silences “rests.” In life we balance our work and our play with rest. Our deepest rest is found in sleep, when we are still. In worship, we balance times of speaking and music with times of quiet prayer and even silence. In silent centering prayer, we seek the deep stillness where God dwells in us. In this prayer we don’t have to have anything—God’s pleasure over us is what we really need. We don’t have to do anything—God loves us. What we do doesn’t change that. We don’t have to be something specific for anyone else—God looks on us with grace.
This is our “being prayer.” Thoughts, ideas, and images will all come up, but we need time to sit with God in the truth of who God is and who we are in God. So we will let each thought go.
Only one word or phrase is needed for this prayer. Take a moment now to find that word. That word is intended to remind you to let go of distractions and return to stillness. Be gentle with yourself: God loves you more than you love yourself. If during your prayer your mind wanders, use the word you have selected to gently return your attention to God. If during the prayer you need to cough, move, breathe—go ahead and do so. If you need to open your eyes, open them. Just come back to the silence as often as you can.
Enter the silence. After we hold the silence for a few minutes, the bell will sound three times.
Let us pray. Lord, from deep down in our inner stillness we hear your voice calling us. So we come.
[Five minutes of silence. The bell chimes three times.]
Lord, in the silence you remind us that you have been, are now, and evermore shall be. May we remember that in all ages we are yours.
[Finger cymbals cue transition.]
Praying for Our Wholeness
[An image of elements for the Lord’s Supper is projected.]
In praying for wholeness we pray for the wholeness of both ourselves and our world through the coming of Christ’s kingdom and the new reality Christ promises.
These words of divine intention invite us to new hope. Our God is faithful, intending to complete what God has begun in us and in the world. Let us kindle our holy hope.
We remember what God has already done, and the salvation God gives. We take hold of what Christ has provided for us.
I invite you to prepare to share communion with the Lord Jesus through the Lord’s Supper. Following a prayer of blessing and the Words of Institution, you are invited to rise from your seat and come forward to the table to receive the signs of God’s work in the world. Your coming forward will be an embodiment of prayer, an action prayer, as you partake of the symbols of God’s faithfulness to you and your need. Let us prepare our hearts by listening to the words the choir sings, a testimony of the faith we profess.
Choir: “An Advent Credo” Martin
The Lord’s Supper: A Time of Action and Embodiment
[Use the form/liturgy/words most appropriate for your church as you lead the people through the sacrament. After all have partaken, finger cymbals cue the transition.]
Praying for Our Peace
[Image of a dove is projected.]
The final movement of our Concert of Prayer will call us to meditate deeply on the Word of God. We are not going to study the passage or analyze it as we often do. Instead we will be using a type of prayer called lectio divina, or divine reading, to listen deeply to the Scripture passage.
I will read the passage slowly once. Do not worry about taking in every part of the passage. Just listen for a word, an image, or a phrase that stands out to you, captures your attention, or shimmers in your awareness.
As you listen, try not to be too concerned with what the point is or what God is saying. Instead, let your imagination be drawn by whatever it notices. The reading will be followed by a brief time of silence. This silence is for attentive listening.
After a few moments I will read the passage again. Listen again, this time more deeply, and pay attention to the words, phrases, or images to which the Holy Spirit draws your attention. We’ll have another period of silence, and I will ask some questions to orient your reflection.
We are ready to begin. Find a comfortable position in your seat, a posture that feels natural, supported, and relaxed, one that will cultivate a sense of space for quiet and openness of heart. As we enter into prayer, aware that God is here in our midst, slow down your body and your mind. Let go of whatever is not needed right now. Close your eyes. Notice what you’re feeling. Notice the ground beneath you, sustaining the heaviness of your body. Be at ease. This is a good place to be.
Breathe slowly. Inhale and exhale. As you inhale, think of yourself as breathing in a sense of calm and peace. As you breathe out, imagine that you are exhaling everything that feels stressful or burdensome.
In a moment, I will read a passage of Scripture. As I read it, listen for any word or phrase that stands out to you or shimmers in your awareness. You don’t need to know why this word, phrase, or image comes to you. Simply notice it. Hear the word of God in attentive mode.
[Read the text the first time. Be sure to read slowly—even more slowly than feels comfortable. Keep your voice calm and peaceful. Allow two minutes of silent prayer. Then read the text a second time. Again, allow two minutes of silent prayer.]
Slowly breathe in and out. God has drawn your attention to a word, phrase, or image. Hold your attention to it for a little while, wondering what God wants you to notice. Give your full attention to what has been put before you. Now consider what this could mean to you or how it might be important for you in your life.
[Allow two minutes for silent prayer.]
Now invite God into that exploration of this word or image. In your heart, speak directly to God and ask God what God is showing you. Is there a word or phrase that in some way is choosing you, unnerving you, challenging you, or comforting you? Don’t think this through. Trust God’s voice.
Listen now as the choir sings “Advent Peace Canon.” Let the music deepen your reflection.
Choir: “Advent Peace Canon” Pachelbel; arr. Schram
Sung Prayer: A Time of Faith and Hope
[Finger cymbals cue transition.]
Our hearts have been with one another in prayer, in praising our God for God’s goodness shown to us in our Lord Jesus Christ. As our Concert of Prayer draws to a close, let us rise and sing to God, placing our prayers for the future in our words.
Hymn: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum, LUYH 61, GtG 88, SSS 73
As you leave here this evening, having met with God,
know that God goes with you out into the world.
And in your going God offers you this blessing:
“As you await the celebration of my birth,
know that I am Emmanuel, the God who is with you.
As you await my return,
know that I am Emmanuel, the God who is with you.
I am with you in your grieving and in your joy.
I am with you in your doubting and questioning
and in your life of faith.
I am with you in times of darkness and fear and in times of insight and confidence.
I am with you when you are lonely or ill and when all is well.
Leave here today assured that
I am Emmanuel, the God who is with you.
Go in peace.”
—Rev. Joyce Borger
The illustrations used for this article were created by Frank Gutbrod and are downloadable as PowerPoint slides for use by Reformed Worship subscribers at https://tinyurl.com/y2upxo4r.