By Sam Ochstein
Here’s a confession: I’ve always struggled with prayer. Big deal, you say. Lots of people struggle with prayer. Prayer is hard work. We’re easily distracted and lose focus. We sometimes flounder for the right words. Sometimes we’re just tired and don’t feel like praying.
Yeah, but I’m a pastor. I’m supposed to pray. I get paid to pray. It’s part of my job to pray—privately, publicly, with people, and for people. And I do.
But it’s always been tough, especially before I discovered the riches of liturgical prayer and the discipline of praying the daily office.
Here’s another confession: I’m not Episcopalian. I’m a senior pastor in an evangelical denomination. And my church background and current ministry context is about as low-church as you can get. It’s the sort of environment that’s (wrongly) suspicious and critical of liturgy (we mustn’t be too Catholic after all!) and typically sees written and prescribed prayers as rote and meaningless (didn’t Jesus command his followers not to pray like the pagans, babbling on with many words and vain repetitions?).
Spontaneous and extemporaneous prayers were clearly seen as more spiritual and more honoring to God in the tradition I was raised in. For it to be real prayer it has to flow from your heart in the moment. And apparently, on this view, reading prayers excludes the heart.
So growing up I was never exposed to written prayers or corporate liturgical prayer. I didn’t even know there were such things as prayer books until early adulthood. I didn’t know about daily offices. I didn’t know about collects or Prayers of the People. I was just told it was important to have a daily quiet time, which comprised personal extemporaneous prayer and Bible reading as twin pillars undergirding my spiritual life. Mostly I just sat there trying to get focused enough to read the Bible and pray.
Two things bothered me when I reflected upon my experiences with both personal and corporate extemporaneous prayer as I grew in my faith, furthered my theological education, and expanded my horizons a bit to include liturgical prayer as part of my personal prayer repertoire.
First, I remember clearly observing from a relatively early age that many extemporaneous prayers, while no doubt said with the best intentions, were nevertheless quite self-focused, shallow, and lacking in theological depth and biblical substance. Including my own.
Not that I think God is impressed by big words. God isn’t.
But surely our prayers ought to be informed by Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Surely our prayers ought to focus on the Triune God, God’s attributes and characteristics and work in the world. Surely our prayers ought to include petitions for the broader world and all of creation, not simply comprise a wish list of things I want God to do for me, my family, and closest friends.
Yet most of my experiences with personal and corporate prayer were much more like the wish list.
Certainly God cares about our needs and desires. “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you,” the Apostle Peter wrote in his first epistle. Similarly, the Apostle Paul encourages us: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).
Wish lists are appropriate at times. God wants us to come in prayer with our requests. Yet when most of our prayers most of the time are wish lists, we’ve failed to grasp how our Lord taught us to pray in the Our Father, and indeed, how prayer is modeled for us throughout Scripture and through the great prayers of the faithful throughout history.
I’ve discovered a rich resource for intercessory prayer in the Prayers of the People in the Book of Common Prayer. Here we’re instructed to pray for:
- The Universal Church, its members, and its mission
- The Nation and all in authority
- The welfare of the world
- The concerns of the local community
- Those who suffer and those in any trouble
- The departed (with commemoration of a saint when appropriate)
As we pray any of the forms of the Prayers of the People or one of the sets of Suffrages in the daily office, we subversively train ourselves that it’s not merely about us and our needs. We intentionally and consciously begin praying for things that might not even occur to us to pray for if left to our own devices. And here’s what I’ve discovered: Praying these prescribed written prayers actually enhances my ability to pray fervent, heart-felt, and thoughtful extemporaneous petitions. Immersing myself in the written prayers in the Book of Common Prayer (and other prayer books) has helped me become better at praying extemporaneously.
A second thing that has concerned me as I’ve reflected on extemporaneous prayer is that many of the extemporaneous prayers I routinely heard from others and prayed myself over the years were punctuated by repetitive key words like “Lord” and “just.” A typical prayer in the traditions I was raised and minster in often goes something like this: “Lord, we just come to you right now and we just praise you, Lord, and we just thank you, Lord, and we just ask you to be with us, Lord, and just Lord … just Lord … just Lord …”
I cringe at knowing I’ve prayed that sort of prayer more times than I care to remember.
Ironically, this seems precisely the sort of repetitive babbling that my low-church tradition was so wary of. And yet it’s a common occurrence in heart-felt, well-intentioned prayers by well-intentioned folks in the traditions in which I was raised and minster.
This is where collects can help. Collects provide us with an appropriately reverent address to God, a statement of a biblically derived attribute or characteristic of God, a specific petition, and a conclusion that almost always invokes that it be done through Christ, and often points us to the Triune God (i.e. “… through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”).
Succinct. Reverent. Biblical. Theological.
It’s no wonder that noted evangelical New Testament scholar and theologian Scot McKnight, who worships in an Anglican congregation, suggested in a blog post not long ago that if we truly want to learn to pray, we might do well to pray the collects in the Book of Common Prayer. The collects can become a school of prayer, forming and shaping us and enhancing our ability to pray more thoughtful extemporaneous prayers.
I’ve also discovered that some of the collects I’ve been praying regularly for several years, like the prayer for grace in the morning office, or the prayer for God to “keep watch” at compline, or the soothing but reverent refrain of the Gloria, reverberate in my mind throughout the day. These prayers and others have become part of me. They’ve formed and shaped me. They’ve informed my theology. And they’ve helped me to pray extemporaneously.
A spiritual master once said we are all novices in the spiritual life. When it comes to prayer I’m especially a novice. Prayer is still hard. But I keep working at it. My journey into liturgical prayer and worship through the Book of Common Prayer and other prayer books over the years has taught me to pray with the Church. There’s a rich treasury of prayers, ancient and less ancient, available to any that seek it. My life has been profoundly enriched by praying these prayers. It’s a gift from God. It’s a gift from the Church. And it’s a gift for the Church.
Rev. Sam Ochstein is an evangelical pilgrim on the Canterbury Trail. Fascinated and deeply moved by liturgical prayer and worship, he is the senior pastor at Hillside Missionary Church in South Bend, IN. He and his wife also regularly attend Sunday evening mass at Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in South Bend.