Prayer sometimes is ritual. When churches pray the model prayer of Matthew 6 (also know as The Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father) as a congregation, or recite together “Hear our prayer” as responses to pre-determined prayers during a time of worship, the prayer qualifies as ritual, even if deeply moving to the congregant. There rarely are surprises. No one protests about the petition to be forgiven as we forgive others in the model prayer; I have never heard someone shout out, “That’s not my prayer!” during the time of response in congregational prayer of confession instead of “Hear our prayer.” Ministers or priests in some churches speak much of the communion liturgy as a prayer. Even among churches that recoil from formal liturgical prayer, ritual phrases become so common that a spoken prayer without them almost seems heretical. The leader of the prayer might ask that God “guide, guard, and direct” or thank God that we in our nation are “free to assemble without fear of molestation” (a petition that, in light of shootings in places of worship in recent years, seems archaic or at least anachronistic). Christians who pray habitually before eating may discover themselves repeating the same short petition word for word before each meal.
Psalm 136 is written as a recitation of God’s faithfulness in history with a congregational response: “His love endures forever.” Several of the Psalms, especially those of praise or lament, might be prayed together as congregational prayer. Even if a worshiper has not experienced the horror underlying the psalm, he or she stands in an assembly where one or more have. We might pray as we read Psalm 59 with other believers, “Deliver me from my enemies, O God; be my fortress against those who are attacking me. Deliver me from from evildoers and save me from those who are after my blood” even if we feel safe and secure now because others in our congregation or in our awareness need that prayer to be prayed now.
My theme in this blog is that prayers in the Bible teach us how to pray and inform us about the nature of both God and humanity. They instruct us regarding the function of lament, petition, confession, and praise in prayer. They provide an example from which we learn how to talk to God. Sometimes, and this is my point in this post, the exact words of a biblical prayer are what you or I or a congregation want and need to pray right now. Jesus cautioned against mindless repetition so we must focus on the purpose of our prayer, the meaning of what we speak, and most of all, on whom we are addressing as we pray. We may pray together, as Christians did in Acts 4:23-31, but we should not pray without understanding, faith, or personal investment in what is being said. When another person prays for you or your group, listen and, when appropriate, affirm with “Amen” or “yes.” Prayer may be practiced ritually, but it should never be offered without reflection.
O Lord, we pray sometimes out of habit. May our prayers always be intentional, and grounded in our faith and love for you. Help us to escape numbness of spirit in the practice of prayer and praise. Invigorate our love for you and for one other. May we remember your actions on behalf of your people as we pray, and may we pause to marvel that we are among those people you have rescued. Lord, when people criticize us or falsely accuse us, protect us. Heal our wounds and restore our ability to love and forgive. In Jesus’ name, amen.