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I have long been an advocate for pastoral prayers that evince a capaciousness of thought and perspective. It’s too easy to pray for only the local stuff: what’s in the bulletin, upcoming church events, Wednesday evening ministries, and maybe a news story from the town where the church is located. But getting beyond that to pray for world concerns, for sisters and brothers suffering in faraway places, seems increasingly rare in many churches and certainly is not a constant feature of public prayers in some (maybe many) worship services.
Of course, there are exceptions for the big events but, as I will note, even these don’t last long but for a not very good reason. Still, when a tsunami hits a country on the other side of the world, if there is a major airline disaster, when a well-known world leader dies: these things usually make it into pastoral prayers in most places. Yet all too often even when this happens, it happens once. One week, one service, one prayer and then no more.
Why? Because we have been conditioned by the news cycle on cable television and their online websites. For instance, it has been only just over a week now since a devastating earthquake killed hundreds in Ecuador. This was preceded by two major quakes in also Japan. Probably on April 17 this was mentioned in prayer in some churches (but think now: if you were in church that day, do you remember it being prayed for even then?). But on April 24 I wonder how many people continued to pray for what is surely an ongoing crisis in both Japan and Ecuador, fraught with unspeakable grief, abiding suffering / displacement, and vast seas of sorrow. My hunch is not many pastors or worship leaders tumbled to pray for this again, however.
By the end of last week, online news sites like CNN.com had basically dropped the Japan and Ecuador stories from their active feeds. As of yesterday, I could not find a single reference to either on CNN.com in any news category on their homepage. Even the New York Times on its website had no mention of Japan or Ecuador anywhere on its homepage. I then clicked on the “World” category of news and scrolled through upwards of 30-40 world news stories but, again, not one on the recent earthquakes or their aftermath.
CNN.com did, however, have a news link–featured pretty prominently–about Jennifer Aniston being named the most beautiful woman in the world by People magazine. That link has been there for over a week now. Stories about the musician Prince were frequent. And a man apparently caught a championship fish with a wrench.
But my purpose here is not to lampoon the shallowness of the news media but only to say that pastors need to do better and learn to pray for the world well beyond the typical news cycle or the shelf life of any given story. This requires intentionality, keeping a list of things to keep checking on, internet searches for information beyond the headlines of a given day or week. It might also help to discipline our public praying beyond the close-to-hand, local, bulletin-announcement stuff perhaps by apprenticing ourselves to some of the traditional prayers and collects of the Church.
As my colleague John Witvliet has also frequently noted, what you find in the older prayers of the tradition is a conscious and conscientious decision to cover a wide range of prayer categories and concerns. Prayers and prayer outlines used in the 4th and 5th centuries, for instance, had lists of upwards of two dozen concerns for the weekly prayers in public worship. Here is an idea of what was covered as a matter of course: Prayers for . . .
- all magistrates and their governments that they may work for peace
- those with authority that they may love and pursue justice
- the holy catholic church, its tranquility and flourishing
- the local parish and its ministries
- every episcopate under heaven
- the local bishops and other church leaders
- elders, deacons, singers, readers
- widows, orphans, the single, the married, those women with child
- those who bear fruit in the church, who give alms and offerings, who support the poor in all places
- those new to the faith that their faith and discipleship will strengthen and mature
- those dealing with illnesses of various kinds
- those who travel by water or land, those who work in mines, those who are in prison, those oppressed by bitter servitude anywhere
- opportune weather and abundant rains for the growing of food to feed all
- our enemies and all who hate and persecute us that their anger may be calmed
- those who wander and those who are young
- every soul under heaven and for one another in this place
What if those of us who are graced to lead in public worship disciplined ourselves to have such a wide range of prayer concerns on a regular basis? And what if we then populated our prayers with specific names and situations that may or may not be in the news (or still in the news) ahead of any given Sunday but that are proper concerns for God’s people to ponder when worshiping the Lord of lords and King of kings? What if we started to pick–I never did this as a pastor but wish I had–one country a week to find out something about it, what the condition of the church is there, and then raise it up in prayer? This week, Uganda. Next week, Paraguay.
Of all the things we do in church every Sunday, prayer is one of the few portable practices. That is, we may not hear or preach a sermon Monday-Saturday; we may or may not sing hymns during the week or listen to a choir; we may or may not give an offering or receive a benediction from someone; we probably do not engage baptism or the Lord’s Supper in between worship services. But the one thing we do together on Sundays that we continue to do all week is pray. Those of us who pray in public worship have the chance to set an example, a tone, a model to which others may aspire. Being thoughtful about what we put into those public prayers, then, is at once a privilege and a sacred duty.