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At the end of our Faculty Meetings, we go around the room to gather up prayer requests. At the final meeting of the just-past school year ten days ago, one of my colleagues mentioned that he’d felt convicted lately on the need to keep praying for our President. It was a good reminder. Those of you who know me, who have followed my blogs here on The Twelve or seen various exchanges I have had on the political front on Facebook know about the vast array of issues I have with our current President. But you also know that I have gone on record more than once to commit to praying for this President. In an earlier blog I wondered how many prayers of goodwill had been offered for President Obama over the last eight years given fierce suspicions that many Christians harbored about him. And I wondered how much Trump supporters would have struggled with prayers for President Hillary Clinton had things gone otherwise in November. Nevertheless, we are called to pray and I have done so.
Of course, saying THAT you pray is different from revealing FOR WHAT you pray. Mostly for the individual believer, the content and tone of those prayers is between you and God. I know that in my private prayers for President Trump, I regularly pray for his physical safety same as I have done for all the presidents I can remember. Ours is a dangerous world. I pray for his good health, for wisdom, for also the safety and well-being of his family.
But because I preach more Sundays than not and because I count as many good friends and colleagues people who also serve as pastors, I recognize how dodgy it can be to pray in these tense political days. Especially in just the last week since the testimony of James Comey and the President’s response, the core issue of honesty is right out there. So what is the public pray-er to do when standing at a church lectern or in a pulpit? If we pray that the President be honest and true, some will accuse the pastor or worship leader of subtly saying the President has not been honest or true. If we pray that justice prevail, some will hear in that a claim that injustice is going on, that crimes have happened, that something suspicious or untoward is up. Even praying for wisdom and guidance could be heard by some as suggesting there is a dire need for this in that President Trump is being backhandedly called foolish and out of control. Of course, these all are examples of innocent things being twisted. Although I have not heard or uttered any, it would not surprise me if there are also prayers that have been offered in recent times that have no subtlety about them whatsoever, either bashing the President for this or that or doing the same thing toward those who oppose Mr. Trump in any way. That’s not helpful, either.
I have no data–neither hard data nor even anecdotal data–to back this up, but I would not be surprised in recent months (given these sensitive acoustics in the church) if public prayers in churches have trended toward the generic. “Please be with all our leaders, O God . . . Grant wisdom to all who find themselves in places of authority, O Lord . . .” (Or maybe some of us just avoid praying for Mr. Trump or any other authorities for the time being just to be safe.)
Would such generic prayers be taking the easy way out to avoid trouble? Maybe. But perhaps not. We should not forget that in the tradition of the church, there was a reason why leaders established pre-written Collects and other formal prayers to be used in worship. Indeed, the first Sunday that I preached following President Trump’s inauguration, I wondered how best to pray in a church where I would be a guest pastor. My solution was to gather up prayers from the ancient church and use those as my public prayer for the day. I also told the congregation ahead of time that I would be tapping our tradition in letting these ancient prayers become our prayers for that day.
So I stitched together large swaths of rich, beautiful prayers written centuries ago. Another advantage for worship leaders and preachers today in reaching back to the ancient Collects of the church is that it helps us gain far greater capaciousness in the Prayers of the People. Traditional prayers ranged from commerce to agriculture, from kings to peasants, from those in danger on the sea to those who found themselves far from home for whatever the reason, from those in prison to those who were sick.
On that Sunday in the prayer I offered in the earliest days of a new presidency–and a presidency that had many of us troubled–I articulated requests for our leaders that might have sounded like axe-grinding had people sensed I had composed these words myself. But as these were prayer requests that had been on the lips of untold numbers of preachers from the past, they were accepted as what they really are supposed to be: Prayers of THE PEOPLE, the collective people of God.
Years ago I attended a summer conference at Princeton Theological Seminary. We had a worship service in Miller Chapel one evening at which a woman offered up a “prayer” that was really a political advocacy speech for justice. (It was also an example of what my professor Carl Kromminga used to deride as “Thou Knowest” type prayers. “Oh Lord, surely Thou knowest that the situation with healthcare is precarious and many could lose coverage if . . .”) On the way out of the chapel that evening a pastor acquaintance of mine who had become Anglican some years back was apoplectic over the prayer. “And THAT” he sputtered, “is why we have The Book of Common Prayer, to prevent speeches like that being palmed off as prayers.”
He was right. Much though many of us in the evangelical world prize the extemporaneous in worship, there may be more than a little wisdom in learning the ancient prayers so that in that holy moment when pastors and worship leaders lead the congregation in prayer, we can do our level best to make sure we are praying together, all of us, as the One Body of Christ we are.