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Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Liturgical Prayer


Introduction
As we head toward Christmas, I challenge you to pray more often and more deeply.  Prayer is essential in the Christian faith.  It’s not just something Christians do; prayer is our relationship with God.  Prayer is so much more than we’ve settle for.  There are so many ways to pray.  And our prayer life needs to be faithful and deep.  Faithful, meaning we pray often and regularly; and deep, meaning our prayers go beyond the shallow, surface prayers of immature faith.

Last Wednesday, I shared about examining prayer—where we examine our life for ways God reveals His presence with us and also invite Him to examine our hearts.  Sunday, I taught about the Lord’s Prayer (aka the Daddy prayer)—a simple model of prayer where we have a conversation with our Daddy in Heaven about whatever we want to talk about.  Today, I want to explore liturgical prayer.  Psalm 136 is a beautiful example of liturgical prayer from the Old Testament.  Here's a sample that would normally be lead by a worship leader with a congregation responding with the words in italics:

Psalm 136:1-9, 23-26
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods.
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords.
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to him who alone does mighty miracles.
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to him who made the heavens so skillfully.
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to him who placed the earth among the waters.
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to him who made the heavenly lights—
His faithful love endures forever.
the sun to rule the day,
His faithful love endures forever.
and the moon and stars to rule the night.
His faithful love endures forever.
He remembered us in our weakness.
His faithful love endures forever.
He saved us from our enemies.
His faithful love endures forever.
He gives food to every living thing.
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of heaven.
His faithful love endures forever.

Liturgical Prayer
Liturgy is a scripted formula for worship or prayer.  For instance, every Sunday at our church, we follow the same general pattern for worship.  We make announcements, then have a prelude as the Acolytes light the altar candles, there is a call to worship, and then an opening prayer, etc.  The songs and prayers and messages change from week to week, but we usually follow the same general pattern.  The “pattern” (or order of worship) is the liturgy.  

We might also call a responsive reading a liturgy.  For example, we might recite the Apostles Creed that is printed in the bulletin or on the screens (or from memory); or we might use a responsive reading as we light the Advent candles or a prayer of confession from the back of the hymnal at the end of the service.

Ceremonies we act out—like lighting the Advent candles—are also liturgy.  This includes many ceremonies like:
  • Holy Communion – where we break the bread and raise the cup
  • The offering – passing the plates and lifting them up at the altar
  • Baptism – sprinkling or pouring water over a person’s head
  • The Acolytes lighting the candles on the altar
  • Parishioners kneeling at the altar for prayer
All of these physical acts are a form of liturgical prayer.  Sometimes, we say formulated words (written prayers) as we perform the acts; we say, “This is the body and blood of Christ” as we share Holy Communion.  Other times, the rituals stand alone as acts of prayer by themselves as when the acolytes symbolically bring the light of Christ to the altar candles at the beginning of the service.

So let me explore two forms of liturgical prayer you could use in your private prayer times:  written prayers and ceremonial prayers

Written Prayers
Some people really struggle to know what to say in prayer.  I had one person tell me they have the prayer in their head, but really have trouble getting the words from their head to their lips.  Others who pray quite frequently often find that their prayers get repetitive; they always pray about the same things.  Fortunately, there are endless collections of prayers that people have written down through the ages.  There are prayers that cover the gamut of subjects we can pray about.  Examples of Written Prayers:
President Woodrow Wilson

A Prayer for All Nations by President Woodrow Wilson
Almighty God, supreme Governor of all people, hear our prayer for all nations, and so overrule the imperfect counsel of people, and set straight the things they cannot govern, that we may walk in the paths of obedience to you, and to thoughts that purge and make us wise; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

The Prayer of Saint Fancis of Assisi
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

The United Methodist Hymnal has prayers throughout its pages.  Books that collect and index prayers according to topics are also available.  And with the tremendous resources available on the internet, you can find prayers for any subject or occasion.  Struggling with depression?  Look up a prayer about depression.  Want to pray for someone on their birthday?  Do a Google search for birthday prayers.  Need a prayer as you get ready for Christmas?  Look up Christmas prayers and find one like this one by Melanie Chitwood: 
Dear Lord, don't let us miss You this Christmas season. Help us to simplify our activities and traditions so we can focus our celebration on Your birth. Thank You for being the Prince of Peace, and I ask You for that supernatural peace to reign in our hearts. Thank You for the simple but life-changing message of Your love for us. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

A drawback to written prayers is they might lack some of the spontaneity of coming up with your own prayer on the spot, but the drawback comes with a great benefit—spiritual depth.  Written prayers broaden what you pray about.  Left to ourselves, we might not ever think to pray about anything beyond the same people, concerns, and subjects we always think about.  Reading through collections of traditional and contemporary prayers exposes us to a multitude of ideas, yearnings, and insights from Christians from all over the world and throughout the ages.  And praying words someone else wrote down doesn’t have to be impersonal.  Often, you may find that reading someone else’s prayer inspires you to talk to God about the subject in your own words.  Now you have gotten to the heart of prayer.

Ceremonial Prayers
Ceremonial prayer is a prayer acted out in a ritual.  The variety of ceremonies is limitless.  And don’t be put off by the word “ceremony”, which might seem too “official” for what you do in your private prayer time.  A ceremonial prayer is just a physical routine that you do as a form of prayer.

If prayer is intimate communion with God, then it makes sense that our intimate times with God would include more than just talking.  Doesn't your time with close family and friends include more than conversation?  Let me put it to you this way.  Kelly and I have a habit of getting up and sharing a cup of coffee together on the couch at 5 AM on those mornings when she goes to work.  We get out of bed, let the dog out, make a cup of coffee, and sit on the couch.  We usually don’t talk much.  We’re both quiet people and it’s early in the morning.  Although few words are spoken, we are together and there’s an intimacy in our time which we intentionally spend together.  Drinking coffee is the ceremony, but just being together is the beautiful result.  We have other non-verbal “rituals” too.  We sometimes like to hold hands while driving in the car.  I open the door for her when we enter a building together. 

Now take that concept and transfer it over to your relationship with God.  What routines might you do that become a form of prayer while you spend time with God?  Some people like to read a chapter of the Bible or an Upper Room devotional every morning.  Others like to open their palms to heaven while they sing in church on Sunday.  Some like to kneel down at the side of their bed before they go to sleep.  

We don’t always have to use words when we commune with God in prayer.  Deuteronomy 6:9 instructs Jews to write the Lord’s commands on the doorposts of their house.  Many Jews have a Mezuzah on their doorpost that contains a written prayer statement called the Shema that says, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”  Many kiss the Mezuzah when they go in or out of their home.  What prayerful rituals do you or could you incorporate into your life?  Could you hand copy or type a few verses of Scripture into a journal every day?  Could you turn your morning commute into a time to sing praises to God?  Some families find it meaningful to read the Bible together.  Some people have their own Advent candle ceremony—lighting one candle in their home for everyday leading up to Christmas.

Everyone has daily rituals in their life.  How might you take something you already do—a daily walk, a morning cup of coffee, taking a shower, doing the dishes—and turn them into a ceremonial prayer.  How do you make a daily ritual a ceremonial prayer?  It’s not hard.  It only takes you making it an intentional act of prayer.  Here’s an example of how it could look.

Loading the Dishwasher with Jesus
  1. As you see all the dirty dishes needing to be cleaned, don’t be overwhelmed. Instead, be glad you have a way to clean them.
  2. As you unload the clean dishes from the dishwasher, be thankful for all the ways Jesus has cleansed and made you new.
  3. As you load dirty dishes into the dishwasher, envision Jesus graciously receiving all your sins.
  4. When the dishwasher is full, be satisfied that Jesus has the capacity to carry all your sins away.
  5. As you place the dish detergent in the washer, know the blood of Christ can wash away the stain of any sin.  As you start the dishwasher and hear it running, remember Jesus is cleansing your life--even now.  It may take some time to see the results, but you will.  Be patient.
Holy Communion
Prayer is communion with God.  Perhaps the greatest of all liturgical prayer is the sacrament of Holy Communion.  Through the use of bread and grape juice, we remember the love of God that was so strong it left the glory of Heaven to come down to our broken world to save us from our sins by dying on a cross.  Maybe you will find an opportunity to enjoy The Lord's Supper this season.  We will share it at my church on Christmas Eve at 5:00 PM.  

How could you deepen your prayer life through liturgical prayer?