I grew up with extemporaneous prayer. The idea of writing out a prayer never even came up. It just wasn’t something one did; it wasn’t even something one might think of doing. Prayer was “talking to God.” One doesn’t write down a conversation ahead of time; no more would one write a prayer. People didn’t even bring it up to shoot it down–it really just didn’t come up.
I have always been extremely uncomfortable with extemporaneous prayer. I lived in fear of being called on to pray–okay, I still do. I hated those moments of “pray for the person on your right.” In spite of the encouragement of leaders that “it’s just talking to God; you don’t need to be eloquent or fancy or whatever” I never got beyond awkward. I never found a rhythm, a way to put it together in my head that made me comfortable with it.
I also find it pretty hard to concentrate on other people’s extemporaneous prayers, especially in “prayer meeting” settings where person after person would pray these long, drawn-out repetitive prayers. (Especially when I was a kid and we couldn’t go off to the kids’ class on Wednesday night until after the prayer meeting portion of the evening.) There have been times when that’s been different, especially with close friends, but I’m talking general, church activities.
It surprised me when I stopped automatically tuning out all prayers and started listening to the RevDoc’s Pastoral Prayer/Prayers of the People in worship. It often riffed on and continued the themes of the sermon or picked up from the scripture reading. It was eloquent, sincere, deep, theological, thematic, etc. Placed almost at the end of the service, it was kind of a chance to draw everything together and expand it to the world and to life and to specifics of the community. I didn’t know prayers could be like that.
A couple months ago, the RevDoc and I were talking about worship leading and she said offhandedly, “next time you lector, I’ll have you do the Prayers of the People.” It’s usually one of the pastors who does this, but lay people do on occasion. Anyway, I let it wander in my head with a little trepidation until this last week, the next time I was lectoring. When I received the bulletin on Thursday I checked and I was, indeed, doing the Prayers of the People.
So I did what I always do; looked it up on the internet. I found some descriptions, some examples, some specific prayers tied to the lectionary passages. I also found the couple of recordings of full services I have from our church and listened to the prayers. The RevDoc called and we talked about it minimally, but she pretty much gave me free rein. So I prayed. And then I read the week’s scriptures, a version of the sermon the RevDoc had sent me, various models, and church calendar specific offerings. And then I prayed. And then I wrote. What drew me from the on-line offerings I read was not what I expected, but I couldn’t back away. It ended up being a pretty simple prayer. I would have included more biddings/supplications/requests, but that didn’t fit the central piece I wanted to use. It kind of covered everything in one fell swoop. So I toyed with it and toyed with it and finally let it be. It wasn’t what a seminary-trained pastor might do exactly, but I wasn’t being asked to be a seminary trained pastor. It was what I would do.
I know extemporaneous prayer is important, and a good extemporaneous pray-er is going to be shaping that prayer as she/he goes, but this was prayer, too. And for me, to hone this prayer, made me really think about what I was saying to the Holy One. I was working through what it was I was bringing as my offering before the Creator of the Universe in the assembly of the righteous. For me anyway, there’s something in that. (It’s really pretty specific for its purpose, and it’s not a poem–it’s a prayer–but I think I’ll go ahead and post it at the poetry place.)