Writing prayers

One of the joys of my job has been writing prayers and liturgy. I had a couple of superb teachers in seminary who encouraged their students to strike a balance of scripture, tradition, creativity, and innovation. We faced assignments like writing prayers, lyrics to hymns, and a variety of other worship elements. We learned about the history of liturgy and the traditions of worship. We participated in worship on a regular basis and learned not only from assuming the roles of leaders, but also from worshiping with our peers and using the liturgies they created. Our experience was different from the education received by contemporary seminarians, who do most of their coursework in isolation, attending classes online and participating in a variety of different worshipping communities. Sometimes I am tempted to say that we received a better education, but that isn’t accurate. It is different, but it is far too soon to judge the new leaders who are emerging in the church.

I know that serving in the role of pastor has led me to several changes in how I think and how I approach the tasks of leading worship. I believe that I am a better preacher than I was when I first graduated from Seminary. Years of practice combined with real time feedback from the faces and participation of congregational members have been good teachers. There is a big difference, for example, between classroom studies and exercises and actually facing a grieving family and leading a funeral for their loved one. Having been married for decades and having been the parent of children who married has taught me a great deal about wedding ceremonies.

One of the big changes in my life came late in my career. When the Covid-19 pandemic virtually shut down in-person worship for a while, I struggled with how to be pastor of my church. There was a lot of new technology to learn in a short time. We had to learn how to make podcasts and post videos on social media in a very short amount of time. I had to stretch my imagination to keep a ministry that had been based on personal relationships alive in a very stressful time. One of the things I did was to write and record a prayer for my congregation every day. I used a tripod-mounted camera to made video recordings. I decided to feature our church building as background for the videos, selecting a different space in the church each day. In addition to familiar places such as the chancel, entryway, classrooms, and offices of our church, I sought out less familiar places such as the organ pipe chambers, the basement mechanical rooms, the storage shed and the benches of the organ and pianos. I tried to write fresh and original prayers every day. The challenge was significant, but also rewarding. I learned a lot about how to write meaningful prayers that provided much-needed connection in a season of isolation.

In retirement, I have accepted another challenge when it comes to prayers. I am still doing a fair amount of teaching, serving as an Interim Faith Formation Minister. I meet with multiple classes and study groups every week and I have been recruited to teach online classes for a nation-wide Faith Formation Leadership and Certification program. Inspired by the beautiful prayers crafted by Walter Brueggemann, I accepted his challenge to craft a unique prayer to begin each class I teach. It took a bit of practice, thinking individually of the students in the class, the materials to be covered, and the realities of life in our complex world. The feedback from students was immediate. They expressed appreciation for my prayers. Their reaction inspired me to develop a discipline of regular writing of prayers.

I have long invested time and energy in the process of crafting prayers. I have worked hard to craft prayers when invited to deliver an invocation at a city council meeting, a legislative session, or a community event. I used to look forward to the annual gala of Black Hills Works, an agency providing services to individuals and families with learning and living challenges. During the last few years of my ministry, I was invited to deliver the invocation each year and I would spend time with persons served and agency employees collecting memories and experiences to incorporate into each annual prayer. That experience has taught me skills that help when crafting prayers for the classes I facilitate.

Although I currently do not have responsibility for leading worship outside of regularly leading the time with children, I continue to expand my collection of prayers. I read the prayers of others regularly, including several collections of prayers by Walter Brueggemann. I’ve even toyed with the thought of publishing a collection of prayers. I have met a very skilled editor who has been helping me with organization, formatting, and revising some of the prayers I have written. She is focusing on prayers focusing on the care of Creation that I craft for one of the groups in our congregation. Her efforts might lead to something worth publishing.

Of course, I don’t write prayers with the vision of collecting them into a book. I write them as single-use elements in on-going relationships between teacher and student, leader and participant. My prayers are designed to provide a moment of genuine worship for people engaged in very busy lives. They are crafted to bring us together and help us focus our attention on the presence of God. They are designed to help us be present and pay attention to the holy in our midst. Their primary value is their use in their intended context.

This week, I have the delightful task of creating a few special prayers for a wedding. I haven’t officiated at a wedding since I retired and I’m finding the invitation to be stimulating and exciting. I keep coming up with prayer sentences in my imagination as I go about my daily tasks. I’ll find my mind wandering when sitting at my desk or even while reading a book, trying to come up with just the right words for a couple’s special day. I am honored and grateful to have been given the invitation.

I now the adage: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Fortunately, I am not a dog, and although I am old, I find great joy in new challenges and in the discovery of new ways of combining words for use in prayer.

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