This valuable article was written by our friend and New Creation co-laborer Karen Burger. For those who are new to using written prayers in worship, this essay will no doubt be a great help. Thanks, Karen!
Teach Me to Pray: The Sincerity of the Written Word
By Karen Burger
The disciples asked “Lord, teach us to pray.” His response was that when you pray to our Father, who is in heaven, whose name is holy, sacred, and to be respected, pray that his kingdom will come on earth like it is in heaven, and that his will will be done. Pray for your needs. Pray for forgiveness for your sins. And—side thought—after all the forgiving God has done for you, you are forgiving those who have trespassed against you right? And finally, Father, deliver us from evil.
That prayer served as an example to the nascent church and has remained one for its entire history. It stemmed from the basic need: “Lord, teach us to pray.”
When I was a child, I learned how to pray from listening to my parents. I learned how to pray for my needs, to shout joyfully to him for things like Comet cleaner that miraculously appeared, and to ask for patience dealing with “you know who’s on my mind.” As I got older and busier, I fell into periods of “Father, please help me find my passport again and thank you for everything and I’m sorry I snapped at so-and-so (you know everything so I’m sure you saw what she did).”
I need, apparently, some help. Father, teach me how to pray.
My first foray into the forest of written prayer came early in my marriage when I realized I was a sinner. (I knew before, but nothing reveals a selfish heart like being newly married to a real person). My husband encouraged us to pray this prayer together all the time:
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.
I could have prayed “please forgive me for snapping at my frustrating husband. Wow, I need to clean the kitchen.”
Or I could learn the above prayer, which I’m sure I have memorized by now for need of it. I’m not not praying when I pray this prayer. I’m just using a guide. I hadn’t given much thought before to the fact that I have sinned in thought, and in word, and in deed. This prayer is based in Scripture. The Bible tells us to love the Lord our God with all our heart. (Which we haven’t and therefore we need a Savior; this part we understand). The Bible tells us to love our neighbors. The bit about delighting and walking is from the Psalms.
So, I have learned, when I need to confess my sins, to concentrate and to pray. This is not a new concept. David wrote down prayers all the time. The Psalms are a very good guide. (I’m not suggesting that you pray them as though you were David—you aren’t—but the Psalms are a fabulous window into the heart, and heart of prayer, of a man after God’s own heart. And many of the Psalms were written in order to be used in public worship).
The early church wrote down prayers, like these from Clement of Rome during the 1st Century:
We beseech thee, Master, to be our helper and protector.
Save the afflicted among us; have mercy on the lowly;
raise up the fallen; appear to the needy; heal the ungodly;
restore the wanderers of thy people;
feed the hungry; ransom our prisoners;
raise up the sick; comfort the faint-hearted.
You, who are faithful in all generations, just in judgments, wonderful in strength and majesty, with wisdom creating and with understanding fixing the things which were made, who are good among them that are being saved and faithful among them whose trust is in You; O merciful and Compassionate One, forgive us our iniquities and offenses and transgressions and trespasses. Reckon not every sin of Your servants and handmaids, but You will purify us with the purification of Your truth; and direct our steps that we may walk in holiness of heart and do what is good and well-pleasing in Your sight and in the sight of our rulers.
And the not-as-early church has written down prayers, to serve as guides, ever since. (See the Book of Common Prayer below).
The disciples asked “Lord, teach us to pray” and Jesus began with the reminder that our God is in heaven. He is holy, sacred, and worthy of our greatest respect. He is worthy of our focused prayers that help us say what we long to say, and what we should say, and he is worthy of our best language.
Interested? Did you know that the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is online? It is: http://www.bcponline.org/! The Daily Office is super helpful: http://www.bcponline.org/. (Just a side note: Rite 1 has the thou’s; Rite 2 has the you’s). Finally, I found this blog while I was Googling “the history of written prayer.” He provides some additional reasons here.
UPDATE: The (sort of) NEW 2019 Book of Common Prayer is available online here and for purchase here.