The Whole World in God's Hands - Prayers Rooted in Providence

World_in_black_and_white_hands Years ago, when I worked as a chaplain at Central College, I had a colleague who used to get together with me regularly to pray for our students.  We did so not only because we believed it would make a difference for them, but because we knew it made a difference for us.  Praying for Jennifer and Scott as they worked through the pain of their parents’ divorces in anticipation of being married themselves, praying for Kim as she struggled with anorexia, with Mark as he battled addiction – these prayers helped remind us that though we are to be faithful and diligent in the ministries God has given us, in the end the sun does not rise, and the crops do not grow, and people are not made whole, and the kingdom does not come by dint of our own effort.

No, the world belongs to God.  It has been entrusted to us, yes, but it is ultimately in God’s hands.  What a good thing for type A people to remember every day!

I let this lesson guide our evening prayer a few weeks ago as I led worship at the hard-working General Synod of the Reformed Church in America.  We decided each night to let a particular song shape and direct our evening prayers.  So we would sing a verse and then let that verse prompt particular petitions and thanks.  So, for example, one evening we sang verses from Bless the Lord, My Soul, the setting of Psalm 103 from Taizé.  Another evening we sang four verses from All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night.  But my favorite was the evening we began and ended with the old gospel favorite “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands.” 

Planning the service, I wanted to get rid of the repeated masculine pronoun, and thought to change the lyric from “He’s” and “his” to “You’ve” and “your” (a far less clunky tweak than alternating genders or using “God’s” throughout). This had the surprising – and wonderful – effect of altering the character of the song altogether.  It shifted it from testimony to prayer; from speaking about God’s providence to speaking to God, rooting our petitions, both spoken and silent, in a confident declaration of God’s power and love: “You’ve got the whole world in your hands.” 

Musically, I played a James Taylor-esque accompaniment (think “Secret of Life” -- Key of A, capo III), and even wrote a couple extra lines, riffing on the old hymn “Sing Praise to God who Reigns Above” as a break leading into the final chorus.

For the shape of the prayer itself, we allowed the song’s verses to suggest thematic areas for prayer (“tiny little baby” = family concerns;  “wind and the rain” = creation care, etc.)  I then augmented those verses, following my own advice to speak with emotional specificity for the lost and the lonely, the weak and the wounded, the whole and the hopeful.

Full text of the prayer, lead sheet (click on the thumbnail), and MP3 demo after the jump.

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Emerging Confessions Part One

In his book on emerging or progressive Christianity, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg questions whether "sin" is the best term for describing our human condition before God. His argument isn't merely theological, but liturgical: "The nearly universal liturgical element of 'confession of sin and absolution' might be replaced or complemented by a 'declaration of what ails us and God's promise to us'" (p. 170). He continues in a note: "I am not suggesting these exact words as 'liturgical headings.' I would hope more elegant phrases could be found, but I am suggesting the notion that lies behind these words" (p. 185, n. 8). Following is one attempt at more elegant phrasing for several of the images Borg mines from the Bible to describe our condition.

Confession of Blindness and Promise of Illumination

God of Light, we confess that our vision is impaired. Your presence is lost to us in the shadows of our world and the darkness of our hearts. We look, yet we do not see, blind to the daily opportunities to praise you and serve others. Restore our sight, we pray, in the name of Christ whose vision of your kingdom come, led him on the path of salvation.

God who commanded light to shine out of darkness has sent Christ as the light of the world. He remains with us in the Holy Spirit, and promises that those who seek will surely find. In Jesus Christ, our eyes are open. Amen.

Recognition of Exile and Hope of Restoration

God, alone in whom our hearts find their rest, we have awakened to find ourselves far from home. Our paths have led us away from you. We feel lonely and fear we are abandoned. Here, your word seems foreign to us, and we struggle to sing the songs of heaven. In your faithfulness, show us your presence once again, that we, too, may rejoice with all who call upon your name.

We have a good shepherd who searches for lost sheep. The Spirit of God still blows through the wilderness and prays for us. The sacred testimony gives us this hope; God delivers us in Christ. Amen.

Admission of Bondage and Words of Deliverance

Listening God, hear our cries. We are not free. We have enslaved ourselves and others to debt and despair. We are bound by vain desires, and our liberty to love is curtailed by bad habits. Our emotions hold us hostage to wrongs, real and imagined. In our bondage we are less than what you call us to be. Hear and answer us, we pray, in the name of him who came to set prisoners free.

The God of the Israelites has shown us the way of exodus. Forsaking what lies behind, we follow our liberating Lord. When we are weak in faith and strength, the Holy Spirit provides daily bread and springs of living water, that we may complete our journey in the land of promise. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thanksgiving - Tried and True, Fresh and New

840400 On Thanksgiving Day many churches offer a very traditional worship service: Psalm 100, a litany of thanksgiving, “Come, You Thankful People, Come.” On a day when we look back with gratitude at God’s good gifts to us, it makes sense to make use of the work and wisdom of our forebears and to worship using that which is tried and true. Other congregations seek innovation: pilgrim puppets behind the pulpit, prayers of thanks colored (not written) in crayon on scraps of paper and dropped in the offering plate.

Our culture craves novelty, which may explain—but doesn’t necessarily commend—our thirst for it. A more laudable urge is to offer in our worship not a stale tradition, repeated out of habit, but something original: our creative expression, our prayers and words and music, our very selves. We want to offer something fresh and new. But must it be an either/or choice?  Many congregations are very successful in their efforts to examine the tried and true traditions (often more true than actually tried), identify the best in them, and then freshen them in ways sensitive to their contexts.  Here are a few ideas...

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7 Worship Leading Principles from Bono

B000bnxdeg01_aa240_sclzzzzzzz_ Dr. Steven Taylor is the founding pastor of Graceway Baptist Church in Ellerslie, New Zealand. He has a PhD on the Emerging Church and a Masters in Theology in communicating the cross in a postmodern world. Steve recently did a course at Fuller Seminary entitled “Communicating the Biblical Text in a PostModern Culture” in July.

He argues that to communicate the biblical text for today’s context requires one to “incarnate, indwell, our culture.”  Taylor goes on to use the phrase “DJing” with respect to the community.  A record DJ learns the historical stories (old records) and uses them authentically in contemporary culture and integrates them into the community's stories.  There is too much to summarize here, but do look for his book “The Out of Bounds Church: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change” from Zondervan.

Taylor cites Bono of U2 as a person who effectively DJs today.  According to Taylor, Bono is in fact a worship leader for over 40,000 people; Bono recontextualizes the biblical text and leads concert goers into a time of community worship and prayer. Taylor plays the “Vertigo ‘05” DVD and shows us how Bono is leading worship.  This intrigued me to the point that  Dr. Taylor and I discussed this further after the workshop. The following is from Steve’s article “7 Things I learnt from Bono about Worship Leading.”

1.    Connect uniquely. In the Vertigo DVD, Bono speaks about Chicago and his memories of Chicago. He makes a unique connection with context, day, and time.
2.    Engage through familiarity. Bono includes songs that resonate with previous experiences and previous encounters.
3.    Use repetition to call forth prayer. Bono uses the repetitive “Hallelujah.” It is easy to sing. The simple repetition enables the audience to sing with the band.
4.    Secure a 5th (visual) band member. U2 now has a 5th member of the band to add a visual layer to the experience. A wise worship leader will look to add not just singers or musicians, but a “visual” person to their team.
5.    Create hope by drawing the best from the past. Bono tells the audience in the Vertigo DVD, “We as a band are looking to the future. We’re taking the best of the past and moving forward with hope.”
6.    Plan participation. Bono can draw one boy from the audience to sing to, one woman from the audience to dance with. He uses repetition to call forth prayer and encourage congregational singing.
7.    Invoke passionate practices. Bono invites the audience to hall out their cell phones and to text “Make Poverty History campaign.”  A worship leader turns singing into action. He turns entertainment into justice.

Lament in the Interrogative Mood

We have written before (here, here, and here) about incorporating lament into worship.  Most often such prayers are corporate rather than individual.  The harsh language of the Psalmic lament is difficult for most individuals to appropriate in their own devotional lives.  We have somehow learned that asking questions of God is irreverent, especially if those questions have a rebuking tone.  But the Psalms teach us that such questions are a central part of a relationship with God, and Scripture as a whole teaches us that God can probably handle our mild rants once in a while. 

Lament One interesting way to encourage folks to pray prayers of lament (whether publically or privately) is to prompt the prayers with an interrogative word, like "why" or "where" or "when" or "how long."  (The phrase "how long", in fact, is used over 20 times in the Psalms alone.)  This way, our prayers for peace in the Middle East, for example, are not merely petitions for wise leadership; they become  expressions of our own helplessness: "When, O Lord, will your children in the Middle East stop firing rockets at one another?" 

After the jump is a short devotional service based on this idea.  It embeds the prayer of lament within both a sung Kyrie and a concluding Alleluia.  It also contextualizes the prayer  -- both the lament and the declaration of God's ultimate sovereignty -- as continuous with the "words of the faithful in all times and places."

Art courtesy Mary Ann Bartley

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Praying Together


In some worshipping traditions, the "prayers of the people" are anything but.  The people don't do much praying at all-- they mostly endure the sincere but longish monologic ramblings of a pastor.  Those congregations who practice a bidding prayer fare a bit better, but their responses ("Hear our prayer, O Lord") can sometimes become dry and rote rather than heartfelt affirmation.

Here is one suggestion for addressing these deficiencies while accomplishing a number of ancillary purposes:

1) increasing congregational participation in the prayers of the people;
2) letting the prayer's shape be suggested by the prayerbook of God's people -- the Psalms;
3) making room within the prayer not only for speaking, but for listening to God's voice.

More details after the jump.

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The Contemporary Desert

Everyone wants heightened spirituality, but don’t know what it takes to get there. Most pastors and worship leaders have such a hectic schedule that it is impossible to slowdown enough for quiet time or solitude. Yet the Apostolic Fathers of faith placed a high value on it.

If leaders have a problem with carving out quiet moments can you imagine what the congregation is feeling? Jonny Baker and Doug Gay’s Alternative Worship: Resources from and for the Emerging Church, provides a “ritual” that contextualizes the spiritual practice of being in the desert that can be used as part of a worship service, small group gathering, or as teaching illustration.

Items needed: Removed Van seat, a boom box, selection of CD’s (ideally instrumental), a video projector and VCR. Video tape a drive down the highway, even being stuck in traffic, or driving through the city.

Description: Traveling in a car is the closest thing for most people get to solitude. “Setting up this ritual will hopefully help people to reflect positively on the space they have next time they are driving alone in the car” (Baker and Gay, Alternative Worship, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2004, 86)

123037Baker and Gay suggest setting up a station that simulates driving in a car. The guests will receive an instruction sheet encouraging them to use this time to listen to music, reflect and pray. You would set up the van/car seats facing a screen. Place the boom box or a Discman personal CD play with headsets on the seat. The listener can select the music that they would like to listen to. Project the driving video onto the screen from behind the seats, which will simulate a car ride. The goal is that every time they take a drive, they can positively connect this space with an opportunity to connect with God and creating a contemporary desert experience.

An Experiment in "Cross-Cultural" Worship

Paul’s sermon in Athens (Acts 17:22-31) is substantially different from any of his other sermons. While his other sermons are identifiably Pharisaical and present the gospel in a way that would be accessible to a predominantly Jewish audience, the Athenian sermon employs patterns and concepts which were common to first century Athens. It is a significant and noteworthy accomplishment on Paul’s part and it may be taken as a mandate to subsequent Christians always to be prepared to articulate the gospel message using new and distinct cultural patterns. While the content of the Gospel is always consistent, the form in which the good news of Jesus Christ is presented should always be flexible. What follows are excerpts from a somewhat playful worship service that was designed to illustrate to a worshiping community the issues and possibilities involved in attempting to articulate a Christian worship service in a particular context.   College students, youth, and children are often engaged by this way of distinguishing between what is essential and what is negotiable in worship.   Read the liturgy after the jump.

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Mother's Day

Mothersday2 I’ve been reading lately about how our consumer culture tempts the Christian with a competing and compelling way of being in the world.  It even has its own calendar, featuring economic “holy days” in which we are encouraged to engage in ritualized pagan practices.  This upcoming Sunday, Mother’s Day, notwithstanding its ostensibly Christian origins, is one such day.

Not surprisingly, many churches participate in the cultural holiday by having special “Mother’s Day” worship services.  This is not in itself a necessarily bad thing.  The church excels at baptizing culturally suspect practices and turning them to God’s good ends.  And I love my mother, I love my wife, and I happen to be a huge fan of motherhood and know well the spiritual value that being a parent can bring.

But we’re on dangerous ground when the Church’s worship on this day turns away from new life in Jesus Christ, and turns rather into a slightly veiled civic celebration of the “traditional” family and the woman’s often subservient role within it.  We are on slick footing when we plan services that have less to do with engaging a triune God and more to do with handing out a bit of instruction regarding our own preferred parenting methods.  We risk pastoral malpractice when we put a certain type of woman on a pedestal, take a soft-focus picture, and offer bland, if well-meant praise, all the while ignoring the pain and the gifts of other types of women in our congregations: unwed mothers, women who have had abortions, women who have suffered from undesired childlessness, and women, both single and wed, for whom God’s call does not include children at all. 

So this Mother’s Day, make use of the counter-cultural liturgical calendar, and follow the lectionary readings for your service planning. And then let the struggles of family life and motherhood inform a rich pastoral prayer, like one of these from the Lutheran Church in Australia:

God of all life,
We thank you for adopting us into your family through the miracle of baptism,
and for calling us to be brothers and sisters to each other
through Jesus, the only Son of God.
Today, loving Father, we pray for our mothers:
who cared for us when we were helpless,
who comforted us when we were hurt,
whose love and care we usually took for granted,
as we often take your love for granted.
Today we pray for:
those who are grieving the loss of their mother,
maybe even years after they were separated;
those who never knew their biological mother,
and now yearn for her;
those who have experienced the wonder of an adopted mother’s love;
the families separated in the wars in ___.
Lord, give them special blessings. 
Keep us united with Christ, so that we can love in the way he loves us and all people. 
We ask this for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Gracious God, we pray:
for new mothers, coming to terms with both the joys and demands of motherhood;
for pregnant mothers, expectant and wondering, or fearful;
for those mothers who are tired, stressed, ill or depressed;
for those who struggle to balance the demands of work and children;
for those who have to struggle with difficult decisions about whether or not to become a mother or to have another child;
for those who are unable to feed their children due to poverty;
for those whose children have physical, mental or emotional disabilities;
for those who have children they do not want;
for those who raise children on their own;
for those who have lost a child through death or abortion;
for those who care for the children of others;
for those whose children have left home;
for those whose children have rejected their love;
and for those whose desire to be a mother has not been fulfilled.
Bless all mothers, that their love may be deep and tender, and that they may lead their children to know and do what is good, living not for themselves, but for God and for others.  We pray by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the name of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

For more on the history of Mother’s Day and other liturgical resources, see our friends at Sermon & Lectionary Resources. For a good article on Mother’s Day, see this piece by Jenell Williams Paris.