Monday, October 31, 2005

intercession and worship

It is easy enough to speak of the prayers of intercession, offered in worship, and their shortcomings. My divinity school professor of worship commented more than once that what is assumed to be one of the most spontaneous moments in worship is actually the most predictable. This perception can be traced to an important reality among parish ministers: the role is one of priesthood, the clergy functioning as the intermediary between those gathered for worship and God. An authentic priesthood implies significant time practiced in the presence of God, listening, questioning, clarifying. In like manner, an authentic priesthood implies substantial amounts of time spent in the presence of other people, again listening, questioning, clarifying. These two tasks cannot be ones assigned to the margins of ministry---they are core functions of our calling. And yet, in reality, there are other demands—preparation for preaching and preaching; care for administration, planning and visioning; relationships with key leaders and, where, applicable, staff members.

When significant time with God and with others is not set aside, the prayers of intercession lack depth, in both human and divine perspective. And so the prayers of intercession, or the prayers of the people, can become something else: advice for God; repetition of world events; recitation of those who are hospitalized; commentary on congregational activities.

These are not bad emphases, in themselves, and I am not intending to be critical of worship leaders. On this subject, I speak out of my own practices and shortcomings, as the “chief of sinners”! I am calling for something that is a hunger within myself—a time of prayer, immersed in relationships with the living God, honest in communication of human need. I am pointing toward the corporate need, simply expressed by Rowan Williams to “think of someone in the presence of God”. What could be a more appropriate place to do this than in public worship?

And how could such a prayer become a common occurrence and even an expectation? Several features of an authentic prayer of intercession, offered in worship, come to mind.

First, such a prayer must be biblical. It should be grounded in a conviction that we speak for a God who invites us, who listens to us, who is gracious and merciful, and yet whose ways are not our ways, and whose spirit blows where it chooses (John 3). For this reason intercession should never be predictable, for the God of the Bible is never predictable!

Second, such a prayer will inevitably be marked by a humility in the one who speaks. We approach God not by right, but through mercy. It is true that Jesus calls us no longer servants but friends (John 15), but this is yet another attribute of the divine grace that “stoops to our weakness”.

Third, such a prayer will creatively speak to a variety of human needs and concerns. Prayers of intercession that are continually focused on war, famine, illness and death are engaged with important human conflicts and struggles, but there are others. Some in the congregation are listening and praying in the midst of abuse; yet others are bored, and feel a sense of entitlement; others have never been called into service; others live beneath the poverty line.

Fourth, such a prayer will include space, ideally silence, for the person in the pews to form his or her own thought, intercession and response. In describing the wholeness of prayer, Walter Wangarin notes that first, we speak; then second, God listens; then third, God speaks, and then fourth and lastly, we listen. This pattern seems right to me, and yet it requires some time in the service, some patience on the part of the leader, and some engagement among those sitting in the pews. Those who gather in the congregation are participants in the prayer; they are called not only to affirm the interecessions of the leader, but also to offer their own.

Corporate worship includes several forms of prayer---praise and adoration, confession, thanksgiving and intercession. The responsibility for the depth and quality of the prayer is in part taken on by those who plan and lead, but also by those who participate and are led. It is helpful when intercession is not praise, or confession, for example. When each form of prayer is differentiated, the nature of God and the reality of human need (to adore, to confess, to offer thanks, to ask for help) are each honored, and a mature spiritual life is modeled.

Finally, a word can be said about the ritual settings that accompany the words and silence. Some parishes have traditions that make time available at the altar: perhaps during Holy Communion, or after receiving the elements, or in response to the preached word. There is no doubt that the movements of our bodies---walking toward an altar, or kneeling there---are a form of prayer. And it is also true that we connect with God in holy places, places made holy by God’s promise to be present, by those who have knelt before us, and by our own humble spirits, which are the sacrifices acceptable to God (Psalm 51).

4 Comments:

Blogger St.Phransus said...

i loved this post.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Pastor Dan said...

Ken,

I preach and teach and pray from a personal theological philosophy that says, "We all believe in prayer! We just don't believe in praying." Your article was rock solid, brother! Good thoughts ..!!!

1:40 PM  
Blogger Mysticman said...

How ya doing ken carter, Hope you are having a good day. Your intercession and worship site is most interesting. I was looking for school prayer related information when I came across it. Thanks for the read. I have a site that may interest you come and visit sometime, school prayer thanks again, take care.

8:02 PM  
Blogger Mr JaguarDriver said...

Hi ken carter, I was out surfing on the net looking for the lastest info on pray. Ok this post wasn't exactly what I was looking for but it got my attention and interest , now I see why I found your page when I was looking for pray anyway I'm glad I stopped by you have a great blog. Thanks for the read ...catch you later!

9:02 AM  

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