The right mix
According to the well-known proverb, familiarity breeds contempt . But it can also result in a casual or careless attitude to corporate worship. We can be so familiar with the words we use, that it becomes little more than a vain repetition of pious phrases. If we are not actually engaging our hearts and minds, are we truly honouring God or ministering to one another? A lecture has been cynically described as a device whereby the notes of a lecturer are transferred to the notes of a student, without going through the mind of either. Perhaps something similar is true when our liturgy does not receive the careful thought and reflection it deserves.
Take for example, the congregational use of the Lord’s Prayer. Like many readers of the Southern Cross, I was raised in a church tradition where the congregation joined together in saying the Lord’s Prayer every week in church. Each Sunday morning the minister would conclude his long intercessory prayer with words such as the following: … we ask all this in the name of the one who taught us to pray, saying … – at which point the entire congregation would launch into, Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be your name … . I can t recall much variety in the order or form of our unwritten Presbyterian liturgy. In any case, the Lord’s Prayer was the most consistent feature of our hymn-prayer sandwich . Most of us had been taught to recite it off by heart in Sunday School, and therefore it would roll off our tongues quite easily in church; not much mental effort was required, hence the problem – we were too familiar with the actual words. Both I and (I suspect) the vast majority of the congregation were able to recite this prayer without even thinking about what we were saying. For me, at least, it had become simply a thoughtless recitation of pious phrases. The Lord’s Prayer had degenerated, as an old hymn puts it, into a prayer of words alone.
After my teenage conversion, I began attending a Baptist church. There we took some pride in not using the Lord’s Prayer at all! Unlike the established denominations – which there was a tendency to frown upon – we were certainly not going to fall into the religious trap of vain repetition by thoughtlessly reciting the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Indeed, rather than any form of conventional liturgy, great value (read: spiritual maturity) was placed on extemporary prayer. Of course, I soon discovered that like Prebyterians, Baptists also had their own unwritten liturgies – and that certain pious phrases and petitions could sometimes be used rather glibly in that tradition also.
However, when finally I was introduced to Anglicanism, I was exposed to a degree of liturgy such as never before. As you would expect, chapel services at Moore College are consistently liturgical, using the various forms of service suggested in the Anglican Prayer Book of Australia or the contemporary revision produced by the Archbishop of Sydney’s Liturgical Panel. But whether we use the forms in the Prayer Book or (very occasionally) a more free-form order of service, certain aspects are seldom omitted, such as the Apostle’s Creed or the Lord’s Prayer. Not surprisingly, therefore, even those from other denominations quickly become familiar with these liturgical elements – so much so that even theological students and lecturers can find ourselves saying the words without really engaging our minds. But I suspect that this is not just a problem faced by those who participate in several liturgical services every week. I imagine that this is something all of us can struggle with, whether we re conscious of it or not.
At a church I visited some time back, the minister tried to help the congregation reflect on what we were actually saying as we recited the Lord’s Prayer. The congregation was encouraged to pause momentarily at the end of each petition, and think about what we had just prayed. The idea was to avoid simply reading or reciting the prayer in a mechanical or insincere manner. The sermon had expounded the Lord’s Prayer, so such reflection on each petition immediately after we prayed the words seemed entirely fitting and possible. Nevertheless, it quickly became clear that this was a difficult thing for us to do. We were all so familiar with the words (and regularly repeating them at a certain pace), that we struggled to implement these simple instructions. And so by the third or fourth line we found ourselves saying the prayer together at the normal pace, and in some cases, perhaps, in the normal manner.
Of course, I need to be careful here. It would be wrong to assume that everyone shares my own difficulty in concentrating carefully on these familiar words every time we say them. Undoubtedly, not everybody reciting the Lord’s Prayer falls into this trap of doing so in a mechanical or disengaged fashion. So I am certainly not suggesting that we simply abandon our practice of using this prayer, whether in private devotions, or in a family or congregational setting.
However, I do suggest that, especially for those like myself, we need to think about how we can sincerely use this prayer as Jesus intended, and work hard at preventing it from becoming a mindless exercise or vain repetition.
In corporate worship, one thing we can do is vary or reduce the regular pace at which the prayer is said in unison. Perhaps this could be achieved in some measure by formally introducing a sustained pause at appropriate intervals, giving opportunity to reflect (prayerfully) on the words just uttered. For example, before beginning the prayer, we could pause to consider the intimate relationship we have through Jesus with the Creator and Lord of the universe. Immediately after the first three petitions we could maybe stop to reflect on our personal and corporate concern for God’s glory – his honour, his kingdom and his will – in our lives, our church, our denomination, our society, our world. After the next three petitions it might be helpful to reflect on our personal and collective need for God grace – to provide us with the daily necessities of life; to forgive us our sins, and to steer us away from temptation and the wiles of the devil. Finally, we could conclude with a short pause after its affirmation of our faith: For the kingdom, the power and the glory, are your’s, now and forever, Amen . Clearly the congregation would need to know beforehand where such pauses would be introduced, but hopefully it would not prove too difficult to adjust to such. Of course, this might admittedly be of limited value, in that ultimately we could simply be replacing one piece of mechanical ritual with another. Nevertheless, perhaps with some variety (e.g., not always pausing at the same point each time we say the prayer together) such a simple adjustment to the regular pattern may help us to concentrate more easily, and not simply rattle off the words in a careless or thoughtless manner.
Such a practice could also assist us in family and personal devotions. Indeed, here we have even more opportunity to take time to reflect on the prayer and what we are saying. Luther suggested saying the whole prayer, and then focusing on one petition in particular as the basis for further prayer and reflection. By such a practice we could systematically and regularly pray our way more carefully through each part of the prayer. Another thing we could do is think about the ramifications of each petition for our personal lives – how can God’s name be further hallowed in my life? How invested am I in God’s Kingdom? How submissive am I to God’s revealed will? What are we doing with the blessings God has graciously given to us? Is there unconfessed sin of which we need to repent, or is there someone out there we need to forgive, as God has forgiven us? Are we making it more difficult for God to answer our petition by exposing ourselves to temptation or besetting sins?
By such thoughtful reflection on these questions, prompted by these words we pray, we will almost certainly be convicted by God’s Spirit and hopefully also preserved from the hypocrisy of not meaning what we say . Moreover, we will probably also be much less likely to switch off when we say the Lord’s Prayer together in church. The real problem may not be our over-familiarity with the words, but our under-familiarity with the theology and practical implications of this prayer. Ironically, therefore, the more familiar we truly are with this prayer, the more likely we will be to pray it with heart and mind.
Paul Williamson lectures in Old Testament, Hebrew and Aramaic.