Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Public prayer is like putting on a play...

But not in the bad connotation of "showing off." (Hopefully).

If you grow up in an evangelical Protestant tradition, you are familiar with extemporaneous public prayers. You participated in "prayer circles" in which the leader would "start us off with a word of prayer," and then there was silence for others once they "opened the floor to prayer", and then the designated closer would finish. Jon Acuff did a hilarious send-up of the different characters in a prayer group a few years back. There are all kinds of cues that you just know. You listen for that sharp intake of breath that means someone's about to jump in. You know that "in Jesus' name" without the Amen means that it's the next person's turn to go. And of course there are the token phrases: "Father God, we just want to lift up Your name tonight because You alone are worthy of all our praise, and we just ask You Father God to send down Your Spirit down upon us. We just want to lift up our sister Kim to You God, that You will be with her and let Your healing hand guide her in this difficult time. Put a hedge of protection around her Father God. And we ask for travel mercies for the Williams family as they go to Nebraska...". (I exaggerate, a little).

If you've ever done improv theater, you understand the concept of "yes, and." When your partner says "It's all your fault that we're in the dragon's belly," you can't just say "no we're not, we're sitting at a kitchen table." The idea is to keep the scene moving and add to what's already there. The same is true of extemporaneous, public group prayers in a Protestant setting. You can't contradict what someone else has said, but you can't just repeat it either. Keep it moving and think on your feet unless you want the whole room shifting in their seats and sighing.

Liturgical prayer is a different beast. You follow the directions (ha! printed directions? not always) and don't speak out of turn. There's a script for both words and actions, and who speaks when, and even for the cadence of the words. Everyone else knows that only the priest says "Our Father," and then we join in on "who art in heaven" - everyone but you, blurting it out in the silence. There are no surprises - unless you don't have a script.

When someone raised on liturgical prayers in the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or Episcopal churches comes to a Baptist prayer group, it's as if an actor trained in written plays is thrown into an improv troupe. And when a Baptist is thrown into a liturgical worship setting, it's like an improv player expected to know his lines to a play he's never seen.

When I started going to Episcopal churches, I was fortunate - the first one I went to had all the "lines" printed in the bulletin. Unfortunately I assumed that this was de rigour and was, shall we say, dismayed to find that some churches will just list the page in the Book of Common Prayer. Y'all, I love the BPC, but why in the name of everything good and lovely is the Eucharistic service split up into different pages? You're following along like a good little church goer, convincing everyone else that you know what you're doing, and then the prayers of the people start, and it's form IV, and you're flipping frantically while everyone else has memorized the responses. And then it's back to the service, but oh wait we're doing Eucharistic Prayer C this time, and where the hell is it and why is the priest talking about planets and shit? And now we're onto the Lord's Prayer, but I grew up as a debtor and everyone here is a transgressor, and it's not at the end of Prayer C, it's somewhere else again.

And don't even get me started on the 1982 hymnal. There's those damn "S" pages in the front with prayer settings etc, so if you're singing "hymn #1" you automatically go to the front like a normal human being, only to be lost in a sea of S's that don't even look like hymns. And Lord help me if they don't print the music to "Glory to God" and just write "S so and so" in the bulletin, because some of the tunes I know but some I don't. Same thing with the Sanctus. Get it together, people.

And now I'm just screwed, because I used to go to churches that did Rite II, and my current church does Rite I with a few alterations, so now I don't even know what side is up. I can never remember if it's "Glory be to Thee, O Christ" or "Praise to you, Lord Christ." And now I have 3 versions of the Lord's prayer and 2 versions of the Nicene Creed floating in my head, without a hope of ever getting them untangled.

All that to say, be gentle with each other. Protestants, if someone grew up in a liturgical setting they will be terrified at the idea of unrehearsed prayers in public. Don't ask them to bless the food or lay hands on someone or "open the floor for prayer" without clearing it with them first (they will say no, FYI). Catholics and all you other liturgical folk, don't glare at the poor soul who dropped their prayer book in your pew or went to the wrong side of the altar for communion. They're trying to learn this play off the cuff in front of a bunch of strangers.

When it comes to prayer, some of us grew up in an improv troupe, and some grew up in community theater. Let's work with what we've got and help each other out. And if you're in charge of writing the bulletins, have a quiet chat with a newcomer who used to go to a praise and worship service. They might have some valuable input on clarity.

1 comment:

  1. What a great analogy! I did some theatre in high school, and this is right on target. I have to admit, when I think of people praying spontaneously out loud in a prayer group, it makes me uncomfortable not just because I don't know what to say, but because it seems very fake to me. (Please note: I'm not saying the pray-ers ARE being fake, just that it SEEMS fake to me. Probably because I'm a liturgically-oriented Catholic gal!) I have no problem with sharing prayer intentions of course, I guess it's just the way it's done can rub me the wrong way. Also, all of the spontaneous prayer "token phrases" that you mention just means that the extemporaneous prayer is really formulaic (liturgical) prayer, at least in part. ;)

    We have missalettes in (most) Catholic churches, which include all of the readings, as well as the prayers and appropriate responses for the entire Mass. Some versions are easier to follow than others, but it sounds like a slightly more workable system than the one you describe at your church. Man, would I be frustrated if I didn't have a guide to what was going on!