From the Archives: Teach Us to Pray

Debra RienstraFrom the Archives, Prayer, Spiritual Practices

During Lent we will be reposting some excellent articles from our archives aimed at supporting you, the Educator, during this season of reflection, prayer and spiritual renewal. You may find a new idea or two for future Lenten programming, as well. Debra Rienstra’s article originally appeared in our Winter 2007 print issue.

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Teach Us to Pray: Crafting Prayers and Other Words for Worship

Every act of worship is also an act of teaching. Whenever we pray or sing or speak words together, we are learning or affirming something—about God, the church, devotional practices, and so on. When we prepare to lead worship, then, our creative reflection will make us both more intentional and more effective in our teaching.

For instance, a chief responsibility of any worship leader is to help the word of Christ dwell in us richly, as Col. 3:16 recommends. How can we teach worshipers to let the words of Scripture dwell in us? What does that mean, practically speaking?

One excellent place to begin is by meditating on the Psalms and allowing them to guide our prayer. The Psalms are highly porous in the sense that they invite us into their words and settings. Their vibrant emotions and startling images—though sometimes foreign on the surface—can become our own.

Try following the shape of a psalm in creating a prayer. For example, Psalm 130 begins in deep despair: “Out of the depths I cry . . .” In the middle two verses, the psalmist waits with earnest longing for God. The final verses are a call for hope and a declaration of trust. To base a prayer on this model, begin with the words of the psalm—“Dear God, out of our depths we cry to you”—but then name the particular depths that your group is experiencing: Anxiety? Illness? Marriage trouble? Debt? Then express the longing and even fear that fills our waiting for God’s action. Finally, declare our communal hope in the unfailing love of God, and reaffirm our faith that God will act on our behalf.

Another good strategy is to let a particular image from a psalm inspire your prayer. Sometimes we can use an image directly, but often it helps to translate that image into something more relevant to modern life. For instance, the oil pouring down the collar of Aaron’s robe in Psalm 133:2 sounds weird and messy to us. But what image of blessing, abundance, and holiness might help us seek unity with greater longing? “Dear Lord, let our unity in this church seem as beautiful as a summer garden . . .”

Strategies like these can be adapted both for those who prefer to write out prayers ahead of time and for those who prefer to improvise in the moment. Either way, the challenge is to reflect deeply on the Scripture yourself, then let your reflection become an invitation to others to dwell in those words and pray through them.

Another important responsibility for any worship leader is to help teach the nature of God from the fullness of Scripture’s revelation. Unfortunately, we often focus on a few names or images for God and lose sight of the beautiful variety of the Bible’s teaching. To startle us into fresh wonder, we can explore the Bible’s other names, images, and titles for God. The simplest way to do this is to address our prayers to God using some of these other names. Begin with either an address or a statement: “Desire of Nations, we long for you . . .” or “Jesus, you are the Cornerstone . . .”

In prayer, wonderfully new names lead to new actions. When we pray to God as Purifier (Ex. 31:13, Lev. 20:8), we might seek God’s purifying fire in our congregational quarrels or in international negotiations. When we pray to God as Refuge (Ps. 28:8, 46:1, etc.), we might be led to focus on refugees, desperate for a hiding place. What might we pray when we name God as Morning star (Rev. 22:16) or Fountainhead (Col. 1:18)? When we explore the full splendor of God’s nature, we are awakened again to the full glory of God’s work.

Good teachers know that people only learn when they are both attentive and emotionally engaged. When we seek fresh words for our prayers, we startle one another into a depth of feeling and attention that keeps us open to what God wishes to teach.

(from Winter 2007) Debra Rienstra is Professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is the author of So Much More: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality (Jossey-Bass, 2005) and coauthored with her husband, Ron Rienstra, Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Worship (Baker Academic, 2009).