In Psalm 19, David prays, “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD…” (v. 14).
“Pleasing in your sight ….”
What is God looking for in our public prayers when we meet together as believers? How can we best edify our fellow worshippers? Should our prayers be simple and spontaneous, or formal and pre-written?
As in other matters, God looks at our hearts, and desires sincerity and integrity when we pray. He is not looking for eloquence, but appropriateness.
But those who serve God want to pray well. Not just anything goes. We don’t want to be like the Israelites who were tempted to offer God lame animals rather than the pride of the flock. We want to be fully pre-pared to use the gifts God gave us, including imagination and love of good language.
We know that words matter to God. He created the world by speaking. He spoke through prophets and other writers in his Word, much of it written in beautiful language. While eloquence without love is nothing but a clanging cymbal, our love for the Lord should encourage us to care about language when we approach him.
I grew up in a church suspicious of formal prayers, even the repeated use of the Lord’s Prayer. We wanted to avoid empty repetition and insincerity.
Some years later, in a university college chapel, I was startled to hear a minister say that every worshipper has a liturgy, a pat-tern for prayer. He explained that every time he hears someone say “O Lord, we just pray… ” he’s pretty sure it’s a Baptist using Baptist liturgy.
What’s involved, though, may be the choice between carefully thought-out prayers, and those that are careless or thoughtlessly repetitious.
Jesus cautioned against the vain (or meaningless) repetitions of the Pharisees’ prayers. The preacher in Ecclesiastes also warns, “Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter any-thing before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few” (5:2).
This is a suitable caution against unduly long prayers, but also against unpreparedness. The disciples who observed Jesus came to realize they needed to learn how to pray, and asked the Lord to teach them.
He honoured their wishes.
I found it deeply meaningful and helpful when my British-born pastor regularly used the Book of Common Prayer at the beginning of our communion services:
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and wor-thily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
He also often closed the service with a “grace” taken from 2 Corinthians 13:14.
I’m not suggesting Mennonite Brethren should regularly use the Book of Common Prayer. But there’s no harm in reading it from time to time, since it’s biblically based. We can also learn from reading and hearing written prayers of spiritual leaders, often filled with Scripture. Saying the Lord’s Prayer, or using carefully prepared congregational responses are ways of retaining “the standard of sound words” as Paul recommends in 2 Timothy 1:13 (NASB).
We should learn to pray with understanding and engage our minds as Paul instructs (1 Corinthians 14:15).
While we should not strive to be eloquent with impure motives, such as to show off, we should always offer our best in public prayer.
Lowly shepherds were welcome to worship the baby Jesus, but so were the wise men with their gifts. Can our prayerful words be a treasure too?
Dan Doerksen is a member of Willingdon Church, Burnaby, B.C.