In a little book I have called Answering God, author Eugene Peterson writes,
"But the first requirement of language is not to make us nice but accurate. Prayer is not particularly 'nice.' There is a recognition in prayer of the fiercer aspects of God…Psalm language is not careful about offending our sensibilities; its genius is its complete disclosure of the human spirit as it makes response to the revealing God. Given the mess that things are in, it will not be surprising that some unpleasant matters have to be spoken, and spoken in the language of our sin-conditioned humanity, for the language of prayer is, most emphatically, human language. It is not angel talk." (41-42)
Sometimes we simply do not have the words though. Sometimes talking to God is difficult because perhaps we think what we have to say might be offensive or too caustic for God's ears. When I read through the Psalms–or the Bible in general–I am quickly disabused of that idea. Those who pray use real words and often rather salty language. It seems that God's ears are quite accustomed to our complaints and our verbal atrocities. He's been around a while; he can handle it.
But that's not how we pray. It really isn't. I have been involved in the church since I was born. I cannot remember a day when I haven't been involved with the church in some way. And I am one of those people who actually listens to everything that is said in church. I pay close attention because I want to hear the Scripture read and preached, I want to hear the prayers prayed and offered, and I want to hear the Spirit move among God's people. On the other hand, I'm also like Stanley Hauerwas who wrote,
"I do not trust prayer to spontaneity. Most 'spontaneous prayers' turn out, upon analysis, to be anything but spontaneous. Too often they conform to formulaic patterns that include ugly phrases such as, 'Lord, we just ask you…" Such phrases are gestures of false humility, suggesting that God should give us what we want because what we want is not all that much. I prayer that God will save us from 'just.' (Hannah's Child, 255)
Hauerwas goes on to note that because of his fear he took to writing out his prayers. I'm OK with that. Some folks need to do just such a thing. When I was younger I objected to such things, but the older I get and the more cut & paste prayers I hear from people leading worship or in small groups, the more I am fine with the practice. Nevertheless, I think there might also be another solution though and that solution has to do with the Scripture.
Part of the reason I think corporate prayers are so anemic is because our minds have not drank deeply enough of the Scripture to let it saturate the part of our brains that generates language. Or we are simply content with formulating our own nonsense. But if we trust that the Bible is the Word of God then why shouldn't we pray back his words to him? Why shouldn't we remind him of what he said? Why shouldn't we pray the very words he gave us and hurl back to him the words he hurled at us?
I'm not sure why we think our words are better than his words. But to my point: the prayers we offer in public worship, the prayers offered by our leaders (preachers, elders, deacons), those prayers are weak and speak nothing: "Thank you God for this day. We just pray for this or that. Bless the gift and the giver so that your message will go out in this community and around the world. Be with us."
There's nothing wrong with these words at all, but when these words are the meat and substance of our prayers, and when these are the same words repeated time and time again from pulpits and by leaders, it makes me stop and wonder if we are even in tune with what the Bible has to say about the work God has planned for us, through Jesus, in this world? Jesus said that the very gates of hell cannot count an offensive to stop the church or mount a defensive position that the church cannot conquer. Yet our prayers are prayers thanking God for the day. Again, nothing wrong with thanking God for the day, but don't you think our prayers could have a little more urgency? Don't you think our leaders should pray with a bit more expectancy? Don't you think our prayers should have a little more prophecy infused?
I mean seriously: Why are all those prayers we read in the Bible there in the first place? Are we just supposed to read them? Are they there for decorative purposes? Are they there so we can marvel at how wonderful the saints of old prayed? Or are they there to guide and direct our own prayer life, to give us words to pray, directions for our journey, and/or language to fatten up our prayers? Think about Jesus on the cross and the prayers he prayed. Luke 23:46: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" is from Psalm 31:5. Mark 15:34: "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" is a quote from Psalm 22:1. Or think about Stephen in Acts 7 who was stoned to death because of Jesus. He prayed twice during his execution: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," and "Lord do not hold this sin against them." Well, it seems to me that these are both allusions to the words that Jesus prayed on the cross, words that Jesus quoted from Scripture.
Or think about Revelation 6:10: "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" This was prayed by the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. But here again is my point: How many times in the Older Testament, especially the Psalms, do we see these words or words similar to them? Look at Psalm 13:1, for example. Or Psalm 6:3. Or Habakkuk 1:2 for that matter. The point, of course, is that even these dead saints in Revelation are still praying the Scripture.
This post could go on for a while because I haven't really even laid out all of my reasons for believing these things or the reasons why I think we should pray the Scripture. And by 'pray the Scripture' I do not only mean using the language of Scripture but I mean literally praying through it. That is, opening up a book of the Bible and literally praying it's words back to the Father–kind of like we do when we recite the Lord's prayer. Like I said, this post could go on for a while and I want to end it for now. Suffice it to say, in conclusion, that I think perhaps it would do us well to dig deeper into the Scripture as congregations. Our lives as members of the church should be centered around the Scripture. Scripture should be read frequently from the pulpit. Scripture should be sung. Scripture should be read as part of the worship. Scripture should be prayed. Scripture should be preached. Scripture should be read privately and publicly.
I hear the words of Amos the prophet:
"The days are coming," declares the Lord, "When I will send a famine through the land–not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. People will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it" (8:11-12).
I get this. I think it's going on right now and is evidenced in the prayers we pray.