After visiting another church while away on vacation, one of the youth in the congregation I serve spoke to me about the experience. “The differences were interesting,” he said. “How is that?” I replied. “Well, for one thing, the minister prayed for peace like you do but not in the same way. He put a lot of emphasis on asking God to protect our troops. You pray that God protect both soldiers and civilians and you certainly don’t specify which troops. Plus, you pray that God turn the hearts of all people, not just other people, from violence.” I was pleased with his perceptiveness.
When we pray, especially as a gathered church, we pray as people of God. While we have other identities derived from our profession, gender, race, class and nation, none of these have to do with our reason for coming together to worship. Rather we assemble as people called by the God revealed in Jesus Christ to offer our loyalty and adoration to One other than ourselves. It is in relation to this One that we see who we most truly are and discern how we are to live. Even as we offer praise, our affections and dispositions are formed and our identity is reinforced. If we do not offer rightful praise our affections and identity will be malformed.
Rightful praise centers on the story of God’s saving work in Israel and ultimately in Jesus. In worship we rehearse, celebrate and reenact that story so that it penetrates into us and “begins to wear a groove into our souls,” to use the words of another. In so doing we learn to relate to all things in a new way, a Christ-centered way. We see others in view of God’s redemptive intention for the world. Worship that is rightful attunes us to the beauty of creation and makes us sensitive to the degradation of the same. Worship that is rightful makes us conscious of the oneness of humankind and awakens within us sensitivity to the brokenness that is displayed in racism, gross economic inequality and nationalism. “For the love of Christ control us, because we are convinced that… he died for all…From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view….” (2 Cor 5:14-17). The “human point of view” is one that is partisan, xenophobic and self-centered.
Worship that falls short of being rightful worship offers support to the “human point of view.” It reinforces an identity that is not grounded solely in the story of the saving acts of God. It seeks to merge the divine story with other, more provincial stories, stories that celebrate us, our accomplishments and virtues, us as a people who are not simply people of God united with those of other nations, races or cultures, but a people who stand in distinction from them. When delight in that distinction is incorporated into worship, pride replaces humility as others are given a secondary status. Or to be more pointed, when America and things American are given a place of privilege in worship a Christ-centered point of view is undermined and a perspective that is all-too-human is sanctioned.
The language of public prayer should express a reality shaped by the creative and redemptive activity of God, not simply one that can be read from the pages of the newspapers or heard from the mouths of either marketers or politicians. We echo the prayer of Jesus, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Our way of praying is to reflect the conviction that the rule and reign of God is coming and that this reality supersedes every contest of power, endeavor of acquisition or expression of pride. The world was not created for the triumph one nation over others. Rather it was made for God’s glory and for the flourishing of all humankind. The language of our prayers must subvert other depictions of the world, depictions that concede to, or even further, the fragmentation that is all too apparent around us.
The language of prayer should be grounded in the biblical narrative. The images, metaphors and phrases used in prayer ought to be extensions of the grand story that brought the church into being. This language connects us with the “cloud of witness” before us and the far-flung communion of faith around us in every nation. This is the language that bears witness to the revelation of God in Christ and that calls us to be church, ecclesia, a called out people who are in the world but not of the world (John 17: 6, 15-16). As we use language of scripture in prayer we evoke the faithful imagination, opening it to God-inspired possibilities that are not often entertained in our world of push and shove.
The language of public prayer is the voice of the church, not the voice of the individual or one’s family or race or nation. In this sort of prayer words like “I” or “me” are out of place. Instead “we,” “us” and “our” are the appropriate words to use as God is addressed. The public prayer is on behalf of the congregation but it is not to merely reflect local loyalties and vested interests. The local church is not disconnected from the church universal but a manifestation of it. So prayers in worship are utterances of the body of Christ in a given place. The use of words like “we”, “us” and “our” are not rightly used to denote any identity other than that which is derived from faith alone and should not used in public prayer to indicate some incidental characteristic or attachment that may be shared by the members of the congregation, no matter how important it might be to them.
So when I stand to pray in worship I never pray that God protect our troops for the simple fact that we don’t have any troops. We do not gather as Americans who plead on behalf of national interests or partisan favor before either God or the world. We are the church. Who we are has been determined by whose we are. We are people of God. We gather as the body of Christ united with Christ’s body throughout the world. Yet I do pray for the protection of soldiers and civilians alike. I pray indiscriminately, without regard to borders because all people are creatures made by the hand of God and are so loved by God that God sent God’s only begotten Son on their behalf. May they be preserved from danger and be restored to circumstances where they can live without the threat of violence either to them or from them.
Craig M. Watts is the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the Disciples Peace Fellowship’s, “Shalom Vision.”