Monday, August 22, 2011

The Worship Curmudgeon: Prayers of the People

I'm trying a bit of an experiment here, and it might fall flat on its face. I'm riffing on a theme occasionally used by commentator Frank Deford featuring what he calls "the Sports Curmudgeon." This admittedly grouchy alter-ego gives Deford freedom to make observations on things going on in the realm of his expertise (i.e., sports) that are undeniably sharper and more potentially offensive than he would usually do, in the hopes of achieving a humorous commentary in which legitimate observations may still be found while being over-the-top enough to blunt any actual offense. I don't know whether or not I'll be able to successfully apply this model to the realm of worship, but I'm going to give it a shot. Please bear with me.

In some churches, when it comes time to do the "Prayers of the People," they really mean it. They take time to ask people to stand up and share with the rest of the congregation whatever it is that may be on their minds. There is no time limit. A person can just stand up and ramble on about any old thing, and the rest of the folks in the congregation have no choice but to just sit there and smile blankly while the rambler tells everyone about the latest mishap that has left him in a funk.

Once the latest narcissist-in-training gets finished with his idle chatter, there is a response in which the rest of the congregation participates:
Leader: Lord, in Your mercy,
Congregation: Hear our prayer.
Despite the fact that "prayer" is obviously printed as a singular noun in the bulletin for everyone to see, the congregation invariably demonstrates a total inability to follow the instructions, and changes the singular to a plural: "hear our prayers." It doesn't matter that there may have been only one request mentioned. The letter "s" is reflexively tacked on to the word, thus demonstrating an ignorance not only of the ability to read and comprehend the words printed in front of one's eyes, but also of the centuries of tradition that this liturgical element reflects.

This pattern repeats until no further volunteers can be found to share their latest problems. And, yes, it's almost always problems. For every positive prayer of "praise" that is offered publicly, there seems to be at least a dozen tragedies that have befallen the rest of those in attendance.

The end of the prayer time is mercifully signaled by the prayer leader, who upon seeing no more hands raised, determines that it's time to release the congregation to do something else, and does so by inviting the congregation to additional prayer, which the prayer leader speaks while the rest of the congregation awaits silently for the conclusion, which inevitably begins with the words "we pray all this in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray, saying...".

This is the cue for the congregation to join in saying aloud the Lord's Prayer. For most people in attendance, this has been memorized, as has the signal of when to start saying it. But woe be unto you if you are either a first-time church attender, or (as is generally much more likely) a regular attender at a church from some other Christian tradition. Beware! If you aren't careful, you will soon betray your lack of familiarity with the customs of this particular house of worship. Even if you are familiar enough with the text of the Lord's Prayer to muddle your way through the bulk of the text, a stumbling block awaits you near the end, when the "forgiveness" part approaches. You have a decision to make. Which of the following will you do?
  1. Pray that the Father will "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors"
  2. Pray that the Father will "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us"
  3. Stop praying aloud, and hope that no one will notice (the Worship Curmudgeon strongly urges readers to consider this option!)
A wrong choice at this point risks signaling to those around you that you are, in fact, an outsider. Some churches, not wishing to make outsiders uncomfortable, will helpfully include which version of the prayer they are about to pray in the bulletin. Some, recognizing that ink costs money, will limit these instructions to "debts/debtors" (or "trespasses," as appropriate). But most churches provide no such help, and you, the visitor, are left to your own courage and savvy.

Upon the conclusion of the Lord's Prayer, the time for Prayers of the People itself comes to a close. The worship gathering itself, of course, is not yet over. For that, you must still endure a final hymn, a benediction, and whatever other rites the pastor has planned before you will be released to watch the afternoon football game. Take heart, brave worshiper! It won't be much longer now!

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