Friday, November 23, 2007

Praying in Public with Friends

I have a real problem with praying in public extemporaneously. I just cannot do it. I am embarrassed by this disability. A few weeks ago, I was meeting with a parish committee, and the chair said, "Lisa, would you open our meeting with prayer?" [She asked it as a question, but you just know it was a rhetorical question.] I looked sheepishly at her and said, "No." I'm pretty darn certain that I could preach a sermon with two days notice. But to come up with a prayer on my own, without recourse to someone else's written prayer? That's a whole 'nother matter. Alas.

[Long, rambling detour ahead]

I'm reminded of this, which happened a few years ago when the Fox family had its annual reunion in the old hometown. My grandmother – great matriarch of the family – had died several months earlier, but many of us hadn't been able to attend the funeral. So during the reunion, we did what southern families do: we visited the cemetery. It was the first chance for several of us to visit her grave, and it wasn't at all a dreary event. We wandered about, checking the condition of the other Foxes' grave markers, telling the family stories to those too young to have known some of their forebears. … After a while, one of my cousins gathered us all around grandmother's grave, and asked my Uncle Russell, "Would you lead us in a prayer?" You should have seen the cutting glance he cast at her! But he also said "Yes," did a 180-degree turn, and walked off to his car. A few wondered, "What the heck is he doing??" … You need to know that Uncle Russell was the lone Episcopalian in a family of Southern Baptists. So now I bet you can guess what he was doing. He reached into the car, pulled out his Book of Common Prayer, leafed through it for a few moments, then returned to the assembled group and led us in a perfectly lovely and appropriate prayer. … Of course, later there was much tsk-tsking about how "those Episcopals can't even pray from their hearts; they have to read them out of books." … Without a doubt, I come by my extemporaneous-prayer-ophobia honestly.

[End of long detour]

In the past couple of weeks, I've been a bit anxious about what I would do for the two "biggie" family holidays upcoming: Thanksgiving and Christmas. My sister and her family had already made long-distance travel plans for both those holidays, so being with her wasn't an option. I've spent those two holidays alone plenty of times, but I figured it would be a little stupid to try it this year, so soon after my mother's death.

So I was very grateful when my friend Michael invited me last week to join him and his partner for Thanksgiving dinner. And it clearly wasn't a "sympathy invite." I really enjoy them. I work with Michael, but we don't often get leisurely visits together away from the office. So I was delighted. And the fact that they're marvelous cooks didn't hurt a bit! {grin}

On Monday, he surprised me by asking if I'd be willing to say grace at the Thanksgiving dinner. Knowing I'm an Episcopalian (as was his grandmother), he suspected I'd need advance notice. I was a bit taken aback by his request, since they both seem to fit within that growing demographic of "spiritual but not Christian," but I was pleased that he wanted a prayer before our shared meal.

I thought surely I could come up with some appropriate prayer, given that much notice. I thought wrong. After a full day, and having looked at the BCP "Grace Before Meals" options, I was uninspired – clueless, in fact. So I put out an e-mail "SOS" call to some Episcopal friends. They came through most generously.

Liz gave me the Litany of Thanksgiving (BCP pg. 836ff), which Father Jake and a few other blogging friends posted this week. DUH! How stupid I feel, that I looked at the graces on page 835, but failed to turn the page to 836. Tom (of Turning Things Upside Down) gave me a wonderful creation, and I found one posted on Caminante's blog. I am grateful to all of you who gave me words and inspiration.

So here's what I prayed last night:

O God who lives and moves within all things:

We are mindful today of our blessings, not just our difficulties;
of our strengths, not just our weaknesses;
of our joys, not just our sorrows.

We give you thanks for the gift of friendship and support.

We give you thanks for this time to enjoy it.
We give you thanks for this meal, prepared by gifted hands.

We now ask you to bless this home, to bless this food, and to bless this time of friendship.


The meal was delicious. The companionship was wonderful. And from what Michael said after the blessing, I think I found the right prayer.

For those discerning readers who may wonder: The answer is yes; my struggle in preparing this prayer most certainly does relate to what I wrote a few days ago.


Blogger Suzer said...

I, too, freeze in those situations. It's not as if I'm not able to pray from the heart -- I can do it easily if not put on the spot. I think I'm terrified of sounding stupid - not before God, but in front of other people. I know God will forgive me if my prayer is stilted or hokey, as He knows what is in my heart, but I'm not so sure about other people. :)

Besides, the BCP is so beautifully written, I find it hard to make my own prayers as relevant. This is something TEC might want to focus on a bit - helping its members pray from the heart. It's a lovely thing to hear someone who can do it, and it's not focused on much (at least, not to my knowledge) within TEC, as it seems to be more the tradition of other denominations. The ability of the average Episcopalian to offer a public prayer upon request might be something nice to "borrow" from those denominations, I think. Some are naturally eloquent, but others of us need some help in that area (speaking strictly for myself). :)

11/24/2007 5:33 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

You raise an interesting point, Suzer. I have no problem praying alone, 'cause I know it's ok when I pray in "sighs too deep for words." Alone, I can let my spirit do the praying, and it doesn't need words to be with God.

I also enjoy writing the "prayers of the people" when I'm the intercessor. But there I use one of the assigned forms, augmented by a few of those prayers at the back of the BCP, with a few tweaks.

Like you said, though, it's hard to improve on the prayers written by the likes of Cranmer.

On a lighter note, my experience with those "other denominations" is that the key to public prayer is to use "Jesus" and "just" in every sentence. ;-)

11/24/2007 9:28 AM  
Blogger Malcolm+ said...

Ordination has an odd byproduct. People keep asking you to say grace.

The very first time it happened to me (at All Saints, Oxbow, at the regular after church breakfast) I proceeded to say the only grace I could think of. The Trinity College grace. In Latin.

I was never asked to say grace in Oxbow again. At anything.

I now have a grace or two "up my sleeve," as well as the odd other prayer for commencing meetings etc. And a blessing or two is always good.

11/26/2007 10:09 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

What a great story, Malcolm! If I were a priest, I would have to do a whole lot of memorization work, to prepare for all those times when the priest is asked/expected to pray.

11/26/2007 6:57 PM  

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