I’ve tried for most of my working life to avoid pious claptrap,however beautiful, in the context of worship, and to use a langauge that respects the facts of life. So, for example, because I reckon that God will not intervene to stop the bloody war in Syria, I do not pray that s/he should do so, but rather that s/he should inspire people of goodwill to work for peace.
But what am I saying? Do I think that the God who chooses not to intervene by instantly destroying all armaments will intervene by some kind of spiritual force to inspire people who might oherwise not worked for peace? Indeed when I find the courage to do my duty, do I feel some power beyond myself, enabling my action? The answer to these questions is “no.” Nothing supernatural happens in this world; if we think it does, that is because we have an impoverished view of what is natural. Of course, I believe that if people of goodwill turn consciously towards what they consider the source of goodness, they will be clearer in their minds and stronger in their wills. I know that the story of Jesus and my image of him have often inspired my better attempts at living well. And yes, I also believe that through such means God gives me guidance, but s/he does so by worldly means which involve no dislocation of cause and effect. The mystery of God is not found in doubtful miracles, or at the boundary edges of human understanding, but rather in the ordinary and extraordinary facts of worldly life.
But how can this resolute refusal of mumbo-jumbo be expressed in hymns and prayers and sermons? Well, it’s relatively easy in sermons where the preacher has considerable freedom to use her own langauge, though even here the temptation to be pious is not absent. But the other elements of worship are more difficult because they are more attached to the tradition of the church, which includes its traditional language. How can we pray without telling lies? Indeed, why pray at all, if we no longer think that God will intervene? Jesus touched on this issue when he told his disciples that the father knew what they needed before they asked for it. But he also told them that if they asked they would receive. In these words he taught that the desire for something good is an essential prerequisite of it happening, so that what is beyond us can take place amongst us.
Perhaps Jesus’ own prayer speaks the language of reality.
He begins with his name for God which expresses intimacy and respect, “father”, and asks that it should be held as holy by human beings. This is not a a petition which expects miraculous intervention; it is a longing and an intention to do what we can to make it happen, as is the next petition, that God should rule the earth. This also expresses longing and commitment, but there is in addition the trust that is ready to accept what God’s ongoing creation brings. The prayer for daily bread recognises that livelihood is a gift to be shared rather than a achievement to be possessed, but it includes our willingness to work. The prayer for forgiveness sees the generous justice of God announced by Jesus as the climate in which we want to live. The final petition to be spared harsh testing and to be rescued from the evil one, expresses our human frailty, and our trust that even if we fail the test, God will not leave us in the clutches of Evil. This last phrase along with the prayer that Gid should rule rhe earth, takes us beyond the present world, beyond our knowledge, expressing our trust that there is a reality beyond the facts, for which we can hope.
There is nothing in the whole prayer which authorises pious exaggeration, sloppy emotionalism, liturgical pomposity, or spurious assurance ( “we just want to thank you Lord and praise your precious name for saving us from our sins and making us a shining fellowship of your saints”). If Jesus gave it as a model for his disciples’ prayer, or even if, as some scholars suggest, the prayer itself comes from the early communities of disciples, maybe we ought to attend to its language and its theology, and allow them to inform our own practice of prayer.
This does not mean we should not be direct. If we can pray for God’s rule on earth, we can surely pray that Jean should be healed from her cancer. When we do so we are not asking for something beyond medical care and the possibilities of her own body, but rather that the medical cate she is receiving may enable her own body to overcome the cancer. Rather than pray for “peace in places of war” we can pray that those who kill by suicide bombs or by sophisticated drones from thousands of miles away, should be defeated and punished for their atrocities. Given that the father knows what we need, there’s no point in saying “powerful people with prejudices” if we mean Donald Trump.
The language of prayer should be sober, modest, clear, specific, kindly and hopeful, and should express our trust in the goodness of God. Many of the old prayers do this very well, such as the one I use most days:
“Lord for thy tender mercies’ sake, lay not our sin to our charge; but forgive what is past and give us grace to amend our sinful lives; to decline from sin, and incline to virtue, that we may walk with a perfect heart, before thee now and evermore.”