It’s called “intercession” or “intercessory prayers” when we pray for others, and when we do it in public it needs to be the sort of intercession that belongs in public. As a seminary student I had one professor whose opening prayers were of such significance that I wish they had gone into print, which of course they didn’t because they were not scripted prayers, but also because Murray Harris knew his class-opening prayers were so tied to that class, on that day, in that time in history that they weren’t relevant to others in different places and times.
Evidently Sam Wells, formerly chaplain, dean and professor at Duke and now Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square, offered memorable prayers in chapel at Duke, so much so that folks began to gather them up and now we have in Shaping the Prayers of the People: The Art of Intercession, by Samuel Wells and Abigail Kocher, a fine study and collection of intercessory prayers.
Question for you who offer intercessions in public: How much time do you spend preparing? What do you think are the ingredients of good public intercessory prayers? And, pastors, do you offer a Pastoral Prayer in your public worship?
Intercession, at its simplest, is speaking to God for the people. And it has come down to us in a time-honored shape in the church’s collects, which “collects” the prayers of the people and pastors and priests into a gathered whole before God. Thomas Cranmer did this for the Anglican tradition, and he used some old Roman prayers and gave them new and memorable life. Here is the collect for purity from the 1979 prayer book:
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
There are five elements in this historic and church-shaping form of prayer:
1. Address to God
2. Naming a context in which God has been active and therefore why God can be addressed now.
3. The petition.
4. Hoped for outcome.
5. Shaping the prayer in a Trinitarian context.
The absence of pastoral prayers and intercessions has led to a diminishment of trinitarian theology among many of us today.
Wells and Kocher have nothing less than a stunning sketch of what it means to offer intercessions in public through these five themes:
Addressing God: “Part of addressing God is a proper fear of God” (17). To the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit — that’s the core theology of all prayers. [I don’t like to hear people pray to Jesus for that is not how Jesus prayed.]
Hope is at the core of prayer, and this means we need to be immersed in Scripture in order to see how God has acted so we can know how God will act. We need to name God’s faithfulness as the foundation for our intercession.
We need to dare to be imperative before God the Father. The resurrection, the transfiguration and the incarnation form the core of our intercessions. We ask — we don’t hint or suggest or go all vague.
Expect results, spell them out, express our hopes.
Be the change or become the answer to the intercession. Pray for the church to become what God wants it to become.