“Write prayers and burn them,” advised P.T. Forsyth in The Soul of Prayer. Why write them? Because it gives you a chance to be more careful in choosing words, in shaping the overall prayer with craft and coherence. Most of the praying that we do throughout a work day is either unscripted and spontaneous, or praying through words composed by somebody else (the Lord’s prayer, or a bit of liturgy). I have found that writing out a prayer is a helpful way of working harder at trying to say the right things to God every now and then, while acknowledging that the vast majority of my prayers are sloppier, and that all of us are always, without exception, in need of the promise of Roman 8:26. Forsyth calls a carefully-composed prayer a chance to “formulate your soul,” and adds that “to formulate your soul is one valuable means to escape formalizing it.”
But he also says to “burn them,” which I think is an acknowledgement that no set of words is a settled achievement to build on or to keep around. Prayers are words that pass between God and you as part of a living relationship. Writing and burning may give you the benefits of close composition without the risk of outsourcing your spiritual life.
Forsyth’s advice applies to private prayers. Public prayers are different. Public prayers are still speech directed to God as the audience, but they are also intentionally shared for a co-worshiping congregation. In a public prayer, it is crucial that the person praying should remain focused on talking to God, and not use the prayer as an opportunity to lecture the audience, force consent, or show off. The prayer is not the sole property of the person doing the praying; it belongs to the whole gathering, and should be offered on their behalf. A public prayer ought to be one person’s attempt to speak to God what the entire congregation is, or should be, saying on the occasion when it is offered. Pastors learn the skill of pulling such prayers together extemporaneously, composing out of the materials of the day’s worship service a fitting word that sums up all that has been said and done.
Over the past several years, I’ve prayed for the graduating class of the Torrey Honors Institute at many of our graduations. Since they’re public prayers, I haven’t burned them, but have posted them online, which may amount to the same thing. This year as I prepared for graduation, I looked through the prayers I’ve posted in previous years. One thing I noticed is that when I pray for graduates, I am usually pretty busy worrying about them, though the note of celebration is not entirely absent, and gratitude is clearly there. Here are links to some of the prayers. Feel free to use them, share them, adjust them for your own needs, and pray them for your own graduates. Or burn them.
2007: So much talking. “If your voice is not the voice we are learning to listen for, then our talking and listening are just wind, noise, bad breath, and Babel.”
2008: We do not understand. “Before you we are defenseless, and up against your educational standards we are not confident. Who can pass your final exam?”
2010: We present them to you. “Deliver them from pride and from prejudice; from pomp and from circumstance. Save them from the Slough of Despond, from Bypath Meadow, and the Dungeon of Giant Despair. Deliver them from Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche.”
2011: These seniors are your problem. “Have you seen how Satan wants to sift them, to steal their faith, to kill their hope, and destroy their love? Have you seen how their downfall would cause your name to be blasphemed among the nations, and their backsliding would hide your own glory from the world that watches them?”
2012: The moment of the handoff. “We taught them to strive for excellence, mostly by inspiring example, but occasionally by cautionary counter-example. We taught them to forgive, mainly by modelling grace and patience to them, but occasionally by giving them something to forgive us for.”