How to write the intercessions

This coming Sunday, I’m going to be doing the intercessions on Sunday morning. That’s unusual, as for no particular reason, the normal pattern is that clergy here pray at Choral Evensong and lay members of the congregation normally pray at the Sung Eucharist in the morning.

So, as I sit down to think about the intercessions for Sunday morning, it may be worth jotting down here a few pointers which I might use if I were doing an intercessions training course this week.

  1. Try not to treat God as either your best mate or as Queen Victoria
  2. One sermon is enough and it has already happened
  3. Don’t tell God the blatantly obvious
  4. You don’t have to pray for everything in the world at every service
  5. God is not to be inveigled – we pray because we care not because God doesn’t

Let’s take those one at a time.

1 – Try not to treat God as either your best mate or as Queen Victoria

Now listen up, we’re about to do some serious theology in an entertaining way. (Or maybe some entertaining theology in a serious way).

How we think of God in private makes quite a difference to the way we pray in public. The task of the intercessor in a church service is not particularly to express their own spiritual journey but more to give voice in the simplest possible way to the need that the people of God in that time and place have to pray. For we are a praying people – that is who we are.

But what about God. How are we to address God?

We might well ask, “God? Who He?”

To which God in Her infinite mercy and grace might well respond, “Well….”

There are twin dangers in preparing the prayers of the people of God. The first is to presume that God is one’s best friend to whom we might chatter away as though God were a beloved friend (or a beloved beloved) on the telephone. The truth is, we are dealing with the creator of heavens and the earth. Chattering away may seem presumptive.

“And Lord, just bless Betty and Flora and Lullabell. And just fill them Lord, fill them Lord with your blessings, just touch them Jesus, yes Lord, yes, yes. yes.”

God is more than merely our best mate and we’re not in bed with God when we’re doing the intercessions either. (And that’s for another blog post anyway).

However, lest we think that there are easy answers, another danger is of treating God as though God were Queen Victoria, crawling towards God through a morass of language which puts God far distant. If we spend our time only thinking of the Majestyness of God, the Mightiness of that Majestyness, our Unworthiness as Creeping Subjects to enter into the presence of the Awesome Holiness of the Utter Mightiness of the Complete Majestyness of God and begging for Mercy then we’re in danger of mistaking the God who loves us for the Empress of India.

The theologians out there have spotted what’s going on here already. It is that old immanence-transcendence dichotomy. Christians have indeed believed that God is as close as our next breath and also that God is the creator of heaven and earth. Christians believe both these things simultaneously – for nothing is impossible with God.

What we’re trying to do in the intercessions is to hold before God aspects of the world which need God’s love and there are many appropriate ways of addressing God.

It is clearly silly always to speak to God as though God were an old man or a father figure. Clearly silly, because we’ve got God’s great gift of scripture in our hands and we know that the people of God have used all kinds of interesting language to speak of the divine and to address God too which go beyond only using the image of a male father figure. Scripture won’t let us make God into daddy and I’m unconvinced that Jesus was in that business when he taught people the Lord’s Prayer. More likely I think, he was using a form of addressing God which made them think, made them wonder, moved them and formed them in faith.

At a workshop on intercession a couple of years ago, I asked people to come up with biblical titles or attributes of God which we find in the bible. We listed dozens and it is exercises like that which can deepen our faith and make intercessions incredibly rich. If you doubt this, ask a Muslim friend about the ninety nine names of God in their tradition and see how many you share in common. If you are lazy, you can find them in wikipedia – but go on, have that conversation it might change your life and that of your friend.

2 – One sermon is enough and it has already happened

You know what? One sermon is enough for just about any service. Sometimes even the sermon that has been preached feels like one too many. However, even if that is so – no, especially if that is so, don’t feel that your job as the intercessor is to preach another one.

Let red flags wave and danger klaxons sound in your mind if you find yourself for even a moment telling the congregation anything during the intercessions. Remember, you’re not speaking to them anyway.

We encourage intercessors to take a look at the bible readings before writing the intercessions. However, it is terribly tempting to pay too much attention to the readings. Particularly in St Mary’s, you never know whether the preacher will pick on the particular reading that might strike you as important and there’s a strong change that they’ll have a completely off the wall reading of a text anyway. That’s what we like here and intercessors are in grave danger if they think they know what the preacher is going to say. They are in mortal danger if they think they know what the preacher should have said. And in any church, if the intercessor appears to be trying to use the intercessions to correct the preacher, there will be teams of trained facilitators and peacemakers heading your way before the blood can dry on the carpet.

There’s a time and a place for disagreeing with the preacher. However, it ain’t in the intercessions and, trust me on this one, the church door isn’t the most fantastic place for it either.

It is worth reading the bible readings beforehand simply to see whether that informs the language that you use in putting the prayers together. Your task is not to explain these readings. Nor explicate these readings. Nor even to argue with these readings. Your task is to hold some of the concerns of the people of God in prayer in public.

3 – Don’t tell God the blatantly obvious

One of the naughtiest but most entertaining half hours that I’ve ever enjoyed on a clergy conference was with a group who were posed the question – “What is the most ridiculous intercession you have ever heard?”

(You can play a similar game with sermons if you are in the mood).

There were quite a number of strong contenders but there was one knock-out winner:

“And Lord, we pray for Beirut….which is in the Lebanon”.

Don’t tell God things that God knows already. You are no more trying to educate God than educate the people.

4 – You don’t have to pray for everything in the world at every service

Just as new preachers often try to fit everything that they’ve ever hoped to say in the pulpit into their first few sermons, so it is the case that inexperienced intercessors can get frightened that they will miss something out and include everything that they can imagine that they or anyone else might want to pray for on the day.

We’re not there to remember everything. We’re there to give voice to the deep dreamings of the people of God for a world where there is no pain, no suffering and where God has wiped every tear from the eye.

When we remember those suffering in one part of the world we are by implication remembering those who suffer elsewhere. Sure, it can be a good thing to remember places and situations which are often easily forgotten (“….oh Lord, #bringbackourgirls…”) but we can’t name every need.

There’s danger in being too specific too. “And Lord we pray that this country be delivered from the evil heresy of the European Union…” may be how you are feeling and may be how you are going to vote, but the intercessions are not really the place for that kind of thing.

We’re giving voice to the prayers of the whole people of God, not any sectarian minority.

5 – God is not to be inveigled – we pray because we care not because God doesn’t

I think this is important. I don’t believe God is there to be inveigled into doing things. It is my view that God is not particularly likely to change his mind as though upon a whim, because a certain number of the people of God happen to pray one way. God loves us anyway, whether we pray or whether we don’t.

We are not in the business of trying to sway God’s mind.

This will come as a bit of a surprise to some and something that will be eagerly debated by others – don’t we find God changing God’s mind in scripture after all?

Well, yes, and that’s what life often feels like. We can as human beings often feel as though god is capricious. But that is not the truth we live by. We live by the truth that God utterly loves us. We live in the knowledge that God’s love is here and now and everywhere and that God’s love is with us and with all people.

The point of the intercessions is not to change God’s mind about things. This is not a parliamentary lobby nor is it a demo though there’s a place for prayer in both these fields without a doubt.

We do not pray to change God’s mind. We pray because it is our vocation to hold our concerns in the presence of God. We pray because we love the world and want to love it more. We pray because prayer changes us and we change society. We pray because we care about things and people and not because we suspect God’s doesn’t care about some things and will have a change of mind because we implore and beg and inveigle.

It just doesn’t work that way.

We pray to hold the world before God because we love it.

That is all in all.

 

Comments

  1. In my church too the intercessions are usually led by a lay person. Recently we’ve put our vicar on the intercessions rota, and it is a great step forward. We have a lot to learn from his depth and subtlety of prayer: he is a great role model.

  2. This couldn’t be better timed!

    Months ago, a friend set down to write a new tune for Breathe on me, breath of God. I set down and reworked the words – made it “us” for starters, deconstructed the rest, tweaked the theology and added variety – and then wondered what I’d got.

    Transpires, for some unknown sins, what I’d got is a form of intercessions. And, with that hymn as the starting point, Pentecost is the time to be doing it. First time. Scared would be an one word for it – not least because I’ve made it *sung* responses.

    So this evening I’m merging my words, a Form from 1982, some words from t’Interwebz, some from a friend and am trying to work out what to put in the remaining couple of sections.

    You’ve named a few logistic pitfalls I’ve already been skirting around. Now all I need is to know what music’s the best for thinking to… πŸ™‚

  3. Meg Rosenfeld says

    I’m sending this on to my husband and daughter, who are bound to appreciate it (and may splutter disastrously in their afternoon cup of coffee or tea, as I just did) and to my cousin who, after years in another caring profession, is now a new priest. Kelvin, you are deliciously funny while making very cogent points, and maybe that’s the best way to make them.

  4. Rosemary Hannah says

    I do remember the inimitable Prof Jim Whyte saying dryly ‘It is safe to assume that God has already read both the Times and the Daily Record.’

  5. Kelvin, once again you’ve nailed it. I’ve shared this one on FB. This should be made more widely available for the training of people leading worship.

    As a parish minister with a single Sunday service in most of my recent parishes, my preference was to lead the intercessions about once a month with other members of the congregation leading the intercessions the other weeks. This way, I was able to model some of the things, you’ve mentioned in the article (style of God-language, not a second sermon, praying both for the Middle Γ‰ast and for Uncle Fred’s prostate, etc.).

  6. Father David says

    “Don’t tell God things that God knows already” surely, God being Omniscient – the only response must therefore be a period of silent prayer?

  7. Mark Hart says

    Thank you, and I was with you all the way, until I got to the last main paragraph.
    When you say, ‘We pray because prayer changes us and we change society’ are you denying that prayer can change the world in any other way? That prayer is not about changing God’s mind (or changing God in any way) doesn’t mean that the only difference made to the world is through the difference made to us, through the plans we go on to make. In the tradition, it has been understood that intercession may be more widely effective than this, without ever changing God. May it not be that God creates a world which is such that our openness to God and to his kingdom can in some circumstances open the world to God’s purpose coming through – ‘at a distance’, i.e. all apart from our plans and actions?

    • I like that idea of God creating a world in which the possibility of our response can bring about the kingdom.

      I guess what I fear is the idea that God is a magician who will do his tricks if we just find the right magic formula.

  8. Kirstine says

    Thanks Kelvin for once again saying what many of us were thinking!
    On the point of not presuming to know either God’s or the congregation’s political views, I once had an interesting discussion with my husband on whether it was OK to pray for the downfall of Robert Mugabe.
    The most ridiculous intercession I’ve encountered (although it has some strong competition) was probably someone praying *against* Jerry Springer the Opera. Which dates it a bit.

    • That’s a good question – whether to pray for the downfall of tyrants.

      My guess is that in Zimbabwe the thing to do is to pray against tyrants in general but not to pray for the downfall of the president. However, I’ve never been in that situation. Maybe someone from that part of the world would want to comment on what appropriate prayer looks like.

  9. I remember being extremely amused by a Curate in St Mary’s preaching a twenty minute sermon telling us all that we should attend Evensong, at Evensong. The experience has formed much of preaching in 38 years! Well done that man!

  10. Sue Williams says

    On hearing some intercessions, I half expect them to end: ‘Merciful Father, this is Joe Bloggs, News At Ten, St. Mary’s Church…..’!

  11. Fr Dougal says

    Mind you i recall with joy one of more idiosyncratic intercessors in Falkirk praying against tyrants by asking that we be delivered from “charismatic psychopaths” πŸ™‚ he was thinking Saddam I thought the then Bishop of Carlisle!

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