As I prepared the prayers for our worship at Greyfriars this week I was struck forcefully by something I had never previously reflected on about my approach to public intercessory prayer.
The prayers in our services almost all follow the order; approach (with praise and adoration), confession (with assurance of pardon), [the Word including sermon], thanksgiving, intercession, [blessing and dismissal]. This ordering makes enormous sense to me in the context of the faith as it finds expression in our Reformed traditions.
The way I have habitually framed the second set of prayers (which usually groups thanksgiving and intercession together) is that it begins by offering thanks to God both for creation and redemption. I thank him for life and for all that gives life and I thank him for seeking us out when we turn away. This is filled out by reference to what I find in the Scripture, the hymns, and the circumstances. I then turn to intercession, to the requests we wish to make.
It is at that point that this week’s revelation came to me. I almost always (in my mind if not always in the words of the prayer) think of this in terms of confession. I assume that our request is that God act to make things other than they are. My thoughts and prayers turn from the things for which we can be and are thankful to the things we would prefer to be different. My intercessions focus on violence, sickness, loneliness, disaster, poverty, hatred, famine and war. The link to confession is that all of this must be connected somehow to sin (I say somehow, I don’t claim to understand the connection and I don’t think every suffering can be traced causally to some human failing).
As I prepared this week’s prayers I looked, as I sometimes do, at the worship books both of the URC and of the Church of Scotland. On this occasion I was particularly struck by one of the sets of intercessions I found in Common Order. This was a lovely set of requests that God bless a range of people and activities. There was no focus on the ills of the world but rather a wide ranging invocation of the shape and texture of human life with a call for God’s gracious government over them. This seemed very beautiful and faithful to me and linked the intercessions more organically to the thanksgiving.
In some ways this is very true to the lives of many of our congregations and members in the mainstream churches. While everyone has their problems, hurts and woes our people on the whole are to be found among the comfortable and successful, in my experience (which I know to be partial and incomplete). They experience sickness and death, of course, but not so much war, famine and disaster. Their relationships do break down but if statistics are to be believed they are better than most at sustaining their marriages and family lives.
In any event as I reflected on this contrast (my inclination to focus my intercessions on all that is broken against asking for blessing on what is functional and nourishing) my thoughts turned to the great problem (for me) of faith. If the world is redeemed why do children starve? How can the death camps exist in a world under the sovereignty of Christ? If Jesus came to save the world why does it still look so fallen? How do we make sense of the already and the not yet of the Kingdom of God?
I don’t (you won’t I suspect be surprised to hear) have any answer to these questions that could close them down. This problem seems to be to be the very heart of faithful living. To sustain one’s belief both in God’s sovereignty and God’s goodness in the face of the world as it is, of the awful and undeserved suffering of so many, is the great challenge. The attempt to resolve it (perhaps through the medium of an afterlife that restores balance, like Kant’s, or through the causality of sin) seems to me to fall short.
When Jesus commanded us to pick up our crosses and follow perhaps part of what was meant was exactly this. An unflinching awareness both of our responsibility to all who are broken and despised, bullied, tortured and abused, hungry, cold and abandoned, along with our incapability to discharge that responsibility is what I reach for whenever I prepare for a confessional prayer. There is so much that is wrong , so little we can do, that sometimes our charitable and campaigning action can seem to me like mere gesture, just a salving of our consciences.
The only way that I can go on is to trust in the God revealed in Christ, both that he sees and forgives the inadequacy of my response to all that I see and that, somehow, justice will be served, the oppressed will be set free, the hungry fed and the lonely comforted.
This is my faith, insofar as I can, by the grace of God, sustain it, and I believe our task to be to live into it. To strive to live as Christ would have us live while never losing sight either of the inadequacy of what we can do or of God’s love that sees and forgives it.