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Anatomy of a public prayer

CHURCHES have remained vigilant and offered prayers over the current concerns in Singapore. Here is a public prayer offered at a Preaching Point entreating God to exercise His sovereign control over us:

We want to pray for our country and our people. Our lives are crippled and inhibited by illness, ignorance, bitterness and grief. In the darkness of our anxiety, when we are worried about what the future may bring, God grant us the courage to face tomorrow. We pray for our leaders, for wisdom, that none of the citizens be neglected or forgotten. We pray for our caregivers, for strength, that many may be made well and find the way to overcome suffering. We pray for our community to accept responsibility, willing to give way or be gracious to others.”

While this prayer is offered out of a sense of Christian duty for the Church, the people, and the nation, its rhetoric also echoes a sentiment that one should continue to live with a hope for a better tomorrow. This public supplication is commonly heard among Christians, but one wonders whether there are any specific lessons for Christians who listen to or offer such prayers themselves.

An anatomy of this prayer suggests another dimension, one that was upheld by antiquity and reflected accurately by the words of Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894):

“The principal thing is to stand before God with the intellect in the heart, and to go on standing before him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.”

To stand before God means an invitation for the Christian to enter into a personal relationship with Him. Besides an appeal for divine assistance, this public prayer speaks of a silent acknowledgement of human fragility before his maker, the lack of full understanding, and his entire dependence on God. Coming into divine presence means that we need to face God in awe and love, and to realise that our circumstances reflect the condition of our heart.

We are powerless, alone and vulnerable in the face of calamity and uncertainty. This prayer exhorts us to “Pray in the everyday” (Karl Rahner), which reminds us that our prayers must not allow our mood, be it joyful or sorrowful, to obscure the divine presence. Our hearts and minds are preoccupied by other concerns, and do not allow the bothersome routine of praying to encroach the holiness in our deepest interior. Prayer comes from the interior, the depth of a Christian’s heart. When God is drawing near, this prayer stirs us from our slumber into a continual conversation and communion with God.

This personal encounter requires both the heart and mind united together. To the believer, such a union requires a willingness to reach out to his or her centre, at the point where “one is willing to see God in all things and all things in God”, as Kallistos Ware calls it. Therefore, watchfulness and discernment (Ephesians 6:18) are prerequisites of the Christian life. Christians should not give up (Luke 18:1) and dwell in despair, but rather be prepared to face difficulties and challenges.

The public prayer echoes a hope that must be lived out by Christians who recognise God as the only source that provides joy (Psalm 146:5) and steadfast love (Psalm 33:22) in this living hope. Theophan does not make a distinction between the heart and mind by claiming that the standing is “with the intellect in the heart”. Rather, it is this union that would free us from our immediate concerns, and listen to the divine heartbeat. God is the Healer (Exodus 15:26) who provides the restoration, peace and internal harmony in the entire recovery process, not only for those who are in need, but also for those who offered such prayer.

Therefore, one should not despise the well-crafted words of a public prayer and rely solely on the words that come freely to our mind. On the contrary, this public entreaty challenges us to put our intellect in possession of divine truth. Theophan urges us to pray unceasingly (1 Thessalonians 5:17) till the end of our life. The written words reflect an understanding that prayer is a necessity, its contemplation is useful for the busy city-dwellers and transforms the lip-service and mechanical fulfilment of a Christian’s duty into a genuine outpouring of the heart.

For those who seldom pray or struggle in praying, the written words keep our hearts open and intellect alert, and only then the hour of divine encounter produces the freedom and spontaneity that involves communication and acceptance of the infinite God.

A public prayer invites a Christian to draw near to God in a relationship that inspires one to contemplate on this world, look beyond all circumstances and live a meaningful life.

Chan Yew Ming is a lecturer at Trinity Theological College. He is a member of Fairfield Methodist Church.