“God’s Word, the voice of the church, and our prayer belong together. So we must now speak of prayer together…There is no part of daily worship together that causes us such serious difficulties and trouble as does common prayer, for here we ourselves are supposed to speak…this prayer must really be our word, our prayer – for this day, for our work, for our community, for the particular needs and sins that commonly oppress us, for the persons who are committed to our care.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 42.
“As good and useful as our scruples may be about keeping our prayer pure and biblical, they must nevertheless not stifle the free prayer itself that is so necessary, for it has been endowed with great promise by Jesus Christ,” (page 43).
Bonhoeffer begins his reflections on prayer by focusing on communal prayer (assuming I understand him on this point). He then moves on to prayer offered by one person on behalf of the congregation, then he addresses “set prayers”, and then “special communities” of prayer (groups within congregations).
He links his comment about “serious difficulties” with “here we ourselves are supposed to speak,” emphasizing that the prayer must be “ours”. For some it is not a problem to speak our own words in our own way, expressing our own thoughts and feelings; but for many others this is difficult. The difficulty may lay in shyness, in uncertainty about what to say and how to say it, in thinking that prayers must use certain words and be spoken certain ways; it may also lay in not trusting those around us with our thoughts and feelings – we may fear being judged and critiqued.
Bonhoeffer’s warning that we must not stifle free prayer encourages us to nurture an atmosphere of acceptance in prayer in life together – after all, our brothers and sisters are speaking to God and (hopefully) not to us. When he writes that such prayer “has been endowed with great promise by Jesus Christ,” I think of passages such as Matthew 7:7 – 11, were Jesus teaches that we are to ask and seek and knock and concludes with, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him?” We are children speaking to our Father and we are not to judge the words of our siblings as they speak to our Father – we each have our own way of speaking to Him and He speaks to others within His relationship to them, not within His relationship to me. Yes, we share a communal relationship with our Father and He speaks to us as His family, but He also speaks to us as individual sons and daughters. I must give others relational room to pray – I am not the mediator between God and man, only Jesus Christ is our mediator. We can trust our Father to care for our siblings; after all, we do not know the hearts of others.
On the other end of the spectrum of difficulties and problems in communal prayer we have those who pray preachy prayers and gossipy prayers – prayers in which the audience is not God but man. Perhaps the best we can do here is to instruct communities in prayer and to model it…and above all to be patient and longsuffering. We are not the focus of prayer, we are not the conductors of the orchestra, our Father is well able to accomplish His will within His family. Of course, for the sake of the community we must be ready to gently counsel those who use communal prayer as a speaking platform; our own attitudes and prayers will do more to foster prayer in our life together than anything else. Let us encourage others to find their voice in prayer and let us give them plenty of room to express themselves and grow.