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Standard Prayer Lines Transmit Folk Theology

At New Providence Missionary Baptist Church’s recent revival, Bro. Charles Prude entreated God “to prop us up on our leaning-over side.” This was a strong image for me. It spoke of God taking our battered and struggling lives and giving us the support that we need to keep from falling.

Have you ever reflected upon the “standard” prayer lines–those expressions uttered nearly every Sunday in a typical Baptist church? “Lead, guide and direct us”, “bless both the gift and the giver”, and “we pray for all the sick and afflicted among us” are among the common ones.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
A case can be made for these standard lines being bearers of our everyday, folk theology. Despite its redundancy, “lead, guide and direct” gives expression to our desire for direction from and protection by our Heavenly Father. “Bless the gift and the giver” at its worst may indicate a desire to do a little “horse trading” with God, but at its best asks God to both make the gift effective and reward the faithful steward. The prayer for the sick recognizes that God can and does give health and restoration to his worshipers.
 
Sometimes, however, a prayer line will declare a bad theology, or at least a theology that is out of place in the church where it is uttered. For example, I recently heard a prayer line in a Baptist service that was in line with some churches’ theology but not with Baptist beliefs. It went like this, “And may, at the end of life, our good deeds outweigh the bad ones, and we be granted entrance into heaven.” I just prayed that this layman’s pastor was paying attention and can soon gently engage the “prayer” in a conversation about his theology of salvation by works.
 
I sometime shudder at the prayers of certain televangelists, which seem to command God to do their will, rather than humbly asking God to deal with a need or provide a resource. Who is in charge here? I wonder.
 
With these thoughts in background, I pondered a prayer line I heard recently, which I recalled from my youth. The layman’s prayer addressed God as “our almighty and gracious heavenly Father.”
 
For the past several years I have been hearing a slightly different version of the salutation, “Our gracious and loving heavenly Father.” It never rang true for me, but I could never figure out why until the version from my distant past was once again uttered in my presence.
 
Reference to God as “almighty” has for the most part dropped out of common prayer language where I live. Could this be an indication that this core belief also has dropped out of our worldview and our everyday theology?
 
Have we emphasized God’s gracious love to such an extreme that we neglect to recognize deeply that he is also sovereign and lord? Have we reacted against a harsh emphasis on the magisterial power of God, and instead focused exclusively upon his goodness? In responding to our culture’s preoccupation with love, have we neglected God’s other side, his wrath? Have we focused on heaven to the exclusion of hell?
 
Another prayer line comes to mind. It is from the common childhood blessing for a meal, “God is great, God is good.” That is wonderful theology. Indeed, God is both. He is almighty, and he is gracious and loving.
 
Humankind does not seem to do well with dialectic, the embracing of competing yet interacting claims. We tend to focus either upon God as great and almighty or upon God as loving and kind. This oscillation often arises to correct an overemphasis on one side or the other of the dialectic. In an age when one was stressed at the expense of the other, someone would start the pendulum swinging back. Almost inevitably it would go too far in the other direction.
 
If my inference about the subtle change of dropping “almighty” from the old prayer line is correct, then we must be careful not to push so hard to get the word reinserted that the “gracious and loving” becomes omitted. But we must push back to be theologically sound.
 
A theology that sees God both as almighty and loving will call for us to be right and do right in part because of a fear of God and in part because of gratitude to God. I believe this squares with the biblical revelation: “Fear God and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl 12:13b); “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34).
 
I confess that I need both as I act and react in my everyday life.
 
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.