Remembering the Blog

November 16, 2004 | 7 comments

Blogs have archives but no memory. Perhaps our Very Special Anniversary Announcement will be special enough to change even that. I’m not taking any chances. I’ve decided to revive a few old posts from the first half of the blog. I’ve enjoyed doing it. “Time,” as James Lileks says, “is nothing more than a lick of paint over the hinges. Push hard enough. They still swing open.” My first re-entry is nothing flashy, just an early April post on praying from a piece of paper.

Dear Lord, I Refer You to Appendix A
Outside a few key ordinances, we don’t like written prayers, by which I mean planned or prescribed prayers. We have some scriptural support for our position in the saying of the Lord, But when you pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do. We have repeated prophetic guidance, usually quoting this saying. (See, for instance, Russell M. Nelson, “Sweet Power of Prayer,” Ensign, May 2003, 7). Instead of reading from a prayer, we try to pray what’s in our hearts and what the Spirit directs.

We have good reasons. From our own experience with cant phrases in prayers, or on trying to concentrate on the sacrament prayers, we all know that repeated phrases tend to lose their meaning (although the quest for novelty can also be a distraction from meaning). Unstructured prayer is also an attempt to maintain a personal relationship with God and reinforces the doctrine that He is in a sense one of us and can be spoken too in the unplanned way we speak to each other (although our conversations with other people are often deeply structured by what we’ve planned to say or by cultural models for the conversation). This emphasis on conversing probably goes hand in hand with a democratic emphasis–everyone can pray and no special rhetorical skills are necessary. Finally, I think we have a mostly true idea that spontaneity and openness to the Spirit are connected (the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life). If we know to say X, we are less likely to seek the Spirit’s guidance on what to say. This varies: we feel that teachers and speakers should do some preparation, but we dislike it in prayer.

I accept all that and yet, I think we go too far in unstructuring our prayers. I’m not saying that those who pray on behalf of the congregation should prepare the entire prayer in advance the way we do with talks, though such a practice would avoid the problem of repetition, might improve prayers, and should be as open to inspiration as giving a prepared talk is. It might, on the other hand, run counter to the democratic aspects inherent in the idea of prayer as conversation; since the unplanned prayer will probably lack polish, any one Saint can do it as well as another.

But why do no planning at all? I’ve seen how planning can work to strengthen prayer. In my personal prayers I’ve jotted down reminders when I’ve needed to pray over particulary complex or varied problems. Those jottings have strengthened the prayer, and the preparation of them served as an avenue of revelation. In Church, I’ve been in a ward that put the names of the missionaries on a list on the pulpit. Instead of praying for the missionaries, we prayed for ‘Elders Knox and Wesley, and Sisters Ridley and Latimer.’ We could all feel the difference in our plea.

We have no reason to avoid preparation of this kind except, I feel, a foolish exaggeration of the spontaneity of prayer. As Luther would put it, having seen too many people fall off the horse on the side of formality and structure, we’re now trying to fall off the other. That must be why we avoid any preparation and why we avoid another fruitful practice, that of jotting down notes during the prayer, or soon thereafter. Pen and paper, forethought and postthought, are all features of important conversations with our fellows. I think they ought to feature when we speak to God.

Commenters are welcome to comment here or go back and respond to the comments in the original post. I am going to highlight an idea or two from the original comments though.

Spontaneity can be its own crutch: an excuse from thinking seriously, and picking our words carefully, in making our offerings to God. Making something formal, even something as small as the specification of names of missionaries during public prayer, I think can only increase the sense that an act of consecration is taking place” –Russell Arben Fox

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7 Responses to Remembering the Blog

  1. Times and Seasons » Twice Remembering the Blog on November 17, 2004 at 5:37 pm

    [...] by Adam Greenwood

    I’ve decided to fight the forgetfulness of a blog by resurrecting a couple of old posts in time for the anniversary. In this April post, I admit t [...]

  2. Dave Smith on November 16, 2004 at 10:15 am

    Adam, I see nothing wrong with doing some thinking and preparing of what should be said in a prayer beforehand. In fact, I find it particularly helpful in certain circumstances, including blessings, However, being in the ward with you where we prayed for the missionaries by name, I never felt comfortable being told by the bishopric exactly what to say in a prayer over the pulpit. It was strange to be asked to give the invocation at sacrament meeting and when you agree you are handed a list a told to pray specifically for these people by name. One time I was even told other things I needed to mention in the prayer and how specifically to word them. I’m not sure that it was wrong for the bishopric to ask me to do this but it sure didn’t feel right to me.

    I guess what I am thinking is that what makes a prayer “good” is not so much what is said in the prayer, but the spirit that accompanies it. I remember hearing powerful prayers at different times in my life and I honestly don’t remember much of the actual words used in the prayers. What set these prayers apart to me was the sincere spirit of the person praying. When I was handed a paper of what I needed to say in a prayer and how to say it, the prayer suddenly did not feel like my own and I know I did not convey the spirit that I should have. But hey, maybe the problem is me. Hope all is well with you and your family Adam.

  3. Adam Greenwood on November 16, 2004 at 12:47 pm

    Thanks, Dave. Good (Great!) to hear from you. I hope all’s well with Jennie and the kids.

    You raise a good point. Even if having lists and things theoretically helps with prayers, it’s not going to help at all if people are weirded out.

  4. Bryce I on November 16, 2004 at 4:10 pm

    I am reminded of this discussion of the temple prayer rolls.

  5. Adam Greenwood on November 16, 2004 at 6:46 pm

    Thanks for yet another act of memory, Bryce I. If I close my eyes I can almost imagine that we’re not on the web.

  6. Gparker on November 17, 2004 at 12:29 pm

    I was hoping there was a way to join up to this site. Apparently its a vanity press type place where you are the only ones that can publish…we lowly ones can comment.
    Sorry…I’m in a bitter mood right now. Good luck.

  7. Adam Greenwood on November 17, 2004 at 6:18 pm

    It’s a blog.


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