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A Prayer for the Denomination in Troubling Times

By Mark W. Stamm

A Collect for The United Methodist Church: Notes and Thoughts on Creative Process

I have prepared “A Collect for The United Methodist Church,” with the text of the prayer as follows:

God of the Ages, who called Abraham and Sarah to journey to a land that you promised: Guide the people called United Methodist through our current distress to a place of peace and rekindled vision, that we may yet participate in the transformation of the world, and that our neighbors may find in us generous friends; through Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, who with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen. (Mark W. Stamm, copyright ©2020)

It is also available elsewhere within this Discipleship Ministries website. I commend it to you – for public worship, for prayer groups, and for private use, and I hope that you will find it helpful and perhaps even formative. In a sense, it was emerging within me—praying within me, if you will—before I composed it in final form. As I discuss below, I have prayed it among colleagues, students, and most of all, friends, before releasing it for use within the wider church.

I intend to do the following within this short article: (1) Provide some background and clues as to my motivation in writing this prayer. (2) Offer some general discussion as to the choice of the collect form and the writing of such prayers. (3) Provide an annotated text of the prayer that explains some of the choices that I made during its composition.

Remember, of course, that prayers are best experienced and understood by actually praying them, and at their best, they lead to the formation and offering of other prayers, both extemporaneous offerings and new compositions.

Background and Motivation

Stock people holding hands in a circle

How did I come to write this “Collect for The United Methodist Church?” As I said, it has been praying within me for quite some time. As many people already know, I am a lifelong Methodist, for many years formed by its prayers, its ritual forms, and its itinerant form of pastoral ministry; formed by its evolving traditions of congregational song, preaching, and sacramental life; formed by its arguments and controversies, of which the current impasse on human sexuality is but the latest and perhaps the most intractable. Given that formation, this prayer began as the Spirit’s intercession within me, not at first with well-formed phrases, but rather, with “sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

I might also suggest that this collect is rooted in that place referenced by the writer of Psalm 63:6-7, who prayed, “. . . when I think of you on my bed and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help . . .” Psalm 63 has long been a staple part of Morning Prayer,[1] its choice reflecting a time when monks prayed that office in the pre-dawn hours. I had prayed that Psalm for years before it finally began occurring to me that it reflects the thoughts of one in the midst of enduring a restless night; but, better learned late than never. Now that phrase returns to me on such nights—including those nights when I’m agonizing over our church—and it helps me. I have become convinced that we do our deepest and most authentic praying when we stay in touch with those original groanings and sleepless nights, even after liturgical poets and writers have tried to distill them into words that we can then offer together.[2]

To this point, I have discussed my own spiritual journey, but what about my public role as pastor and Professor of Christian Worship? Given the current crisis before the church, what did I have to offer it, if anything? I have watched as ecclesiastical tensions have increased in recent years. I have watched as lay members, pastoral, and faculty colleagues have taken on various active roles on varied sides of the arguments, and I have engaged in some of those responses.[3] But, I decided that the most effective move I could make was to respond out of my core identity as a pastoral liturgist. Thus, when worship professors from United Methodist seminaries and other Methodist liturgical scholars convened for our annual meeting prior to the January 2020 session of the North American Academy of Liturgy, I brought up the idea of preparing a collect for The United Methodist Church. Why a collect? My suggestion came as part of a wider conversation about liturgical resources that we might develop for use during these crucial days, including hymns and other forms of congregational song, calls to worship and sets of intercessory prayers. All of those could be worthwhile and potentially useful. Nevertheless, I felt called to work with the collect form. Why so?

The Collect Form: Brief, Focused, and Potentially Memorable

The strength of the collect form resides in its brevity along with its adherence to a classical pattern. These characteristics encourage writers to choose their words carefully and they make such prayers relatively easy to memorize, especially when a particular prayer is repeated over time. As with many liturgical texts (including congregational song), the collect form presumes that less is more. For an example of a classic collect, with its structure explained, see the discussion of “The Collect for Purity” on page 447 of The United Methodist Book of Worship. For the full text of this classic collect, see “Opening Prayer” in The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 6.[4]

Here is the classic outline for the collect form:

  1. An Address to God.
  2. An attribute of God is named (or God’s action in scripture briefly recalled)
  3. A petition is made that relates to that attribute or biblical narrative.
  4. The intended result of the petition is stated, often in a relative clause beginning with “that.”
  5. A final doxology or ascription of praise is offered, often in Trinitarian form.

The form encourages us to remember God’s activity as proclaimed in scripture, and thus to think creatively and hopefully about how that same God may continue working in our present circumstances. At its best, Christian petition emerges from the midst of such a biblical dynamic.

As my first and perhaps primary task, then, I had to choose a controlling metaphor or divine attribute around which I would organize the prayer. As you can see, I settled on the narrative of Abraham and the God who called him “to go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). The Letter to the Hebrews recalls this narrative in a more open-ended manner, saying “by faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance, and he set out not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). I have found the “not knowing where . . .”phrase on some occasions frightening and at other times full of promise. Others in our church may have a similarly varied experience of it. Notice that I added Sarah to the prayer although neither the Genesis 12 nor the Hebrews 11 text mentions her. Realize that while our imaginations draw on the scriptures, their sometimes-patriarchal limitations need not bind us when we pray in dialog with them.[5]

I must admit that I chose this text with my personal experience of Methodist itinerancy as background. As a third generation Methodist itinerant elder, the journey of Abraham and Sarah has been an important iconic image for me, evoking the spiritual journey—not to mention the moving vans and the U-Haul trucks—that I have experienced along with my wife and family. But, long reflection on the journeys of Abraham and Sarah has led me to realize that all Christian discipleship involves our hearing God’s Word and then setting out for places that we did not originally imagine. Doesn’t this happen every time your church considers a new outreach ministry? Indeed, no one who hears Christ’s call to “follow me . . .” (Mk. 1:17) remains exactly as they were before that call was spoken, neither the church as a whole nor individuals within it. For that reason, I chose the image of Abraham and Sarah and God’s to set out on a journey, but I resisted the initial urge to use the terms itinerant or itinerate. Although well-rooted in Methodist polity and piety, I decided that using variants of those words might keep us from seeing that the journey related to God’s call involves the whole church, and not just its ordained members.

With the trajectory set by the controlling metaphor, I proceeded to compose the rest of the prayer. As I describe in the annotations (see below), I made reference to various terms and phrases and phrases known to contemporary United Methodists, such as “transformation of the world” and “generous friends.” Conversely, I left others on the proverbial cutting room floor, phrases such as “going on to perfection” and “open table.” One must make such choices for the sake of brevity and focus.

Thoughts on the Initial Vetting Process

I have long been convinced that all Christian prayer is corporate prayer. How so? Notice the Lord’s Prayer as we find it referenced in Matthew. Jesus admonished his disciples to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” but even then, the prayer he called them to pray in secret follows a corporate form . . . “Our Father in heaven . . . Give us this day our daily bread . . . forgive us our debts” and so on (Matthew 6: 6, 9-13). So then, even when we pray by ourselves in a solitary place, we should imagine that we are joined spiritually with our sisters and brothers around the world, united in Christ, and praying to the Father in and through the Holy Spirit. And thus all Christian prayer is corporate, especially prayers offered within the worshiping assembly. The Great Thanksgiving that we offer as part of The Service of the Table provides an excellent example. Granted, the pastor speaks most of it, but its very structure is nonetheless dialogical and corporate, with a series of congregational responses, and it is never completed without the “Amen” spoken by the full assembly.[6]

What then are the implications when composing prayers for use within the worshiping assembly? I am convinced that such composition should itself be a liturgical process, to the extent possible representing the common work of the people. Such work could take a variety of shapes, but on this occasion, rather than simply writing and releasing A Collect for The United Methodist Church, I developed a draft version of the prayer and then I solicited response from a representative group of colleagues and students. I encouraged them to pray it aloud in whatever settings they wished, public or private.

I have released the prayer here only after receiving significant positive feedback, including one suggestion about a slight revision.

What follows here is the final version of the prayer with further annotations about the process. The annotated version is not, of course, the version that you would use in a printed Order of Worship, but is intended for your edification and learning.

God of the Ages, who called Abraham and Sarah to journey[7] to a land that you promised:[8] Guide the people called United Methodist[9] through our current distress to a place of peace[10] and rekindled[11] vision, that we may yet participate in the transformation of the world,[12] and that our neighbors may find in us generous friends[13]; through Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd[14], who with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen. (Mark W. Stamm, copyright ©2020)

[1]See the following:

  • Paul F. Bradshaw, Daily Prayer in the Early Church, A Study of the Origin and Early Development of the Divine Office (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1981), 74, 103, 124-25.
  • Paul F. Bradshaw, Two Ways of Praying (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1995), 76-77.
  • Robert Taft, S.J., The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, The Origins of the Divine Office and Its Meaning for Today (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1986), 33, 42-43, etc.

[2]As to the importance of shaping prayers that can be offered within congregations and on their behalf, see the very helpful workbook by Laurence Hull Stookey, Let the Whole Church Say Amen: A Guide for Those Who Pray in Public. (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2001).

[3]For example, I was a signatory, along with many others, on the full page “Letter to the LGBTQ+ Community” that appeared in The Dallas Morning News, March 17, 2019, p. 8A.

[4] See also The United Methodist Book of Worship (UMBOW) (Nashville, Tennessee: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992, 33).

[5]See the following:

  • Marjorie Procter-Smith, In Her Own Rite: Constructing Feminist Liturgical Tradition (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1990, and also OSL Publications edition, Akron, Ohio, 2000), especially chapter 2, “Something Missing: Memory and Imagination.”
  • Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1985).

[6]I discuss these dialogical/corporate dynamics in my book Sacraments and Discipleship, Understanding Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in a United Methodist Context (Nashville, Tennessee: Discipleship Resources, 2001), 92-95. See also OSL Publications edition, 2013, and my Extending the Table, A Guide for a Ministry of Home Communion Serving (Nashville, Tennessee: Discipleship Resources, 2009), 52-56.

[7] I thought of using “itinerate,” but decided that was jargon that wouldn’t pray very well and much too clerical in focus. But for me as a lifelong Methodist and elder, the thought of missional itineration—embodied in Abraham and Sarah--is the controlling metaphor for the prayer.

[8] See Genesis 12:1, Hebrews 11:8. Abram/Abraham is mentioned in both places, and without Sarai/Sarah. I have taken poetic license and added Sarah. I was tempted to place her first, but decided that was unnecessary and more, that it would call undue attention to itself.

[9] John Wesley’s phase was “the people called Methodist” and many may recognize it. Given the focus of the prayer, I’ve expanded it to “United Methodist.”

[10] I thought of using “reconciliation” here, but that word sounds like a room full of seminarians, and more, it spends six syllables. With “peace,” by my count the ratio of syllables to words is 108/76. That’s a ratio of 1.421/1 which comes close to the 1.4/1 standard suggested by Laurence Hull Stookey in Let The Whole Church Say, Amen! (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2001, pp. 131-32), a poetic standard that I’ve found fairly reliable.

[11] I am grateful to Daniel T. Benedict, Jr. who suggested this word over my original choice, “renewed.” “Rekindled strikes me as the more active verb, even if it spends an extra syllable. In a 2.8.20 email to the author, Benedict commented, “Since you began with allusions to Abraham and Sarah, there is for me a subtle--perhaps too subtle—allusion to the fire Abraham carried to the mountain with Isaac, and to the collect of the Methodist Sacramental Fellowship that references "a fire that leaped and ran." As to the phrase “leaped and ran” referenced by Benedict, see The Book of Offices and Services of The Order of Saint Luke, Timothy J. Crouch, editor, copyright ©1988, 1994 by the Order of Saint Luke, p. 34, with reference to end note p.80, “from an untitled publication of the Methodist Sacramental Fellowship, 1950.”

[12] This phrase comes from The Book of Discipline and the mission statement of The United Methodist Church. “Transformation of the world” is not a phrase that easily rolls off the tongue, but it is one that UMC leaders and others will recognize. That is, “The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016 (Nashville, Tennessee: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2016), paragraph 120. The “yet participate” is my own theological/spiritual move, in part because I fear too many read the purpose statement in a Pelagian manner. Only God can transform the world and it is part of God’s generosity and mercy to us that we may participate in the good that the Holy One is doing and intends to do.

[13] The “generous friends” line comes from the dismissal in “Christian Marriage I” (The United Methodist Hymnal [Nashville, Tennessee: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989] p. 869 and The United Methodist Book of Worship [Nashville, Tennessee: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992] p. 127). It has become a memorable liturgical phrase in UMC circles and beyond. Daniel Benedict references it in a collect for Lauds in The Book of Offices and Services of The Order of Saint Luke, Fourth Edition (OSL Publications, 2012), p. 31. Many use it for benedictions in other contexts.

[14] Adding the “Good Shepherd” may be trending toward too many words, but I think it is consistent with the controlling metaphor for the prayer, and I was trying to avoid the “Lord” language. Given the covenantal dynamics of the call, I thought about using “our Covenant Friend,” Wesleyan language from the Covenant Service (UMBOW, p. 294), but thought it might seem a bit obscure. Nevertheless, I could be persuaded otherwise.

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