Friday, March 08, 2013

Prayers of illumination

Preparing for Pocket lamp worship first, with Jonny Baker and CMS Pioneers, second with the mission shaped ministry Board, a few weeks ago got me thinking about Prayers of illumination. I think it was holding the pocket lamp open, thinking about light, and the phrase – prayers of illumination – sort of floated through my consciousness.

Liturgically, a prayer of illumination is the prayer prayed before Scripture is read and spoken. In churches that consider themselves non-liturgical, it has a predictable pattern asking for God’s help as Scripture is preached, a predictable place just before the sermon and a performative dimension, inviting a focus on what is about to be said.

In liturgical churches, when used (curiously more infrequently, in my experience, than in non-liturgical churches), it tends to be a set prayer, more likely to be varied, drawing from church tradition or various Scripture.

One example of a prayer of illumination, slightly varied from Scripture, is drawn from Psalm 19:14

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our heart, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.

What is interesting is the context, what comes in the 13 verses prior. You see, in the Psalm illumination comes from two places – nature and Scripture.

The first six verses (1-6) reference illumination in creation – heavens, skies, sun, heat – all of these are proclaimers of God’s handiwork. From them “pour forth speech.” (19:2). As for example, in this “baptism” experience, or in this recent book release – Forest Church: A Field Guide to Nature Connection for Groups and Individuals by Bruce Stanley – which I am hoping to blog review chapter by chapter over the next few weeks.

The next five verses (7-11) reference illumination in Scripture, and the hope of wisdom, joy and light.

So, presumably when the prayer of illumination is prayed, it is invitation to consider both the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture. And it suggests that the sermon that might follow will tell stories of human experience, offer insights from nature and reflect on Scripture. Perhaps in at least equal measure? Now that’s the type of prayer, I’d love to say Amen too.

Because, according to the Psalm, both are arenas of illumination. Sure, not without discernment. I mean, you sure need discernment to read Leviticus, or Proverbs, or Revelation or any portion of Scripture. And yes, you need discernment to read nature. Which is probably why you pray the prayer. Because illumination is a gift, from God’s Spirit. And prayed in community, because faith is corporate and discernment is always about what seems “good to the Holy Spirit and us.” (Acts 15:28)

In community and in need of God.

So a variant on pocket lamp worship would be to spend an entire service exploring Prayers of illumination. Place a whole lot up around the walls. Give people a lamp. Get them to walk, to read. Invite them to place their lamp beside the one that most connects. Share this in groups. Invite discussion on where God reveals Godself, on how discernment happens, both in practice and in the history of the church. Invite them to chose the prayer most meaningful, and pray it individually, at home, as they gather around Scripture. In so doing, the use of Prayers of illumination corporately would be enriched and renewed for another season of the life of the church.

Creationary: a space to be creative with the lectionary (in this case, visual images on themes of pilgrimage). For more resources go here.

Posted by steve at 11:06 AM


  1. Hi Steve. This is slightly off-topic but you say that “when the prayer of illumination is prayed, it is an invitation to consider …” and that has got me contemplating again the direction of led prayer. In a sense, every prayer led in worship is an invitation, for the people to join in the prayer, and to take on board the concerns of that prayer. I find this especially to be the case when we begin a prayer with “May …” Beginning a prayer with “May …” means that the prayer is not specifically aimed at God, but is the voicing of a mutual concern. It is different to a prayer that says “God, you do something”: “God, illuminate these scriptures so that we will understand them.” If taken seriously, “May the words of my mouth be acceptable …” invites God and community both into a joint discernment process that is not just passively critical (Oh, I don’t think that was acceptable) but mutually enlightening. However the flipside of a “May …” prayer is that it can become meaningless because there can be no expectation. It can become nothing more than a nice wish because we’re not specifically asking anything of anyone in particular: “Wouldn’t it be nice if …”
    Partway through my formation I started using (and still use) the prayer: “God of mystery and wonder, may your word be spoken, may your voice be heard, and to you be the glory.” In the light (illumination) of this post, I suspect I may need some time to ponder those words a little more, and contemplate whether I still want a “May …” prayer each week before I preach.

    Comment by Ivan — March 13, 2013 @ 5:24 pm

  2. That’s interesting Ivan. In the Biblical text, the Psalm has – O Lord my rock and my redeemer ie who you’re speaking to, at the end, which I’d omitted.

    I do often end simply with “O Lord”, but would be happy to make that more focused ie “O Illuminator”

    Part of me thinks that prayer is saying how we feel, and doesn’t need a request. eg some Biblical laments,

    Appreciate your thoughts – certainly got me thinking


    Comment by steve — March 13, 2013 @ 7:29 pm

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