When I was a student at Duke Divinity School, I had the blessing of studying worship with Dr. Karen Westerfield Tucker. She was equal parts ecumenically minded and Methodist identified, filled with practical advice grounded in the scripture and the tradition, filling our heads (or at least our notes, when our neurons were overloaded) with resources, funny anecdotes about life as a pastor, and all sorts of important details. It is because of her that I can sing the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, that I can walk into many Methodist sanctuaries and pinpoint their date of construction within a couple of decades, and that I found myself spending a lovely morning off feeding “leftover” blessed bread to the pigeons at Byrd Park, in utter defiance of my bird phobia.
One of the mnemonics that she taught us was a key to writing our own collects: “To, Who, Do, Through”: TO – in which we address God; WHO – in which we express an attribute of God; DO – in which we petition God; THROUGH – in which we name God in an explicitly Triune manner. For instance:
God of Abraham and Isaac, who led your people out of slavery in Egypt, release [name] from the powerful bonds of addiction, and provide [her/him] with every aid [she/he] requires to step forward with confidence into the wilderness through which [she/he] will reach the promised land. Through your Son Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit is worshipped and glorified. Amen.
One of my many wonderful experiences as a local church pastor didn’t take place in the local church at all, but on the District level: the erstwhile Portsmouth District began offering (roughly) quarterly Lay Academies, in which lay people (that is, not paid pastor people) could come and spend a Saturday morning becoming more immersed in one of four topics of interest to them. I was asked to teach a class on the topic of prayer at one of these events. Not too broad, right? All about prayer in two and a half hours!
I wanted to be sure to talk some about private prayer and aids to prayer, about using our bodies in prayer, and about praying together in groups. But I had been informed by the organizer that the reason he was wanting to offer the class was because so many lay people feel intimidated by the prospect of praying in public. Which I easily identify with, because I myself had not been so comfortable with it before entering seminary, and my Dad was a pastor! And so I decided to teach the group about how to write collects. After running the ten or so students in my seminar through TO, WHO, DO, THROUGH, I gave them all a piece of paper with that heading on it (to remind them), and set them loose with a stack of church news magazines and recent issues of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot (our regional newspaper.) Their assignment was to find an article that moved them to prayer, and to write a collect based on that news article. Then we each shared our collects with one another – which is to say, we took turns praying before the group – leading the group in prayer.
I took both the local (weekly) and regional (daily) papers when I was in the parish, and saw reading them and praying over them as part of my job as pastor. I tried a subscription to the Durham paper after moving here, but found that enjoying raising a child led to a stack of untouched tree corpses. Which, having lived downwind from a paper mill, is not an abstract image for me. So instead, these days, I buy papers one at a time only on those days when I know I have the time to read.
Somehow, not having that daily inoculation has given me a real newspaper sensitivity. Picking up the paper today to read over breakfast, celebrating my little one’s return to school, I found myself needing to pause to plead with God many times before I made it even to page A7. Iowa Caucuses, the Keystone XL pipeline, unemployment, budget cuts in the public schools, ongoing killing of peaceful protestors in Syria, the routine acceptance of civilian casualties in war. Arson, murder, PTSD as a result of military service, divorce and restraining orders… I folded the paper and put my head in my hands. It was too much, too much, too much. As I say to my daughter when she is dithering, “Focus, Crocus!” But when I am feeling bombarded with the unlovely and surrounded by the unloved, how can this one person choose where to put his focus?
To? Lamb of God Who? Takes away the sins of the world Do? Have mercy upon us Through? In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.