Friday, March 11, 2016

On prayers for prisoners, old and new

How people loved to hear Old George pray!

The church was different in those days.  Prayer language was a lot like the King James Version of the Bible, with lots of “thees” and “thous.”  We didn’t have praise bands and happy music.  Smiling and laughing were not appropriate.  The sanctuary was quiet as one entered.  Organ prelude music was funereal.  Frowning elders and deacons occupied the two front rows to make sure the sermon was in keeping with our doctrine.  I’m not arguing that this was good or bad.  I’m simply saying that things aren’t that way in many churches today.

Old George was a perfect fit for that type of church.  Whether in a consistory meeting, a congregational meeting, or some other type of church meeting, it was always a good idea to call on him to offer the prayer.  It would be just the right length, it would cover all necessary topics, the cadence and tonal fluctuation of his voice was not unlike the musical offering of a competent and intense church organist, and the spiritual language would certainly rank high in a listing of history’s most famous and most popular religious clichés.  People loved those prayers.

I must point out that I’m not ridiculing the prayers of Old George.  This topic entered my mind yesterday as Matt and I prepared for the quarterly meeting of the HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS Board of Directors.  I’m an old man now…much older than Old George was when he was offering those colorful masterpieces to the almighty, and since getting involved in this prison business, prayer has taken on a whole new meaning for me.  Flowery clichés don’t work.  In fact, sometimes I can’t even think of the right words.  Sometimes God just has to interpret my painful silence as a message on behalf of a struggling man or woman behind bars.  One thing I know:  God listens, whether it’s me or Old George, whether there are words or just sighs.

Our practice is to open each business meeting with a prayer, and we’re blessed to have Fr. Jared Cramer, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, as a board member.  As the directors gathered to discuss our work with prisoners I was reminded that this was the very week of World Day of Prayer.  I saw Fr. Jared open the Book of Common Prayer, not something we ever had or used in the Dutch church:  37. For Prisons and Correctional Institutions, Rite Two.  Can a prayer already written out and used for centuries possibly match the petitions of Old George?  Can something that old deal with something this new and fresh and demanding in today’s HFP agenda?

Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal: Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment. Remember all prisoners, and bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future. When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us, and teach us to improve our justice. Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal or callous. And since what we do for those in prison, O Lord, we do for you, constrain us to improve their lot. All this we ask for your mercy’s sake. Amen. 
Amen and Amen!

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