Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Review: Common Prayer

Praying The Hours, or Set Prayers, is an ancient custom that Evangelicalism has been relearning in recent years. While The Church has incorporated communal common prayers since the time of Christ (following in the even more ancient practice of our Jewish roots), it is a practice mostly ignored in evangelical protestantism until the last decade. Thankfully, it seems to be making a comeback.

Many books are being written about the subject, like Arthur Paul Boers' The Rhythm of Grace, and Scot McKnight's Praying with the Church. In addition, many prayer books are being published to help people in their journey into this old way; books like Celtic Daily Prayer, the youth-oriented Book of Uncommon Prayer, and Phyllis Tickle's monumental Divine Hours. These join the more traditional communal prayer books published by churches and denominations, such as the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the New Zealand Prayer Book, and the Presbyterian Book of Daily Worship.

One of the newest additions to this collection is Common Prayer, published in late 2010 by Zondervan and assembled by Shane Claiborne, Jonathon Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro. Common Prayer contains morning prayers for every day of the year, with an extra week added for use during Holy week. It has a shorter evening prayer for each night of the week, and a midday prayer for use throughout the year. In addition, it has a collection of Occasional Prayers for various situations; among them are a House Blessing, a Prayer for Adoption, Prayer for Healing, and a Prayer for the Death of Someone Killed in the Neighborhood. Finally, there is a short songbook at the back, a collection of music from a variety of traditions, including African spirituals, hymns, chants from the Taize tradition, and Mennonite worship gatherings.

Common Prayer is ultimately meant to be used in community, reflecting Claiborne's roots in the New Monasticism movement. It certainly can be used to guide one's personal prayer life, but most of the prayers are designed in a responsive manner. Some readers will be surprised at the political nature of the book. Claiborne is one who believes faith impacts the way we walk in the world, and is no private matter. To this end, Common Prayer is liberally sprinkled with stories of saints new and old who have impacted the world for Christ. Some are not so surprising - Brother Lawrence, Cyprian of Carthage, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are all highlighted. Others might catch the reader off guard just a bit - Dorothy Day, Clarence Jordan, and Oskar Schindler.

Besides sharing the stories of individuals whose lives reflected Kingdom values, Common Prayer also highlights historical events both good and bad. October 10 remembers the Women in Black and their vigil against war in Serbia. October 16 remembers the Cuban Missile Crisis. August 21 remembers Nat Turner and a slave revolt in Virginia. March 21 retells the story of protest and violence in South Africa. February 25 remembers the Hebron Massacre and ongoing tensions in the Middle East. Each of these prompt us to consider Christ the peace-maker, and to continue to pray for God's Kingdom to reign on earth.

In addition, paragraphs appear throughout asking us to consider issues such as living our liturgy, practicing confession, and being thoughtful about creating sacred spaces. Also included are short teaching pieces on practices such as the Eucharist and church seasons. Each month concludes with a short list of suggestions for Becoming the Answer to our Prayers (the title of an earlier book by Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove).

In other words, there is a lot packed into this book. It takes prayer out of the context of 'personal religious practice' and sets in within the larger framework of the Kingdom of God on earth. It asks the user to dig deeper in prayer, but also to spread our arms wider around our fellow Christians and the world.

Of course, to fit all that in meant they created a rather large book. At almost 600 pages, this isn't an easy book to lug around in your backpack, or store in your church library. On the other hand, it's a well-crafted book whose cover, binding, and weight add to the substantial nature of the content. A few basic prints of woodcut art add to the beauty found inside. People used to the idea of common prayer might find this book a refreshing wind blown into their ancient tradition; those new to the idea will find it simple enough to engage and learn this meaningful practice.

In order to expand on their ideas, a website has been created with prayers for the day, .pdf files of the songs included in the book, and information regarding the contributors and their communities.

Special Thanks to Zondervan for providing a copy of Common Prayer for the purpose of this review.

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