On Writing Prayer-Poems

prayer poems

PDF handout

I confess. I tend to borrow prayers from others. See the prayer sheets, for example, which are collections of prayers on a theme, sourced from books or other websites like re:Worship.

But sometimes you have to stretch yourself, so when I was putting together the series that became “The Gift” (Preparing for Pentecost) I decided to try my hand at writing some original prayers to accompany the Scriptures I had selected.

I’d like to share what I learnt from writing the twelve prayer-poems I wrote for the series. I hope you, in turn, will be inspired to write prayer-poems of your own.

Prayer-Poems

The goal is to capture the essence of the source Scripture and turn it into a prayer enriched by poetic devices. Like the psalms, but then in your own words, as an expression of who you are, especially who you are in relation to the God who inspired your source text. For the joy of creating and of having something life-affirming to share with others (including your future self).

My prayer-poems tend to be 100 words or less.

Poetic

I opted for free verse, but with an in-built rhythm or cadence that becomes evident when the prayer-poem is read out loud. I used the odd metaphor as well as simile, assonance and alliteration.

metaphor
I am a building site, / under construction, / and the building company / is called Trinity.” (Re-minder, The Gift #3)

simile
Like ripples, / like soundwaves, / like seeds carried aloft by the wind” (Traces, The Gift #7)

assonance
“words that protect and reflect / the new life taking root in me. / Holy Spirit, be my defence.” (Defence, The Gift #4)

alliteration
“the new of this now” (Tell me, The Gift #5)

I also experimented with line breaks, white space and punctuation to regulate the rhythm and pace of the words. On occasion I used lists to tie things together or to broaden or intensify. Repetition and ‘compare and contrast’ are also useful devices.

Inspiration

Each prayer-poem is anchored in the particular Scripture that inspired it. Sometimes additional Scriptures are used to extend the source text.

Models

Psalms
paintedprayerbook.com (especially the blessings)

To whom

The prayers usually include a form of address (e.g. “Jesus, baptized baptizer”, “Our Father in heaven”, “Father-sent Advocate”), and might reflect a specific aspect of God’s character suggested by the source text.

Getting started

Selecting a source text

Select a verse or passage as inspiration.

Connecting

Meditate on your source text, asking the Holy Spirit to let it speak to you. You might like to learn it off by heart to further internalize it.

Long-hand

I find it helpful to write out the words of my source text in long-hand, using pipes to separate the words as appropriate.

For example: Luke 11:13
If | you | then | though | you | are | evil | know | how | to give | good gifts | to | your children | how | much | more | will | your Father | in heaven | give | the Holy Spirit | to | those | who | ask | him!

(Notice that I combined some of the words – nouns with their qualifiers, like “the Holy Spirit”, and verbal phrases like “to give”. That seemed to make more sense to me than separating them out.)

Somehow, by dividing the text into its constituent parts, things jump out at you more easily. In this case I noticed the words, “Father”, “in heaven” and “give” and saw the link with the Lord’s Prayer, which became an essential reference point in the resulting prayer-poem.

Our Father in heaven
giver of good gifts
– good to the core –
you know what we need
to live
and move
and have our being.
We ask you
– because Jesus said we could –
– because Jesus said we should –
give us our daily bread
give us your Spirit, we pray.
Amen
(For the asking, The Gift #2)

Two-step: right brain/left brain

Chew on the words and let your imagination, memory and associative faculties (right brain) loose on the text. Write everything down. Stay in the flow till you run out of ideas.

Later, after you’ve taken a break, you can give your left brain (critical faculties) access to your notes, to evaluate, sift and order your collection of thoughts, and to help you shape it, pruning and strengthening the impact re: form and focus. It helps to have a central unifying image to hold the whole thing together.

If you don’t have enough material after the first round and/or your ideas spark fresh ideas, repeat the process.

Helpful Tools

1. Different translations of your source text. This often prompts fresh thoughts and perspectives.

2. A good dictionary and thesaurus.

3. A concordance and/or the search facility of a website like BibleGateway.com.

Ideas

1. Ask a friend or family member what their favourite verse is. Read and reflect on it together, and find out why the verse means so much to them. Take notes during or after the conversation. Then write a prayer-poem inspired by the verse and your conversation and give it to the person. In the process they’ll be blessed, but so will you.

2. Read through the Bible readings for the service coming up and select a (short) passage that particularly resonates with you. Write a prayer-poem based on that passage.

3. If you have a role in the service yourself (preaching, leading prayers or doing the readings) consider writing prayer-poems by way of preparation.

4. Write a prayer-poem as a response to a sermon that moved you, or as a follow-up to a Bible Study.

5. Write a prayer-poem as a prayer for someone, and consider sending it to them.

6. Write prayer-poems with a group (using a common text or individual texts). Include time to brain-storm and share ideas. Consider finishing the prayer-poems at home. This gives your ideas time to mature.

In closing

Like poems, I suspect prayer-poems work best on the page. Use them in service sheets or the church magazine, or send them to friends, hand-written on a card or by email.

 

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