One of the things I love about using the Book of Common Prayer as a devotional framework is that I’m constantly discovering ways the daily office is structured for spiritual formation. To enter into the daily office is not only to pray what’s on our hearts, but to be shaped by how and what we pray.
Take for example the opening phrase common to every morning office: “O Lord, open our lips and our mouth shall proclaim your praise.”
When you kneel to pray, with what words do you begin your prayer?
I’ll confess that it isn’t very often that I begin by asking for help. Even when following the BCP, the first dozen or more times I prayed my way through the daily office, I barely noticed these words. But as I stayed with the habit, I began tripping over them. What a strange way to begin prayer; did I really need God to open my lips before I could praise him?
But in an effort to ensure that I didn’t simply read the words (which quickly turns to the I-already-know-this-I’m-just-going-to-skim-these-lines), I forced myself to slow down and enter into them. I asked myself, why begin this way?
I dug back into the origins of the phrase, and like much of the content of the Book of Common Prayer, it’s a quote from Scripture—specifically Psalm 51:15. Even if you don’t know the Psalms well, you may remember this one: it’s the one that begins with the shocking introductory line: “For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.”
After nine verses of throwing himself before the mercy and forgiveness of God, David appeals to God for help:
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
you who are God my Savior,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
(Psalm 51:10-17, NIV)
A moment’s reflection shows us the reason for beginning our prayers in this way. First, these words humble us. To enter into them is to take on an attitude of humble confession, realizing that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) If it were not for God’s action in revealing himself to us and drawing us to himself, not only would our lips have remained sealed, but we would have gone our own sad way without a thought for him. Praying these words gratefully acknowledges this reality.
But these words are not only confessional. They open outward from our point of need to a realization and grateful acceptance of God’s help. God does merely forgive us, he fills our now-swept-clean souls, calling us into step with the Holy Spirit as we pray. Opening our prayer with these words is a subtle reminder that the good life Jesus offers is one where we are in him and he is in us (John 15:7-8), and that we are learning from Jesus to do nothing apart from the Father’s will (John 5:19-20).
It isn’t that we cannot physically open our mouths and say the words, but that our prayers are bigger, deeper, more powerful, and more beautiful when we pray in step with the Holy Spirit.
“O Lord, open our lips and our mouth shall proclaim your praise.”
Enter into these words as you begin your prayers and let the Holy Spirit carry you rejoicing into the Father’s presence.