If you've ever been part of any Christian group that ended its times together by someone saying a prayer, you've probably experienced something like this: Person in charge: Okay. Anyone want to say the prayer? [Silence] Person in charge: C'mon. It's no big deal. Somebody? [Silence that's more awkward, with increased fidgeting] Someone in the group, who also said the prayer the previous three weeks: [Sigh] I'll do it...
I grew up participating in this routine in Sunday School classes, youth group meetings, etc., and somewhere along the line the impression was given to me that it was a mark of maturity in our lives as Christians to be the one willing to heave the sigh, say "I'll do it," and then say the prayer so that the awkwardness could be over and everyone could leave. If that was true, then it was a mark of super-maturity whenever someone would skip the awkwardness, fidgeting, and sighing to volunteer themselves immediately upon the request. (Or perhaps, if not maturity, it was a mark that they were in a hurry to get to the dessert, or the football game, or whatever was happening next.)
Since I had a sincere desire to live as God wanted, and being the one willing to say the prayer was part of my picture of a mature Christian, somewhere along the line I decided I would be one of those willing to pray aloud whenever the awkward silence reached a certain level without anyone else volunteering to do it. That willingness opened the door to a whole other set of popular prayer games. As I got further into my teenage years, I began to make friends with others who were also willing to be the ones to say the prayers. Again, out of our young sincere desire to please God, we would sometimes arrange ourselves in groups to do this kind of praying together, and I discovered something interesting: in that kind of setting, the expectation changed from someone in the group being willing to say the prayer to everyone in the group being required to say a prayer. If we didn't pray anything aloud, it would obviously mean we didn't love Jesus very much.
Once I figured that out, and was praying aloud every time it was my turn so that no one would have cause to doubt my love of God, another level opened up to me. If I said things in my prayer that others in my "we're-willing-to-pray-aloud" group really liked, they would respond–right there as I was praying! Everyone seemed to have their own way of doing it. For some, it was a "Yes, Jesus," or "Yes, Lord." Others might give a more conservative "Amen." The most common response seemed to be an "Mmmmm," which I learned to translate as, "I really like what he just said."
I no longer accept anyone's willingness to pray aloud as an indicator of their love for God. Nor do I have any problem with people who have their own verbal way of agreeing with a prayer that someone else has said. The problem that I have in looking back on those experiences is with me. Yes, I meant the things I said in the prayers, but I was paying at least as much attention to the reactions of the people hearing me–even calculating my words in order to try go get a reaction from them–as I was paying attention to God.
In those days, I didn't know these words of Jesus as well as I do now:
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:5-8, NIV)
These days, apparently, I usually pray with more reserved people than I did back then because–even though I still do pray aloud in different contexts fairly regularly–those kinds of reactions don't happen as often as they used to. But I'm fine with that. Thankfully, I've come to see the point of our praying as enabling us to live prayerful lives rather than trying to see who can get the most "Mmmm"s and "Yes Lord"s in the prayer meeting. Throughout the rest of this week, we'll look at three ways of praying that can be helpful when we attempt to follow up on Jesus' "when you pray..." instructions: praying with other people's words, praying without words, and praying with our own words.
A Prayer for the Day:
O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning: Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness while it was day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*
A Prayer for the Week:
Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.*
*From The Book of Common Prayer
[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]