Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Praying up. . .

It was an inauspicious occasion.  I had happened upon a member who was being visited by a neighbor who just happened to be a clergyman of the Baptist persuasion (though Baptists are by no means alone in this).  Anyway the prayer was not like the prayers of my prayerbook or the collects of the hymnal that I am accustomed to.  There was a lot of talk but I am not sure to whom it was addressed.  It was not bad.  But I am not sure it was prayer.  The one praying spoke genuinely about how much he loved these people and how his family had loved them over the years and what good friends and neighbors they had been.  It was a prayer seemingly more addressed to the people prsent than to God.

This is not much different than what happens sometimes on Sunday morning.  Some Pastors view the prayers as extensions of the homily and use the time of prayer to reinforce the main points of the sermon -- in case they did not make it clear during the sermon itself.  Others have used prayers as announcements, perhaps something that did not make it in the bulletin or the verbal announcements. We say to God what we want the people to hear.  It is not terrible but I am not sure it is prayer.

The current Chaplain of the Senate, Barry C. Black, a retired admiral and a 7th Day Adventist, has recently been in the news for his prayers, words which have a reputation for being addressed to the others in the room as much as to God.  I am not sure this is a good thing and if I had the opportunity I would discourage such sermonizing under the guise of praying.  Besides, I am not sure it matters much given the state of things in Washington. God is the one and other who actually can change the way things are there.

It is as if we think too little of prayer that we use prayer for the mundane and routine business of saying what should be said to people directly.  It could be that we do not believe that prayer really makes any difference and so it no big deal to co-opt the words meant for God and turn them into words meant for men.  It could also be that we think the business of today more of a priority than the business of eternity so that we have more than enough time to actually pray to God but we might not have much time to speak to people.  I am not sure why we do this but it is an awful witness to the people in the pew and a terrible witness to the world.

Prayer is the noblest of speech not because we wax so eloquent when we pray but because "saying back to God what He has said to us" we repeat that which is most certain and true.  That is prayer.  Praying the Words of the Lord back to the Lord in faith and with those words we bundle all our desires and the concerns of our hearts -- all summarized and expressed faithfully in the "amen" of faith that trusts the good and gracious will in all things.

Prayer should not be taken lightly nor words prayed lightly.  If we find we cannot trust ourselves to refrain from turning prayer earthwards, then we should pray the prayers of others enough so that we figure out what prayer is.  But Lord deliver us from addressing you with words we really mean for the people who happening to be listening in.

It all reminds me of the well known story about a time when President Lyndon Johnson asked Bill Moyers, his press secretary who was also an ordained Baptist minister, to offer a prayer at a White House dinner. Johnson and Moyers were seated at opposite ends of a long table, and a few sentences into the prayer, the president interrupted: “I can’t hear you, Bill!” Moyers’ response: “I’m not talking to you, Mr. President!”

Perhaps as people we are more interested in words addressed to us than words addressed to God.  We have a thing for listening to conversations meant for others, for clandestine stalking the lives of others via Facebook, and for snooping in the business of others.  Could it be that we like it when prayers are prayed for our benefit at least as much as God's?  If that is the case, then it is even more important that those praying in church pray to God -- so that we who listen in might learn what prayer is from example if not from catechesis.

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