Sometimes the pastoral prayers we ministers offer in church sound more like essays about the sorry state of the world, or commercials for the great things our church is up to, or great long laundry lists of needs, or sneaky sideways sermons disguised as prayers. It’s not often that they sound as if we’re engaged in authentic direct address, that we’re actually talking to God. We just talk away, inserting God’s name into these disquisitions every five or six sentences to remind ourselves and the congregation that all the stuff we’re saying is a prayer, or maybe to justify it as one.
It’s no wonder that people in the pews have a hard time when it’s their turn to pray aloud. Most of the time, people who are invited to offer prayers during the set-aside time in Sunday services don’t even start out by addressing God, but say indirect things like, “A prayer for my friend, Jim, who’s being operated on today,” or “ A thanksgiving for my niece who made the swim team last week,” or “That there might be peace in the world.” Hardly anyone says, “Thank you, dear God, for the great joy my niece feels after making the team,” or “Gracious God, I’m worried about my friend, Jim. Please be with him,” or “God of Love, make us stop warring and learn to make peace.” It’s hard enough to talk in public, let alone really pray in front of everyone; harder still if you don’t have the proverbial role model to give you a sense of what prayer could be like, if only.
Of course, there are, or I hope there are, many exceptions to my observation—pastors and worship leaders and basic regular people in the pews who have a talent for praying deeply and openly to a God they love and trust, who enter the mystery of prayer with a kind of anticipatory awe; and who don’t really care all that much if their prayer—even the prayer they may have written out ahead of time—is syntactically all put together or even all that intelligible or lovely or meaningful or earnest, just as long as it is really prayer, really a conversation with the Holy about the deepest things the people have on their hearts; a prayer that the whole assembly will, of course, overhear, but one that they don’t necessarily have to grasp fully with their brains in order to know that prayer is happening, that God is the addressee and the interlocutor, that the conversation is real, and that it matters.
A great mystic of our day, South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, was once asked to offer prayer at the start of a big anti-apartheid event. And so he raised his hands and prayed. Then he did a little dance and prayed some more. When he was done, he grinned and sat back down. Afterwards, a woman in the receiving line said to him, a little annoyed, “I didn’t understand a word you said!” Tutu shot back, “Of course not, ma’am. I wasn’t talking to you.”