Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Public Prayer

As a Christian, one of the things that happens frequently is that in a group of people, one of them will, sooner or later, offer to pray for something. If it’s a meal, we’re asking to bless the food and the conversation. If it’s a small group, we might pray for just about anything that is on the minds of the people in the group. If it’s a church service, typically, the pastor will close the service in prayer, asking for help related to the topic of the message that was just delivered.

We pray publically. A lot.

But I’ve always been fairly uncomfortable doing it. I never know what to say. I often feel like what I’m saying is not meant for God, but rather for the people I’m with. Perhaps to share my needs, fears, etc with them so that they know. Perhaps to reinforce something that we’d talked about. But when I pray publically like that, I constantly fumble around what I mean to say – and it almost never comes out quite right. Which isn’t a problem for God, but is if I’m trying to share that information with the people in the room. And, by convention, there’s no chance for those people to stop me and say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

This weekend, as I attended a men’s small group that I’ve just recently joined, something odd struck me while we were praying. Every man in that room was a Christian. Which means that every man in that room has the holy spirit with them, guiding them, as a still, small voice. Including me. The problem is that I am very skilled at ignoring that still, small voice. Or I’ve built up habits in my life that serve to muffle the voice. And it struck me that the entire meeting is a public prayer – not just the 5 minutes or so at the end where we close our eyes, bow our heads and start talking. When I meet with those men, what I’m doing is hoping that the issues that I bring, and the questions that I have, that those other men – in aggregate – will listen to the Holy Spirit and help me to un-muffle the voice that is speaking to me.

And as a mechanism for communicating with God, this is LOT more effective than just talking with my eyes closed. Someone talks back. If they don’t understand what I’m saying, they ask for clarity. If they do understand and have a suggestion, they give it. If that suggestion doesn’t match with Biblical teaching, the odds that someone in the group will know that is higher because there are more people listening to the Holy Spirit and thinking about the Word.

I’m think that there is a value in traditional “prayer time” for me privately. When I stop myself, close myself off from distractions, lay the issues in my life in front of God, and still myself to try and hear his response through the Holy Spirit. But I’m beginning to think that my public “prayer time” is quite a bit less useful, especially in comparison to just the conversation that happens with other Christians. That public prayer time allows me to share my stuff with the people I’m with, but in an extremely ineffective way, precluding others from asking questions and giving feedback. Instead, I’m beginning to think of the entire time as an interactive prayer among people each trying to un-muffle the voice of the Holy Spirit. And together being better able to get at His voice than we can alone.

Still, I often find myself listening to someone else who does pray publically very well, and I’m often emotionally moved by the power of what they’re saying. Maybe it’s the humility that they’re expressing. Maybe it’s their awe at God and his world. I think that there is great value in public prayer. I’m just terrible at it, so I tend to avoid it.

My point: traditional public prayer is, I think, more about the people in the room than about communication with God. Deep conversation with a group of Christians seems to me to have a better chance at 2-way communication with God via the Holy Spirit than does group prayer.

But I could be wrong.