Being a pastor can be a drag. There is this “man (or woman) of God” set of expectations that follows members of the clergy. Let me set the record straight, those in vocational Christian service, the ministry, clerics, whatever you want call them are as flawed as any other human being. Some of us, perhaps, more than the average Joe. A lot of pastors are co-dependent individuals who need to be needed by needy people. Some are adrenaline junkies who love being the go-to-guy. Some need to know they are loved and prove themselves by trying to fulfill the expectations of their congregants. Some are little tyrants. Few of them have anyone with whom they can be real and honest. But they all are frequently called on to pray, as though it were a professional clerical function for which they have had some sort of special training.
Pastors get called on to pray a lot. I never liked that any more than anyone else who gets called on to pray out loud. It’s a huge responsibility to connect with the Almighty on behalf of several other people in a way that also connects with them. It’s hard, and takes some quick thinking or a slick memorized prayer. Worse, it seems to be an invitation to meet someone’s expectations, rather than authentically communicating with God. It’s like a celestial pop quiz. I often found myself unprepared, so I had to fake it.
Years ago, one really awesome older church member, now deceased, recounted my visit with his family member who was seriously ill in the hospital. He said, after I prayed with them, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. On a rare occasion of a respectable performance or perhaps divine inspiration, my words apparently connected and touched the soul.
Prayer is commonly used as a way to help people feel better or to show them love. I supposed that’s okay, but why not just say those things to the person without the preface of, “Let’s pray?” Maybe looking the person in the eye as we talked to God and them would be better. I have even done prayer toasts at special family meals and it’s kind of fun. If prayer is communication with God, then why are we so often focused on helping people feel better as we pray? Why do we say, “Let me pray with you,” like we are about to cast some sort of magic spell? The primary focus of prayer should be God, not man.
Prayer for some people is going through a list of how you should pray. Each bead of the rosary reminds you of something or an acronym, like ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Supplication or asking on behalf of others) informs the movement of your prayers from topic to topic. I used this kind of format for a long time, but eventually, I began wondering, do I need a list to remind me of how I should talk to a friend who loves me unconditionally?
Do you know what NPDA stands for? No Public Display of Affection. It’s a way for fundamentalist Christians to try to keep teenagers who are in love (or think they are) from constantly hanging all over each other. It helps the parents and the religious adults feel better. Who knows what goes on when they are not around? Really, it is some sort of freakish cult-like attempt to control normal behavior that forces adolescents into a duplicit lifestyle.
But I digress.
When it comes to prayer, Christians have the opposite policy or PDA (Pubic Displays of Affection.) The most common example I can think of is praying before meals in restaurants. All, but the most seasoned of public pray-ers feel very awkward about this and it gets really weird when your servers arrives in the middle of your prayer. But the custom is worn like a badge of piety for some believers. I just think it is awkward. Why not maintain an attitude of prayer the entire time that you are eating and visiting with your friend across the table?
Public prayer is often used to baptize and sanctify events. I think it is often used in a perfunctory or manipulative way to gain respect of the local religious community.
If prayer really is conversation with God, then we don’t need to choose our words carefully, because he knows our heart and desires authenticity. We can say anything we want and sort through whatever is on our mind. But most prayer is not like that, at all.
Some prayers are really sermons, like at events that involve politicians. Occasionally people who has been called upon for these occasions have delivered some real doozies.
Some prayers are long lists of people with ailments. It is sort of a PR thing, so you better not leave out anyone’s name who is sick.
In some circles payer is gibberish, supposedly, a prayer language from the Holy Spirit. Some prayers are full of the binding and loosing of the spirits as though the person has mystical powers over the unseen realms. But there is very little heart-to-heart talking with God.
For some people prayer is a magic pill, for some a ritual, for some a sermon, for some an excuse to revert to seventeenth century English, for some an opportunity to show off their eloquence or supposed spiritual powers, and for some a way to help people feel better. Are any of these real prayer, or, are they a prostitution of something that is totally authentic, usually very personal, and a meeting of the heart of man with the heart of God?
More on prayer next week.
Photo credit: Leland Francisco. Creative Commons.