I have always admired people who have the verbal skills to offer prayers in public contexts that seem to move heaven and hell. Their words are well chosen and pregnant with meaning and emotions. Though I admire them, I have never been able to replicate them. It just isn’t me. So what was the problem? I have considered several reasons for my inadequacy in this area, lack of spiritual depth, being too self-conscious, or just not enough practice.
My struggle with public praying doesn’t keep me from doing it. I offer prayers at all kinds of events like weddings, funerals, family functions, small groups, and at our dinner table, to name a few. Being a pastor requires you to pray in front of others. It doesn’t bother me to pray in front of others, I do it all the time. It is just my prayers never sound like those I mention above. My struggles aren’t because I don’t pray; I pray all the time. Recently reading a book by Dallas Willard (Hearing God) has caused me to reflect deeply about both my personal and public prayers.
As I have done this, I think I have figured out why my prayers are not as polished or well-worded. I think it is related to the way I pray. My prayers are a lot like my conversations…they are a stream of consciousness. In other words, in my private praying, I just say what is in my head without processing it through cognitive structures, which would cause the words to come out right. I have a running dialogue with God which ends up being a lot of random thoughts, desires, and emotions (both positive and negative).
I don’t separate talking with God from my normal thought process. I know this sounds strange, but God knows everything about me. So, I am convinced that I am best to be continuously open before God. It isn’t unusual for me to have a tempting thought to do something I know I shouldn’t, and I will laugh in my head, telling God, isn’t that a bad thing. I think that is confession. This isn’t something I have had to develop; it has developed naturally through my walk with Christ and attempting to be totally honest with him.
Even when I sin in some way, I don’t have to “come before God” and confess it to him; rather, I just acknowledge it was wrong, and we move on. Most people don’t think I am a praying person because I don’t spend huge amounts of time dedicated to praying specific prayers for specific people. This is a good thing, but when I am told about a situation or every time I think of that situation, it is like God is there in my thoughts, and I acknowledge that God must work in this situation.
I know this sound a little mystic, but it really isn’t. It is the way I have learned to communicate with God. I remember, as a twenty-year-old, just after committing my life to Christ, I was asked to pray in the church I grew up in on Sunday morning. I opened the prayer with “Good morning, God…”. I wasn’t asked to pray again. It didn’t fit their expectation of Pastoral Prayer. That was fine with me, I thought it was their problem rather than mine. I now think it was a problem on both sides.
So my recent insight is this: could it be that because I pray like a stream of consciousness in front of others, it doesn’t come out right? Perhaps this seems awkward because this is not how we normally talk with others.
Public prayer means I must suddenly enter into dialogue with God in front of others. However, I have been in dialogue with God all along, so am I now supposed to talk differently than I would otherwise? In other words, to be most effective, I have to reorganize my thoughts into normal sentence structures. This process isn’t a bad idea, but now I know why my prayers seem disjointed and stunted: I have to verbally express what has been an ongoing stream-of-consciousness thought process with others listening.
Therefore my public prayers are a little stilted. People might ask me why? If you pray all the time, it should be natural to pray before and with others. This is true, but my ongoing dialogue with God is of a different nature, where I am very honest, open, and transparent. Those kinds of prayers before others aren’t always appropriate. If you read most printed prayers and public prayers, you will find them eloquent, well-worded, theologically sound, and grammatically correct.
My prayers simply aren’t like that. I don’t even talk to others like that. Many of you know in conversation that I have a rapid rate of speech and often say inappropriate things. My prayers reflect this entirely, they are much more free-flowing with fragments of sentences, questions, thoughts, and run-on sentences.
I will probably continue to struggle in phrasing my public prayers as I have in the past. However, now I know why and don’t feel inadequate in so doing.