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Prayer and What Passes for Prayer

Prayer and What Passes for Prayer

It's a small matter of small importance to a small circle of people who, I have discovered again for the umpteenth time, find my aggravation unworthy of a response.

I mean prayer, and knowing how to do it publicly in worship.

At a baccalaureate service recently (those who know me will have no trouble guessing where), I listened critically (after all, that's what this website is about) to three representatives of established faiths offer prayers. The baccalaureate, a holdover from the good old days of civil religion, is a tradition intent on immersing the next day's graduates in a final blessing of reverence.  In my moment as an undergraduate that trio would have been Protestant, Catholic, and Jew.  In this moment, however, the Protestant, as with the Supreme Court, has been eliminated and the trio becomes Muslim, Christian, and Jew.  Fair enough, I don't take issue with baccalaureates or Supreme Courts on this thinning of the faithful who share my identity.

The three chaplains were equally remiss, not a single prayer among them.

The supposed prayers were clearly identified in the program as "Invocation," "Prayer," and "Blessings."  The three chaplains did their turns with dignity, reverence, and wisdom.  No doubt in my mind that they were people of faith, perhaps even profound faith.  They just didn't know how to pray publicly.  Oh, they spoke words, lots of them, filled with holy thoughts and good advice for the graduates and the rest of us listening in.  But what I heard were sermons/homilies with an "Amen" appended.  What I didn't hear was a prayer. 

A prayer is what one says to the deity.  God is the audience.  So there is no point in filling your prayer with all kinds of moral messages obviously designed to catch the ear of those for whom the prayer is supposed to be speaking.  Public prayer aims to gather up the hopes, fears, confessions, thanksgivings, and needs, both minor and desperate, of those for whom it is prayed, laying it all out beneath the gaze of eternity, making the congregation or audience want to say "Amen" and mean it, that "It's my prayer too." 

I've written it before and I write it again, these true measures of a real prayer:

    1. God is addressed, straight away, and periodically throughout the prayer.

    2. Strong verbs follow the address of the deity and continue to punctuate the prayer, with each new sentence.  The construction "let us remember that" is to be eschewed because it is the unmistakable phrase that means the prayer has become a sermon.

    3. The point is gotten to quickly.  What needs saying is said; adjectives and adverbs avoided; and the duration limited to three or four minutes... the length of time it takes for a worshipper to nod off because his eyes are closed, or for the fried chicken to get cold during a table grace.

I said as much to the baccalaureate's organist, a previous acquaintance.  He took my critique as a complaint (which, of course, it was) and, since he was a friend of the Jewish chaplain, assured me he was the sincerest of souls.  But sincerity was not the issue.  Authenticity and competence in public prayer were. 

It's a losing battle, I know, I know.  But now if you are with me in worship and see me during public prayer, when I too am a congregant and not the leader, open my eyes and raise my head, you'll know what I'm thinking. Right: "Here we go again, preaching disguised as prayer; God, help us."


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