Monday, August 8, 2011


Next time you're asked to bow your head for public prayer, don't dare close your mind.  Instead, engage in these 5 practices.

Public prayers make me nervous.  An ordained Christian clergy, I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve prayed publicly; likely as many times as I’ve listened to others offer them--whether at the beginning of a NASCAR race or graduation event.  Once, public prayers seemed innocent to me--full of nothing but goodwill.  As I’ve paid closer attention to them, however, I recognize layers of assumptions, mixed motives, and not-so-covert speech-making.

So, I found myself wincing as I observed Texas Governor Rick Perry's prayer event on Saturday, August 6.  On the surface, it appeared as pure and simple as your great-grandmother's patchwork quilt.  Underneath, it was a tangled web of perplexing messages and political motives.  Proclaimed to be a non-political, nonpartisan prayer for the nation and its leaders, it was, in fact, the very thing it was declared not to be.

That's part of the irony of public prayer.  And that's part of its problem for authentic Christianity.  Perhaps that is why Jesus pointedly challenged its practice.  “When you pray,” he said, “do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.”  Instead, “go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6, NIV).

For those who view public prayer as merely a traditional American ritual, it is readily endured and dismissed as meaningless and harmless.  For those who view public prayer as a genuine collective engagement with the divine, it holds ultimate meanings and powers.  Both views need to be challenged.  Public prayer needs to be carefully parsed.

Public prayer is a most interesting genre of speech.  Its practice is a complex social and political experience.  I realize many will want to argue that public prayer has nothing to do with speeches or politics.  "It's just a cry from the heart directed to God and God alone," defenders of public prayer will say.  But personally believing or arguing that its has nothing to do with speech-making--and with social and political ramifications--is at least naïve and possibly self-deceived.

Think about what's happening in public prayer.  One person asks all in a public place to be quiet, bow their heads, and close their eyes--presumably in reverence for God and as standard religious practice.  For some, obliging this is just a respectful gesture.  At the least, the person who is about to lead in public prayer has asked everyone--regardless of their trust or beliefs or faith--to let down their guard.  And most go along.

However, for anyone who prays sincerely in private, this posture is perhaps the most open, vulnerable, trusting moment in religious experience.  For these, it is about bracketing whatever else is going on, setting aside whatever is normal, casual, and routine.  It is a moment when the usual rules of human discourse no longer apply.  It is a moment of attention, focus, and God.

Yet, in reality, our collective attention, focus and receptivity in the moment of public prayer is not primarily to God, but to whoever is the designated pray-er.  We are in the position of listening in and passively, presumptively agreeing with what is being said to God on behalf of ourselves and others.

Whether or not he or she recognizes it, the one who is designated to lead in public prayer is placed in a powerful position.  Hats off.  Heads bowed.  Eyes closed.  For a moment, many voices and conversations are hushed and all become as one.  All anticipate what will be said to God on behalf of all.

Some who lead in public prayer recognize the fragility of this moment and respect it.  Others take privileges, using public prayer to project their own perspectives and prescriptions on all.  Granted, some convey their perspectives naïvely.  Their own unexamined motives and unconsidered prescriptions for social ills spill forth irresponsibly.  Others, however, convey their political perspectives with awareness and intention—convinced that their viewpoint is exactly God’s viewpoint, that their solution is equivalent to God’s solution.  In my hearing, Gov. Perry’s prayer fell into this category.

In response to my increasing discomfort with public prayer, and instead of summarily dismissing it, I’ve developed a short list of practices for use during them.  Try these the next time public prayer is on the agenda:

1. When asked to bow you head and close your eyes to pray, if you oblige, do not close your mind, do not be passive.  In this sacred yet vulnerable moment, critical thinking and engaged discernment is most important.

2. Recall the differences between your private prayer and public prayer.  Private prayer is sharing your own feelings, words and petitions with God as you conceive of God.  Public prayer is listening in on another person’s words and personal perspectives addressed somewhat to God and somewhat to all who are listening with some intended or hoped-for effect.

3. It’s okay to disagree with the presumptions and petitions being offered in public prayers.  Do not excuse what is not excusable or agree just to be agreeable.  Often, I find myself uttering, “God, you know better than that.  Don’t do it!”  When I can’t agree with the prayer, I sometimes end up spending the moments praying for myself and the public pray-er—for mercy for us both!

4. Listen carefully both to what is said and what is implied.  Sometimes what is not said but implied is telling and important.

5. Follow-up public prayers with personal reflection and contemplation, along with discussions with friends and neighbors.  What is said or left unsaid in a public prayer can become a point of raising awareness, making constructive responses, and perhaps helping shape civil discourse.  At least, that’s what Gov. Perry’s prayer did in this case.

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