How Not to Pray

My church has found me. I must have passed some threshold of monthly giving or something, because lately everyone in every corner of the church is inviting me to serve with them. Youth ministry, homeless ministry, marriage ministry, small group ministry, communications, uh, ministry, and even . . . prayer ministry.

Yes. I, who scored "present" on an online test measuring the quality of my faith, hope and love, am now regularly praying for people after our worship services. Don't worry, I don't get a lot of traffic. But occasionally someone comes up to me for prayer, at which point I am, occasionally, sent into a tizzy.

Recently I was sitting around, trying to look welcoming and spiritual, trying not to look at my phone, when I was approached by a woman I'll call Joan. Joan needed prayer, mainly for discernment, because she had two friends who she was trying to figure out when and how to inform that they were sinners and she would no longer be hanging out with them.

Seriously. This is the sort of thing some people request prayer for. This is, I believe, how not to pray.

I listened to her story and tried to remain sympathetic, but inside I was sort of seething. Who does this woman think she is? I wondered. In what universe would this kind of prayer make sense? What kind of God would respond well to a prayer like that? I asked her some questions for clarification, and then I closed my eyes and started preaching.

This, by the way, is also how not to pray. I learned this from Andrew Wheeler, in his excellent and woefully underappreciated book Together in Prayer. Preaching with your eyes closed is not praying. When you tell God what you want other people in the room to know--when you teach God Christian doctrine or remind God how bad people are at following him--you're not praying. You're preaching, and you're not even dignifying your audience by looking them in the eye.

I know this. I get really testy whenever I am invited into prayer, and I close my eyes, and someone does this. I gripe about it in the car to my wife on the way home from such proto-prayer times. I'm hip to the fact that this is not how to pray. And yet I did it. I think it's fair to say they set the bar pretty low for prayer team at my church.

Most of us are unaware of when we're preaching with our eyes closed. And in fairness to us, it's an easy habit to slip into. God is invisible, ineffable; God may be present, but he's not in view. In the meantime, there's any number of visible, effable people standing right in front of us, and we're pretty sure they need to hear what we need to say. It's instinct, the way any will to power is an instinct.

Anyway, I "prayed" for this woman, thanking God for placing her in proximity to these two friends, praising God for being loving and merciful and patient and grace-giving and for loving even those who reject him. I asked God to help her sort out when to speak words of challenge to them, but mainly I invited God to show his love for these two people through this woman. I laid it on thick, I can tell you.

I opened my eyes and she was still there, so I asked her what she was thinking. She softened a bit, talking about her concern for her own children, who were learning some bad habits from one of these people. She talked also about her concern for the children of the other person, who were suffering from the mistakes their mom was making. She lamented how many people call themselves Christian and yet ignore obvious ways that Christ might speak into their relationships, their morals, their life decisions.

I softened too, considering how hard it must be for a parent to make decisions not just for herself but for her kids, how desperate in particular Christian parents must be to see their kids embrace faith in the way they've embraced it, and how scared they must be given the increasing cultural disaffection with a Christian subculture. So we closed our eyes again, and this time I tried to keep it prayerful. I again prayed for love and grace and mercy, but I also prayed for courage and opportunity to speak truth and all that stuff. When we were done, I opened my eyes again. So did she.

Then she complained about how this generation has rejected good family values, and how the previous generation was all great and awesome. I hate that stuff. I prodded her a bit on it, and to her credit, she gave in a bit. Then we shook hands and parted ways.

Ta da! I had prayed for someone. Mission accomplished. Box checked.

This coming Sunday I'm all in: I watch that Bible TV show with some homeless folks, then I talk about following Jesus with a bunch of middle schoolers, then I attend the worship service, then I pray again. And a few hours after that I discuss a book over snacks with my small group. I may even edit a church newsletter or something. I'll feel pretty good about myself, I suspect--good enough that I'll be tempted to preach at someone with my eyes closed. Maybe you could pray for me that I won't do that. I'd go so far as to say that something like that is how we should pray, and I'd welcome it.


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