Tangled Words and Quiet Beauty
Have you experienced the challenge of praying out loud? Specifically, praying in the presence of other people? For some of us—perhaps for many of us—this can be one of the more uncomfortable moments in the life of faith, hearing the dreaded words: “Can you please close in prayer after the meeting…?”
As eyes close and hands fold, the heart pounds loudly in the chest. Words get tangled on a thick tongue, or the right words don’t come at all. You feel sure that you’ve said something deeply inappropriate or even heretical. From start to finish, the prayer feels artificial and forced. The person praying out loud is certain that those who are present have struggled to follow the prayer or to be encouraged by it, while it is doubtful that God has been at all pleased with these mangled petitions.
And somehow this struggle feels altogether wrong: as children of God, shouldn’t prayer come naturally to us? Shouldn’t prayer be something that we always delight in, also when we have the privilege of praying in the company of fellow believers? Why does praying out loud have to be such a struggle?
The situations in which we need to pray out loud are numerous and varied. Perhaps children get early practice with this activity in the home or in the classroom at school. Then when you start attending Bible study club, you might get a turn to pray at the beginning or end of the meeting. As we get older, there might be opportunities to pray out loud at consistory, or at a homevisit, or at a committee or board meeting, or at some other place where two or three or more of God’s people have gathered. And if God blesses you with a spouse, and with children, there will be daily opportunities to pray aloud, like together at the meal table or before bedtime.
I write about this topic not as a ‘praying professional,’ but as someone who has received many opportunities over the years to pray in the hearing of other people. For me, as perhaps for you, practice began early: at home with my parents and siblings, then at Bible study, at youth events, and then with my wife and kids. But when I became a minister, the opportunities to pray out loud multiplied dramatically: at least two times every worship service, in regular pastoral visits, at consistory meetings, in Catechism classes, at public meetings and other events.
Indeed, whenever I attend a public event hosted by our churches or school community, I know that there is a chance that I will be invited to pray, and sometimes I wonder about this. Is it because a minister has a special connection to God? Or is it because he is ‘good’ at praying, while other folks are more amateurish? Definitely not.
Particularly on the days when I teach three or four Catechism classes, I think of how one of my seminary professors described the minister’s prayers in Catechism class as “spiritually dangerous.” They are dangerous for the minister because this kind of prayer can be driven almost entirely by the dictates of routine. Such prayers might be simply a way to mark ‘the beginning’ and ‘the end’ of an activity, rather than an opportunity to reverently commune with our God. We are expected to pray because ‘that’s just what we normally do’ in these situations. The meeting isn’t properly closed until we’ve properly closed our eyes! And so the minister (or the teacher, or the parent), just has to say something—and this ‘something’ might end up being empty and predictable phrases, with God’s holy name being dropped in here and there. Is that prayer?
Repetition and Distraction
Herein lies one of the challenges of praying to God in the company of others. Because we might be nervous (such as at Bible study), or because we might be in a situation in which we’ve prayed many, many times before (such as after a mealtime or the beginning of a class), it’s all too easy to adopt exactly the same language that we always have, or mimic the language that we have heard others use. As I read once in a book about prayer, when we’re praying we all tend “to say the same things about the same things.”
Public prayer is a challenge also from the perspective of those who are listening. The intent of a prayer ‘out loud,’ of course, is that everyone participates in the prayer. In a worship service, for example, the prayers are not the minister’s private words of petition to God, with everyone else eavesdropping. It is meant to be a communal prayer, just as prayers in the classroom are, or prayers at the conclusion of a meeting.
But when someone else is doing the praying, and your eyes are closed, and there is a lot on your mind, it can be intensely difficult to listen with focus. Our minds work at lightning-quick speed, making wild leaps from one subject to the next and to the next, until very soon we’re a world away from the words of the person praying. While the minister is praying for old sister VanderSickma, our minds are busy with replays from yesterday’s footy match or the plans for our home renovation. Our natural struggle with distraction is perhaps why some Christian churches have the practice of standing when praying in the worship service!
But having noted a few of the difficulties of praying out loud, let’s also see this activity for the privilege that it is. In the first place, prayer is the beautiful gift of being allowed to speak humbly and truly to the God of heaven and earth, the God who has become our Father in Christ Jesus. When we pray, God welcomes us into his presence and He delights in what we say to him. He loves to receive our thanksgiving and to hear our petitions! For a child of God, true prayer should not be torture, a chore, or an empty routine, because of the wondrous reality of what prayer is.
Secondly, when you pray out loud, you have the privilege to pray to God together with others. A father, a mother, a teacher, an elder or deacon who is praying aloud does not pray alone. What he or she expresses with the mouth can be echoed in the heart by those who are listening. A public prayer—or a family prayer, or a prayer among friends—lifts the hearts of two or three or more people up to God’s throne, expressing our common convictions, cares and comforts. When we pray out loud, we have a wonderful opportunity to express a unity of faith with those whom we love.
Thirdly, it is a blessing that other people can learn from the prayers that you offer out loud. Rightly we refer to this as ‘leading in prayer,’ for you are also setting an example in how to pray. Once when Jesus was finished praying, his disciples asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). As they listened to their Master’s words, they must have been struck by how sincere and complete his prayer was, and they wanted to pray in a similar way. It can indeed be instructive for a husband to listen to the prayers of his wife when they’re praying together, or for parents to hear how their children pray, or for a congregation as they pray together with their pastor—learning about things like humility, simplicity, gratitude, and much more. As Andrew Blackwood writes about praying in public, “Every prayer ought to have a quiet beauty. Otherwise, how could it make people think rightly toward God, the Creator of all beauty?” (163).
Now, this is not to say that our public prayers must be eloquent and rhetorically pleasing. The real struggle to pray out loud should not be made worse by a pressure to say it perfectly or in a way that will impress our hearers. But let us cherish the opportunities that we have to pray to God together with others.
Next time we will give attention to preparing for prayer, and the kind of language that we use in prayer.
Rev Reuben Bredenhof
FRC Mount Nasura
Jeffrey D. Arthurs, Preaching as Reminding (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2017).
Andrew W. Blackwood, Leading in Public Prayer (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1958).
John Smith, Prayers of the Saints (Armadale, WA: Reformed Guardian, 2010).
Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954).