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Who’s Afraid of Prayer?

One thing I noticed while traveling among Quakers in Kenya and Rwanda was how frequently Friends there prayed. There were prayers of thanksgiving when we arrived to be with a group of Friends. We prayed before sharing meals. There wereEtienne and John in Kigali, Rwanda songs and worship services awaiting us most places we went, and Friends often offered prayers of blessing as we went on our way.

I will be honest in saying that the prayer did not always feel alive to me. Sometimes, it felt as though Friends were just saying words. At worst, there were times when so-called “prayers” turned into short sermons on one subject or another. There was a lot of preaching and praising. I confess that at times I longed for the silent, receptive prayer that allows for God’s Spirit to come and fill us, providing the words for vocal prayer.

But we did pray. On a regular basis while visiting Friends in Kenya and Rwanda, God was explicitly invited into our midst. We affirmed our love for and trust in Jesus Christ. We addressed the Spirit and called upon it for guidance. When we were together with our African Friends Dancing and Singing at Village Meeting near Gisenyi, Rwanda Yearly Meetingbrothers and sisters, we verbally acknowledged Jesus Christ as an actor, a participant in our conversation, a patient and loving guide to our deliberations.

This level of explicit acknowledgement of God’s role in our life together stood in stark contrast to the way that I have experienced most of my communities in the United States. While perhaps some East African Friends are a bit too eager to fill the silence with words, my experience is that the temptation for many Friends in the United States is to neglect acknowledging God’s presence altogether.

In many of my North American communities, our prayers tend to be based in silent waiting. Vocal prayer emerges, if it does so at all, out of the silence. When it does, there is a sense that the Holy Spirit is actually praying in us and through us. Prayers that emerge this way often feel genuinely Spirit-led, in-breathed and directed by Jesus Christ within us and among us as a community. At its best, Jim Higginbotham, Steve Angell at Friends Theological College, Kaimosi, Kenyathis type of prayer expresses the heart of the silent prayer that we are all sharing as a community. It expresses the sense of the Meeting towards God.

Yet, while I often experience prayers based in silence to be deep and Spirit-led, there are drawbacks to this form of prayer. One disadvantage is that it can be compartmentalized. Because there is not always vocal prayer offered – perhaps not even a majority of the time – it is easy for silent prayer to become individualized prayer.

Without anyone vocally expressing the sense of the gathered group, it becomes easier for us to conceive of our prayer as being many individual prayers offered up to the Lord, rather than being the gathered prayer of the entire group. This problem becomes most apparent in groups where prayer at meals is left to personal initiative. Frequently in Quaker (and other Christian) gatherings and events, prayer takes the form of each
ESR Faculty at Friends Meeting House, Kigali, Rwanda Yearly Meeting individual (or sometimes small groups at one end of a table) taking time out to pray silently.

Clearly, this is better than no prayer at all, but the corporate aspect is lost. In extreme cases, silent prayer can degenerate into “moments of silence.” Rather than being an opportunity for expressing thanksgiving to our Creator, the silence becomes merely a time of meditation, reflection, or “centering down.” Vocal prayer would seem inappropriate, emerging from such a moment of silence.

Why is corporate prayer so hard for us? I have a few ideas:

  • Prayer means making ourselves vulnerable. While some of us are getting used to the idea of being vulnerable before God, making ourselves vulnerable with other human beings feels like an even bigger challenge. What changes need to occur in our Christian communities so that we can feel safe enough to open our hearts to one another, exposing our most tender selves in the presence of God and our brothers and sisters?
  • We often perceive prayer as being personal, and potentially offensive. Many of us – regardless of our theological orientation – have bought into the idea that religion is a private matter. While silent prayer – especially in its individualized varieties – does not step on the religious toes of others, vocal prayer presents a greater challenge. When we offer vocal prayer, we may say words that do not fit with the beliefs of every individual present. Someone might get upset. How can we as Christian communities – and as Christians living in a non-Christian society – open a space for genuine, corporate vocal prayer?
  • We fear looking foolish. Let’s face it: Prayer can be pretty silly. The prayers that we offer to God are essentially love-talk, the simple words of children to our Heavenly Father. We do not like feeling like children – especially not in the presence of other adults! How can we become humble enough, as individuals and as a community, to be little children in the presence of God and of one another?

Are there other reasons that genuine, unguarded prayer is so tough for us? What can we do as Christian communities to break out of our fear of looking silly, offending others and making ourselves vulnerable? What stands between our present condition and a life of child-like trust expressed in unfeigned love and simple prayer?

  • Public prayer also in direct opposition to Matthew 6:5-6:

    “And when you pray, 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. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, 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.”

    Of course, the apostles and others violate this directive repeatedly from Acts on.

  • David, I think that Jesus was here addressing essentially individual prayers. And, of course, in addition self-righteousness. The “hypocrites” are showing off. This is always a wrong way to pray.

    I do not think Jesus intended his statement here to be opposing corporate prayer. Note that when he was asked by the disciples how they should pray, he presented a corporate prayer. The “Lord’s Prayer” or “Our Father” is full of plural pronouns – “our” and “us”. It seems clearly intended to be prayed in community.

    The practice of the apostolic church reflects their understanding of what Jesus taught. The original apostles heard not only what we have preserved in scripture, but much more as they lived and moved in community with Jesus. Their practice reflects this deep experience of what Jesus taught by what he did as well as said. My assumption is that they practiced corporate prayer because this was what they experienced when they were with Jesus.

    Silent prayer certainly has its place. But there’s also a power in prayer spoken from the heart. I believe that is a practice which helps knit Christian community. We should not shy away from it.

  • I find this phrase odd:
    “as Christians living in a non-Christian society”

    According to the US Census’s Self-Described Religious Identification of Adult Population ( http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/cats/population/religion.html )
    over 3/4 of the population is Christian. Granted, as Gandhi said, “your Christians are so unlike your Christ,” but it still seems weird to me claim that society isn’t largely Christian. Where do you get to draw the line regarding who is devout enough to “count” toward whether society is overwhelmingly Christian or not?

  • @Mackenzie – Your point is well-taken. The United States has a very large population of professing Christians, and it’s certainly not my job to judge who the “real Christians” are.

    However, I think it’s safe to say that a Christ-centered worldview does not form the norm for the public culture of the United States. Faith in Jesus Christ is generally seen as a private affair, with private consequences.

    There are good sides to this. I certainly don’t want to go back to the days when Quakers were hung and imprisoned for preaching a gospel that threatened the religious/state authorities! Nevertheless, we live today in a society that sees our faith as being largely irrelevant.

    The fact that the Quaker understanding of Christ’s gospel no longer occasions violence and legal action against us indicates to me that our faith has become irrelevant (at best!) to the mainstream culture.

  • Anonymous

    Jesus also prayed, read Torah and spoke sermons in synagogue, as well in public. Multitudes gathered to hear his words.

    We don’t have his words as they were originally spoken, likely in Aramaic. If anyone has read the Greek they can perhaps enlighten us as to whether the single or plural “you” is being used here. English of course, doesn’t differentiate anymore but previously “You” was plural so it’s likely the Greek is too. If each person had to go individually into their own room to pray, then even praying together as a family is in opposition to the Bible.

    The bulk of people are not Christian except nominally…that is, if a census arrives at their house and they must answer something they will answer Christian (as opposed to Muslim or Hindu or atheist) and likely whatever denomination their parents or grandparents were. If nobody ever directly asked them, they would never bring up the topic themselves.

  • Good post, Micah. Good questions.

    I accepted for a long time the Liberal Friends substitute of Holding in Light, which seemed to me intrinsically individualistic. I needed to think of communing with God in that way as a step between rejecting the “Heavenly Father” prayers of my childhood and realizing that my entire life should be lived as a prayer.

    And now? Habit? Discomfort? Praying spontaneously has never been positively modeled? I’m afraid it would feel empty or false? But what you said, “…we verbally acknowledged Jesus Christ as an actor, a participant in our conversation, a patient and loving guide to our deliberations. This level of explicit acknowledgement of God’s role in our life together…” that’s it, isn’t it? Why don’t we do that? Yeah, maybe it is about feeling silly or the vulnerability of initiating something when one has no idea the response one will get? But when we have a dynamic awareness of God in our lives and in our communities, it would seem that praising God, acknowledging Spirit would come naturally to us.

    I’m going to continue to think, and pray, about this. Thanks!
    Mary Linda