WARNING: This post will contain God-talk, and prayer-talk. If you feel like skipping this post, go right ahead. Just a warning to readers who might be concerned about catching Christianity or some other kind of religion bug.
I’m sick to death of prayer with words. This has been a long time coming. In 1987, my first year at Bethany Bible College, I used to attend early morning prayer meetings. We would start at 6AM, find a quiet corner of the chapel, and begin our days with prayer. At about 6:50, we would gather together and, led by Byron Zahm, we’d spend ten minutes in a prayer of corporate closing. Prayer time was voluntary, but I knew, to be a truly strong Christian I had to pray. I’d speak to God about the day, the weather, the concerns of my heart, the government. That would usually cover me until about 6:15. By 6:20, I’d be asleep, sprawled out on the warmth of a heat vent, listening to the moans and sobs of the other praying students. At 6:50 when the lights came up, I’d be afraid I’d been caught drooling, sleeping, or heaven forbid, snoring. I was a worthless Christian. “And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour?” No, Jesus. I couldn’t even make it fifteen minutes.
I didn’t give up. Prayer was important. The Holy Trinity of Protestant living are, pray, read the Bible, and go to Church. Slowly I began to notice punctuation patterns in certain types corporate prayer. There’s the tongue click, which is an accurate vocal substitute for a comma or a period: “Our Lord Jesus <click> We come before you right now <click> to thank you for your mercy <click>”. And the word “just” is always popular: “Dear Lord we just come before you right now, to just give our thanks in our time of need and just want to say to you…” There are also those who use Lord, Lord God, and Lord Jesus as punctuation (or maybe to remind God who we are talking to?) : “Lord we just want to thank you Lord God for giving us your Son Lord God to forgive our sins Lord Jesus…” The rule was, when doing corporate prayer: never stop talking.
And then there was Doctor Bobo.
Dr. Truett Bobo was the eccentric theology professor who wore Birkenstocks way before they were popular, and drove a Checker Cab to and from work each day. His prayers were momentous, brief, and never for a moment unthoughtful or filled with fluff. He opened class every day with prayer: if he caught you walking into class during, or after, prayer you received a tardy (and he always knew if you were tardy even though his eyes were closed tight in concentration in his moment with God). He’d say “let us pray.” Then he would rock up onto his heels, forward onto his toes, hands clasped behind his back, and after several seconds of silence, would begin. “Lord,” he’d begin. Long pause. “Thank you for warm black socks.” Another pause. “And for excellent, excellent toast.” Silence. The students would stare around at each other to see if we were really hearing this correctly. “Amen.”
But Dr. Bobo’s prayers, for all their studied virtuosity in bizarreness, were heartfelt, memorable, and the best prayers I’d ever heard. Every word, every syllable he uttered, he meant, as a devotion to God, and as a microcosm of the deepest sort of worship. And not a word was uttered out-of-place. No tongue clicks, no “just”, no using God’s names as punctuation.
In 1992, I was leading services for Felton Presbyterian Church, where I was on staff as worship coordinator. I stood before the congregation and began to pray. My mind was on autopilot, and before I knew what my mouth was saying, I was praying for the congregation to the trees and grass and rocks or some equally ridiculous and unchristian thing. I stopped cold mid-sentence and looked up. The entire congregation stared at me like I had a lizard tail hanging from my mouth. For all I knew, I had swallowed a gecko or two. I finished off the prayer, said my “amen” and hustled back to the piano where I could shut the hell up. It was during that service in 1992, I resolved to never utter another word in prayer if I didn’t send it through my mind first. I might not pray a prayer of thanks for my socks before congregation, but I’d be damned if I let my mouth run ahead of my mind, and more importantly, my God. I pretty much stopped praying that day.
One day, during faculty meeting, Ed Koetitz was asked by the college president to lead out in prayer. Ed paused for a moment, and replied with “No, thanks for the opportunity. I don’t think I will.” There was a stunned silence about the room. People just didn’t say they weren’t going to pray. It simply wasn’t done. The president moved on to another, more receptive person and the moment was over. I cheered Ed that day, for knowing when he was ready to pray, and when he wasn’t.
So my questions: why don’t we allow ourselves to shut up and reflect during prayer? Why do we put such weight on praying with our mouths, that we’ll babble anything so long as we don’t have to encounter silence for a moment? Is silence that fearful and unholy? Why can’t we pray when we are ready? Would a 20-second psalm of thanks for black socks not be preferable to 10 minutes of content-free chatter?
I seldom pray anymore. I joke with friends that when I say I’ll pray it must mean something because God will drop everything upon hearing from me. But it’s not quite accurate; I often make myself the butt of the religious joke to lighten the blow to people who can’t handle the whole truth. I try to make every moment of my life to be one lived with intention. Not only my words, but what I do: I may not always succeed in this, but I think the Almighty would be much more pleased with my living intentionally than words spouting from my mouth because I’m afraid, for even one second, to reflect. So I counter, if I’m going to be totally honest, I do pray; in fact my every action is a prayer, when I can make it that way, just the way every word uttered from Dr. Bobo’s mouth had meaning, either to the esteemed professor, or to God, or to both; and just the way that Ed Koetitz knew when silence was a better offering than words, as a prayer. When I look at the movement of my hand, the workings of my sons’ minds, I simply marvel. Maybe I actually did wait with Him an hour, if I knew that God didn’t expect me to be saying something the whole damned time. If there is a God, I declare these moments to be my most heartfelt moments of thanksgiving and my unspoken offerings to the Creation.