What do our public prayers say about our view of God? What do unbelievers think when they are present in our worship services and hear our public prayers? More specifically what do unbelievers think we believe when they hear our public prayers?
President John F. Kennedy took the oath of office (another post, I am sure) as the 35th president of the United States of America, on January 20, 1961. Along with the oath of office (another post, I am sure) public readings were read and public prayers were prayed.
Among those in attendance was American novelist John Steinbeck. John Steinbeck wrote about his inauguration experience in “L’Envoi” a proposed, yet unpublished, ending to his travelogue Travels With Charley: In Search of America. As Steinbeck reflected on the inauguration he said the following concerning the public prayers:
“The prayers were interesting, if long. One sounded like general orders to the deity issued in a parade-ground voice. One prayer brought God up to date on current events with a view to their revision. In the midst of one prayer, smoke issued from a lectern and I thought we had gone too far but it turned out to be a short circuit.”
When I read this account I laughed and then began to reflect on the many public prayers that I have heard. My own. My pastor in college and seminary. Hoards of other preachers. Guest pastors. Synod preachers. Preachers on mp3. Preachers online. Preachers at conferences. Public prayers abound in the life of the Christian!
As I reflect on the public prayers that I have heard and hear, I wonder if Steinbeck’s reflections are how unbelievers hear our prayers? Are we merely engineers who are working through the instructions? Are we only doing our duty because it is a part of our liturgy? Would an unbeliever hear “general orders to the deity” and “bringing God up to date on current events with a view to their revision?”
As much as I hope that the answer is no, I have heard enough public prayers to relate to Steinbeck’s reflection.
Public prayers are both worship and a means of grace. Our public prayers should leave the hearers (and those praying) with a sense of awe and wonder for the God of the universe. Public prayer should well up a love for King Jesus which causes worship and growth in grace. Whether or not unbelievers are converted at our public worship services, there is no doubt that they should leave our public prayers saying, “these people really believe that stuff! They really love their God!”
Friends, For His is the Kingdom. His is the power. His is the glory forever. Is that what people are hearing in our public prayers? And by “hearing” I am thinking of the Hebraic-experiential sense of the word. Are hearers hearing engineers working through graphs and diagrams or they hearing worshipers who have been overwhelmed by grace?
Worship and grace: for such is public prayer. I hope.