Recently, the below prayer was said as an invocation at a NASCAR race:
Hearing this prayer, and seeing some of the reaction to it, got me thinking about prayer in general. Here’s my thought: for whose benefit do you think that Pastor Joe Nelms is praying? Or let’s ask the question this way: is this how he would pray in a room by himself? Certainly, he’s making a joke, and is no doubt well aware that his invocation won’t be taken seriously. Nonetheless, it’s a public prayer that got me thinking.
I have always been a little bit uncomfortable with public prayer. You might think this is strange, me being a priest and all. Before I was a “professional” Christian, I never wanted to pray out loud; I never thought my prayers would be good enough to be out there, side by side with the prayers of the truly (poetically) spiritual. You know the people I mean. After I became a pastor and become more comfortable speaking in front of people and more confident in my ability to think on my feet, I became less worried about the ability to pray in public and more worried about the theory behind it.
I mean, aren’t we supposed to be praying to God? Certainly Pastor Nelms has gotten some notoriety for his church, and probably boosted attendance a little bit, but could anyone argue that his prayer was truly intended primarily for God’s ears? Or is it more likely that he wanted the gathered assembly to know that his wife is “smokin’ hot?” Perhaps he’d just seen Talladega Nights the evening before?
In a worship service in seminary, during a public prayer time, someone prayed a thanksgiving for the beauty of God’s creation. It was autumn, and prayer thanked God for the beauty of the changing leaves, for the reds, yellows, and browns of the season. When that prayer ended, someone in a different part of the church piped up and said, “And the oranges.” Now, I don’t want to disparage either of those people (I don’t remember who they were), but that occurrence made me wonder exactly who we are praying to. Are we praying for the benefit of those around us, or are we praying to God? What are we to do with Matthew 6:6, wherein Jesus tells his followers that when they pray, they should go into a room and close the door? Jesus seems to be regularly at odds with public displays of religiousness.
Certainly, we pray communal pray-ers…as an Anglican, I believe that a general confession (said together) takes the place of individual confession (to a priest). But confession is a kind of prayer that almost cannot help being personal: surely we have our own sins in our minds as we confess, and aren’t really even aware of the content of the prayers of those around us.
So what do you think? When we pray in public, are we beholden to the pressures of “quality?” Is there a component to communal (yet individual) prayer that is missing from prayers said to God, alone? Who are you praying to and for when you pray out loud in a group? Or do such concerns prevent you from praying out loud in groups at all?