As a child, my understanding of prayer was shaped largely by what I observed at church. Sure, my family prayed before meals. And yeah, my parents prayed with me when they tucked me in at night. I understood that prayer was, essentially, communication with God—and that prayer was possible anytime and anywhere. But prayer seemed extra important on Sunday mornings.
After all, church was where I was told to be "on my best behavior." Church was "God's house." It's not that I thought God didn't listen to prayers offered from our house, but the prayers I heard in church seemed different—as if every word carried more weight, more significance.
At the first church I attended, we often recited the Lord's Prayer. I learned pieces of it, but I didn't understand it. After all, "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name …" isn't the same language I heard in the kindergarten classroom or on Saturday morning cartoons. For all I knew, "hallowed" was a reference to Halloween—which sort of made sense, since our church also sang the Doxology frequently, and that concluded with a reference to a ghost. So maybe church was a place where Halloween was referenced year-round—but without any candy. (The adults at least got crackers and little cups of grape juice once a month.)
When my family started attending a different church, we rarely said the Lord's Prayer. But what I witnessed in that service was even more daunting: the Pastoral Prayer. In the middle of the service, after we sang the three worship songs in our bulletin insert—but before the sermon began—we remained standing (with our heads bowed) as our pastor offered this behemoth of a prayer.
Unlike the Lord's Prayer, the Pastoral Prayer was unscripted, and it was different every week. Also unlike the Lord's Prayer, the Pastoral Prayer lasted anywhere from three to five minutes (I timed it more than once).
If the recitation of the Lord's Prayer gave me the impression that prayer should follow a ritual—that it was something to be memorized and recited—then the Pastoral Prayer convinced me that the individual words were not nearly as important as the duration of the entire presentation.
And, more than that, the Pastoral Prayer convinced me that I would never be able to adequately talk to God.
Reverent or Real?
As I got older, I gained a better understanding of the Lord's Prayer. I also started saying my own prayers before I went to bed at night (and even throughout the day … sometimes). But prayer was still difficult for me. I felt like I was just throwing words around—tossing them up at the sky, hoping they were sufficient. They weren't necessarily my words as much as the words I thought should be said during a prayer.
More than anything, I felt uncomfortable with the tone of my prayers. They weren't as reverent as the prayers I heard in church, even though I tried to incorporate some of that formal prayer language into my communication with God. But those formal phrases didn't seem to match precisely what I was feeling or thinking. I'd heard people say they talked to God the same way they would talk to one of their friends, but that just felt disrespectful to me. Besides, I thought conversations with God were supposed to deal with important things, not the trivialities I discussed with my friends.
Put simply, I was struggling to ascertain and maintain the balance between prayers that felt real and prayers that felt reverent.
I went through a rebellious stretch in my late teens and early twenties when I pretty much avoided all communication with God. After rededicating my life to Christ when I was twenty-one, I fell back into the same prayer struggles. At that point in my life, I became more committed to praying for others—friends, family, and others in need. Those prayers felt genuine enough. But prayer still felt forced—like something I was expected to do—and I still couldn't talk to God like a friend.