While I was a pastor, I became friends with a man who'd retired after many years as a reporter and editor for a major newspaper. Over the years he told me stories from his journalistic career-many of them humorous, others indescribably sad. The force of his tales came from the context of relentless evil in which they were set. My friend was a reluctant but frequent observer of human cruelty, greed, exploitation, and immorality. When I mentioned that fact to him, he did not disagree.
"After you've been in the news business forty years," he said, "you tend to develop a cynical and suspicious edge. You've heard every kind of lie, you've seen every species of corruption, and you've been witness to the sleaziest sorts of performances by folk the public thinks are saints and heroes."
I asked him how he maintained his spiritual life amid such an environment. "Don't you feel sometimes as if you're living in a cesspool? How do you avoid becoming polluted inside?"
"I'm not sure I've always kept spotless," he responded. "By the end of the week, I've often felt like a dirtied-up human being. That's why when I head into church on Sunday I need something to dean me up-a spiritual bath."
This friend did more than anyone else to confront me with what it means to pastor on a Sunday morning. I realized his plight, while somewhat dramatic, was basically the same as that of most people who come to worship. Whether they know it or not, they also come out of a world saturated with evil. All of them need a bath. I began to wonder whether we provided it.
Years after being alerted to this question, I preached at a worship service led by a friend, Bishop George McKinney of the Church of God in Christ. It was clear he knew something about spiritual baths and the daily lives of worshipers.
Bishop McKinney appointed two elders to stand at the front of the sanctuary. One held a basket so worshipers could step forward and deposit written prayer requests. The other elder stood guard over a garbage pail. Into it worshipers were invited to pour their sin: either a written confession of attitudes and actions or the actual implements of evil from which people wanted to part. The pail often held syringes, pills, marijuana, stolen goods, and once, the bishop told me, a sawed-off shotgun.
Most of us are usually too subtle or cautious to adopt the bishop's methods. Perhaps we take too lightly the spiritual weight folk bring to the sanctuary on Sunday, and, sadly, too often we permit them to leave carrying the same baggage.
What to do with the "dirt" our people bring to church? As a preacher, my first instinct is to ask what my sermons might do for such a person. But one day it occurred to me that the "bath" is not necessarily in the preaching (although that is important), but probably during occasions I frequently neglected: the prayers.
It took me a while to realize the value of prayers offered during worship, perhaps because people were quick to comment on my sermon and only rarely mentioned the prayers. But as I got to know people deeply, I realized what they longed for (though sometimes were unable to express) was not so much for me to instruct them but to earnestly pray for them, to help lift their heavy burdens. They come each week wearied, muddied, and bloodied. Perhaps the most refreshing thing I can do for them is offer heartfelt prayer.
I realized I had never been taught, either formally or by example, how to pray effectively in worship. My public prayers all too often were little more than strings of religious phraseology. They were extemporaneous but over time developed a ritual quality of their own. Long-term attenders could almost predict what I would say. Painfully, I realized few people were even listening to the prayers in a service; it was a time for minds to wander, drifting back to attention when they heard "and we ask this all in the name of him . . ."