In my childhood home, a small plaque hung on the kitchen wall. It said, Prayer Changes Things. This little motto sparked my first theological musings on the nature of prayer … not too bad when you're only five or six years old.
Could this really be true? I often wondered, as I downed my Cheerios. Frankly, my personal experience did not support the credibility of that statement.
After all, prayer hadn't forestalled my punishment when my father discovered the living room lamp I'd broken. Prayer hadn't closed down school the day it snowed. Neither had it hastened the coming of Christmas, produced a new bike, or brought the pastor's long and deadly Sunday sermon to a merciful end.
So what things did prayer change? Perhaps the adults knew. I didn't.
A Vulnerable Mystery
Prayer has remained a nagging, wondrous mystery in my life ever since. Because I am committed to living biblically, I believe—really believe—in prayer, even if I am not exactly sure how it works. I don't have to know all the "theo-mechanics" of prayer; I just do it. And, most of the time, I'm glad I've prayed. I believe that plaque on our kitchen wall was essentially correct.
Prayers can be said by one person or uttered by many. Prayers can be sung, spoken, written, or groaned. Prayers can be liturgical (like a symphony: carefully composed and often repeated) or they can be spontaneous (like jazz: improvised and incapable of exact repetition). Short or long; asking or thanking; shouting or silent.
Prayer is also an exercise in personal and pastoral vulnerability. I have never been confident regarding the eloquence of my prayers. Once, in my college days, a girl in my campus group said to me: "You don't pray like other Christian guys in the group. You need to ask the Holy Spirit to help you pray with greater maturity." What I think she was saying was, "If you sounded more spiritual, then, maybe, you'd be the kind of guy I could go out with."
You must never tell anyone I confided this. But I have never quite escaped that girl's judgment on my praying. I remember neither her name nor her face, but her assessment of my praying style haunts me to this day. During the many years of my pastoral life, I often heard her words as I led our congregation in prayer: "You don't pray like the other guys …"
Given the vital and vulnerable nature of prayer, it seems strange when I look back on my days of theological training and realize that I never took a course on it. I mean, if prayer really changes things, you'd think learning how to pray would be a more important course then studying how to decode Leviticus.
In my first search committee interview, I was bombarded with questions about my doctrinal convictions, my preaching style, and my vision (surely, everyone has to have a vision). But no one ever asked about my practice of private or public prayer.
Why didn't someone ask, "Gordon, do you believe that prayer changes things?"
Prayer on Purpose
Soon I became a pastor, and on the first Sunday of my tenure I was faced with an item in the worship order that said "pastoral prayer." When the time came, I got up and prayed, all the time remembering the girl who had wondered why I couldn't pray like the other guys.
Because experience counts for something, I managed to spiff up my pastoral prayers in the next few years. Words, phrases, and subject matter came with increasing ease. I prayed for the sick, the dying, and the high-schoolers off on their weekend retreat. But most of the time I had little or no sense that this pastoral prayer was anything more than a pit stop in the order of worship. It was a moment when the choir could vacate the choir loft and the ushers could prepare to take the offering. It was just there each Sunday morning, and it was mine to pray.