Every year mid-way through the Spring semester Moody Bible Institute cancels classes and devotes an entire day to corporate prayer. We call it the “day of prayer.” But at least for me, it would be more accurate if they called it “the day of awkward conversations with God.” I never cease to be amazed at how uncomfortable this event makes me feel.
It shouldn’t. I believe in corporate prayer. I have been practicing corporate prayer ever since I started walking with Christ. When I was a pastor, I preached fiery sermons chiding my congregation for being so sparse in their attendance at church prayer meetings. You would think that I would feel like I was in my element. But I don’t.
Instead, I feel out-of-place. I find myself at a loss for words and nervous that the one who is leading the prayer meeting is going to make me do something embarrassing. Hold hands with my neighbor or say something out loud when I don’t really want to. We hold the meeting in a large auditorium and inevitably they ask us at some point to move out of our seat and join in prayer with someone else. That is always the worst for me. It’s not that I don’t like these people. They are nice (for the most part), serious Christians who are serious about prayer. I just don’t want to talk to them. I don’t want to hold hands. I don’t want share my burdens. I know it’s bad. But that’s how it is. What can I say?
It’s not the sense of God’s presence that makes me feel uncomfortable at these events. Nor is it the prospect of praying. As a professional Christian, I am well versed in the peculiar vocabulary of corporate prayer. It is a simple thing for me to inflect my voice in that sonorous and quavering pitch that signals to others that we have crossed the sacred threshold and are about to approach the throne of grace. I even know how to cover for myself when I forget the name of the person for whom I am praying by asking God to bless or heal or comfort my “dear brother” or “dear sister.” I know enough to add the post-script “in Jesus’ name” at the end of my prayers. And on really solemn occasions, I even know how to slip into the vernacular of the King James Bible and address God in “Thees,” “Thous” and “Thines.” Though I suspect I often get the person wrong, since I’m never sure which one is singular address and which is plural.
No, I have concluded that it is not the prayer that makes me uncomfortable. It’s the context. It is the prospect of being thrown together with a crowd of people whose conversations with me during the rest of the year rarely rise above the vagaries of the weather or small gossip and then be expected to share things which I can hardly bring myself to speak aloud. I am told that this kind of experience is good for me. It is supposed to make me feel closer to my brothers and sisters. I suppose it does for the few minutes after we have prayed. But when the meeting is done, we go back to our old ways.
I get the feeling that we believe this collective exercise will give us more leverage with God. As if the combined volume of so many voices does a better job of commanding his attention than our ordinary prayers. And when I reflect on the distracted and sleepy thoughts I usually project in God’s direction during my ride on the train in the morning, I can see why some might be tempted to think so.
Those who tell me that it is good for me to step out of my comfort zone and talk to God in the company of casual acquaintances and virtual strangers may be right. Still, after years of these awkward conversations, I can see why some people forsake the assembly and head for the hills to commune with God in the woods or by the shore. With all this mumbling going on, it’s hard to hear yourself think.