Adventures in Church Attendance: Yup, Still Shit At Prayer

“Pray-er,” she said.
“You mean prayer. There’s only one syllable. The way you say it sounds like you’re talking about the person who is praying.”
“That’s what I said. Pray-er.”

This was the conversation my wife and I had as we left for church Sunday morning. I was scheduled to do the formal prayers—those relating to the “joys & concerns” of the community, as well as the dedication of the offering—and she was eager to see how things would go. Neither of us are “pray-ers,” in either the strictest or loosest of senses. She appreciates the idea of prayer more than I, citing the “Well, you never know what might help” logic that draws snorts of scorn from her sympathetic husband, but she doesn’t make much of a show about actually following through on it. A theistic secular Catholic Belgian, my wife, so she is content to live with contradiction. An atheistic post-secular Protestant American, I am apparently content only where I feel the most conflicted.

My most vivid memory of prayer occurred at a Christian summer camp when I was around 13 or 14 years old. We were seated in a circle, sweaty hands held dutifully, heads bowed, popcorning our praises & supplications, not to mention occasional, very vaguely worded confessions concerning lust & lies. I was very much in the moment, fully invested, earnest. The spirit, ever willing, however, was outdone by the flesh. An innocent peek revealed, just across the circle, in full view, the pure from sin white bra of some now nameless to me girl from another church. I’d of course seen bras before—my mother’s hanging embarrassingly, the department store’s folded innocently, the mail order catalog’s worn scandalously—but never before, so close, on one so close to my own age—never so starkly contrasted by sunburnt crimson— rarely with the rise and fall of breath, and never the returned wink of a nipple just under a not quite filled bra cup. The prayer continued, surely she knew I was leering, no, apparently not, because she occasionally whispered a “Yes, Father” in agreement with whatever was being said. Eyes never so much as fluttered.

Years passed, somewhere along the way God passed away and penitential prayer went with him. As I prepared for my first formal prayers in nearly fifteen years, I thought again of that prayer circle: were all the praises & supplications in league with all the lust & the lies I confessed. Could I do the one without the other?

The answer: well, I’m still unsure. I mean, I did it and nobody complained. Heads bowed, eyes closed. No bras or boobs. In times past, when lacking anything specifically reverential to say I could, as a good evangelical, appeal to the “Father God” repetitive placeholder—“And Father God we prayer . . .. oh, Father God, yes, Father God, we, just praise you, Father God, we, just, Father, just, God, oh . . .”—such orgasmic Joycean language the evangelicals appeal to unknowingly. Leading prayer in a good Open & Affirming United Church of Christ congregation, I found, requires one replace the placeholder with the merest of dramatic pause. Economy and reverence unite for a powerful pair.

I turn into a different person, of sorts, when I’m addressing a group of people. If I improvise, as I did here, all bets are seriously off as to what will be said. In the event of mangling the name of a new foster child or forgetting the name of the oldest member of the church, I have to rely on the power of a personality I don’t typically have. I become weirdly enthusiastic, ebullient—yes, clearly still a little dark, and in the final instance rather sad, but nevertheless very happy to be with you today . . . maybe he just needs a hug. What for my fugue state of improvisation on Sunday, I don’t recall if I said as a prologue or in the very act that prayer itself has no power, no matter who is doing the praying, me or the regular pastor, or even you at home on your knees or yoga pose; and is in fact powerful at all only—did I really confess only?—in the telling of the concern or joy to one another; that we offer our praise, such as it is, by listening; and that the prayer is answered, if it is, in myriad, untold ways, by our responses.

I sat down with my integrity basically intact, I thought. It is about the pray-ers. Yes, as nearly always, the wife is right. Time will perhaps eventually tell, but I’ve no clue now how much consolation this offered the lady who asked that we pray for her dying dad, for a healing hand, I think her words were. But, really, there’s only such much responsibility I’m willing to accept.

16 thoughts on “Adventures in Church Attendance: Yup, Still Shit At Prayer

  1. Maybe I should say, since this is the point of my writing, that within the church there is pan-generational empathy in a way that isn’t socially acceptable or even thinkable outside of the church.

  2. Ah yes, I see what you mean, Chris. That seems reasonable to me. Though, I’m not at all sure that the worship service at my church is itself particularly acceptable or even thinkable to those outside the church; so, it should perhaps be appropriate that neither should the prayers. It all depends on the church, I suppose, and what other venues of worship &/or welcome it seeks to offer.

  3. Surely the fact that this sort of brutal honesty is DOA at any church I’ve been a part of is the reason that so many people have left. Why pretend to believe in Santa the big Other God at church when one can find carte blanche on the internet? Your commitment to the power(lesness) of communal activity is inspiring, especially as I am one who also pursues this seemingly quixotic quest. Please keep blogging about it.

  4. Thanks Stephen (& Hill). I’m actually considering at some point compiling these posts and trying to use them as a basis for a book proposal on the same subject. I’ve no clue at all if it’d be publishable, but surely there are worse such books. (Always my publishing criteria.)

  5. Indeed, I’ve enjoyed these very much. Sometimes my church indulges in a bit of evangelical piety by asking us to turn and pray with the person next to us. This is terribly akward for me; I can pray along with a set liturgical prayer, but these spontaneous and personsl prayers are difficult. I feel bad for the person that gets me. I’ve learnt to avoid it with an early warning that “I don’t really do ‘prayer’.” Is that wrong? Who knows.

  6. One shift we have had in our neo-evangelism quest has been to have small groups meet to talk about their inabilities and shortcomings on prayer and to define prayer more broadly than intercessing and petitioning with one’s eyes closed. Some of this is good and some of it not-so-good. We actually have a small group that began with Martha Grace Reese’s Unbinding Your Heart and two years later they just read books by Martin Marty and Stephen Prothero. The basic idea is extending one’s ultimate concern to be something deeply shaped, shared, and questioned with others.

  7. Rob,

    Yeah, that’s pretty creepy. I’m quite fine with the sharing of concerns, joys, etc. I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary, and would not necessarily miss it if we did it some other way, but it seems to work w/ the congregation that is in place. But, yeah, praying with whoever happens to be next to you. Ugh. That’s the debilitating sort of awkward that we can do without, I say. At some point I will write something up in this series about formality v. informality in church, as well as corporate v. individual stuff. My thoughts about those things are still a kind of swirling, though, and I don’t yet have a good experience to give them voice.

  8. Also: is your congregation aware of your theological leanings? Are they aware you are blogging through the experience? The interplay between community and individual here is fascinating.

  9. Well, I have to think they have a sense of my theological tendencies. Granted, it’s not like I’m declaring atheism on a weekly basis or anything. Obviously, I’m far more inclined to say as much here than I am from the pulpit at church. Probably less so in a private conversation over coffee. By and by, they certainly know my emphasis on materiality over spirituality, and my tendency to make life difficult for myself. As to the blog posts, I’ve not advertised them, but neither have I gone out of my way to hide them either. I’ve sent a couple of links in times past to the pastor, so she knows the site exists. This isn’t to say that there couldn’t be problems if enough people, or the right/wrong people, played curious. But it’s not yet been an issue. Having said all that, I will confess abundant concerns about publishing a book on such matters, but take a certain comfort in the fact that my name is so ubiquitous as to render me anonymous.

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