In my experience, there’s more interest and curiosity about prayer than there are about other aspects of the life of faith. Compared to mysterious rituals or seemingly dusty dogmas, maybe it’s that prayer feels more accessible or personal. Maybe it’s that we all have moments where we just want to cry out at someone or say thank you to something bigger than ourselves.
Furthermore, prayer is an act that’s clearly not unique to the Christian faith. People of different religions from all over the world share this behavior of prayer, even if we direct our prayers to different deities. Even if we have other differences of understanding, Jews, Muslims, and Christians all pray to the God of Abraham. And for the people in our culture who identify as spiritual-but-not-religious, prayer may have special appeal.
I was thinking about this diversity and commonality that we find in the practice of prayer after a recent encounter I had with a stranger. I was wearing my clergy collar, which I think sparked our brief conversation. A man whom I hadn’t met before came up to me to say, “You know you don’t have to go to church in order to pray.” I think he expected me to disagree with him, and I was saddened that this individual expected me to be judgmental about his faith life. When it comes to prayer, who am I to judge? I have my own questions and ongoing conversation with God. Later I wondered more about this person’s story, but our meeting was brief.
This encounter got me reflecting again on how, where, and why we pray. On the one hand, it’s pretty clear that this man was right. You don’t have to go to church to pray. People (and not just Christians) pray in all different kinds of places. From a Christian perspective, the Bible seems to invite us to pray in any time, place, or situation. For example, in Psalm 139, the psalmist wonders where he can flee from God’s presence. He concludes that wherever he goes God is with him. The psalmist writes, “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely” (Psalm 139:4).
On the other hand, my experience of prayer in community is different from the man I met. I have found a lot of power in corporate times of prayer. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer during a church service, for example, I think of how that prayer unites me with Christians all over the world and throughout the centuries. I join others in saying “Our Father” and not just “My Father.” It’s also meant a lot to be a part of a community that supports one another through intercessory prayer – that is, praying on one another’s behalf. When a loved one is sick or you find yourself in crisis, it can be a powerful experience to hear your name prayed out loud in a community. Likewise, you can be drawn out of yourself as you pray for the concerns of another person. In my life, I’ve need both times of private prayer and times of communal prayer. The two aren’t opposed to one another, but feed off each other.
I know that my experience is not everyone’s experience, but I do think prayer is an important point of dialogue in a diverse world. We will have many differences of experience and perspective, but we can learn a lot about each other’s stories by the way we pray.
Note: This post originally appeared in the Brodhead Free Press and the Independent Register as part of their weekly “Pastor’s Corner” column.