When evangelicals consider spirituality, they place a high priority on spontaneity, equating it with authenticity. Especially when it comes to prayer we are largely resistant to anything planned or intentional. “Ritual” in prayer and worship is something of a four-letter word for us, usually preceded by the adjective “dead.”
I once asked an undergraduate class how they might react in chapel if a person said, “let’s pray,” and then proceeded to reach into his jacket pocket, pull out a piece of paper, unfold it, and read his prayer. The response was overwhelmingly negative. They said it wouldn’t be genuine or authentic. It wouldn’t be “from the heart,” which is how we should pray.
I then asked them what they would do if they were told that Barack Obama planned to visit our university for a day. In addition to a campus tour, he asked to meet with one student for five minutes to conclude his visit. “If you were selected to meet with the President of the United States,” I asked, “how would you approach that encounter?”
“Would you think,” I continued, “‘well, I really do want to be authentic and genuine, so I’m going to just put it out of my head until the very last minute and when I meet him I’ll just say whatever comes to mind?'”
I gave another example. I asked our female students how they’d respond if, in the midst of a 6 month-long dating relationship, their boyfriend took them on a very special date and said the following: “Well, I’ve wanted to tell you how much you mean to me, and I really wanted it to be genuine, so I didn’t plan anything. I just wanted to spontaneously express my appreciation for you. So, here goes: Your eyes are like . . . waterfalls that . . . no wait, they’re like birds that fly . . . okay, let me start over. Your soft skin is like silk when you . . . okay, there’s a deer, and he’s . . .”
After a few minutes of awkward stumbling and bumbling, you’d probably say, “uh, let’s just look at the menu, shall we?”
Intentionality doesn’t necessarily work against genuineness and authenticity. Just the other day, I was in a gathering to discuss a certain topic. The person leading the discussion introduced the topic and then said, “now, before we begin, I’ve composed a prayer for this occasion in order to orient our time and to set it in the context of worship and service to God.” He then read it and we all said, “amen” in order to make it our own.
The prayer was thoughtfully written just for that occasion. It was very direct, carefully worded, wonderfully simple, and functioned to both focus our minds and orient us rightly toward one another and toward God.
If we knew we were going to meet with Barack Obama, I think we’d plan carefully what we’d say. And it seems to me that we truly honor those we love when we give careful thought to the specific ways they are precious to us and to how much we appreciate them.
To then do the hard work of carefully expressing this does not at all diminish authenticity and genuineness.
We ought to approach prayer in the same way. This might open up the prospect of learning to pray from our fathers and mothers in the faith, from the Psalms through to contemporary prayer books, such as those of Phyllis Tickle and others.
I’ve enjoyed the exercise of writing prayers and reading the thoughtful prayers of others. Anyone else discover the joys of thoughtfully intentional prayer and worship?