Some years ago I attended a district promotional rally for some good cause at which, without warning, one elderly minister was called upon for prayer. His efforts soon degenerated into a confused monologue that, like Mother Hubbard's apron, covered everything and touched nothing.
Later in that same rally an official who had been deprived of the opportunity to present his cause seized the opportunity afforded by an invitation to offer a prayer and read his report—ostensibly to God. He told the Lord all about his success in fund-raising, maintaining the fiction that he was talking to God by injecting a pious word every few minutes. During the eight minutes of this performance (I counted them) I found it hard to remember that I was supposed to be in an attitude of prayer.
The first man was handicapped by a lack of preparation; the second had prepared well—but for the wrong purpose. In his fashion, the first was really talking to God, but couldn't think of anything to say; the second had joyfully seized the opportunity to deliver a report that was not on the agenda. Neither of these men offered an effective public prayer.
The pastoral prayer, while not indispensable, is a part of our Protestant tradition. Congregations have long been accustomed to hearing their pastors lead them to the throne of grace in a manner that can be personal, informal, and even edifying. In this prayer ministers put into general terms the aspirations, hopes, and even the fears of the people whom they serve.
The pastoral prayer cannot be merely general, but it must not be wholly personal, reflecting only the desires and problems of the minister. It must not degenerate into conversational chitchat or a report on the condition of the sick and troubled.
What then is a good pastoral prayer? It is relatively short, not more than three minutes long. Anything beyond that is conducive to mind-wandering (or even sleep) on the part of the congregation. We have been counseled that "long praying wearies, and is not in accordance with the gospel of Christ." Prayers that are a few minutes in length leave an audience "refreshed and strengthened, in stead of exhausted."1
It is coherent; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is no better pat tern for such a prayer than the ancient form of collects, which managed to convey one idea in a simple form. However, the pastoral prayer must, of necessity, do more than this, for it must gather up a variety of petitions and touch upon a number of needs and problems—not of the minister, but of the people.
It may be written out and read or thought through and spoken extempore. In the latter case it is probable that the minister will not seek to deliver it word for word, and will usually find that new material will come to mind as he speaks. But there is no excuse for careless praying. As J. H. Jowett once wrote: "There is nothing mightier than the utterance of spontaneous prayer when it is born in the depths of the soul. But there is nothing more dreadfully unimpressive than extemporary prayer which leaps about on the surfaces of things, a disorderly dance of empty words going we know not whither—a mob of words carrying no blood, bearing no secret of the soul, a whirl of insignificant expressions, behind which there is no vital pulse, no silent cry from lone and desolate depths." 2
On occasion it may be totally extemporaneous. Some of the most touching and helpful prayers I have ever heard were given by unlettered men and women in rural churches who, caught up by their own joy or sorrow, poured out their hearts to God in unpremeditated and poetic language. But the prayer of the minister on behalf of the congregation can not be left to the inspiration of the moment, and the man who says proudly "I just open my mouth and the Lord fills it" deserves the reply "Yes, but with what?"
On most occasions it should be couched in dignified language. Attempts to interest young people by the use of slang phrases or faddish diction and terms are bound to fail for the very good reason that such attempts to speak a language that is ever changing can produce more hilarity than sympathy on the part of the kids.
But the language must not be that of the scholar or social worker. All such specialized words as pedants use and professors dote upon should be banished from the text of a pastoral prayer lest the hearers spend too much time in at tempted translation and thus lose the thread of sense.
Incongruous language, such as the alternation between thous and yous in ad dressing the Deity, can destroy the atmosphere of worship. There is no valid reason for using the ancient forms, and the shift between Elizabethan and modern English is annoying to the ears of the listening audience.
Finally, it does not contain foolish petitions. Why should we ask God to do things that He cannot do and remain the God of all His children? Why should we encourage a false idea of prayer by asking the impossible? Why should we, at great length and with frequent repetition, re mind the Lord of things that He knows better than we do? Is it necessary to tell Him about the debt on the church or the coming financial campaign? We may pray for help in all of our undertakings, we may ask for guidance, but we cannot, in all honesty and faith, ask for those things that, if given to us, must be taken from others
"God, damn the Kaiser," shouted a popular evangelist during World War I in a banal attempt both to shock and please his audience. It is said that the people cheered that prayer. If they did, it was an indication that to them prayer was only another expression of selfishness.
Asked for a model prayer, Jesus gave one that can be repeated in 30 seconds but that, if said honestly and prayerfully, could change the world. It has only four petitions: for food, for forgiveness, for help in avoiding temptation, and for deliverance out of evil. How strange it is that the followers of Christ, who taught us to approach our Father in such simple reverence and such short compass, should insist upon making of our prayers so great a burden!
1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1948), vol. 2, p. 617; see also p. 577.
2 J. H. Jowett, The Preacher: His Life and Work
(Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, Doran and Com
pany, 1928), p. 152.