January 27, 2011


Read/Post Comments (3)

I do not normally pray in public. Seldom am I even asked to pray publically in my own religious tradition (Baptist), although occasionally I am asked to pray in the services of other religious traditions. When that happens, and assuming I have the time, I try to be as thoughtful about the prayer as if I were being asked to preach or teach a bible study class. While you may not be aware, there is nothing unusual in preparing a prayer ahead of time. Many ministers write out their prayers ahead of time for public services, or read from the pulpit previously published prayers found in handbooks. Such a practice is particularly true in the more liturgical traditions. In my tradition, however, there is a preference for impromptu praying. The reason being, I think, that impromptu praying appears to be more sincere and more heartfelt. But what I have observed about much impromptu praying is that, more often than not, it is repetitious, uses trite phrases, and is conceptually immature, or naive. My impression is that impromptu prayer comes off the “top of the head,” rather than being carefully thought through, however laced with emotion it may be. Perhaps you think differently.

Here are two prayers written ahead of time to “pray” during a Progressive Christian Church service in Springfield, Missouri. As I look at them now, a question is raised in my mind: are these really prayers, or simply deliberately composed religious literature? What distinguishes prayer from writing literature in the form of a prayer?


Special Protector of widows and orphans,

     for so are you named in Hebrew Bible.

There is an awful lot of hurt in our world today

      Serious illness, disease,

      People losing jobs and homes,

     People homeless and starving,

     Floods in Australia,

     Mudslides in Brazil,

     Killings in Arizona,

     Suffering in Haiti—still.

     And the list goes on and on.

We call all of these to your mind now,

      praying you will remember their needs.

There is a bit of the widow and orphan in all of us;

      we too need your special care.

Please make it so!


The world is very much with us,

      a dangerous place.

We pray that we might be instrumental in lessening its dangers

      by changing what we can.

Help us to find ways to live in a meaningful way

      with what we cannot change.

Give us the wisdom to sort out the ideals to which we aspire

      in the face of the realities of a grey/black world.

It is not easy.

Help us find ways to become

      The salt of the soil,

      the bit of yeast fermenting three bushels of flour.

Make it so is our prayer!

The question becomes at what point did praying take place? Did it occur as I was composing the prayers before Sunday, or when I read the prayers with bowed head in the religious service on Sunday, or was it later when I slightly revised the prayers for this blog? Or did I pray each prayer three times (more or less)? Perhaps my reading them in the service was exactly that—reading rather than “praying” them. In short, does reading a “canned” prayer (in the sense that it was previously deliberately composed as literature) really constitute praying?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 8:30am

I read something a while back that suggested that traditionally prayers were always public; that meditative, internal prayer was an innovation of the high middle ages. The person coupled this to the introduction of silent reading. I think this is true of Greco-Roman prayer (and generally true of reading for them too). I'm not sure about early christianity. What do you think?

Charles Hedrick
Cowell College, UCSC
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 1/27/2011 at 7:14pm

You emailed me offline the book where you found the idea that all prayer was public in antiquity and meditative internal prayer was a late development: Paul Saenger, “The Space Between Words.” The parallel for such prayer was reading. In antiquity people read aloud rather than silently. I have not read the book but will look at it. I was, however, talking about praying at a formal occasion as opposed to praying alone and not talking about praying aloud as opposed to silently. Here are three cases that are on point. 1 Samuel 1:12-13 has Hannah praying both privately and silently: her lips move but no sound is heard. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable (the Toll Collector and the Pharisee: Luke 18:9-14) prays “to himself” (whether silently or in a low monotone is unclear—for a discussion see my book “Parables as Poetic Fictions,” pp. 217-18). Jesus in Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42) goes apart privately to pray. Whether he actually prays the words audibly rather than silently is not addressed. Part of resolving the problem may have to do with how an author would deliberately portray internal prayer without making it seem audible.

Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 1/28/2011 at 12:38pm

Your question reminds me of the "prayer wheels" in Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Prayers are written and placed in a weighted drum on a stick and twirled so that ever time the drum turns they believe the written prayer (or prayers) is "said." One village had a giant drum which was turned by a water wheel (the only such mechanical technology in the village) so that thousands of prayers are being "said" simultaneously, all day long.

Not to steal your style of reductio ad absurdum but, clearly, the idea of saying a prayer once, twice, or 10 million times is of little consequence. As Soren Kierkegaard famously said, "Praying changes the one who prays, not the God to whom the prayers are addressed." Prayer for Gabby Giffords does not move God to show greater compassion for the wounded Congresswoman. As failing to prayer does not diminish God's compassion. God is not a Santa Claus in the sky awaiting the direction of the creation as to how the Deity should proceed in the divine day.

However, praying for Gabby Giffords allows me to express my heartfelt concern for her safety and recovery. In so doing, I increase my own inclinations towards compassion and may jar my indifference towards the ready availability of assault weapons in America into some kind of meaningful action.

So, in the sense that praying is an act done privately or corporately for the benefit of the participants of the prayer, then you were praying when you wrote the prayer, and when you said the prayer and when you wrote about the prayer and when you read over these thoughts about the prayer....... though the intensity of focus on the prayer is different in each setting.

All in all, I'm glad that you still pray and that you have been willing to pray publicly at church, both when you pray at the time assigned in the liturgy and when you just spontaneously pray as the "spirit?" moves you.

Posted by Roger Ray on 1/27/2011 at 3:19pm

This expresses very well many of the thoughts and feelings I have on the matter of public prayer. Whenever I'm asked to give a public prayer, Matthew 6:5-6 goes through my mind, but then I try to fashion something along lines not unlike those in your two examples.

Posted by Edward R. Smith on 1/27/2011 at 2:30pm