I came into church early this morning, to get ready for our Matins service. When I arrived, there was one woman kneeling in the chapel, praying by herself.
Sometimes there are two of them.
I quietly marked my scripture readings, found the Psalm and flipped on the microphone. This woman has been coming in at 7:30 on Wednesday mornings to pray for as long as I can remember. I didn't want to disturb her before she was finished praying.
This morning she finished up a little earlier. As I was finishing up my worship preparation, she asked me, "Why do you think more people don't come to pray?"
I told her that I suspected not that many people knew that there was a prayer meeting at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning. They operate sort of under the radar. I also said that 7:30 a.m. may be a deterrent for some people who are not early risers. All true, but she was not quite content.
"I don't think people feel comfortable praying," she said. "I know I didn't, at first. I learned how from Harriet." (another woman who used to come to pray early in the morning).
I said I thought she had a point, and that people perhaps didn't realize you didn't have to be particularly good at prayer to pray. You don't have to make perfect, eloquent sentences.
Someone else came in while we were talking about prayer. She took her usual seat in the front. She was listening to our conversation when she blurted out, "but you don't have to pray out loud, do you? It's just between you and God, isn't it?"
"No," I answered. "You don't have to pray out loud."
I thought about it for a moment.
"Except when you do," I answered.
It's true. You don't have to pray out loud. Prayer is a relationship, after all. It is an intimate conversation with God. Some prayers are just between you and God, and you and God are the only ones who have to know about them. There are times when God is the only one you can talk to, the only one you trust with the deepest secrets of your heart. You don't have to pray out loud.
And yet, as soon as I say it, I am a little uncomfortable with this. Prayer is not my private possession. It's not just my individual private relationship with God. Prayer is a gift to the church, the whole church, deepening our relationships not only with God but also with one another. There are so many prayers that are not just mine and nor just yours, but they are our prayers. They are the church's prayers, the church's secrets, the church's burdens lifted up. Because we are members of one another, whether we realize it or not, whether we pray about it out loud or not.
I had the same four boys in confirmation class for three years. We started out saying just one word prayers together, out loud. Just one word of thanks apiece. We gave thanks for our parents, for pizza, for pets. As we got to know each other, we gave thanks for deeper things, and one day we started praying for things we really cared about: a grandfather who was dying, homeless people who were staying in our church, a friend who was struggling. Our prayers were not eloquent. But they were true. We learned to trust each other, to be who we are: the church.
I can understand why people might not want to pray out loud. I mean, what if people say you are praying for the wrong thing? What if someone says you don't have any right to talk to God about your dog when there are so many big things to pray about? What if someone else despises your prayer, or even thinks you are using the wrong words? What happens when your prayers are not answered, and everyone knows it? To put a word, or a few words, a dream, out there -- it's a hard thing to do.
We don't have to pray out loud, I suppose. We don't have to trust each other either. We don't have to be the body of Christ, with many members, but a common mission. We don't have to build homes or teach children or fix meals or sweep floors or share love or unlock the doors of oppression together.
We don't have to pray out loud.
Except when we do.