(I was recently asked why I pray extemporaneously in church rather than reading prayers I or someone else have written beforehand. Here’s my answer for Christians and non-Christians . . .)
Speaking of music on airplanes (which I did in my last post), back when I was an atheist/agnostic I always took my Walkman with me when I flew and I always listened to “The Police: Greatest Hits” when we took off. There wasn’t anything particularly reassuring about the music itself. “De doo doo doo, de da da da, all I want to do is talk to you” are certainly excellent lyrics, but they don’t exactly engender courageous flying. Of course the reason I “needed” to listen to Sting and his mates during takeoff is that I had happened to have that tape in the Walkman for one flight, and we didn’t crash, so . . . why change what works? It’s like ballplayers who wear the same socks each day – without washing them – when they’re on a hitting streak.
That’s what’s called “Magical Thinking.” Have you ever had a friend who watched his favorite football team while sitting in THE SAME CHAIR each week eating THE SAME SNACKS wearing THE SAME LUCKY SWEATSHIRT (and underwear)? I have had such a friend (but I can’t vouch for the underwear).
I used to think (magically?) that Christians were just organized Magical Thinkers. From the outside looking in, all the ritual of a traditional worship service can look like an attempt to appease an angry God by doing things just the right way. On the very rare occasions I was in church during my time away, the regimentation of the services both intrigued and repulsed me – now is when we stand up. . . sit down . . . stand up . . . let’s all say the Lord’s Prayer together . . . greet your neighbor . . . swing your partner do-si-do.
Okay, I added that last one.
But you get the idea. So I understand, hypothetical agnostic/atheist reader, that if you haven’t been to church much what we do there may look, well, strangely like it’s based on Magical Thinking. Especially the prayers. You might think we believe that if we say them just right then God will give us what we want. That’s what prayer is about. Right?
This mistaken impression is why I appreciate what seems to be a movement even in more liturgical churches like mine away from pre-programmed prayers toward more spontaneous pleas to God. To my ears, when some pastors write out their prayers it sounds as if they are trying to either impress their congregations or, haha, God with their erudition. (Hypothetical pastors who read this blog, please note that I said “some” pastors . . . surely I’m not talking about you. Honestly, I am talking about myself as a writer who sometimes falls too much in love with his written words and has to resist the temptation to show off those words.)
Prayer is not about imposing onto God our own woefully limited ideas about the way things should be. Prayer is seeking God’s perfect will, surrendering and pouring out our hearts to God.
For me, emotionally introverted as I tend to be, public heart-praying is one of the most difficult things for me as a pastor. I can do the pre-written prayers with flowery language thing with the best of them. But that’s not how I feel called to pray. For one thing, I worry that if I focus on getting every word just right in my prayers it will sound like I am engaging in magical thinking – trying to get God to do what I want.
The church is not Hogwarts, where we go to learn the right spells to cast when we want stuff or when we want things to happen.
And I don’t want anyone to get that idea.
(I’ll post the conclusion of “The Church Is Not Hogwarts” on Wednesday.)