I recently attended a friend’s wedding. My friend was born in Korea and came to the US for high school. He had a Korean pastor give a prayer during the ceremony. It has been a while since I’ve heard Korean prayer, and I found the cadence of the words familiar and soothing. The drawn-out sentences, poetic wording, and pauses in just the right moment for the congregants to respond “Amen.”
The event got me thinking about public prayer. I am part of several faith traditions that emphasize extemporaneous public prayer. Until recently, the concept of reading a prepared prayer was foreign to me. Prayer was always immediate, flowing from the heart. In my worship experience with my church in Chicago, I have come to appreciate the care of prepared written prayer, but I still enjoy those prayers from the heart.
I do notice some strange patterns in public prayers, though. Many prayers sound like this: “God, I need your help, God. I need you to come through for me, God. You have always been faithful, God. God, you are so good to me, God.”
Imagine if someone talked that way to me: “Joel, I need your help, Joel. I need you to come through for me, Joel. You have always been faithful, Joel. Joel, you are so good to me, Joel.” What a strange way to speak! And yet that is often how prayers sound.
Some may say that it reflects their deep reverence for God. I call shenanigans. None of the Psalms sound like this. Consider Psalm 28
To you, O Lord, I call;
my rock, be not deaf to me,
lest, if you be silent to me,
I become like those who go down to the pit.
Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy,
when I cry to you for help,
when I lift up my hands
toward your most holy sanctuary.
The reality is that those who learn to pray in public learn the form from others. Furthermore, speaking in public is difficult, and “God” can become a verbal tic, a comma between (run-on) sentences. But the name of God is not a punctuation mark.
This isn’t really about prayer. What I would like to see is people taking more care and attention in how they speak generally. Public prayer becomes a expression of that care.