I find leading the Prayers of the People during worship each Sunday requires my full attention. First, I must read slowly and distinctly, with a pacing that evokes a state of prayer. Second, I am editing the written prayer in front of me to link to the sermon and current events. Third, I watch for subtle body language changes from the congregation to my words and pacing. Fourth, in the middle of this prayer, I pause and ask for individual petitions, most of which I cannot hear clearly enough to understand, some of which I are so softly spoken I must guess when the speaker has finished. And finally, I get to attend to my own connection with God after I saying, “and those concerns we hold deep within our hearts,” while I count slowly and silently to seven.
The electronic road signs in Illinois show a new public service announcement: “Drop it and Drive.” Our neighbors to the west have a new law prohibiting talking on a handheld phone while driving. They reason that holding a phone is one to many tasks to do while driving. Unfortunately, merely talking with someone not in the car is the major distraction for the driver’s mind is no longer on the road ahead.
I have come to realize that spoken prayers are like a table edge that a toddler might use to steady himself while learning to walk. Spoken prayers guide our connection with God. But strengthening one’s connection with God requires letting go of the guide and stumbling. First a few seconds of quiet, wordless prayer, which after practice can lengthen to a minute, and eventually, fifteen minutes or more of solid, undistracted connection with God.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites;
for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners,
so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.
But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door
and pray to your Father who is in secret;
and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do;
for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.
Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
— Matthew 6:5-8 (NRSV).