I have been doing a good bit of deep thinking lately prompted by some tough situations I have encountered as well as great questions I have been asked. I have returned in each instance to one of my most deeply held beliefs: theology informs practice. Or put in a non-seminary way: What we believe ABOUT God tells us HOW we do what we do as a church and Christians.
Early in my ministry I had a pastor tell me that I souldn't have any silence in my prayers when leading the congregation because it might make some people feel uncomfortable and because it sounded weird on the radio. I was totally caught off guard by the comment at the time and, trusting his experience, tried my best to plan the prayers so all the time was filled with words.
After a couple of weeks of the most uncomfortable public prayers of my life, I took a step back and reconsidered the validity of that advice. The pastor was basing his up-front praying practice on the demands of radio and making everyone comfortable. It seemed clear that that neither radio nor comfort was (or is) a valid criteria for how we pray in worship or elsewhere, but what was?
After a bit of pondering it came to me in a flash of insight: the WAY we pray should be determined by our BELIEFS about prayer! Now the question was clear: what did I believe about prayer?
I developed a couple of specific beliefs about prayer during that time:
- Prayer is meant to be two-way. We are to talk AND listen which means, for me, that any prayer without silence (listening) is violating one of my key beliefs about prayer.
- Like any conversation, prayer can have many effects including comfort, confession, revelation, venting, expressing love, conviction, etc. which means that focusing on a single outcome all the time artificially limits the scope and purpose of prayer.
- Prayer should accurately express your heart and mind to God. However, when encountering the divine, your own words can fail you especially when you are trying to compose them off the top of your head. Though prayer should be genuine, sometimes the most genuine thing you can do is to pre-write a prayer or read one written by someone else. When words fail, we can use the words of amazing writers and poets that have gone before to help us out.
So, I started pausing in those prayers again and would even read a prayer from time to time. Not out of rebellion, but out of a commitment to the theology of prayer I had developed.
That is what I hope to do over and over again in my life and ministry. I do not want to solve problems with practical solutions that violate by beliefs about God and Christianity. When I encounter a problem, issue or concern, it is my dream that I would check the disfunctional item first against my beliefs and then proceed to work on a solution that reflects those beliefs or clarifies an incorrect one.