Teach me to pray

“It’s about listening,” I heard myself say. “Praying aloud on behalf of others is all about listening to them.”

I remember well the feeling, in those years even after I’d graduated from seminary, been through the ordination process, and received the mantle of religious leader. Would I say a prayer before the meal? Would I say a prayer for the hospital patient? Would I say a prayer for the family, the church event, the graduating class, the world? Something in me would freeze. I would oblige, but with a frozen core. My words probably sounded as warm and authentic and spiritually connected as a popsicle.

Praying aloud is scary. Even if everyone closes their eyes, it still feels like they’re all looking at me. And if I can talk myself beyond that bit of self-absorption masquerading as shyness, I still have to confront the truth that they are all listening to me. Will I say the right thing? Will I stumble over my words? Will I expose the frailty of my prayer life? And will they think I’m a fraud?

Yet there I was, all these years later, answering a question about how to pray aloud, sharing the secret that I didn’t know I’d learned until I said it out loud. Praying aloud on behalf of others isn’t about me and my eloquence at all. It’s about listening to others, hearing their yearnings and needs, then turning around and giving those to God. It isn’t about being center stage, it’s about being a voice giving voice to pain and joy, grief and gratitude—whatever folks are feeling in the moment.

That begins with listening, the kind of deep listening that sets aside the self in order to hear and understand the other. Learning to pray aloud begins with the practice of attentiveness, paying attention to what is being felt, experienced, and desired. Attentive listening builds a relationship.

And that’s where the self re-enters. For a prayer’s authenticity resides in the relationship, the trust of the pray-er that someone is listening, someone is attending to the prayer. God listens, I must believe, if I am to pray on behalf of others. My faith becomes part of the prayer, and a gift I can offer to the need.

I still can freeze when asked to perform some ministerial function I wasn’t expecting. I shy away from the advice sometimes given to young ministers, “Wherever you go as a pastor, you should always be prepared to say something.” My advice is different. Wherever you go as a person of faith, you should always be prepared to listen. And listen well.

Practice attentiveness, and the words will come.

2 thoughts on “Teach me to pray

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