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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Let us pray...

I didn't grow up in church, so I didn't hear people pray publicly over and over again in church. Now that I've attended church for decades, and worshipped beside a decent variety of faith leaders, I realize prayer is cultural. Different congregational cultures have habits of public prayer that are encouraged or discouraged.

Some have preset ways of beginning prayer, of inviting us into prayer and addressing God... (Let us pray, Most good and gracious God...) Some have semi-memorized, repeating phrases in the midst of prayers that move the prayer along and signal to others where we are and where we are going in prayer. (and Father God, we just pray...) Some have preferred ways to end prayer. (and this we pray in Jesus' name, amen.)

That's why I've been told I "don't pray right" by some people.

See, I pray informally, as directly and bluntly and frankly and vulnerably as I dare. I try to pray like this whether or not I am praying privately or if I am praying publicly. I try to pray like this if I am with someone in a hospital room, or opening or closing a small group, or in the middle of leading worship. My hope is not that the prayer feels "right" to the people around me, but that the prayers of my mouth be as authentic to me and God as I dare, no matter the situation.

Because I wasn't raised in a congregational culture, prayer began for me as arguing, debating, and wrestling with God. My earliest prayers begged God to justify or explain God's actions or lack of action. My way of praying didn't match with church prayer styles, so I kept it to myself.

Then, I read the Psalms, and WHAM! The Psalmists KNEW how to pray. They were blunt and aggressive and direct, humble and vulnerable and honest. I LOVED it! I finally felt at home beside others in the history of church whose prayers were respected enough to become scripture! But, I also paused and questioned with frustration the stiff, scholarly, impersonal prayers of church.

When someone asks to me help teach them how to pray, I ask a few follow-up questions. If they want to feel comfortable praying in public, and be able to say prayers people will identify with and appreciate, okay, we can start there. But my goal with all people I pastor is to give them the courage and grace to move beyond praying for other people, and to find the space to pray from their own self directly to God as if no one else is listening.

May your prayers today be honest and vulnerable, bold and humble, direct and open. May you sense God's willingness to take whatever you throw. May you also catch whatever God throws back. May your friendship and love for God grow as you risk sharing, and sense God's support, forgiveness, and encouragement. That's my prayer to God for YOU today.

Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours,

Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

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