It's Wednesday and all across the American ecclesiastical landscape churches are preparing for tonight's organ recital. People will begin to gather early. They'll report to their assigned seats. They'll settle in. They'll whisper softly to their neighbors. They'll quickly hush when the conductor rises before the assembly, gently raising a hand of acknowledgement, and asks, "How is everyone tonight?"
Then, following the pastor's lead, individuals scattered throughout the auditorium will begin their organ solos. While the words may vary, the tune will strangely remain the same.
"Pastor, I need you to pray for me. I've had this pain in my right side, might be the appendix but the doctor says it could be gall bladder as well. You remember, that's where they thought they saw a spot on the X-ray a few years ago when I was having problems with my ascending colon. Well, my aunt had the same problem when she was my age with her liver, but it's probably not that because she had cirrhosis. Anyway, … ."
Around the room, people will take their turn on the organ merry-go-round, listing all that ails them, from that organ that sits between their ears to the fungus that grows between their toes, giving an anatomy lesson that surely would have pleased Mr. Gray.
Organ recitals are often accompanied by the evening news as well. If you've been to more than one prayer meeting, you recognize the format.
"Pastor, we should pray for Deacon Joe's daughter, the one who got pregnant as a teen. Well, Mrs. Deacon Joe was telling me that the daughter's husband, that boy that got her pregnant, is leaving her. She thinks maybe he's been sleeping around. You know, they're like that. Anyway, we need to pray for sweet, little Susie because she's having a hard time of it, especially since that miscarriage that she never talks about. So, … ."
Prayer requests of this nature are often more about letting someone else in on the juicy details that you've been privileged to know. The point is not to pray but to say. God already knows the ins and outs of the situation. We're just making sure everyone else does. Some of this is surely the result of spiritual naivete. Unfortunately, some of what passes for prayer requests of this nature are little more than gossip in spiritual guise.
As a pastor, I looked forward to our prayer meeting. Prayer life, of the individual and of the church, is indicative of spiritual vitality. However, my joy often dissipated quickly when I called for prayer requests. The organ recital would begin. The family news began to fly. I've been told about intimate female problems and I've heard public confessions of painful, private sins and the whispering that quickly followed. At that point, prayer meeting is no longer about God but man.
Now, I'm not saying that believers shouldn't be praying for their physical needs. Nor am I saying that they shouldn't be asking for the prayers of the saints. A sweet fellowship is nourished by a personal acquaintance with the lives and needs of others. I just want to remind the faithful, however, that God is our audience in prayer, not those sitting around us.
When it comes to our prayer requests God already knows what we need before we ask. He's not waiting for the details to be voiced before he formulates his response. He doesn't require your seatmate to grasp the intricacies of the situation before he will hear. After all, prayer is not about us. Prayer is not about them. Prayer is ultimately about him.
We should be following the example of Christ in Matthew 6:9-13. In the "Lord's Prayer," prayers of supplication, those asking something of God for oneself or others, are reserved for the end of prayer not the entirety of prayer. In fact, that prayer begins and ends with the prayer's eyes on God.
Let's pull the plug on the organ recitals and the local church news. Let's mention our heartfelt requests and let's move on, without the gory details and the personal gossip. Let's put God, his glory and his greatness, center stage in our prayer meetings. When we do, our prayer meetings will be in tune with his will.
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About Peter Beck
Peter serves as assistant professor of religion at Charleston Southern University where he teaches church history and theology. While serving as senior pastor in Louisville, Ky., he completed his PhD in historic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His dissertation, The Voice of Faith: Jonathan Edwards's Theology of Prayer, is soon to be published. He, his wife Melanie, and their two kids, Alex (12) and Karis (7), live near Charleston, SC. Peter's goal for his teaching and writing ministries is "love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim 1:5).
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