Jumble sales of the apocalypse: When prayer goes wrong
“This building is prayer conditioned,” reads the sign outside Ryde Methodist Church, on the Isle of Wight. “God answers knee-mail,” says the sign recommending Vinings United Methodist in Atlanta, Georgia. What is it about prayer (and church signs) that makes Christians hang up their brains?
I’ve always been fascinated by the odd things that happen when people pray out loud together – whether it’s hogging the limelight in a prayer meeting, adopting a special voice to pray in a church service, or insisting on saying grace over ghastly McDonalds meals and fries in motorway services, while people at the surrounding heathen tables look on in puzzlement.
The church I was married in, which happened to be of the Brethren variety, had a sweet, 80-something elder in a grey, three-piece suit, who was a dead cert for rising out of his seat to give thanks for the wine at Communion. “We thank Thee, Lord, for the luscious grape,” Mr Floyd would always say, pronouncing the word as “looshus”, in his gentle Warwickshire accent. It was a much looked-forward-to moment in the service. Public prayer has its own peculiarities of language, of course, but they are as nothing to our strange behaviour when we humans pray together.
I was at a meeting of a Christian charity recently which opened with Ron leading us in prayer: “Lord, help us to have focused minds and not to be distracted by anything else. Help us to really concentrate on …” – and at this point, I realised I wasn’t being led in prayer, but lectured. It happens at the end of lengthy sermons, too, where the preacher grabs an extra five minutes to continue riding his theological hobby horse almost to death. Prayer is so often war by other means.
While some prayers are polemics, others turn delightfully into gossip. When William Gladstone went one Sabbath to a Presbyterian service in Scotland, the minister served up the following prayer: “We pray Thee, Lord, of Thy goodness, to bless the prime minister of this great nation, who is now worshipping under this roof in the third pew from the pulpit.”
Ever been in a prayer meeting where others are praying so freely and piously – even getting in some major points of doctrine – that you decide to play it safe and keep your mouth shut? This strategy is fine for a while, until the terrible realisation dawns that almost everyone has prayed. Even the introverts you can normally rely on to stay silent have given it a go. The iron rule of prayer meetings is that 75% is the tipping point. After that, everyone has to pray or their walk with the Lord has obviously gone off a cliff.
One of the besetting sins of public prayer is how middle class and polite we are with God. During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, an abbess got fed up when her prayers didn’t work. She took a chisel to a statue of the Virgin Mary, knocked the baby Jesus off, and then told the Madonna she would give him back when her side had won. This is the kind of language the Mother of God understands.
An East End youth worker I know once told a teenager that whenever she was tempted by the devil, she should rebuke him. The next week, she reported that she had directed Satan to “piss off in the name of Jesus.” I can’t help feeling that blunt prayers, whether delivered by chisel or in Anglo-Saxon English, are highly effective in heaven, not to mention hell.
Someone recently sent me the story of a dear old saint (admittedly not the precise phrase used of her at the time) who habitually hijacked the church prayer meeting. Everyone’s heart sank whenever Agnes opened her mouth to pray, because she made it her business to thank the Almighty – at length – for everything in her life. Until one day, when she started off as usual: “I thank God,” she said, “for the beautiful weather we’ve been having, and I thank God for fellowship and friendship, and I give praise and thanks that we live in a land of plenty…” and so on and so forth.
After a solid 10 minutes, she moved on to thanking God for her house and its contents: “And I thank God,” she said, “for my dining room with its beautiful table, and I thank God for my wonderful fitted kitchen, but most of all I thank God for the little ray of sun that shines down my back passage.” At this point she faltered. And the vicar jumped in and said, very loudly and firmly: “Amen.”
This article was published in the May 2015 edition of Reform.