Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Spontaneous prayer
Simon Jenkins on spontaneous prayer
Churches differ from each other in a multitude of ways – whether their clergy dress up or dress down, whether they skip through five-minute sermonettes or endure hour-long blockbusters – but one of the biggest divides is whether they read out prayers from a book, or speak them from the heart.
I’ve got a lot of time for the ‘make it up as you go along’ school of prayer, but it can lead to some challenging moments, where you have to decide whether to laugh or say amen. Such as the Nigerian evangelist who prayed a kind of contortionist’s prayer before he preached at a Bible rally: ‘Lord, I stand on the authority you have placed on my shoulders.’ Or the prayer meeting where someone got carried away on a cloud of praise and found themselves declaring: ‘O Lord, we lift up the hem of your garment and gaze upon your glory.’ That’s when you can see the value of written-down prayers which have been fact-checked to make sure they don’t wander off into strange places.
Spontaneous prayer almost always goes hand in hand with something else – murmurs of encouragement. If you’ve ever prayed aloud in a hot and enthusiastic prayer meeting, it’s a terrific feeling, something like surfing, as you and your prayer shoot along, borne up on an exhilarating current of ‘Amen’s, ‘Praise God’s, ‘Maranatha’s and ‘Yes Lord’s, finally breaking in a great crashing wave of ‘Amen’s as you finish off and sit back down. Among the hubbub of hosannas and hallelujahs, you almost never hear someone going: ‘Hang on a bit, that can’t be right?’ – even when you’ve said something technically heretical, such as: ‘Jesus, thank you for sending your Son to save us.’
I’ve often sat in prayer meetings with my eyes closed trying to work out what they remind me of, and then one day it hit me. They sound like a herd of cows moving across a field, hoovering up the grass as they go. ‘Oh Lord, bless Jeff in his time of affliction,’ prays Daisy. ‘Mmmm,’ agrees Bella sympathetically. ‘MmmmmMMMM!’ moos Bob, a big man, his beefy arms raised in the air like a huge pair of bull horns. His interjection is like a cattle prod to the rear end, prompting a chorus of sympathetic moos from across the room. You can almost feel the soft turf under your feet and smell the fresh cowpats.
‘Dear Jesus, would you just really be with Anna right now?’ implores Angus, and his prayer triggers an outbreak of supportive lowing, plus a few bellows of praise. It’s not so much: ‘Do I hear an amen?’ as ‘Can I get a moo?’ God is moooving.
Despite the wonderfully positive feeling of the prayer meeting, there are sometimes irritations. At one Pentecostal meeting, a friend of mine couldn’t help noticing that as people prayed, a woman kept calling out ‘Bless Him!’ at random moments, as though she was in a different meeting altogether. When the prayer time ended, the visiting preacher got up to speak and said: ‘You must excuse me, but I’ve got a frog in my throat this morning.’ ‘Bless Him!’ came in, bang on cue. Maybe God’s sense of humour is more mischievous than we imagine.
Far and away the most fascinating prayer time I’ve ever witnessed was the Sunday morning in 1994 when the Toronto Blessing splashed down at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB – the epicentre of Alpha). The Blessing had broken out at the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church a few weeks earlier, complete with outbreaks of ‘holy laughter’. In no time, people were giggling, chairs were flying, grown ups were falling on the floor and literally rolling in the aisles with side-splitting laughter.
But there was more. Toronto wasn’t just about roaring with laughter. It was also about roaring like a lion, barking like a dog or braying like a donkey. Where the prayer meetings that I knew sounded like a day on the farm, the Toronto Blessing was a trip to the zoo. Although the HTB clergy bravely tried to tame all the hilarity and animal impressions by saying what it could all possibly mean (one explanation offered was: ‘I think the roaring is about Aslan’) the Blessing was eventually put back in its kennel.
A prison visitor once emailed to tell me about a prayer that went wrong during a visit to a penitentiary in Stillwater, Minnesota. ‘My brothers and I had sung in the chapel, and I closed in prayer: “Lord, bless and keep these guys here.”’ Afterwards, a lifer came up to him and said: ‘Thanks, brother. I appreciate your prayer. But be careful how you pray it next time.’
Simon Jenkins is Editor of shipoffools.com. His book, Jumble Sales of the Apocalypse (SPCK, 2017, £9.99) is available from urcshop.co.uk
This article was published in the March 2018 edition of Reform