Yesterday, I wrote of the awkwardness of leading prayer in my congregation. It's a delicate balance, it seems, between an honest prayer and familiar words because it's easy in that moment to feel responsible for whether or not another heart in the church can, or is, or will, or might pray, as well.
It depends on what you think you're doing up there. And I'll admit - I'm still kind of bouncing back and forth and trying to figure that out myself.
Is the prayer I offer a prayer for the people? Is it a prayer on behalf of the people? Is it the starting point of the people's prayer? Or is it a call to worship? It matters.
God often asked His prophets to pray for His people; His people often asked the prophets to pray for them. People came to men like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah, and the chief priests to request prayers on their behalf. We still have these prayers in our church - we call it the prayer list. If you venture to pray over the prayer list in a moment of communal petition, in which language should you pray?
Sometimes, we offer a prayer on behalf of the people - a prayer that we would all pray except it's more convenient for one man to have the microphone, for one voice to speak. These are the kind of prayers we pray before Communion and yes, before a pitch-in. Blessings for the food. Thanksgiving for the sacrifice. Honor for the gift. When "we" come before You now, Lord, in which language should "we" pray?
There are other times when we'd hope only to start the prayer, then open the space for another to finish. This is an invitational prayer, the kind of thing we get into after a good sermon or a touching song when you can just sense from the stage that the people need a moment. They need space and time and silence and just a moment to themselves to process with God whatever is going on in their heart. Can you box them in with a Dear Lord? If you are creating space for an aching heart, in which language should you pray?
Tough questions. Really, the same question again and again. Lord, as we stand before You and try to do justice to this discipline of prayer, in which language do we pray?
It's easy to get caught in thinking that depends. In thinking that changes whether we are coming before God or whether we are bringing others before God. Are we saying prayer...or are we leading prayer, expecting others to follow?
It just doesn't depend that much.
The single greatest thing you can do with a moment of prayer in your microphone...is simply to pray. Pray as you would pray by your bedside at night. Pray as you would pray with your family around the table. Pray as you would pray with your foot caught in a tractor. Pray as you would pray when the rain falls, when the sun shines, when life is good, when life is tough, when life is life and you are you and God is God. Pray as you would pray. Pray in your own language; speak your own heart.
In a moment like this, standing before your family and your God, your prayer is not a prayer. Your prayer is a call to worship. Your prayer is an invitation. Your prayer is the aching for the church to pray. (And if you're honest, you kind of pray that someone else would pray with you....because it's awkward, people!)
Listen, I've been there. I've been in the congregation, bowing my head but with one eye open, counting the prayer. Counting the seconds that tick away. Counting the "Father God"s that come from the pray-er's mouth. Counting the prayer list as names are read off. Counting the stumbles, the trembles, and the tweaks. Counting the repeats and the did-you-really-say-thats. Counting the times I bet the guy really wished he could do that part over again. Counting the times he awkwardly tried to do just that. And now that I'm on the other side of the counting, I'm keenly aware there's a snarky teen or two (and maybe a bunch of other folk) counting my prayers.
But I've got what I've got, and that's it. The thing I'm learning in leading is the same thing I learned sitting in the pew (or purple church chair, as the case may be). It's this:
Your entire job in that moment is the same as in any other moment - and I don't care whether you're praying, preaching, or playing the guitar - your job is to love Jesus. Your job is to love God. And live like you're doing it.
The thing that gets me in our time together, in our Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights and small groups and special breakfasts, is when someone just comes before God with all they've got and nothing more. When they aren't putting on a show but instead, they are just loving. When that authenticity echoes through the room and it doesn't matter what mood I'm in or what I brought in the doors that day; I am watching someone love God out loud and it makes me want to worship. It invites me to worship. It invites me to stand, to raise a hand to the heavens, to shout 'Amen' in the middle of point number three. It invites me to pray. Not because I "have" to but because when my heart meets Jesus in another heart, I can't help myself.
It's a delicate balance, it seems, but it depends on what you think you're doing up there. You can't ever let yourself be burdened by thinking you've got to bring another heart to Jesus. That's never your job. Your job is to bring Jesus to another heart.
You do that by bringing fully yours.