‘Forgive me Lord, for I pray in paragraphs’

I think it is Peter Wimsey who somewhere apologises for the fact that he speaks in paragraphs; his thoughts are so ordered, he seems to suggest, his mind so clear, that whole chunks of connected logic fall from his mouth when he opens it; he realises that this might be irritating to those less blessed with intellectual clarity, and so he says sorry. It struck me with force last week during a church leaders’ meeting that I pray in paragraphs. Not because my relationship with God is so ordered, but because I have become professional about praying, at least in public; I wish that were not so. One of our pastors introduced an issue that was on his heart, asked us to pray; it was something I cared about deeply in the life of our church, and I began; I managed a sentence that was heartfelt, and then instinct took over; I said all the right things fluently and elegantly; I prayed in paragraphs. I was minuting the meeting; I recorded a time of prayer, and wrote beside it, ‘forgive me Lord, for I pray in paragraphs’. I suppose it is a Free Church pastors’ disease, although I will not assume that any other pastor is infected: called on regularly to offer extempore prayer at no notice in a variety of situations, we become adept at expressing what we know that we and our people should feel, and doing so in well-constructed prayers. I am not even going to suggest that this is wrong; in many contexts (‘Would you say grace, pastor?’) it is, I suppose, exactly the right response; but where something actually matters, where what is needed is a heart poured out before God in naked honesty, to pray in paragraphs is a betrayal. No doubt more experienced, or more prayerful, or just better, pastors than I are alive to this, and are able to switch off autopilot and respond with authenticity. Perhaps this is my problem alone, but I at least have to confess that when, in public, I should be praying honestly, I default to praying in paragraphs. I know what honest prayer feels and sounds like; I know it in my private prayers. The words are often enough broken; for me, honest prayer is bodily – kneeling, prostration, and outstretched arms are integral to any real expression of my heart. When my heart overflows, I generally default to praying in tongues, unable to find words to express the complexity of guilt and trust and faith and hope that courses through me, I turn to the Spirit within who can pray as I cannot, and groan… …in public, though, even when the ‘public’ is a small group of fellow-leaders who I have journeyed with and trust, I so instinctively pray in paragraphs that I am presently unable to restrain the impulse. I wish it were not so; I wish I were able to be honest before God in public as I am in private; but at present I am unable to restrain myself… …forgive me, Lord, for I pray in...

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