When a chaplain friend revealed she was Methodist, I jokingly cracked, “I’ll pray for you.”
A corny joke exchanged between clergy, it communicates feigned superiority.
Joking aside, public prayers sometimes come with strings attached. Allow me three examples.
In the fall of 1995, I stood over a very scared woman on a surgical gurney. Fibroid tumors in her uterus became very painful. Since the patient, 35, already had three children, she agreed to bypass the typical biopsy and have a hysterectomy.
Thinking it might help to pray, I reached for the patient’s hand, but she quickly withdrew it under her blanket.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m praying for you,” I answered.
Shaking her head from side-to-side, her cheeks inflated in an effort to mute a torrent of sobs.
“No prayer?” I asked incredulously.
She nodded in affirmation.
“Will the prayer release your tears?”
Again, she nodded.
I should have known better than to suggest public prayer. I knew the woman would be afraid to release her tears in such a communal place. I knew this, because the patient was my wife, Becky.
Somewhat different than my wife, but still queasy about hearing, “I’m praying for you,” is my chaplain assistant, Tech. Sgt. Robert Webster.
To understand his peeve, you need to know Webster isn’t required to declare a religious affiliation, because chaplain assistants have no religious duties. Assistants do generic tasks such as maintaining records, equipment and chapel grounds. In wartime, assistants carry an M16 assault rifle to protect chaplains.
Unaffiliated, Webster prefers to describe his beliefs as an “ongoing spiritual search.”
So, when people say they will pray for him, he hears the same disapproving tone communicated in my prayer joke, although it’s no joke to him.
He says offers of prayer can seem more like an ambush that contains the presumption he’s “going to hell.”
“I just don’t share their brand of spirituality,” he said.
Finally, last month, the Pentagon expressed some offense in the “I’m praying for you” sentiment as it was expressed by Franklin Graham, the Rev. Billy Graham’s son.
The Pentagon disinvited Graham from its National Day of Prayer observance because of his unfavorable comments about Muslims and Hindus.
The comments became interpreted as the agenda of Graham’s sponsor, the privately funded National Day of Prayer Task Force.
Public prayer can be tricky, because it can so easily communicate our latent judgments. Prayer warriors can become prayer voyeurs.
Sometimes, people like my wife hear the parental tone that conveys, “I know what’s best for you.” Others, like my chaplain assistant, hear a judgmental tone. And certainly the Pentagon heard the tone of a parochial agenda.
I think that’s why Jesus suggested we pray in a closet. Paraphrased beautifully in “The Message,” Jesus said, “Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage.”
I think that’s good advice, although some, like Graham, see the need for a public stand. He decided to pray in front of the Pentagon – invited or not.
As for me, it’s the scriptural advice I follow when praying for my chaplain assistant, and it’s the advice I followed that day in pre-surgery with my wife. After promising to limit my prayers to silent ones, she took my hand, and we found agreement before God that she was in his hands.