Day 11 – Saturday
Praying in Public
Praying in Public
I remember times from my childhood when we would go out to eat at a restaurant and we were ready to ask the blessing for the meal. We were aware that we were surrounded by a mixed crowd of believers and unbelievers alike, and my mother didn’t want our faith to be an offense to anybody. “Just pray quietly, by yourselves,” she would tells us, as she slowly put her napkin in her lap and arranged the silverware. We knew what she was doing. She wasn’t being fastidious about flatware—she was praying, with her eyes open and her head unbowed. This is how I learned to pray in public—privately, even secretly. Don’t let anyone catch you! That was the message I received as a child from that kind of prayer.
Sometime later, I think my mom realized the message she was sending her kids. So we developed a new style of praying in public, one where we sat quietly with our heads bowed and our eyes closed, praying silently and individually. Once everybody had looked up, we knew it was time to eat. That lasted for a while. It seemed a compromise between being ashamed of our faith on the one hand and being showy on the other hand. After all, Jesus said:
“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you (Matthew 6:5-7).”
As I grew older, thought, I began to notice families that would come into a restaurant, sit down together, hold hands, and pray openly and out loud before a meal. They still weren’t making a show of it. They were simply showing consistency in their faith, doing the same thing they always did before a meal when they were at home. To do anything less than what you’d normally do at home seems to be a sign that you’re embarrassed or ashamed of your faith, like you’re trying to hide it from the world. When Daniel was in a tight spot, and he knew people were probably watching him when he prayed, didn’t he continue to pray in the same manner that he was used to, without making a show, but without hiding it either (Daniel 6:10)? Now, if I’m eating by myself, I simply bow my head, close my eyes, and pray quietly—the same as I’d do at home. But if our family is out together, we pray the same was we would at home.
So, what did Jesus mean in the above scripture? Simply this: Don’t let your prayer become a show to demonstrate your piety for everyone around you. He didn’t mean that it’s wrong to let someone see you or hear your pray. And certainly there are prayer times when you’re so deep and intimate with God that you’re pouring your heart out to Him, tears are flowing, and you don’t want anyone to see that. So go find a private place for those prayer times. But if your prayers aren’t too intimate for a public place, then don’t worry if someone sees you.
Jesus wasn’t condemning corporate prayer in a worship setting, either. After all, He prayed with other people in a worship setting every time He went to the synagogue or temple. In fact, the Bible makes more reference to public, corporate prayer than it makes to private prayer times. It’s not wrong to pray out loud in a corporate setting. What’s wrong is to make a show of it, trying to impress people with how well you pray, or how long you pray, or how deeply spiritual you are when you pray. Reserve your tears and chest-beating for a private place. If nobody every prayed around anybody else, how would you have learned to pray? How would your children learn to pray if they never watched and listened to you? It’s been said that prayer is more caught than taught. Give those around you the opportunity to catch on.
Twice in five days, my schedule was crazy enough that I wasn’t able to get up at 5 AM for my regular hour of prayer. I had gotten in too late the night before, and needed my sleep. My days were packed with activity, and I knew that when I got home I would have no privacy because of the kids and all their wonderful distractions. But both of those days, in the middle of the day, I had the time to pray for an hour. The problem was that it was too cold to find a park bench somewhere, so I had to be creative.
This past Monday, I went to Barnes & Noble and found a quiet corner. I love that store, because they have comfortable chairs where you can sit down and read their books—even if you don’t buy them! (Hey—it’s okay—I have a membership card!) I got a Bible off the shelf and used it for my devotions. Then I spent my prayer time with the sound of shoppers all around me. The one caution I’d give about praying this way in public is to make sure that the area where you are doesn’t have too many distractions. The only seat available at Barnes & Noble happened to be right in front of the magazine racks, and I found that I had to keep my eyes squeezed shut in order to avoid the distracting magazine covers. Also, shoppers kept wandering by, talking to each other about the magazines, and then saying “Oh, excuse me,” as they stepped past me. I just used the distractions as an opportunity to pray for each person I saw and heard at Barnes & Noble that day.
Yesterday, I went to VCU with Beth. While she was in one class, I decided I was going to have my prayer time. VCU has a prayer and meditation room that’s quiet and out of the way. I went in there to pray, but my cell phone kept ringing. An hour passed, and I think I’d spent five minutes with the Lord. I went with her to her next class, but I decided that during her third class, I’d try to pray again. Instead of going back to the prayer room, I found an out-of-the-way corner in the dining hall. That was nice, because my phone was quiet and so was my spirit as I spent an hour with the Lord. The sound of students around me became “white noise,” and I wasn’t distracted by it. Rather, it reminded me of the billions of prayers that must go before God’s throne every day—and He hears every one of them!
So the next time you’re in public and it’s time to pray, go ahead! Don’t make a show of it, but don’t be ashamed of it, either. Save your heart-wrenching prayers for your private place, but don’t be reluctant to go before God’s throne of grace, just because other people are around you. Use the opportunity to pray for them. Maybe they need it!