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Performance Prayer

My palms sweat. My heart races. And I'm certain everyone can hear its pounding over the softly spoken prayers that wind through the small prayer group I attend each Tuesday morning.

The petitions usually travel in a circle, progressing from the volunteer opener to the designated closer. And as I bow my head, I begin quick mental arithmetic to determine how long I have before the arrival of the long, deafening pause that indicates the circle's once again reached me.
I should be listening to the other petitioners, so I could save myself the embarrassment of praying for a request already lifted up when so many others need mentioning. And I should be praying along with the current petitioner. I could be agreeing in my heart, making silent additions to that person's brief words, or even just murmuring, Yes, Lord. Please answer, in my head.

But I'm not. I'm worrying what I'm going to say when my turn inevitably arrives. The opening is my first concern. The "Dear Heavenly Father" of my childhood to start me off confidently? A "Dear Jesus" to make me sound more in touch with the Savior? A flowery beginning to show my deep spirituality? And then the prayer's body. A list of thanks for often-overlooked blessings to lend my petition originality? A summary of God's attributes to grant my prayer a tone of worship? Or just a direct launch into two or three requests? And which of the ones offered involve circumstances I understand and would readily know exactly how to pray for? Plus the closing. Would a summary of the requests be most appropriate? Or would the list of gratitude be best inserted here?

My outline is always nearly complete when it dissolves into a drenching sweat such as I haven't felt since giving the two speeches I was unable to escape as a shy student. Yet the stakes of these spoken prayers are higher, for not only is my ability—or inability—to string together eloquent sentences before my peers on display, but my level of Christian growth and familiarity with God seems up for judgment before apparent spiritual giants and prayer warriors.

What should be a simple, even colloquial, conversation with my Father and Friend morphs into a performance in front of fellow humans. I don't feel comfortable using the carefree contractions, the familiar phrases, I'd employ in private talk with a companion. I feel compelled to elevate my words, to utter stuffy "church" expressions as if for a formal group presentation. I'm afraid that I'll be like the Pharisee insistently proclaiming from the street corner his righteousness. And that my prayers, like his, will go out horizontally to the people, never ascending vertically to the throne of grace.

But the King knows what the people don't each time they pass their real or imagined judgment when the prayer meeting halts in expectation … and I fail to pray. For I do approach the throne of grace, but secretly, via the closet of my heart and mind, the door of my mouth shut in silence (Matthew 6:6). I enter throughout the day when a picture of a bride reminds me Jane requested prayer for her daughter's upcoming wedding ceremony, or when a magazine article on health reminds me Phyllis asked to be remembered during her doctor's appointment that afternoon.

I write each of these requests in a tiny blue notebook as members of the prayer group share. And perhaps the act of writing becomes a prayer itself, murmured by the silent motion of my hand. The fellowship of sharing these requests is beautiful, as is the assurance someone will be praying for each concern. The one time I expressed a need (before I felt a strange hypocrisy in asking for prayer and then not praying aloud for what others requested), I basked in a mysterious peace as I listened to a fellow believer lift my request to God. And I knew she and the others in my Tuesday morning prayer group were talking to him, not to each other.

Maybe someday I, too, will be able to talk to him out loud. But until then, I take my prayers into the closet, where my palms can sweat and my heart can race, not because I'm afraid my peers are listening and likely judging, but because I'm awed in the presence of the welcoming and forgiving King.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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