I’m sitting in the airport as I write this, halfway between home and Philadelphia, where I’m joining dozens of other author/speakers at Tony Campolo’s Red Letter Christians retreat. Frankly, I was shocked I was even invited, particularly when I browsed the list of invitees.
Bruce Reyes Chow, Tony Jones, Peter Rollins, Rachel Held Evans, Gareth Higgins, Shane Claiborne, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Spencer Burke, Jay Bakker, Diana Butler Bass…
Oh yeah, and Tony Campolo.
Not sure how I got included as a stowaway in such a list of esteemed thinkers, I quickly submitted my RSVP before they could change my mind. I was excited to see the schedule, sent out by Tony’s son, Bart, that outlined how we would spend the better part of three days sharing ideas, stories and our lives together. All this, and my father-in-law’s church is sponsoring me so I can afford to go.
Sometimes it’s better not to question good fortune, but instead grab hold with both hands and see where you end up.
I had a moment of trepidation after scanning the list of events when I cam across one of the final activities tonight:
SMALL GROUP PRAYER.
I know this will probably sound weird to some people who know me as the guy who will speak before hundreds (thousands if you let me), will sing, attempt to perform spoken word poetry and, yes, even deliver a sermon, but the thought of praying out loud in front of other people scares the crap out of me.
When I was growing up, public prayer was almost a Christian rite of passage. You didn’t officially get your Baptist card until you had mellifluously prayed over a green bean casserole or two. But I never felt that stirring of the spirit others seemed to experience, and the words never came easily, if at all.
For one, I always think way too much about what I’m going to say. Is this grounded in theology I actually support? Am I asking for divine handouts as if God were a giant vending machine? Am I seeking favor above others? Am I making assumptions about the sensitivities of those present that might be wrong, or even hurtful? Did I use inclusive God language? am I being graded on this? Will there be a test later???
Also, if I’m being completely honest, I don’t really know who it is I’m supposed to be praying to. Yes, I know that prayer is our attempt to seek greater communion with God, but my understanding of God doesn’t really fit with the idea of out-loud public prayer. For starters, I don’t see God as a “who,” and I’m not even sure God is a “what.” God just “is.” I don’t think God has ears and needs me to speak up to be heard. I don’t think I piss God off if I forget to pray, or that I please God if I do a particularly good job.
So who am I doing this for? It all feels more like a performance than anything else.
Then again, maybe all of this is a fancy way to dress up and obfuscate the fact that I’m a chickenshit.
My personal prayers are silent, wordless, more like a guided meditation than a narrative. I picture those for whom I’m grateful, those with whom I’m struggling, my gratitude, fears, worries and wishes. Then I imagine bundling all of this up and laying it down before a light that envelops it all.
I’m not sure what happens once the light envelops all of that stuff I lay down, but I do know it feels a lot better not to be carrying it by myself.
So how do you communicate that to a room full of trained and articulate theologians without sounding like an incoherent freak show?
Good question. If you figure that one out between now and about dinner time tonight, be sure to let me know.