Prayer is a precious and sacred means of communication God has given to mankind. The Bible has specific teachings on how it should, and should not, be done (Matthew 6:1-14; Luke 18:1; Ephesians 6:18; 1 John 5:14). Unfortunately, people don’t always take holy things very seriously. From off-color religious jokes to taking the Lord’s name in vain, it seems like humanity excels in failing to take God seriously. We’re going to look at two prayers that do precisely that.
The first was offered by Paula White, a senior pastor, popular charismatic leader, and one-time spiritual advisor to Donald Trump. On November 5, she offered an utterly bizarre prayer. I’ve transcribed some portions of her prayer here, much of which was spoken in a cadence:
[S]trike, and strike, and strike, and strike, and strike, and strike, and strike, and strike, and strike, and strike until you have victory for every enemy that is aligned against you let there be that we would strike the ground for you will give us victory, God.
I hear a sound of abundance of rain. I hear a sound of victory. I hear a sound of shouting and singing. I hear a sound of victory. I hear a sound of an abundance of rain. I hear a sound of victory.
The Lord says it is done. The Lord says it is done. The Lord says it is done …
Victory, victory, victory, victory in the corridors of heaven. In the corridors of heaven victory, victory, victory, victory, victory, victory, victory, for angels are being released right now. Angels are being dispatched right now.
… (unintelligible nonsense speech) …
White cobbles together biblical references torn out of context (see 1 Kings 18:41; 2 Kings 13:14-19; Psalm 121:4; cf. Exodus 32:18). She says that angels are “being dispatched” from Africa and South America. Who told her that angels were being dispatched from these areas (cf. Daniel 10:13)? She also includes the proclamation that God has declared victory. What victory, and what is that going to look like? When is it going to happen? And how did God communicate this to her?
White’s prayer is a rambling mess that violates much of what Jesus teaches about prayer in the Sermon on the Mount. He said that his people should not pray like pagans, who used a great deal of repetition in their prayers (Matthew 6:7-8). The apostle Paul tells the Corinthians to refrain from tongue-speaking if no one is there to interpret it because it doesn’t edify the church and could reflect poorly on the congregation (1 Corinthians 14:23-28).
A second prayer, offered by congressman Emanuel Cleaver, contained even more disturbing language. One feature that immediately raised eyebrows was his closing by saying, “Amen, and a-woman” (“amen” is not a gendered word but simply means, “so be it.”) Almost instantly, Twitter erupted in a firestorm. Cleaver seems to have been genuinely surprised that so many people took offense to the statement. He intended it as a lighthearted pun recognizing that a record number of women are now serving in the US congress.
It is disappointing that, instead of acknowledging his gaffe, Cleaver (who is a United Methodist minister) decided to double down on his word selection. He stated that he was “deeply disappointed that my prayer has been misinterpreted and misconstrued by some to fit a narrative that stokes resentment and greater division among portions of our population.”
For a trained minister, it is almost unthinkable that he would not be able to recognize that people seemed to be truly upset at his inclusion of ill-advised gender humor in a prayer. This is especially true given that prayer is clearly described by Jesus as a serious matter—so much so that anyone offering a genuine prayer should make it a spiritually intimate concern and not a public spectacle (see Matthew 6:1-8).
Even more troubling is something many people seemed to miss: his addressing the prayer to “The monotheistic God, Brahma, and god known by many names by many different faiths.” The United Methodist Church is classified as a mainstream Protestant denomination. Still, Cleaver’s prayer reflected the influence of polytheism, relativism, and Eastern spirituality, if not outright Hinduism—things completely incompatible with biblical teaching.
Do we care about prayer anymore? We might shrug off these two examples as ridiculous exceptions. Absurd? Yes. But exceptions to the rule? I’m not so sure. Prayers offered across the world every Sunday morning probably have their fair share of bad theology (most no doubt because of simple misunderstanding or a slip of the tongue—even professional communicators make mistakes). But others may include appeals for health and wealth, tongue-speaking, and attempts at humor. And then some succumb to the temptation to sermonize during the prayer for the audience’s sake—of all issues with prayer, this is one of the most common, and anyone can be guilty!
Prayer is a beautiful and sacred time of communication with God. This is the case in our private lives, as Jesus makes clear. But it’s not different for those who lead public prayer. It’s something we should take seriously without trying to grandstand, preach, offer social/political commentary, or make the audience laugh. We should allow the Bible to govern how we pray and for what we pray.
Jesus took prayer seriously. We should, too.