Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and said, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And yet this was a small thing in your eyes, O Lord God; you have spoken also of your servant’s house for a great while to come. May this be instruction for the people, O Lord God! And what more can David say to you? For you know your servant, O Lord God! Because of your promise, and according to your own heart, you have wrought all this greatness, so that your servant may know it. Therefore you are great, O Lord God; for there is no one like you, and there is no God besides you, according to all that we have heard with our ears.
God has just established David’s dynasty as an everlasting monarchy over the people of Israel, God’s people, and David has a lot to say about it. If I were to find myself in the midst of just such a moment, I imagine I would be speechless. David, the “traditional” author of many psalms, is not mute. Instead, he launches into prayer, praising and extolling God for how glorious God is, and for the great things God has done for him. Reading David’s prayer, I notice how it sounds a bit evangelical …
“Lord, I just… I just want to thank you… for being so good to me, Lord. Lord, you are so good, and I just… I just want to make your name known, I just want to praise you, I just…” And so on and so forth.
For myself as someone who is more comfortable in Episcopal or other mainline Protestant circles, this passionate and extemporaneous style of prayer feels a bit strained, showy, or even off-putting. For many Christians, though, it is a typical pattern – so much so, that, as I just did, it is easy to poke fun at it.
Even if all of the above is true, there remains an important aspect of this type of prayer that is worth considering: it cuts to the heart, and reaches the emotions in ways that we Episcopalians find both unfamiliar and uncomfortable.
Yes, the poetic verse of the Book of Common Prayer is beautiful and to be treasured; but there’s nothing to compare with the spontaneous praise and showering of gratitude that we experience in David’s prayer, and the prayer of our Christian siblings in less bookish liturgical cultures. I say this as a priest who’s also (I’m shy to admit) deathly afraid of extemporaneous public speaking (which probably played some role in my decision to become Episcopalian!). I admire and are even envious of those to whom the Spirit comes quickly and guides their tongue!
The good news is that, in order for our prayers to connect our hearts’ longing with that of God, all we have to do is be authentic. God doesn’t care about how charismatic you are; that is a skill that is useful for communicating with other humans, but not God. All God cares about is that we open our hearts truly, authentically, and without fear.
Sometimes, written prayers are helpful when you don’t have the words for what you’re going through. But when you do have the words… go ahead and say them.
Peter Levenstrong is Associate Rector at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Having grown up non-religious, he enjoys bringing “a fresh pair of eyes” to explore the Christian tradition, and is particularly interested in the intersection of faith and justice. You can find more of his sermons at https://peterlevenstrong.wordpress.com/