Pastors offer a lot of short prayers. We pray short prayers beside hospital beds and in church hallways, to begin and conclude meetings and dinners, before sermons and to wrap up counseling sessions. Often our words tumble out half-formed. We pray for the same things so often that we can’t help but fall back on clichés. Spur-of-the-moment prayers are part of our calling. The danger is that in becoming so repetitious they become lifeless. It’s an occupational hazard.
We’re often expected to pray without advance notice. Not expecting to pray and being unprepared to pray are two different things. When I was a very young pastor, I remember a morning when I consciously resisted the Spirit’s prompting to spend time alone in private devotions. Late that afternoon, I got word that the father of a young woman in the Bible study I was about to lead had collapsed and died. It fell to me to tell her. I knew that my failure to pray that morning left me weak and wordless in that crisis. Jesus, of course, was merciful to me and her but it was a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
Impromptu prayers draw their life from our quiet times of deeper prayer. The Scripture we read gives us handholds in that spur-of-the-moment situation. We easily re-enter the quiet place where we’d been with the Lord. Our faith is still garden fresh. We’re not so much praying new prayers as we are adding another paragraph to our ongoing conversation with God.
Unexpected prayers are diluted by a verbal running start, sort of preliminary yammering. Now I try to be quiet long enough to find the Holy Spirit in my mind’s crowd. I try to think what is most needful for the soul I’m with. After all, short prayers don’t need to be rushed.
Someone told me about a pastor they admired who ended virtually every conversation, no matter how ordinary, with a brief prayer for that person. You know my reaction when I heard that? “Really?! Why didn’t I do that more often?” I have prayed spontaneously for people often enough to know that it is one of those little ministries of good shepherding.
I love how short prayers can be grace-filled surprises. Like the guy I heard about who prayed with a weary waitress, or the pastor who prayed for a parishioner’s roommate in the hospital, or a friend who would stand on the steps of the courthouse offering to pray for people facing a stressful hearing. We’re so used to people praying for us that we forget that we encounter people every day who have never had anyone pray for them personally.
Our short prayers bring the presence of Jesus near. Sometimes we pray because they can’t. We ask of Jesus what they don’t know to ask. We approach God’s throne boldly when they don’t know how to face him at all. We do priestly work, even in a few moments, and they feel heard and loved by the Lord.
What matters most about our short prayers is that we actually pray and not just say a prayer; that we genuinely intercede. Then our prayers, even poorly put, are reworded or un-worded by the Holy Spirit, lifted up, and met at heaven’s altar by our High Priest. We speak our small prayer and there, set afire, they become the incense of heaven.