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Praying in public?

Dear Father Paul: I am a believer of many years. Last week my husband and I were having dinner at a local restaurant. A family of five was seated next to us. When the server brought their food, all in the family held hands, bowed their heads and the father prayed a long blessing over the meal in a voice loud enough for everybody in the immediate area to hear. Heads turned toward the family. I could tell by the looks that some people heartily approved, while others seemed turned off. I have wrestled with my own feelings about this all week. What do you think? Does the Bible address this issue?  — Ruth.

Dear Ruth: Great question. Blessing a meal with prayer is a very common practice among many believers, especially here in the South. Folks who practice this believe that this is a good way to demonstrate their faith to others and also that they are following the example of Jesus who in Matthew 26:26 himself prayed a blessing over a meal, “and as they were eating (the Passover Meal) Jesus took some bread and blessed it.” In verse 27 it says, “and he took a cup of wine, and gave thanks to God for it.” (New Living Translation). At two other times, in Luke 24:30 and also in John 6:11, Jesus is recorded as “blessing” food before eating.  So praying over food about to be eaten is eminently scriptural as Jesus himself clearly demonstrated.

Further, the Apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians 6:18 to, “pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion.” (New Living Translation).

I, for one, am thankful that I live in a country where  persons of any and all faith persuasions can still pray in public, even out loud, if they choose to do so. My family and I always “bless our food” with a short prayer when we are eating at home and very often do so when we are eating at a restaurant.

 But I would have to part company with the father you mention in your question who prayed so long and so loud that he disturbed (at least) some other diners. Nearby diners must have felt pretty awkward not knowing whether they should stop eating and silently bow their own heads or keep on eating and talking. I can’t possibly know this man’s heart, but his actions may have simply been to call attention to himself and to his own piety. If this was indeed the case, Jesus sternly warns us about this in another place in the Bible.

 In Matthew 6:5-13 Jesus says this: “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues, where everyone can see (and hear?) them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.” (New Living Translation).

 Jesus plainly teaches that one’s motive is what God looks at when he considers how, when and where a person prays. God looks into the person’s heart. Is the person praying to be seen, heard and thought well of by God, or instead by other people? Jesus says that the only reward the latter will ever get is the notice of people, not God.  Later in these verses Jesus goes on to give further instructions in how to pray, and how not to pray, then ends the passage by giving his disciples what I like to call, “the perfect prayer,” also called the Lord’s Prayer, or by some, the Our Father. You will find this short passage very interesting on which to meditate about prayer, and I urge you to read it and do so.

So Ruth, it is perfectly okay to pray in public and even out loud if you want to, if you do it with the motive of honoring God and not yourself. And, if you respect the rights of others not to have to listen to an overly loud and long prayer.

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[Father Paul Massey is Pastor Emeritus of Church of the Holy Cross in Fayetteville, Georgia. Visit holycross for more information about the church, service times, directions and recorded Sunday messages. Also see our ad in the Worship With Us section on this page.]