In one of the community ministers’ associations of which I was a part, we had one pastor who (as my Pentecostal friends would say) was of a ”formal” denomination. A good pastor — I don’t know what kind of preacher (since we all worked Sunday mornings and seldom heard each other) — and a fine friend.

He was, however, used to pre-written prayers. Just to be wicked, whenever we could we’d throw things over to him: “Dan (not his real name), open us with prayer, will you?”

And so he would stammer a bit and haltingly launch into “free” (extemporaneous) prayer: Completely uncharted territory.

God with His wry sense of humor, though, always got the last laugh.

Dan’s prayers were totally unvarnished with “prayer language”: “I just want to say…”, “Make us mindful that…”, etc.; simple and childlike (not childish); soul and heart-felt. In short, God made Dan’s prayers true prayers: A believer baring his/her whole life and being before God.

How humbling – for the rest of us; but we loved it!

God, by definition being everywhere, all the time (“ubiquitous”) is party to all we’re saying and doing, anyway. Asked to pray aloud (us “formal” types, too) maybe “free” prayer is simply uttering our on-going conversation with God. Too much calculation might be more “us” and less God. Shame.

There is an old military saying: “There are no atheists in foxholes.” When push comes to shove, perhaps pressure pushes us deeply enough into ourselves that there’s nothing left but we and God.

Not that there is no value to formal or rote prayers. I have ministered to completely comatose patients who, when hearing the Lord’s Prayer, registered increased blood pressure and heart rate.

During “Project Homecoming” I interviewed a POW of the North Vietnamese, an Episcopalian, who survived by mentally rehearsing the Sunday morning liturgy.

And I have found that for some, when the words of prayer are so automatic that one does not have to think about saying them, God creeps in and uses them to talk back to the pray-er.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Hamlet)

Pastor Doug Campbell is a retired Lutheran pastor and a member of Faith, Wilmington. He currently is supplying pulpits in the Southern Ohio Synod. He was formerly Deputy Wing Chaplain for the Civil Air Patrol in Ohio. Before seminary he worked for the Chillicothe Gazette, and as the editor of the Chanute AFB newspaper in Rantoul, Ill.

Doug Campbell

Contributing columnist