In "Letter from the Recording Angel," my favorite author, Mark Twain, describes the difference that frequently exists between public prayers and secret supplications of the heart. Twain points out in his story that secret supplications of the heart frequently conflict with public prayers.
The "Recording Angel" reports that the coal dealer's secret supplication of his heart for cold weather to raise the price of coal, which was granted, conflicted with his public prayer for weather "mercifully tempered to the needs of the poor and naked." That Prayer Meeting prayer was denied, the Angel explained, because public prayers are forbidden to take precedence over secret supplications of the heart.
Not all secret supplications are at odds with an individual's public prayers. Still, my friend Joann was hugely embarrassed when a secret supplication of her heart slipped into a public prayer she was asked to give at a meeting. "I don't have a problem saying a prayer in public," she says, "but I like to know ahead of time that I'm expected to do it."
This time she didn't have any warning. "So I stumbled through the prayer," she confesses, "and, at the end I said, 'And please make my golf game better. Amen.' I have no idea where that came from - it just slipped out."
The next morning, Joann got her very first hole in one. "It just goes to show you," she laughs, "that God has a sense of humor!"
At the age of 11, I was asked to say a public prayer in Sunday School. My fervent secret supplication of the heart was not to say anything stupid. God answered that unspoken supplication by rendering me mute. As the minutes ticked by, the adult in charge realized she wasn't going to get a prayer out of me and asked my sister Lesta to pray in my stead.
Lesta is the sister who had embarrassed me a few years earlier at a tea party hosted by a minister's daughter. Asked to say grace, Lesta smiled sweetly and obediently responded, "Grace." She did a better job with the public prayer. "Dear Heavenly God," she began. Unfortunately, it went downhill from there. Clearly Lesta's secret supplication of the heart wasn't the same as mine.
While I may have been shy about praying in public as a child, my mother always said that I excelled at bedtime prayers. She said I blessed every relative (and back then there were a lot of them), then started in on everyone else I knew. By the time I concluded one exceptionally long prayer, Lesta, yawning, said, "God, I want the same thing Marsha does." And Bette chimed in with two words: "Me, too."
A prayer and secret supplication of the heart can be identical. When I was 7, my family visited my maternal grandparents in Oklahoma at Easter, and my cousins' church staged an egg hunt. I was always lousy at finding eggs, and every other kid had their baskets nearly filled while I hadn't found a single egg. "Please, please, PLEEEZE let me find an egg," I prayed.
As soon as I opened my eyes, I spied a bright orange egg right at my feet. Well, sure, it would have been hard to miss, even if I hadn't prayed, but I thought then - and still do - that it was an answer to my prayer.
Recently - and not for the first time - our entire family prayed for a miracle. I'm pretty sure our secret supplications of the heart were consistent with our prayers, but no miracle occurred. Frankly, although I was deliriously happy to find that orange egg, I gladly would have traded it for a small miracle later in life. Not all prayers are answered in the affirmative.
Nor, insists husband Ray, are all supplications of the heart. He remembers one long-ago Sunday when his parents invited their preacher to dinner Ray relates that his own secret supplication of the heart to get down to the business of eating Sunday dinner couldn't top the preacher's long-winded public prayer. "We had fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, new peas and onions, pie and all kinds of good stuff," he recalls. "Then Dad asked the preacher to say the blessing and he made a sermon out of it. I about starved to death."
Apparently, the rule is that one person's secret supplication of the heart cannot take precedence over another's public prayer. Ray thinks that is a pity.