Richard Mouw: A prayer in Beijing

Who is prayer for? For those listening or for God? If the latter, perhaps our inability to understand is no great problem.

During a recent visit to Beijing, I was invited to a luncheon meeting with a senior official in the Chinese government. We met in his private dining room, with four members of his staff present.

We began by exchanging pleasantries, and recalling previous times when we had been together. The senior official speaks almost no English, so one of his staff members served as a translator for both of us. When the first course of our meal was set on the table, the official said something to the translator. She turned to me and said, “Minister ___ would like you to pray for the meal.” We all bowed our heads and, after the opening sentences of my prayer, I paused. After a moment, she whispered to me: “No need to translate the prayer.”

My first thought was that the people present—all members of the Communist party—simply did not care what I said in my prayer. But as I thought about it later, I decided that they actually had some good theological instincts.

There is a story told about a time when President Lyndon Johnson asked Bill Moyers, his press secretary who was also an ordained Baptist minister, to offer a prayer at a White House dinner. Johnson and Moyers were seated at opposite ends of a long table, and a few sentences into the prayer, the president interrupted: “I can’t hear you, Bill!” Moyers’ response: “I’m not talking to you, Mr. President!”

Moyers had his theology of prayer straight. And my guess is that my Chinese translator had the same theological point in mind.While I was probably the only person at that table who believed that there is a God who was actually listening to my prayer, I’m glad that they asked me to pray in that context. For one thing, it was nice to offer a “political” prayer where no one was disturbed about the fact that I prayed in Jesus’ name. Even more, it was good to be reminded that not even a government compound in Beijing is out of bounds for acknowledging that every gift that we receive—including the sharing of food with Chinese officials—comes from the hand of a gracious God.

Richard Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary.