Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Just Like a Prayer

I don’t like praying in groups. Either I feel uncomfortable having someone speak to God for me, or I feel under pressure to make my prayer sound good for the other people listening. Outside of a worship service, I like prayer to be left to the individual. But there are obviously times when groups need to have a group prayer, and I struggle with focusing on the prayer more than the awkward situation of having someone else speak to God on my behalf.

I don’t get much out of the Just Lord prayer. Do you know which one I’m talking about? (hint: It has nothing to do with the Lord’s justice.) It’s the one people pray when they are leading prayer for a group and they are trying to sound casual but respectful, but it comes off as ill-prepared.

Example: Dear Lord, we just come to you today, Lord, to just thank you, Lord, and to just ask that you just forgive us of our sins, Lord, and just look over us, Lord, as we just go about our day. And Lord, we just ask that You help us to be good witnesses for You, Lord, and just help us with any struggles, Lord. Just use us for your will. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Nothing is technically wrong with that prayer, seems sincere enough and all, but I always get so distracted I end up counting “just”s instead of praying. After the first Lord, I’m pretty sure God knows we’re talking to Him, and I’m not going to forget that’s who we’re addressing in the two minutes a prayer takes. “Just” is the “uh” and “Lord” is the “um” of prayers. (I admit my prayer "uh" is the word "and." I'm working on it.)

In my opinion, group prayers are better if it’s a well-known, already written prayer (unless you are praying for specific people/situations obviously). That way, everyone can participate in saying it, and they can know beforehand what they are agreeing to. Have you have ever been listening to someone lead prayer and think, “Wait, I’m not sure I theologically believe the same as that. God, I’m editing that part out, but I offer up the rest. Oh, except this part where she got political.”? I feel like I got tricked into praying something I wouldn’t. Memorized prayers alleviate that. You know before you start whether you can be sincere or not.

The problem with memorized prayer is that some people just go through the motions. But just because you know what you are saying doesn’t mean you can turn it on autopilot; you still have to be sincere with each statement and request. Jesus warned against just repeating prayers, and some use that as a reason to never used pre-written prayer. But I think He meant don’t just say words without meaning, out of tradition or habit. Pray sincerely. Always mean it.

In high school, I would occasionally eat out with a group of kids that were super-Jesusy. The kind that went to the “cool” youth group and wrote Bible verses in my yearbook and questioned my faith since I didn’t get moved by alter calls. So they always insisted on praying before eating, which I had no problem with. The problem was that they would play the nose game to determine who would pray. Last one to put finger on their nose was the one stuck with doing the prayer. This bothered me to no end. If you don’t want to pray so much that you compete to get out of it, just don’t pray at all. Or if you are so uncomfortable with asking the blessing in front of eight or so friends, just suggest we do a group prayer.

That gets me to the Lord’s Prayer.
It’s the best one to do in a group since odds are everyone knows it. Until, that is, you get to the line, “And forgive us our...as we forgive…” Oh, no! Is it “debts” or “trespasses”? If the group praying isn’t from the same church, it’s practically guaranteed someone will stumble out “debt-passes” or “trets.” I grew up in a debt-saying church, but I know a majority say trespasses, so I’m good at covering my one-syllable word in their three-syllable word.

Maybe it’s because I grew up saying debts, but it just seems like a better word-choice. Debt is something owed, a heavy weight, something accumulated. It sounds financial, and Jesus talked about money a lot. Trespasses only makes me think of stepping into someone’s yard. The debts translation is older (John Wycliffe, 1395), but the trespasses translation was used in the first English Book of Common Prayer (1549). The Latin word is “debita” which clearly looks more like debts than trespasses, but that’s no argument against someone who grew up saying trespasses. Once that rhythm is set in your mind as a kid memorizing prayer, it’s hard to adjust.

In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter. The idea is the same: forgive us as we forgive others. Judge us by how we judge others. Which when I think of how I judge others, I get really depressed thinking how God might judge me, which I’m pretty sure is the whole point.

[Portrait of a Praying Woman by Hans Memling, 1485]

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