My National Day Of Prayer Post, or why I don’t pray out loud anymore

(I promise I’m not going to change this into a blog about religion, I just needed to get this out of my system badly. This blog post was prompted by Jadelyn’s NDoP post at Shakesville.)

Short Version:

Matthew 6:

5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

(KJV, courtesy BibleGateway)

Long version:

That pair of verses I cited above? It means that expectations of public prayer, whether in groups or as an individual, are a problem, sometimes a very big problem, for some Christians. Including me.

And it’s not an issue of ‘well, if we got the kids in the churches to lead or just participate in prayer more often, participating in an event like the National Day Of Prayer wouldn’t be an issue for them.’ In fact, that’s my problem with it.

The church I grew up in was a praying church. Three or four times in the worship service, once at the beginning of Sunday School and once at the end.

The prayer at the end of Sunday School, at least for the youth department, was Prayer Requests Time. The teacher got to write down who everyone mentioned. If it was a week when I was lucky, we got to pick whose request we’d be praying for. If I wasn’t, I’d be given nothing but the name of the person doing the requesting. After that, eyes closed, heads bowed, let’s take turns praying.

Only we didn’t take turns around the circle, it was whoever thought to speak next in a group of ten to fifteen girls, most of whom had never heard of who they were actually supposed to be praying for more than the once five minutes ago.

So this was my experience of public ‘me praying out loud’ prayers through high school: me trying to judge when to jump in with no visual cues, trying to remember whose relative I was praying for, that person’s name, the reason I was praying for him or her, and around all that trying to remember the specific combinations of formula phrases our church used. This was before an actual thought of God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit managed to fit in edgewise.

If you got the name wrong, the requester and the teacher knew. If you had to be nudged at the end because everyone else had already prayed and you hadn’t realized until the long silence had fallen, everyone knew. If you managed to mangle the formula phrases, the teacher seemed to look at you a little weird.

There was a reason we nearly fought to be the one to pray for all the ‘unspoken prayers’. That one was easy.

Eventually, I just stopped volunteering. There was a point in college where I realized it had been years since I had prayed out loud as something other than participation in a ritual group prayer like the Lord’s Prayer – and this was in a church that did not do ritual group prayer.

I’ve voluntarily prayed out-loud without a formula less than five times in the past ten years.

That statement would be scandalous to the people I grew up with in church, but here’s the thing: Those prayers I was forced through as a child wouldn’t have been half as bad if I hadn’t had a private prayer life like they told me to have.

My private code phrases were different than the semi-official ones our church had. I favored different titles for the almighty than they did. I flipped words from the standard.

I even had in-jokes with God. Still do, in fact.

And when I have to pray in front of human witnesses, I have to edit all of that out. I have to remember whether the people I’m praying in front of favor ‘Father God’ or ‘God the Father’ – yes, there is a difference, and congregations that favor one tend not to favor the other anywhere near equally. I have to remember that some of the terms I use privately for God have major modifications from similar identical-meaning terms in general use.

It’s a lot like trying to write a very formal business letter for external consumption to a best friend you’ve been constantly around since you were three years old. It feels wrong. Even if Matthew 6:5-6 weren’t in the Bible, it would feel wrong.

So I stopped.

I stick to the formula prayers now, and because of the religious tradition I am a part of that means that the Lord’s Prayer and Doxology (‘Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow’) are pretty much it. ‘God is great, God is good…’ as a formula for saying grace went out the window a year ago because of someone deciding that using it out loud in front of witnesses meant I was some sort of immature Christian who had never learned to pray – never mind one of my pastors was well known by the congregation for using it himself any time he had to pray over food in the church. So I don’t say grace out loud now, which apparently doesn’t count to a lot of people.

This can be a problem.

Under the social model of disability, personal attributes or behaviors that wouldn’t interfere with life otherwise do so because society makes choices or observations that make it so.

Under the expectations of churches in America within the branch of Christianity I belong to, me not praying out loud is a form of social model disability.

I cannot lead a Sunday School class – I cannot perform a closing prayer. I cannot lead a Bible study despite the fact I’ve been asked once – I cannot perform a closing prayer. I cannot take part in witnessing drives – I cannot pray out loud with someone who has decided to enter the church. I cannot help with the youth department – Sunday School teachers are expected to not only lead but teach public prayer.

If I am in a church that allows women to hold leadership roles, nearly all are closed to me because of the risk I could be expected to perform a prayer with little warning or chance to back out. I may never be able to serve on any church board or committee because of the chance someone could say at the end of a meeting “Megaforte84, why don’t you give the closing prayer this time?”

Announcing to the congregation that I just can’t pray out loud outside a shared ritual formula isn’t an option. Too many would take this as a sign I ‘just never learned’ or as evidence I’m not as ‘spiritually mature’ as I act otherwise.

I certainly can’t participate publicly in a National Day Of Prayer.

And somewhere today, at a Christian private school today that observed the event, some well-meaning teacher or pastor may have pushed a kid one step closer to ending up like me in the name of making sure he or she could pray properly – even if it means not having enough mindfulness left to pray sincerely.

(Incidentally, this is also a reason I have issues with families guiding children through early childhood prayers and trying to explain a ‘right way’ or laughing at particularly badly-phrased bits of impromptu holiday graces – they may be creating an internal prayer editor that will keep the kid from praying out loud at all!)

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