Thursday, March 15, 2012

Prayer, my kryptonite


I don't like prayer. It scares me.

My aversion stems from my history. Prayer was introduced early in our home when I was a kid, and for that I am thankful. My father always made sure we knew to Whom we were speaking, and he taught us to properly structure our prayers--Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and lastly Petition. I'll always be grateful for this exposure to what prayer ought to be, and hope that, over time, I will be able to return to that clear,
appreciative view of prayer.

It was at Bob Jones University that prayer became deplorable for me. Every night, in every dormitory on campus, the students must gather at 10:30 for Prayer Group. In Prayer Group, the "spiritual leaders" from each room and of the group take turns leading by presenting a short devotional or asking for testimonies and prayer requests. Then each person kneels (this is required) and takes a turn saying a prayer. The student cannot pass or refuse to pray without being subject to severe scrutiny and possible eventual spiritual probation (a weekly counseling session with an unqualified peer where the student must confess sins committed each week).

Their prayers sound like the King James Bible (or the Showtime series, The Tudors)--lots of huge words that few comprehend, and many "thees" and "thous." Much convoluted doctrine gets added to the prayer, so that the one praying will sound very knowledgeable and spiritual.

I despised Prayer Group. I was never a leader, because I was deemed insufficiently qualified and even at one point, "not above reproach." But I was still forced to pray out loud every night, in front of girls I had seen in their underwear (we did all live together in a small space, after all), but in whose personal lives I was not interested.

Praying is a very intimate thing. And to be required to do so in public, knowing that my word choices were being judged and found wanting yet again, was humiliating. I could never keep my mind focused on the God to whom I was supposed to be speaking, but worried more about whether this or that phrase would sound satisfactory enough to see me through another night without being charged as unregenerate. (Yes, that happened on multiple occasions. How does one convince someone else, an obstinate, refusing to be convinced someone, that one is really within the family of God, bought by blood, saved by grace? One doesn't. One just gives up--I just gave up--in exhaustion.)

I repeatedly heard charges that I was "too proud" for God to incline His ear to me and hear my prayers. That was so painful because I wanted to fit in, I wanted to be an insider, a good Christian girl; yet no matter how hard I tried, I kept being rejected. So, I would mentally compose a decent, holy enough sounding prayer for Prayer Group, recite it when my turn came around, and then retreat back into my spiritual shell, because I was just so weary of all the pressure to perform, the pressure to conform. Those prayers were nothing more than pretty words; my heart was completely uninvolved.

Then, after I graduated and left Fundamentalism, I joined an Evangelical church. In the Evangelical world, praying is very personal, and the person praying aloud always makes it sound like he is talking to his buddy in the room with him. Only there's one problem: he says, "Lord," or "Father God" every three words. Over and over and over and over and over again. It's annoying to me, and I wonder if it is annoying to God to hear His name used so flippantly. Honestly, would you like it if I, in conversation with you, invoked your name every other word as though trying to get and keep your attention? Nope. you'd probably scream with exasperation before a minute had passed.

My spiritual wanderings within the wilderness of Christianity have brought me now to a confessional, Sacramental church tradition. Here, many of our prayers are recited, yet are meaningful. At the conclusion of choir rehearsal every week, each vocalist joins hands to form a circle around the room, and we say The Lord's Prayer together. It's amazing to me that my heart actually takes part in this, participates, and joins with the others who approach God in prayer. It's been a long time since prayer had any personal meaning for me.

Never has prayer been more real than at times my voice is lost, either unable to speak, or joined with a multitude of others, not prominent or being singled out. I am part of a community of believers, and we all pray together. I'm not required to offer an audible prayer for the satisfaction of others anymore.

And I like that. Maybe prayer doesn't have to be a chore after all.
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In the Holden Evening Prayer Service at my church last night, the theme for this day of Lent was the Ears of Christ. His ears are open to me, listening and actively hearing, even when I cannot speak. This is something I need to learn, to write it over the spiritual trauma of my past, to tattoo it on my brain.