peaking of prayers, there was one thing about Christianity that always either embarrassed, frustrated, or confused me: public/group prayer. It always seemed that a spectacle was made of talking to god whether in a church service, at home, or at an event. Nobody appeared to be capable of just communicating with god in a personal way — quietly, in their heads — and instead we were always being led in group prayers.
When I was a little kid the prayers were like advertising jingles. I memorized a phrase one to four sentences long with catchy rhymes so I could remember what to say. For instance:
Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Disregarding the morbid connotations of making funeral arrangements every single night, this prayer meant nothing to me. It’s a nursery rhyme, that’s all. How could I have understood what was meant by “keeping” a soul? How about this one:
Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for the food on the table and the house we live in. Bless this food to our bodies, amen.
Recited in a sing-songy voice, this canned prayer is really viewed as an annoying formality before being able to dig into Mom’s awesome cooking. That’s not to say I wasn’t thankful for all of my meals but it made more sense to thank my mom than it did to talk out loud to someone I couldn’t see about a meal which they didn’t help prepare. I always hoped my dad wouldn’t ask me to say the prayer because it was embarrassing and I just wanted to rush through it so I could eat.
On the other hand, grown-ups never seemed to realize the sense of urgency and would ramble on for what seemed like forever. When I got a bit older and had to (“had the privilege to”) go to grown-up church, I dreaded prayer time. I should say prayer times, because at any given church service you would endure anywhere from three to five group-led prayers where you had to listen to someone endlessly voicing to the all-knowing god what could have been transmitted by thought in mere seconds. Sometimes the person would keep it short and sweet and other times the person would ramble on like a Pharisee, trying to use the most poetic and sophisticated vocabulary he or she could muster. I hated those showy prayers!
It wasn’t until a was in high school and actually studying the Bible that I latched on to a key piece of information: Jesus didn’t approve of all of this showy rhetoric. He actually detailed exactly how you should pray to god. In fact, this is the passage where he conveys the “Lord’s Prayer” but everyone seemed to skip over the first part even though they were intimately familiar with the second part. It goes like this:
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
“This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.'”
(Emphasis mine) That’s right, god knows what you’re going to ask even before you ask. He’s a frikkin’ mind reader! Jesus said right there not to stand up in public and pray out loud using fancy words and getting all emotional. Prayer is supposed to be personal communication with your Heavenly father. Think about this: take a look at how you pray and compare it to how you talk to your parents. Is there a difference? There shouldn’t be.
After identifying this problem as a teenager I started resisting the prayer ritual. I would decline to pray out loud in church and half-heartedly participate at mealtimes. While I was made to feel guilty for not participating in a time-honored religious tradition, I did my best to stick to my guns. However, I was always very afraid of disappointing my parents and this caused me inner turmoil. I felt the ritual was wrong and it seemed like I was the only one who saw it. How could that be, when so many of my friends and family had read the same Bible I read? It didn’t add up.
Later on when I was in the Army and still clinging to my religious programming I looked for a church to attend. Some friends on the base in South Korea invited me to come to their church one Sunday and I did. What ensued was one of the weirdest, most uncomfortable and frightening experiences of my life. I believe this church identified as Pentecostal, but I’m not entirely sure. When time for prayer came around the pastor asked one of the congregation to lead the prayer. I bowed my head, ready for a long-winded recitation, just waiting to be able to sit back down. What happened next blew my mind.
Four seconds into this guy’s prayer (he had literally only gotten out about three or four words), the entire congregation erupted into a cacophony of unintelligible noise. Imagine twenty different conversations going on all around you at full volume and you’ll begin to understand what was happening. I freaked out! I wanted to leave but couldn’t because I didn’t want to disrespect god but at the same time I wasn’t entirely certain this explosion was music to his ears either. I just waited for it to end. It seemed like it took forever.
When everything settled down I considered leaving as discretely as I could but some movement caught my attention in my peripheral vision — one of the attendees beat me to it. He got about halfway to the door and the pastor’s voice boomed, “ARE YOU WALKING OUT ON GOD? BROTHER, SATAN’S GOT A HOLD ON YOU!” This did nothing to assuage my fear of this crowd of people. A brief and uncomfortable confrontation occurred and I decided I’d just stick it out for the rest of the service. It was then that I realized nobody had a clue how to communicate with god. They were more interested in displays of piety and self-flagellation. At this point I was officially done with prayer for two reasons:
- Prayer seemed to me to be a tool of the faithful to advertise their status among their peers. The louder and longer you could pray, the better a Christian you appeared to be. Throw in some big words and poetic language and you’re on your way to sainthood, right?
- My entire life I prayed to god in public and private, hoping beyond hope to get some kind of response — any response at all. In good times and bad I prayed to god for comfort, guidance, and even material desires but god never spoke back. He didn’t even whisper. He certainly didn’t communicate telepathically. What good was prayer doing me?
Although I was done with prayer I wasn’t quite done with god. The rest of this story is for later on and begins my journey to atheism via a big, difficult first step to agnosticism.