Vain Repetition? Really? (by John Frye)
When I was a new Christian I was immersed in a very conservative Bible-oriented church. Unfettered legalism was peddled as godliness. For example, we, as teens, weren’t allowed to drink soda from cans (bottles were being phased out for soda) because others might think we were drinking beer. Alcohol was a huge no no. We must not be a “stumbling block.”
It was a sharp “who’s in”and “who’s out”conclave. Catholics and main-line denomination types were “religious,”but had no “personal relationship”with God like we did. Religion trafficked in rituals and rote prayers. We called religious prayers “vain repetitions.”We were actually warned to not take the Lord’s Prayer and pray it too religiously because even it could become a vain repetition. Written prayers, or what we now call fixed prayers, were taboo. Real prayers were spontaneous, from the heart, and pertained to what’s at hand. Vain repetitions were written prayers, prayers on paper that were read presumably without heart.
Not too much time went by and I noticed that my own prayers and many of the prayers of the church were, in fact, notoriously vain repetitions. By that, I mean, the prayers were basically the same. After a while, I knew what was going to be prayed as the person stood to pray. Not real names here, Bill always prayed for separation from the world: “‘Come out from among them and be ye separate,’saith the LORD.”Maggie always covered the globe and the missionaries and their needs. Jake prayed for the lost, lonely and forlorn that needed Jesus. Hank prayed for the old, the ill and the “shut in’s.”Prayers at the church potlucks were always re-runs, too. Prayers before Communion might as well have been written because they were the same.
How ironic: the thing we were so earnestly warned about—vain repetitions—was the very nature of the church’s prayers. This seemed to go totally unnoticed. I was shaped by this “ritual”of prayer.
Have you ever caught yourself praying the same old meal-time prayer? How many of us go on autopilot and say the same thing time and again? I remember praying over our meal when our daughters were younger. As I prayed I thought Am I really saying the same old thing? Can’t I think of anything original and real to say to God about our meal? I would not have been too shocked if after I said “Amen”to see my wife’s and four daughters’faces asleep in their plates of spaghetti. Can you spell boring? One time for fun I prayed this and really got a conversation going, “Hey, Buddha, thanks for the foodha.”Pray for discernment before you use that prayer with the family.
Having learned from Scot McKnight and many others, I (and my wife Julie) have found a place for fixed prayers. Any prayers, even spontaneous ones, can be prayed mindlessly. I remember attending a funeral Mass of a friend who died. I was captivated by the priest’s prayers even though those prayers were “fixed”ones. Those prayers seem to carry a sense of eternity. Praying The Divine Hours compiled by Phyllis Tickle has sparked many good conversations for Julie and me.
Amy Grant sings about spontaneous prayers: “God loves the drunkard’s cry/ the soldier’s plea not to let him die/ better than a Hallelujah sometimes.”No problem. On the other hand, Israel and Jesus and the church often prayed fixed prayers. They are called the Psalms. I think God likes those, too.