Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Funny prayer voice

"Oh, God," (inhale) "we just wanna thank you, God," (inhale) "for bringing us together here, God," (inhale) "today," (inhale) "God." I don't know many people who pray like how they talk. I'd never say to a guest, "Oh, Gerald," (inhale) "I just wanna thank you, Gerald," (inhale) "just for coming over, Gerald," (inhale) "and eating nachos with me, Gerald," (inhale) "today, Gerald." I'm a pretty good prayer-in-public, I don't do the "just" thing, or the Lord-every-other-word thing, or the sharp inhale thing. However, when I talk I tend to talk very quickly, but when I pray, there are a lot of umms and ahhs and I'm slow and I try to load what I say with symbolism and I bet I sound very boring. I've had a lot of people tell me that they like it when they hear me pray, but I think that's due to our low expectations for coherent extemporaneous prayer.

I have friends who lead worship; a lot of them, when giving an intro to a song, sound completely different than when we're hanging out together. These are generally people who are decent public speakers, and they don't sound artificial when they're doing regular public speaking, but as soon as they're put in front of a group of people and they have to talk about how "we are in God's presence" or something like that, they fall apart.

In churches where they call the talky part of the service a "message" or a "talk" or a "pow-wow", the speaker tends to sound reasonably authentic. In churches where the talky part is called a sermon, the preacher's voice becomes strangely distorted, but not uniformly so. Some pastors who are ordinarily loud get very quiet, or vice-versa. Some pastors try to sound very soft-spoken, or some try to talk very quickly. I rarely hear sermons, though, where the speaker doesn't, at least at some point, speak with a strained voice, sounding like he might be picking up a heavy box or passing a bowel movement.

I think I've met one person who is capable of praying in his regular speaking voice. He would pray prayers like this. "Hi, Dad, what's up? We're hanging out at camp. Thanks for supper, it smells pretty good. We're pretty tired, so if you could help us wake up a little, that would rock. I love you. Amen."

Some friends invited me once to check out the jujitsu club at UMBC. I stuck around because it's a martial art that's designed for people who are kind of short and scrawny, like me. One of the things that is cool about jujitsu is that you can tell that you're doing a move wrong if you're straining or grunting. I find it very satisfying to practice a throw on a guy who is bigger and stronger than me; if I do the move right, it's effortless.

I've heard that master bricklayers can lay bricks much more quickly than their apprentices. The masters don't move extra fast, they simply lay the bricks very precisely, automatically; they don't spend as much time fixing mistakes and estimating and leveling and so on as the more junior bricklayers.

It's more important to pray to God in humility and hopefulness than it is to use the right words or spend a long time praying or to use a magic voice. God loves you and will give you what you need. You might need to accept that God isn't your manservant. You might need to accept that God's will is inscrutable, such that when you ask for something good, and the opposite happens, that doesn't mean that God doesn't love you, rather, he's working things out in an unimaginably good way for you.

When I was a kid, I learned three things about how to get what I needed from my parents.
1 Ask them.
2 Please and thank you are magic words.
3 Go to the less cranky parent.

I don't think that prayer needs to be any more complicated than that. There certainly isn't any Bible verse, "Yea, if thou prayest in a strained voice, verily thy Lord shall grant unto thee thy petition."

I know that all of these things about prayer and humility and acceptance and asking are the right answers, the answers that would earn me a gold star sticker on the chart in Sunday School. Prayer is a little off-putting because when I talk, God doesn't talk back in an audible voice. It's a bit more awkward when I pray and my prayer has no discernible effect on reality. The thing that I know for sure that prayer does for me is that it gives me that I've Prayed feeling; it's like the I Voted sticker. I wonder how much my funny prayer voice is spiritual passive-aggression; I'm a little annoyed at God for not being sensible, so I pray very slowly and deliberately, so that I'm sure to be praying in a way that I won't be misunderstood.


  1. I think your final assertion as to the motive of the funny voice is way off, at least in general; I can't speak for you. It's definitely more about sounding impassioned, thus convincing God that you really mean what you're praying.

  2. I agree with you that sounding impassioned is the motivation. I think that it might be passive aggressive. Perhaps worse, this funny voice phenomenon might be a sign of toadying, a buttering-up of God. I'm not sure whether that's the same as passive-aggression or not.

  3. I know what you are talking about. But I always thought the funny prayer voice was because you were suppose to be reverent because God is mighty and righteous and holy. I think that's the explanation I absorbed growing up in a Baptist church.
    I wonder how much of it is mindless habit. I've noticed that I constantly start my prayers with "Lord God.." don't know why, but other things seem unnatural.
    I've also noticed that I'm particularly...verbose...when I'm heading into the "praise" section of my prayer. And some of me thinks: "well, words are important, and I want to use them to praise God in all aspects" and another part thinks: "you're just copying everybody else for no good reason except you think it sounds better".
    How often do we pray the way we pray because we are trying to impress and feel good about ourselves?
    Anyways, I think I feel most like I'm actually talking to God when I'm yelling at Him. I'm not actually yelling at Him, but I'm telling it like it is and just saying what pops into my head.