Memorized any good prayers lately?

ROTE PRAYER roʊt pr(eɪ)ər noun. A prayer we’ve memorized.

How’d you learn your phone number?

Assuming you have; lots of us just trust our phones to remember ’em for us. When I first got my phone number, anytime someone asked for it, I had to look it up. Eventually I got what I thought was a good idea: Convert it to letters! If I couldn’t remember 268-3276, I could sure as heck remember ANT-FARM. (Which is not my actual number; I use it as an example.) Problem is, whenever you sign up for the Starbucks app and tell ’em your phone number is ANT-FARM, they object and demand digits, so now you gotta go through the mental process of “Okay, A is 1…” ’cause you forgot no phone numbers start with 1, ’cause in the early days of telephones they saved 1 for long distance numbers. But here I am digressing again.

A blessed few of us have really good memories, and don’t have to resort to silly mental tricks to get phone numbers in our brains. Most of us just go with blunt-force rote memorization: We recite the number over and over and over and OVER till it’s embedded in our memory like a shank in a prison snitch. (Awful simile, but you’ll remember it, won’tcha?)

Okay, so how’d you learn to pray?

Assuming you have; many don’t. As for those Christians who do, many of us resort to rote prayers. We learned ’em when we were kids, or we say them so often in church they just kinda stuck in our minds. We learned them by repeating them till they stuck. And when it comes time to pray, that’s what we pray. Like the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father who art in heaven…” and so forth. And it’s totally okay to pray such things, ’cause Jesus said so. “When you pray, say this.” Lk 11.2

Lots of us Christians do rote prayer… and lots of us Christians refuse to do rote prayer. ’Cause they got it into their heads rote prayer isn’t authentic prayer. “The only real prayer,” such people insist, “is extemporaneous prayer: Use your own words, speak from your heart, and say it to God. Don’t use somebody else’s words. Those aren’t your words. God wants to hear your words.”

Yes he does. But that’s not why we pray rote prayers.

It’s a submission thing. (Unless you’re not into that.)

The first time I heard somebody rant against rote prayer, she was basically mocking mainline churches. She grew up a mainliner, left ’em to become Fundamentalist, and had become one of those conspiracy-theory Fundies who think every church but hers is devilish. She didn’t wanna legitimize anything they did as worship. Rote prayer especially.

To her mind, the reason people pray rote prayers isn’t to learn from the prayers of Jesus or other Christians; isn’t to learn to pray, isn’t to conform our will to that of others. Rote prayers are entirely so you can pretend to pray. They’re not really prayer; they’re just some holy-sounding words you can recite but not truly mean. Just say your lines, feign prayer, and it’ll count as prayer, and you’ll be holy for going through the motions. It’s pure hypocrisy.

“That,” she’d explain, “is what mainliners do instead of worship.” It’s all dead religion. And it’s not just mainliners; Catholics and Orthodox and Episcopalians and most of the other churches do it too. They’re all hypocrites and going to hell.

Her teaching didn’t set right with me. ’Cause the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a rote prayer, y’know. One we were taught in Sunday school, ’cause Jesus taught it. One we were taught to recite. And taught, correctly, that it’s so we can learn to pray; and when we pray it we need to mean it. And once we apply that instruction to every rote prayer, we realize the whole point of rote prayer.

When we pray rote prayers properly, what we actually do is conform our will to those prayers. Yeah, they’re someone else’s words. But for it to be an authentic prayer, and not hypocrisy, we gotta mean their words. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we have to mean Jesus’s words. When we pray one of King David’s prayers out of Psalms, we have to mean his words. When we pray some other Christian’s prayers out of a hymnal or prayer book, we oughta mean their words. When we sing a hymn or worship song in church, we oughta mean those words. It’s all the same practice.

If we can’t say them and mean them, don’t say them! We should at the very least try to mean them; try to wrap our brains around ’em, understand what they mean, and believe what they say. (And ask the Holy Spirit for help when necessary.) Either way, strive for authenticity. Be real with God. Say it and mean it.

If you asked that anti-mainliner what she believed about the Lord’s Prayer, it’s entirely likely she’d say all the same things I just said. All the same things the Sunday school teachers taught. When you recite it, mean it. She wasn’t merely repeating it mindlessly, nor using it to pretend to pray. But good luck convincing her other churches pray it the same way she does. Some people simply can’t see beyond their prejudices.

The power of rote prayers.

When we recite a rote prayer, and mean it (’cause don’t bother to recite it otherwise), they’re extremely powerful.

When Jesus taught us to pray, “Hallowed be thy name” and so forth, Lk 11.2 KJV it’s because that’s his will. That’s God’s will. Jesus told us to pray God would honor his name, make his kingdom come, have his will done, and give us daily bread and forgiveness and grace from testing. And God wants to honor his name, make his kingdom come, have his will done, and give us stuff. We’re conforming and submitting to God’s will. We’re learning to think like God does.

Often we’ll get to the part of “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” Mt 6.12 and to be honest forgiveness is a tricky one. Some of us haven’t forgiven our debtors. We still have grudges. We’re still annoyed at fellow Christians. And neighbors, and especially enemies. We know we need to forgive; Jesus told us to; we just aren’t there yet. Some of us are trying to get there, and some aren’t. When we pray it and don’t mean it, we come under conviction: “Oh yeah; Jesus wants me to forgive.” Ideally it spurs us to work on this.

True, some Christians will just recite the words and work on nothing, ’cause to them the Lord’s Prayer is dead religion. The rest of us will submit to them, because to us the Lord’s Prayer is living religion.

Same with other rote prayers: We conform our own will to the words. It’s powerful stuff. When we’re just talking with God, casually or formally, it might never occur to us in mid-prayer, “I forgot this” or “I should do that” or “God wants me to pray for these things.” He might remind us to—if we’re listening to him, and sometimes we’re not. Just like sometimes we aren’t really listening to the rote prayers. But again: When we do, when we conform to what we’re praying, it’s powerful stuff.

It’s why the very last thing we wanna do is recite rote prayers mindlessly. That’s a mockery of faith. But the heartfelt, mindful, meant rote prayer is an act of surrendering our very thoughts and words—our all—to God.

Yeah, we can pray extemporaneously, for all the stuff we wanna talk to God about. Go ahead and do that too. But Jesus doesn’t want us to forget the stuff in his prayer. His prayer reflects God’s heart. Our off-the-cuff prayers reflect our hearts—which need work. If we pray nothing but the extemporaneous stuff, we shouldn’t expect to see a lot of heart-repair done too quickly. On the other hand if we do pray the Lord’s Prayer…

And same with other rote prayers. Most of the more popular prayers are a bunch of bible quotes. Some are wholly taken from the scriptures. So when we pray them, we’re likewise praying for stuff God already wants us to pray. Doesn’t it make sense to pray for things we already know God wants us to have and think?

“But they’re someone else’s words.” Relax; this isn’t plagiarism. God is fully aware we didn’t compose these prayers. But when they express how we feel, or says the very same things we wanna tell God, it’s totally fine with him if that’s what we pray. And totally fine with our fellow Christians: We have a long history of rote prayers. The Psalms are rote prayers, y’know.

Put a few of ’em into your brain and start praying them.