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11 November 2015

Memorized any good prayers lately?

Memorize the right prayers, and they’ll help you grow in Christ.

Rote prayer /roʊt pr(eɪ)ər/ n. 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 nothing is 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 those phone numbers down. And most of us just go with blunt-force rote memorization: We recite the number over and over and over and OVER again, 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; lots of us Christians 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 somehow we got it into our heads that 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.)

Why do we pray the Lord’s Prayer? Because Jesus told us to. “When you pray, pray this.” Or “When you pray, pray like this,” Mt 6.9 —we find it both ways in the gospels. ’Cause sometimes it’s a good idea to stick closely to Jesus’s example… and sometimes it’s a good idea to use it as a loose outline, and do all that “speaking from your heart” thing. It all depends on what we need to tell God… or what God needs to tell us.

See, when we pray rote prayers, if we’re doing ’em right, what we’re actually doing is conforming our will to those prayers. Yeah, we’re saying someone else’s words. But for it to be an authentic prayer, and not a hypocritical one, we have to mean it. Which means when we pray someone else’s words, we have to 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 you can’t say them and mean them, don’t say them. Or try to mean them; try to wrap your brain around ’em and understand what they mean, and believe what they say. (Ask the Holy Spirit for help if necessary.) Either way, strive for authenticity. Be real with God. Say it and mean it.

Those who object to rote prayers, tend to have the darnedest time conforming their will to anything. Including Jesus. They wanna pray what they wanna pray; they don’t think they can learn a thing from somebody else’s prayers. Don’t even believe that’s what rote prayers are about, either. To them, rote prayers are dead religion: Saying stuff you don’t mean because you think you’ll be holy for doing it. They don’t get the point, and even when we explain the point, they don’t see the need. They don’t need to conform. They know God already. They don’t believe they’re wrong—as we all are.

For them, not even Christian music is about conforming to God’s will. At the most they’re about repeating stuff we believe already, and at the least they’re about music we enjoy—and words are optional. (Unless they’re the wrong words. Then the whole song is poisoned.)

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, “When you pray say, ‘Father, make your name sacred,’” Lk 11.2 and so forth, 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 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 put our own will beneath 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 know God wants us to have and think already?

“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.