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A Look at Prayer

by Tim O'Hearn

People have been praying from time immemorial. Ancient Egyptian texts include what might be considered prayers. There is a famous prayer from the reign of Akhenaten, the father (brother? both?) of Tutankhamen, approximately 100 years before Moses. Most of those early prayers consisted primarily of praise, although they may have included some petitions. The Jewish people, however, seem to have taken prayer to a new level, perhaps because of the more intimate relationship with God. To the ancient Egyptians, and in other countries, the gods were either remote or to be feared. Before the reign of Akhenaten, the sun god was taken out of his temple once a year and paraded through the streets. That might be the one time that any of the common people had any intercourse with this god. Some of the other gods, on the other hand, were part of daily life, and greatly to be feared. The god of the River could cause it to overflow its banks at the most inopportune times. Ammut, the crocodile-headed goddess, was the eater of souls if one was judged unworthy. Many of the gods were intimately associated with death or destruction. When the Israelites heard God speak to them at Sinai, this changed. They hadIf Christianity has lost the sense of “church” rather than individuality, perhaps it is because of a lack of persecution. actually heard God. He was involved in their lives, and they were involved in his plan.

Christian prayer traces a direct line back to the Jewish way of prayer. Although the non-Jews soon outnumbered Jews in the numbers of believers, it was the Jewish tradition of prayer that won out over the Roman. If Christians want to understand what prayer is, and how to pray, they must go back to the Jewish models.

Corporate prayer

Most of the time, Jewish prayer is corporate. That is, it is done as a group. Many of the prayers cannot be said unless there is a minyan (ten people qualified to participate in the prayers) present. Kind of like a meeting not being able to conduct business without a quorum present. This may date back to the Temple worship. King David set aside a specific group of the priests to sing prayers as their part of the Temple service. Many (most?) of the Psalms are prayers to be sung in this way. After the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the Babylonian captivity, these prayers became part of the new synagogue assembly.

Prayer was a way for the Jewish people to recognize not only their dependence on God, but also their dependence upon each other. By saying prayers together they affirm their own identity as a people. By saying specific prayers at specific times or on specific occasions, they affirm their unity, regardless of distance.

Christians also have a tradition of public prayer. Some Christian groups maintain the liturgical manner of prayer, while others could be said to pray “together but separate.” One person may be selected to say a prayer for the entire congregation. Usually these are phrased using “we” and “us,” although some personalize their public prayers. Even as a man “leads” a congregation in prayer, many individuals may elect to say their own prayers during this time. The congregation may be unified in prayer, or may not. Particularly as one person leads, everyone else is expected to maintain silence; this type of prayer does not have the same corporate existence as a shared oral prayer.

Lois Tverberg tells of reading from the Jewish liturgy, and later seeing the contrast with Christian manners.

All by myself I was praying these ancient lines that were exclusively framed in terms of “we” and “us” and “our people” (as is the Lord’s Prayer, of course). A few days later I attended a large Christian worship service. There the focus of every song was on God and me: “I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice” … “Just as I am, without one plea” … Hundreds of us were worshiping side by side, a sea of voices resounding together, and every one of us was pretending to be all alone. (Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, p. 57)

Even the phrasing of most Jewish prayers is designed to maintain the group identity, even if prayed separately. Even if one is praying alone, it is “as if with the body.” The change from “we” to “me” that is characteristic of Christian prayer may reflect a change in attitude. God is no longer the God of the people, but is now a personal God. To a certain extent this is understandable, but in another sense it could be called unfortunate. A hallmark of Judaism has always been a sense of community. Perhaps this has been because of persecution. If Christianity has lost the sense of “church” rather than individuality, perhaps it is because of a lack of persecution. Almost three quarters of Paul’s letters were to churches, and some of those he even asked be shared. Community, and community prayer, were so important that the greatest punishment Paul could conceive was for the congregation to shun the individual.

Individual prayer

On the other hand, Jesus commended individual prayer. “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” (Matt 6:6) This was said in contrast to those who made loud, public, individual prayers, to discourage showiness. (Maybe some musicians should get the message, too.) It does show, however, that the Jewish people also have a tradition of personal prayer. In fact, the most important prayer (Grace After the Meal) is never said in synagogue, but at most in the presence of family.

Personal prayer is encouraged. While most Jewish prayers are prescribed, going “off script” is encouraged. After all, several people in the Bible are known for their personal prayers: Hannah, Jeremiah, Tevye. Well, that last isn’t from the Bible, but some of the best lines in Fiddler On the Roof are Tevye’s conversations with God. Even some Christians are a bit shocked by the way that some Jews talk to God. Jesus spoke familiarly with God. So did Abraham and Moses. Sometimes the familiarity borders on insolence. Abraham famously negotiated with God over the fate of Sodom. (His bargaining skills would be legendary in Juarez or Tijuana.) Moses more than once had to remind God that it would look bad on him if he destroyed Israel in the wilderness. Jeremiah notoriously questioned God’s reasons for his instructions. (Jer 32. See “How to Question God” in the May, 2002 issue of Minutes With Messiah). These examples seem to stem from an understanding of the reasonableness of God. We think of God as loving, merciful, or vengeful, but rarely do we remember that his sovereignty does not negate reason.

Berakhot

The best-known examples of Jewish prayer are berakhot, or blessings. In the aforementioned Fiddler, the rabbi is asked if there is a blessing for the hated Tsar. He answers, “Of course! May God bless and keep the Tsar…far away from us.” One of the more famous sections of the New Testament is the beatitudes, which all begin with “blessed.” The Hebrew word from which the descriptive term berakhot is derived also means “blessed.” Unlike the beatitudes, or even the blessing for the Tsar, most Jewish blessings have a specific format. Translated into English, they begin, “Blessed art thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who gives/commands us …” What follows depends on the purpose of the blessing. Those purposes are multivaried: before eating certain foods, on seeing something new or beautiful, on waking, before sleeping, for holidays, for performing certain acts.

Some might wonder about the difference in blessings. The beatitudes, for instance, bless people: peacemakers, the poor in spirit, the persecuted. Most Jewish berakhot seem to be blessing God. How can we bestow a blessing on the Almighty? We can’t. But we can acknowledge the blessedness of the one who gives all blessings. Actually, there is little real difference between “blessed art thou, peacemakers,” and “blessed art thou, O Lord.” In both cases, blessed is an adjective describing the person, rather than a verb conferring a blessing. The peacemakers are already blessed, because they are called the children of God. God is already blessed, and because of that we acknowledge the blessings that he gives us. And there is a berakhah uponAbraham and Moses spoke familiarly with God. Sometimes the familiarity borders on insolence. receiving bad news, because we acknowledge that God knows the final result, not just the apparent tragedy leading up to ultimate good.

Liturgical prayer

The Roman Catholics and some of those Reformation groups that have not gone far from them are quite familiar with liturgical prayer, as are the Jewish people. Some other Christian groups have a hard time with repeating a specific prayer at specific times. The “evangelicals” tend to think that prayer is a personal thing, and even as a group one does not pray by repeating a set of words. Jesus, on the other hand, seems to have followed the system his companions knew. “After this manner, pray.” (Matt 6:9) He then gives a specific prayer.

Whether Jews, Catholics, or Anglicans, those who use specific prayers in their liturgy emphasize the importance of focus. Prayer is not rote repetition without understanding. For that all you need is a prayer wheel. (And even among those who don’t use a liturgy, it is easy to lose focus during a public prayer.) Many Jews use motion (davening) to help maintain focus. To others, just the act of speaking out loud helps.

Ultimately, prayer is an acknowledgement of someone greater than ourselves. Whether corporate or personal, liturgical or spontaneous, prayer tells us that God is superior. That, in the end, is the difference that the Jewish people brought to prayer, and that they passed on to Christians.