By Riane Konc
We were in the middle of family prayer when the phone rang. My youngest brother—then probably 5 years old—jumped out of his chair and went to answer it. We had a rule about not answering the phone during prayer, but, as I’m sure I rolled my eyes about then and still do now, youngest siblings get away with everything. This time, though, instead of answering the phone, “Hello, this is the Berendts” like he always did, he got confused. His almost prayer must have still been rattling around his head, because he lifted the phone from the receiver and said, “Dear God—I mean, hello?”
I have no idea who was on the other end of that call; I only remember his face reddening and my other siblings and I bursting into laughter while my parents started hushing us, trying hard not to laugh themselves. For the rest of the week, we mimicked him, picking up imaginary phones and saying, “Dear God? Yes, hello is this God?” Even years later, the story still makes us laugh, remembering the time that our youngest brother had accidentally prayed into the phone.
Thanks, Help, Amen
I think one of the reasons we loved retelling this story so much was that, aside from it being a chance to tease the baby brother who got away with everything, it was probably the only interesting thing that ever happened during family prayers. If my brother had kept going with his accidental phone prayer instead of immediately realizing his mistake, I can tell you now—15 years later—what the rest of the prayer would have been. Dear God, thank you for this day, thank you for our food, thank you for our family, amen. I know this with 100 percent certainty because it’s the exact same—and only—prayer my siblings and I prayed every single night before dinner. The only time it changed at all was when some distant relative was sick, and then that was tagged on: Dear God, thank you for this day, thank you for our food, thank you for our family, help Great Aunt Gen’s knee/gallstone/stomach to feel better, amen.
My parents had converted to nondenominational Christianity, away from the traditional, liturgical churches they had grown up in, and they preached to us often about how important it was to have real, personal conversations with Jesus instead of just repeating a few memorized prayers, like they had as kids. For many people in liturgical traditions, those prayers are deeply profound and meaningful, but for my parents, they had just been words to say. They wanted us to have a different experience of prayer. But there we were every single night, mumbling our own detached liturgy. Dear God, thanks, thanks, thanks, help, amen. It didn’t mean anything to us. My parents’ fears had come true: we weren’t praying. We were reciting.
Most Magnificent, Omnipotent Lord
As I entered high school and slowly started to mature, my prayers started to shift—in length and variety, at least, if not in maturity. Countless youth group sermons and retreats focused on our prayer lives: how to have them, how to hone them. In a lot of ways, prayer became a competition in our high school youth group. We were desperately earnest in our prayers, and I believe we were trying our best to be genuine, but performance had entered our prayer lives. We would stand up at the microphone before singing songs or during an open mic night and use so many words to say nothing: Oh Lord God, we would often start, tacking more words on when we wanted to sound more spiritual. Oh most magnificent, omnipotent Lord God Jesus of Heaven and Earth on high, we would start again. The beginnings of our prayers got longer and longer and then fizzled into nothingness. If all else failed, we would cry. We were saying a lot of words, but they were more performance than prayer.
As a teenager I tried other ways of praying, based on advice I was given, but a lot of it seemed contradictory: some told me to talk to Jesus like he was a casual friend, some told me to be reverent and deferential and call him things like Most High. I was told not to treat God like a divine vending machine or granter of wishes, but also I could ask him for everything, big or small; I was supposed to have the utmost faith that prayer could sway the hand of God—that he could intercede and perform miracles—but also to realize that a lot of times God’s answer would be no or not now. I should pray quietly, in private, not as a performance; I should also pray in front of others, to encourage them.
My life in prayers was up and down. At times, I felt like prayer was helping me to connect and communicate with God in a way I never had before; at other times, I felt like I was just saying words. It was Thank you for our food, thank you for our family, amen all over again.
Your Will Be Done
A particularly wise minister once advised me to look at the way Jesus prayed, and not just in the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus prayed in private when he needed to and in public for the benefit of others when he needed to (Matthew 14:23; Mark 1:35; John 11:41, 42). Jesus prayed directly in moments of anguish and triumph (John 12:27, 28; 17). He prayed in thankfulness and in desperation. He prayed for others. He prayed for himself. What was most meaningful to me was seeing how, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he asked God for things he knew would not be done. Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.
Looking at the trajectory of Jesus’ prayers, from the formulaic Lord’s Prayer to the prayers Jesus uttered in his own life, made all of the seemingly contradictory advice I’d received about prayer make sense. It could all be true at once: I could talk to Jesus as a friend and as God to be revered. I could ask for things—big or small—and be thankful in advance that God’s will, whatever it was, would be done. I could talk to God through the yesses and nos and the not-nows and the silence. I could pray in private and in public, with big words and small ones. If Jesus, who was in every way God, still prayed to God, then it seemed to me that I had no excuse but to open my mouth and start talking. And if ever I feel like I don’t know where to start, Jesus has some good advice on that too:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
Riane Konc is a freelance writer living in Cincinnati, Ohio.