The other day I ran across a Precious Moments/Norman Rockwell style meme of a little boy — looked like some child in the 1950s — with his hands folded and head bowed, saying grace in a government school lunchroom.
In the background, snickering children laughed and pointed.
The saying was forgettable, which is why I don’t remember it exactly, but went along the predictable lines of,
“I will stand up for the Lord regardless of what people around me think.”
Now actually, this concept is not a bad one at all, especially when one considers standing up for the Lord in light of befriending the awkward person who is embarrassing to be around, or forgiving someone’s thoughtless comment about how we look that day, or not making a judgment about the food the person ahead of us in line — obviously on public assistance — is buying, or giving $20 to one who asks for it without worrying if we’ll ever get paid back, or refusing to add our opinion about So and So’s family situation to the office water cooler or back-of-the-church coffee chat fest.
These are tangible, unromantic, far-from-glamorous ways of honoring our Lord by imitating Him in His own actions. They take five seconds to do, and generally do not engender any sense of pride or puffiness in our soul that cause us to say to ourselves,
“As for me and my house, I will serve the Lord!”
Saying grace in public places, however, is a dicey situation, and rare is the person who can do it without thinking to himself,
“Everybody’s watching me. I’m going to pretend that they’re not, because I’m so absorbed in relating to my dear, Sweet Jesus,”
“I feel awkward, but if I’m afraid to show thanks to God in public, then I’m ashamed of Him,”
“I am a living testament to my Lord, and people around me will be inspired by my actions! (If they’re not, then they’re wretched sinners who do not have His Spirit).”
All of these thoughts, which are extremely understandable, are evidence that something is not quite right in our actions, and it’s highly likely that saying “Thank You” is not the foremost motivation behind our public prayer.
But why should this matter? some ask, insisting that the outward action witnesses to those around us, bearing rich, rich fruit.
But does it?
When it comes to living our Christianity and loving our Lord, the motivation behind our actions matters, a lot. This is one reason why Jesus says in Matthew 7:21,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
With apologies for Scripture jumping, the immediate thought that comes to my mind when I see someone in a restaurant with head bowed and eyes closed, or, if they’re in a group, clasping hands with heads bowed and eyes closed, is,
“But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6)
It is eminently possible to pray in public without anyone around us being aware, and indeed, the more we talk to God throughout the day — asking Him for insight, clapping the hands of our heart with joy over the beauty of a sunset, admitting that we’re impatient and inclined to be snappy, observing the actions of a toddler and remembering Christ’s words about children — the more normal it becomes. How easy, then, to look with our eyes into His and say,
“Thank you for this meal. I’m hungry, and it smells delicious. You take such good care of me.” Even if we had to briefly close our eyes, we could do so without drawing attention to ourselves and, more importantly, would genuinely fulfill what we say is our intention, thanking God.
If we’re concerned about showing God’s love and grace to those around us (and this is a great thing to be concerned about), maybe we could do so by treating the wait staff as social equals, leaving a good tip (consider leaving something as well for the people in back who did the cooking and wash the dishes), listening — truly listening — to the people in our group, smiling kindly to the woman with the crying child, and not grumbling about the guy in back who laughs too loud and sounds like a donkey.
Of course, none of these actions will overtly alert those around us to our status as Christian, but that’s probably a good thing. While showing off our piety is a poor way of drawing others to the unconditional love of our Father in heaven, living that unconditional love is a much more attractive — and effective — way of getting the message across.
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Thank you for joining me at This Woman Writes. Posts complementing this one are
The Lost Christians of America
It’s Okay to Do Nothing for God
Attack and Kill Style Christianity
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Thanks for your post. I’ve often felt uncomfortable in these situations, particularly when I feel pressed into doing so when in a group; instead of focusing on my true inner feeling of thanks, I am instead feeling resentful for the intrusion.
Jan — that uncomfortable awkwardness is the voice of wisdom from within, saying, “What are you doing? Why are you doing this?”
I find that God’s gentle, prodding voice is very easy to miss, because I see it as, “Oh, that’s just me, being dumb.” But I’m not dumb. Neither are you, or all the many people who say, “Well, I see what you’re saying, but . . . ”
Group peer pressure is not limited to middle school.
Carolyn, I get your point and it’s a good one. Our motives do matter. We do not pray in public in order to prove that we are morally or spiritually superior to others. At least, we shouldn’t pray for that reason. Public prayer should be an overflow of private prayer. In other words, if prayer is a way of life, it happens in private and public. Jesus modeled this beautifully. He talked to the Father when he was alone. He talked to the Father when he was with his disciples. He talked to the Father when he was in the midst of a crowd.
I guess my question to Jan is, “why do you feel uncomfortable praying in public?” Is it because you feel forced to pray? Is it because it feels weird or awkward? I agree that you shouldn’t pray simply because of peer pressure or tradition, but it is good to get out of our comfort zone. Press into the awkward moments because our God is worthy of our devotion, and this can be an opportunity to shine our light for others. If we look at it as an opportunity, I believe God will use it to bring glory to himself. Personally, I do pray in public and I’ve even asked my waiter/waitress how we can pray for them. Not to boast in my spirituality, but because I genuinely care for the person and I want them to know that God cares for them. Every time I’ve done this, (so far), I’ve gotten a good response. I don’t care what they think about me. I do care that I leave that person uplifted, encouraged–feeling known and loved. I try to be mindful of that as I interact with people. I’m human and I fail often, but I seek to live this way more and more.
Thanks Carolyn for challenging us to live lives of love and not simply by rules and traditions.
Alecia — your observations and questions are good ones. Let’s see if I can address the one, “Why do you feel uncomfortable praying in public?” The answer to this one is unique to each individual, based upon their experience, their need, and realistically, the importance they place upon the matter. When I was a young child, we said a rote grace in front of each meal — it was meaningless and purposeless, and performed more out of obligation than any other reason. My husband was raised with the same issue, but it was said out of Christian superstition more than any other matter (“If you don’t say thanks, God will get mad, and withhold good things from you.”)
With this background, it was natural that we did not make saying grace, in private or public, a part of how we did things — it is strongly associated with legalism, fear, and peer pressure. Frankly, it is not something that we find necessary or meaningful, which is not to say — as many would jump to — that we do not give thanks to God. Indeed, because the three-times-daily grace is not meaningful to us, it is better that we not do it this way. We thank Him regularly, privately, and in a manner that we feel the thanks that we are giving: in times of private, focused prayer, we lift spiritual eyes into His and say, “Thank you.” Other times, spontaneously through the day, we express (aloud or within), “Thank you for this! Thank you so much!” There is a strong connection with Him as we give these thanks, as real as when we look into the eyes of a friend or loved one who has just given us something and is waiting to see how we respond: we look straight into their eyes and infuse every bit of joy and meaning that we can into the words, “Thank you! Thank you so much.”
Rarely, if ever, do we speak aloud in public, because — again because of our backgrounds and the awareness we have of other people’s similar experiences — the only time we have seen this done has been because the person doing it is “witnessing,” or “speaking for the Lord,” — making a public show (sometimes with the best of intentions, other times not), to be noticed by others. This is, and always has been, cloying to us, and there is an offensive nature to it that repels us.
This is not to say that people cannot honestly, forthrightly, and genuinely speak thanks, in public, to God, as you describe. That you can do this with a pure heart, untouched by any ulterior or extra motivations, is a good thing, but it is one that takes much discernment and wisdom. Many Christians, who do not yet have this discernment or wisdom, plow ahead with public show that does not produce the fruit that they think it does. They speak in public not because they want to, not because they spontaneously and genuinely communicate with God, but because they feel they should feel this way. (Sort of a variation on, “If you build it, they will come” — “If you pretend to have the feelings, they will come.”)
Public prayer is an extremely difficult action to pull off because we are naturally concerned about the people listening to us: do we stutter? Did we use the wrong word? Is our voice wavering? Are they getting what we’re saying? Or are we sounding perfectly natural and normal, as if we didn’t know other people were there? The very thinking of that last question shows that our focus is still on ourselves, as opposed to real, actual conversation with God. The people around, listening to us, pick up on this.
It’s not to say that genuine public prayer can’t happen, but one thing is for sure — it WON’T happen unless the person praying spends a LOT of time speaking to God in private, to the point that it becomes normal, desired, and wanted. Rather than pressuring people to pray aloud in public places, it is better to encourage us all to talk with God privately, allowing Him to teach us how to pour out our every thought, fear, hope, joy, and sadness into His ears. As we practice this truly joyful activity, we will develop a relationship with Him that is real to the core of our heart — so that, when and if we choose to pray in a public setting, we will focus on actually talking to God, as opposed to the benefit of those listening.
Too often, when a person is reluctant to engage in a particular activity or act a certain way, we jump to the conclusion that they are shy, reluctant, “disobedient,” not willing to get out of that comfort zone (we really, really need to re-look at this term and see if it is a worthy one; its misuse is so broad and encompassing that we must review it strongly) — in other words, they are at fault because they are acting, or not acting, the way we think that they should. But this judgment is not up to us to make — we do not live in their heart, hear their thoughts, are not privy to their relationship with God. Their very reluctance may be through that wisdom and discernment I mention above, and though they do not understand this “gut feeling,” they know enough to not force their way past it.
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