I have several outstanding memories from my seminary days, most of which (perhaps surprisingly) are academic. One of the strongest memories is learning the “Ten Most Unwanted Public Prayer Habits” in a pastoral studies class.
I won’t bother to number all ten of them for you, Dear Reader, since I’d rather not even get you thinking about them, lest you take them up in earnest. The commonest of them all, though, is called “the prayer of the just”. You know what I mean: “Lord, we just ask that you’ll just be present with us…”, etc., ad nauseam.
I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that this ugly habit has reached epidemic proportions in the church, crossing denominational and traditional boundaries (no, it’s not restricted to evangelicals: I’ve heard some pretty high church folks offer the prayer of the just).
Some even say it in such a way as to suggest that God has a new name: Father Weejus, as in “Father, we just…”. I have heard something this week – consistently, at least twice a day, in the forum of public prayer – that has trumped Father Weejus, to the point that I would add it as the Eleventh Most Unwanted Public Prayer Habit. Are you ready for this?
“Dear God and Heavenly Father, Lord…”.
Sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it? Well, maybe once. But when every prayer offered by an individual begins with this, it gets more than a little annoying – to me, anyway. Maybe I’m the only one. But apart from its general annoyance, I have other issues with it.
First, starting a prayer with “Dear” connotes, to me, either a diary entry or the salutation of a letter. (And countless children have been taught, by example, in church, for years to begin prayers with “Dear God…”! Aaagh!) Heaven knows that we can be more creative than that when talking to God with and for others.
Second, starting every prayer with the same thing suggests to me either that the person is largely not thinking (when it comes to prayer, at least), or that the person has an unbalanced understanding of the immanence of God. That is, when we talk to God, are we approaching him as our Friend our our Drinking Buddy? There is a bit of a difference, I’d say: it’s important when we approach the Creator of the Universe in prayer – particularly when other people are listening, and expecting you to pray on their behalf, too – that we do so with due reverence before our Friend who is Totally Other. And, God does not expect us to check our brains at the door when we approach the Throne of Grace.
The Bible is replete with names for God that can be used alongside “God”, “Heavenly Father”, and “Lord”. Many of those Old Testament stories that have been rehearsed in our minds for years contain names for God that we can use when we talk to him. How about “El Shaddai”? “Jehovah Jireh”? “Sovereign LORD”? Or, turning to the New Testament, how about “Comforter”? “Helper”? “Saviour”? “King of kings”? One could go on, but grab a Bible handbook (or just use a search engine) and get cracking. We can expand our love for God by expanding our vocabulary about him.
Please understand that I am not trying to take away from the importance of a personal relationship with God, even expressed in our prayer language! I knew a person at one time whose only prayer language to talk about God was the vocative: “O God”. That’s all God was. To me, that was perhaps less irritating than “Dear God and Heavenly Father, Lord”, but at the same time, it was also less personal. It was as if “O God” lived somewhere up in the ceiling tile; in this case, there was too much emphasis on the transcendent at the expense of the immanent.
One of the things I love about God is that he is both completely transcendent and completely immanent. God is high and exalted, the Creator of the Universe. And God is personal, here-and-now enough, to care about every thought of my heart (and yours).
The miracle of who God is says to me that he deserves both our love and our thought, especially when we’re talking to him publicly.