Sunday, February 26, 2006


In a moment of post-funeral decompression, I thought back over the service to the prayers and general air with which I conduct these things. There is a certain amount of respect and care that pastors are expected to show, as is expected on any Sunday morning, but the tone of voice that gets used at a funeral or memorial service might be a little softer, a little more measured.

Then I got to thinking about worship in general. There are phrases and voices used for prayer and worship that wouldn't be found anywhere else in normal conversation, in a meeting, during a presentation. Yet this worshipspeak seems to be appropriate in a church setting.

First, there's the tone. This encompasses a few things. For one, many colleagues of mine when giving a prayer or sermon wiiiiiiill streeetch theeeir vooooowels iin ordeeeer to souuuuund moore pentitent. On top of that, the inflection does this rollercoaster sort of thing where every word starts uphill. It's hard to explain in writing, but I'll do my best. In normal conversation, one may say, 'It's good to see you, Jeff.' If this is said during a prayer, it might be written like this: 'IT's GOod To SEe YOu, JEff.' So couple that with the vowel thing, and you end up with, 'IiiiiT's GOOOOOoood TOoooo SEEEEeee YOOOooouuu, JEEEEeeefff.' Perhaps this reads as an exaggeration. Listen to the inflection of words next Sunday and picture everything written like this. If a pastor's 'holy voice' was written like it's spoken, it would look like that.

Next, the grammar and phrasing that we use can be simplified. Here's a small sampling of what belongs in this category:

~'Just.' As in, 'Lord, we just want to thank you and just praise you and just, Lord, just, you're awesome, Lord, and we just come to worship to just worship you.' What is it about prayer that causes people to fill in their pauses with this word? 'We just want to thank you.' Here's a shortcut: 'Thank you.'

~'That we might.' As in, 'We come before you in prayer that we might be transformed by what you are saying to us.' Let's see how this would work in normal conversation: 'Bob, please pass me the green beans, that I might put some on my plate.' 'Sally, step back from the edge of the canyon, that you might not fall in.' 'Andrea, please give me money, that I might purchase a candy bar.' Mike, get away from that rabid dog, that you might not become bitten.' The second clauses in all these sentences are completely unnecessary, yet we add them in prayers to awkwardly name what we want to happen.

~'Let us.' As in 'let us pray,' or 'let us go out to serve.' This is meant as a gathering up of the people to do a certain thing. In the case of the latter, I guess it's supposed to be inspiring. 'Come, let us go.' Perhaps if we lived in Shakespeare's day, it would still sound inspiring, too.

There's something about the worship setting that causes people to break out a different vocabulary and intonation. We break into worshipspeak as if we somehow believe that flowery language is more proper for God. We might be like the minions on Buffy Season 5, who refer to their god with all sorts of ridiculous terms of endearment ('your flashy but tastefulness') in a horrendous attempt to butter her up. We've come to trick ourselves into thinking that God hears us better when we break out unnecessary clauses and do voice gymnastics.

Of course. We're trying to play a part in creating a holy moment. Holy moments are different from other moments, so these moments may call for a different approach, a different vocabulary. We think we need something that sounds more poetic and pious, something that sounds like a hymn. Many of us have been conditioned to think that approaching God is different from placing an order at Burger King; that part of this approach involves an alternative language and tone and we can't simply say what we mean.

We can learn from the Psalms, from Job, from Lamentations and some of the prophets here. While there is poetry present, some of these writers just outright yell at God. 'I can't believe this is happening,' they shout. There's nothing poetic about that. They want an answer! If the first verse of Psalm 22 had been written in worshipspeak, it might look like this: 'O God, my God who created all the worlds and is the supreme One, I just come before you that you might answer me, for I just wonder why you have been absent.' What we get instead is, 'Why have you forsaken me?' They don't have time for bells and smells.

What if we talked to God as a holy Being instead of in a 'holy way?' Maybe people don't see a difference. It's fully possible to talk to God in contemporary English, fully recognizing God's power, presence, and potential, without doing a bad rendition of Hamlet. I doubt that this is what Paul meant when he wrote that we don't know how to pray as we should, but it could be added to the list.