I grew up in a dysfunctional Evangelical home. We attended church every time the doors were open, read our Bibles, invited our friends and neighbors to church, and practiced the Christian art of praying. I want to focus on the art of praying in this post. I hope what I write will resonate with readers, and provoke their own thoughts about their past prayer experiences.
As a child, I was taught to pray every night before I went to bed. The first prayer I remember praying went like this:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my Soul to keep,
If I should die before I ‘wake,
I pray the Lord my Soul to take.
In Jesus’ name,
As I grew older, my prayers became more extemporaneous. I would confess my sins, thank God for saving me from my sin, thank God for my parents, family, pastor, church, pray for the missionaries and lost sinners, and finish off my prayers with a few personal requests. Still waiting for that new Schwinn 3-speed bike with a banana seat and sissy bar, Lord. As a teenager, my prayers became more elaborate, often taking minutes to recite. I wanted God to know I was serious about my faith; that I was serious about making my petitions and requests known to God. In my late teens, as I became more involved with girls, I would ask God to keep me morally pure. Two serious relationships, one at eighteen and the other with the woman who is now my wife, brought frequent prayers for moral strength. I was a virgin when I married, but I suspect that had Polly and I waited much longer, we would have rounded third and slid into home. I can remember to this day, kneeling before God, still sexually aroused, and thanking him for keeping me from fornication. I know now, of course, that what kept me from sexual sin was religious indoctrination, threats of judgment and Hell, and fear.
I was also taught the importance of praying before every meal. As a child, I prayed:
God is great, God is good.
Let us thank him for our food.
In Jesus’ name,
On more than a few occasions growing up, I started eating before the prescribed prayer was uttered. This would usually elicit a stern warning from my mom:
Mom: Did you pray for your food?
Bruce: Uh — mouth filled with food — I forgot.
Mom: You better pray right now lest God chokes you.
Bruce: (Who had never seen a non-prayer choked by God) bows his head and silently mouths a prayer of thankfulness to God.
I had drilled into my head by my mom and pastors that God gave me food to eat, and that if I wanted to continue eating beans and wieners or chipped chopped ham/gravy over toast, I better thank God for meeting my sustenance needs. This training stuck with me, and I continued to pray over meals until I was almost fifty years old.
Several years ago, we visited Polly’s Fundamentalist Christian parents. (Both of them have died over the past three years.) Polly’s dad was a retired Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) pastor. Mom was an excellent cake maker, and she had made a double-chocolate cake for us and my oldest son and his children, and my youngest son and his fiancée, who accompanied us. As we were preparing to eat the cake, my father-in-law said to my oldest son, “Are you going to pray for the cake?” We all sat there stunned, not knowing what to do. You see, desserts were never prayed over. Never made sense to me why we prayed for the pot roast, carrots, and potatoes, but never for dessert. My son quickly avoided the prayer question, and Dad decided to go ahead without it. Crisis averted. When Polly and I left Christianity, Dad would frequently ask me or one of my oldest two sons to pray for the food. Such requests were quietly and respectfully rebuffed with a “Why don’t you pray, Dad/Papaw?” Certainly, Polly and I don’t prevent anyone from praying at our table as long as they do it silently. God hears silent prayers, does he not? Yeah, I know, not really, but from an Evangelical perspective, he does. Want to pray for your food at atheist Nana and Grandpa’s table? Bow your head and silently shoot a prayer to Jesus. That’s all that matters right? If not, it would seem, at least to me, that meal prayers — especially in public settings — are meant to be statements instead of acts of piety and devotion.
These days, I am with Jimmy Stewart when it comes to praying for our food:
What were your praying experiences as a child? Did you pray over your food? Always, or did you make exceptions? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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