Jesus’ various teachings on how to pray, while not particularly obscure or difficult to translate as far as I can tell from the commentaries, vary considerably from version to version. Here Matthew 6:5-8 in the NIV: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. 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. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Okay, I think. Don’t pray standing up in church.
Um, so, when you’re told to stand, you just sit down and refuse to participate? It sounds like how I used to have to do with the Apostles’ Creed when they got to the harrowing of hell part. I couldn’t pray it forth if I didn’t believe it, and, no matter how hard the Presbyterian pastor tried to talk me into believing it, I couldn’t, since it’s not in the Bible, as far as I can tell. So I would always stop praying at that part, which embarrassed my daughters, who argued I was doing it to show off.
But then, Don’t pray in the street. Yay! One thing I do right. Or that is, that I don't do wrong. I've never once had the urge to pray in the street, though I did use to have the urge at Weightwatchers meetings. So much pain and struggle there. I was often overwhelmed with the thought that God needed to come down and be there for it. But I never prayed it out loud, thank God.
Pray in private. Check. Unusually in bed.
But then comes the tricky part: Get to the point! Don’t babble like a pagan! Oh. My. God. That is such a description of how I pray. I babble. Pointlessly. Exactly like some wacky pagan. The only part that’s to the point is that valediction: “Well, that’s all I have to say.”
In the same passage in the NRSV, Jesus counsels us not to “heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do.” That makes way more sense to me. Don’t use that same old empty, emptied words that we tend to resort to in these situations. Words that don’t make me think. That roll right past me without engaging my brain and heart.
As a kid, my husband Kris, whose family did not attend church, grew up reading the King James Version nightly with his parents and took to heart Jesus’ admonition in that translation, “when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” As a result, to this day, he kneels in our closet, in the dark, whenever he thinks I’m not around. There, I’m sure he painstakingly avoids the “vain repetitions” of “the heathen.” But he prays for things, that I'm sure of, even though he knows, as I do—as surely all who pray to our all-knowing Father do—that God already knows what we need before we ask.
But if that’s so, one might ask, what’s the point?