Ask Anything: Why Don’t Presbyterians Kneel When We Pray?

When you pray do you:

-pray a prewritten prayer, like the Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 23?

-did you have to learn how to pray, or did you always know?

-do you follow a pattern or use a specific order?

-do you say whatever is on your mind?

-do you say anything? Or are you quiet?

-how do you situate yourself? Are you standing? Sitting? Lying down?

-when do you pray?

vendaprayersWhen I was in seminary, I knew people who used prayer wheels, people who prayed out of a book, people who believed the only true prayers were ones made of your own words, people who insisted that the ancient prayers of our faith were the ideal, and people who believed that the prayer that was pleasing to God was one offered in the holy tongue of angels.

I knew people who believed that prayer was something you could learn, like Spanish or Math, and advised others to take their handy four-week course in order to learn how to pray, and people who believed that prayer was a natural language, a spiritual gift beyond words and therefore beyond teaching.

What is true about prayer is that people have been doing it as long as there have been people. Whether you believe in one god or many, or simply in the ingenuity of the human spirit, it would seem that the human tendency is towards looking beyond what is, and speaking into the mystery of the universe in which we are guests.

And like anything important, prayer is one of those practices that humanity has spent a lot of time and effort arguing over how to do right.

Three preachers sat discussing the best positions for prayer while a telephone repairman worked nearby.

“Kneeling is definitely best,” claimed one.

“No,” another contended. “I get the best results standing with my hands outstretched to Heaven.”

“You’re both wrong,” the third insisted. “The most effective prayer position is lying prostrate, face down on the floor.”

The repairman could contain himself no longer. “Hey, fellas, ” he interrupted, “the best prayin’ I ever did was hangin’ upside down from a telephone pole.”

GPL-1Which gets me to our question today: one of you all was curious: why don’t Presbyterians kneel when we pray in church? It is a good question, one that I suppose could have as much to do with comparing our practice to other traditions as it might have to do with wondering whether there is a right or wrong way to pray in our tradition.

So let’s talk about it.

When the question was posed, I initially thought to myself that there very well may be an “argument against kneeling” in our history. I often hear kneeling referred to as a “catholic practice.” The reformed church, which had its beginnings nearly 500 years ago in Europe, spent many of the early years distancing itself from the Catholics, with whom they split. And like any disagreement, there were moments when the church went ugly, and spent its time arguing about why Catholics were wrong instead of wondering about how to be faithful to God.

So when I turned to John Calvin, the founding father of Presbyterianism, I will admit I expected to find some “anti-Catholicism” rear its ugly head. And instead I was pleasantly surprised.

Here is something we need to remember about our theological roots: one of the most important insights that John Calvin contributed to the church was the insight that we ought to let Scripture guide our practice. If the reformation had a slogan, then it was sola scripture, the idea that what mattered most about being Christian was fidelity to God’s Word, which required that we know it.

So when he gets to prayer, Calvin first turns to the Bible, and what it says on the subject. And according to John Calvin, the Bible is totally cool with kneeling, or raising your hands to the sky, for that matter. Our scripture this morning, at least, should be a reminder that there are at least as many ways to pray as there are people in scripture. The test of any prayer position, according to Calvin, is this: does it help you focus your attention on God? Does it bring us closer into communion with the One we have come to know as our Savior in Christ? Or does it draw attention to yourself?

Prayer: also known as conversation.
Prayer: also known as conversation.

Turns out the early church had no problem with what it called “ceremony” or exercises of piety, as long as it was used to deepen our relationship with God. Which meant that people were given the freedom to respond to God in the ways that seemed appropriate to them. Which also meant, for the most part, doing away with the requirement that a congregation kneel in prayer. If it brings you closer to Christ, he says, do it. If it doesn’t, don’t sweat it.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that other Presbyterians haven’t railed against practices like kneeling. The Scottish reformer John Knox famously preached a sermon before King Edward the 7th of England in which he stridently argued against kneeling during worship, especially before communion, because he worried that in kneeling the people might be tempted to worship the elements of bread and wine rather than the God who gave them in Christ.

All of this is to say that what is important to remember, I think, is that our history, our legacy as Presbyterians, leaves a lot of room for freedom in prayer. We may not have a whole lot of rules about how one ought to pray, but this should be an opportunity to allow for diversity and freedom in our prayer life, rather than uniformity. At any given time, anyone in this room could find themselves brought to their knees or moved to lift their hands, or faithfully to remain still in the presence of God. All of these responses are and can be faithful when they draw us closer to God.

Which leads me to the question that has been bugging me: if we are so big on freedom, and on the ability to choose your own way in prayer, why is it that we all feel so much pressure to conform to what the other people in the pews are doing?

I remember when I was in college I attended two different faith communities: a campus ministry, and my local Presbyterian church. At church, I would sometimes feel so moved by music, or in confession, that I felt compelled to get on my knees. Except. I was embarrassed about what other people might think about me. I was afraid of drawing attention to myself. So I didn’t. I sat motionless in my pew and struggled with the conflict between how I felt and how I was. And in campus ministry, everyone was always raising their hands and swaying to the music, which often made me feel pressure to do the same. I worried that if I didn’t, I might be missing out on something.

I know I am not alone. We all feel the pressure to conform to the “rules,” and in the absence of rules we make our own. I told myself that the rules dictated that I had to stay in my seat like everyone else. But in the process, I deprived my soul of an opportunity to draw closer to God in prayer. In both of these situations, it was easier to submit to community pressure than it was to follow my own sense of what practices might draw me closer to Christ.

So the question for us is this: what kind of church are we? Last week we shared our ideas about our dream church with one another, and one of the qualities that was mentioned over and over again was welcoming and inclusive. For many of you, the church at its best is a place where people from every kind of background can gather together as a community, as a family, and feel like they belong. And I am so proud to be the pastor of a place with dreams like that. Because that means that, if we live into our dream for ourselves, we should feel free to pray in whatever way feels honest. We should feel free to be ourselves in the presence of God and one another, without fear of breaking some unspoken rule.

In the words of Calvin: love will be the best judge of what may hurt or edify. If we let love be our guide, all will be safe.

Brothers and sisters, let us pray with love, and let us be a house of prayer, with hands raised, knees bowed, hearts inclined toward God, our Rock and our Refuge.

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