Caring for Words: Pray

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The Spectrum blog book club is discussing Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans 2009), by Marilyn McEntyre, professor of medical humanities at UC Davis and the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. Our book club discussion runs from March through the end of May, with a week devoted to each of the chapters. A different writer is scheduled to introduce each chapter, and we invite you to join in the discussion. - Scott Moncrieff

I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know a prayer. Growing up in the church, I went to Sabbath School every week and Bible class Monday through Friday from age five onwards. And I learned a prayer for every occasion. Scripted prayers that never varied, before meals and before bedtime. The long prayers in church, listening not to the words but to the cadences. The prayers I haltingly learned myself, prayers for when I was angry or upset and when I was happy and thankful. I learned to pray as I learned to speak, as I learned songs and nursery rhymes. And the prayers I said as I child still rattle around in my head sometimes, snatches of lines I said over and over until the meaning wore away and only the sounds and the ritual were left.

In spite of this litany – or perhaps because of it – the concept of prayer has always been something I struggle with. More often than I care to admit, the thought of talking to God, something I know I should be joyous about, instead makes me feel anxious and inadequate. I know the prayers from my childhood so well that I can say them without paying attention, and it scares me to think that I can go through the motions without any meaning behind what I say. And when it comes to forming new prayers, I worry that what I say isn’t good enough. It’s too trivial, or too demanding; I put on airs, or I’m too disrespectful. At the heart of my worry is the fear that I’m simply just praying wrong, that I’m misusing one of the greatest gifts I’ve been given, that I’m mistreating the dearest friend I will know.

I was happy, therefore, to see Marilyn McEntyre turn her attention to prayer in this penultimate chapter. One of the things I’ve loved throughout the chapters is McEntyre’s attention to words themselves, and both the joy and the responsibility that comes with holding words to such a high standard. By connecting loving words to the act of prayer, I’m able to address both of my anxieties about prayer – I can remember both why it’s important and why it brings me joy. I particularly enjoyed the chapter’s repeated parallels to poetry. In a poem, every word matters. This density of language constantly refreshes the meaning of the poem, so that the poem never becomes worn out. This kind of framework applies well to the prayers I’ve learned throughout my life – simple words that contain multitudes of meaning, and meanings too complex to fade away into mere sound. Ultimately, caring for words allows us a chance to revisit the ways we care for, understand, and approach prayer. But, as the chapter reminds us, caring for words and caring for prayer does not mean developing the perfect prayer. It means using our words to do the best that we can, and letting God fill in the spaces where we may fall short.

Catherine Tetz is an alumna of Andrews University, where she studied Music and English. She begins a doctoral program in English Literature at Miami University this fall.

Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies: Schedule Planner

February 24 Why Worry About Words?Scott Moncrieff, Andrews UniversityMarch 3 Strategy 1: Love WordsBrooke Holland, Collegedale AcademyMarch 10 Strategy 2: Tell the TruthBeverly Matiko, Andrews UniversityMarch 17 Strategy 3: Don’t Tolerate LiesBeverly Matiko, Andrews UniversityMarch 24 Strategy 4: Read WellKellie Bond, Walla Walla UniversityMarch 31 Strategy 5: Stay in ConversationMary Christian, Indiana UniversityApril 7 Strategy 6: Share StoriesJeanette Bryson, Andrews UniversityApril 14 Strategy 7: Love the Long SentenceEmily McArthur deCarvalho, University of California, RiversideApril 21 Strategy 8: Practice PoetryCraig van Rooyen, San Luis Obispo, CaliforniaApril 28 Strategy 9: Attend to TranslationSarah Fusté, Berrien Springs, MichiganMay 5 Strategy 10: PlayJustina Clayburn, Andrews UniversityMay 12 Strategy 11: PrayCatherine TetzMay 19 Strategy 12: Cherish SilenceKristin Denslow, University of Florida

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at