Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Endangered Language of Prayer

Last month the Bo language died. Boa Sr, the last member of a 65,000-year-old tribe died and took the world's oldest language with her. She was about 85 years old and the last native of the Andaman Islands. Her native language is thought to date back to pre-Neolithic times. Professor Anvita Abbi, a linguist who knew Boa, said the tribeswoman was very lonely in recent years since the death of her husband. She had no one to converse with.

Sometimes I feel like the Lord's Prayer is becoming an extinct language. I have noticed over the years that less and less people can recite the Lord's Prayer. I always include it in funerals that I perform. I invite the congregation to pray along with me, whether it is in a church, at a funeral home or at the graveside.

There has always been some hesitancy among people in certain parts of the prayer. "Should I say trespasses or debts?"  For years I have told people beforehand to use the Baptist version - debtors, rather than trespasses. Not that I have anything against trespassing. It is just so we would all be on the same page. And you have to admit that debts seem to be more relevant these days. Still there were the diehard trespassers.

I also notice that some people omit the ending of the prayer: "For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever." The Catholics and the Protestants disagree here - not theologically, just liturgically. Some people also add an extra "and ever" at the end. I guess that is for those who believe that forever is not long enough.

But now I notice an awkward silence during the whole prayer. The old folks still pray confidently, but the young folks don't seem to know what is going on. It is like their elders are speaking a foreign language. Most of them never learned the Lord's Prayer.

If you visit contemporary worship services today, there is no recitation of this famous prayer. The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples is no longer taught. I guess Jesus' prayer is too uncontemporary. Plus there are many young people who have hardly ever set foot inside any church. So Jesus' 2000 year-old prayer language is dying out, like the Bo language.

Too bad. I can't use my Lord's Prayer jokes any more. The jokes always were about children who misunderstood the words. "Our Father, who are in Heaven, Howard be thy name." "Our Father, who art in Heaven, how didja know my name?" "Give us this day our jelly bread." "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from E-mail." If people don't know the right words, the wrong words aren't so funny.

But the extinction of the Lord's Prayer is no laughing matter. When Jesus says, "This, then, is how you should pray," we should take his following instructions seriously. It may not be intended to be a ritualistic recitation, but it certainly is a good model for young folks and old folks alike. So let's pray together, "Our Father who art in heaven...."

Photo is of Boa Sr, who died last month, aged about 85, the last native of the Andaman Islands who was fluent in Bo.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps the problem isn't in losing the "language," but the meaning behind it.

    The first church I ever joined (at the age of 18, so I wasn't "raised in church") recited the Lord's Prayer. If memory serves it was the Matthew version ("debts" + "For thine") as opposed to the Luke version ("trespasses" & truncated). There was no heart to the prayer at all; it was mere "vain repetition" (Matthew 6:7).

    The "language of prayer" that has been lost in too many churches today, in my opinion, isn't the mere recitation of someone else's prayer, even a model prayer. The real language of prayer is two-way conversation with God. For me, at least, that doesn't come from reading what someone else wrote; that comes off, to me, more like a ritual incantation than a prayer. (I've got a light family history of what I would now call "witchcraft.")