The Sound of Asthmatic Children
When I was a kid, I had exercise-induced-asthma. Yes, in point of fact I was pretty nerdy, but that’s beside the point. Any time I would do much running/exercising – which is to say, anytime I acted like an eight-year-old boy – I would eventually have to stop to catch my breath, thereupon to be incapacitated by a severe fit of coughing, wheezing, and breathlessness. As you’d expect from a little boy, I didn’t necessarily let this stop me from playing, but there are two things about the wheezing results of that playing that I’ll always remember. The first is the look other kids’ parents would give me when they heard my coughing and gasping for air; I definitely sounded like I had tuberculosis, but interestingly enough, nobody ever kept their kid away from me. They just gave me the stinkeye while quietly hoping I wasn’t killing their spawn with whatever infectious plague had me coughing. (and for the record, even at that tender age I wasn’t above wishing I could get somebody sick to get back at those stink-eyed parents. And you thought I kept forgetting to cover my mouth, right mom?)
The second thing I remember, of course, was the way my voice would sound when I was trying to talk in spite of my asthma. I can’t perfectly reproduce it for you anymore, of course – puberty lowered my voice too much, and I have too much pride to fake it and upload an mp3 here – but I do know where you can here the sound of an asthmatic eight-year-old boy breathlessly trying to talk: just listen to people praying at your local evangelical church.
If you’ve ever heard a group of evangelicals praying in public, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Too many evangelicals (perhaps as many as half) use a kind of breathless, high-pitched voice when they pray. Understand me: I’m not against people who sound naturally like asthmatic children. What I am against is prayers launched in a special airy voice adopted as a show of breathless reverence before God’s awesome presence.
This may sound a little petulant, but hear me out. I find it annoying to the point of distraction when a prayer gets wheezed out in a voice that seems so disingenuous. Is that what you want? Are you OK with ruining my prayer time – and maybe that of others – by exploiting my immaturity and lack of focus? If not, then your consideration for me should force you to drop the affectation.
With that said, I don’t think I am wrong, and my objections aren’t merely down to petulance or immaturity (this time!). After all, if prayer should be anything, it should be sincere. But I don’t think there’s any special sincerity to prayer voices. Assuming you are sincere when you tell your spouse you love him/her, do you do it in your prayer voice? If not, doesn’t that raise questions? I’m gonna go ahead and say most people don’t actually have a special “I’m sincere” voice; so why should we have one for God?
Another argument would say that the prayer voice is more a matter of reverence than special sincerity. Scrutiny kills this objection too; there’s probably no person more revered than the President of the United States (at least for those of you reading this in the U.S.), and in last week’s town hall debate, I didn’t hear any questions asked in prayer voices. That’s because in our culture, we speak to those whom we revere by speaking loudly and clearly. And while you might object that God is no mere person, there’s no logical reason to buy an argument that our culture finds communication more reverent when it sounds more asthmatic and childlike. If anything, that notion is so weird as to be uniquely irreverent.
A more telling point, however, is the question of whether or not people use their prayer voices when they’re alone and talking to God. It’s possible some might, but I have (breathless and sincere) serious doubts about that. If you pray to God in a different voice in public than you do in private, we have to assume you’re putting on a show – presumably for the other people present. And I’m pretty confident that praying to God is not the time to put on a show to impress your peers (Elijah-on-Mount-Carmel-style tests excepted). So if this is you, drop the prayer voice.
There’s one final reason to drop the prayer voice that I think trumps the above, however. It’s this: when we interact with our creator, it seems a little presumptuous to think we can/should improve on the voice He’s given us. Think about it. The voice you have is precisely the one God wanted you to have, and it’s precisely the one God gave you. Shouldn’t He get to hear it talking to Him? Prayer voices deny Him that pleasure.
As you can tell, this is a part of Evangelical Culture that makes me c-r-a-z-y. It’s bizarre, it’s impossible to explain to outsiders (or anyone else, for that matter), and it should probably stop.