Family Prayers

My husband and I were recently at a reunion for my mother’s family.  Politically and culturally, I think you’d call us outliers on the edges of this large, mostly Midwestern, politically conservative and highly religious family.  They’re almost all good people, but we don’t always agree.  Still, they’re my family.

I behaved myself for the most part, except for my innocent inquiry about, exactly, how much Obama carried Oklahoma by in the 2008 election.  I watched my second cousin’s husband’s eyes bulge out in horror, before he told me not one county in Oklahoma had voted for Obama.  “Oklahomans are too smart for that,” he said.

Aside from the squirming discomfort of getting cornered by another cousin-in-law about the moral depravity (his words) of the modern world, I sailed through it all pretty smoothly.  Women are, after all, the supreme smoothers-over in any gathering, especially when it includes blood relations.

Not so my husband.  He started to complain to me, first a little, then a lot, about the continuing barrage of prayers and repeated mention of Jesus’ name before meals.  “Not everybody here is religious,” he grumbled.  “You should see what happens during all those prayers.  Half the people don’t even close their eyes.”

Oh, God.  Or do I mean, oh, god?

“It’s a family tradition,” I said weakly.

“Yeah, big deal,” he said.  “I think we need to take a stand.”

Another one of those big-deal first-person plural events.  We weren’t going to do anything, I knew.  No way was I going to take this religious issue on in a family setting; politics was as far as I’d go.  It wouldn’t be us; it would be him or no one.  I should have known no one wasn’t an option.

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something,” I heard my husband say to my uncle at breakfast the second day.  I stayed perfectly still, listening, the same way I’m mesmerized and immobilized by train wrecks.  (On the whole, I’m a low-profile non-believer.  My husband, on the other hand, has announced he’s tired of being unduly polite about other people’s beliefs when they aren’t respectful of his.)

So, I listened, in some amazement, to the ensuing conversation.  I wouldn’t call it a train wreck.  I’d call it an uneasy meeting of two different worlds between two people who like each other — but fundamentally disagree on something pretty damned fundamental.

“You’d better hope you’re right about this,” I heard my uncle say.  That thought — the implied threat of eternal damnation — made me realize how long and far I’d drifted from the religious world of my childhood.

Still, the talk was respectful and cordial.  My husband went on to say that, beyond the obvious, the religious and non-religious share a number of the same beliefs about love and the importance of family.

He was right to bring it up, I finally concluded.  This family, once straitlaced and narrow, had expanded to include cousins who had divorced, who had converted to other religions, who had gone different ways, had even moved to California, had proudly voted for Obama against the forces of ignorance.

So we aren’t religious?  My husband was right.  We believe in a lot of good things — including family.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

13 comments… add one
  • Cindy A Link

    Not sure we can do much about mandated prayer at family reunions as long as so many school and other public venues force it upon us. I say pray all you want, but why do I have to do it with you? Does your god hear you only when there are witnesses?

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Think Jesus was pretty clear on that one: Go into the closet to pray, unlike the pharisees.

  • Obviously we are both married to men who like to stir the pot whenever possible, especially amongst their in-laws. Mine once sent a mass e-mail reply to my family and their various friends/relatives, announcing that unlike the original mass-emailer, WE think gay rights are a fine idea. His volley was met with deafening silence, except from one sister-in-law who told us it was great to have someone in the family who actually agreed with her, and one nephew who observed that he would sure like to be a fly on the wall at our next holiday dinner table.

  • Julie Link

    Loved this entry! My husband and I have these SAME conversations about nearly every family gathering. We’re blue in a red family, the heathens among the church-goers. It’s nice to hear your thoughts on the matter!

  • Chris Link

    I tell my husband’s relatives that every family needs at least one liberal (I call myself a flaming heterosexual tree hugging atheist), and I’m theirs.  They utter an extremely weak laugh and probably pray for an annulment.
    He toes the party line and I’ve learned to keep my views to myself.  It’s getting to the point that the idea of staying home for this year’s holidays and letting him visit them alone is very attractive.  I have family of my own I can visit.

  • I admire your husband’s tact in taking on this subject. I am still trying to figure out a nice way to tell my youngest daughter, who is a converted Catholic, that I will not longer hold hands at the table and pray before family meals at her house.

  • Oh, your man is a brave one. He is. To take on your relatives like that.

  • Ruth-
    Love your post. You are so right. Tough being the square peg in a round hole. But I loved your definition “low-profile, non-believer.” Perfect. i often say that I have no beliefs based on religion. And, that’s the truth. You go girl!

  • A subject dear to my heart. I think I love your husband.

  • Steve Link

    For me (liberal politically and theologically but an unabashed believer) the holding of hands around a table during a prayer is more about connecting with those at table than it is about connecting with the Almighty. If there are nonbelivers at my table, I still covet those moments of a gentle yet powerful connection. (Of the men I work with in prison, almost none of them grew up experiencing a gentle touch, and it’s missing from a lot of our lives in the free world.) At my table, whether one doesn’t bow or close eyes or pretend to pray or pretend to not pray or affirmatively and directly decline to participate doesn’t matter to me, but that brief moment I want to feel connected. It would be odd to do it without a prayer, but I could do that. The point is that there is more going on at that moment than thanking or acknowledging God. I wouldn’t want those at my table to feel excluded (or feel included against their will); rather I want them to feel welcome, and I want to feel connected with them. One approach I use is to offer a personal rather than collective prayer, perhaps even a silent prayer.

  • Cindy A Link

    No matter where you do it, whether it’s in a captive prison sort of situation or at a high school football game, public prayer has a tendency of identifying those of us who are of different faiths, or do not adhere to one in particular, or have no faith at all. I admire my friends who hold their heads up high and are not ashamed that they do not follow the same path as the majority of the others. I myself slightly bow because I do not want to shame my husband and children. I do not close my eyes and I do not pray, but I bow to the recognition that the majority is forcing its will upon me. In America, land of all faiths, I should not be placed in that situation in public venues.

  • Great topic. My 87 year old mother-in-law is deeply religious, having been raised by a minister and then marrying one. My husband, an agnostic, still takes her to church because it means so much to her and would hurt her too much at her age to believe he’s agnostic. I understand why he does it even though I know it’s hard for him.

  • Viv Link

    I really enjoyed reading this and everyone’s comments – did make me laugh!
    I was raised very religiously and although, since adulthood,I do not attend church, or even praise the lord for my food or hold hands around a table – I do believe in God.
    I don’t feel I need to publicly show that I believe in God – If God is who I believe this almighty being to be would only need to look into my heart to know this. I am a free and natural believer and thankfully believe I have the understanding to know the Good from the Bad and live my life by this. – I know I would get this awful feeling if I do something I shouldn’t! and know in my heart of hearts what is right and what is wrong.
    I actually ‘Googled’ A pray for a family reunion! – because I have been invited to one and I think most of the family (who don’t get on with eachother will be reunited in a fairly small environment – altogether, under one roof!) Despite a close cousin telling me that she has cleared out the Garden shed for those who misbehave – I fail to see how we will all fit in! or come out of this unscathed
    So those of you who pubicly pray or those of you wishing to try maybe you could mention my family in it for ‘our family reunion’ – although listening to my heart of hearts I don’t feel it is the right thing, and really don’t wish to attend.
    God bless x

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