The [Missed] Opportunity

Continuing with our unofficial guest-palooza this week, BCC is pleased to have this guest post from frequent commenter Chris Gordon.

A few years back, Kristine related George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” to some of the linguistic traps we can fall into within the church. Along the same vein, I’d like to suggest that some of those very trappings can, if we’re not careful, cause us to miss an opportunity for better communion with the Spirit and greater shared experience in prayer and testimony.  Consider the following phrases, oft heard in prayer and testimony:

“We’re grateful for the opportunity to be here today; and we’re grateful for the opportunity to hear the speakers and for the opportunity to take the sacrament. Please bless those who didn’t have the opportunity to be here today.”


I’m willing to entertain the idea that there may be a doctrinal truth behind the over-use of “the opportunity” and other such phrases in prayer and testimony. In the case of “the opportunity,” perhaps it’s some kind of subconscious assertion that the only thing God really gives us are “opportunities” to exercise our agency. That might be giving most of us too much credit, but there might be a lesson or talk with that as a premise if given the opportunity.

Most likely, we’re just using filler words, perhaps as a way of avoiding silence as we collect our thoughts and decide what to offer. Just as likely, we’re not thinking much about it as all and are merely speaking tribally (what Kristine/Orwell refer to as “Meaningless Words), using ‘Mormon words and phrases’ that are a part of our culture.

Neither explanation need inherently be a negative one, but contrast the “opportunity”-filled version with a more direct one:

“We’re grateful to be here to day and for the speakers. We’re grateful that we can take the sacrament. Please be with those who aren’t here today.”

Even better, consider the last time you heard an investigator or a recent convert offer a prayer or share their testimony. It’s always impactful to hear that sincerity (and yes, anxiety) come out unaffected by “prayer voice” or Mormon phraseology.

Unfettered by any words and phrases that realistically don’t add much meaning or clarity to the thought, the simple words and phrases transform in at least two ways: 1) The meaning of the statement itself is clearer; and 2) The speaker gives more room for the individuals participating passively to actively contribute their own thoughts and feelings within themselves.

By resorting to habitual/tribal phrasing, tone, and wording, we miss an opportunity to really personalize our interaction with God and share something meaningful with a group that we’re leading in prayer or with whom we’re sharing testimony. Were we to eliminate “the opportunity to” and re-think how we’d have to phrase even our standard, un-vain repetitions, the difference would be subtle yet drastic.

In my own experience, some of my more meaningful personal prayers have come when I’ve reduced my more formal tone to something that I’m sure (to some) would border on the irreverent. Now, I’m not suggesting that such a tone would necessarily be appropriate in a public setting, and it’s probably time for my personal pendulum to swing back towards the reverent with my newly rediscovered friendship with Heavenly Father, but a middle ground between casual and formal extremes may be more beneficial.

Perhaps best of all, this simpler language doesn’t exclude anyone: Everyone is capable of meaningful, heartfelt prayer sans “Mormon style” language. Investigators, new converts, children, the shy, and the veteran alike can and should feel comfortable finding ways to “just talk” with a Father who misses us and is so pleased at our efforts to connect.

Comments

  1. StillConfused says:

    Why do Mormons pray in Elizabethan English?

  2. john willis says:

    There is the old story about prisioners holding a church service where the person who gave the invocation and asked “that all who aren’t here today will be here next week”

  3. I’ve always thought it would be touching so someone to sing a sincere prayer from the heart over the pulpit. Something along the lines of a quiet…. ” Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven, to earth come down, fix in us thy humble dwelling, all thy faithful mercies crown. Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art; visit us with thy salvation, enter every trembling heart.”

  4. StillConfused–because we’re not righteous enough to pray in Middle English.

  5. NoCoolName_Tom says:

    Hwæt!

  6. When my son was on his mission in Japan, a new convert got in in Sacrament meeting to bear his testimony and did the entire thing in rap. He said it was the best testimony he ever heard.

  7. The Other Brother Jones says:

    I remember on my mission, a new convert got up to pray on Fathers’ Day and said, Heavenly Father……Happy Fathers Day” Some gasped but I thought it was great!

  8. My brother has got to be one of the worst offenders in the church. Particularly with the “opportunity to” phrase. And sometimes it kinda drives me nuts.

    But…

    It was not until after his mission that I ever heard this brother speak in public without stuttering noticeably.

    I’m fairly certain that for my brother (and I wonder for how many others?) these worn-out Mormon catchphrases are actually functional. They provide something to cling to as he struggles with expression. It was on his mission that my brother, like so many others, learned “Mormonspeak.” And he embraced it completely, grasping it not so much as a crutch as a lifeline. Now as he slowly, deliberately spins out his thoughts, every verbal tic is amplified. When he begins a discourse (it’s never just a quick comment), I’m ashamed to admit that I sometimes squirm with impatience or embarrassment. But if I can find it in my heart to listen more charitably, I often find that among all the wordiness, I glimpse the essence of a thought which stuns me with its perspective and intelligence.

    When I was in graduate school, one of my fellow English instructors wrote a paper defending beginning writers’ (i.e., our freshmen students’) use of cliches. He acknowledged that from our oh-so-lofty pinnacle (4-6 years more schooling!) their narrative tropes seemed lazy. But, he argued, for many of them the mere effort at personal expression was forging new mental territory. We would be better teachers if we read with eyes that were less condescending. Of course we should aim to push new boundaries, but we need not discount their current mental maps.

    So yes, I am all for rigorous self-analysis (in the spirit of Mosiah 4:30). I find almost nothing so enlightening as working to make my own expression as exact as possible. But after too many years of ill-conceived criticism aimed at “fixing” my brother, I am certain of one thing: It is counterproductive for me to draw attention to his speech habits (if only because — as we all learned from The King’s Speech — self-consciousness creates a downward-spiral for the stammerer).

  9. One other thought: The last paragraph of the OP suggests that simple language can be the simplest to perform. My experience with my brother often suggests otherwise.

    Still, that doesn’t discount the value of simplicity. As the OP explains, the extra work required to distill a thought can be valuable. Intellectual fashion today favors succinctness, and I have no quarrel with that. But in our quest for clarity, let us be careful to not judge a thought by the skill of its speaker. For whatever reason, many struggle to obtain the pithiness that comes easily to others.

  10. I recently posted the first Sacrament Meeting talk given by a convert of 2-1/2 years. It was well-organized and had a point, which made it stand out from the typical talk, but what made it over-the-top wonderful, and what was commented on in various ways by readers, was its sincerity and freshness and directness, and the complete absence of almost meaningless “Mormon speak.” So, yeah, I agree with you absolutely on the “subtle yet drastic” difference this can make.

    Am guessing that what might make it difficult for most of us to implement would be general unawareness of the problem; laziness; comfort with the familiar; fear of being different; and most of all, never having actually even thought about the ideas behind the words that would make the prayers and talks sincere.

  11. None of this explains why GAs speak and pray in Mormonspeak at GC. Do they also need a ‘map’?

  12. Thomas Parkin says:

    This is A-plus. A – double plus.

    I have felt my – I don’t want to overstate, but here goes – purpose, since coming back to the church, has been to strip my gospel living of meaningless mormonisms and ‘suck the marrow’ straight from the, uh, bone marrow of the matter. It had to be at least as real as punk rock, for me. I knew that I could not live on the surface of it. Not that I don’t give a nod to the culture. I wear a white shirt and tie, for instance. But I try very hard not to mistake the surface for the potentially beating heart. I don’t mean emotionality. Whatever it is, emotion, thought, behavior, it has to come from a place where God can work on it. It has to be a product of deep and uncompromising reflection on myself and the matter at hand – what we call pondering, the Mormon form of meditation, another word to be restored. God doesn’t work on our facades, except to shake us loose from them. (A few years ago he turned me upside down and shook me till all the money fell out of my pockets. I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible.)

  13. As a mother of a child with a language learning disability, I am also far less judgmental than I used to be. I push my kids to be good public speakers, but each of them needs to learn something different. My oldest child wrote a research paper that included the sentence “Of course, that never ends well.” She perhaps needs to learn a touch of formality and church is a great way to learn some formality in public speaking. She could also learn to smile while talking but her nerves prevent it.
    My son is completely completely comfortable talking in front of a group…..he is used to having to work so hard to speak that the public nature of it actually doesn’t make it more stressful for him. He uses filler words “well,……” to help collect his thoughts. He has an amazing vocabulary but often uses a big word that means the same thing but feels awkward to other people.
    People do have mental maps. They don’t think of each word individually, they think in phrases. Since my son has to work harder to create those maps and takes longer to find them in his mind when he needs them, he is more likely to use the wrong one or use it slightly wrong.
    I myself am slow at word finding. Like the OP, I don’t want to use tired old phrases, but that means that listeners sometimes have to put up with pauses as I have to create sentences from scratch. Testimonies are my weakest way to communicate in church. Lessons and talks are prepared so I get to prepare my phrases. Comments in lessons are short bursts focused on one thought. Testimonies, however, need more than one thought. Even prayers, though short, seem too short if only one thought is expressed so they feel sparse and awkward since I don’t lapse into tired old Mormonspeak phrases.

  14. Thank you. Good application of this is excellent advice. It probably would not have been helpful to me many years ago, but at the same time would have cured some bad habits that makes this a nice find today.

  15. Bob’s question is one that I also wonder about with some intensity for a weekend each October and April.

  16. Kyle M,
    I think that GAs have their own language that comes from excess hanging-around with other GAs. Call it presidering overdose, if you want. Basically, they become so used to a) needing to set an example and b) praying around other GAs that they begin to think that Mormonspeak is normal.

    We must tear down these walls.

  17. Scotty, it should start with a Twitter account for President Uchtdorf…besides being ridiculously awesome, Twitter’s character limits would force them (and us) out of Mormonspeak.

  18. I dropped the thees and thines and so forth from my private prayers years ago. Recently, I’ve decided to drop them from my public prayers as well.

    The effect has been two-fold:
    (1) I feel more sincere when I pray and thus have more positive and spiritual experiences in prayer, and (2) get asked to pray in Church less often.

    I think either of those outcomes is more than enough to justify my decision. Sweet vindication. I highly recommend it.

  19. Observer fka eric s says:

    @12 – standard shakespeare’s sister reference. I grateful for the opportunity you had to insert it.

  20. This is a good and important discussion. Bob, no. 11, I don’t see General Conference prayers as suffering from the same banality or lack of sincerity of our typical Sacrament meeting prayers. I don’t think that “mormonspeak” is the problem. The problem is lack of passion and devotion.

    A General Conference prayer offers a chance for a GA to give an unscripted, heartfelt expression of deep desire, and I always feel like there is usually a powerful and humble spirit there, even if it is in Mormonspeak.

    Not so with Sacrament Meeting prayers. Few go up to the pulpit in Sacrament Meeting with the same kind of deep devotional feeling a General Authority would have, giving a prayer in front of millions of viewers. We often don’t take it seriously enough, just going through the motions. Instead, we might imagine what a true prayer really might be: to prostrate ourselves on behalf of the congregation before the cross of Christ in sackcloth and ashes, appealing in a very real way, for the grace of heaven to touch and heal our hearts and souls, (or something of the sort, with similar feeling.)

    If we truly comprehended what it means to speak directly to God, our prayers would be different, whether they were in Mormonspeak or not.

    I hear the best prayers in Sacrament Meeting from converts. They haven’t yet learned that Sacrament Meeting for most is a routine devoid of passion and devotion. They are passionate about worship, and their love of worship shines through in their prayers.

  21. Sometimes sacrament meeting prayers are spoken as if running down through a mental check-list.
    An example of a closing prayer:
    * Thankful for the day/this meeting etc. Check
    * Please bless those who are not here this week to be here next week. Check
    * Allow us to travel home in safety. Check
    Inthenameofjesuschristamen

    Regarding the line “Please bless those who are not here this week to be here next week” (or similar). Is this one of the most meaningless lines in a public prayer? What do you expect to happen? Heavenly messengers to appear and bring them to church next week?
    Better to ask something like, “Please allow us to be instruments to help bring other souls unto Christ and help those in need”. At least that might compel some people to do their home and visiting teaching.
    Rant over.

  22. There’s a delicate balance here between affirming membership in a community (by adopting certain language norms) and the _vitality_ (for lack of a better word) of our speaking. Everytime we open our mouths, we will be balancing these needs, among other demands placed on our speaking. I think it’s okay to use formulae at times and to break formulae at other times. These choices depend on myriad contexts, including personal and institutional relationships, spiritual feelings, among others. It’s worth not being dogmatic or unyielding on either end.

  23. On seeing comment #5, I realized that Little John (at least as portrayed by Dave Chappelle) was speaking Middle English all along.

  24. Extemporaneous public speaking is hard. It should be no surprise that most people aren’t good at it and resort to boilerplate when called upon to perform.

  25. @12, Thomas: amen. Thanks for the comments about not just living on the surface of our religion.
    @21, ldsbishop…sounds suspiciously similar to something that Elder Bednar said in the Reading Stake Conference just last weekend. He essentially called out everyone who prayed as objects rather than agents, citing the “please bless those who aren’t here this week…” example you used. I approved.

    While I agree that it can be useful to have some sort of template for formal or public speaking – or public praying, for that matter – we should, where possible, feel free to put our own spin on things and loosen up the options available in diction in order to better access the Spirit. Granted, if we take the example of the Sacrament prayers, practise is that those words have to be spot-on identical each time. In that case, the key is to think about what you’re saying rather than mindlessly rattling it off. Sure, there could be more chance that you stumble and get asked to start over again, but if the speaker gives no thought to what the words mean (which is evident to some extent by the cadence they adopt to recite the prayer), then it’s harder for the listeners to grasp the words’ meaning either.

    Anyway, all that is to say that I approve of the idea to move away from “Mormonspeak” in our Sacrament talks and public prayers. Though I think it works like e.e. cummings or other authors and certain rules of grammar/punctuation: you have to at least learn the rules first in order to learn how you can break them without confusing people. My favourite moment of someone making a wild departure from the usual Mormon diction in a prayer at church was our Bishop’s wife in the ward where I grew up actually sincerely using the phrase, “hallowed be Thy name” after calling on Heavenly Father to open her prayer. I’d never heard anyone seriously use that phrase in a prayer at church (I haven’t heard it since, either) and have always wanted to try it, but refrained since it always feels a bit artificial for *me* to say, though I was really touched when *she* did it. Just some anecdotal evidence that it could be incredibly inspiring for us to break in some more of our individual turns of phrase and habits when praying in public…even if it’s only a tiny departure from the norm.

  26. I taught at the MTC for a few years. When the new missionaries would first start teaching and come to a point where they wanted/needed to bear testimony, it would often go like this: “I’d like to bear my testimony. I know the church is true . . .” In addition to letting them know a testimony did not have to start with “I’d like to bear my testimony,” we would talk about context and how another mormon might know what you meant by “the church is true” but someone else might not. I’d ask them what they meant by the phrase. There would usually be a few moments of silence before they would start explaining that this is the true church of Christ, led by a prophet, etc., etc. I would then suggest that they share those things when it came time to testify. I remember those being powerful conversations. The missionaries who I saw testify this way seemed to speak with so much more clarity and power and confidence. In short, I’m all for mixing things up and moving away from the Mormonspeak, if for no other reason than it causes the speaker to consider more carefully what s/he means and what s/he intends to convey to the audience.

  27. As we were leaving for a drive into the city this week, my husband said he’d like to offer a prayer. In the prayer he referred to other drivers as “motorists.” I had to stifle a laugh. He would never use that word except in a prayer. It’s right up there with “nourish and strengthen” and “moisture we’ve received.”

  28. Chris Gordon says:

    Thanks for the comments, all, on my post.

    Julie, I especially appreciated the points you raised that elements of Mormon speech can be used as an aid for those for whom speaking fluidly might be a particular challenge. I hadn’t thought of them being functional. Like a crutch, there are those who need that form of speech to help them stand tall. The hope is that they’d be able to lay the crutch aside at some point, but that may not be the case.

  29. My 3 year old son has picked up on the “opportunity” thing. He has no idea what an opportunity is, but knows that it is a “prayer word” and if someone says it in regular conversation he’ll interrupt (sometimes from another room) and yell, “You said OPPORTUNITY!” At which point the opportunity offender is baffled and I’m laughing out loud.

  30. Because . . . they do not learn this one lesson—that Strunk & White were right: “Omit needless words.”

    And I think Peter LLC is right–most of us aren’t very good extemporaneous speakers. When we write, however, we should be able to avoid barbarisms like “impactful.” Ugh!

  31. #30: Mark,
    How many “extemporaneous” speakers have you heard in church? I agree, you can be caught cold for a prayer. But with prepared talks, maybe having someone go over the notes with the speaker before they take the stand would be helpful?

  32. I like Kyle M’s Twitter idea. It is actually ridiculously awesome.

  33. Sharee Hughes says:

    When I graduated from what is now BYU-Hawaii (I am old–it was Church College of Hawaii way back then), I had been asked to give one of the prayers at the graduation ceremony. I actually prepared my prayer in advance–I wrote a sonnet. It was a sincere prayer, even though carefully composed ahead of time, and was certainly devoid of “mormonspeak.” It was also short and to the point. But there is in my ward a man of limited mental capacity who ever fails to bear his testimony each fast Sunday. He walks up to the stand and says, “I want to bear my testimony. I know the church is true. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.” Sometmes he thanks the ward for providing him with meals (we Relief Society sisters have the “opportunity” of signing up to take meals to him 3 times a week). But his simple, trite phrases are no less heartfelt than are those of us who try to be “original” in our prayer/testimony phrasing. It is not our place to judge.

  34. Newly arrived in Italy as an expat family, we had the (American) missionaries over, and asked them to teach us to pray in Italian, which they did. It was only later that a (newer) member explained to me that in Italian, they wouldn’t really use the word “opportunità” in that context, but instead “possibilità.” Still, a lot of the members had picked up the direct translation of “opportunity” from the missionaries, and use the word in their testimonies and prayers, along with some other even weirder direct translations from Mormon English. I guess it’s just more proof of the fact that “the Church is the same wherever you go.” ;)

  35. If I ever teach EQ, I’m going to ask the perfunctory question of who had an opportunity to read the lesson that week. Then I’ll ask who actually read the lesson.

  36. On a cautionary note, we should avoid preaching in our prayers as well.

  37. Sharee Hughes says:

    This past Sunday, I listened very carefully to the prayers that were offered in all of the meetings. The only “Mormonspeak” I heard was from a elderly woman who offered he opening prayer in Relief Society. All of the other prayers were totaly original, from-the-heart expressions and used no trite phrases. One can excuse an old lady, I think, as no doubt her prayer was also from the heart, as are many others that use stock phrases. Sunday night I attended a fireside and the opening prayer was full of “mormonspeak,” but the closing prayer was not. We need to remember that what is important is what is in the heart of the person praying, not the words that are used.

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