July 13, 2015

Postures of Prayer in Worship

Christians in Pakistan are living and influenced by two very strong religious traditions. There is an Islamic public piety that is very conservative and has strict liturgical movements during prayer. Then there are Hindu and Buddhist influences through the media and entertainment industry. Pakistani Christians’ postures of prayer are shaped by both traditions. However, embodied Christian prayer in a multicultural context is not only contextual but counter –cultural as well. Particularly when we talk about bodily gestures in Christian worship.  To understand Pakistani Christians then you need to have an understanding of the Hindu and Islamic context as well as scripture’s teaching. 

Hindu Prayer Postures

Hinduism has two hand postures during prayer that center on the two main body parts that are considered a point of contact with divine reality: Forehead Aadnaya Chakra and mid-chest level Anaahat Chakra are called the spiritual energy centre. Hindu women apply Kumkum/bindya in the middle of their forehead as an activation and transmission of spiritual power in their body. Most devout Hindus pray in these two hand postures toward heaven or in front of the temple or statues of gods or goddesses. The sitting posture is also very important during prayer. Devout Hindus and Buddhists sit on the floor during worship by crossing legs and folding their hands together. This is called lotus posture, seen when Buddha attained enlightenment in 528 BCE under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, India.

Islamic Prayer Postures

Islamic practice of prayers has seven bodily gestures in five times of namaz/salat (prayer) in a day while facing toward qibla in Mecca at Saudi Arabia. The names of these postures are takbeer, al-qayam, raku, qayam, sajida, tashahud, and salaam.

At special moments of funerals they recite from sura fatiha (liturgical Arabic prayer of funeral) raising both hands with the elbows close in front of the chest or face and with the palms up, joining both hands during recitation of the prayer of al-qinot, and rubbing both hands on their face at the end of prayer.

What is legitimate Christian Prayer posture?

Christian worship emerged from Jewish roots as well as Christian prayer postures. Devout Jews pray three times a day, morning (Sacharit), afternoon (Minchah), and evening (Ma’ariv) facing Jerusalem. There are various postures of prayers in the Bible like bowing, kneeling, sitting, standing, prostrating, and walking; no one posture is right or wrong.

  1. Standing (Genesis 24:12-14; Nehmiah 9:5; Mark 11:25; Luke 18:13)
  2. Prostrate (Joshua 7:6; Ezra 10:1; Matt 26:39; Mark 14:35)
  3. Lifting the hands (2 Chronicles 6:12; Psalm 63:4; 1 Timothy 2:8)
  4. Sitting (1 Chronicle 17: 16-29; Judges 20:26)
  5. Kneeling (1 Kings 8:54; Ezra 9:5; Luke 22:41; Mark 1:40; Acts 9:40)
  6. Looking upward (John 17:1)
  7. Bowing down (Exodus 34:8; Nehemiah 8:6; Psalm 72:11)
  8. Placing the head between the knees (1 Kings 18:42)
  9. Pounding on the breast (Luke 18:13)
  10. Facing the temple (Daniel 6:10)
  11. Walking (2 Kings 4:35)

Prayer was a prominent practice in Jesus’ life. According to Jesus’ teaching, alms giving, prayer and fasting is an “act of righteousness” (Matt 6:1-18). Prayer was a sign of public piety and Jesus rejected hypocritical public shows of prayer (Matt 6:9) and self-righteous prayer (Luke 18:9-14). He also taught his disciples how to pray on their request (Luke 11:1)

When discussing prayer and posture then it is clear that scripture teaches that whether we sit, stand, bow or kneel, raise, stretch, or close our hands, it is not the posture of our hands that matters but the position of our heart that matters most. The Bible teaches us to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). It is the internal condition of our heart that God sees; physical posture is important, but private and public prayers are humble requests to God and connection to God in humility.

However various postures of prayer bodily express our prayers and thoughts, and they form us, in reminding us that what we are doing is different from other actions, and help center us in a focused time of dialogue with God. Just as we want to enlarge our prayer vocabulary what might it look like to utilize more postures in our prayer life not as an end in itself but rather to further undergird the words and emotions of the prayer itself?

Eric Sarwar is a ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan and founder and director of the Tehillim School of Church Music & Worship in Karachi.