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In the wake of disasters or tragedies I hear people, including anchors on national news programs, enjoin us to “Say a little prayer for them.”

Sometimes it’s more personal: “Before I do XYZ I’m going a say a little prayer and just go for it.” Or maybe it’s a plea for assistance: “Say a little prayer for us tonight.” I’ve even heard celebrities on late night talk shows say something like “Say a little prayer” in response to the host observing the guest’s just experienced some good career developments.

So what does “Say a little prayer” mean and where did the phrase originate? Maybe it got started in pop culture in the late 1960s with Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s song lyrics:

“I say a little prayer for you.

I say a little prayer for you.

Forever, forever, you'll stay in my heart
And I will love you
Forever, forever we never will part
Oh, how I'll love you…”

Bacharach and David wrote these lyrics as part of the song, “I Say A Little Prayer,” developed for Dionne Warwick in 1967, later recorded by Aretha Franklin in 1968, and later still by several others. The song was and perhaps remains an international hit.

The backstory on the lyrics suggest at least David was trying to invoke metaphoric sympathy for American soldiers in Viet Nam. If so the public never really caught on because people responded to the love story conveyed by Warwick and Franklin and the song is cataloged under "romantic" rather than "social protest." In any event, Bacharach and David probably didn’t invent the phrase. More likely they borrowed it from expressions they’d heard growing up. Assuming this logic, the song served less to initiate a phrase than to borrow and bold print it in the cultural lexicon.

People use the phrase, I think, on several levels:

--Sincerely—asking for or promising prayer, maybe not a lot of prayer but prayer nonetheless.

--Superstitiously—like saying “Wish me luck” or “I hope I’m lucky” or “Knock on wood,” all intended to offer supplication to the fates while hoping for favor.

--Colloquially—using the phrase as filler without really considering much less embracing its possible meaning, like “Have a good one.”

In the last two instances, saying “a little prayer” becomes an easy religious-but-not too-religious way of covering your bets, so to speak. It’s like people crossing themselves who are not and never have been Catholic, sort of a just in case.

Another thing that interests me is the nature of the prayer. What, exactly, is “a little prayer” as opposed to “prayer” or maybe “a big prayer”? To the best of my knowledge there’s no weights and measures in Scripture determining the size of a prayer.

So is asking “Say a little prayer for me” a bad thing? I guess I wouldn’t go there. In the end, I’d rather encourage people to acknowledge rather than ignore God’s will in the world and life, even if it’s simply a “little” bit.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

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