Heidi Oxentenko is praying with her students during the Kosrae School’s Week of Prayer. Credit: Kamran Masih

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Kosraens

The first time I heard — or, more accurately, did not hear — a Kosraen person pray, I was utterly bewildered.

I was aware that we were about to bless the food — everyone was silent, heads were bowed and eyes were closed, but I was hearing no words of thanks to God for the beautiful meal spread before me. Instead, there was silence, followed by a murmur of amens. At that time, I assumed that maybe we were all supposed to pray for our own food. However, in the eleven weeks I have now been here, I have learned that most people in Kosrae pray only in a whisper. Whether due to shyness or respect for God, it takes some getting used to. It can be humorous, because they announce prayer in a very loud tone — to inform people that it is happening, and then drop to what seems to be complete silence or only a soft murmur. Before meals I wait for someone to call out “Prai!” and then bow my head with all the others in silence until I hear the resounding “Amen!” that signals the end of a prayer that no one has heard but God. Church services are often similar, because the sermon is, three out of four times, in Kosraen, and I must listen carefully for the memorized “Prai!” in order to bow my head at the right time. Although I am used to them praying in a whisper, I have not learned this skill yet and still prefer to talk to God out loud when I’m asked to pray. However, hopefully that doesn’t make me the Pharisee in this story.

One night at our mid-week meeting as one of our respected elders was praying in this fashion, I thought of the parable in Luke of the Pharisee and the publican. The Pharisee prayed loudly so people could hear the gaudy words and empty praises that he likely did not consider the meaning of. He did not care about speaking to God; he only wanted to impress those he thought lower than himself. On the other hand, the publican prayed quietly, afar off, and smote his chest, saying God, “Be merciful to me a sinner.” This man, although disregarded by those high in spiritual authority, had a closer and deeper walk with the Father in Heaven than many of the most influential priests and pastors ever will (Luke 18:9–14). In Matthew 6, when Jesus teaches us to pray, He says not to be like the hypocrites who stand on the street corners and exalt themselves rather than their Creator. Instead He tells us to pray in secret (Matt. 6:5, 6).

Now, I’m not saying that we have to pray in a whisper, although I see a beautiful representation of respect and awe in such a prayer. But one thing this style of praying has taught me is a beautiful sense of humility that we should each strive for when coming before the Controller of the Universe. As hard as I try not to compare and contrast, it is hard not to wonder at some of the lengthy prayers I have heard in churches back home and ask how genuine their meaning was. It is not for me to judge such things. However, Kosrae taught me a bountiful number of lessons, and this was one of them.

Heidi Oxentenko and Kendra Pauls served last school year at the Kosrae Seventh-day Adventist School as the 5th/6th- and 7th/8th-grade teachers. The Lake Union Conference is raising funds to help the Kosrae School and Church build a much-needed gymnasium. To learn more, please visit: https://kosraelakeunion.org/.