Thrive: Anticipatory Packaging – Erin Robinson Hall

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
—Matthew 6:5-8

We have been seen by others, and they think they know exactly who we are.

The Netflix account in our house keeps our favorite movies just a click away, which is perfect for my husband Jake, the movie buff. With data about the movies you watch, the types of stories you like, and the lead actors you favor, Netflix sets up a genre for you. Jake became rather proud of the category he had curated: “visually striking cerebral dramas.” Smarty pants. He was less than pleased when he turned on Netflix after a few visits from my mother. Her night owl movie choices had created a whole new image for us. Apparently, Jake was likely to enjoy “British comedies with strong female leads.” We laughed, but he claimed Mom was messing with his image.

Amazon thinks they have us down to a science too. They can now use “anticipatory package shipping,” which means they will stock the warehouse nearest to me with items I will probably buy. I suppose this means that in a warehouse near my home in Macon, Georgia, there is even now a pair of fabulous red rain boots, a Vitamix, and a Big Wheel tricycle. Based on my clicks and passing interests, Amazon will stock up on items that match my profile. A clever algorithm adds up my shopping habits, items in my wish lists, and even the time I hover over what is on sale.

The way I am seen by others is sometimes carefully crafted and sometimes formed without my consent. I am pretty aware of this in many areas of my life. With or without algorithms, people collect the words I say and the things I do to form an idea of who I am. It’s no wonder people heap up empty phrases about me, in their prayer or otherwise. That’s exactly the persona I want them to see.

What I don’t want anyone to see are the moments my prayers come out in teardrops, or in banging on the dashboard of my car. And so I seldom hear prayers that gather up the collected data of what I really hover over, indicating what I really need. Seems like that is true for all of us and also in our worship. We don’t lead in prayer on Sunday morning with, “Lord, you know the deal. It’s a mess. Amen.”

The good news is that God knows what we need before we ask. Anticipatory packaging, for sure. This is, for me, why the secret prayers have to outweigh the empty phrases. It is the quiet, middle of the night moments when I am reminded that God hears me, even when I do not know where to start. N. T. Wright writes, “At its lowest, prayer is shouting into a void in the off-chance there may be someone out there listening. At its highest, prayer merges into love, as the presence of God becomes so real that we pass beyond words.”

Those real, presence–of-God moments have happened lately when I am interrupted. My toddler wakes up with a nightmare and only mommy can calm him. We rock in the darkened room; I pat his back and hum a song. There are no fancy words or perfect images in those moments. My half-asleep self has on no make-up, thinks no brilliant thoughts, and definitely has no words. Somewhere in between wishing for sleep and hoping to never forget the sweetness of this moment, my heart fills with pure gratitude. My mind fills with peace. My attention turns to God. The song I hum with the rhythm of the rocking chair becomes a prayer. God is unimpressed with the profile I have spent all day creating. God knows my heart and I have a glimpse at just exactly what it is that I need. Thanks be to God.


N. T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004).

Erin_Hall_c_xsmErin Robinson Hall holds a Master of Divinity degree from Candler Theological Seminary, Atlanta, Georgia. She has served as minister of congregational life at Heritage Baptist Fellowship in Canton, Georgia, and for nine years taught in the public school systems of North Carolina, Texas, and Georgia. Erin is currently working on a Doctor of Ministry degree in Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. She lives in Macon, Georgia, with her husband, Jake, and their almost-two-year-old son, Logan.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Needed this today…thanks