I was wrapping up a meeting late last week when a colleague took me by surprise. I had joined the conversation midway, tasked with bringing some new team members up to speed. The straightforward agenda was short; just some workflow processes and projected deadlines to introduce. Everything was running like clockwork as we brought our conversations to a close. But then, after thanking me for my time and contributions, my colleague asked if I would offer a word of prayer. There are many places and contexts where I might anticipate this invitation, but most of my work meetings don’t answer to quite so high a calling. Surprised, but not unpleasantly so, I bowed my head.
There is much I could say about my native tongues, none of which sound like the prayers of my childhood or adolescence. “Though I may speak with bravest fire,” my prayers are quick to flame out. I have been prayed over my entire life, but some phrases just don’t sound like mine to utter. Whereas music comes naturally and the written word often flows freely, even the prospect of prayer can be silencing. Raised in traditions where heartfelt, extemporaneous prayer is an expression of both faith and formation, I sometimes long for a different kind of inclination to in-voking and up-lifting of all kinds. For me, words are the part of the Christian incarnation that makes the most sense. And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us? Yes, please. But, then what?
I like to weigh my words carefully, measuring each thought against its many possible expressions. But the immediacy of some prayer traditions asks for a different kind of practice, a relaxing of an otherwise curated word order. Being asked to pray in last week’s meeting transported me to the times and places in my life where the divine has commanded more of my attention, standing guard over a tongue that tends to wander off on its own. I thought of the Landmark Missionary Baptist Church where my grandparents were baptized and my mother was raised. I remembered the Southern Baptist congregation in New Jersey where I learned to sing all four verses of the hymns I still know by heart. I also heard voices lifted in the Evangelisch-Freikirchlicher Gemeinden where my own faith sounded foreign. I, too, am a stranger in the land.
As I ended the meeting in prayer, I drew on roots I will spend a lifetime tending. In my tentative gestures, I heard my grandfather’s voice lifting hopes that might one day be mine. When my grandfather prays, as he does at each meal and every time we head out the door for a homeward journey, he beseeches traveling mercies for his loved ones. His are the prayers that call us by name. When my grandfather dies, I worry that our words will not suffice. Can unproven liturgies carry the weight of so much grief? I imagine we’ll be shocked by the silence, listening for echoes of my grandfather’s voice and its daily call to obedience and grace.
Once, when we were visiting the small country church where my grandparents worshipped in the name of a Spirit unashamed to move, the pastor of a dwindling congregation invited my grandfather to close out the service. “Brother Ford, will you lead us in prayer?” The words my grandfather lifted up that day were unlike any I have ever heard him pray. In a space set apart from convention and conventions alike, he called on power and spirit and the mighty hands of a holy God to come down and move and act among His people. The words were loving and fierce and they were not what I was expecting. But it stuck with me, this impassioned plea for presence, this expectation of intervention. And it was these words – visceral and unbidden – that came through at the end of last week’s meeting.
You never know when words will come out of your mouth that preach empire in the name of love. But sometimes might and power and kingdom are the words we have to shout the glory down, including our own. And power doesn’t always signal the worst of things. Sometimes, the Blessed Be shows up to remind us that power is beautiful in the sovereignty of those creating a brave new world. I like to know where my words come from, but as I closed out an otherwise regular meeting in prayer, I yielded to an unfolding verse, a sentence built on heart strings plucked by someone, something beyond my ken. Perhaps one day, I’ll have a prayer practice that speaks with the regularity and conviction of my grandfather. Until then, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart suffice. Amen.
April 5, 2020