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Teacheth Us to Prayeth, Mortimer

When I was a boy my dad consistently called on a wrinkled old sage named Mortimer Hawk to offer the closing prayer at church. He was so old that the congregation’s stillness deepened as soon as he opened his mouth. “Most Holy Father,” he quietly boomed. (I know that sounds impossible, but that’s how I remember it; he boomed—quietly. Honest.) “We thank Thee for Thy bounty, and humbly seek Thy guidance as we depart this place to proclaim in word and deed Thy merciful affection.”

So he began. That’s not verbatim, but it’s the general vibe of Mortimer’s weekly supplication. The way he pronounced every “Thee” and “Thy” assured me that in his mind they were capitalized. He transported the whole church back about a hundred years, and reminded us how rich and humble a prayer could be. And that was the weird thing—he didn’t speak that way in normal conversation; he reserved his King James prayers for church, but somehow it never struck me as pretentious or put-on. It was merely this humble old saint’s way of honoring the King to whom he spoke. He didn’t pepper his prayer with mindless repetition (“FatherGod, we pray, FatherGod, that you, Jesus, FatherGod, Jesus, would be with us, Jesus, God”, etc.), a habit many of us have acquired which strikes me as dangerously close to “babbling like the pagans do” (Matthew 6:7). My guess is that this odd repetition that’s so pervasive in our prayers is either nervous habit, an oratory device employed to buy us time to think of what to say next, or maybe we’ve grown up thinking it’s just what you’re supposed to do. I’m sure someone out there will demonstrate that I’m wrong to reference that verse here—but hopefully you see what I’m saying: sometimes our public prayers are padded with nice sounding words and phrases that don’t mean a whole lot. (This is what is known on the Internet as “opening a can of worms.”)

I admit that it might just be a matter of preference. I’ve voiced my opinion about this stuff to a few people and have noticed when they pray afterward that they feel awkward and self-conscious. That’s not what we’re going for here; I don’t want to be the prayer cop. I may have a hard time with “prayerspeak”, but we can all agree that it’s the heart that matters. I doubt God is up there rolling his eyes just because someone keeps repeating (and repeating) “FatherGod.” He adores us. He can see through our habits and foibles and silliness to what we’re really saying, or trying to say, or ought to be saying—he can hear the Spirit’s groaning on our behalf. Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it. As I said in an earlier post (the one about “Creatives”), this is me raising my hand in the back of the class and asking if there’s a better way to think about the issue.

Allow me to pick on myself for a moment. Almost every time I pray with my family before we go to bed, I find myself saying, “Be with us, Lord,” or “Please be with Jody”, as if God isn’t already with us. He’s told us in scripture again and again that he’s with us. I can’t tell you how many times my kids have heard me say, mid-prayer, “Why do I keep saying that? I know you’re with us, and you’re with Jody. What I mean, Lord, is, ‘Help us to believe that you’re with us; give us an overwhelming sense of your presence.'” It’s not a huge difference, I know, but little things matter. I find that when I’m no longer pleading for God’s presence but thanking him for it, my heart rests a little more. And yet, tonight when I prayed with the kids, I did it again. Old habits die hard.

But old Mortimer Hawk wasn’t using empty words. To the contrary, each word seemed full to the brim, spoken with purpose and beauty. It seemed as though he were alone in the room, speaking with his King and Father, and we were eavesdropping, affirming his quietly booming words. I remember as an eight-year-old boy wanting to write down his prayers, thinking how cool it would be to tell my dad on the day Brother Hawk finally died that I had written down his last prayer. I tried to transcribe a few of them but there was never enough room in the margins of the bulletin.

Now that I’m all grown up I don’t often pray in public, and when I pray in private I tend to keep it simple and straightforward. I converse with God with as little pretense as I can manage, though I try to maintain an attitude of reverence. I confess, I don’t know what I’m doing. Many times I find myself fresh out of words, and instead let my mind wander, mustering an awareness of God’s presence and reality. But when it comes down to it, I need words. That’s why the Psalms are such a blessing. They give voice to the feeling in our bones. We need the ancient, vast community of the saints to teach us to pray, to trumpet our unutterable longing. That’s why the Mortimer Hawks of the world are a blessing, and the authors we love, not to mention songwriters and poets. The Lord has put in his church people who are blessedly bereft of self-consciousness, who can stand in the assembly and pour out their hearts with all the eloquence of a statesman and none of the political posturing—the rest of us whose prayers falter are grateful to mutter, “What he said.” Or, “Amen,” if you like.

A few years ago some good friends bought me a book called A Diary of Private Prayer (1936), by Scottish theologian John Baillie (1886-1960, pictured above). I’d never heard of it, but it’s since become indispensable to my devotional time, partly because I’m so bad at having devotional time. The book makes it easy. It’s divided into morning and evening prayers for each day of the month, each prayer is a page long, and each is different enough in focus and theme that they don’t get old. And the writing is beautifully old school. It’s like I’m hearing the ghost of Mortimer Hawk in my head.

The problem was, I kept getting hungeth uppeth on the (truly beautiful) language, kept forgetting it was supposed to be me praying, not him. So now when I read, I jettison every “Thee”, “Thou”, and “Dost” and replace it with “your”, “you”, and “do.”

What’s amazing to me is that the prayers are just as stirring. That tells me he wasn’t using the language to trick me into thinking the prayers were more eloquent than they were. He was saying something, and saying it beautifully, regardless of how many -eths he used. This morning I read these words:

Dear Father, take this day’s life into your own keeping. Guide all my thoughts and feelings. Direct all my energies. Instruct my mind. Sustain my will. Take my hands and make them skillful to serve you. Take my feet and make them swift to do your bidding. Take my eyes and keep them fixed upon your everlasting beauty. Take my mouth and make it eloquent in testimony to your love. Make this day a day of obedience, a day of spiritual joy and peace. Make this day’s work a little part of the work of the Kingdom of my Lord Christ, in whose name these my prayers are said. Amen.

That’s what I want, Father. I don’t think I’d have quite known how to ask for it without John Baillie’s help.” A prayer like that is as beautiful in Nashville, 2012 as it was in Scotland, 1936. What a joy it is to be a part of this timeless congregation of saints, whose need, longing, and adulation for the Lord is as deep and desperate today as it was when King David wrote his poems and read them in the temple courts, perhaps in a quietly booming voice.

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