I said to my church Sunday, in advance of a public witness Monday, that the church was gathering to pray. I emphasized prayer and said that our focus wasn’t protest but prayer. Even while saying it, I was questioning my cadence, my precision, and my intent.
I was using an approach in the brief appeal, one I’ve heard the preacher use in the church of my upbringing. I was italicizing the word I chose. And I said it because the focus of the time Monday was to be public witness generally and prayer specifically.
But the more accurate reflection of my thought and, I think, the biblical material from which I draw is that prayer is protest. The people of the book protest through the particular form of prayer. Protestations as we understand them now are foreign in the world of scripture. It would be anachronistic and arrogant, unfair and unreasonable to say that the bible includes protest unless that protest takes the form of a kind of prayer, on one hand, or prophetic utterance, on the other.
In other words, the way that we see protest occurring in the scriptures is through prayers and prophecies–prophecies of the forth-telling flavor, not the foretelling kind. I’d call these two gestures really good metrics for gauging our contemporary public witness. If there is no prayer and if there is no prophecy in public places, there is no public witness. If there is no public witness, what role does the (local or gathered) church have in that civic arena?
In thinking since about prayer as an act of protest, I’m holding onto the following truths I see in the scriptures. And I’m correcting my own use from Sunday. I didn’t take as much time to enrich my invitation, because Sunday was very full, but I would edit myself to clarify a bit to involve the following.
Biblical people call God out. The bible is about a people who are a noisy folk. There is quiet in our text but not a lot. When the people of God needed God, they did not shrivel in a corner. Rather, they called upon their God, even during long days and nights when they felt unheard and disinherited. The Hebrew people cried out while enslaved, and you can’t tell a slave to hush. You can’t convince an unpaid laborer that calling out for “one more day” is reasonable, particularly when the audience of his pain is the Divine Audience. But the people called out nonetheless.
Biblical people name harsh, right-now reality. The content of lament is real life. The guts of the people’s prayer is what happens now. People who know the Black faith tradition know that this has always been a part of the common religious stream of beautiful Black folk. We have been unrestrained in our proclaimed expectation for life now to mirror life wherever else God dwells. If life in the white neighborhood is good–replace that with “suburb” or heaven if you please–life in Englewood and Auburn-Greshem and Washington Heights should be good. When reality is harsh, the prayerful protest calls for another reality.
Biblical people state interior experience unequivocally. There is a false sense that we carry and that is that we cannot be honest with God. It’s wrong. God desires truth in the inner parts says the songwriter. The truth is that God wants you and your interior reality, your vulnerability, and your honesty because those things combine to equal who you really are. God isn’t concerned about your front or my social self. God cares less for that because it’s a grand mask. God’s people state what is real: their pain when they’re in pain and their joy when they’re in joy. Wouldn’t your life be better if you told the simple truth? Wouldn’t you feel freer with your God if you were honest? That’s the God-offered requirement anyway.
Biblical people assume that prayer changes everything. Ms. Virginia used to sing in the choir at Sweet Holy Spirit that she knew that prayer changed things. Oh, can she sing it! She was informed by her life and her reading of scripture. Even when the church and Israel before her lived in the exact opposite condition; even when Babylonian exile seemed to be the only gift the Jews could hold; even when the crucifixion was the longest reality during those dark days from Friday to Sunday; people gathered to pray. They knew that faith would collect them and inspire them to acknowledge fear but to acknowledge that fear wasn’t the only feeling in the room. In faith, they prayed because prayer moves and changes and turns and performs. Prayer is a means of grace, and where grace is change is.
Biblical people start from a corporate location. I could flip the order of these points in my post. Surely, it’s fine to start with this point. Biblical people aren’t individualistic. They are individuals, for sure, but their orientation and the orientation of all the words of God are that God is up to wide, massive, increasingly participatory redemption of the entirety of creation. The writings of scripture have personal application but that isn’t the starting place. God’s people and God’s words to that people involve a regular communal nature that is very different from me and mine.
May we pray better. May the Lord teach us to pray.