Several things have come together for me of late. They may be random, or they may be more thematic. They come from a variety of sources. The biblical text, the slave narratives, interviews with black farmers and families, and prayers in a book that I’ve prayed from for several years, “Conversations with God.”
The parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18 which reminds us, in the words of the Man from Nazareth, to pray and not give up, is up at the top of the list. Justice was a theme of that prayer. I am this type of prayer. What about you?
We all have our ways of talking and ways of praying. I remember when I was a much younger man, I irreverently referred to one brother who prayed publicly as praying with a “stained glass voice” because he did not talk that way in normal conversation. How do you pray, either quietly or publicly?
While working on an article about black land acquisition and dispossession over the last few months, I had occasion to dive in the slave narratives again. The slave narratives were conversations that various people, men and women, white and black, had with those with stories that traced their way back to days of enslavement. These were recorded or transcribed during the 1930s. My opinion is that the interviewer probably got more truthfulness when she or he was a person of color like the interviewee. The language they used is very different than the language I use, but I find the language incredibly provocative as they tell their stories. I occasionally dive into these materials to hear what life was like in their own words and to know how they survived and, in some places, thrived despite the inhumanities of the “peculiar institution.”
This one is painful to read:
“Iffen a nigger run away and dey cotch him, or does he come back ‘cause he hungry, I see Uncle Jake stretch him out on de ground and tie he hands and feet to posts so he can’t move none. Den he git de piece of iron what he called ‘slut’ and what is like a block of wood with little holes in it, and fill de holes up with tallow and put dat iron in de fire till de grease sizzlin’ hot and hold it over de pore nigger’s back and let dat hot grease drap on he hide. Den he take de bullwhip and whip up an down, and after all dat throw de pore nigger in de stockhouse and chain him up a couple of days with nothin’ to eat My papa carry de grease scars on he back till he die.” (Berlin, Faureau, and Miller 1998: 29)
Life was indeed brutal, much more so than most of us can imagine, though its system still abounds in America today. More on that later.
The poem in the “Conversations with God” book was written by Maurice N. Corbett in 1914. A politician and poetry writer, he also worked in the US Census Bureau for a time. His poem, “Lord, Your Weak Servants Bow,” is one I return to periodically. Here are a few lines:
“You said dat dem you jined in heart
No one should dare asunder part,
But my ol’ marster, (cuss his hide),
Sol’ my companion from my side;
An’ while in agony I lay,
Dey come an’sol’ my chil erway;
Dey lef me nuffin here ter luv,
Cep you Dear Jesus, You, erbuv.”
“O Lord, my way is very dark;
Sometimes I thinks I hears de bark
Of hell-hounds howlin’ on my track;
Come my good Lord an’ drive ‘em back.”
“Sometimes when I kneels down ter pray,
I feels dat you fur erway;
Sometimes I feels so fur I stray
Dat you can’t hear me when I pray.
Sometimes my faith grows very slack,
But den your spirit drawns me back;
You promised jestice wid Your lip,
An’ I won’t let your mem’ry slip.”
There is a lot in that poem, and there are more verses to it, along the lines of faith, and especially persistence with God in troublesome times. I think he was a “persistent widow” prayer, reminding God that he was going to remind God of promise of justice.
How do you pray? For what do you pray? How are the dominant themes of your life intertwined with your prayer life? Do you pray in the same language that you talk, or do you use a different language?
Just wondering about things these days.