Wendell Berry – I love this Kentucky farmer and writer, with his deep affection for the land and generosity of spirit. I actually worry sometimes about his dying. He is getting older and I need him to keep going into his timber, where he observes Sabbath down by the creek. I need his passion for justice and goodness, which he keeps just under his worn jacket. I love it every time he tears off that jacket and strips down to show us the naked truth.
I used to say with the foolish assurance of someone newly in love with God, “If people knew how sexy God is, our churches would be filled.” Now I wonder if perhaps it is our churches themselves who don’t know how sexy God is, and that is why some are empty.
In the sedate worship circles I frequent, there are few passionate outbursts and everyone keeps his clothes on. If a God lover ever did rise up in some self-abandoned embarrassing expression of love, we would probably be appalled and call the police.
We have all heard those obligatory, studied prayers that rise a few feet and drop with a soft thump. I have prayed quite a few myself. I also confess I have been a perpetrator of prayers with an ax to grind: some pet notion or issue that wasn’t fully treated in the sermon or meeting, which the one praying attempts to correct. Perhaps, you have been assaulted with the prayer of someone, who is more concerned about setting you straight about some matter than entering into communion with the Lord of the Universe on your behalf. Then there are the quick and dirty nooners over lunch in a public restaurant, where you feel everyone is watching.
To the Holy One, I figure all our prayers are mostly childish babble, endearing scribbles in the sky. I trust God loves them all, just as I still keep a box of my daughters’ childhood drawings and writing. Tell me, what are we, caged in our mortality, to do with this divine love, if not to slop it around like infants in a high chair eating our first plate of spaghetti? We are bound to be messy. More of us ought to be caught red handed in flagrante delicto with spaghetti sauce all over our faces.
Some Sundays I have an impulse to throw myself in an unseemly prostration before the altar on behalf of the people and the God I love so much that I can’t stand it. I do not have the words to express the anguish, doubt, and fear I know some of the people carry. “Do something!” I want to scream at God. “Here take me, take my life, such as it is, ragged and tattered, and heal your people!”
Once, in a weak moment, overcome with love, I knelt in a Presbyterian church during worship. Presbyterians, as you may know, do not have kneelers in their churches or kneel as part of their worship. They express their passion by singing, something at which Roman Catholics, with their lovely genuflections and neat fold-down kneelers are generally less accomplished.
My embarrassment followed Holy Communion. After I received our Lord’s presence and love, I brazenly knelt right down in the First Presbyterian Church in Holton, Kansas. It was a little crowded between my seat and the back of my brother’s pew, but I just had to do it. Afterwards one of the elders of the church brought up my indiscretion at the session meeting, asking the pastor if what I did was “Presbyterian.” They haven ‘t kicked me out so far.
Saints, prophets, artists, and poets understand the passion of the human heart for the divine. These are persons, possessed and overcome with our Beloved, who often do and say things unseemly. Most people think they are a little kooky. Yet these same people, who hold mystics at arm’s length, regularly sing hymns with lyrics like:
Jesus, lover of my soul, let me
to thy bosom fly …
Come down, O love divine, seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardor glowing…
Who do they think they are fooling? I know there are hearts aflame with God in more than one gentleman in the back row, not to mention the middle aged couple, or bored looking teenager pecking at his cell phone. Most us, including clergy, are well trained to keep our passion contained. Nobody wants to be embarrassed for heaven’s sake.
As Wendell Berry writes, there is public prayer, which can easily slide down the slippery slope into performance prayer. Then there is the Jesus-recommended private, shut up in your closet prayer. (Matthew 6:6) I suppose the closet prayers are the best kind for taking off your clothes. The only problem with hiding our passion is that people may get the idea that God is boring and that being a person of faith is only a matter of learning some doctrine and following a moral code of behavior.
Not for the faint hearted, a life of prayer is a perilous enterprise. One can pray a prayer so lame it is an embarrassment, or one can simply embarrass oneself. I believe God receives all our prayers, both the self-conscious thumpers, and the self-forgotten soarers. God, being beyond shame, is not embarrassed by either. Would we could all toss away our fig leaves and go walking in the garden with our Lover without a stitch.
I hope there is a place, where you can strip down to your naked, vulnerable, cellulite- encased, pocked-marked self and open your arms to your Beloved in a rush of desire and groping hunger for holiness, truth, justice, and mercy.
We won’t peek. Just go for it. Lame or passionate, pray an embarrassing prayer today.