I don’t know which version of the Bible you did your memory work in growing up. We used, as I’m sure many of you did, the King James translation which, although we no longer speak like Shakespeare (which, verily, I thinketh a pity) has no parallel for the beauty and majesty of its prose. There is a tradition that Shakespeare had a hand in the translation because in the 46th Psalm of the King James, the 46th word from the beginning is “shake” and the 46th word from the end is “spear.” You can look it up. There’s good reason to suppose that Shakespeare as a leading and highly favored playwright of the day (his company was the official theater group of James I, and writers of the time were fond of leaving little hints as to the writer of a piece. And Shakespeare was 46 years old when the King James came out in 1611.
Anyhow, while the King James Version is a literary masterpiece, the meaning sometimes gets fogged up by the passage of time and the differences in culture between us and seventeenth century England.
Take the Matthew 6:6 as an example. I wanted to follow the letter of Scripture, being rather large on rules and legalism at that time, as opposed to forgiveness and grace, so when the verse commanded me to pray in my closet, I did. I lived upstairs in our little house at the time, under the dormers where my parents kept me so I wouldn’t harm myself and others. They let me out to go to school and church, but other forays out of the neighborhood required a parent or two if were a particularly bad day for me. At home, my brother and I were encouraged to spend as much of the day as we could outside, coming in only for meals, bathroom breaks and sleep. My mom told us doing so enabled her and my dad to live in a house that didn’t look like the barbarian hordes had just swept through. In fact, when I studied European history some time later, I read the story of the tribes that rampaged across Europe in the fifth century and recognized some similarities between their activities and ours.
Anyhow, back to closets. It never occurred to me (and it shouldn’t have) that the meaning of the word “closet” was different. Up until the eighteenth century, no one had closets. The thought of having a protected space for storage was unknown, so they stored their “goods” as they called them in trunks, barrels, baskets and the like. When closets came along later, taxes were based on the number of rooms in a house, and a closet to the tax authorities was a room. In fact, that’s what it meant in the seventeenth century. Jesus was saying to go into a private room, not burrow among your shirts and shoes to pray. I did that for a year and I’m here to tell you it isn’t comfortable. And so, not for the first time, I did something based on a good intention and an incredibly high level of ignorance.
Nonetheless, I think God honored my effort to follow the commands of Jesus and my prayers. and. And God does so with all who call upon his name. Praise God for his tender care, his justice faithfully given and his ongoing and all-embracing love.
Doc Watson and some friends doing his version of “Down in the Valley to Pray,” which was the basis for “Down in the River to Pray” in the Coen brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?