Down in My Closet to Pray

Down in the Valley to PrayMatthew 6: 6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

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?

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High and Lifted Up

Road Leading to High Mountains

Isaiah 6:1: In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.

I don’t know that many of us think about escalators and elevators. They’re there and we use them, and a few people aside who have claustrophobia or a fear of falling, most of us think they’re convenient. Evensong Bells thinks an elevator in this building would be a gift from God, and while God’s time is best, my hope as someone who plays bells and, as part of the job, schleps cases around when we play in the front of the sanctuary or take our bell songs on the road. It takes either two bell players to carry one of the two largest cases, but Jim Harris can carry both at once. He is one strong man. And here ends the commercial from Evensong.

I’ve always been fond of any device that can transport me to a higher level be it airplane, funicular, ski lift, rescue basket, and of course escalator and elevator. (I’m talking physically being lifted up here–hold on for the spiritual transport. You’re on your own for the emotional version.

Now, if you’re claustrophobia and must avoid elevators, I can’t help you much. But I can do something about fear of an elevator cable snapping as it seems to in the movies and a car packed with people falling to their horrible demise. In our local writing group, Write by the Rails we had a visitor one evening who was an elevator inspector. Normally we go around at the end of the meeting and talk for a few minutes about what we’re doing and what help we may need, if any. When our guest’s turn came up, someone asked about falling elevators such as those we see in disaster movies. His answer was that it’s physically impossible for an elevator in good repair to fall because of the way they’re designed. Think about—how many times is there a story about an elevator falling with multiple fatalities on the news? I can’t ever remember seeing one. Not that that proves anything, but if you find out about such an accident, please let me know.

Escalators fascinated me from an early age. If I had to choose between them and elevators, I would choose the moving steps. The engineering is fantastic, and while you’re more likely to be injured on an escalator, if you tie your shoes, watch where you’re putting your feet and hold on to the handrail, you’ll be fine. (The preceding announcement was brought to you by your mom, who also wants to remind you to wear a raincoat, eat healthy food and not talk to strangers.)

On teacher workdays in elementary and intermediate school, our mom would take my brother Ron and me to what was then called Parkington and now Virginia Square. Parkington was so called because of the large multi-story parking garage behind the multi-story Hecht Company building, whose façade was made up of large glass windows. It was an imposing sight and sported escalators which, while new and made of steel, lacked the soul of the ones in a store at our next stop, McCrory’s in Clarendon. For most of my pre-high school career, they had wooden escalators. I wish I could tell you what kind of wood they used, but I didn’t develop an appreciation for different kinds of wood until high school. The escalators at McCrory’s were old and funky, and our mom would leave us to ride the escalators up and down while we shopped. We would have ridden all day had she not threatened to leave us and see how much we would enjoy walking the thirteen miles to our house in Fairfax. Somehow, we managed to never make that walk, which would have spoiled a nice day of riding elevators.

Now, it seems to me that sometimes God lets us carry the heaviest hand bell cases over all kinds of terrain, including high mountains. At other times, he provides a nice wooden escalator to take us to new heights. And at other times, we have those rapid breathtaking ascents as we do in one of those glass elevators that pop out from the building and we feel there’s nothing holding us up but the floor. All these experiences are part of the journey we’re on, and whether we’re toiling up the mountain on foot or riding in style to the top the God who created us and loves us so much is there with us and ahead of us. Thanks be to God for God’s eternal presence and care!

Multipliers and Encouragers

Encourage

Acts 4:37: Barnabas, “having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”

I spent a couple of days last week at a satellite feed for the 2013 Global Leadership Summit sponsored by Willow Creek Church located near Chicago.  Our church was a “Premier Host Site.” which we have been for several years. The summit brings together  leaders not only from religious institutions but also people with proven track records in encouraging excellence and achievement in their field while at the same time they nurture the human element in these groups.

The speakers were uniformly excellent, with incisive insights into their topics. I could focus on the learnings from any one of them, but I was particularly impressed with Liz Wiseman, who talked about “diminishers” and “multipliers” in organizations. We all have known both in our experience. Diminishers try to lead by belittling, withholding information, scolding, gossip and a dozen other strategies we all know too well. As a result, the people they are trying to read do not put their energy into the process or product: Wiseman’s research indicated that their energy level was around 43% of what they could contribute. On the other hand, multipliers work by sharing power, knowing their people as human beings, keeping them informed, praising and offering help when needed. People are willing to give 91% of their effort to people like this.

We were invited to think of both kinds of leaders, and I’m sure you can do this for both. I had had (mercifully very few) teachers who should not have been teaching. They made me hate their subject; I didn’t put much effort into it and I didn’t do well as a result. I have been blessed to have many more multipliers, including numerous excellent teachers who cared for me and for their subjects, and a long string of principals who were some of the most phenomenal multipliers on the planet. I hope the same had been true for you.

It occurred to me in listening to these leaders that the Bible has been there first.  Jesus spoke of the importance of treating others as we would be treated, in knowing the each others’ needs, of being there for each other. If I had to put the lessons of the Summit into one word, it would be encouragement. Speaker after speaker spoke of the difficult times that come to every organization and every individual and of how important it is to keep pressing on, to not grow discouraged and to encourage each other.

I pray that we might indeed do all these things.