Little Black Books

I found it in an antique store. I was there to shop for my wife’s birthday, but heard the siren song of an old bookshelf filled with old books and was lured into complete distraction. I stood shuffling through the collection, amused by the lack of organization. Julia Childs cookbook next door to a Ronald Reagan biography, giant hardback coffee table book shoulder to shoulder with a Louis L’amour paperback. Dostoyevsky sandwiched between The Hardy Boys. It was like literature whiplash.

Then I saw it.

Small and thin, bound in black leather, edges worn but not abused, pages yellowed but not brittle, and not one but two lovely red silk page markers. In short it was everything perfect that an old book should be. 

Antique, well-made, small books are almost always worth buying. Any fool can write a thousand pages on any given subject and along the way make a worthy point or two. Not so with a small book.

Someone either knew exactly what they were talking about or knew precisely what they wanted to say. 

I would have bought it whatever the title was, but the gold foil letters, embossed across the front, read: The Lectern: A Book of Public Prayers. 

I was thrilled.

I have a particular fondness for old books of the church. Hymnals, books of liturgy, theological treatises, collected sermons. I’m not picky about the content; it’s the physical books themselves that seem to attract me. 

I’m a minister. I work at a church. And no matter what I tell you on a good day, most days I haven’t a clue what I’m doing. I have far more questions than answers, and if I’m dead honest (man, I hope my boss isn’t reading this) sometimes I struggle to understand the purpose of church. 

Somehow, I’ve found that those old books help. They are a tangible reminder that men and women came here before I did and stumbled on the very same stones that I am. They are a tether for my soul; a cord that stitches my doubts and questions, hopes and longings to the deep history of the church. And I wonder each time I pick one up whether its condition reveals something about the condition of the person that owned it. Covers dog eared and marred, edges worn and fraying, a page missing here or there, margins written in. Age, use, and circumstance have changed them, but the integrity of the contents remains. In fact, for me the content is enhanced, imbued with a gravity that wouldn’t exist otherwise.  I hope one day my books represent me like that and not like the book of Mass Readings I picked up once. The covers were all but completely torn off and the spine was damaged beyond repair. It looked as though it had been folded in half. 

Too, there is the fact that I have a personal soapbox I drag around with me in regards to written prayers. I believe they serve much the same function corporately as those books do for me individually. Yes, I can get up and extemporaneously mumble some phrases with the hope that they are vaguely biblical and that somehow they apply to the need and condition of the good folks in front of me, but maybe we can do better. There is a certain weight to allowing the words of St. Patrick, Clement of Rome, John Chrysostom, Martin Luther King, or Walter Brueggeman to be the prayers of our congregations. Somehow I suspect they will be more thoughtful, provocative, and scriptural than what I usually generate off the cuff. 

All this is me telling you that I was delighted to find this antique book of prayer, and that I wanted it very much.

So I bought it.

(Aaaaand completely forgot about a birthday gift for my wife.)

Upon getting the book home I began to thumb through it and found that it had several unique characteristics. The first was that it was signed by the owner. In black pen in a no-nonsense print, he had written his name and the date. 

M.T. Peters, 1950. Underneath that the same hand had written a short prayer of benediction.

May He graciously grant the solace which human weakness needs, and avert the sins which oppose you.

The syntax wasn’t perfect, but the heart seemed quite good. 

Second, as I read I began to recognize that Mr. Peters was a man of opinion. The same black pen and firm hand had written in many places throughout the book. On occasion it was to add a word or phrase that he must have felt was more appropriate. More often though, it was to cross out words or phrases that for some reason or another he felt were inappropriate. 

I began carrying the book with me wherever I went. Like many books of it’s kind it has prayers grouped under headings for different occasions. Lots of them follow along with the liturgy of a fairly traditional protestant church. “Prayers With the Choir Before Service”, or “Prayers After The Sermon”, but also there were prayers for more personal situations. “A Prayer for those that Create Beauty”, “A Prayer for Constant Presence”. 

At the time I was going through a bit of a dry spell. Whenever I started to pray I found myself coming back to the same words or phrases I’d used for years. This was concerning. If my conversation with God wasn’t evolving, then perhaps our relationship wasn’t evolving, either. I wondered if I was stagnating; giving lip service to the things I knew I should pray about while all the time my heart was wandering loose and unknown. I resolved to use the book. 

At some point during the day I’d spend a moment trying to assess what I was struggling with, or what I was desiring, or how I was feeling, then I’d pull the book out and try to find a prayer that matched up. It wasn’t always perfect, but I was amazed at how many times the words on the page were actually the words on my soul.  Those invocations and confessions and intercessions and benedictions gave language to dreams and fears and feelings in ways that had been inaccessible to me. 

One day, bored with my lot and wondering if my routine was as terminal as it felt, I happened upon this:

For Joyous Adventurers:

O God of high courage, we praise thy name for joyous adventurers who nobly strive and bravely dare in the cause of thy Kingdom. Fragrant with prayer are their lips, radiant with hope are their eyes, strong in courage are their hearts, and like lighted temples are their minds. They hear the trumpet and venture forth. For all those whose strong arms fight for righteousness and truth, we lift our hearts in gratitude. Amen

It reads more like Shakespeare’s, Henry the Fifth (Once more unto the breach, dear friends….), than an evangelical prayer, but I wept at the reminder that there would be better days, days of excitement and assurance of purpose; battles to fight and places to explore. My lips were not necessarily “fragrant with prayer”, and my mind was certainly no “lighted temple”; but as I prayed I found the challenge to be a better man in the adventure of here-and-now. 

Through all of that M.T. Peters was my constant companion. The more I saw evidence of his presence, the more intrigued I became. Many of the pages were marked with a single letter, or a dot, or a curious circle here or there. These I puzzled over, but the words he added and phrases he crossed out began to paint a clearer picture. I imagined him hovering over the book with the Black Pen of Censorship and Correction, breathless in his quest to stamp out silly doctrine or frivolous language. I was amused by what he chose to mark. Admittedly the prose can get a bit flowery, and this, M.T. seemed to take particular issue with. Page 134 is one of my favorite examples. “Help us to produce glad music at the console organ of life”, reads the text. A long black pen mark skewers the entire phrase. I’m really not even sure what “glad music at the console organ of life” means, but Mr. Peters found it offensive.

Some of his “corrections” seemed to betray something deeper, though. On page 111 the text reads “We ask thy blessing on all who serve in the kingdom of joy and love and peace”. Joy, love, and peace are all crossed out. 

A prayer of thankfulness for friendship seemed to specially irk him. Three phrases regarding friendship; “they show us the abiding worth of friendliness”, “they make the meaning of life clearer”, “they strengthen us to endure”- run through with that black pen. 

The one that broke my heart was when I saw the line “we come to thee as children come to a kind father”. The word “kind” had been crossed out.

I don’t mean to make more of these things than they were. They were simply a few scraps of writing in an old book, after all. I certainly wouldn’t want someone poking around my things 70 years from now, trying to piece together my beliefs or theology.  But I couldn’t help thinking about it. Clearly he was a pastor, or minister of some sort. Who else would own a book of prayers largely written for corporate use? Who else but a pastor would put a little star beside all the prayers for tithes and offerings? I couldn’t help wondering about this man and the disappointments and loneliness that perhaps marked him. And I wondered about the people he was meant to be caring for. 

Overall the little book has been a wonderful resource. It seems to have a prayer for almost any occasion. So last month on the morning after Election Day I thumbed through those prayers looking for the one that felt like “mine”.  As I glanced through the headings I saw one titled “Prayer for the Nation” and immediately turned to it. It was lovely in it’s own way; the language was dated, but the sentiments were heartfelt.  As I read down the page though, I noticed something that stopped me cold. Two phrases had been crossed out. The first said this: “a society dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”.  The second, this: “Unite the many races of our people in bonds of understanding and mutual appreciation”. 

I have no judgment for M.T. Peters. 1950 was a different time, and frankly I have no business drawing conclusions or making assumptions about a time I don’t understand or a man I don’t know.  But, in the weeks that have passed I’ve found myself flipping to that page often, as if I can’t quite believe that it’s real; as if I can’t quite believe that someone could possibly disagree with those statements. 

 1950 was a hard time for Americans that weren’t white. Jim Crow laws and post-war suspicion of immigrants set a tone for our nation that didn’t embody liberty, equality or the welcoming of tired, huddled masses. What would it have meant for a church to be different? What would it have changed for a pastor to see the hurt and confusion of those who had been marginalized and overlooked and to advocate for them? Right about here is where I start walking a line of self-righteousness. Until I hear the Spirit whisper those very same questions to me. 

He wonders if I’m aware of the marginalized and overlooked? He asks whether I remember that they are walking in the doors of my church every Sunday morning? Reminds me that I’m standing behind them in the check out at the grocery store. Wonders whether I recognize my own prejudice and ignorance and willful blindness? He suggests I may be unaware of the ways these things affect the people I’m meant to be caring for.

I keep being reminded of the shepherd paradigm in scripture. The point of a shepherd is simple: take care of the sheep. Yet in Luke we see a shepherd whose actions run contrary to logic or good sense. Why put 99 healthy sheep at risk by running off to look for one sick, lost sheep? And yet he does.

Robert Capon said...

And any Shepherd who makes a practice of leaving ninety-nine sheep to chase after a lost one quickly goes out of the sheep-ranching business. The parables are true only because they are like what God is like.

Over and over the Bible describes a Shepherd God keenly aware of those existing on the edges. He makes a habit of healing foreigners, offering dignity to women, scooping up little children in his arms. He looks up in trees to find short, fearful men. He goes to back alleys, ghettoes and gutters to find the honored guests for his feast. In all of this we are reminded that the Kingdom of God is most fully realized when it makes a priority of the lost, least, last, lonely, little.

Friends, you and I find ourselves in a moment in history that requires us to examine our hearts. Are there prejudices or preferences hidden there that keep us from valuing those that the Good Shepherd valued? I suspect there are for me, and I fear that those things may leak out onto the pages of my life. Black marks crossing out words, phrases, genders, races, beliefs, orientations- simply because I don’t understand or agree with them. 

The issues at hand aren’t political they’re pastoral.

If ever the earth needed believers functioning as good shepherds; pursuing and prioritizing the marginalized and overlooked- it is now. We cannot afford to censor our prayers. We cannot afford to limit how or who we love.  

May we boldly speak about a kingdom of joy, love and peace; may we graciously extend the abiding worth of friendship to all; and may we humbly bear the image of a kind Father to the forgotten and overlooked.

For The Underprivileged. Taken from: The Lectern: A Book of Public Prayers

Eternal God, who hast taught us in thy word that the strong should help the weak, and that we are our brothers’ keepers, we bring to thee those who are underprivileged and dispossessed. We hear the murmur of the hungry poor crying for relief; we see the unemployed looking in vain for work; we are moved by the longings of slum dwellers for space and sunshine; and we bear upon our hearts those who are beaten down in the struggle. Let the afflictions of the forgotten capture the imaginations of leaders and lawmakers. Arouse the conscience of the people on behalf of the oppressed. And grant unto the members of thy church a compelling eagerness to follow him who had compassion upon all peoples. 

We ask in his name. Amen.