We will do our best on Sunday. My tiny, choirless, 99% white congregation in New Hampshire will give James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing and the African-American spiritual Every Time I Feel the Spirit our all.
But, truth be told, we will be sorely out of our element. Later in the day, I will watch videos of services conducted by friends who serve larger churches in urban settings–churches with black choirs or at least multi-racial ones–and yes, I will be just the teeniest bit jealous of the singing.
We have neither the gift for belting our spirituals nor, as a whole, the intense, activist spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. There are some, I am sure, who would rather that our service this weekend make only the lightest of references to King’s legacy, or better yet, none at all. In the “ruralish” congregation I serve, our members cast votes for both Republicans and Democrats in November and we are still working out how to be together in the new political order. By “being together,” I mean more than just sitting coolly and/or civilly in the same sanctuary, but being our authentic selves and wrestling with the real questions of faith.
One of the ways we can be together is in prayer. Our politics may be divided and we may never learn to clap on beat, but on the plus side, one of the things our little congregation is rather good at is prayer.
Which should not be underestimated.
While much attention has been paid to Dr. King’s preaching, his prayer life has sometimes seemed less important to scholars of the Civil Rights Movement. However, a little book I read this week, Lewis V. Baldwin’s Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayers of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Fortress Press, 2010) seeks to fill in some of the gaps.
Drawing on Baldwin’s book, there are three lessons we can all take from the prayer life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
#1–Prayer needs to be focused on others. Yes, Martin Luther King, Jr. prayed in a prophetic voice, and even as early as his student days, modeled his prayer life on the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. But his prayers always started with the desire to understand and empathize with others. Baldwin writes of King’s belief that “prayer and the practice of praying should always begin with an awareness of and emphasis on the presence and needs of others” (98).
Prayer, of course, can express our personal longings, but we misuse it when we restrict it to ourselves and our own needs. King warned against approaching God as our “cosmic bellhop” or “universal errand boy.” (35).
#2– Prayer is not a substitute for human effort. Or to put it in King’s own words, “for work and intelligence.” As he encouraged others to take up the mantle of activism and to work for human rights, King came back to this theme again and again. Do not ask God to do what you are capable of doing yourself. “I take prayer too seriously,” he said on more than one occasion, “to use it as an excuse for avoiding work and responsibility.”
And finally, #3–Do not underestimate the importance of silence as a renewing force. Wyatt Tee Walker, King’s former Chief of Staff, describes the leader’s self-imposed “Days of Silence.” He would check himself into a hotel room where he “abstained from the distractions of daily life, including the telephone, television, and radio. The day was spent in prayer and meditation and in developing a rigorous discipline of think-time…” (vii).
As a pastor, King, no doubt influenced by his mentor Howard Thurman, urged his parishioners to steep themselves in the quiet nature of prayer. We are familiar with the ecstatic, rhetorical, and even theatric expressions of prayer in the Black Church, but there is also a more contemplative strand to this tradition—a thread expressed in spirituals like “Steal Away to Jesus” or “Hush, Hush, Somebody’s Calling My Name.
For King, times of quiet prayer were sustaining. The “vision in the kitchen” is a well-established trope in the King biography. One night in January 1956, in the middle of the Montgomery bus boycotts, King fielded a midnight call from a racist who threatened to kill him and blow up his home. Deeply disturbed by this and worried for his family, King turned to prayer. Or more specifically, prayer and a cup of coffee. There in the kitchen, he was comforted by an inner voice encouraging him to continue his work and assuring him that “Lo, I will be with you, even to the end of the world.”
Praying for Others. Working Hard and Taking Responsibility. Listening for God in the Silence. Those are some of the things we’ll be doing in rural New Hampshire to honor Dr. King this weekend.
P.S. The linocut of Lift Every Voice and Sing is used with the kind permission of Canadian artist Sue Todd and first appeared in Cricket magazine in 2015. You can see more of Sue’s work at www.suetodd.com. If you click on the Portfolio tab, you will find that she has a whole page dedicated to “Religion and Spirituality.”