Thursday, May 31, 2007
You never get a busy signal with “real” prayer
With all the manifestations of electronic religion it is remarkable to think that the congregation I serve once worshiped without so much as electric lights to illumine their songbooks. Belle Strickland, a young woman who kept a diary here during the Civil War, commented on the deprivations of war when she wrote on Tuesday, October, 25, 1864, that “Mr. Paine [the Presbyterian minister] had church and we went. . . .Mr. Paine said that he was going to have church tonight and that he thought that six candles would light the room.”
I think about this sometimes amid all the technological paraphernalia that are sometimes thought necessary for life. Of course, air-conditioning is convenient, but it is not usually necessary to sustain life.
The Sunday service was broadcast from my home church in Cleveland, once a month — the different churches rotating the hosting of the broadcast. The placement of the microphone by the pulpit added a special solemnity to the occasion, as people tried to muffle their coughs, and to “help” the minister complete the service by 12 noon, so that the last words of the sermon would not be cut off when the station switched off the microphone to bring the network news report that was scheduled for twelve o’clock.
That is all there was to the broadcast. One microphone in a rather large, cavernous room. Today the broadcast of a service requires all sorts of equipment, much of it made small and unobtrusive, but it would be safe to say that more people might be needed to man the controls than to sing in the choir. In fact, I once officiated at a wedding in which there were more people involved with the sound and light crews than were guests in the congregation.
This might also be the moment to note that even I — iconoclast against the pretended virtues of all things modern — had my moment with the “cutting edge” of progress. This came in the summer of 1976, when I served the Presbyterian Church of Dyersburg, Tenn., as part of my first summer of ministry outside my home church in Mississippi.
The church in Dyersburg was very proud of its new innovation — it had the first “dial a prayer” — at least the first one among Presbyterians, and was written up to that effect in the denominational magazine — I have the clipping tucked away somewhere among my mementoes if you care to see it.
The dial-a-prayer ministry was advertised in the local media, and consisted of what amounted to a primitive version of the now-ubiquitous telephone answering machine, into which a devotional was read, with a prayer at the end. People could dial (and yes, then it was dial) a telephone number and hear the recorded meditation. The novelty of it all was amazing. The little machine took scores of calls. Children amused themselves by calling the number over and over. It was the big event of the summer in Dyersburg.
Of course, I did not invent the dial-a-prayer. It was simply my responsibility to monitor the machine and make a fresh recording for it each day during my summer ministry there. I was giddy with imagination as to the number of souls I may have “saved.”
A black preacher in the neighborhood brought my self-conceit crashing down. He published a sermon that reminded everyone that God’s prayer-line never had a busy signal as the dial-a-prayer line did, and that God’s line was open to midnight prayers as well as during the normal 9 to 5, when the dial-a-prayer was up and running. Moreover, whereas dial-a-prayer had a human voice that would speak to you — the real prayer channel was clear for you to speak to God, “all the way from earth to heaven.”
It was good theology, born straight out of the Bible. I do not know if dial-a-prayer still functions anywhere or not any more. What with the internet, I would guess it has been supplanted. But there was a time when people even called up long-distance to hear the dial-a-prayer devotions from Dyersburg, Tenn. Still, the example of old Mr Paine and the six candles reminds me that the message of God’s love is not dependent upon any human instruments, however clever they may seem in the moment.
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