Before I get into what I’m about to say, I’d like to state for the record I don’t believe the Common Lectionary was designed with me in mind. It dates back to the 1990s, and it was preceded by other lectionaries — directories of assigned readings — in Catholic and liturgical Protestant churches dating back to the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s. Nor did I have anything to do with choosing Sunday’s organ prelude at Peace Lutheran Church, a pastorale on the shape-note folk hymn “My shepherd will supply my need.”
But the combination of coincidences was enough to get me thinking. Veterans of 12-step recovery may recognize it as a gentle nudge from my higher power to get my thoughts lined up in the right direction.
Here’s why. For one thing, Sunday’s pericope, for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (as Lutherans number the weeks in ordinary time) was a passage from 1 Timothy beginning, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone …” For another, the prelude was based on Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm, and it has been one of my very favorites since I first heard it sung out of the Southern Harmony 20 years ago in Kentucky. Its melody is one of those sturdy old pentatonic tunes handed down in Scots-Irish oral tradition, and its message couldn’t have been more timely:
My Shepherd will supply my need;
Jehovah is his name;
In pastures fresh he makes me feed,
Beside the living stream.
He brings my wandering spirit back,
When I forsake his ways,
And leads me, for his mercy’s sake,
In paths of truth and grace.
Modern hymnals update the language, substituting “most holy is your name” in the second line, and I guess it’s OK that way. It’s definitely more inclusive, I guess. But that’s not the way we sang it from the Southern Harmony 20 years ago at the courthouse in Benton, Kentucky.
And when you’re joining in with a roomful of traditional shape-note singers, you’re flat going to believe in Jehovah — at least for the duration of the song — no matter how modern linguists and theologians transliterate YHWH these days. Isaac Watts’ second verse is a close paraphrase of the psalm, from “When I walk through the shades of “death” to “My cup with blessing overflows / Thine oil anoints my head.” And the last verse made the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I sang it at the courthouse in Benton. It still does 20 years later:
The sure provisions of my God
Attend my all my days;
O may thy house be mine abode,
And all my work be praise!
There would I find a settled rest,
(While others go and come,)
No more a stranger, nor a guest;
But like a child at home.
(The video clip at the head of this post is worth a listen, by the way. It shows the folk hymn in its natural habitat, performed by amateur singers at a singing convention near Louisville. Kentucky has a living tradition of Southern Harmony shape-note singing, and the very slow 3/2 tempo is authentic to the tradition. So is the unrestrained, full-throated singing. The singers begin with solfege of the old fa-sol-la scale, then sing the “poetry,” or lyrics, beginning at 1:47. And they sing the poetry like they flat believe it.)
So between the prelude, the reading from 1 Timothy and Pastor Mary’s sermon, which was about prayer and the things we pray for, it all added up to something like a gentle nudge from Jehovah … kind of a still, small voice saying hey, pal, I know you’ve had a lot on your mind lately, but you’re kind of falling down on developing your prayer life, aren’t you? Just a little? When’s the last time you prayed the Examen, for example?
Well, truth be known, I haven’t lately. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been trying to pray.
Life has been kind of tempestuous, but I certainly had occasion for intercessory prayer when Debi’s mother passed away and we went up to northern Illinois several times to visit her as the end drew nearer, and for then the visitation and funeral. And … now that I think about it … I revised an old table grace as sort of a general prayer of thanksgiving. Turned out we had a lot to be thankful for. And plenty of reminders that each new day is a blessing.
Anyway, the table grace is something I learned growing up in the Episcopal Church. I remember it like this:
O Lord, bless this food to our use, and us to thy service; and make us ever mindful of the needs of others. Amen.
It came to me when we were driving home from northern Illinois one night. I was thankful for something — what? I don’t remember exactly, several things turned out to be unexpected blessings (even a ball game we watched with Debi’s mother as the Cubs beat Milwaukee 7-1). I didn’t have internet access in the car, so I couldn’t Google an appropriate prayer. But if I took my childhood table grace and substituted “gifts” for “food,” then I might have something that matched what I was feeling.
Besides, I was conscious like never before that each new day is a gift from God, and it was high time for a little thanksgiving. It was getting late that night; we were on the last leg home; and as we were passing the wind farm off I-155 just north of Lincoln, red lights on top of the turbines slowly blinking as we peeled right onto I-55 and headed down toward Springfield, I tried it out in my mind:
O Lord, bless your gifts to our use, and us to your service; and make us ever mindful of the needs of others. Amen.
It worked. Each new day is a blessing, and here was another. If nothing else, I was successfully adapting the language of a prayer.
Growing up in the Episcopal Church, I’ve always tended to be leery of extemporaneous prayer; if it wasn’t in Archbishop Cranmer’s 1549 prayer book, it wasn’t really a prayer. So maybe I was getting beyond that, at least a little.
When we got home that night, I got curious and did a couple of Google searches. Turns out the prayer I learned as a kid was a conflation of two versions of the Grace before Meal suggested under the heading “Forms of Prayer to be used in Families” in the 1928 edition of the Book of Common Prayer still in use when I was growing up:
BLESS, O Father, thy gifts to our use and us to thy service; for Christ’s sake. Amen.
GIVE us grateful hearts, our Father, for all thy mercies, and make us mindful of the needs of others; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A further gift: The collection of family prayers in the online edition of the 1928 prayer book has some lovely prayers for guidance and trustfulness, for “Joy in God’s Creation,” for children, for “Those we Love,” for the “Recovery of a Sick Person” and “One about to undergo an Operation,” for guidance, trustfulness and — my favorite — “for Quiet Confidence.” I guess I needed a prayer that night on the interstate north of Lincoln, and Jehovah supplied my need. And I’m pretty sure finding all those prayers online is another gentle nudge.