by Louie Crew
First appeared in The Epistle July/August 1994: 3-5.
© 1994, 2004
© 1994, 2004 Louie Crew
In the Continental Congress, Benjamin Franklin was losing an argument, so he said, "Gentlemen, I move that we pause for a moment of prayer."
Alexander Hamilton, whose side was winning, responded, "Gentlemen, I move that we don't bring in any outside interference."
If I look very objectively at my childhood (which often turns up unpleasantness; it's so much more comfortable to romanticize, for good or ill), I can certainly see how prayer was used in our family circle as a means of social control. Parents' prayer often is a way of speaking to a child with more authority than a parent dares to claim in her or his own right; it's a way of bringing in the big guns.
If I look at two religious people arguing fiercely about an issue about which I have no concerns either way, I can frequently find one or both at some point indicating "Well, I've prayed about this and....." Few have the audacity to complete the sentence with their candid thesis ("and God told me..."), but milder versions sound like insincere disclaimers.
Wasn't it Bob Dylan who made famous the song with the ironic refrain, "with God on our side"?
When I was a freshman at Baylor in 1954, I used to go to the Tidwell Bible Chapel to the prayer room to try to exorcise all my homoerotic desires, which I desperately wanted to give up for Jesus. Most other Baptists felt the very idea of a prayer chapel was heretical, and smelled of "Episcolopianism," as they called it; but I liked it because it was very small and almost always empty, so I could pray "in secret," and nicely too, in the best air-conditioning that 1954 allowed.
But it was not always empty. My friend Don also was often there, and he taught me to pray prostrate. Sometimes I would come in and find him almost clawing the thick carpet, and I was envious of his fervor. My own "sins" made me more embarrassed than fervent.
One day I ran into Don in the cafeteria where he worked and he looked absolutely awful, with a scrubby beard that he was not meant to wear: God Herself would never do that to anybody! Lying prostrate but clean shaven he'd looked cute enough to set my sin- monitor to ticking on the floor of the Tidwell Bible Chapel, but here behind the food we were to eat, he looked grungy.
"Growing a beard, huh?" I asked, more to hope he would say, "No, just haven't had time to shave." But instead he said,
"Yes, God told me to do it."
"Really? I mean literally?"
"You heard God's voice speaking to you in English?" I asked, not hiding my disbelief.
"No, but I decided that the problem with my sin was that I was going about it the wrong way. I kept asking God to change my behavior, yet I kept doing the same sinful things. Then it dawned on me that I would never stop sinning this way. That my big sin was in taking control, in my pride. And in a flash of inspiration, I decided to give my mind to God."
"How did you do that?" I asked.
"Prostrate on the carpet of the Tidwell Bible Prayer Chapel I said, 'God, I give up trying to take over my own life and I hereby give you my mind.' And oh, Louie, I have never been so much at peace."
"But how do you know God took your mind?"
"God always answers prayer. And now when I think of something, it is no longer I who think of it, but God who gives me the thoughts."
"And that's how you came to grow the beard?"
"Yes, I was walking across campus and I thought 'beard' and then I realized in my own mind I have never thought 'beard' and so God must have planted 'beard' in my mind. And so I am growing a beard."
I got my scrambled eggs, but even already a fatso, I didn't have much of an appetite.
When I got to the Tidwell Bible Prayer Chapel in the heat of the afternoon, I had it all to myself, and for several days thereafter. On the weekend, one of my friends and a "prayer-mate" for long evening walks, told me that the Dean had taken Don to the mental hospital after the head of the Psychology Department had asked him in the cafeteria line why he was growing a beard.
I heard several years later from this same friend, who was a pastor in Cleveland, that Don was still in the mental hospital.
What I find even more amazing as I try to look analytically and yet compassionately at that time oh so long ago, when what we thought we were doing was all our own doing and had so little awareness of how our culture had given us little room for freedom to do anything else, is that at that time we lived in a segregated society and attended a university where converts of our missions in Africa could not even attend; we lived in a town with egregious treatment of is Mexican poor..... yet we were not encouraged to look at any of these realities as we inventoried our sins or crawled on the floor of the airconditioned Tidwell Bible Prayer Chapel. Marx came damn near the bull's eye in describing the opiate that we were addicted to.
The really fearful part for me, 39 years later and Episcopalian sitting in the breeze of my fan before my crt in Newark, the Calcutta of the West, the Episcopal Church Annual at my left hand, a stack of 15 letters written to clergy, bishops, and laity at my right.... is still to wonder whether 39 years hence (which thank God, I don't have to fear reaching) I would see most of what I now call faith as conditioning.
How does God ever get through all the clutter of our conditioning genuinely to redeem you and me? I doubt that the redemption ever gets rid of the clutter. I believe with all my heart God loves every single person in the world, that She abhors injustice, that the sacrifices of a broken and a contrite heart delight Her.....
Don, pray for me wherever you are. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death.
Be for us tonic, not opiate, gentle Holy Spirit.