Preachers, Poets, and Storytellers | Sojourners

Preachers, Poets, and Storytellers

Summer Sundays with Phyllis Tickle

July 4 weekend! Now this is a holiday! We won't have another one until Labor Day, but that doesn't even matter right now. What matters is that this is the last day of a glorious three days of blessed interruption. Thank goodness for all such favors.

I preach today -- four times, in fact -- at an Episcopal church in Ponte Vedra, Florida, where Sam and I are taking a few days of extended vacation. I use the word "preach" loosely, for I am not, and never shall be, a preacher. I'm a storyteller, which is a much humbler occupation ... not to mention a much more pleasant thing to be, but that's another issue entirely.

Storytellers like me, especially those in religion, often get asked to preach -- or "cover for us," as the wording usually goes -- during the summer months when clergy, for very legitimate reasons, want to get away and rest like the rest of us. So today, I am covering, and today I will tell some tales and spin some yarns, all of them true and all of them biblical, some of them shocking. The Bible, when we treat it as it is and not as what we wish it to be sanitized into, is full of shocking stories.

But there is one story I shan't tell today in the pulpit because I want to tell it here instead. Actually, it is not a story per se. The story part is simply to say that I, who loves poetry but cannot write it with any adequacy, love in particular the poetry of James Weldon Johnson. Poet beyond all telling, Johnson was by trade himself a preacher, and much of his poetry had Christian themes or sensibilities implicit in it. Yet like all good poetry, though it was written almost a century ago, it still sings in all our ears. One of Johnson's pieces, in particular, rings in my heart this July 4:

Listen, Lord - A Prayer

O Lord, we come this morning
Knee-bowed and body-bent
Before thy throne of grace.
O Lord -- this morning --
Bow our hearts beneath our knees,
And our knees in the lonesome valley.
We come this morning --
Like empty pitchers to a full fountain,
With no merits of our own.
O Lord -- open up a new window of heaven
And lean out far over the battlements of glory
And listen this morning.

You see, my heart is fingering Johnson's Prayer like a rosary this July 4 weekend because in this summer of 2008, in this country, within our part of God's world, you and I will further the process, almost to conclusion, of making some major decisions. It's a holiday today, and time to play. But tomorrow begins the long pull toward fall and elections.

Our knees are in the Lonesome Valley, Lord. Lean out over the battlements of glory and listen this morning as we pray.


Phyllis Tickle ( is the founding editor of the religion department of Publishers Weekly and author of The Words of Jesus: A Gospel of the Sayings of Our Lord and the forthcoming fall release, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. Listen, Lord - A Prayer is from God's Trombones, by James Weldon Johnson.

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