Praying in Chorus
It’s difficult to describe, for those who have never heard it, what a chorus of prayer in 20th century Nazarene Churches sounded like. Especially the churches out in the Midwestern countryside, like the one I attended with my Grandma and Grandpa.
Generally the pastor would ask someone to “lead,” and that was a very literal term. Everyone was expected to pray, silently, aloud, or a combination of the two. But someone would stand and speak loud enough for all to hear. Often it was one of my grandparents.
The leader would make an attempt to speak out all the praises and requests. But they wouldn’t just name them. They would do it with style. The volume would rise and fall, the energy would crescendo and descresendo. The topic of the particular “paragraph” would expand a bit, and sometimes the pray-er would circle back to it, noticing the themes that were emerging through the various petitions (healing, wisdom, comfort, guidance, or the classic: “traveling mercies.)
Sounds of Prayer
The Church of the Nazarene is a holiness church, but it is not Pentecostal. The main visible (or audible, actually) distinction was in the language of prayer. Pentecostal churches speak in tongues, Nazarenes do not. But while in these prayers of my childhood you did not get those particular sounds of glossolalia, there would usually be tears, some clicking of the tongue, and moments when the emotion was carried through a kind of groaning or even weeping. Sometimes shouting, as a way of claiming a victory or appealing with greater effort.
For Grandma and Grandpa, this was not something special. It was just praying. It’s the way they prayed for special occasions at home, like when someone was leaving on a journey or having a struggle. “Danny, would you lead us in prayer?” Grandpa would ask. We even did small versions of this for meals. You could hear Grandma’s tongue clicking, or her worded or throated sounds of agreement, as Grandpa prayed over the mashed potatoes and noodles.
Grandma saw plenty of hardships in her life, and walked with many of us—family, friends, neighbors, strangers—through hardships of our own. And my oh my would she pray. When Grandma prayed for you, you knew you’d been prayed for. I’ve got letters, and recall phone calls and conversation on the back porch, where she reminded me just how prayed for I was.
Dementia began to slowly take Grandma from us a year or so ago. A theologian once wrote that the saddest thing about dementia is the way it causes us to “forget whose we are.” Well, Grandma never forgot whose she is. I sat in a chair in their house last year, talking with Grandpa while Grandma fell asleep in a hospital bed nearby. I heard her talking, and asked Grandpa if she needed something.
“No, hun,” he said. “She’s just praying.”
This past summer I went through some weeks that were asking a lot of me. I leaned on my mom, as I often do. She was caring for her parents at the time, as she often does. When Grandpa asked if she was OK she told him a little about the stresses that were weighing on me.
“Let’s pray for him,” Grandpa said. Then he called to Grandma. “We’re going to pray for Tony now,” he told her. Mom says that Grandma just started in like always, joining the chorus with words and appeals and sounds and clicks like she always did. When Grandpa said “Amen,” she looked at Mom with worry in her eyes. “Why are we praying for Tony?” she asked.
That’s my Grandma. You start praying before you even know why. Because it’s never the wrong thing to do.
Praying to the End
Grandma is now in her final days. Two of her kids are there with her, as is one of my cousins. Grandpa is sitting by her almost constantly, Mom says, holding her hand, reminding her about their lives together, lives of farming and travel. He’s crying while listening to Vestal Goodman, a family favorite, singing songs about heaven. And he’s saying prayers. I imagine Grandma is too, in her own way.
We’re with you Grandma. All the way to the end.