Stuck in the pages of my Bible — next to the flyleaf, crumpled amongst the Psalms, slipped in between maps of Paul’s journeys — are a number of sad-looking scraps. The same kind of dog-eared notes and post-its you would find in many preachers’ Bibles, I imagine, they make a rather untidy mess of that lovely old leather binding. Some of them suggest retranslations of tricky texts (“the fervent, effective prayer of a righteous woman availeth much” says one clipped to the last page of James). Others memorialize a Great Insight. Some are smudged souvenirs of the Spirit’s movement, moments to be recalled later with a smile and a shake of the head. The lion’s share, I believe, are great things I’ve heard Fred Craddock say.
My favorite is a prayer that takes its inspiration from Isaiah (55:8-9) and whose author I’ve long since forgotten.
Give us, we pray, O God,
Prayers better than our own prayers,
Thoughts higher than our own thoughts,
Powers beyond our biological possibilities,
That we may spend and be spent,
In the preaching of Thy Word.
It makes a great Prayer of Illumination, offered just before the Scripture is read. I tend to use it when I am in the company of other preachers, but it is a prayer for everyone who belongs to Christ. I suspect that whoever it was who first bounced off Isaiah’s image and wrote the original version was a preacher, though (a Niebuhr, perhaps? Or was it Craddock?). I further suspect that the form I am using is one I amended myself. I see the mid-century homiletician H. Grady Davis in that “biological possibilities” line. Probably I cribbed that expression from him and added it to whatever the original version was. It’s lost to me now.
I have to say I like the prayer all the more for its layers. It reminds me of the manuscripts of an earlier generation of preachers. IBM Selectric typeface on onionskin, emended by No. 2 pencils, peppered with caret marks, smeared with Wite-Out. The archives at my seminary are full of them. I once heard Garrison Keillor say that you have to correct typescript in pencil; otherwise the writing has a flabby tone. It seems these preachers knew that. It seems that good preachers are almost always good editors, knowing the importance of sitting light in the saddle with language. Of letting it settle. Of giving the Spirit leave to evolve, enhance and extend their words. “There is yet time for amendment of life,” the Book of Common Prayer promises in one of its most reassuring lines. All the good preachers I know are quick to claim it. To repent and amend.
There is something beautiful about what happens when you do. We think of repentance as washing away the ugly, but Isaiah’s images suggest a different view. Like what painters call “pentimento,” an underlying shape or image that peeks through the top layers of paint, an amended life can be hauntingly beautiful. Whether it’s a sermon or a Bible lesson, a journal entry or a spiritual life you are scribbling over, there is something about the way the layers build up. At the very least, it’s a reminder of the way God shapes and reshapes us. Layer upon layer, year after year. Our messy bulging Bibles and our messy bulging lives are things of beauty. To all who have eyes to see, of course. But especially to the God who loves us and leads us into the new and the next.
Jana Childers is dean, vice president for academic affairs and professor of homiletics and speech communication at San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, Calif.