Pencils and Prayer

Some thoughts from Matthew Blake Williams:

My fourth grade teacher had one of the most formidable names I’ve ever heard:

Alida Ann Van Weelden.

Of course we, her students, were not on a first name basis. Ms. Van Weelden was a stout, unmarried, Belgian, reformed Presbyterian woman of about 50 who kept a bowlful of Skittles candy at her desk. This colorful confection concoction sat in stark contrast to the sour disposition of the woman behind the desk. On the occasional afternoon, when the mood hit her, Ms. Van Weelden would invite my classmates and I to line up around the room and pass by her desk, one by one. We were permitted a single Skittle each, and if she saw too many of us claiming the reds and purples, a stern look compelled those at the end of the line to select the less envied colors of yellow and orange.

Ms. Van Weelden was an expert in what I like to call the “religious disciplinary arts,” and because she taught at a Christian school, her lessons on this subject were frequent and unchecked. Once, when teaching us the fundamentals of prayer, Ms. Van Weelden’s sharp eye caught sight of my pig-tailed classmate Natalie Overstreet playing with a pencil that had set of glittering tinsel streamers blooming from its end. In mere moments, Ms. Van Weelden was looming over Natalie’s desk, demanding to know why she felt her toy pencil was of greater significance than the lesson at hand. The pencil, as you might imagine, was confiscated, and replaced with the same drab yellow No. 2 the rest of us were using.

Ms. Van Weelden’s tone was both fierce and calm when she asked the class, “Don’t you know what it means when you hold an object in your hands during prayer? Don’t you?”

She sighed at our collective silence.

“It means, children, that you believe the object to be more important than God. When you pray, you are to empty your hands of whatever they are holding. Otherwise, God will know that you treasure that object more than you treasure him.”

To my surprise, before that day in fourth grade, no one had thought to teach me this essential principle of prayer. I thought back to all the times in my short life when I was still holding the hymnal at church during the benediction, or holding my fork at dinner while my mother said grace, or holding the hand of the person next to me while we joined in a circle of prayer on a muggy summer evening at church camp. I was ashamed; and I was sorry.

From that day on, I vowed never again to send God the message that I found something more important than her. I incorporated this rule into the long, long list of precepts by which I lived - the principles that governed how I distinguished myself as a Christian. How I practiced my faith.

For so much of my spiritual life, I have felt the spectre of Alida Ann Van Weelden hovering in the corner of the room anytime a prayer is offered. Even now, as an arguably grown man in my 30s who doesn’t even really pray anymore because the rules of prayer and faith and Christianity became so oppressive that I shucked them all from my life - even now, I still fight the urge to put down my cup of coffee when I’m at Sojourn Grace and we are invited into a moment of prayer.

I’m so glad that Kate and Colby are leading this community in a deconstruction of religious practice. It’s helpful to me, to think about the spiritual life as something I practice, in the same way I practice in other parts of life, so that I can become a better guitar player, or a better writer, or, most importantly, a better karaoke singer.

As an occasional worship leader here, it is important for me to convey that Sojourn is a place where there are no limitations on the number or variety of Skittles you take. No one is going to tell you that what you hold is not important. I can say this with confidence, because I am the first to tell the Sojourn leadership that I am a giant skeptic. That, although I love participating in worship, I personally don’t believe half of the words that I sing on any given Sunday. I don’t know of too many churches where you can say things like that, and then still be invited to pick the songs and play with the band and actually stand up here and share a story about your fourth grade teacher.

When you show up at Sojourn, many things might be true. Maybe you bring the spiritual equivalent of a handful of pretty tinsel, and you are delighted by it, and you want to wave it around in an act of play. Or maybe you, like me, bring your drab, yellow No. 2 skepticism.

My hope is to simply invite you to practice at worship with me. To take whatever long list of rules have been handed to you over the years and, if necessary, shuck them from your experience. To be okay with feeling like you don’t get it, or maybe that you don’t even agree with it. To no longer wonder if you’re doing it right and -  for whatever brief moment - trust that the divine spirit that we sing about in these songs isn’t preoccupied with whether your prayer or your worship is good enough, but instead looks at what you hold in your hands and in your heart and says, “I see how important this is to you, and it is just as important to me.”

Let us practice, together.

Matthew Blake Williams, or "Mateo" as we like to call him, is an award-winning writer and occasional Sojourn Grace Collective music leader. When he's not rocking the mic at his favorite North Park karaoke bar, he likes to dress fancy and attend premieres at The Old Globe Theatre (a.k.a the place that pays his bills).