No liturgical formality. Just humility of the heart.
We moved to Birmingham, Ala., in 1996 for my job as the new associate minister of an affluent Baptist church in the tony, wooded enclave called Mountain Brook. The church had multi-layered programs and the staff to keep all those trains running on time.
One of the members of that staff was a former professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where Amy and I had received our theology degrees. Dr. William E. Hull, the part-time “Minister in Residence,” was actually the reason we went to Birmingham.
His son, Dr. David Hull, had been the pastor of First Baptist in Laurens when Amy and I married. David and his wife, Jane, became important mentors, and as we were expecting the birth of our first child and looking for new positions, David recommended me to the church his father served in Birmingham.
Bill Hull became not only a favorite mentor for me, but also a dear friend. Before he died of ALS just a few years ago, I traveled to his home in Birmingham because I wanted to be able to tell him, face to face, while he could still talk a little just how much he had meant to me, because virtually every time we were together I learned something from him. That was a practice that began in our very first meeting.
We had been introduced, but Bill invited me to join him at his favorite BBQ joint (and there are a lot of BBQ joints in Birmingham!) so we could get to know each other better. Bill gave me the directions (Isn’t it amazing how we actually found our way to places in those days before GPS!?), and I met him at the front door. He pointed out a few things on the menu, and then we sat down. I was nervous because Bill’s reputation had preceded him – though I never found him to be the “aloof and arrogant” professor another friend had remembered.
When our platters of plucked pork arrived, before I could wonder, in good southern style, whether Bill would offer grace or if he’d be using that moment to test the young minister’s piety, he said, in good Hull-ian style, “If it’s no offense to you, I normally forgo the liturgical formality of offering a prayer in public restaurants.”
Let the learning begin.
I was raised on grace-before-every-single-meal. Every. Single. Meal. As if our food might rot right before our eyes (like too much manna, gathered and hoarded in the wilderness), we never ate a morsel before we gave our thanks, asked God’s blessing. This usually happened at our kitchen table. (Was there anywhere to eat out in Clinton in the 1970s!?)
But it happened everywhere, liturgical formality and all: at home, in someone else’s home, in the rare restaurant appearance. The unwritten rule was simple: Before You Eat. Say The Blessing. Period.
It was another of the wonderful lessons I learned in my childhood. God is with us in all the good things – what better way to recognize that than with a simple “grace.” Taste and see that the Lord is good. Amen (Psalm 34.8).
But Bill made me think. Always. Dispensing with the liturgical formality didn’t mean he wasn’t aware, wasn’t thoughtful, wasn’t grateful. It didn’t even mean he wasn’t “prayerful” as he enjoyed his pig. Maybe he was thinking of Jesus, who never taught the liturgical formality of public prayer. On one occasion, overhearing the ostentatious piety of a too-public pray-er, Jesus instructed his disciples: “When you pray, go to your closet… Pray in secret, and your Father who is in secret will hear you…” (Matthew 6).
Maybe Jesus thought prayer wasn’t supposed to be a public spectacle, a liturgical formality, only a humility of the heart. Maybe Bill knew that.
All that said, I was at my parents’ house over the weekend. We came for our last, first spring scrimmage for PC Baseball. (Those “last, firsts” come too quickly, don’t they!?) We spent the night, and before breakfast on Saturday my father said, in good like-I’ve-always-known-it style, “Let us pray…” And we did.
There was no liturgical formality. Just humility of the heart.
Thanks, Mom and Dad. Amen.
(Dr. Russ Dean is a graduate of Clinton High School. He and his wife, Rev. Amy Jacks Dean, also a CHS graduate, are co-pastors of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte.)