Oh the Places You’ll Go: Praying or Spectating? (part 2)

Reflections from Dr. Howell

In our last installment, I spoke of famous holy places of prayer where it is exceedingly difficult to pray. It’s way easier for me to pray in a place like the stone pit in St. Peter in Gallicantu in Jerusalem – maybe not the right place, but its centuries-long association with the pit / jail in which Jesus spent his last night on earth under arrest is moving. When I visited this time, no one was there, just me, the hard stone cell, the darkness, and God. The perfect reading in such a place? Psalm 88. Look it up. Read it, imagining you’re in that pitch black stone pit – and in considerable trouble, like Jesus was. If you don’t think of yourself as in trouble, I’d direct you to Isaac Bashevis Singer’s wisdom: “I only pray when I am in trouble. But I am in trouble all the time.”

Or I found myself praying easily about a hundred yards from that stone pit – at the grave of Oskar Schindler, the driven, successful businessman who enjoyed and purchased fine things – and managed to save more than 1,200 Jews from the clutches of the Nazis. No one else was with me in the cemetery – and I could pray readily, thanking God for what he did, asking how I might respond, pledging to God to have a little courage in my days.

In none of these places do you rifle through your personal prayer list, requesting little favors from God. Instead, you focus on what Jesus did – here, and there. What wondrous love, what bold courage. And here in prayer you focus on the woes of the world, which are in plain sight. And you ask yourself, in front of God, some hard questions.

Part of the holy value of travel is the inevitable even if safe testing of your ethical mettle. If I’m on my couch at home, or at the club, or at a resort, nothing much is asked of me morally, or societally. Courage isn’t required. Maybe that’s why people love home, club and resort.

But if I am standing at Schindler’s grave, I ask myself what I would do, at great risk to my own safety, for someone in trouble, for some group of strangers being oppressed. If I am in Memphis and, instead of touring Graceland, I visit the Lorraine Motel, or even drive by (as I did last time I was there) where Tyre Nichols was shot and killed. It was a surprisingly (to me, but why?) nice neighborhood. I parked, stood around, and found myself asking if racism is really a thing of the past in me, and what God might want of me and other people of faith in the ongoing labor to insure no one is marginalized because of anybody’s prejudice. I don’t ask that in my back yard.

So there’s this on being “in trouble”: in 2019, I got to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, with my wife and my longtime friend, Richard Harrison. He wept as we walked and pondered that Bloody Sunday in 1965 when the world changed. I love the way Richard would always say “February is Black History Month? Every month is Black History Month – and it’s not Black History; it’s OUR History.”

A local guy standing around spoke to us and pointed to the spot where John Lewis fell, beaten nearly to death, and not for the first time in his life. Lewis went on to become a longtime congressman from Georgia, and now has passed on to glory. In 2005, he and hundreds of others crossed the bridge once more, with Lewis noticing that “It’s gratifying to come back and see the changes that have occurred.” At the same time, he famously spoke God’s prophetic word to us all: “Speak up, speak out, get in the way. Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.” Are you in trouble yet?