Our country has voices, and at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast one rose to an epic volume. Chaplain of the United States Senate, retired Rear Admiral Dr. Barry Black, left the podium while a spontaneous and thunderous crowd recognized a new piece of our oral history.
From the first sounds of his Darius Rucker voice and Dr. King prose to his G. K. Chesterton depth and Billy Graham anointing, he provoked our minds and prodded our emotions
He reminded us, “How to have your voice heard – in Heaven.” And in the process, this seemed to redound from such a lofty place. He challenged us to pray for all people, and do so “out of a sense of need,” “with intimacy,” and “for those who govern.” When he finished, we could join him in stating that we, “feel the palpable presence of God in this place.”
At the 22nd of the 26-minute speech, you might say heaven came down as he reflected on his life’s intersection with I Peter 1:18-19. At ten years of age he had the logical awareness to realize that “The value of an object is based upon the price someone is willing to pay.” And that Jesus had paid the ultimate price for him. And as his life unfolded, everywhere he went he kept running into “that man.”
Producer Mark Burnett, certainly one of the world’s best judges of giftedness, immediately classified it as “one of the most impassioned keynotes I’ve ever heard.” The crowd stirred with agreement.
President Donald Trump relayed high praise for the Chaplain with a preface that might become a moniker for our times. “I don’t know if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, but you’re appointed for another year.” Then realizing Chaplain was Senate’s appointment, amidst obvious bi-partisan approval he noted that Chaplain Black had job security either way.
My mind went back to last year’s keynote remarks from Roma Downey about her journey through war-torn Northern Ireland. A holy hush enveloped the crowd as she recalled a bullet ripping through her coat, and that the bridge through her home city of Derry divided sides. And then, invoking a picturesque moral imperative, she recalled her return trip after the fighting ended—and the need to build bridges and keep existing ones open.
As Chaplain Black finished, my mind also rested on Eric Metaxas’s 2012 keynote from the same stage. From his Veggie Tales humor and his reflections on his years of searching at Yale, to his gripping Dietrich Bonhoeffer challenges, he had taken the crowd on an unexpected and provocative ride.
But this morning prompted even deeper reflections. My mind dwelled on the event in 1851 when Sojourner Truth interrupted an otherwise routine gathering, and left an indelible impression on the national conscience with “Ain’t I a Woman?” The moderator, Frances Dan Barker Gage, reflects:
“Amid roars of applause, she returned to her corner leaving more than one of us with streaming eyes, and hearts beating with gratitude. She had taken us up in her strong arms and carried us safely over the slough of difficulty turning the whole tide in our favor. I have never in my life seen anything like the magical influence that subdued the mobbish spirit of the day, and turned the sneers and jeers of an excited crowd into notes of respect and admiration. Hundreds rushed up to shake hands with her …”
Chaplain Black indeed gave us one of the most impassioned keynotes of modern history, and the final four minutes, like the end of Dr. King’s speech, will be replayed millions of times in the coming decades. We need to pray for sustained and new bridges, of gifted minds whether coming through Yale, Indiana Wesleyan, or Brighton College of Art. We indeed keep running into that man.
This morning, “amid roars and applause,” a silhouette of noble prose of heroic proportions took a seat at the table of greatness. Not that his voice was heard on earth, but that we sat in awestruck realization that perhaps its genesis was indeed in heaven, and its message embraced by the angels for the ages.
I often sit and reread about Sojourner, Dr. King, Mandella, Churchill, Clinton, C. S. Lewis, Reagan, and others who have defined our earthly journey. But it’s at points when we run anew into that man when we realize the eternal focus matters most.
This evening at Georgetown’s Grace Street Café I listened again to today’s speeches. I sit here during these “mobbish” days with “streaming eyes” and a heart “filled with gratitude.” I still don’t know if Chaplain Black is a Democrat or a Republican, but concur that we need to be more concerned with our voices reaching heaven, and that man will help with the bridges before us.
Jerry Pattengale is author of more than twenty books, has co-developed a top-ten-visited website, contributes regularly to local and national venues, and has generated significant funding for projects. Indiana Wesleyan University named him its first University Professor (2014). He holds various other distinguished appointments and awards—including USC’s National Student Advocate Award, Hoosier State Press Association, and the National Endowment of Humanities. He serves on the boards of the Religion News Service (DC), Jonathan Edwards’ Center (Yale), and Christian Scholar’s Review (associate publisher). For the Museum of the Bible (DC), he was the founding director of the Scholars Initiative and for the Education Department, two of its four pillars.