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"A Word of Prayer: Prophetic Perfect" by Rev. Andrew Warner - December 24, 2017

posted Jan 3, 2018, 9:50 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Sometimes as a preacher I’m asked to offer “a word of prayer.”  I find that phrase so interesting: the invitation not just to pray but to give a word of prayer.  Where did this phrase come from?  Do people ask preachers to give a word of prayer, because preachers have a reputation for being long winded?  For using a thousand words when one would do?  As if the request for prayer comes with the plea, “please, preacher, just one word.”

I’m thinking of words this week for many reasons.  We’ll gather tonight to hear the famous opening lines of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.”  

But I’m also thinking of words because of the controversy over the seven words the CDC seemed to ban from government reports, words like “science-based” and “vulnerable” and “fetus.”  The CDC’s list of “words that shall not be named” came out of concern that the words would trigger Republican Congressman to cut the CDC budget.  Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker recently reflected on this, saying:

“One could call this ‘Oh, my God, they’re trying to ban words!’ Or, one could call it common sense. I’m not sure which is more discomfiting, however: CDC guys worried that ‘science-based’ would so frighten Republicans that they’d kill their budget, or, that this could possibly be true.”

The controversy reminded me of the fifty year old George Carlin skit about the seven words he couldn’t say on television.  Carlin, of course, used all seven in the routine.  And later, as people kept suggesting more, his skit grew to include 300 bleep worthy words.  

Listening again to George Carlin’s routine, I especially took note of what he said at the opening of the skit.

“I want to tell you something about words that I think is important.  They're my work, they're my play, they're my passion.  Words are all we have, really.  We have thoughts but thoughts are fluid, y'know like, woo woo woo woo, POP!  Then we assign a word to a thought and we're stuck with that word for that thought, so be careful with words.  I like to think that yeah, the same words that hurt can heal, it's a matter of how you pick them.”

The recent controversy over words and the old routine of George Carlin remind me: words matter; the same word can hurt or heal depending on how we use it.  Just as God called the universe into being by speaking, so to our own words help create our reality.  And so we need a word of prayer because prayerful words shape our reality.

And we can learn this by listening carefully to the words of Mary, the words she prayed with her cousin Elizabeth, the words we sing every Advent: “My soul magnifies the Lord.”  These words of Mary can teach us how to have a word of prayer.  Mary’s song shows the power of spirituality - the power of the words we pray - to shape our future, our past, and our present.

I always wish I was the kind of person who could pick up languages.  I’m in awe of people who can, people like my brother.  He went off to a foreign exchange program in Spain, became friends with some French students, and came back home speaking Spanish, French, and somehow, Portuguese too.  He said he just figured out the pattern between the languages.  I’m the opposite of my brother; where he’s the Rosetta Stone, I’m a blank slate.

And yet, while I haven’t successfully learned another language, I’ve come to appreciate the way languages shape how we experience and know the world.  Greek, the language of the New Testament, contains far more verb tenses than English.  One verb can be conjugated 490 ways, each giving a different nuance to the action, describing not just the time of action (as in English) but also the kind of action.  

We could think of prayer as its own language; as a language with a grammar; as having its own special tenses; 490 ways to conjugate love.

One of the unique tenses in the language of prayer could be called the “prophetic perfect.”  Grammatically, the perfect tense refers to actions completed in the past which continue to impact the present: “I have made dinner.”  

The prophetic perfect tense does something similar: speaking of the past as if it was happening now and describing the future as if it had already happened; that is, the prophetic perfect tense blurs the lines between past, future, and present.

You can hear this in the song of Mary, when she sang of herself, saying, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me.”  Mary, at this point in the Gospel, had run away from home to hide out with her cousin in the hill country.  Pregnant, unwed women in her time faced public shame and threats of violence; she didn’t just make haste but ran with fear.  Yet now she prays with a prophetic perfect voice, “the Mighty One has done great things for me.”  Mary spoke of the future so confidently that she used the past tense; she prayed with such certain hope that the unknown future seemed as settled as the past.

At the same time Mary recalled all that God did in the ancient past as if it was breaking news in her day.  “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  These dramatic reversals recalled some of the most spectacular stories of God’s liberation, especially God’s liberation of the slaves of Egypt, of Pharaoh toppled in the waters of the Red Sea.  But in Mary’s prayer those long ago events became breaking news: as if King Herod was the one deposed, as if King Herod was fleeing for his life instead of Mary and Joseph and the baby.  

This prophetic perfect tense, this “past made present” aspect of her prayer, only gets underscored when you realize Mary’s prayer echoed the words of Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, who lived a thousand years before Mary.  Mary’s song, these recycled words of Hannah, take the ancient past and make it real in her own day.  

In her word of prayer, Mary used the past tense to speak of the future; but also recalled the distant past as her reality.  Her prayer simultaneously hopes and remembers, both looks to the past as now and the future as present.

Could you pray in the prophetic perfect?  Could you pray as if the future had already happened?  Could you pray as if the ancient past was your present reality?  Could you pray with a confidence that both hoped and remembered?

Praying in the prophetic perfect can change our reality, as I recently heard in an old story about the Olympic Speedskater Dan Jansen.  Jansen rose to prominence in the late 1980’s as a star athlete; many expected him to win big at the 1988 Olympics, especially in the 500m and 1000m speed skating races.  

But before the 500m race, Jansen learned his older sister Jane was dying of leukemia.  Jansen tried talking to her over the phone but couldn’t get a response from his sister.  Then, just before the race, he learned Jane had died.  During the race, the kind of race he’d done countless times before, Jansen fell on the first turn.  Then, a few days later, in the 1000m race, Jansen fell again.  He went from a favored-athlete expected to win gold to the “heartbreak” kid.  

The next Olympics in 1992 didn’t turn out any better; he finished 8th in the 500m and then 26th in the 1000m competitions.

Two years later, when the Summer and Winter Olympics started their opposite quadrennial cycles, Jansen got another chance.  But once again, Jansen finished eighth in the 500m.  Gold seemed out of reach; his only shot the 1000m race, where he often faltered.  As his friend Bonnie Blair explained, Jansen started putting post-it notes everywhere: his hotel room, his sports locker, the travel bus, everywhere.  Each read, “You love the 1000m.”  

He needed the notes because of course he didn’t love the 1000m; too many heartbreaks.  But everywhere he looked, he read, “You love the 1000m.”  Prophetic perfect, praying as if the future were already past.  

On race day the unexpected happened: Jansen won.  And not only won, but set a world record.  His only gold secured by post-it note prophecy.  

What might happen in your life if you prayed in the prophetic perfect?  Not asking God for help, but rejoicing for what the Lord has done for you?  Hope shaped Jansen’s life; I know it can shape ours too.

The prophetic perfect involves more than just hope.  Mary also remembered the past as if it were her own dear story.  Recently I thought about this as I taught a confirmation class on the meaning of communion.  

Many of the words we use in communion can be traced back very far.  This is my body, broken for you.  We’ve gathered at a table to hear those words for two thousand years.  

My sister lives in an old New England house, over 300 years of history in its creaking wooden floors.  Yet even her old house seems new compared to words two millennia old.  With houses and buildings we can see ruins 2000 years old; but only words last as long.  We’re living in the communion liturgy just as our ancestors did millennia ago: discovering in the broken bread our hearts bound together.

So in communion we remember the Last Supper not as some ancient meal long ago but as if remembering something we experienced.  And several important spiritual connections get made when we talk this way in prayer.

First, we connect with the long line of people who came before us.  And that means we are not alone.  However lonely we might feel in a desperate moment of prayer, we face the future with others.  

Second, we draw strength from our spiritual ancestors; the prophetic perfect of prayer reminding us that if they made it, so can we.  

The power of remembering the past this way comes out in the Black Church tradition of remembering the Exodus as if it happened just recently.  Spirituals written during slavery gave voice to the desire for freedom in the idiom of memory; “When Israel was in Egypt’s land, let my people go.”  Connecting to the ancient story of God’s liberation helped a new people imagine what God would do; and in fact called for new leaders like Harriet Tubman, the Moses of her people, who went way down into Egypt’s land to lead her people to freedom.  Tubman’s courage and confidence came from her memory of the past and her certainty of the future.     

In prayer - at least in prophetic perfect prayer - we ask ourselves, “Were you there…?”  And by imagining the long ago past as our own personal story we connect ourselves with those great moments of God’s liberation.  Sometimes it causes us to tremble; and sometimes it causes us to sing with Mary, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  Remembering how God brought liberation in the past gives us the courage and confidence to work for it in the future.

This day find time to pray like Mary; try on the prophetic perfect word of prayer, remembering the ancient past as your own story and hoping so confidently that you speak of the future as the past.  Alleluia and Amen.


  • Carlin, George, “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” Class Clown, 1972.

  • Parker, Kathleen, “So We’re Banning Words Now,” Washington Post, Dec. 19, 2017.

  • Blair, Bonnie, “Rotary Club of Milwaukee Address,” Dec. 2017.