March 14, 2017
Sister Sharon Roach
I heard my grandma during one of her prayers call her bed a cooling board and tried to visualize what this meant. Did grandma sleep on a surfboard?
I’ve been through some rough spots in my life with sometimes prayer the only thing to save me. I turned to prayer because I watched my mother and grandmother do the same when they went through hard times. One of the mysteries of my childhood was trying to figure out what the old folks meant during some of their prayers. The possibility of my grandma sleeping on a surfboard concerned me.
As a child I attended a small church in Cloverdale, Alabama near the Natchez Trace. Families from the surrounding rural area had attended the small country church for generations. The church was so old its history almost forgotten. As a child I loved to hear the old folks sing and pray. They would stomp their feet in rhythm on the old plank flooring and sing songs that were brought down from slavery days. As the wasps flew in through the open windows and danced across the ceiling, the power of the Holy Spirit would move like wind through the old wooden building from person to person causing shouts of joy.
My Uncle Robert would bow down on bending knees and petition God with prayer. Worn-out from hard physical labor, stressed from supporting his large family on meager wages he would pour out his heart to God. His prayers were the mightiest for miles around, voice roaring like thunder with conviction, zeal, faith, emotion all rolled into one creating spiritual lightening that touched and moved the soul. My Aunt Eula Mae would bow down on bending knee crying to God to hear her prayers and move the mountains (obstacles) in her life out of her way and every single time God delivered. These are the kinds of prayers and prayer warriors I grew up with. I watched and listened to them as they turned their troubles over to God and witnessed them live righteous lives overcoming one obstacle after another. Our Pastor was a farmer whose sermons came from the trials of life, no fancy and complex analogies just simple stories from the Bible in relation to the tribulations of rural life. This is the Christianity I identify with and which I miss so badly.
In those days people said prayers that included idioms that hailed from post-slavery days. These spiritual references became common place in prayer and added depth and meaning to the prayer ritual. One line that used to confuse me was the one about the cooling board. Later in life my grandma shared with me what this line meant.
“So glad that the bed I slept on last night was not my cooling board”
In the old days funeral homes was expensive and families could not afford funerals like we have today. When someone died they would clean the body and place it on a wooden board with usually ice under it to keep the body cool. Hence cooling board. Family and friends would gather at the house to sit with the bereaved family and watch the body. Tradition varies but I’ve been told that someone had to be in the room with the body at all times. The cooling board was your last form of a bed before the grave. In prayers people praised God that they were in the land of the living, sleeping in their own bed at night instead of laying on a cooling board.
Another old prayer saying that I recall was, “Coming to you, oh Lord, in no shape, form or fashion” and what this meant was the individual was coming from the inner depths of their heart. There was a time during slavery and post-slavery days when prayers was what I call freestyle and at will. Prayer was not confined to a specific time but was done as the heart dictated. People would randomly pray while picking cotton, working in the fields or while walking down the road. Prayer service could last all night and sometimes days, with individuals randomly launching prayers. As church became more formal and people became educated there was the push to formalize prayer in certain styles. This old idiom of praying in no shape, form or fashion is a holdover from the days when prayer was less structured and arose at will from the spirit.
One of the most emotional old prayer lines I heard the old folks say was the call for God to meet them in their dying hour. Always saved towards the end of the prayer and shouted with true emotion is the request for Jesus to be there at the darkest hour when life on earth is fading. So many references speak to the passing of the physical life to eternal life in heaven without the grave. The Old Ship of Zion would be waiting to take them on to the other shore when life on this earth was over. After the last breath of life on earth, the perilous chilly Jordan had to be crossed to reach the shores of eternity where Jesus would be waiting. Loved ones was standing on the other shore to beckon and welcome the departed home. The further you go back in Black American spirituality and look at the songs and prayers there is little reference of the departed having to wait in the grave. I believe this is a holdover from some of the much older African spiritual beliefs where the living and dead form a constant circle.
Nevertheless, prayers for Jesus to meet them on their death bed was heartfelt. In the old days the passing of someone constituted a “death watch” as family members lingered around the bed of a dying person to be with them when death arrived. As the loving comfort of family bid the person farewell on the physical side there was the desire to have Jesus take their hand and walk them through to the other side of eternal life. “Will the circle be unbroken” is another reflection of this desire to make it to the other side safely. The circle was the sacred connection of departed family and those who are living, keeping the circle whole by ensuring that everyone is together again on the other side. I can recall many people shouting, “Meet me” in the closing of their prayers. To leave this earth and walk alone into the darkness of the unknown was a real fear.
Many prayers referenced morning. Prayers thanking God for raising them up in the morning. Songs rejoicing for another day’s journey. There was always the appreciation of being able to wake up and see a new day instead of dying in their sleep during the night. Each day presented a new journey into life. Today we take our mornings for granted but back then it was worth rejoicing. Yet, there was a deeper meaning to the praises for the new day. Morning also meant victory. Raising up also meant overcoming the trails of yesterday and the trials of life in general. The song, “Bye and Bye” it talks about how we will understand things better when the morning comes, meaning we will then know why we had to go through certain things after the victory is won. Going a little deeper, morning is also equated with waking up in heaven and the joy of having overcome the trials of earthly life.
Finally, at the close of prayers there was also the plea that “When I’ve come down the shady side of the mountain, when I’ve thrown down my sword to study war no more, when my day is done, meet me and let me hear you say, well done, my good and faithful servant, well done.”
The shady side of the mountain is in reference to the decaying side of life, old age, growing health problems and the many worries that old age bring. Throwing down the sword to study war no more means they have become too old to fight the spiritual battles of life. I can recall how my grandmother towards the end of her days seemed to take on this aura of contentment. She wasn’t worried by anything and was at peace with herself, life and her coming fate. She had come through the trials of old age and no longer sought to fight spiritual or health wars. She was at peace and ready to meet God.
There are so many other old prayer idioms that carry deep spiritual meaning, I can’t list them all but I hope they will never be forgotten. Prayer is your spirit speaking to God. The inner-most depths of your being speaking to the Creator. Sometimes I’ve heard the old folks just moan from the depths of their soul, no words or form to what poured from their spirit and it was powerful. I recall the mothers of the church moaning from their soul and I can’t describe how this resonated in my spirit even though I was young of age. Moaning is another form of prayer more powerful and sacred than spoken words. You rarely ever hear people do this anymore.
One of the things we must do today is get back to the sacredness of prayer and realize that when we are communicating with God we are on sacred ground. Thank you for wandering down memory lane with me. What I would give to attend an old fashioned prayer service. If you know of one please contact me with details. Interestingly, one of my highest viewed videos is not about politics but a prayer video for financial blessings. Although I don’t pray like the old folks did the words come from experience. I leave you with this special prayer and hopefully encouragement to keep your prayer life strong.
What did grandma mean about sleeping on a cooling board?