All posts from "September 2009"September 23, 2009
Diverse figures from church history offer surprisingly similar guidance for this core Christian practice.
On September 16, The New York Times Magazine ran an exploration of prayer under the title, “Is There a Right Way to Pray?” In search of an answer to the title question, contributor Zev Chafets, a self-identified non-pray-er, visited the Brooklyn Tabernacle, a professional spiritual director in Manhattan, the rabbi half of the “God Squad,” a Catholic theologian, and an Assemblies of God church outside Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.
Chafets received guidance as varied as “just sit and ponder,” “give Jesus a big hand,” “thank who or what seems appropriate,” and, at The Brooklyn Tabernacle, complete directions for body and soul: “Let God begin the conversation. Keep your prayers brief and clear. Repeat simple Scripture-based phrases. Pray standing up to fight torpor. And pray directly facing others, eye to eye, in a loud, clear voice.” He was most drawn to … well, you should read the article to find out.
Chafets’ investigation sent me on a brief jaunt of my own—not to New York and America’s first spa (I’m way too behind on grading to be traveling just now), but to the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. I didn’t set myself a search agenda, hoping, like the reporter, to end up at least one place I hadn’t expected to go.
The varied historical figures who popped up on my keyword search offered advice that overlapped very little with what Chafets heard but, to my surprise, they echoed each other across time and tradition. They asserted that prayer is rather simple, and it really is about asking for stuff.
CCEL first sent me to Charles Haddon Spurgeon, a 19th century British Baptist known as the “Prince of Preachers.” In a reflection on Ezekiel 36:37, he wrote, “Prayer is always the preface to blessing. It goes before the blessing as the blessing’s shadow. When the sunlight of God’s mercies rises upon our necessities, it casts the shadow of prayer far down upon the plain.”
The trigonometry of this illustration wasn’t entirely clear to me, but I understood Spurgeon’s next point: “Prayer is thus connected with the blessing to show us the value of it. If we had the blessings without asking for them, we should think them common things; but prayer makes our mercies more precious than diamonds.” The relationship between necessity and mercy, request and blessing, might be mysterious, but it boils down to ask, receive, and give thanks.
For no obvious reason, CCEL next sent me to Justin Martyr, the author of the longest extant work of Christian apologetics from the second century. Justin mentioned prayer, almost in passing, as part of early Christian practice, including the “weekly worship of the Christians” (chapter LXVII).
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen.
Nothing fancy there. And while Justin does not explain how the early Christians prayed, or what for, or what they expected as a result, it is clear from the context of the chapter that needs were central. At these basic, early church services, the wealthy helped the needy, and food and other resources were collected for distribution to widows, orphans, the sick, the poor, the enslaved, and strangers. Surely a community so attentive to needs also understood prayer as an expression of want bearing a promise of relief.
Next on the CCEL’s serendipitous lineup was Madame Guyon, a French mystic of the 17th and 18th centuries who was condemned by the Catholic church for Quietism. At its extreme, Quietism advocates stoicism, passivity, and absorption of the self into the Divine. Guyon seems to have avoided these extremes, instead running afoul of church authorities for her Protestant-seeming emphasis on salvation by grace rather than works. The book that got her into trouble, A Short and Easy Method of Prayer, began with a harmless enough invitation: “Prayer is the application of the heart to GOD, and the internal exercise of love. S. Paul hath enjoined us to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. v 17), and our Lord saith, ‘I say unto you all, watch and pray’ (Mark xiii. 33, 37): all therefore may, and all ought to practice prayer.” A bit further on she wrote, “Nothing is so easily obtained as the possession and enjoyment of GOD, for ‘in him we live, move, and have our being;’ and He is more desirous to give Himself into us, than we can be to receive Him.”
Guyon sounded somewhat Protestant, specifically Wesleyan, on the possibility of Christian perfection, but I found her overall message simple and straightforward: Anyone can pray, and the benefits are abundant.
After reading Madame Guyon, I realized I’d skipped an entry on the CCEL results: John Calvin, who died about a century before Guyon was born. In chapter 20 of the Institutes, in typically methodical fashion, he set out four rules for prayer:
 to have our heart and mind framed as becomes those who are entering into converse with God …  that in asking we must always truly feel our wants, and seriously considering that we need all the things which we ask, accompany the prayer with a sincere, nay, ardent desire of obtaining them …  that he who comes into the presence of God to pray must divest himself of all vainglorious thoughts …  that notwithstanding of our being thus abased and truly humbled, we should be animated to pray with the sure hope of succeeding.
It’s Calvin, so there’s a lot of weighty material here, but points two and four repeated the exhortation of the other writers, namely to ask for what you need and expect to get it.
I wish I could be entirely satisfied with advice that has such longstanding and broad support, but I, like Chafets, am a creature of a different era, one in which, according to Stephen Waldman at Beliefnet.com (quoted by Chafets), “prayer has become its own religion.” Enticed by SUV commercials, or chastened by tragedies, or just plain unmoored, many Americans focus on life’s journey rather than its destination, which makes it difficult to embrace a concept of prayer that is resolutely results-oriented. The process of prayer—the sitting or clapping or loud, clear voice, even the philosophical task of projecting a nameless god—seems manageable. It makes sense, in that it fits on the daily to-do list. Additionally, process orientation carries a very sure hope of succeeding, because it defines success as completion of the process. But that isn’t at all the kind of success Spurgeon, Justin, Madame Guyon, or Calvin hoped their readers would find. If only prayer were as easy as it is simple.
Image: Young Marine prays just before battle during the Korean War, 1951. Source: Marine Corps, Department of Defense, via Wikimedia Commons.
As the Roman Catholic Church recognizes Hawaii's hero as a saint, what should we think about his chief posthumous critic?
It has been a good year for my old home state of Hawaii: it started the year with one of its own becoming President, and on October 11 one of its most famous heroes will officially become a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.
Even among Hawaii’s most Protestant Protestants, Damien de Veuster is praised as a man who exemplified incarnational, sacrificial ministry. The Belgian priest did not first go to the islands to minister to the Hansen's disease victims of the Kalaupapa colony on Molokai, but in 1873 he eagerly volunteered to minister.
“My Lord, remembering that I was placed under the pall on the day of my religious profession, thereby to learn voluntary death is the beginning of new life,” he told his bishop, “here I am, ready to bury myself alive among these unfortunate people, several of whom are personally known to me.”
Damien was not he first to volunteer to help the settlement (whose residents were not there voluntarily: isolation of those who had contracted Hansen’s disease was enforced by law from 1866 to 1969). But he seems to have been the first to work with the assumption that he too would contract the illness. Where other workers had left medicine, supplies, and food at a distance for the patients to use, Damien’s work almost ensured infection. “The manual labor of the roughest kind which he did for the lepers, to make them more comfortable, could not fail to produce frequently cuts, punctures and abrasions, by which the danger of inoculation was greatly increased,” a 1904 item in the Journal of the American Medical Association explained.
“You know my disposition,” Damien wrote two days after arriving in Kalaupapa. “I want to sacrifice myself for the poor lepers. The harvest is ripe.”
A bit more than a decade after his arrival, Damien discovered an early sign of infection: he had blistered his feet in a scalding footbath, but did not feel any pain.
“From henceforth I am forbidden to come to Honolulu again, because I am attacked by leprosy,” he wrote his bishop. “Its marks are seen on my left cheek and ear, and my eyebrows begin to fall. I shall soon be completely disfigured. I have no doubt whatever of the nature of my illness, but. I am calm and resigned and very happy in the midst of my people. The good God knows what is best for my sanctification. I daily repeat from my heart, Thy will be done.”
From some of his earliest days in the community, Damien had identified directly with his parishioners and patients. “I make myself a leper with the lepers, to gain all to Jesus Christ. That is why, in preaching, I say we lepers, not my brethren, as in Europe.” He continued to serve among them as one of them until his death on April 15, 1889.
Damien’s life, ministry, and death are certainly inspiring. But as his canonization draws nearer, I’ve been thinking more about the role criticism has played in both his life and in his fame. Nearly every biographical sketch talks about some kind of between Damien and other religious leaders. Honestly, much of this seems to be mere boilerplate for modern depictions of heroic Christians--they must always be in conflict with other religious leaders. Still, the depictions are not wholly unwarranted. Damien apparently exasperated some church leaders and government workers with his repeated requests for help. And when word of his work began to be publicized (largely due to the publication of one of his letters in Belgium) and supporters began sending him money, some Catholic officials reportedly worried that he was becoming prideful.
But the bigger conflict came after his death, when a small letter appeared in the Sydney Presbyterian. Australian pastor H. B. Gage had written to a pastor in Honolulu, C.M. Hyde, to see if all of the celebration of Damien’s holiness and sacrifice was warranted. Hyde’s response was published:
Dear Brother,—In answer to your inquiries about Father Damien, I can only reply that we who knew the man are surprised at the extravagant newspaper laudations, as if he was a most saintly philanthropist. The simple truth is, he was a coarse, dirty man, headstrong and bigoted. He was not sent to Molokai, but went there without orders; did not stay at the leper settlement (before he became one himself), but circulated freely over the whole island (less than half the island is devoted to the lepers), and he came often to Honolulu. He had no hand in the reforms and improvements inaugurated, which were the work of our Board of Health, as occasion required and means were provided. He was not a pure man in his relations with women, and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness. Others have done much for the lepers, our own ministers, the government physicians, and so forth, but never with the Catholic idea of meriting eternal life.—Yours, etc.,
The letter caught the eye of Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote a scathing response and published it around the world. In addition to circulating as its own booklet, it appeared in The New York Times and other prominent outlets. “I conceive you as a man quite beyond and below the reticences of civility,” he wrote.
With what measure you mete, with that shall it be measured you again; with you, at last, I rejoice to feel the button off the foil and to plunge home. … When we have failed, and another has succeeded; when we have stood by, and another has stepped in; when we sit and grow bulky in our charming mansions, and a plain, uncouth peasant steps into the battle, under the eyes of God, and succours the afflicted, and consoles the dying, and is himself afflicted in his turn, and dies upon the field of honour—the battle cannot be retrieved as your unhappy irritation has suggested. It is a lost battle, and lost for ever. One thing remained to you in your defeat—some rags of common honour; and these you have made haste to cast away.
According to Damien biographer John Tayman (The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai), Hyde had believed his letter to be a private one. That it was published in the Sydney Presbyterian was a surprise, and that he had become a target was devastating. A granddaughter of one of Hyde’s colleagues write that after seeing Stevenson’s letter, Hyde “seemed to be an extinguished candle with the last remnants of life ebbing out of the light that had been. He was crushed, distracted, and … on the verge of tears.”
“Oh, what have I done?” Hyde said to the girl. “I have just suffered the greatest undoing of my entire life. I am now being crucified by the most widely read author of our day and on the charges of telling the truth about that sanctimonious bigot on Molokai.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Stevenson didn’t disagree with many of Hyde’s assessments. In one of his own private letters that was later published, Stevenson wrote that Damien “was a European peasant; dirty, bigoted, untruthful, unwise, tricky, but superb with generosity, residual candour, and fundamental good humour; convince him he had done wrong (it might take hours of insult) and he would undo what he had done, and like his corrector better. A man with all the grime and paltriness of mankind, but a saint and hero all the more for that.”
What struck Stevenson was perhaps not the pointing out of Damien’s faults but the lack acknowledgment of Damien’s work. He recounted the story of the first time he’d heard that Damien had not been chaste. A man from Honolulu had suggested it in a public house on the beach in Samoa. Suddenly,
a man sprang to his feet …. “You miserable little ______” (here is a word I dare not print, it would so shock your ears). “You miserable little ______,” he cried, “if the story were a thousand times true, can't you see you are a million times a lower for daring to repeat it?”
Later in life, Stevenson reconsidered his booklet. “It is always harshness that one regrets,” he said.
I regret also my letter to Dr. Hyde. Yes, I do; I think it was barbarously harsh; if I did it now, I would defend Damien no less well, and give less pain to those who are alive. These promptings of good-humour are not all sound; the three times three, cheer boys, cheer, and general amiability business rests on a sneaking love of popularity, the most insidious enemy of virtue. On the whole, it was virtuous to defend Damien; but it was harsh to strike so hard at Dr. Hyde. When I wrote the letter, I believed he would bring an action, in which case I knew I could be beggared. And as yet there has come no action; the injured Doctor has contented himself up to now with the (truly innocuous) vengeance of calling me a "Bohemian Crank," and I have deeply wounded one of his colleagues whom I esteemed and liked.
Well, such is life.
Indeed, Stevenson had proved right when he wrote in his open letter to Hyde: “If that world at all remember you, on the day when Damien of Molokai shall be named a Saint, it will be in virtue of one work: your letter to the Reverend H. B. Gage.” The world recalls Damien as among the saintliest people of the last few centuries—and he is rarely recalled as a human with faults, temptations, and challenges. Gage (when he is remembered at all) is a one-dimensional foil, a paper villain called in to represent the damning and critical tendencies of envious religious leaders.
To me, both as the managing editor for news at Christianity Today and as a Christian history enthusiast, the public correspondence of Hyde and Stevenson raises all kinds of questions. Over the last four or five decades we’ve gone through a time of tremendous iconoclasm – “warts and all” biographies have often highlighted the “warts” above the “all.” And that’s probably a healthy response to the hagiography and inspirational biographical sketches that bent (or wholly invented) the facts to fit a pietistic lesson. Thankfully, the gleeful search for faults seems to be disappearing from the history shelves (I fear it will always be with us in political reporting). But as we seek to understand those who are affecting or who have affected the church and the world, what should we do with the critics? Can we be content to portray them as mere foils? Bit characters whose main job in the story is to throw stones and raise questions? Must we show them, too, as fully fleshed humans with their own accomplishments, joys, hopes, triumphs, foibles, and failures?
Where I suppose I generally land is that it is okay for a critic in the context of a larger story to be portrayed as merely a critic, so long as those of us who tell the stories never lose sight of their humanity. I have known critics who have cast stones purely out of jealousy, envy, and arrogance and who have deserved every last drop of Stevenson’s harsh critique. (Okay, I’ve more than known them. I’ve been them!) At the same time I’ve known critics who have acted out of love and Christ-like concern, who have spoken truth about popular saints knowing full well that they’re likely to become known more for that act of criticism than for anything else they have done to try to live a faithful life. It’s often hard to tell one type of critic from the other.
I suppose that as someone who is sometimes a critic, it may be helpful to ask myself whether I’m prepared to submit to caricature as a result of the criticism. If this is all history remembers me as, is that okay? I don’t have many moments when I am “ready to bury myself alive” as Damien was. But am I willing to be even face his trials metaphorically? If I speak the truth in love, am I willing to be “disfigured” by those who disagree with me? Or am I “calm and resigned and very happy in the midst of my people”? How often do I confess, “The good God knows what is best for my sanctification.” How often do I “repeat from my heart, Thy will be done”?
(Yes, I know professional historian types don’t like posts that end with a personal, pietistic reflection. If you’re one of these, feel free to pretend my post ended with our professional questions about the duty of historians to those critics who are not central to the narrative.)
Long before football, Chrysostom fought frivolity.
This week, the bane of preachers everywhere returns. When the clock strikes noon on Sunday in America's heartland, anxious Christians will clear their throats, shift positions in their seats, and hope the pastor's next words are "in conclusion." Some Christians living in the Mountain West and on the Pacific Coast might decide to skip church altogether. Because the NFL is back. And pastors will once again wonder privately how members can forget everything about that morning's sermon but recall detailed statistical information for scores of players they "own" in fantasy football leagues.
Few preachers I know would dare mention this frustration in a sermon. You might as well complain about the weather as lament the NFL's popularity. You can't do anything to change either. Pastors don't want to come across as puritanical or legalistic. We have moved beyond previous generations' complaints about card-playing, dancing, theatre-going, and Sunday sports. What many Christians may not realize, however, is that these pastoral concerns run all the way back past the fundamentalists, beyond the Puritans, to the early church. Even those of us who love to watch the pigskin fly would be wise to consider the warning from the most famous preacher in early Christianity.
Born in 347 and raised in Antioch, John earned his famous surname, Chrysostom, for a lifetime of faithful, courageous preaching. But the man with the golden mouth didn’t always have a golden touch with his opponents. And the opponents mounted as John, who became patriarch of Constantinople in 398, turned his gift for rhetoric against the decadent Roman rulers. Facing illegitimate charges of heresy, Chrysostom was sent into exile. The strain of transport at his advanced age during summer heat weakened Chrysostom, and he died in 407.
Chrysostom impressed and inspired fellow Christians with his extensive knowledge of Scripture. One biographer wrote that he memorized the New Testament during a two-year stint spent living in a cave. He left behind a wealth of sermons that show his high regard for the Bible's authority. For the most part, Chrysostom preached expositionally. He preferred to work his way, sermon by sermon, through books of the Bible. Each series started with his take on the letter’s main argument derived from study of authorship and historical context. Then he marched through the book verse by verse while still keeping the book’s overarching theme and continuity before his congregation. With regard for his contemporary context, John closed his sermons with exhortations to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ in light of the passage they had considered together.
Like many preachers, John had his favorite foils. He championed the ascetic lifestyle, which frees up money for the poor and cultivates deep spiritual reflection. Leisure pursuits recur often as targets of his scorn. He took issue with Christians who could tell you anything you wanted to know about the last horse race but couldn’t even identify which letters Paul wrote. He wasn’t impressed when crowds cheered his sermons, because he knew that many Christians forgot everything as soon as they left church and turned their attention to sports. While not sinful in themselves, leisure activities can lead to sin, Chrysostom believed.
“Again, to go to the theatres, or to survey the horse-race, or to play at dice, does not seem, to most men, to be an admitted crime; but it introduces into our life an infinite host of miseries,” Chrysostom preached. “For spending time in the theatres produces fornication, intemperance, and every kind of impurity. The spectacle of the horse-race also brings about fightings, railings, blows, insults, and lasting enmities. And a passion for dice-playing hath often caused blasphemies, injuries, anger, reproaches, and a thousand other things more fearful still. Therefore, let us not only avoid sins, but those things too which seem to be indifferent, yet by degrees lead us into these misdeeds.”
Chrysostom seemed to understand that his sermons could come across as harsh. But he labored to put this passing life in proper perspective. Games can offer momentary escape from this life. So we fritter away valuable time and miss out on the greater things God would have for us. Chrysostom was neither the first nor last pastor to worry about frivolity. But before we rush out of church to catch the Sunday kickoff, we might consider whether his words hit home still today.
Image: Icon of St. John Chrysostom by Dionisius, 1502, via Wikimedia Commons.
Including why a movement planted in the North came to full flower in the South and the reasons real fundamentalists called Jerry Falwell "pseudo."
A few months back I wrote the chapter-length essay “Fundamentalism: Contemporary” for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of American Religion, edited by Charles Lippy and Peter Williams (CQ Press). And six things about the American Protestant fundamentalism of the past few decades jumped out at me with new clarity. I wonder, as I note them in this blog entry, whether everyone else knew these things but me, or whether some of this will come as “new information” to the readers of Lippy and Williams’s encyclopedia.
Here they are:
1. In the 1970s, fundamentalism transformed itself from a theologically focused movement engaged in a heated church battle within several Protestant denominations, to a culturally focused movement engaged in a heated battle with the “forces of secularism” in America:
By the 1970s, the forces of godlessness seemed to have rooted themselves within America itself—attacking American children in their schools, American families in their cohesion and sexual identity, and American institutions in their moral moorings.
The result was ...
a new sort of fundamentalism—one in which the cultural battle now eclipsed the theological battle both as motivator and as engine of growth. The old theological commitments were still present. Now, however, the crusade was not primarily denominational and theological but cultural and political, not about how to read the Bible or understand the end times, but how to vote and act on abortion, feminism, homosexuality, school prayer, and a host of related issues.
2. In a sense, it was the Roman Catholics who led the charge of the fundamentalist brigade into the cultural arena. The issue at stake was abortion:
Abortion had long been treated as an excommunicable sin in Roman Catholic canon law, but in 1968 Pope Paul VI (1897 -1978) explicitly reaffirmed this stance in his encyclical Humanae Vitae. Then Roe v. Wade triggered a massive wave of Roman Catholic anti-abortion activism. Countless politically active right-to-life organizations were founded without official Roman Catholic ties, but staffed by Roman Catholic laypeople. To make progress in the cultural battle, the fundamentalists had to swallow centuries of confessional pride and join with Catholics.
3. Without apparent awareness of the contradiction, fundamentalists now held at one and the same time both a view that the world would only get worse until the (imminent) end times, and a strong commitment to making that world better through political activism:
From the 1970s on, says historian George Marsden in Fundamentalism and American Culture, revised edition, 2006, ‘sermons and fund-raising appeals described in lurid terms how America was under judgment. . . . Yet the United States at the very same time also remained a moral beacon for the ideals of freedom and best hope for defending righteousness against the powers of darkness.’ America was now, oddly but compellingly, ‘simultaneously Babylon and God’s chosen nation.’
4. In the early 80s, when Jerry Falwell led the fundamentalist movement into this new cultural engagement, he found he needed to make common cause not only with Roman Catholics, but also with Mormons, Jews, and other groups concerned with American moral decline. Result? He was blacklisted by fellow fundamentalists:
Dr. George Dollar (author of the insider History of Fundamentalism and former dean of Central Baptist Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota) spoke for these when he derided Falwell as a ‘pseudo-fundamentalist’ for his coalition-building connections with non-fundamentalists.
5. Fundamentalism was born in the North, in the 1920s, but it came of age in the South, in the 1970s:
It took longer for pluralism and secularization to hit the South hard. Despite the controversy that the famous Scopes Trial of 1925 brought to Tennessee, well into the 1960s Southerners could still think of their region as a "Zion," dedicated to Christian conservative values. But in the 1960s and 1970s, the larger national changes began to be felt even in Zion—and by the end of the 1970s, Southerners were united in feeling that their heartland was in danger of becoming instead a "Babylon," infected with the secularizing trends of modern culture. So when America began to organize against these trends, Southerners led the charge. Disturbed from their separate slumber by the divisive campaign for civil rights, second-wave feminist and gay activism, and signs of secularization, the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Robison (b. 1943) now became national leaders in the fundamentalist political reaction.
6. Despite the obvious political identity and the obsession with issues of public and private morality since the 1970s, the heart and soul of fundamentalism is still found in such distinctively religious concerns as the “born-again” experience of conversion and the disciplines of a holy life:
Evangelical seminary president Richard Mouw (Fuller Seminary, Pasadena, California) grew up fundamentalist, and although he is critical of such fundamentalist theological commitments as dispensational premillennialism, he singles out a number of "spiritual merits" that have resulted from that commitment: good preaching on the Old Testament; preaching about a Savior who loves Gentile and Jew alike; and loving action in such ministries as inner-city rescue missions. In short, says Mouw (in The Smell of Sawdust, Zondervan, 2000), dispensationalism "embodied a spirituality that produced some of the most Christlike human beings I have ever known.”
What do you readers of this blog think? Do these insights ring true with what you already knew? Or are they “little-known facts”? I’ll be interested to hear from you.