It is difficult these days to reflect on anything of great importance, with the most unusual presidential election in our nation’s history a few weeks away.
Following one of the Presidential debates, one of our staff worship leaders included with his Facebook post a picture of a partial page of a hymnbook. The title of the hymn was When All The World Was Cursed. My friend did it as a kind of spoof. I confess, it was more than a spoof for me because I have gone through days lately when I have wondered, is our nation cursed?
I immediately reached for my United Methodist Hymnal. Though there are a number of hymns there that we never sing in our congregation, I couldn’t imagine that I had missed one with a title like that. I was more than casually interested; I was chaffing with curiosity. What would be the content of such a hymn? What would it sound like? In what liturgical season might it be sung? Would the worship leader have to introduce it with some explanation?
I called my friend and asked, “Where is that hymn?” He brought me a copy of it, from a Lutheran hymnal, intrigued that I was so interested. He seemed pleased that I connected it with the debate and the state of our nation. When All the World Was Cursed. The first stanza explains the title and gives the theme of the hymn.
When all the world was cursed
By Moses’ condemnation,
Saint John the Baptist came
With words of consolation.
With true forerunner’s zeal
The Greater One he named,
And Him as yet unknown,
As Savior he proclaimed.
Johann G. Olearius, 1677
Tr. Paul E. Kretzmann, 1940
I don’t know what I was expecting in the words of the hymn, but I had not thought of John the Baptist. I do know that the title of the hymn was intriguing because of the frustration and confusion, the often near-despair I am feeling during what seems such darkness in the corporate life of our nation. Add to that the crisis in our United Methodist Church, and the darkness feels more ominous.
To not give room for hopelessness and despair, I’m focusing my reflection and praying in two primary directions: First, on the nature of the church in the current state of our nation.
The reality that most impacts the church here in America is the degree to which our nation has gone in severing the Christian faith from public life — the utter confusion about the meaning of church-state separation. Secular materialism has become the state religion and our public schools, particularly our colleges and universities, are the evangelistic centers for the propagation of this un-faith religious life. The Church is no longer the value setter, the moral and ethical arbiter to which leaders and shapers of culture turn for guidance and validation. In fact, the Church has lost her once-privileged position in Western society and is being pushed to the margins of society.
In this social reality, what is our challenge? Can we be imaginative enough, and Kingdom-oriented enough, to grasp the loss of preferential treatment as an advantage? Let’s use the setting to learn how to be “in” the world, but not “of” the world, to train us as “resident aliens.”
Instead of desperately trying to elbow our way up to the tables of power, let’s give our attention to becoming faithful adherents to God’s sovereignty, knowing that more often than not Kingdom ideals are in conflict with the world in which the Kingdom is set. Let’s believe, and make the case with our life and witness, that putting the right person in the Oval Office is not the answer. Let’s concentrate on being an alternative voice to the madness around us
by not consuming the world’s goods without regard for the world’s poor;
by protecting the unborn and also seeing that they are cared for after birth;
by doing justice and loving mercy;
by refusing to accept and accommodate the prevailing patterns of sexual promiscuity, serial marriage and divorce, or accept definitions of marriage other than the life long covenant of a man and a woman,
by not allowing children’s zip codes to determine the care they receive or, especially, the educational possibilities available to them.
Though we know the Kingdom of God cannot be established before the King comes, let’s spend our lives, all that we are, living as though the Kingdom had come; thus we will approximate in this present world what is going to be established here “as it is in heaven.”
As Richard Foster puts it, “Since, in Christ, we have been reborn into the new reality of the Kingdom of God, we can become ambassadors of peace in the midst of a violent world, models of civility and grace in the midst of a competitive society, conveyors of faith and hope in the midst of a cynical culture, and the embodiment of agape love to all peoples in the midst of an adversarial society.” (A pastoral Letter From Richard Foster, Renovare, November 1999 issue)
This kind of living and witnessing requires that we ground everything we do in the awareness that we live in an apostolic situation where Christian experience, Christian memory, and a Christian vocabulary are not a part of our culture. We must recognize that, for the most part, there is no connecting point in language or symbol between the Church and secular culture. We are not a long way from the setting of the primitive Church of the New Testament and a couple of centuries following. Ours is a neo-pagan culture, and “new barbarians” are a big part of the population of our Western world.
But not only to neo-pagan culture in the U.S. and the West, must our witness, evangelism and mission be shaped; they must also be shaped in the awareness that ours is a multiracial, multicultural, multireligious setting.
A few years ago it became clear to me that the world was changing when Jerry and I were driving with some friends through the wild, beautiful desert of New Mexico. We came to Abiquiu, the home of artist Georgia O’Keefe. On a rise just outside the city, there is a beautiful mosque and a large Muslim school. We stopped and had coffee in an art gallery restaurant, owned and operated by Muslims.
The lesson? The competing religions of the world are not in faraway countries; they are in the cities of America. Being the church, we must take note of this new reality, not giving into fear and prejudice, but becoming more confident of who we are and the integrity and power of our witness.
I’m focusing my reflection and praying on the nature of the church in the current state of our nation.
I’m also claiming that the signs of the time, the mess our nation is in, and the crisis of our United Methodist Church is a “perfect storm” that calls for revival. In history, awakening and revival have come most often in times of deep, recognized need. Also, God has often used unlikely, and certainly unholy forces to accomplish his will.
Isaiah witnesses to this (Isaiah 7:1-25), expressing it in a way quaint to our modern ears. “In that day the Lord will shave with a razor which is hired beyond the River – with the king of Assyria – the head and the hair of the feet, and it will sweep away the beard also.”
Another translation simply renders it, “In that day the Lord will shave with a borrowed razor.” What is being said in the text is that God is going to use the pagan king, Cyrus, to accomplish his will. It’s a memorable way of expressing the fact that God uses what he will and acts how he will to achieve his purpose. God is sovereign King of the universe – in control – and his eternal purpose is going to be accomplished, and he uses all sorts of persons and events and circumstances to accomplish his will. He shaves with a borrowed razor.
He also calls us to prayer as a condition for his renewing, reviving intervention. In my teaching about prayer I often ask the question, What if there are some things God either cannot or will not do until and unless people pray? My reflection to make a response to the question is that the Bible makes clear and histories confirm that God’s promises to act in history and in our personal lives are often connected with conditions that we are to meet. The classic example of that in the Old Testament is God’s word: “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray”… that’s the condition. If we meet that condition, God says, “Then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and heal their land.” The classic example in the New Testament is the promise of Jesus: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you”… that’s the condition. Then Jesus says, “you may ask what you will and I will grant it.”
In my devotional reading a while ago, I came across a passage from Isaiah that latched onto my mind and heart like a steel-trap: “I have posted watchmen on your walls, 0 Jerusalem; they will never be silent day or night. You who call upon the Lord, give yourselves no rest, give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem.” (Isa. 62: 6-7) What a challenge to do-it-yourself people. Most of us are far more comfortable out in the trenches than we are in the prayer closet. It is far easier for most of us to work, to busy ourselves in church work, to think we can take no rest from our labor. But that’s not what Isaiah is saying. He is not calling us to never rest from our active work, our much doing, our busy involvements. His word is a call to take no rest from prayer…no rest from calling on the Lord.
I believe this is our first call as Christians: Pray, pray, pray; then when you have prayed, pray.
Are you tired and weary, sort of dull in your discipleship? Pray.
What about the joy of your salvation? Has that joy faded? Pray.
What about your spiritual power? You see power working in other persons but you feel powerless…you wonder what the problem is. Pray.
Do you long for a greater power of the Holy Spirit? Are you convinced you can’t go on without that power? Pray.
Do you believe that prayer is the great means for receiving a spiritual awakening? I press you. Are you praying for a quickening in your own life? How much time do you spend in an average week praying for the church, the nation? For awakening and revival?
Could it be that what is missing is that we don’t spend enough time on our knees? Lord help us!
When all the world was cursed! So we feel. But, think, reflect, have conversation, make the best decision you can and vote. But know: the healing of the nation, awakening and revival is not dependent upon whoever becomes our president. The Psalmist was direct in warning us: “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.”(Ps. 127:1)
There is an old admonition, which urges us to pray as though everything depended on Christ, and to work as though everything depended on us. Not a bad formula for effective discipleship, but I know few people who keep the balance. And I know few congregations that are confident enough to “wait on the Lord,” to free themselves from activity and action long enough to discern the direction in which the Lord may want to take them.
The truth is, friends, most of us believe it all depends on us. We are type-A people, even when it comes to faith, confident in ourselves, our skills, our resources. How tempting it is for us to approach spiritual matters the same way that we approach our jobs, our businesses, our families; like Avis, we just try harder: work more, spend ourselves, use our energy, and we can get the job done. But the truth is, in Kingdom terms, we are not getting the job done.
When all the world was cursed. The time is now. We must embrace the presence of Christ in a way we’ve not done before and allow the Holy Spirit, through prayer, to permeate every fiber of our being and be the guiding empowerment of all we seek to do. Change happens, renewal and revival come not because we have designed it, or wanted it, or worked for it, but because God in his infinite grace and unfettered mercy, in his own time and according to his design, brings new life to persons, to congregations, to denominations, to movements, and ministries. “Unless the Lord build the house, the workman labors in vain.” In Africa, 20,000 people pray to receive Christ every day. China continues to explode with new Christians, some suggest 32,000 daily. In Iran, more Muslims have come to know Christ since 1980 than in the previous 1,000 years. It can happen here.
Remember what the hymn is all about…John the Baptist proclaiming the promised coming of Jesus when all the world was cursed. Let’s pray for awakening and revival. The last stanza of the hymn is at the heart of our praying:
Oh, grant Thou Lord of Love,
That we receive, rejoicing,
The word proclaimed by John,
Our true repentance voicing;
That gladly we may walk
Upon our Savior’s way
Until we live with Him
In His eternal day.