Prayer and Common Sense

As we focus upon prayer more frequently and are likely to encounter our need for it more intensely, I offer a few reminders you already know.

1.) Prayers are not Magic.

Prayers are not spells we can use to guarantee we will be exempt from trouble but are pathways where we can be prepared to face our troubles.

2.) Answered Prayers Are Mysteries.

We trust God hears us. We trust God will deliver us. But we never assume God’s rescue is the direct result of our living better lives or being better people. Good habits help, even while bad things can still happen to good people. We thank God for the good. We thank God for being with us when things are bad. And only God is wise enough to know the difference.

3.) Prayer is not an enemy of common sense.

Prayer is not a replacement for trusting in science or using evidence-based reasoning. We pray and get our flu shot. We pray and take our medicine. We pray and follow health guidelines. We pray while making preparations for tomorrow. We don’t pray, “Jesus take the wheel” and then close our eyes when we drive down the Interstate.

4.) Prayer is a Partner of Truth.

We pray and most times are given more mercy than we deserve, but prayer is not an excuse to absolve us of all responsibility. Sometimes we can only learn best or will only grow best when we are held accountable for the consequences of our actions or are faced with a crisis larger than our capacity to meet. We can throw up our hands in bewilderment or we can offer them in humble surrender to God.

5.) Prayer joins our Good Will with the Greater Good Will of God.

Prayer adds our tiny bits of hope, faith, love with all prayer partners, know and unknown praying all over the world. Together we seek God’s intervention, not knowing how, where or when God might act. The total contribution of all the hope, faith and love we offer God helps provide a wealth of resources God might use to offer back to the world where it’s most needed.

6.) Prayer changes us, prepares us and helps us see what yet can be revealed to come to pass.

When we pray, we open our lives to what God may teach us, where God may lead us, and what God may do through us. Prayer helps us perceive and appreciate the beauty of simple gifts and the essential necessity of all actions, small or large. Prayer prepares the inner life to face the outside storms. God’s power is revealed through our prayerful preparation as agents of mercy, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, generosity and benevolence.

7.) Prayer aligns us with the greatest truth of all — there is nothing greater than God’s great love for the world and all who live in it.

God has given humanity two great gifts: freedom and the calling to love. We need both. Without freedom, love can become manipulative and pushy. Without the calling to love, freedom is an excuse for selfishness, greed, and a desire to use others rather than serve them. Even in the failures of our misplaced love and the evils perpetuated upon one another by our misplaced freedoms, God persists in loving us and calling us to redemption and reconciliation.

We now enter into the saga of this great global anxiety and time of testing. I hope serious and fervent prayer will help straighten some of it out or at least, give us a clear path to follow, even while isolated and uncertain.

Be strong and with whatever may come ahead – join me in confessing:

God is loving us. God has not stopped loving us and God will love us through this.

God is not yet finished. Let us hold on. Let us persist. Let us hope. And Let us pray.

Hold Fast

The Howth Peninsula

The void awaits surely all them that weave the wind.

James Joyce, Ulysses

This past week offered an incredibly wonderful unique occasion for myself and my two sons. As young adults with busy lives and often thousands of miles between us, we were together sharing Ireland memories for almost four days. Our trip included the Guinness Storehouse, the amazing 9th Century Book of Kells under the Long Room at Trinity College, enjoying the food and people throughout Dublin’s busy streets and sidewalks and taking quite a dubious, anxious and all-around thrilling adventure driving through the Wicklow mountains.

Every moment is unique, fewer still those we might call special.

Joyce’s Ulysses takes place on June 16, 1904, but was written throughout the First World War and the 1916 Easter Uprising in Ireland. Looking back through the benefits of history, we read about the ordinary lives of over 200 Dublin characters and how radically their lives are certain to change in the 10 – 15 years coming.

The same can be said for us. The winds of history and circumstance can turn in a moment. The slow, steady and relentless march of time waits for no one. It just keeps moving and we are constantly left wondering how to find ourselves at peace within it.

“The Linesman” by Dony MacManus on the banks of River Liffey, Dublin

It’s time for some new definitions. Every moment might be unique, but any day there is shelter, food, companionship, and a meaning we can gather from the seemingly capriciousness of life is, indeed, very special.

I will treasure the time I shared with my sons in Ireland. It was exceptional. And so too, this moment of reflection, memory and gratitude.

Contrasts

I can’t get these compelling images by Turkish photographer Uğur Gallenkuş out of my head, and hope not to. As I travel and take advantage of the privilege this world has offered me, all these members and those they represent from the masses of struggling humanity are never far from my thoughts nor my willingness to help when I can, as I can.

Congratulations Kevin and Evonne

Kevin and Evonne Delvin – June 2, 2019

This weekend was a short suspension from the Sabbatical schedule as I had the honor to officiate the wedding for Kevin and Evonne. We had planned this date over a year ago and I was very happy to celebrate this wonderful and beautiful ceremony with them.

This week, involves final preparations for Ireland and making my way there soon. The learning and benefits of this Sabbatical continue. I was so proud of our youth and encourage you watching the worship service they led on the church’s livefeed Youtube channel (as I did) if it was missed. Heck, I would venture it’s worth watching a second time, even if you were there. They all did super and before the wedding I was told by more than one person (including my own Mother!) that I may need to move aside and let Ethan take over.

Awesome! I’ll extend the sabbatical and see you for Advent. 🙂

Inside the First Baptist Church in America

The first surprising thing you’ll learn from church historian Stan Lemons about the church building for the First Baptist Church in America is the likelihood that founder Roger Williams (1603-1683) may have been vehemently against it, that is, if he had been around to have the opportunity to share his opinion.

The chandelier and high pulpit in the First Baptist Church of America
May 24, 2019

This impressive building was constructed in 1775, nearly 140 long years after the church’s founding by Williams and others in 1638. This group, convinced of the importance of believer’s baptism by immersion, gathered without benefit of any dedicated building throughout William’s lifetime. They desired a Christian experience that was throughly Biblical, simple, devout, and unfettered from any influence of symbols, status, sanctions, sanctuaries or structures. For them, the true apostolic faith had become distracted by struggles for power and too entangled with concerns over secular authority. Impressive edifices for worship spoke not of the transcendence of God, but of the proud and boastful achievements of man. Christian symbols, including the cross were resisted as a violation of the third commandment and might tempt a Christian to put more faith in an object, rather than in the more authentic and reliable divine source to which they pointed.

Williams is remembered for an extraordinary and foreword-looking understanding of the dignity of the human person. Not only was he often in trouble and later banished by the Puritans for advocating church and soul freedom, he further believed indigenous populations should be compensated for lands seized by the growing number of European settlers. It’s nearly impossible to imagine how differently the course of our country would have been transformed if we had listened to Williams’ lead, building a future out of a profound fairness for the whole of humankind and resisting the exploitation and genocide that instead followed.

Dr. Lemons in the Manning Room at the First Baptist Church in America
May 28, 2019

Roger Williams was certainly too far ahead of his own time, and probably ours too. Perhaps it was inevitable he would never be completely resolved to be a member of any established organization, except his defense of protecting the charter of the Providence Plantation he also founded. But within a year after launching the first Baptist church on American soil, he was on the move again. As Dr. Lemons was so kind to engage me, I learned how Williams, in the course of a 10 year journey, from 1629-1639, had gone from being an ordained Anglican priest, to a Puritan, to a Separatist, to a Baptist and finally being out all together (realizing no church on earth would suffice as the true church), owning a final designation of being a “Seeker.” I think it is a high compliment to call someone today a “Seeker.” Surrounded, as we are, by the chronically bored, often hopeless and selfishly satisfied existentialists of the “developed” world leaves little room for discovery. But to be a “Seeker?” That implies something is still worth exploring and creating, doesn’t it?

Authenticity is a journey of constantly searching and updating. This group of Baptists Williams helped launch, and others like them, set the stage for the, oh, so many, many millions of Baptists who followed. Baptists who have ventured and splintered into the many diverse directions a group of fiercely independent individuals would allow.

And over time, they would need to built roofs over their collected heads. As recounted in the Self-Guided Tour book for FBCIA:

The tiny Baptist church lived on without Williams, but it had no meetinghouse until 1700. In that year the pastor, PARDON TILLINGHAST, erected a meetinghouse on a piece of his own property several blocks from this site on North Main Street. Then, in 1726, a second, larger meetinghouse was built to accommodate the growing congregation.

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And it’s off to the races, as the bean-counting Baptists would grow ever more concerned about defending and protecting their importance and status, focused anew on influence, prominence and growth or in the motto of my upbringing: Baptisms, Budgets and Buildings.

When it was time to build the current church for the Baptists of Providence, or by way of the more modest language, to construct the “meeting house” they proposed a sanctuary –er, “meeting room”– large enough to seat 1,200 people. At the time, the church had less than 150 members and the entire population of Providence was under 4,500 living souls.

Their dynamic and accomplished pastor, Dr. James Manning was willing to give the Baptists a signature achievement, one on par with the wealthier and more prominent Anglicans and Presbyterians. Dr. Manning was also the first President of the newly – relocated Brown University, and he needed a large indoor space for commencement and graduation ceremonies. Bolstered by the growth of Baptists in New England during the First Great Awakening, he was ready to build the church person by person, wooden slat by wooden slat, nail by nail, and inch by inch.

Dedication Plaque, Interior of First Baptist Church in America, Providence, Rhode Island

The events of history were also kind to the realization of his vision. The aftermath of the Boston Tea Party of 1773 had resulted in closing Boston harbor and putting many ship builders and carpenters out of work. They provided a ready and skilled labor force to complete the construction of the heretofore largest wooden structure in Colonial America. The formidable 185 foot high steeple was raised in three and one-half short days after building the sections on the ground and hoisting each unit upwards to heaven like the unfolding of a telescope. By 1775 the entire building was completed.

Even though their new building towered over the small town, they attempted to stay true to the heritage of their simpler past and more accommodating and accessible assembly. Large doors were constructed along each long side of the meeting room, so attendees would not be tempted to enter facing the front and genuflecting toward an altar, which didn’t even exist, nor a cross, which was also no where to be found in the worshiping space, as well as any other icons or statues significant to Christians. Only a large and elevated pulpit elegantly framed before an equally large and shuttered panel of windows in the Palladian style would suffice. The design of this window would match all the other windows of clear glass that encircled the spacious and austere room of soft white and gray tones extended by tall fluted columns, each made from a single oak tree.

Interior View from the High Pulpit
First Baptist Church in America

Like with most things, the more you do, the more you begin to realize what else could be done. Approaching the 19th Century, wealthier patrons begin to add their touches of adornment to the worshipping space. A beautiful glass chandelier, likely imported from the Waterford Glass Company in Ireland was installed in 1792, and lighted for the first time after the wedding of its benefactor (no strange coincidence here).

Early 20th Century Postcard Rendering of the Interior

This same family was responsible for the magnificent pipe organ installed in 1834 and modified twice in the 1920’s by Ernest M. Skinner (yes, CBC fans, that E.M. Skinner). Additionally, a stained glass window was installed over the baptistry. What had started as an intentional plan for simple and non-ornamental Christianity was looking pretty familiar to other stately houses of worship by the turn of the 20th Century. Roger Williams and I’m inclined to think, a host of those in the “so great a cloud of witnesses” thus surrounded would not have been pleased with what was happening to their innovative project for equality, inclusion and individual freedom.

But, I guess there is always a last laugh to be had. If you compare this postcard rendering from over 100 years ago with the photograph taken this past week at the top of this post, you’ll quickly realize how the front of the meeting room was changed back sometime during the 20th Century to the windowed facade and high pulpit. If you look carefully, you can even see sunlight peaking through the stained glass at the top of the window’s arch. You might anticipate the shutters opening when the church celebrates baptism, but rest easy by keeping these things covered up in the meantime.

Most of the time, we live normal lives alongside normal days. It is good and well to dress up occasionally. Special times do call for special responses. But the bulk of our life is plain and pedestrian. Boredom and hopelessness often walk hand in hand when we are tempted with a habit of sensationalism, where every moment needs to be somehow better than the one preceding it, and we falsely associate filling empty as something defective, rather than something regular and ultimately powerful.

Sitting in the empty meeting room, within the monotony of an enclosed pew box not much longer than a coffin, and resting against an inflexible seat back that has held other Baptists for over 200 years in the only church in America with the legitimate claim to truly being its First, tells me there’s beauty in the boredom, and meaning in life’s finality, and wonder and mystery just behind that latched shutter up on the front wall. And if you give us all enough time, we may finally get it right in the end.

My Summer Sabbatical

Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, Ireland

This summer, starting in May, I will be embarking upon a period of travel, reflection, reading and blogging meant for rest, research and spiritual renewal.  This time is known as a sabbatical and I am greatly appreciative of the church I serve in Lexington, Kentucky for affording me such a wonderful opportunity.

I’ll begin my time with two primary personalities of 17th Century reformational Christianity: John Bunyan and Roger Williams.  Bunyan is the well – known author of Pilgrim’s Progress, a spiritual allegory that remains the most published work of English religious literature outside of the Bible.  Williams was the radical Puritan minister who was the founder of the Colony of Rhode Island and an early advocate of religious freedom and the separation of church and state.  Both were influenced by the 17th Century Baptists and both were persecuted for their determined and unfailing devotion to Christ.  Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress while in jail.  Williams was banished in the dead of winter by the Massachusetts Bay Colony and would have died if not for the kindness and rescue of Native Americans.

During the latter part of May, I’ll be retracing some of Williams’s footsteps in Providence, Rhode Island.

While there, I’ll be thinking about how the traveled landscapes of our experience impact our spiritual imaginations and perspectives.  Bunyan wrote from prison and crafted his wisdom of Christian journey, filled with temptations, distractions and final reward through a fanciful agrarian English countryside.  Williams forged his thinking in the natural and sometimes harsh realities of the American frontier.  I will be wondering about how the influence of place and location forms, shapes, and impacts our theologies and views of the world.

The bulk of my study will take me to Ireland in June as I delve more fully into the classic magnum opus, Ulysses written by James Joyce at the early part of the 20th Century.  Like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Ulysses is considered one of the most important works ever constructed in the English language.  Heavily built upon Homer’s Odyssey and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Joyce’s voice was also deeply influenced by his early Jesuit education and the rich history of Irish Catholicism he translated and critiqued in line with the arising and transforming breakthroughs of the modernist abandonment of traditional norms and civilities, many of which Joyce can be credited with advancing.  Based within the urban context of Dublin, Ireland, Ulysses focuses upon the ordinary experiences of one ordinary man going through one ordinary day (June 16, 1904) and sets the stage for the challenges, dilemmas, and questions that reverberate just as strongly into the contemporary experience.

I will finish my study with Wendell Berry’s poem, A Homecoming.  By returning to Kentucky, I am also returning home, to the agrarian nobility of my heritage, to the Baptist soil of my faith, and to my particular calling of modern demands integrated through the place and pilgrimage I have encountered along this part of the Christian journey.

Throughout this experience, I’ll have time to share some of my travel experiences and learning lessons through this blog. I humbly ask for your prayers as I travel. A new, old world awaits and I’m excited to get started again with it.