Prayer

I just purchased another book.  This one is an electronic version for the Kindle.  It is Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit, by Henri Nouwen.  This book isn’t really about Church history, but the first few pages did get me thinking about prayer and how our concepts of prayer may have changed over the years.

I know that Christians in some traditions have regularly spent a great deal of time in solitary prayer.  Others scheduled community prayer times daily.  Some have used prayer books and other written prayers, while many have just poured out their hearts to God without any kind of script.  The whole history of prayer will be an interesting topic for future research and blog posts.

But, back to the Nouwen book.  In the first few pages of his book, he says “Spiritual formation, I have come to believe, is not about steps or stages on the way to perfection. It’s about the movements from the mind to the heart through prayer in its many forms that reunite us with God, each other, and our truest selves. … The word heart is used here in its full biblical meaning of that place where body, soul, and spirit come together as one. … What is the value of well-trained and well-informed Christians and spiritual leaders when their hearts remain ignorant? What is the value of great theological erudition or great pastoral adeptness or intense but fleeting mystical experience or social activism when there is not a well-formed heart to guide a well-formed life?”

I think I am going to like this book.

[Quotes are from Nouwen, Henri J. M. (2010-07-09). Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit (Kindle Locations 182-185). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.]

Freedom of Religion

On this Memorial Day we are reminded once again of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice so that our nation can remain free.  We thank God for those fallen warriors, and for the freedoms that we enjoy today because of them.  Among those freedoms is our cherished freedom of religion, which has a unique history here in America.

For most of human history, one’s religion was determined by where one lived.  Each region had its associated religion.  Social pressures often combined with the power of the state to influence the citizens not to stray to other faiths.  This pattern of religious exclusivity ultimately extended to differences in Christian beliefs as well, giving rise to the split-off of various branches of Christianity and the resultant conflicts between them.  Until relatively recent times there was no concept of “Freedom of Religion” or of the “Separation of Church and State”.

The colonists came to America for many reasons, including issues of religion.  However, most colonists carried with them the old world concept that only one religion could be allowed in one place.  Church and State were not separate in their minds.  And “Church” meant their particular Christian denomination.  Other religions, including other Christian denominations, were often not welcome.

In most of the colonies Church and State were united, and only that form of Christianity which was united with the State was permitted.  For example, only Congregational churches were allowed for a long time in Massachusetts and Connecticut.  Some Baptists attempted to settle in Massachusetts, but they were not permitted to settle there.  Rhode Island was home to the Baptists at first, but later it became the first colony to have a complete separation of Church and State — a novel concept at that time.

The Catholics founded Maryland, and the Quakers started Pennsylvania.  Other colonies were pretty much exclusive to the Presbyterians, Swedish Lutherans, or others.  The southern colonies, including Virginia, started as Episcopalian.  However, by the time of the Revolutionary War the Virginia Bill of Rights said that “religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity towards each other”.

Eventually the US constitution was written to include “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Thank God for our Freedom of Religion.  God Bless America!

John Mott

Have you ever heard of John Mott?  I hadn’t either until I read about him in A People’s History of Christianity, but his recent influence on our Christian heritage is significant.  He was born in Iowa in 1865.  He attended Upper Iowa University, and then went to Cornell.  While at Cornell he gave up a promising education in law to go into full time Christian work.

Mott never became ordained or went to the mission field himself, but he served as a leader in the YMCA for many years.  Literally thousands of students became missionaries due to his influence. He was one of the most widely travelled and respected Christian leaders in America in the first half of the 20th century.  In his last public speech he stated “While life lasts, I am an evangelist.”  However, he was not the kind of evangelist we think of today.  He was not preaching at tent meetings or organizing revivals.  His outreach was to the existing Christian denominations, with a goal of achieving Christian unity.  Through the YMCA he sought the cooperation of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians.  He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946 for promoting unity through human understanding.

Mr. Mott sounds like one of the unsung heroes of modern Christianity, doesn’t he?  But does your opinion of him change when you also learn that he was a founder and provisional president of the World Council of Churches?   In the fundamentalist church where I was raised, the World Council of Churches was viewed as a work of the devil.  In fact, anything that smacked of ecumenicalism was thought to be harmful to “real” Christianity.

In A People’s History of Christianity, Diana Butler Bass describes John Mott as “an evangelist of peace, church unity, and a kingdom where all people would be one in Christ.”  Can that be bad?

Modern Christianity

My previous post made mention of modern and post-modern Christianity.  Those are terms for theological and doctrinal trends over the past couple of centuries, and they can be weighty topics indeed.  But my subject today is about a different kind of modernity.  Have you noticed how churches and other Christian organizations have embraced many of the most recent technologies and social trends?

I suppose that the wide range of contemporary Christian music is a prime example of modernized Christian experience. The instruments, sound systems and multimedia features in our churches are right up to date with the contemporary secular music scene.  We see modern communication technologies everywhere as well.  Our churches all have web sites and email newsletters, and many of us can follow what our pastors are doing by following their Twitter feeds and reading their Facebook pages.

Churches and Christian organizations have been taking advantage of technological advances ever since Gutenberg printed the Bible on a movable-type printing press.  I am a techie type myself, and my reaction to church adoption of modern capabilities is generally positive.  However, I ran across an example last week that I am just not so sure about.

I’m sure most of you are familiar with at least some of the games that Facebook users play.  I will admit to playing some myself.  But I was just introduced to Journey of Jesus: The Calling.  The promo says that this is a fun adventure where you play a major part in the Gospel story.  So of course I had to try it. It is pretty simplistic as a game, and pretty simplistic in its presentation of the story of Jesus.  The underlying motive of the game is obviously evangelism; the game is complete with a tab that takes you to the four spiritual laws.  So is this a great new outreach tool based on the latest technology and social media?  Or is it an offensive dumbing down of Christian faith and message that will only confuse people and cast Christianity as just another of life’s games?

You can try this game yourself if you have a Facebook account.  It is at http://apps.facebook.com/journeyofjesus/.  I would really like to hear what you think of it.

Where is God?

If you would have asked a Christian in medieval times “Where is God?”, they would have said “In Heaven, of course.  You know,  ‘Our Father who art in Heaven …'”.  To the pre-reformation Christian, God was somewhat remote in His Heaven, and accessible only through the Church.  The answer to such a fundamental question was simple.  But since that time Christians have wrestled more extensively with questions about the nature of God and how He relates to our daily lives.  The “Where is God?” question is illustrative of the ongoing quest for understanding.

I am still working my way through A People’s History of Christianity by Diana Butler Bass.  I am up to the point in history where “modern” or “post-modern” Christian thought has come into play.  There has been a great deal of intellectual, political and social upheaval in the past few hundred years.  Christians have had to grapple with how modern science, philosophy, and social changes relate to their faith.  The science of evolution is one primary example of a debate topic that the medieval Christians could not have imagined.

Chapter 11 of the book parses some of the different branches of Christian “modernist” thought according to how they would answer a most basic question:  Where is God?   For example, to the Quakers, we need only look within ourselves to find God.  This concept goes back to George Fox, who founded the Society of Friends (Quakers) in 17th century England.  Fox said “I directed the people to their Inward Teacher, Christ Jesus, who would turn them from darkness to the light.”  The Quakers held that God dwells within, and salvation is a matter of seeing that light.

John Wesley was an 18th century minister in the Church of England.  He founded what we know today as the Methodist church.  The Methodists did not see mankind as having any inner divine light, but rather as being innately sinful and in need of accessing God’s light through an experiential encounter with Christ.  One might say that Wesley was one of the first Evangelicals, who would say that God is to be found in the transformed heart of those who are born again.

We sometimes say that the United States is a Christian nation, based on the religious principles of our founders.  Most of our 18th century founders were indeed godly men of faith, but not in the sense of today’s evangelical Christianity.  It would be more accurate to describe most of them as “deists”.  I have read extensively about one of the most famous of these men, Thomas Jefferson.  It is clear that his faith was one based primarily on intellectual pursuit and a guiding sense of morale uprightness.    To him and other deists, God is found in a life of reason and good works.

A less well-known school of modern thought sprang up in the early 19th century.  These believers were called Transcendentalists.  In direct contrast to the deists, they believed that sentiment, intuition and mysticism were more important than reason and science.  They would have said that God is found in a subjective encounter between the self and nature.

Other schools of thought over the years may have answered “Where is God?” with “Who knows?”  or “Everywhere”.  The point of this whole discussion is that the answers to some of the most fundamental questions of the Christian faith are not simple or static.  They have continued to evolve as human society and knowledge have changed and as various strong influences have risen up and then faded away.   The book chapter that I referenced above is entitled “Devotion: The Quest for Light”.  While there is certainly a sense in which Christians have found the Light, there is also a sense in which Christian discipleship is an ongoing quest for light.  Our understanding of Christ and what He means in our lives changes as we grow and change.  It’s a good thing.

 

 

 

The First Baptists

The Christian world today includes innumerable denominations and offshoots — which I sometimes refer to as the “isms” and schisms of Christianity.  A few centuries ago, there was just the western Church and the eastern Church, and they weren’t all that different from each other.  Then along came Martin Luther in the 16th century.  The Lutheran separation from the Catholic Church was not the only one.  There were others who went even further in giving up the Catholic practices.  These various Protestant groups were generally called “reformed” churches.  Three of the major ones had their beginnings in Switzerland.

One of these was the Presbyterian Church which was formed in Geneva under John Calvin. Another was the Reformed Church which Zwingli led in Zurich.  Eventually, some of Zwingli’s followers took issue with the practice of infant baptism and their protests led to them being driven out of the Church.  These protestors were called Anabaptists, meaning “over-again-baptizers” because they began to re-baptize adults who had already been baptized as infants. The name this third group called themselves was simply Baptist.

In addition to the baptism issue, the Baptists began to call for the separation of Church and State, calling into question the divine right of kings.  This was highly unusual, and also highly unpopular in 16th and 17th century Europe.  The Baptists were persecuted severely by both Catholics and Protestants.  Many of these persecuted groups eventually found homes in the Netherlands and in the United States.

For a detailed timeline of the history of the Baptists, see http://www.reformedreader.org/btimline.htm

Back to the Future?

One of my earlier posts mentioned a book entitled Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices, by Frank Viola and George Barna.  The theme of the book is that most of what present-day Christians do in church each Sunday is rooted, not in the New Testament, but in pagan culture and rituals developed long after the deaths of the apostles.   The book goes into detail on the origins of the church building, the order of worship, the sermon, the pastor, Sunday morning “costumes”, ministers of music, tithing and clergy salaries, etc.

While I think that the book is a bit heavy handed in its approach, it is true that none of those things existed in the early church.  The position of the authors is that Christians today need to go back to a first century church model.  They espouse a decentralized Christianity where the believers meet only in small groups in homes and share their burdens, insights, and praises spontaneously with one another.  There need be no pastor, no church building, no sermon, and no denominational hierarchy.  They cite examples of bodies of believers that are thriving on this very basis today.

Barna and Viola have done some excellent research, and it serves to enlighten us on the origins of many of today’s church practices.  I will admit that there is something appealing in their back-to-basics approach because today’s corporate church environment just seems to miss the whole point of Christianity in so many ways.  However, the ways we do church are not necessarily “wrong” just because of their origins.  I still need to finish the book, but at this point I am not convinced that a return to the first century church model is advisable or even possible.   I would be interested in your thoughts on this subject.