A Pastor appreciates the Hymns: “God of Grace…”

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

Most ministers I know pray for courage on a daily basis.  Ministry is a sacrificial act that requires risk, reconciliation, and intuition.  It is a craft that pastors shape over time, a vocation forged in the throes of experience and ever-evolving knowledge.  So goes the prayer in God of Grace and God of Glory in which the author, Harry Emerson Fosdick implores the Lord, “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage.”

Penned soon after the First World War, God of Grace and God of Glory  was Fosdick’s confession of having supported the “War to end all Wars,” only to realize that violence only begot more violence (what one writer calls the postindustrial “liberal myth of progress”).  Like other progressives of his time, Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan, New York, repented of his ideals and wrote this hymn in which he asked God to “cure thy children’s warring madness.”

Fosdick’s beloved hymn captures the spirit of historic progressivism in its lofty lilt, set to the music of John Hughes, while birthing notions of non-violence that shaped much of the progressive church into recent days.  In fact, after Fosdick, Riverside Church became a beacon for peace and non-violence. One of the church’s pastors, William Sloane Coffin, gained notoriety for preaching against the Vietnam War and nuclear proliferation in the 1970s Riverside pulpit.

It is this legacy that spurned controversy over Fosdick’s hymn in the first place.  If you look at hymnals from the Vietnam War era onward, notably hymns published in the 1970s, such as the 1975 Baptist Hymnal, many editors removed the third verse which asks God to undo a nation’s penchant for war.

Even moderate-leaning hymnals of late, including the Celebrating Grace hymnal published in Macon, Georgia, in 2010 excludes the verse in favor of asking God to “set our feet on lofty places.”  This contemporary spin is more a hymn for hikers than it is one that shapes theological engagement of peacekeepers for the 21st century.  (The 2008 Baptist hymnal by Lifeway does include the classic 3rd verse.)

I have grown to love the historic version of God of Grace and God of Glory for both its musical artistry and its message ever since my earliest years in seminary.  It was then that I studied Fosdick and his historic tenure at Riverside.  I learned how he moved his church into the “Christian century”, battled the shortfalls of religious fundamentalism, and gave rise to a new style of homiletics that inspired preachers to utilize sermons as “pastoral care on a group scale.”

I got a hold of Fosdick’s memoir, For the Living of These Days, and read about his own struggles in ministry.  For all his boldness in the public square–he had his own radio show and all–he had a fairly weak constitution that led to multiple nervous breakdowns.  He did not just preach God’s Word, he wrestled with God’s Word.  His movement from warmonger to non-violent activist evolved out of one such struggle.

Whenever I face difficult times in ministry, I often find myself praying Fosdick’s words.  It is comforting that hundreds of thousands of Christians have sung this song, and it is in the company of saints that I still sing (or pray!) to ask God to grant me wisdom and courage for the facing of difficult hours.  It is a prayer for the soul as well as the church, which is the womb of Christ’s budding story.

In a world that debates left versus right, liberal versus conservative, one political party versus another, Fosdick, his legacy, and his hymn remind me that all our Christian leanings, wielded over a hundred years, have all contributed greatly to a magnificent Church, a rich tapestry of worship, and an artistic depth to hymnody and liturgy that still wrestles with text and scripture even today; for, at the end of the day, God is still One who is both grace-filled and glorious!

Triennial Convention reminds us of God’s work in the world

revivalThis May marks the bicentennial anniversary of the first Baptist Triennial Convention, a meeting of like-minded Baptists passionate about missions.

It was the summer of 1814 in Philadelphia. More than 30 delegates pooled resources to support missionaries.  It came after a century of revolution and war, but also of explosive missionary activity inspired by the Second Great Awakening.

It was the age of missionary giants such as Adoniram Judson and William Carey, who ventured to India to spread the gospel.  It was the time of Luther Rice, who traveled hundreds of miles by horseback to raise funds for missionaries and the Convention alike.

Other missionaries went West, East, and South to spread the good news.  One of the first women missionaries to participate in outreach, Charlotte White, traveled to Asia.

If anything, the Triennial Convention and the societies born out of that movement reveal the distinctive qualities of America’s missionary culture.  Since the nation’s beginning, the Founders believed in a “manifest destiny” to spread out to other parts of the continent out of cultural and Christian duty.

We were (and continue to be, according to the late President Ronald Reagan), in the words of Puritan John Winthrop, a “city upon a hill.”

Yet, this zeal was steeped in a colonial worldview in which Christians believed that they also had the calling to help others become “civilized.”

Despite the spiritual motivation, it was seductively patronizing in many of its forms.  Some mission activities indirectly perpetuated institutions of slavery and imperialism that gave way to Jim Crow, apartheid, and economic disparity later that century.

Nevertheless, I am thankful for the missionary legacy that birthed the Triennial Convention.  We Christians stand upon the shoulders of courageous men and women who had an amazing vision for spreading God’s Word.

But I am also thankful for a shift in worldview between then and now.  Now, we do not do missions in order to convert “the heathen” and take advantage of natural resources and third-world economies.  We do not free men and women in Christ only to enslave them upon the manors of men.

Rather, we see others as God-image-bearers who have things to teach us as well. Most contemporary missionaries seek to do “contextual” ministry through which they work within the very cultures of those whom they are reaching.

In the American Founding, Christians believed that they had a mission to bring God to the rest of the world.  Now, we realize that God is already at work in the world.

We only have to hear God’s invitation and bear witness to God’s good news with people on God’s–and their–own terms.

This strategy is biblical.  In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul took a tour of Athens.  When he preached to the philosophers there, he said that God was among them because they already built a statue to “an unknown god” (v. 23).

Paul stressed that this nameless god was the God of Israel who became human in the person of Jesus the Christ.  Paul used this cultural symbol and pagan poetry in order to connect his experiences of God with their experiences of God.

Whereas a colonial and imperial worldview tried to get people to church and assimilate cultures, a worldview taken out of Paul’s own missionary playbook behooves Christians to learn how to be guests in a world thirsty for the spiritual nourishment that only God’s well could provide.

Let us hear the invitation and go forth, and let us regain that missionary zeal that once captivated those courageous forebears who formed the Triennial Convention.

The spiritual discipline of letter writing

writing_a_letterWith the advent of text and email, it seems that writing a simple letter—as significant as that is—has become a lost art.  Sure, modern conveniences make communication more efficient, but do they connect us as intimately as we’d hope?  Last week’s article addressed the spiritual discipline of confession; this week, it’s the art of letter writing.

Sometimes efficiency and technology do not lead to a healthier, more spirit-tuned community.  Letters still have the potential to connect people in ways that no hand-held device can, and they can meld relationships in a way that the writing trumps a pretentious “i luv u.”

Let’s learn from history: Letters have always played an important role in civilizations in general and the church in particular.   In his benediction to churches in Thessalonica, Paul wrote, “Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way.  The Lord be with all of you.  I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters.  This is how I write” (3:16-17).

Like many priests, philosophers, and pedagogues in his time, Paul chose to write letters to spread and teach his way of thought.  Those letters were read aloud in community and passed to other churches in the Roman Empire.  They were so critical in faith formation, they instantly became a part of holy writ.  No wonder a majority of books in the New Testament is made up of epistles.

Well into the first century, another generation of church leaders, like Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp, continued the tradition.  Today, we see the power of letters in the form of Catholic cyclicals and open letters penned by denomination leaders.  And, unlike texts and email, letters can become heirlooms for passing on traditions of a bygone era.

I am currently reading Jon Meacham’s new biography on Thomas Jefferson, and I am awestruck by how much Meacham uses letters to explore the past.  The writing of letters was such an important part of democracy—in fact, our modern notion of the separation of church and state evolved from a letter Jefferson wrote to a synagogue in New England.  The earliest calls for Revolution against the British Empire came in the form of letters to friends and colonial parliaments.

The art of letter writing requires very little skill and only takes a little time and creativity, but it makes a lasting impact.

Time: People claim to have little of it; and, given more of it, people argue they would write more letters.  Consider, however, how long people spend on the internet on any given day:  Ever notice that time flies when you’re on the internet?

What about texting?  You could have just called and spoke to me for two minutes instead of spending 10 minutes texting back and forth.

Letters still play an important role in the life of faith.  I encourage grandparents to write grandchildren, spouses to write each other, friends to keep in touch beyond the computer screen.  Pen pals, so ubiquitous when I was growing up, can be an important way for people, like-minded or not, to connect on a deeper level.  It can keep family, separated by miles and even continents, knit together in a unique web of encouragement and care.

Imagine a religion in which the majority of its history or life-lessons was recorded in text or email.  I presume we would not have had the lofty theology of Romans or the first-century cultural insights of a letter to the Corinthians.  Without letters something is lost in faith; and it is a spiritual discipline to be reclaimed and cherished.