Heading into Africa Needed a Woman’s Touch: The Ministry of Mary Slessor

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Greetings, everyone. Today we return to our blog series on the History of Missions. Today we are focusing on Mary Slessor (1848-1915), a Scottish woman and missionary pioneer. She came from a horrible home with an alcoholic father who frequently kicked her out of the house (Tucker, 170). She grew up working and earning a wage to help support her family, but found fulfillment in church life away from her familial responsibilities (Tucker, 170). She spent time fighting against street gangs in Scotland in her early adult life before heading to the Calabar Mission in present-day Nigeria (Tucker, 171).

She embarked on her missionary journey in 1876, working in the established missionary center at Duke Town; but she quickly grew dissatisfied with the “cushy” setting (Tucker, 171). Ruth Tucker describes that Slessor rubbed the established missionary families the wrong way because she “admittedly had climbed every tree worth climbing between Duke Town and Old Town” (Tucker, 171). Eschewing a “soft” African missionary setting, Slessor felt called to embrace a more radical role by going into the interior of Africa, but was repeatedly stricken with malaria and had to return to her home country in order to recuperate. She returned to Africa, but this time she was stationed in Old Town, which was much further inland. “She was free to work by herself and to maintain her own lifestyle-living in a mud hut and eating local produce which allowed her to send most of her mission salary to her family back home” (Tucker, 171).

She began a new role as an itinerant evangelist and fought against the local customs of witchcraft and also the fear of twin-births, which often led to the murder of the babies and an exile for the mother (Tucker, 172). She ended up adopting seven children from such rescue efforts, and even took one back home with her on another recovery furlough (Tucker, 172). Her visit home was extended because she lost a sister and her mother grew very ill. Not long after getting back to Africa, her mother and another sister died, which actually freed her from any lingering attachments back home (Tucker, 172). These events led her to head further inland, even into places that had been hitherto closed-off to missionaries, including Okoyong. This village had the reputation of frequently killing missionaries, but Slessor insisted that such an endeavor simply needed a woman’s touch, since women were less likely to come across as threatening to the tribes (Tucker, 172).

In Okoyong, her role expanded, as she soon became a judge for the area, being “appointed the first vice-council to Okoyong, a government position she held for many years… Her methods were unconventional by British standards… but they were well-suited to African society” (Tucker, 173). Later during her career she became engaged to another missionary, but he became ill and had to leave, which ended their engagement since she would not follow him and leave Africa (Tucker, 173). She moved on to another village after some time, taking her adopted children with her. New missionaries took over her post at Okoyong and followed after her, and also after she died in Africa in 1915 (Tucker, 174). Many new mission societies targeted these African villages in the interior, largely due to Slessor’s resolve and determination to work in such remote places (Tucker, 174-75).

Unfortunately there were not reports of huge numbers converted due to her missionary work. She did not seem to mind, however, since she saw herself as preparing the way for others. Tucker describes, “She organized schools, taught practical skills, and established trade routes, all in preparation for others to follow. In 1903, near the end of her term at Okoyong, the first baptism service was held (with seven of the eleven children baptized being her own), and a church was organized with seven charter members” (Tucker, 174).

Slessor’s legacy therefore ought to be seen in her laying the groundwork for future missions. She led the way into the interior from coastal missions which she perceived as too comfy and not African enough. Thankfully she felt the call to even enter areas which were notoriously hostile to outside missionaries. She risked her life to bring the mission into Okoyong and other remote villages. She rescued children marked for death, adopting them as her own. I think, however, her willingness to eschew markings from her home country allowed her the chance to effectively minister to those in such villages.

Tucker notes, “The image of her as a Victorian lady dressed in high-necked, ankle-length flowing dresses, escorted by tribal warriors through the African rain-forests in a painted canoe, is far removed from the reality of the barefoot, scantily clad, red-haired, working-class woman who lived African-style in a mud hovel, her face at times covered with boils and often without her false teeth” (Tucker, 170). It is also noted that Slessor’s hut was frequently riddled with rats and roaches and she did not really care about her own hygiene (Tucker, 174).

Mary Slessor is thus a picture of dedication to the mission. She kept going back to Africa after heading home due to malaria and other illnesses. She embraced African living and used the African ways of reasoning to grow in fame and renown as a judge. I also like how she didn’t really bat an eye about the perceived lack of converts. In viewing her own work as preparatory for others to step in and continue it, she showed a true dedication to God’s calling in her life. She was not concerned with results, just the process and her own willingness to step out in faith.

I think that she can teach us what it means to be faithful to God’s calling in our lives, even if we don’t always see drastic positive results. I think in the United States today, this often one of the most difficult aspects of ministry and following God.

The Hesitant Missionary: Ida Scudder’s Profound Impact on India

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Last week, we continued our series on the History of Missions by examining the ministry and life of Temple Gairdner and his heart for Muslims. This week, we once again find ourselves in India in order to examine the missionary work of Dr. Ida Scudder. Her story is one that fascinates and thoroughly impresses me. She is renowned for her impact on medicine and education, particularly among women, in India in the first half of the twentieth century.

Ida Scudder (1870-1960) was born in India into a missionary family. The Scudder family could boast an amazing statistic regarding their devotion to missions. As Tucker notes, “In four generations, forty-two members of the Scudder family became missionaries, contributing well over one thousand combined years of missionary service” (Tucker, 368). These numbers shocked me, especially the thousand years of combined service. To say that this family has had an impact on overseas missions would be quite an understatement. Ida’s role in the family’s legacy had somewhat of an auspicious beginning. Having grown up on the mission field, she actually did not want missions work for her career.

As Tucker observes, Ida ended up back in India shortly after her high school graduation to care for her mother who had fallen ill. As a result, Ida ended up in charge of a school for girls with sixty-eight girls (Tucker, 368). While she was there, she felt called to minister to young women, particularly young pregnant women. Tucker relates how there was a night with three men seeking help for difficult childbirths, but customs would not allow Ida’s father to help, so the women all died. It was at that point that Ida saw the need and felt her calling (Tucker 368-69). She went back to America to go to medical school, and attended Cornell in 1898 because they began allowing women students (Tucker, 369). She brought a check from a wealthy woman donor in order to start a hospital, but soon saw the need to educate women as well. She had to raise a great deal of money to support both avenues. “While home on furlough, she captivated her largely female audiences by her stories of the hopeless plight of the Indian women, and every meeting brought more money for the project” (Tucker, 370).

Things really took off for Scudder, as she served as a doctor, teacher, and operated an orphanage for homeless children (Tucker, 370). Unfortunately, despite her successes, she struggled with government bureaucracy, with a requirement in 1937 that all medical schools had to be affiliated with the state-run medical school (Tucker, 370). The difficult decision was made that her school, Vellore Medical College, should be the first co-ed medical school in India. Unfortunately, this led to a bit of a scandal, since many of her donors had given to the cause of female education and training (Tucker, 371). These issues aside, Ida Scudder was really quite successful, both as a doctor and as an organizer. She helped start a medical school which trained numerous women and provided them with education which they might not otherwise have been able to access.

Tucker relays a couple of interesting anecdotes regarding Ida Scudder that I wanted to highlight as well. The first speaks to her fame. Tucker notes that someone actually sent a letter simply addressed “Dr. Ida, India,” and it was taken directly to her (Tucker, 371). The second story is that Scudder defeated a teenager (in two sets, winning every game) in a tennis tournament when Scudder was 65 after the teenager complained of “having to play a granny” (Tucker, 371). I wonder what the teenager said after losing to Ida so resoundingly.

Overall, Ida Scudder had a monumental impact upon the country of India. Her family already had quite the legacy, but Ida stands out for her work as a medical doctor, teacher, and innovator of women’s education and women’s health. Her work from 1898 to 1946 in India left quite a mark on the nation. If her tennis game is any indication, I am sure she was someone you would not want to cross. Her medical school was the first college of nursing in India and today “serves over two million patients and trains thousands of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals each year” (https://www.vellorecmc.org/who-we-are/history/).

I think that one of the most intriguing parts of Ida Scudder’s story is her initial desire to not continue the family tradition. She wanted something else for her life, but God had bigger plans for her. Her work obviously impacted people’s daily lives in numerous ways. If one ponders how Ida might not have even become a missionary at all had her mother not fallen ill, it seems like the illness was quite the fortuitous, if not providential, circumstance. Women’s education and health in India owe a great deal to Ida’s willingness to serve God’s calling on her life.

The Personal Cost of Missions: William Carey’s Successes and Failures

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Today we are continuing our blog series on the history of missions. Last week, we found ourselves in India, discussing Amy Carmichael. This week we are again returning to India to examine the ministry of William Carey, who has been called the “Father of Modern Missions” (Tucker, 122).

William Carey (1761-1834) married his shoemaker boss’s sister-in-law, Dorothy, who was five years older (Tucker, 123). Their marriage is one of the more intriguing and unfortunate aspects of the story of William Carey’s ministry in India, as we will see below. Carey was one of the founders of the Baptist Missionary Society, and quickly volunteered for the mission field. Dorothy, however, refused to go (Tucker, 124). Only after a delay in Carey’s departure, and the birth of their fourth child, did Dorothy finally relent and join William and their children in heading to India (Tucker, 125).

One can already see the problems inherent in William Carey’s ministry: Dorothy did not want to go with him. Also, the East India Company resisted missionaries, which led the Careys to move their ministry into the interior of India (Tucker, 125). India was a harsh place, and the Careys’ time was made harsher by the death of their son, which sent Dorothy into a “delusional disorder” in which she thought William was cheating on her (Tucker, 125).

Despite the family troubles, the mission continued with William relocating the mission to Serampore, near Calcutta. Here the Serampore Mission became a success, leading to schools, printing, and translation of the “whole Bible into Bengali, Sanskrit, and Marathi… and translated the New Testament and portions of Scripture into many more languages and dialects” (Tucker 126-127). William Carey’s time in India is a study in contradiction. You have the family trauma and his wife’s declining mental health coupled with the outward successes of the Serampore Mission. Ruth Tucker notes that while all the success was going on in the mission, Carey “neglected his children, failing to give them the parenting they so desperately needed. Even when he was with them, his easygoing nature stood in the way of firm discipline, a lack that was plainly exhibited in the boys’ behavior” (Tucker, 127).

Dorothy died in 1807 and Carey married Lady Charlotte Rumohr, whom he had baptized four years earlier, six months after Dorothy’s death (Tucker, 127-128). Charlotte became a valuable member to the mission, helping William’s translations and being a loving mother to the children, but died in 1821. “Two years later, at the age of sixty-two, Carey married again, this time to Grace Hughes, a widow seventeen years younger than he” (Tucker, 128). Clearly William’s family life was marred by upheaval and tragedy.

Carey’s time in India saw a great deal of change in the Serampore Mission. The group had to deal with new missionaries who wanted to change the living situations and other ways in which the Mission operated. The Serampore Mission did eventually split from the Baptist Missionary Society, but eventually rejoined with it (Tucker, 129). Carey also was noted for being focused on “social issues-particularly in his long struggle against widow burning and infanticide. But otherwise, he sought to leave the culture intact” (Tucker, 130).

So what do we do with William Carey? Was he a success? His is a complicated picture, fraught with his seeming abandonment of his family, particularly his mentally ill wife. He did not provide the help with his own children that they needed. Yet, his mission flourished, grew, and essentially provided a model for modern missions going forward. I would argue that Carey is a strong picture of the dangers of jumping into ministry without first assessing the cost.

In my master’s and doctoral work, I have seen many colleagues who have jumped into a major life change such as getting a Master’s of Divinity or a PhD without first considering what it means for their family and friends. In fact, in my first year of seminary, I sorely neglected my job, leading to me being fired. My pursuit of God’s calling in my life led to me making mistakes at my job and being fired. I have known people who have burned out and/ or allowed relationships and family life to deteriorate because they are willing to sacrifice anything to follow what they perceive to be God’s calling for their lives. In watching people head toward careers in ministry, I wonder if God truly is calling them into vocational ministry or if they are simply going after what sounds exotic or challenging (like William Carey). I have wondered before if I also jumped in too quickly. Thankfully, I seem to have found that balance.

There are countless stories of pastors who have burned themselves out, who have allowed things in their lives to crumble while their ministries thrive. I wonder if it is worth it? Should we consider it a blessing when the ministry of an individual is successful while their personal life falls to pieces? Is the benefit of the greater good worth the damage to an individual? Should we just see it as their personal sacrifice to following God’s calling? I think, for me, a less successful ministry and a successful personal life are more glorifying to God.

Faithfully Sitting on a Pole: Saint Daniel the Stylite and Early Christian Asceticism

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Greetings to my readers! I hope all of you are doing well and had a wonderful holiday season. As evidenced by the previous sentence, it has been a minute since I have posted a blog. For this, I apologize. I found it tricky to pick the blog back up in January, and watched January turn into the end of February. Next week, however, I hope to begin a new series on the history of missions through which we will explore movements and missionaries around the world throughout history. I am very much looking forward to it. As for today, I ran across a passage in my reading that I wanted to post about, so today’s post will not figure in with our new series.

The main source for this post is Claudia Rapp’s book, Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. It is, so far, a very interesting read about authority in regard to the bishops of late antiquity. Rapp has a brief section in the beginning of her work (pp. 3-5) in which she discusses Daniel the Stylite, a fifth-century ascetic.

St. Daniel the Stylite first became a popular figure in a suburb around Constantinople (Rapp, 2005, 3). The archbishop of Constantinople even gave Daniel’s ministry his seal of approval. Rapp notes that he became “a personal saint for Emperor Leo I (457-474) and for his successor, Zeno (474-491), who depended on Daniel to soothe restless crowds on the verge of rebellion… Leo rewarded Daniel’s cooperation with public gestures of recognition, especially by donating a large pillar, topped by an enclosed platform on which Daniel would live” (Rapp, 2005, 4).

In my experience, many Protestant students of church history usually begin to scoff when they read sentences like the previous quotation. Often, you will hear something like, “Wow he can really do a lot of good ministry from up on a post;” or maybe something like, “This is just extremism or fame-mongering.” Unfortunately, such flippant dismissals of ancient holy men and women can overlook some of the more intriguing elements of church history. Many Protestant denominations today do not know enough of their own faith heritage. It is often as if they think the Apostles all died out and then the Reformation popped up, with a whole bunch of “Catholic happenings” in the interim.

Now, I am fully aware that as one who is writing a dissertation on the early church, such a statement might seem self-serving. But I do also think that there is validity to the ministries and actions of even the early ascetics. In the case of St. Daniel the Stylite, you have a man who lived on top of a pillar. Now it might seem odd, but he was actually ordained to the priesthood while he was on top of the pillar, with the “laying on of hands” being affected by God “from above” (Rapp, 2005, 4). Rapp further notes that “Daniel’s ordination had no effect on his way of life or daily routine, since he never exercised any priestly duties. His ordination to the priesthood served the exclusive purpose of recognizing, confirming, and enhancing Daniel’s position as a holy man” (Rapp, 2005, 4).

So what is the point of him being ordained if he never descends from his pillar? Well, Rapp does describe a time when he climbs down from his pillar in order to mediate a crisis between the Archbishop of Constantinople and a rebel emperor over orthodoxy. Rapp even notes that in the Life of Daniel the Stylite, the two individuals fall at Daniel’s feet which are “crippled and worn down to the bone—a tangible token of his ascetic achievement” (Rapp, 2005, 5).

The man on a pillar shows that he was not above (pun intended) the crises of the city to which he ministered. He willingly climbed down to intercede, a task that no doubt caused him excruciating pain. Daniel is one of many “holy men” from the early church who practiced extreme asceticism. John Chrysostom, the bishop on whom I am focusing in my dissertation, spent a couple of years of his early ecclesiastical career in a cave in Syria where he didn’t really sleep or sit down for about 2 years. Such a practice left permanent damage upon his body.

Many readers today will see these types of stories as extreme actions embarked upon to gain a following. However, Christians need to embrace the fact that these individuals are a part of their own faith heritage. These holy men and women were a product of their era, exhibiting devotion and commitment to the Christian faith. It is easy to say that they could have been more effective ministers if they had lived among the people, but that is to sell their asceticism short. Eschewing the comforts of the world, including a comfortable place to sit or sleep, was done in order to show their devotion to a faith which set them apart from the masses. They were admired for their piety and dedication to Christianity. I, for one, have to admit that I admire their courage to fully live out their faith in such a way. I have to also admit that I think they probably experienced their faith on a deeper level than I ever have. I would urge you, if you haven’t before, to study the ancient holy men like St. Daniel the Stylite.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you agree? Is there validity to this type of asceticism? Should these men and women be viewed with or even overtly given ecclesiastical authority?

Midweek Blog: Catholic Bishops on Pointing Nukes at Our Enemies

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This week, in continuing our series on American Church History, we are jumping forward a bit into the twentieth century. Today’s blog focuses on the National Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1983 which published a pastoral letter entitled “The Challenge of Peace.” The conference’s focus was on the ramping up of nuclear arms between the USA and the USSR in the early 1980s, as well as the rhetoric surrounding a strategy of nuclear deterrence. The idea, for President Ronald Reagan, was that the USA should stockpile advanced nuclear weaponry in order to keep the peace. Such an increase in production of catastrophic weaponry led many people to decry the policy, including the aforementioned Catholic conference (Paul Harvey and Philip Goff, eds. The Columbia Documentary History of Religion in America Since 1945, 60-61). “The Challenge of Peace” was what the conference penned in response to such political actions, and this letter will be the focus of today’s blog.

The letter states, “In the nuclear arsenals of the United States or the Soviet Union alone, there exists a capacity to do something no other age could imagine: we can threaten the entire planet. For people of faith this means we read the Book of Genesis with a new awareness” (“Challenge of Peace,” 123). The notion that the destructive power of human-produced weapons should make us look differently at Genesis carries with it a sense of foreboding. If people can annihilate vast numbers of humans and other lifeforms in a huge area with one single bomb, think at what that has to say about humanity’s relationship with God in the creation narrative. These bishops continued, “Today the destructive potential of the nuclear powers threatens the human person, the civilization we have slowly constructed, and even the created order itself” (123).

The destruction seen at Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II showed everyone the power of nuclear bombs and their catastrophic impact. Many Catholic voices dissented soon after, such as Dorothy Day. Many of them saw civilized humanity as taking a huge step backwards with the killing of so many men, women, and children who had nothing to do with the War. The Conference we are discussing responds to Reagan’s new nuclear arms race with much of this anti-nuke tradition in the background, as the letter mentions (127). The letter, however, notes that simply advocating for disarmament is complex. It states, “It much less clear how we translate a ‘no’ to nuclear war into the personal and public choices which can move us in a new direction, toward a national policy and an international system which more adequately reflect the values and vision of the Kingdom of God” (134).

While imposing a foreign policy that “reflects the values and vision of the kingdom of God” would not really be acceptable today, the Bishops do note how simply having the biggest muscles (or the most bombs) isn’t necessarily the best way to operate. The policy of nuclear deterrence is that one has to basically point the bombs at one’s enemies; in the historical case to which we are referring, the USA has to point the bombs at the USSR with the finger on the button. The goal is of course to never use the weapons themselves but to scare the enemy into thinking that you are about to. The problem arises when one’s enemies calls one’s bluff. What happens if they say, “Go ahead. We know you won’t do it.” At that point, you either have to fire the weapons, or you have to come up with an entirely new strategy. All the while, your enemies might be preparing to attack you or to fire similar weapons at you.

One final passage from “The Challenge of Peace” describes this very issue. “The need to rethink the deterrence policy of our nation… also will require, we believe, the willingness to open ourselves to the providential care, power, and Word of God, which call us to recognize our common humanity and the bonds of mutual responsibility which exist in the international community in spite of political differences and nuclear arsenals” (196).

If you ask me, this is the most groundbreaking, novel concept within the letter. Again, utilizing one’s understanding of the Kingdom of God or “opening ourselves to the providential care, power, and Word of God” would simply not work in today’s United States. You can’t mix government and religion like that. However, the aspect which I think has the strongest impact on the letter’s historical context, as well as our own today, is that there is a “common humanity and bonds of mutual responsibility in the international community.” I think one of the problems today is that we look at other countries, and the people who inhabit them, as somehow less than ourselves. The USA has plenty of enemies, but what could possibly set it apart from many other countries is a new attitude that looks at the humanity of even our enemies and the employment of a “mutual responsibility” toward them.

I don’t want to venture to far into the realm of politics or political theory here (I would be way out of my depth), but crafting a foreign policy that looks at other countries, including our enemies as fellow human citizens could go a long way to subverting other conflicts. What the National Conference of Catholic Bishops had to say to the USA in the early 1980s is powerful. They went completely against the government’s position of nuclear deterrence with a very public stance. They showed strong faith commitments and a willingness to speak up for God’s kingdom. Although this happened over thirty years ago, their views on peace and focusing on the humanity of others might still ring true today.

What are you thoughts on nuclear deterrence? What about the Bishops’ response? Is today’s geopolitical stage too advanced for such a document? Has ISIS changed the game, or can we still look for humanity in our enemies?

Midweek Blog: Abraham Lincoln and the Will of God

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This week’s blog post continues our discussion of American church history. Today’s post focuses one of the most famous (if not the most famous) people in American History: Abraham Lincoln. Many people know many details about Lincoln’s life and role as the sixteenth president of the United States, his role in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, his leadership during the Civil War, and his subsequent assassination. Today, I want to focus on his discussion of God’s will.

Lincoln, in a small document, addresses God’s will and the Civil War. He writes, “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party… I am almost ready to say that this is probably true; that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power on the minds of the now contestants, he could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest” (Lincoln, “Mediation on Divine Will,” 1862; Gaustad and Noll, 572).

There are a couple powerful statements in such a small sampling from Lincoln’s thoughts. First is the idea that God wills the Civil War to not only have happened but to continue in its duration. Lincoln wrote this during the War and noted that God could have simply ended it whenever God wanted to, but yet it continued to rage. Such an assertion might seem troubling, particularly to us today. The Civil War is often looked upon as a brutal, heart-wrenching conflict in American history. Families torn apart, incredible losses of life, and slavery being at the very forefront of the conflict all lead to an image of archaic barbarity that we sometimes cannot believe actually happened in the United States, especially only 150 years ago. Lincoln further complicates our view of the Civil War by noting that it’s “probably true that God wills this contest.” With the benefit of hindsight, how should we understand such a statement? Was Lincoln reflecting the thoughts of Christians everywhere? Does God will wars to happen? What does that do for our picture of God?

These are difficult questions, and somewhat impossible to answer. What we can use from Lincoln’s statement is that Lincoln defers to God’s will on the matter, showing a strong faith and trust in God’s purposes. Lincoln does not resort to blaming God for the Civil War, he merely notes that there must be a reason that it continues because it has not yet ended. The second element from Lincoln’s above statement that I want to point out is that in such a contest as the Civil War both sides claim to be on “God’s side.” One need only to read Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution by Francis Wayland and Richard Fuller to see that both pro and antislavery individuals thought that their position on slavery was biblically sanctioned. As Lincoln notes, “God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time,” so one side has to be wrong. The problem with such conflicts is not who is right and who is wrong, but the fact that both sides think that their position lines up with God’s purposes. In the Civil War and in other grand conflicts, such a dichotomy can lead to a besmirching of God’s name as well as a jumbling of the message of the Bible on certain matters.

In another document, Lincoln again ponders how to determine God’s will. He writes, “I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men who are equally certain that they represent the divine will. I am sure that either the one or the other class is mistaken in that belief… I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me… if I can learn what it is, I will do it” (Lincoln, “Reply to a Committee from the Religious Denominations of Chicago,” 1862).

I really like Lincoln’s forthrightness here. He comes across almost as snarky: “If God wants me to know what God’s will is for my presidency, God would have told me directly.” Fair point, and I’m glad he adds that he hopes he is not being irreverent before he says it. I think Lincoln’s vision for his own presidency shows a great deal of humility and faithfulness, but at the same time shows why he was a great leader: he was willing to say: “I’m the president, remember?”

Finally, Lincoln issued a proclamation instituting a National Fast Day on March 30, 1863 (Gaustad and Noll, 572-73) to “humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness… let us rest humbly in the hope authorized by the divine teachings, that the united cry of the nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings no less than the pardon of national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering country to its former happy condition of unity and peace” (Gaustad and Noll, 573).

Powerful statements to come from the president. I wish people read more of Abraham Lincoln than just his “Gettysburg Address.” Seeking pardon for the national sins is a good thought. I know that such a statement would never come from any president in the twenty-first century due to the divided opinions on the place (or lack of place) that faith can have in government; however, I think one of the “national sins” today is simply thinking we are incapable of committing national sins. We look at the USA as a place that is immune to horrors and mistreatment of people, but unfortunately these happen here too. I think if Lincoln were alive and president today, he would still be shocked at how people in this country treat one another. I share his hope that God would grant “restoration” to the divided areas of our country, even today.

Midweek Blog: Phoebe Palmer and the Ocean of God

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This week’s blog continues our series on American Church History. This week we are looking at the life and writings of Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874). She was a well-known Methodist leader who taught that personal, “inward holiness” was what one ought to strive for in his or her faith (Gaustad and Noll, 405). She was a leader of the holiness movement and was very well-known as a speaker. She wrote The Way of Holiness and delivered many public addresses. We will examine The Way of Holiness in today’s blog.

Palmer wrote the book in the third person, describing her own life (Gaustad and Noll, 415). Palmer describes, “And now, realizing that she was engaged in a transaction eternal in its consequences… said, ‘O, Lord, I call heaven and earth to witness that I now lay body, soul, and spirit, with all these redeemed powers, upon thine altar, to be forever Thine! ‘Tis done! Thou has promised to receive me! Thou canst not be unfaithful!'” (Gaustad and Noll, 415-16, emphasis present).

The teaching of internal sanctification comes through Palmer’s writing here. One can see that she views a sacrifice of her entire body, soul, and spirit upon God’s altar. She notes that God promises to receive such a gift and further states that “I am thine–wholly thine!” (416). I wonder when reading Palmer’s own words whether or not many Christians today see faith in a similar manner. I am not necessarily talking about the holiness tradition here. I mean that Palmer’s enthusiasm and trust in God demonstrate just how fervently she believed in her faith. When we go to church, or pray, or serve, or share the Gospel, are we engaging our body, soul, and spirit together? Are we “laying them down upon God’s altar?” Or are we simply doing these things because we think we have to? I know I have been guilty in the past of “going through the motions” in my own faith.

While I do like Palmer’s wording above, I want to focus the rest of the blog on an image she uses. Palmer writes, “She felt in experimental verity that it was not in vain she had believed; her very existence seemed lost and swallowed up in God; she plunged, as it were into an immeasurable ocean of love, light, and power, and realized that she was encompassed with the ‘favor of the Almighty as with a shield; and felt assured, while she continued thus, to rest her entire being on the faithfulness of God'” (416).

There are a few phrases that are key here. The first being that “her very existence seemed lost and swallowed up in God.” Such a statement links up with what many of us would state; that our lives after giving them over to God have been entirely transformed and redeemed. Put another way, we can’t really remember what life was like before we gave ourselves over to God (unless yours is a very recent conversion). I think that is the power of God’s message: that God’s work is so transformative that we begin a new type of God-life in which we exist and cannot remember our old life apart from God.

The second key phrase that I wanted to focus on is that God should be seen as an “ocean of love, light, and power.” I love such a picture. It arrives on the tail of the previous phrase that one is “swallowed up in God.” One can use the image of putting a drop of vinegar into the ocean; i.e that such a small amount does not change the make-up of the ocean itself. It is still salt water despite the addition of a new substance. Going further, the vastness of the ocean (one of the most daunting, intimidating, and fear-inspiring things on earth is the perfect image to use for God. The ocean’s depths and power and magnitude are how one can visualize God’s love, light, and power. God’s love runs so deep that it seems one cannot find the bottom to it. God’s light is as vast as the endless horizon on the surface of the ocean. God’s power is akin to the power of the ocean; which can bring life and also bring terrifying destruction.

Phoebe Palmer’s understanding of holiness and sanctification thus is two-fold. The first requires a submission of one’s body, soul, and spirit. The second is that one must allow him or herself to be swallowed up in God’s ocean of love, light, and power. The continual practice of such a faith can ultimately lead to us being found as true children of God. One can see why Palmer would be so popular and successful as a teacher in the 19th century. Her message of God’s love spoke to people in a turbulent time: on the eve of the Civil War and during many of the slavery debates in the United States. The turbulent nature of this country unfortunately has not yet yielded to peaceful, tranquil times. Palmer’s teaching could still address many issues in our country today. How many of our troubles could be solved if we simply dove in to the ocean of God? No one can know for sure, but it could be a great start.

Midweek Augustine Blog: Is There Time for God?

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Well, I thought about doing a bonus blog last week, but it never happened. I could blame my daughter for taking up all my time and attention, but the reality is I just didn’t feel like it. Oh well. Onward! This week’s blog in our series on Augustine examines my favorite “book” of the Confessions, Book XI. Augustine opens Book XI with a question: “O Lord, since you are outside time in eternity, are you unaware of the things that I tell you? Or do you see in time the things that occur in it?” (XI.1). Augustine poses a tough question that is not easily answered. He proceeds to discuss this issue throughout Book XI, and since trying to elaborate on it would fill up pages and pages of a blog, I will seek instead to hone in on a couple of key passages. I invite and recommend all of you to read Confessions in general, and particularly Book XI.

Section 13 of Book XI contains a couple of poignant statements to which I want to devote space here. Augustine notes, “It is not in time that you precede [time]. If this were so, you would not be before all time. It is in eternity, which is supreme over time because it is a never-ending present, that you are at once before all past time and after all future time. For what is now the future, once it comes, will become the past, whereas you are unchanging, your years can never fail. Your years neither go nor come, but our years pass and others come after them” (XI.13).

Trying to grasp just how God’s place in eternity lies outside of time is a heavy concept. The idea that God exists in a “never-ending present” is helpful but also difficult. For example, God is not affected by time, does not grow old, etc. However, does this mean that God is somehow limited? Think of what we know as “present.” It means that we know what is past, and do not know the future (no matter what doomsday prophets will tell you). Does God’s “never-ending present” also mean that God does not know the future. Augustine would certainly disagree with such a conclusion. In the above quotation he notes that God is “before all past time and after all future time.” Does that mean that God is simply outside of time? It would seem to suggest that. But what about Jesus (God in human flesh), who enters into time? He was born and He died. He also rose from the dead. Did Jesus know everything that was to happen? Was Jesus surprised by events in His lifetime, even if He knew His ultimate fate?

As you can see, such a discourse can open up a whole can of worms. Augustine further elaborates on God’s place in eternity: “Your years are one day, yet your day does not come daily but is always today, because your today does not give place to any tomorrow nor does it take the place of any yesterday. Your today is eternity. And this is how the Son, to whom you said, ‘I have begotten you this day,’ was begotten co-eternal with yourself. You made all time; you are before all time; and the ‘time,’ if such we may call it, when there was no time was not time at all” (XI.13).

This is one of my favorite passages of the entire Confessions. I love how succinctly Augustine phrases such a difficult concept. He clearly uses “time” language to show just how God is eternal. Augustine demonstrates how we as humans strain to comprehend God’s existence. Since we think in terms of time, we ought to use time language in order to show just how God is greater than us. We have to think of God in an eternal present, an eternal today. In addition to that, God is the creator of time and is before and after all time. What causes us trouble is the idea of eternity. It is easy to flippantly say, “Oh God is outside of time, so God is not surprised by the future.” Well, what about when someone presses you on the matter. For example, can God truly hear our prayers (especially those that are time-sensitive, like healing or job opportunities) if God is outside of time?

This gets back to Augustine’s opening question, how can human prayer requests bridge the gap between the temporal and the eternal realms? Well I would argue that Jesus’s entering into the temporal realm facilitates that, as does the gifted Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians. Is such an argument helpful though? What about skeptics? Does this help us answer their tough questions about God’s nature and God’s seeming detachment from our world?

I want to bring this blog to a “timely” close before it gets too long-winded. A Bible study I was once a part of took on some of these topics. It was a great experience digging into passages and commentaries and often getting really confused. At the end of it, however, we did come to some conclusions. A question that was posed went something like this: if God is eternal and outside of time, does God know if I will go to the gym two weeks from today? Now, you might think this a rather mundane detail for God to be concerned with, but I assure you it caused a furious debate. The point was if God knows for sure (or even predestines it, which was the purpose of the question), then how does free will work? The conclusion was that we do have free will, God can just see both outcomes of whether or not we decide to go to the gym two Thursdays from now.

And this is one of the problems with calling God’s place in the universe a “never-ending present.” It makes God seem limited or restricted in some way. If we think of God as outside of time, God sees the past, present, and future all at once. God sees all possibilities of actions (and their consequences) at once. This is so much greater and more profound than an eternal present. Time is too small of a construct to contain God.

Midweek Blog: Augustine, Enemies, and Forgiveness

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Apologies to my readers for missing a blog last week. I was wrapping up a dissertation chapter which took all of my focus. That chapter has been handed in, so I have time this week to write a new blog. I might even include a bonus one on Friday as well. Today’s blog picks up our series of posts on Augustine by exploring a different work of his, The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Charity (New City Press, 1999 edition). It’s a helpful work with several different sections on Christianity. The topic for today’s blog is forgiveness of one’s enemies.

I have read Augustine’s catechism (which this work is often called) and enjoyed several aspects of it, but possibly nothing in it hits me harder than Augustine’s section on “Forgiveness from the Heart” (Ench. 74). Apologies for the non-inclusiveness of the language. In it, Augustine writes, “A person who pleads with one against whom he has sinned, if he is moved by his own sin to make his plea, should no longer be thought of as an enemy whom it is as difficult to forgive as it was when he was behaving as an enemy.”

The reason this is hard for me is the idea that we should easily forgive those who were formerly our enemies and no longer look at them as our enemies. The idea that we are supposed to forgive those, who through contrition ask for it, sits just fine with me. The idea that we should look no longer at them as our enemies is a bit more difficult. For example, the powerful testimonies of forgiveness that have been offered in Charleston, South Carolina towards Dylann Roof after his hate-crime killing spree. I don’t know how those families forgave him, let alone advocated that he not be executed. That is truly the power of Christ’s forgiveness in them. I don’t know if I could have extended the same grace, let alone no longer looking to that shooter as an enemy (provided he asked for forgiveness, which to my knowledge he has not done).

Let’s take another example. What if someone is directly responsible for you not getting a promotion, eventually get you fired, which causes you to lose your home? What if, years later, you and that person end up at the same church, and even in the same Bible study? What about if he or she were to come up to you and plead for forgiveness for his or her past actions and tell you he or she is truly sorry? Can you forgive that person? Sure. Can you no longer look at him or her as your enemy? Maybe.

Augustine continues, “But anybody who refuses to forgive from his heart one who asks forgiveness and repents of his sin should not think that the Lord forgives his sins, since the Truth cannot lie. What hearer or reader of the gospel does not know who said, ‘I am the truth?’ (Jn. 14:6).”

This is the rub of Augustine’s message here. Refusing to forgive has personal consequences for the offended person. The Lord’s forgiveness seems to be predicated on our ability to forgive others. Should we agree with such theology? Does Augustine’s own theology allow for this? These are larger questions which might sidetrack the purpose of this blog. I think that the point Augustine is making (based on Matthew 6.14-15 mind you) is that if we are to live as Christians in this world, we must forgive others. How can we think that our enemies have offended us more than we ourselves have offended God?

I want to close today’s blog with a story that looks at this issue from the opposite side of things. Back when I was in high school, a friend of mine was upset with me for a while. I wasn’t sure at first why he had been so mad at me, until I asked a mutual friend of ours about it. That friend told me that my buddy had heard that I was telling a story of his that I wasn’t supposed to share with anyone else. Side note: it was a compelling story and I had ignored the request for confidentiality in order to captivate an audience at school. Long story short, I finally convinced my buddy to talk to me. I told him I was sorry for blabbing his story and sorry for betraying his confidence. He said, “Okay, I forgive you.” It was so simple and he acted like it was nothing. He and I hadn’t talked for about a week, but he so easily forgave me. It was powerful. We were able to get back to being good friends almost as if nothing had happened at all.

That is the strongest picture I can paint (from my own experience). Someone who had felt so wronged and so hurt just needed to hear “I’m sorry” in order to forgive. Friendship was restored because of my friend’s forgiveness. We therefore should treat our enemies (who are contrite, mind you, Augustine doesn’t really address those enemies who don’t want our forgiveness) in a similar way. We are to forgive as the Lord forgave us.

Have any of you been forgiven in such a way? Have any of you forgiven your enemies like this? I would love to hear your stories. If any of you have an issue currently like this (whichever side you find yourself on), I would urge you to seek forgiveness in one way or another.

Midweek Blog: Augustine and How to Read the Bible

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I want to continue our series on St. Augustine today by discussing a passage from his work, On Christian Teaching (De doctrina Christiana). It’s a small book (especially compared with the City of God), and is one that covers many topics about Christian living. I wanted to open this blog by sharing something a professor of mine told me in class once: one thing that many Protestants overlook and/or need to keep in mind when reading Augustine is that he was a pastoral theologian, not a systematic theologian. The difference being that Augustine is serving a particular church context and develops theological constructs which speak particularly to those situations (this would account for supposed inconsistencies between some of his earlier and later works). It is also helpful to keep that in mind whenever reading anything by Augustine; i.e. that he is addressing a church context. With that said, let’s launch into today’s post.

The following quotation comes from Book III of On Christian Teaching (I am using the Oxford World Classics version). Augustine writes:

“It often happens that someone who is, or thinks he/she is, at a higher stage of the spiritual life regards as figurative instructions which are given to those at a lower stage. So, for example, a man who has embraced a life of celibacy and castrated himself for the sake of the kingdom of heaven might maintain that any instructions given in the sacred books about loving or governing one’s wife should be taken not literally but figuratively.” (On Christian Teaching III.58; OWC p.81).

Now, while this might appear slightly comical at first glance, it is a real problem in Augustine’s church context. In the fourth and fifth centuries, monasticism was growing rapidly and people often would go to extreme lengths to prove that they were masters over the urges and lusts of the flesh. Castration being one such mode of asceticism. Origen, living in the third century, did so as well.

Augustine’s point is less about castration/ asceticism than it is about reading scripture. I have actually seen and heard Christians today employ these interpretation strategies when reading the Bible. Often they will read a passage that they feel does not apply to them, but instead of being content with that, they will fabricate an interpretation which uses a very fluid reading of that text in order to speak to some context in their own life. Is it okay to come across passages in the Bible that we feel don’t apply to us and to leave it at that? Why or why not?

Augustine furthers his point: “Likewise we must take care not to regard something in the Old Testament that is by the standards of its own time not wickedness or wrongdoing, even when understood literally and not figuratively, as capable of being transferred to the present time and applied to our own lives.” (On Christian Teaching, III.60; OCW p. 81)

Context suggests that Augustine refers here to reading about heroes in the Old Testament such as David and their many wives. Augustine warns that it is possible that David was more chaste in having several wives than a man who only has one wife but pursues lustful passions with her. The opposite can be true today: people look at passages in the Old Testament and say, “I want nothing to do with your Bible because of the polygamy, violence, presence of slavery, etc.”

What should we say in response to such statements? Can we read passages like those in the Old Testament literally? Do we have to read them figuratively?

I think that this is one of the dangers of biblical interpretation. I have seen people question their entire faith over studying one particular passage in depth. However, I think there is a sort of beauty in the Bible when you look back through and see passages that make us uncomfortable; or worse, downright upset and angry. I think that the people in the Bible are supposed to bother us on some levels.

I think it’s okay that Abraham bothers people when he sends Hagar away. I think it’s good that people seriously dislike the Book of Joshua for its “genocidal” type narratives. I think it’s also great that people really struggle with the Book of Philemon because it never actually condemns slavery and even sends a slave back to his master. The history of the Bible is supposed to do that. It is filled with people that sometimes acted less than honorably. It is filled with troubling passages like those from Joshua. We need a Bible that is hard to read, that pushes our faith further. An easy Bible would not foster deep, meaningful faith.

Trying to make the Bible work for us today isn’t always the best plan. Augustine’s words suggest that we need to be careful to avoid making the Bible do things it wasn’t meant to do. Many people try to make the Bible apply to situations that it just does not address. We have seen this today in several forums, particularly social media and politics. Sometimes passages should just be read on their own with their own context in mind.

Side note: Augustine’s own conversion happened because he “took up and read” the first passage he flipped open to. He felt that it was speaking directly to him. Just some further food for thought.

I want to close with a quote from Augustine on this matter: “We must understand that some instructions are given to all people alike, but others to particular classes of people, so that the medicine may confront not only the general pathology of the disease but also the particular weakness of each part of the body. What cannot be raised to a higher level must be healed at its own level.” (III.59)