August 16 – Charles Finney

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.

More thoughts for meditation about Charles Finney

One time someone brought a shotgun to one of Charles Finney’s revival meetings, intending to kill him. May you cause that kind of trouble as you defy the powers!

Some people might not think Finney fits into the “cloud of witnesses” that make up our respected spiritual ancestors. He was the “father of modern revivalism.” He was the forerunner of Billy Graham in the sense that he popularized the “altar call” and other tactics many find a bit too coercive or manipulative. But his demands for living a truly Christian life, his determination to get something going, and his presumption that people could live up to their radical calling, is right up our alley. He was also among the first to have women and African Americans participating in his meetings as equals with white men. One story is that the altar call’s original purpose was to come forward to sign petitions to abolish slavery.

The zenith of Finney’s evangelistic career was in the 1830′s during the Second Great Awakening. In Rochester, New York, he preached 98 sermons that caused a ruckus.  Shopkeepers closed their businesses, posting notices urging people to attend Finney’s meetings. Reportedly, the population of the town increased by two-thirds during the revival, and crime dropped by two-thirds over the same period. After that, he began an almost continuous revival in New York City as minister of the Second Free Presbyterian Church. In 1834, he moved into the huge Broadway Tabernacle his followers built for him. He stayed there for only a year, leaving to pastor Oberlin Congregational Church in Ohio, and to teach theology at Oberlin College. In 1851, he was appointed president of the college, which gave him a new forum to advocate the social reforms he championed, especially the abolition of slavery. Oberlin College, under his leadership, was the first college to admit woman and black/brown people to be educated with white men.

Finney married evangelism to social reform, New Testament evangelism with Old Testament prophecy, piety with radicalism, and conversion with action. He got people talking and acting. He was not content with them simply receiving or consuming. His commitment to Jesus meant taking care of the poor and the needy, and his deep commitment to social reform was seen in the radicalism of Oberlin College and in his major push to end slavery. Those he inspired continued to take risks in order to relate to each other and change the world.

Finney quotes:

Nothing tends more to cement the hearts of Christians than praying together. Never do they love one another so well as when they witness the outpouring of each other’s hearts in prayer.

No government is lawful or innocent that does not recognize the moral law as the only universal law, and God as the Supreme Lawgiver and Judge, to whom nations in their national capacity, as well as individuals, are amenable.

When there are dissensions, and jealousies, and evil speakings among professors of religion, then there is great need of a revival. These things show that Christians have got far from God, and it is time to think earnestly of a revival.

Suggestions for action

Don’t get yourself shot, but how should you stir up enough trouble being a Christian that you arouse opposition? Ever think of doing that? Ever make a plan?

Pray for revival to break out. It would be great if people shut their business down (or turned off the TV) to come meet with us and experience the presence of God!

August 11 – Clare of Assisi

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Philippians 3:17-21

Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame.Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Simone Martini 047.jpg
Detail depicting Saint Clare from a fresco (1312–20) by Simone Martini in the Lower basilica of San Francesco, Assisi

More thoughts for meditation about Clare

Today we celebrate Clare of Assisi.  She was one of the first women to follow the example of Saint Francis and ultimately she founded the Order of the Poor Ladies, a monastic religious order for women in the Franciscan tradition.  She wrote the Poor Ladies Rule of Life – the first monastic rule known to have been written by a woman. Following her death, the order she founded was renamed in her honor as the Order of Saint Clare, commonly referred to today as the Poor Clares.

The story goes: When Clare was 18, Francis of Assisi came to preach in the church of San Giorgio at Assisi. Inspired by his words, Clare asked Francis to help her in dedicating her life to God, and he vowed to do so. The following year (1211), Clare’s parents chose a wealthy young man for Clare to marry, but she pointedly refused, fleeing soon after for the Porziuncola Chapel, where Francis received her. She took vows dedicating her life to God, and that moment, on March 20, 1212, marked the beginning of the Second Order of St. Francis.

Clare once wrote: We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means we are to become vessels of God´s compassionate love for others.

If we can go with her, we can do some great work in the world!

Want more

Here is more bio? link

More from the Sisters of St. Clare link

Sayings of Clare with harp background! link

Suggestions for action

Meditate on who or what you practically love.

August 3 — Flannery O’Connor

Today’s Bible reading

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. – Romans 5:1-11

More thoughts for meditation about Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964)

Mary Flannery O’Connor was an American novelist, short story writer and essayist. She wrote two novels and thirty-two short stories, as well as a number of reviews and commentaries. She is considered one of America’s greatest fiction writers and one of the strongest apologists for Christian faith (especially the Roman Catholic branch) in the twentieth century. Her small but impressive body of fiction presents the soul’s struggle with what she called the “stinking mad shadow of Jesus.”

She was the only daughter of the marriage of two of Georgia’s oldest Catholic families, born on March 25, 1925 in Savannah, Georgia. She grew up under live oaks and Spanish moss, across the square from the cathedral where she was immersed in ritual, sacraments, and daily mass, sheltered by Sisters of Mercy—a coherent cosmos of faith. Even when her family moved from Savannah to a Milledgeville, Georgia, dairy farm so isolated that it was reached only “by bus or buzzard,” Flannery’s life centered around God.

After graduating from a nearby women’s college, Flannery went to the renowned Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. Although she claimed that she didn’t know a short story from an ad in the newspaper, Flannery, wholly given to her writing, quickly became a sensation. Though Flannery hardly looked the part, the fiction editor of Esquire put her at the red-hot center of his Literary Establishment chart of 1963.

As Flannery’s cultural star was on the rise, she was stricken by lupus, an incurable, debilitating disease that sapped her energy and forced her return to the “very muddy and manurey” farm back in Georgia. Confined there, dependent on her mother’s care, she wrote only as her diminishing strength permitted—for two hours every morning.

Before her death at 39, Flannery predicted that nobody would write her biography, since lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy. Yet her outsized spiritual dramas enacted on a Southern stage—told through short stories, novels, and many letters—ensure her place among the greatest American writers.

The body of O’Connor’s work resists conventional description. Although many of her narratives begin in a familiar world—on a family vacation or in a doctor’s waiting room, for example—they are not, finally, realistic. Furthermore, although O’Connor’s work was written during a time of great social change in the South, those changes—and the relationships among blacks and whites—were not at the center of her fiction. O’Connor made frequent use of violence and shock tactics. She argued that she wrote for an audience who, for all its Sunday piety, did not share her belief in the fall of humanity and its need for redemption. “To the hard of hearing,” she explained, “[Christian writers] shout, and for the… almost-blind [they] draw large and startling figures”—a statement that has become a succinct and popular explanation of O’Connor’s conscious intent as a writer.

One cannot get through a Flannery O’Connor story without encountering the strangeness of God. As she said, the greatest dramas involve the salvation or loss of the soul. Her short story “Revelation” startles with its final vision of a field of living fire. The vast hordes of souls rumbling toward heaven, the battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs, are a queerly beautiful sight. And then the words, “In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”

Flannery lamented that our secular society understands the religious mind less and less, that people who believe vigorously in Christ are wholly odd to most readers. It becomes more and more difficult in America to make belief believable, yet this is what she wanted to do. Flannery insisted that she was not a mystic and did not lead a holy life, yet she unapologetically displayed her faith: a life of continually turning away from egocentricity and toward God.

O’Connor’s letters are full of sin and grace, fall and redemption, and the ultimate reality, God revealed in the Incarnation. She calls for the abandonment of the self: “I measure God by everything I’m not.” She embraces suffering, insisting that before grace can heal “it cuts with the sword Christ said he came to bring.” While many casual believers think that faith is a big electric blanket, she says, of course it is a cross. Her Christian faith is a demanding one.

The word mystery is one of her favorites. She never tosses it around in the way of fuzzy spirituality. Flannery’s mystery is a rich and complex thing; it’s the ground of her spiritual life, and it explains everything. People often strip the cosmos of religious meaning these days. O’Connor aims to return us to mystery, where the unseen ordering of the world speaks of God the Creator. “This is the central Christian mystery,” Flannery says. “Life has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.”

In her journal we can find this prayer: “Help me get down under things and find where you are.” This may be the meaning of mystery for Flannery. She once said that fiction is the concrete expression of mystery—mystery that is lived. For O’Connor, mystery is about getting down under things to find where God is, illuminating the divine foundation of all that is, seen and unseen. Elsewhere in the journals there is the yearning, young Flannery, the wavering believer who wrote, “I don’t want to be doomed to mediocrity in my feeling for Christ. I want to feel. I want to love. Take me, dear Lord, and set me in the direction I am to go.”

An early 1964 surgery for a fibroid tumor reactivated O’Connor’s lupus, which had been in remission, and her health worsened during the following months. On August 3, 1964, after several days in a coma, she died in the Baldwin County Hospital. She is buried beside her father in Memory Hill Cemetery in Milledgeville. At the time of her death, the Atlanta Journal observed that O’Connor’s “deep spirituality qualified her to speak with a forcefulness not often matched in American literature.”

More?

PBS bio

O’Connor reads “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

Her works at the fan site.

Suggestions for action

Even stricken with lupus, Flannery O’Connor kept digging down under her normality to get in touch with the mystery occluded by an oppressive secular world. We present these great examples of faith to help us stop and ponder and imitate. So that is the suggestion, stop and dig down.

August 3 — Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

Today’s Bible reading

The God of Israel spoke,
the Rock of Israel said to me:
‘When one rules over people in righteousness,
when he rules in the fear of God,
he is like the light of morning at sunrise
on a cloudless morning,
like the brightness after rain
that brings grass from the earth.’

“If my house were not right with God,
surely he would not have made with me an everlasting covenant,
arranged and secured in every part;
surely he would not bring to fruition my salvation
and grant me my every desire. – 2 Samuel 23:3-5

More thoughts for meditation about Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008)

Alexander Solzhenitsyn emerges in the recent history of the church in Russia as a colossus of courage. He was born only months after the secular fundamentalists swept to power in the Bolshevik Revolution. He was brainwashed by a state education system which taught him that religion was the enemy of the people. Like most of his school friends, he became an atheist and joined the communist party.

When he served in the Soviet army on the Eastern Front during the Second World War he witnessed cold blooded murder and the raping of women and children as the Red Army took its “revenge” on the Germans. Disillusioned, he committed the indiscretion of criticizing the Soviet leader Josef Stalin and was imprisoned for eight years as a political dissident.

While in prison, he resolved to expose the horrors of the Soviet system. Shortly after his release, during a period of compulsory exile in Kazakhstan, he was diagnosed with a malignant cancer in its advanced stages and was not expected to live. In the face of what appeared to be impending death, he converted to Christianity and was astonished by what he considered to be a miraculous recovery.

In the 1960s Solzhenitsyn published three novels exposing the secularist tyranny of the Soviet Union and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. Following the publication in 1973 of his seminal work, The Gulag Archipelago, an exposé of the treatment of political dissidents in the Soviet prison system, he was arrested and expelled from the Soviet Union, thereafter living the life of an exile in Switzerland and the United States. He finally returned to Russia in 1994, after the collapse of the Soviet system.

In 1978, Solzhenitsyn caused great controversy when he criticized the secularism and hedonism of the West in his famous commencement address at Harvard University. Condemning the nations of the so-called free West for being morally bankrupt, he urged that it was time “to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.”

He warned the emphasis on rights instead of responsibilities was leading to “the abyss of human decadence” and to the committing of “moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror.” He claimed the root of the modern malaise is the philosophy of “rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy,” which declared the “autonomy of man from any higher authority above him.” Such a view “could also be called anthropocentrity, with man seen as the center of all.”

Little could Solzhenitsyn have known when he languished as one of the many millions in the Soviet prison system that he would outlive the Soviet system and, furthermore, that his own courage would play an important part in that very system’s collapse.

Quotes:

  • The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every [person].
  • Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag.
  • A man is happy so long as he chooses to be happy and nothing can stop him.
  • A state of war only serves as an excuse for domestic tyranny.
  • Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic diseases of the 20th century, and more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press.
  • Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence.
  • Talent is always conscious of its own abundance, and does not object to sharing.
  • In our country the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State.
  • How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand one who’s cold?

More?

Bio from the Solzhenitsyn Center

Suggestions for action

The clouds of radical relativism often obscure the light of living Truth. “It can be difficult to discern any silver lining to help us illumine the future with hope. In such gloomy times the example of the martyrs can be encouraging. Those who laid down their lives for Christ and His Church in worse times than ours are beacons of light, dispelling the darkness with their baptism of blood (Joseph Pearce).”

The clouds and the shadows they cast are transient. Evil is nihilistic, which is another way of saying that it is ultimately nothing. It is only a temporary blocking of the light. “Above all shadows rides the Sun,” as the ever-humble Samwise Gamgee reminds his friend in The Lord of the Rings. Even in these dark days, as Solzhenitsyn reminds us, every cloud has a silver lining.

Who is God? Where is your hope? What lie is attempting to shape you? What violence is channeling you? How can you fight? How can we? Answering the questions in our day plants the church.

July 31 – Ignatius of Loyola

Today’s Bible reading 

You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer. Similarly, anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules. The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops. Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this. — 2 Timothy 2:1-7

More thoughts for meditation about Ignatius Loyola

St. Ignatius Loyola was born in 1491, one of 13 children of a family of minor nobility in northern Spain. As a young man Ignatius Loyola was inflamed by the ideals of courtly love and knighthood and dreamed of doing great deeds.

But in 1521 Ignatius was gravely wounded in a battle with the French. While recuperating, he experienced a conversion. Reading the lives of Jesus and the saints made Ignatius happy and aroused desires to do great things. He realized that these feelings were clues to God’s direction for him.

Over the years, Ignatius became expert in the art of spiritual direction. He collected his insights, prayers, and suggestions in his book the Spiritual Exercises, one of the most influential books on the spiritual life ever written. With a small group of friends, Ignatius Loyola founded the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. Ignatius conceived the Jesuits as “contemplatives in action.” This also describes the many Christians who have been touched by Ignatian spirituality.

“Act as if everything depended on you; trust as if everything depended on God.”

“Go forth and set the world on fire.”

The quotes above are among the most famous from Ignatius and they sum up the practicality and ambition that he lived out after his commitment to follow Jesus.

Those of us who are Protestants probably haven’t been given much information about Ignatius because he was a strong opponent of the Reformation in the 1500’s and vigorously supported (some would argue blindly) the hierarchy of the Catholic Church at the time. None of us gets everything right and this lasting division of the Church has proven itself to be deeply problematic for centuries. Much is lost if we refuse to listen to one another.

Ignatius became a powerful leader in the Church of his day. His writings have become a wonderful guide to many who seek Jesus. He was a devoted follower who took his early experiences as a soldier prior to his conversion and applied all the good lessons he learned to the work of discipleship. His Spiritual Exercises is a 200 page text designed to be a simple guide for new disciples. We celebrate him on the day he died in 1556.

Would you like to know more?

Here is a video biography

Here is a nice spirituality site with extensive biography resources: [link]

Discernment of spirits for young people [link]

Suggestions for action

Ignatian spirituality is one of the most influential and pervasive spiritual outlooks of our age. There’s a story behind it. And it has many attributes. Here are ten markers. Consider them. Try them.

1. It begins with a wounded soldier daydreaming on his sickbed.
Ignatian spirituality is rooted in the experiences of Ignatius, whose conversion to a fervent Christian faith began while he was recovering from war wounds. Ignatius gained many insights into the spiritual life in the course of a decadeslong spiritual journey during which he became expert at helping others deepen their relationship with God. Its basis in personal experience makes Ignatian spirituality an intensely practical spirituality, well suited to laymen and laywomen living active lives in the world.

2. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
This line from a poem by the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins captures a central theme of Ignatian spirituality: its insistence that God is at work everywhere—in work, relationships, culture, the arts, the intellectual life, creation itself. As Ignatius put it, all the things in the world are presented to us “so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily.” Ignatian spirituality places great emphasis on discerning God’s presence in the everyday activities of ordinary life. It sees God as an active God, always at work, inviting us to an ever-deeper walk.

3. It’s about call and response—like the music of a gospel choir.
An Ignatian spiritual life focuses on God at work now. It fosters an active attentiveness to God joined with a prompt responsiveness to God. God calls; we respond. This call-response rhythm of the inner life makes discernment and decision making especially important. Ignatius’s rules for discernment and his astute approach to decision making are well-regarded for their psychological and spiritual wisdom.

4. “The heart has its reasons of which the mind knows nothing.”
Ignatius Loyola’s conversion occurred as he became able to interpret the spiritual meaning of his emotional life. The spirituality he developed places great emphasis on the affective life: the use of imagination in prayer, discernment and interpretation of feelings, cultivation of great desires, and generous service. Ignatian spiritual renewal focuses more on the heart than the intellect. It holds that our choices and decisions are often beyond the merely rational or reasonable. Its goal is an eager, generous, wholehearted offer of oneself to God and to his work.

5. Free at last.
Ignatian spirituality emphasizes interior freedom. To choose rightly, we should strive to be free of personal preferences, superfluous attachments, and preformed opinions. Ignatius counseled radical detachment: “We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one.” Our one goal is the freedom to make a wholehearted choice to follow God.

6. “Sum up at night what thou hast done by day.”
The Ignatian mind-set is strongly inclined to reflection and self-scrutiny. The distinctive Ignatian prayer is the Daily Examen, a review of the day’s activities with an eye toward detecting and responding to the presence of God. Three challenging, reflective questions lie at the heart of the Spiritual Exercises, the book Ignatius wrote, to help others deepen their spiritual lives: “What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I to do for Christ?”

7. A practical spirituality.
Ignatian spirituality is adaptable. It is an outlook, not a program; a set of attitudes and insights, not rules or a scheme. Ignatius’s first advice to spiritual directors was to adapt the Spiritual Exercises to the needs of the person entering the retreat. At the heart of Ignatian spirituality is a profound humanism. It respects people’s lived experience and honors the vast diversity of God’s work in the world. The Latin phrase cura personalis is often heard in Ignatian circles. It means “care of the person”—attention to people’s individual needs and respect for their unique circumstances and concerns.

8. Don’t do it alone.
Ignatian spirituality places great value on collaboration and teamwork. Ignatian spirituality sees the link between God and man as a relationship—a bond of friendship that develops over time as a human relationship does. Collaboration is built into the very structure of the Spiritual Exercises; they are almost always guided by a spiritual director who helps the retreatant interpret the spiritual content of the retreat experience. Similarly, mission and service in the Ignatian mode is seen not as an individualistic enterprise, but as work done in collaboration with Christ and others.

9. “Contemplatives in action.”
Those formed by Ignatian spirituality are often called “contemplatives in action.” They are reflective people with a rich inner life who are deeply engaged in God’s work in the world. They unite themselves with God by joining God’s active labor to save and heal the world. It’s an active spiritual attitude—a way for everyone to seek and find God in their workplaces, homes, families, and communities.

10. “Men and women for others.”
The early Jesuits often described their work as simply “helping souls.” The great Jesuit leader Pedro Arrupe updated this idea in the twentieth century by calling those formed in Ignatian spirituality “men and women for others.” Both phrases express a deep commitment to social justice and a radical giving of oneself to others. The heart of this service is the radical generosity that Ignatius asked for in his most famous prayer:

Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to ask for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your will.

July 29 — William Wilberforce

Unfinished portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1828

Today’s Bible reading

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. — 2 Corinthians 5:1-10

More thoughts for meditation about William Wilberforce (1759-1833)

In the late 1700s, when William Wilberforce was a teenager, English traders raided the African coast on the Gulf of Guinea, captured between 35,000 and 50,000 Africans a year, shipped them across the Atlantic, and sold them into slavery. It was a profitable business upon which many powerful people were dependent. One publicist for the West Indies trade wrote, “The impossibility of doing without slaves in the West Indies will always prevent this traffic being dropped. The necessity, the absolute necessity, then, of carrying it on, must, since there is no other, be its excuse.”

By the late 1700s, the economics of slavery were so entrenched that only a handful of people thought anything could be done about it. That handful included William Wilberforce.

Image result for british slave trade map

This conviction would have surprised those who knew Wilberforce as a young man. He grew up surrounded by wealth and was educated at Cambridge. But he wasn’t a serious student. He later reflected, “As much pains were taken to make me idle as were ever taken to make me studious.” A neighbor at Cambridge added, “When he [Wilberforce] returned late in the evening to his rooms, he would summon me to join him…. He was so winning and amusing that I often sat up half the night with him, much to the detriment of my attendance at lectures the next day.”

Yet Wilberforce had political ambitions and, with his connections, managed to win election to Parliament in 1780, where he formed a lasting friendship with William Pitt, the future prime minister. But he later admitted, “The first years in Parliament I did nothing—nothing to any purpose. My own distinction was my darling object.”

But he began to reflect deeply on his life, which led to a period of intense sorrow. “I am sure that no human creature could suffer more than I did for some months,” he later wrote. His unnatural gloom lifted on Easter 1786, “amidst the general chorus with which all nature seems on such a morning to be swelling the song of praise and thanksgiving.” He had experienced a spiritual rebirth.

He abstained from alcohol and practiced rigorous self-examination as befit, he believed, a “serious” Christian. He abhorred the socializing that went along with politicking. He worried about “the temptations at the table,” the endless dinner parties, which he thought were full of vain and useless conversation: “[They] disqualify me for every useful purpose in life, waste my time, impair my health, fill my mind with thoughts of resistance before and self-condemnation afterwards.”

He began to see his life’s purpose: “My walk is a public one,” he wrote in his diary. “My business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies of men or quit the post which Providence seems to have assigned me.”

In particular, two causes caught his attention. First, under the influence of Thomas Clarkson, he became absorbed with the issue of slavery. Later he wrote, “So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.”

Wilberforce was initially optimistic, even naively so. He expressed “no doubt” about his chances of quick success. As early as 1789, he and Clarkson managed to have 12 resolutions against the slave trade introduced—only to be outmaneuvered on fine legal points. The pathway to abolition was blocked by vested interests, parliamentary filibustering, entrenched bigotry, international politics, slave unrest, personal sickness, and political fear. Other bills introduced by Wilberforce were defeated in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805.

When it became clear that Wilberforce was not going to let the issue die, pro-slavery forces targeted him. He was vilified; opponents spoke of “the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies.” The opposition became so fierce, one friend feared that one day he would read about Wilberforce’s being “carbonated [broiled] by Indian planters, barbecued by African merchants, and eaten by Guinea captains.” 

Slavery was only one cause that excited Wilberforce’s passions. His second great calling was for the “reformation of manners,” that is, morals. In early 1787, he conceived of a society that would work, as a royal proclamation put it, “for the encouragement of piety and virtue; and for the preventing of vice, profaneness, and immorality.” It eventually become known as the Society for the Suppression of Vice.

In fact, Wilberforce—dubbed “the prime minister of a cabinet of philanthropists”—was at one time active in support of 69 philanthropic causes. He gave away one-quarter of his annual income to the poor. He fought on behalf of chimney sweeps, single mothers, Sunday schools, orphans, and juvenile delinquents. He helped found parachurch groups like the Society for Bettering the Cause of the Poor, the Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the Antislavery Society.

In 1797, he settled at Clapham, where he became a prominent member of the “Clapham Sect,” a group of devout Christians of influence in government and business. That same year he wrote Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians—a scathing critique of comfortable Christianity that became a bestseller.

He did all this in spite of the fact that poor health plagued him his entire life, sometimes keeping him bedridden for weeks. During one such time in his late twenties, he wrote, “[I] am still a close prisoner, wholly unequal even to such a little business as I am now engaged in: add to which my eyes are so bad that I can scarce see how to direct my pen.” Friends called him “all soul and no body.”

He survived this and other bouts of debilitating illness with the help of opium, a new drug at the time, the affects of which were still unknown. Wilberforce soon became addicted, though opium’s hallucinatory powers terrified him, and the depressions it caused virtually crippled him at times.

When healthy, however, he was a persistent and effective politician, partly due to his natural charm and partly to his eloquence. His antislavery efforts finally bore fruit in 1807: Parliament abolished the slave trade in the British Empire. He then worked to ensure the slave trade laws were enforced and, finally, that slavery in the British Empire was abolished. Wilberforce’s health prevented him from leading the last charge, though he heard three days before he died that the final passage of the emancipation bill was ensured in committee.

More? 

10 minute video biography

Suggestions for action

An addicted, sickly man uses his inherited wealth to change history. It is a good story in any culture, much more in the rapacious history of Europeans.

Revisit today’s Bible reading and consider your own “long view.” What are the things you hope to be working on when you die? Some may have been your life’s work. In an age when advertisers regularly teach us that the long view does not matter, putting our attention on heaven is truly radical.

July 28 — Johann Sebastian Bach

Image result for bach

Today’s Bible reading

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad,because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. – Matthew 5:11-12

More thoughts for meditation on J.S. Bach (1685-1750)

The Bach Archive researcher, Michael Maul, was looking through a shoebox that had only narrowly escaped a fire in the Anna Amalia Library a few months before. Inside lay more than 100 letters and poems dedicated to the 52nd birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach’s patron, Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Saxe-Weimar. Maul had hoped to find a greeting from the composer himself, who in 1713 was the court organist. But what he found instead was a two-page hand-written aria for soprano and harpsichord, the first Bach vocal work discovered in 70 years.

The text is a 12-stanza poem by Johann Anton Mylius, beginning, “Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn’ ihn” (Everything with God and nothing without him). The music, British conductor John Eliot Gardiner told The Guardian, is “a reflective, meditative, soothing piece, as Bach’s church music so often is.” The Bach Archive asked Gardiner to record and perform the piece and the aria’s first recording can be heard at NPR.org.

J.S. Bach is still influencing people with his faith expressed in his music.

When he was 48, Bach acquired a copy of Luther’s three-volume translation of the Bible. He pored over it as if it were a long-lost treasure. He underlined passages, corrected errors in the text and commentary, inserted missing words, and made notes in the margins. Near 1 Chronicles 25 (a listing of Davidic musicians) he wrote, “This chapter is the true foundation of all God-pleasing music.” At 2 Chronicles 5:13 (which speaks of temple musicians praising God), he noted, “At a reverent performance of music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence.”

Bach was a Christian who lived with the Bible. Besides being the baroque era’s greatest organist and composer, and one of the most productive geniuses in the history of Western music, Bach was also a theologian who just happened to work with a keyboard.

He was born and schooled in Eisenach, Thuringia (at the same school Luther had attended), part of a family that in seven generations produced 53 prominent musicians. Johann Sebastian received his first musical instruction from his father, Johann Ambrosius, a town musician. By age 10 Bach was orphaned, and he went to live and study with his elder brother, Johann Christoph, an organist in Ohrdruf.

By age 15 Bach was ready to establish himself in the musical world, and he immediately showed immense talent in a variety of areas. He became a soprano (women weren’t permitted to sing in church) in the choir of Lüneburg’s Church of Saint Michael. Three years later, he was a violinist in the chamber orchestra of Prince Johann Ernst of Weimar. After a few months, he moved to Arnstadt to become a church organist.

In October 1705, Bach was invited to study for one month with the renowned Danish-born German organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude. Bach was so enamored with his teacher, he stretched the visit to two months. When he returned to his church, he was severely criticized for breach of contract and, in the ensuing weeks, for his new organ flourishes and harmonies that accompanied congregational singing. But he was already too highly respected to be dismissed.

In 1707 he married a second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach, and went to Mülhausen to become organist in the Church of Saint Blasius. After various moves and prominent jobs, he finally settled down in Leipzig in 1723, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Maria died in 1720, and the next year he married Anna Magdalena Wilcken, an accomplished singer. She bore him 13 children, to add to the seven he’d had by Maria, and helped copy his music for performers.

Bach’s stay in Leipzig, as musical director and choirmaster of Saint Thomas’s church and school, wasn’t always happy. He squabbled continually with the town council, and neither the council nor the populace appreciated his musical genius. Some said he was a stuffy old man who clung stubbornly to obsolete forms of music. Consequently, they paid him a miserable salary, and when he died even contrived to defraud his widow of her meager inheritance.

Ironically, in this setting Bach wrote his most enduring music. For a time he wrote a cantata each week (today, a composer who writes a cantata a year is considered ambitious), 202 of which survive. Most conclude with a chorale based on a simple Lutheran hymn, and the music is at all times closely bound to biblical texts. Among these works are the Ascension Cantata and the Christmas Oratorio.

In Leipzig he also composed his epic Mass in B Minor, The Passion of St. John and The Passion of St. Matthew—all for use as worship services. The latter piece has been called “the supreme cultural achievement of all Western civilization,” and even the radical skeptic Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) admitted upon hearing it, “One who has completely forgotten Christianity truly hears it here as gospel.”

After Bach’s death, people seemed glad to wipe their ears of his music. He was remembered less as a composer than as an organist and harpsichordist. Some of his music was sold, and some was reportedly used to wrap garbage. For the next 80 years his music was neglected by the public, although a few musicians (Mozart and Beethoven, for example) admired it. Not until 1829, when German composer Felix Mendelssohn arranged a performance of The Passion of St. Matthew, did a larger audience appreciate Bach the composer.

In terms of pure music, Bach has become known as one who could combine the rhythm of French dances, the gracefulness of Italian song, and the intricacy of German counterpoint—all in one composition. In addition, Bach could write musical equivalents of verbal ideas, such as undulating a melody to represent the sea.

But music was never just music to Bach. Nearly three-fourths of his 1,000 compositions were written for use in worship. Between his musical genius, his devotion to Christ, and the effect of his music, he has come to be known in many circles as “the Fifth Evangelist.”

More?

10-minute video biography

Sheep May Safely Graze with period instruments

A capella boy choir Libera sings an Air

Suggestions for action

It should not surprise us that a Christian musical genius was left unpraised and even abused in the flower of his talent. Yet it is still shocking. Maybe it should encourage us to keep on serving whether we are  appreciated or not. Whatever genius we offering is just that, an offering, not our part of a transaction for which we expect a profit. As Jesus keeps saying, “What does it profit us if we gain the whole world and lose our souls? What can we give in exchange for our souls?”

Revisit what you think it important. What had God given you to give and how are you making it a priority? Is some power trying to undermine your devotion?

July 17 — Peter Waldo

Today’s Bible reading

Read Deuteronomy 33

This is the blessing that Moses, the man of God, gave the Israelites before his death.

St. Alexius

More thoughts for meditation about Peter Waldo

Nobody knows the day Peter Waldo died. But we do know that his faith was warmed when he listened to a sermon about Alexius of Rome. So it seems appropriate to celebrate him on St. Alexius Day. Let’s start with a bit about what made Alexius a moving example of faith:

Alexius was the only son of a wealthy Christian Roman of the senatorial class. He fled his arranged marriage to follow his call to holiness. Disguised as a beggar, he lived near Edessa in Syria, accepting alms even from his own household slaves, who had been sent to look for him but did not recognize him, until a miraculous icon singled him out as a “Man of God.” Fleeing the fame that resulted, he returned to Rome, so changed that his parents did not recognize him, but as good Christians they took him in and sheltered him for seventeen years, which he spent in a dark cubbyhole beneath the stairs, praying and teaching catechism to children. After his death, his family found writings on his body which told them who he was and how he had lived his life of penance from the day of his wedding, for the love of God.

While Peter Waldo was listening to this story, he was moved to also become a man of God. Like others in his day, he embraced the value of poverty, giving away his wealth and property in 1170. Specific details of his life are largely unknown. Extant sources relate that he was a wealthy clothier and merchant from Lyons and a man of some learning.

The church of 12th Century Europe was powerful and impressive. The emerging Gothic architecture shows the devotion of the people and the wealth of the bishops. The developing scholastic theology shows the intellectual dominance and refinement of thinking among academic theologians. The Crusades against Islam in Jerusalem and heretics at home show the coercive strength of the church in cooperation with the state.

The church’s success, however, alienated many people. To them, the church seemed greatly corrupted by its power. To them, the church seemed to have forgotten Christ’s call to otherworldliness, poverty, and humility. In various, often quite divergent movements, a reaction of Christian simplicity was raised against the wealth and power of the church.

The established church managed to contain some of this unrest, particularly through the asceticism of the monastic movements. But even these movements tended over time to be corrupted by wealth and immorality. Some of the unrest moved outside the church and orthodox teaching. For instance, the Cathari, also known as the Cathars or Albigensians, adopted a spiritualistic religion that rejected the material world so radically that it left no place for the incarnation. This movement attracted many followers, particularly in the south of France, and it was viciously persecuted by church and state.

Another critique against the church was initiated by Peter Waldo or Peter Valdez. As noted, he was inspired by a series of events: 1) the sermon on the life of St. Alexius, 2) his rejection of transubstantiation when it was considered a capital crime to do so, 3) the sudden and unexpected death of a friend during an evening meal. From this point onward he began living a radical Christian life, giving his property over to his wife, while the remainder of his belongings he distributed to the poor.

His followers were sometimes called the Poor Men of Lyons. But his critique of the church adopted neither the radical love of poverty in itself as St. Francis had done nor the radical spiritualizing of the Cathars. Instead, they turned to the simple vision of Christianity that they found in the Bible. Waldo saw to the translation of the Bible into the language of the people. He and his followers went about preaching a simple understanding of the Bible.

Waldo preached and taught publicly, based on his ideas of simplicity and poverty, notably that “No man can serve two masters, God and Mammon” accompanied by strong condemnations of Papal excesses and Catholic dogmas, including purgatory and transubstantiation, while accusing them of being the harlot from the book of Revelation. His followers spread this word  disguised as peddlers.

For a time, the movement spread widely into parts of Germany and Austria, as well as Northern Italy. Persecution by the church, however, was severe and eventually reduced the movement to a remnant in the valleys of Northern Italy. Efforts to eradicate them through the centuries failed, and only in 1870 did the Waldensians receive full civil rights in Italy. Pope Francis recently asked their forgiveness.

When the Reformation began in the sixteenth century, contact was established between the Waldensians and the Reformers. Ultimately the Waldensians accepted the spiritual connection between their movement and Protestantism. Unfortunately, this connection led to even greater persecution. Waldo and his followers have sometimes been listed among the forerunners of the Reformation. The Waldensians were not only forerunners but also witnesses to the presence of Christ’s Word and Spirit in the church through the centuries. They gave expression to aspects of Apostolic religion that were threatened with extinction in the dominant church. They remind us that in every era, Christ fulfills His promise: “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).

Suggestions for action

It is always exciting to see a relatively normal group of people come to faith, against all odds, and then give witness to the powers that deprived them of faith to begin with!

Does Peter Waldo embolden you? What have you heard, lately, that, if you took it to heart, would cause some revolution in you and your environment?

July 11 – Benedict of Nursia

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read 1 Peter 3:8-9

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing.

benedict-icon-full1More thoughts for meditation about Benedict of Nursia

Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-547?) was born in North Central Italy (the Umbria province) when the Asian hordes were pulling much of the region back into violence with their war and pillaging. His biographer, St. Gregory the Great (Pope from 590 to 604), does not record the dates of his birth and death, though he refers to a Rule written by Benedict. According to Gregory’s Dialogues, Benedict’s parents sent him to Rome for classical studies but he found the life of the city too degenerate for his tastes. He fled to a place southeast of Rome called Subiaco where he lived as a hermit. There he was discovered by a group of seekers who prevailed upon him to become their spiritual leader. His rule soon became too much for his lukewarm followers so they plotted to poison him. Gregory recounts the tale of Benedict’s rescue; when he blessed the pitcher of poisoned wine, it broke into many pieces.

Benedict left these wayward men and established twelve monasteries with twelve monks each in the area south of Rome. Later, perhaps in 529, he moved to Monte Cassino, about eighty miles southeast of Rome; there he destroyed the pagan temple dedicated to Apollo and built his premier monastery. It was there that he wrote the Rule for the monastery of Monte Cassino, though he envisioned that it could be used elsewhere. Gregory presents Benedict as the model of a saint who flees temptation to pursue a life of attention to God. Through a balanced pattern of action and contemplation, Benedict reached the point where he glimpsed the glory of God.

Gregory recounts a vision that Benedict received toward the end of his life: In the dead of night he suddenly beheld a flood of light shining down from above more brilliant than the sun, and with it every trace of darkness cleared away. According to his own description, the whole world was gathered up before his eyes “in what appeared to be a single ray of light” (ch. 34). St. Benedict, the monk par excellence, led a monastic life that reached the vision of God.

Benedict is considered to be the father of Western Monasticism—a few centuries after Monasticism began in Egypt, Asia Minor, and Palestine. His genius was to put the forms of the East into an accessible format that was warm and flexible. He was mostly the leader of a community, not a scholar. The Rule is the sole known example of Benedict’s writing, but it shows his genius to crystallize the best of the monastic tradition and to pass it on to Europe. The Benedictine vows are basically “obedience, stability, and conversion of life.” He helped formalize a movement of the Spirit into “a school of the Lord’s service, in which we hope to order nothing harsh or rigorous.” These “schools” that soon dotted Europe were centers of light and stability for centuries. Benedict, and the subsequent monks in his tradition, are known for both prayer and labor (ora et labora).

Some of the stories about Benedict told by Gregory can be found here [link].

Quotes from the rule of St. Benedict:

  • The first degree of humility is prompt obedience.
  • Listen and attend with the ear of your heart.
  • Prayer ought to be short and pure, unless it be prolonged by the inspiration of Divine grace.
  • He should first show them in deeds rather than words all that is good and holy.
  • Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from that every day calls out…What dear brothers, is more delightful than the voice of the Lord calling to us?
  • We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction,not our many words. 
  • [About the abbot] He must show forethought and consideration in his orders, and whether the task he assigns concerns God or the world, he should be discerning and moderate, bearing in mind the discretion of holy Jacob, who said: If I drive my flocks too hard, they will all die in a single day (Gen 33:13). 19 Therefore, drawing on this and other examples of discretion, the mother of virtues, he must so arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from.

More on Benedict of Nursia:

Catholic Encyclopedia bio [link]

Christianity Today bio [link]

Order of St. Benedict bio [link]

Monastery of Christ in the Desert  bio [link]

The Benedict Option: Circle of Hope Daily prayer entries

Italian high schoolers do a nice bio:

Suggestions for action

Benedict lived in a violent society. His solution was to trust God and act out his faith in a radical way. This inevitably resulted in a community he needed to lead. Spiritual depth and community go together. We never escape the duties of love to seek our own connection with God. Benedict challenges us to go deeper and go wider, to flee the world but also to save it. If you look at your own life, what vision does it appear to follow?

July 6 — Jan Hus

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Matthew 10:16-31

On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.  But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say

Hus Memorial -- Prague
Hus Memorial — Prague

More thoughts for meditation about Jan Hus

Jan Hus was born in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) in about 1371. By 1400 he was a priest and about to become part of the university in Prague.

He helped launch a vigorous reform of the church in a particularly difficult time in Europe’s history. It was in the middle of what is known as the Great Schism. The King of France moved the seat of the Papacy from Rome to Avignon. Rival popes were elected. Sides were taken and battles were fought. The Council of Constance from 1414 to 1418 was called to solve the issue.

In the middle of this Jan Hus denounced various church practices in his sermons, taking his lead from the famous John Wycliffe of England (the ‘morning star of the Reformation”). For instance, Hus thought it was unbiblical for the wine of communion to be reserved for the priest. He whole-heartedly accepted the practice of the church worshipping in the Czech language, rather than in Latin. He argued that “laypeople” had an important role to play in the administration of the Church and that Christ was the true head of the Church, not the Pope. He thought church officials should not be earthly governors.

After the death of Pope Alexander V (an “antipope“), a crusade against the practices of granting indulgences started, of which Hus was also a part. He produced writings that are said to be directly taken from Wycliffe’s writings, notably: De ecclesia (The Church). In them he argued that no Pope or Bishop had the right to raise a sword in the name of Church. He insisted that people attained forgiveness only by repentance, not Papal indulgence. His followers publicly burned Papal communiques (“bulls”) and believed that Hus’ sayings should be followed, rather than those of the Church hierarchy. As a result, in 1412 Jan Hus was excommunicated for insubordination.

Diebold Schilling's Spiezer Chronik (1485)
Diebold Schilling’s Spiezer Chronik (1485)

In 1414 he was summoned to the Council of Constance, with the Emperor guaranteeing his personal safety even if found guilty. He was tried, and ordered to recant certain heretical doctrines. He replied that he had never held or taught the doctrines in question, and was willing to declare the doctrines false, but not willing to declare on oath that he had once taught them. The one point on which Hus could be said to have a doctrinal difference with the Council was that he taught that the office of the pope did not exist by God’s command, but was established by the Church so that things might be done in an orderly fashion. The Council, having just narrowly succeeded in uniting Western Christendom under a single pope after years of chaos, was not about to have its work undone. So it found him guilty of heresy, and he was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415.

Hus’ approach to being the church was human, Bible centered, and spiritual.  To partisans on both sides of the Schism, his views seemed idealistic at best, and at worst a dreamy anarchism or heresy. Throughout all the controversy that followed his teaching he maintained a creative loyalty to the church while challenging its pathologies. His death helped give birth to the Moravian Church. That group held the light out for his prophecy to be fulfilled: it is claimed that he said, “In one hundred years, God will raise up a man whose calls for reform cannot be suppressed.” In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous “Ninety-five Theses of Contention” to the church door in Wittenberg. Before he died in flames, Hus is said to have stated: “It is better to die well than to live wickedly … Truth conquers all things.”

More on Hus?

Biography

Three minute documentary

Suggestions for action

It takes faith to see beyond one’s present time and to act for generations yet to be born. We are prone to saving our lives, meaning we are out for ourselves in the present, rather than losing our lives for Christ’s sake, and so gaining a true life. Hus lived for something that was true to Jesus and big enough to be important for the people he loved—something worth risking his life to bring about. It is worth asking the question, when I die, will people remember my faith? Will I leave them a vision of the world that is beyond me?