Two Prayers and a Hymn for a New Year

It’s affectionately called “The Merton Prayer.” Found in Thomas Merton’s 1956 book, Thoughts in Solitude, the preacher quoted it in the worship service I attended the Sunday before Christmas.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,

and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,

though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

When I heard the prayer, which I know fairly well, it felt like a dagger pierced my heart. “That’s me!” I admitted to myself. Some days I just seem lost. I can’t see the road ahead for The United Methodist Church. And I’m not even sure where the next step will take us. I want to be attuned to God’s will, and I do not want to fear. Yet, at times it feels as if I face my perils alone. Like Thomas Merton, I’m not always convinced that I can even discern the Way.

The year 2020 has arrived! Whereas many people have already decided on their New Years’ resolutions, which are very specific, mine are rather amorphous. All I know is that the spiritual life is a journey, and I am called to travel that road as a servant leader.

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and one of the foremost spiritual writers of the 20th century, believed that seeking God in the quiet places is foundational to the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ. As one who relishes the solitude of the desert, I resonate with Merton’s words from his 1956 book Thoughts in Solitude, This, then, is our desert: to live facing despair, but not to consent. To trample it down under hope in the cross.” I, too, am tempted to live facing despair, but I am not willing to consent.

Merton also addresses in his book the delight of a solitary life as well as the necessity for quiet reflection in an age when so little is private. “When society is made up of men (and women) who know no interior solitude, it can no longer be held together by love: and consequently it is held together by a violent and abusive authority. But when men (and women) are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due, the society in which they live becomes putrid, it festers with servility, resentment and hate.”

My prayer for all of us in 2020 is that we will first seek God’s will in solitude before we speak, act, or be tempted to draw lines in the sand. In the midst of self-doubt, Thomas Merton was able to look deep into his heart at the same time as he kept his eyes focused on Jesus. When you have no idea where you are going or cannot see the road ahead of you, can you remember that God will never leave you to face your perils alone?

The second prayer is recited in many congregations on the first Sunday of the new year. Just as we make New Year’s resolutions, so in John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer, we recommit ourselves to a faith that is authentic, humble, outer-directed, and yielded to God’s intentions for us as disciples. Did you pray it yesterday?

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed by you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low by you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing:
I freely and fully yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be confirmed in heaven. Amen.

How are you being called to offer yourself completely to God, to have all things and yet to have nothing? How will you covenant with God in 2020 to let go of everything that prevents you from modeling the grace of Jesus Christ in a broken world?

The song is not sung as often as it should be in our local churches, but it has a powerful message for Christ followers in today’s world. On December 11, 1845, the New England poet and abolitionist James Russell Lowell published a poem in the Boston Courier that was titled Verses Suggested by the Present Crisis.

Until 1836, Texas had been part of Mexico, but in that year a group of settlers from the United States who lived in Mexican Texas declared their independence. They called their new country the Republic of Texas, which was an independent country for nine years before it became the 28th state in the Union on December 29, 1854.

The burning political issue in the United States, however, was whether Texas would be admitted as a slave state or a free state. Texas was finally admitted as a slave state, which occasioned anti-abolitionist James Russell Lowell’s poem.

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever ‘tween that darkness and that light.
By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever, With the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, Ancient values test our youth;
They must upward still and onward, Who would keep abreast of truth. 

Part of Lowell’s poem was later included into a well-known hymn, Once to Every Man and Nation, which is found in our United Methodist hymnal and was also quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his 1963 We Shall Overcome speech.

What happens when disciples of Jesus Christ are called to decide for truth or falsehood? What new occasions will teach us new duties in the year 2020? How is God urging us to move upward and onward and keep abreast of truth?

O God, I confess that I, too, can’t always see the road ahead of me. The way seems dark, and the future is uncertain. At the same time, you give me the strength and the vison to keep on loving you with my whole heart and model the grace of Jesus Christ wherever I may find myself. Grant that, in the midst of doubts and uncertainty, the sweetness and the power of your Holy Spirit will guide my thoughts and actions. Like your children, Thomas Merton, John Wesley, and James Russell Lowell, I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen.

As long as I have 2 prayers and a hymn, I am good to go!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Great Turning Around of All Things

We are talking about the birth of a child,
Not the revolutionary acts of a strong man,
Not the breathtaking discovery of a sage,
Not the pious act of a saint.
It really passes all understanding: The birth of a child
Is to bring the great turning around of all things,
Is to bring salvation and redemption to the whole human race.
What kings and statesmen, philosophers and artists,
Founders of religion and moral teachers vainly strive for,
Now comes about through a newborn child. 

In his 1933 sermon on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that the turning point in human history arrived when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. A baby, born to ordinary parents, Mary and Joseph, transformed our world in a way that had never happened before.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German theologian, professor and Protestant pastor who, after living in London from 1933-1935, returned to Germany and became a part of the anti-Hitler resistance movement. Bonhoeffer’s Magnificat sermon is a summons to radical love and discipleship. “God is not ashamed of human lowliness. He enters right into it. He chooses a human being to be his instrument and works his wonders where they are least expected.”  

  • How might the lowliness of the birth of the Christ child bring about a great turning around in your life?  

  “Jesus Christ is the love of God become human for all men and women, and hence he is not a preacher of abstract ethical ideologies, but the concrete executor of the love of God.”

  • What might our world look like today if you and I became serious about our call to be concrete executors of the love of God?

“The joy of God has passed through the poverty of the manger and the torment of the cross; and so it is unconquerable, irrefutable.” 

  • Could it be that only by becoming a servant and giving ourselves away that we are able to transform our world?

“Mighty God is the name of this child. The child in the manger is none other than God himself… Where is the divinity, where is the strength of this child? In the divine love, in which he became just like us. His poverty in the manger is his strength. In the strength of love, he overcomes the chasm between God and humanity.”

  • How can our own poverty of spirit become our greatest strength and gift to others?

Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Nazis in 1943 and was confined to the Tegel military prison in Berlin where he wrote many letters. On December 17, 1943, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his parents.

“From the Christian point of view, spending Christmas in a prison doesn’t pose any special problem. Most likely, a more meaningful and authentic Christmas is celebrated here by many people than in places where only the name of the feast remains… God turns toward the very places from which humans tend to turn away. Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him at the inn. A prisoner can understand all this better than other people.”  

  • Have you ever experienced a Christmas that seemed to be depressing or dark but in retrospect turned out to be a deeply meaningful and spiritual encounter with the divine?

During Bonhoeffer’s last Christmas in 1944, he wrote a poem, By Benevolent Powers.  

Faithfully and quietly surrounded by benevolent powers
Wonderfully guarded and consoled,
Thus will I live this day with you
And go forth with you into another year…
Still will the past torment our hearts
Still, heavy burdens of bad times depress us,
Ah, Lord, give our startled souls
The grace for which we were created…
With warmth and light let flame today the candles
That you have brought into our darkness.
If it can be, bring us together once again!
We know your light is shining in the night. 

On April 9, 1945 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis at the Flossenburg Concentration Camp in Germany, only days before the American liberation of the camp. At the time of his execution, Bonhoeffer asked a fellow inmate to relate a message to Bishop George Bell of Chichester, “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”

May the mystery, holiness, and joy of Christmas prompt in your spirit a “Great Turning Around of All Things.” Through Christ, may your poverty become your strength, may your weakness become your hope, may your darkness lead you to the light shining in the night, and may the baby Jesus beckon you to the grace for which you were created.

The next Leading from the Heart will be published on Monday, January 6.

 

1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Mystery of Holy Night, edited by Manfred Weber and translated by Peter Heinegg, New York, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997, p. 27.

2 Ibid, p. 12.

3 Ibid, p. 18.

4 Ibid, p. 23.

5 Ibid, p. 39.

6 Ibid, p. 3

7 Ibid, p. 46-47.

8 https://www.biographyonline.net/spiritual/dietrich-bonhoeffer.html

The Christmas Parade

Christmas parades – they’re ubiquitous at this time of year. Last week our North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops was at a learning retreat, and, wouldn’t you know it, we found ourselves in the middle of a Christmas parade! School bands, floats, reindeer, lights, and, of course, Santa Claus. What could be more quintessentially American than a holiday parade?

Well, it’s not that simple anymore. On November 29, a The New York Times article noted a Facebook post that appeared from the mayor’s office in Charleston, West Virginia in early October. “The Charleston Winter Parade will begin at the corner of the Kanawha Boulevard and Capitol Street.” Charleston, a small city of 48,000, is the capitol of West Virginia, and has hosted a Christmas parade for many years. It’s a way of bringing the city together as the holiday season kicks off.

The reaction to the Facebook post, however, was immediate and unfortunate. Before this year, the parade had always been called the Charleston Christmas Parade, but the city now had a new mayor, Amy Goodwin. Not only is Goodwin the first female mayor of Charleston, but she is an “outsider,” not having been born and raised in Charleston. Goodwin’s desire was to have a parade that modeled inclusivity, and she felt that by changing Christmas to “Winter,” people who are not Christians wouldn’t be offended. She said, “I wanted to show that Charleston is a welcoming and inclusive city.”

Charleston is typical of many of our communities around the country that have had to cope with a changing environment. Many jobs that provided the backbone of Charleston, like chemical manufacturing and the coal industry, have been eliminated, resulting in stores closing, declining population, and the necessity of reinvention.

Mayor Goodwin had been trying some new and innovative things, such as having clergy of different faiths (Christian, Jewish, Imam) pray before city council meetings. Unfortunately, she did not seek input from other city council members before announcing her decision to rename the parade. While Goodwin was characterized by some as a liberal wanting to eliminate Christmas, the local rabbi was supportive, and Ibtesam Sue Barazi, vice president of the local Islamic Association, applauded her desire to bring together people of various faith traditions.

After several days of negative reaction from all over the city, with some even claiming attacks on Christianity, Mayor Goodwin decided to reverse her decision. The Winter Parade was off, and the Charleston Christmas Parade was back in business. Goodwin said, “It has been an amazing process, an enlightening process the last two days. I will say the type of vitriol, the kind of vitriol that has come forth since we announced this suggested change has actually been really hurtful and disappointing. But let me say this: I respect everyone’s individual freedom to bring that to my doorstep….”[i] On her personal Facebook page, Goodwin also said, “We understand the history and tradition of the parade, and we want to continue that for years to come.[ii]

In a strange twist, right after I read this article while sitting on a plane during a long flight, I decided to watch a classic Christmas movie from 1947, Miracle on 34th Street. It’s the day of the Macy’s Department Store Annual Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, and the person playing Santa arrives for work drunk. Doris Walker, the special events director, has to hire someone on the spot and finds an old man who says his name is Kris Kringle. Kringle not only looks the part for the parade but proves to be a sensation when Doris hires him to be the Macy’s Department Store Santa.

The children just love Kris Kringle, who claims to be the real Santa Claus. However, store management is furious after Santa helpfully directs parents to competitor stores when their children ask for toys that Macy’s does not carry. Furious that Macy’s profits might decline because of Santa’s kindness, Macy executives hire the store psychologist to prove that Kris Kringle is not really Santa. When they go to court, however, thousands of pieces of supportive mail arrive from children all over the area, exposing Macy’s self-interest and confirming that Kris Kringle is, indeed, Santa. The true Spirit of Christmas triumphs.

As I ponder the celebration and commercialization of Christmas in a secular world where not everyone is a Christian, I wonder.

  • Do you think Jesus would be disappointed if we were intentional about bringing together people of different faith, ethnic, and cultural traditions, whether in a Christmas/Winter parade or a “holiday” concert?
  • How might Christmas become an opportunity to reach out to our neighbors and friends who need a smiling face, a listening ear, or a human touch, which are deeply human gestures that all religious faiths hold in common?
  • How do we honor the importance of holiday traditions, while at the same time being open to the new thing that God is always doing in our midst?
  • How can we participate in each other’s distinctive religious or holiday rituals with a sense of wonder and joy?
  • How can we be more sensitive to the blending of the sacred and the secular and the religious and the cultural in a multicultural world?
  • Whether we are talking about varied perspectives among different religions or even among United Methodists, is what we agree on more important than what we disagree on?
  • What might the ministry of reconciliation that Jesus came to bring look like in your church or community?

The Charleston Christmas Parade was held last Thursday evening with over 190 groups taking part. Last year there were just 77 participating organizations. By all accounts, everyone had a wonderful experience. In October, when Mayor Goodwin announced the name change, she said, “When I was elected to this position, I made a promise, and that promise was to make sure that everyone in this city is included and feels included.”[iii] May the brief controversy over the name of the Charleston Christmas parade lead to mutually enriching dialogue and cooperation between various religious groups in all of our villages, towns, and cities.

 

 

 

[i] The 72-Hour War Over Christmas, Dionne Searcey, The New York Times, November 29, 2019

[ii] https://wchstv.com/news/local/the-new-york-times-details-community-battle-over-charleston-parade-name-change

[iii] https://www.wowktv.com/news/local/charleston-christmas-parade-entries-double-after-controversy/