A year or two ago my older daughter, Jennifer, said to me, “Dad, if your generation doesn’t do a better job standing up for your beliefs, my generation has little hope.” Now Jennifer is a 30 something mother of two, a committed Christian, an attorney and a bit of a scholar (she has a Masters in Byzantine Art History from Oxford). So I found her comment arresting and have been considering it off and on ever since.
This morning I read something in Isaiah that gave me a new perspective on our problem. The setting is that King Hezekiah has just shown an envoy from Babylon all of his gold and silver. He was, in essence, bragging. Given Israel’s position in the world relative to Babylon at that time, this would be a bit like a freshman in high school showing his brand-new Rolex to the local biker gang. Just not a good idea. And the prophet Isaiah tells him that. He says, specifically,
“Hear the word of the LORD Almighty: The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your predecessors have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the LORD. And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” Isaiah 39:5-7
Now I don’t know about you, but having my sons carried off to become eunuchs in someone else’s palace, does not sound like good news. And it isn’t. But Hezekiah says to Isaiah,
“The word of the LORD you have spoken is good”
For he [Hezekiah] thought, “There will be peace and security in my lifetime.” Isaiah 39:8
Hezekiah was content to enjoy peace and security in his lifetime despite the near certainty of severe future consequences for his family and his nation.
We tend to understand the foolishness of seeking “peace in our time” in the context of enemies or terrorists. Here is a famous photo of Neville Chamberlin returning from Munich in 1938 where he had just made a deal with Hitler that basically gave Czechoslovakia to the Germans. Standing in front of his airplane and holding up the agreement, he said, “I believe it is peace for our time.” To that, just a few days later, Winston Churchill replied, “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.” Less than one year later, Germany invaded Poland and launched the nations into World War II.
But how does this idea of not seeking peace in our time . . . at least not by appeasing our enemies . . . apply to us personally? Or does it?
The first part of the answer comes, ironically, from a victim of the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In December of 1942, Bonhoeffer wrote a short letter to his two closest friends reflecting on what it had meant for them to have lived as Germans and as Christians under Nazi rule since 1933. After the war, the one friend who survived published the letter under the title, After Ten Years. His other friend was executed by the Nazis.
The comment that struck me the hardest (and that I now have taped to my computer where I see it daily) was this:
"The ultimately responsible question is not how I extricate myself heroically from a situation but [how] a coming generation is to go on living."
In other words, we don’t get to be like Hezekiah (or like Neville Chamberlin) and seek to be content with peace in our time. Rather, we have an obligation to our children and our grandchildren to look out into the world and consider how are they going to live.
I take this to mean, personally, that we don’t get to just travel, play golf and visit our friends once we’ve saved enough for our retirement. Those activities are all fine. But in and of themselves, but they don’t do anything to help our children and grandchildren live, let alone thrive, in an increasingly hostile world.
But if are to help them in any meaningful way, what, exactly, are we as believers, as Christ followers, to actually do?
Bonhoeffer offers some thoughts on that question. After wrestling with their many failures and disappointments he concludes with this observation:
It remains an experience of incomparable value that we have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short, from the perspective of the suffering.(1)
The first answer to how we extend ourselves for future generations is to embrace the humility of realizing we are not in charge. This is not easy for us who tend to be Americans before we are Christians. As Americans, except when a personal tragedy strikes, we really do think we are in charge. Any problem has a solution. Covid 19 can be solved by technology. Social problems can be solved by electing the right officials; personal problems can be solved by counseling, diet, or reading the right books; and our children can be guaranteed future happiness by sending them to the right schools. (Well, that is actually true if we mean sending them to Berean!)
In that regard, we have tended to place a great deal of effort and implied hope in politics. Conservative Republicans, for example, tend to look back on the Reagan years as Halcyon days and to work and argue and campaign to get back to that era. But the truth is that society has continued its movement away from traditional Christian values unabated for at least the last 60 years as even Reagan was not immune to the tides of history and culture. Perhaps we ought to consider Psalm 146:3-4(2).
Bonhoeffer’s life is also instructive. During the 1930’s he was a member of Germany’s upper echelons. A well-regarded young pastor and theologian in his own right, his father was a famous psychiatrist, his brother a highly regarded physicist and his brother-in-law a high official in the Justice Ministry. In his early life, Bonhoeffer, too, expected to be able to address society’s ills through traditional political and social means. But only a few months after writing After Ten Years to his friends, he was arrested by the Gestapo and in early April 1945, was executed at Flossenbürg concentration camp. He was not in charge.
Humility is our first step. When we set aside the notion that we are in charge it forces us to consider that God is . . . and that in turn forces us to ask, so what do we do now? I believe another war-time author gives us that answer.
Writing in the middle of World War I, British pastor and theologian P. T. Forsyth penned an outstanding book on the theology of prayer. It is unbelievably rich in its content. He presents a view and an understanding of prayer that is majestic in its scope, seeing prayer not as something peripheral to the Christian life but as that activity which is central to and more important than anything else in the Christian life. Describing the importance of prayer, Forsyth writes, [prayer] has more effect on history than civilization has.(3)
What would we do if we believed that? What would we do if we believed that our earnest effort at prayer both individual and collective was more important than politics, finances or education? Obviously . . . we would give ourselves over to prayer. Right, wrong or sideways, I have come to believe that about prayer and am trying to organize my life accordingly.
But it’s not easy to do. And it is most assuredly not easy to do alone. We have plenty of room to wrestle with how a community of faith can help us address life’s challenges through prayer. For today, modern American Christians, struggling with our place in the world, may be helped by reading both Bonhoeffer's After Ten Years and Forsyth’s The Soul of Prayer. Both books are available in print and in Kindle versions on Amazon.
If you only have time to read one book this year, read The Soul of Prayer. As a parting gift for today, here is Forsyth’s dedication of the book to a Mrs. Waterhouse. I have no idea who she was other than a woman who apparently lost a son or a husband in the War. But when you read this dedication, you’ll be setting foot in another world; a world in which God’s majesty becomes an essential part of our lives, our struggles and our heart-felt desire to help our children and grandchildren live well in this world.
Bob Fry Just before Christmas, 2020
(1) Barnett, Victoria J. After Ten Years: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Our Times (pp. 30-32). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
(2) “Do not put your trust in princes [rulers], in mortal men who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.”
(3) Forsyth, The Soul of Prayer, Charles H. Kelly, publisher, 1916.
TO MRS. WATERHOUSE LOMBERDALE HALL, IN THE HIGH PEAK
There is, high among the hills, a garden with a walk—a terraced walk. The moors lie round it, and the heights face it; and below the village drowses; while far, far afield, the world agonizes in a solemn tragedy of righteousness (where you, too, have your sepulchers)—a tragedy not quite divorced from the war in heaven, nor all unworthy of the glorious cusp of sky that roofs the riot of the hills.
The walk begins with a conservatory of flowers and it ends in an old Gothic arch—rising, as it were, from beauty natural and frail to beauty spiritual and eternal. And it curves and twines between rocky plants, as if to suggest how arduous the passage from the natural to the spiritual is. And it has, half-way, a little hermitage on it, Like a wayside chapel, of old carved and inscribed stones. And the music and the pictures! Close by, the mowers whir upon the lawn, and the thrush flutes in the birch hedge; beyond, in the gash of the valley, the stream purrs up through the steep woods; still farther, the limestone rocks rise fantastic, Like castles in the air; and, over all, the lark still soars and sings in the sun (as he does even in Flanders)(4), and makes melody in his heart to the Lord.
That terrace was made with a purpose and a welcome at will. And it is good to pace the Italian paving, to tread the fragrance from the alyssum in the seams, to brood upon the horizons of the far, long wolds, with their thread of road rising and vanishing into busy Craven, and all the time to think greatly of God and kindly of men—faithfully of the past, lovingly of the present, and hopefully of the future.
So in our soul let us make a cornice road for God to come when He will, and walk upon our high places. And a Little lodge and shelter let us have on it, of sacred stones, a shrine of ancient writ and churchly memories. Let us make an eyrie there of large vision and humane, a retreat of rest and refitting for a dreadful world. May He show us, up there apart, transfigured things in a noble light. May He prepare us for the sorrows of the valley by a glorious peace, and for the action of life by a fellowship gracious, warm, and noble (as even earthly friendships may be). So may we face all the harsh realisms of Time in the reality, power, and kindness of the Eternal, whose Mercy is as His Majesty for ever.
(4) Flanders is where most of the worst battles of World War I were fought.