A prayer for today
The following article was written while the writer was on holiday in New England. Spiritually the place is far different from the 1740-50s when Edwards and others knew such remarkable evidences of the mercy of God in what has become known to history as ‘The Great Awakening’.
One Sunday morning I attended a Congregational Church, which boasted a plaque on the wall announcing that its second minister had been Jonathan Edwards. On the other side of the pulpit was another, which named the first minister as John Sergeant. The blurb on the title page of the Order of Service stated that the church was established in 1734 as a wilderness mission to the Mahican tribe.
Being generous, and including the fully robed choir, the total congregation might have just touched sixty-plus. The minister was a woman, as were most of the congregation. The hymns were modern drivel, but in fairness they fitted in with the message(?) of the seventeen minute sermon. Its theme, ‘Organic Faith: Locally Grown’, began by extolling the virtues of organically grown vegetables which although they tasted nice were yet too expensive. It moved on to show that when Christ was on earth it was the ordinary poor people, unable to afford the luxuries of life, who were more likely to have gone along with His teaching than had the wealthy scribes and Pharisees of His day.
Sharing the leadership of the service with the minster were two female deacons. Another lady (African American as she appeared to be) started the service off by processing to the Communion Table and lighting the two candles adorning it.
The printed version of the Doxology used managed to strip God of His maleness and Fatherhood as well as avoiding any mention of the Heavenly Host. A paragraph announced what would probably be a true description of many churches in the area, ‘We are an Open and Affirming Church. We invite persons of every sexual orientation, gender identification and expression … to share fully in the ministry, leadership, and fellowship of this congregation’s life in Christ.’
I was tempted to paraphrase Wordworth:
[Edwards]! thou should’st be living at this hour:
[New] England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters…
But are things any better on our side of the pond? And is God able to do in our day what He has done so amazingly in days gone by?
Perhaps it is more than time for us to take Him seriously and begin again, with an urgency born of desperation, to call upon the name of the Lord.
‘Then began men to call upon the name of the Lord.’ (Gen. 4:26)
It was to this verse that Jonathan Edwards traced the start of revivals biblically in the history of mankind. And, if the truth be told, he could not have gone back much further in human history. The words come at the close of two of the saddest chapters in the whole of the word of God, one describing the Fall – that tragic event that accounts for the story of subsequent human history – and the next containing a narrative that is as true of modern society as it was of the ancient world that it depicts.
But the point that Edwards was making was more than a simple historical one. He perceived that then and now a desperate situation calls for desperate measures.
Back to the beginning
Think of what had happened. First of all there was the calamity of the Fall. Man’s innocence was now but a haunting memory in the minds of our first parents. Maybe they passed on some knowledge of ‘the good old days’ to their offspring – not that it seemed to have done them much good! There is in fact something strangely modern about the events chapter four recounts. On the one hand it speaks of remarkable progress and adaptation to the developing opportunities before them – in a word, civilisation. You have the emergence of what today would be called the Arts and Culture together with albeit rudimentary industrial skills, and all that in an urban environment. ‘You’ve never had it so good’ might well have become a mantra of that progressive society. Yet at the same time you have the downside that is still with us. Cain seems to get away with murder and his posterity multiplies. One of his descendants, Lamech, becomes the first polygamist, and he totally misrepresents the mercy of God shown to Cain as meaning that his own murderous life-style is going to bring no adverse consequences as far as he personally is concerned.
What must Adam and Eve have thought as they pondered the consequences of their fatal disobedience years before? Things were accelerating from bad to worse! But then they were blessed with another son, Seth, who in turn fathered Enos. It was then that men began to call on the name of the Lord.
Was it desperation that drove them to it? There seems to have been no hope anywhere else. Paradise, and what things had once been like, must have seemed as old wives’ tales to a rising generation that had to cope with the modern world and all its opportunities and problems.
But what about today?
At one level it seems a far cry from the twenty-first century and the situation the church faces today. Yet, is it? There can be little doubt that to modern man the message of the Christian gospel seems increasingly outdated. Has not science debunked it? And if there is a God, why hasn’t He (or should it be ‘She’?) done something about the problems of the world? Famines, tsunamis, floods, economic collapse, simply confirm to many that God is a myth that some old fogies still cling on to in the face of all the evidence. Morality, so-called, is simply the imposition of outdated prejudices based on a mind-set that no right-thinking person believes any longer. And as for those peculiar oddities who still drone on about hell and judgement insisting on some antiquated idea that Jesus died as an atoning Saviour for sinners, well, you can group all such with the various religious fundamentalists of all faiths who inexplicably still linger in our modern world.
Given such a scenario what is the modern Christian to do? What some have done is virtually to capitulate to the godless philosophy that expresses itself in such terms. The last century and a half is replete with instances of well-intentioned but futile religious leaders who have tried to marry their version of the faith to the fashionable thinking of their day only to discover that tomorrow has found them widowed!
Then there are those who probably would like to think of themselves as realists in a religious world that is given to wishful thinking. Not for them the continual harking back to stories that some read (but never seem to experience) of what God can do. The theological Rip van Winkles they so readily criticise seem to be inhibited from ever doing anything that is relevant to the modern world. You may not like the present situation, so it is argued; indeed you may wistfully imagine how lovely it would have been to have lived at such a time as you read about in your evangelical story books. However, the fact of the matter is that God has set us where we are in the here and now. Therefore, let’s get on with the task of evangelising the real world instead of day-dreaming of some fantasy existence.
The trouble is that such thinking, which might have seemed so apposite in the situation described in Genesis 4, was not what governed the mind of Enos. Quite simply, the situation was too bad for that. What was needed was for God to do something that would show His mercy. That He was a God whose patience was not infinitely extended Enos knew full well. Adam and Eve were still living proofs of that fact. But they were also testimonies of the grace of God. And He could intervene in mercy as well as in judgement.
The logic was inescapable. Why not call upon Him to do so? Which is precisely what Enos did, and, so claimed Jonathan Edwards, that is what Christians facing similar calamitous situations have done down through the running centuries ever since.
Is it not time that we did it again?
Graham Harrison was a consulting editor of The Evangelical Magazine.