The church has made some terrible choices throughout history for which it has paid dearly. American Christians choosing economics (slavery) over human rights, and the German Lutheran church choosing to elevate nationalism (Hitler) over the Word of God are two examples.
To us, in retrospect, it borders on the ridiculous. How could anyone who calls themselves a Christian support enslaving human beings on the basis of their race? How could anyone who claimed to be a follower of Jesus agree to adopt the Aryan Paragraph, prohibiting anyone of Jewish descent from serving as a pastor of a church?
These choices were not without cost historically, even apart from the obvious and immediate suffering of the victims of such policies. In Germany the church is still paying the price for its poor choice with its loss of credibility, and in America, we are still grappling with the curse of racism 150 years after the end of slavery. A curse does not alight without a cause (Proverbs 26:2), and when the group that is supposed to be the moral light for a nation and in communion with God endorses the systematic dehumanization and enslavement of an entire race of people, there is no shortage of cause for curse.
Over the last 18 months, I have become a student of plagues, partly out of curiosity and partly out of necessity because of my job as an employment lawyer.
I had previously read John Kelly’s The Great Mortality, about the Bubonic plague of 1347-1351, which ravaged Europe, killing as many as 30% of the population. It was a book I could not put down. Then, when the pandemic really began in full force in March 2020, I read John Barry’s, The Great Influenza, a book about the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic in the United States, probably the pandemic most similar to the one we are currently experiencing.
In addition, since the pandemic began, I have studied the Plague of Cyprian and the Plague of Justinian. My interest in studying plagues was not just to put the current pandemic in perspective but to determine how the Church has responded in the past for guidance on how it should respond in the present. I hold up the Church’s response to the Plague of Cyprian as the standard.
The Plague of Cyprian lasted nearly twenty years but was most deadly 249 A.D. – 262 A.D. It is so named because of a famous letter written by Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, describing the plague and the Church’s response to it. Cyprian noted that the plague was so contagious many believed it was passed by “corrupted air.” The symptoms of those infected were grizzly, and I wont repeat them here.
Cyprian noted that Christians’ mortality was no different than the pagans, but what was different was that while many pagans fled the cities, Christians stayed and cared for the sick at risk to their own lives. As a result of their selflessness, the church experienced great growth when the pandemic ended because the pagans wanted to know about the God who could inspire people to such selflessness.
Solomon has always been an intriguing character for me, if for no other reason than his famous prayer that was so pleasing to God.
You know the story. Solomon goes to Gibeon to sacrifice to the Lord. There, the Lord appears to Solomon in a dream and says, “Ask what you wish me to give you.” I Kings 3:4-5. Solomon had just become king, and instead of asking for the things all men hope and pray for–long life, wealth, fame–Solomon asks for the one thing that will help him most in performing his job well: wisdom in ruling. I Kings 3:7-9.
The Lord was so pleased with Solomon’s prayer for wisdom at work, He immediately answered it, and then he threw in riches and fame to go along with it. I KIngs 3:10-13. God was pleased because Solomon asked for that which was most important to being successful at his job. The Lord’s response highlights both the importance of our work and His willingness to help in completing it.
But it wasn’t just that Solomon asked for wisdom to do his job; It was pleasing to God that Solomon did not ask for a long life, riches, and fame. These are things everyone wants, but our want for them often interferes with what the Lord wants for us.
We are back home from our Great Awakening study tour. Yesterday we donned our N95 masks, and boarded our plane back home. Our flight was uneventful, which is how I like them.
This study tour was different from the others on which the GSB team has embarked. It was the first domestic tour we have taken, and that was necessitated by the pandemic. Also, it was the tour that was least demarcated by actual sites to be seen. Instead, we visited places where events took place, even if the buildings in which they took place were no longer there. This made our tour somewhat more cerebral and required more imagination, but it was no less interesting.
As a result, we spent more time in graveyards than on other tours. Graveyards are interesting places. No matter how one lives one’s life, that earthly life almost always ends in a 4 x 8 foot place in the ground somewhere. Seeing where those who have made a difference for the kingdom of God have been been put in the ground is like time travel. People we could never have met because they lived in a different time, we can now meet at the place in the ground where their bodies rest. The meeting not accommodated by time is afforded in space.
The two most famous people to come out of Northampton, Massachusetts are Jonathan Edwards and Calvin Coolidge, but when you are in Northampton, you have to squint to see this.
When we arrived at our hotel last night, I asked the hotel clerk about Jonathan Edwards-related sites in town. In response, she turned her head sideways with a quizzical expression, like a dog straining to understand its master. I rephrased my question, which was again met with more head-turning and silence. She then offered to ask her “friend,” but I declined.
We started the day at the town centre where the original meetinghouse, that functioned as the church building, once stood. It is now the location for the county courthouse. A plaque commemorates the location of the original meetinghouse. The church that still exists is located two blocks away; it is called The First Church, but it is actually the fifth church. The second and third meetinghouses Edwards preached in were once located on the lot where the courthouse now stand. Trying to sort all this out was like trying to differentiate between the Old North, New North, and Old South churches in Boston. One needs a calculator in the first instance and compass in the second.
The beginning of the Great Awakening is generally assigned to the church here in Northampton in 1734. Edwards wrote a book, A Narrative of Surprising Conversions, to document the supernatural conversions and personal transformations he witnessed as the Holy Spirit began to stir people from their spiritual slumber. As I described in earlier posts, the Great Awakening was in full effect 1739-1743, when George Whitefield made his tours through New England.