Thursday, June 21, 2018

Fosdick's Prophecy

           I recall in the early 1960s sitting in the Sunday worship service at Central United Methodist Church in Meridian, Mississippi, as we sang Harry Emerson Fosdick’s rousing hymn, “God of grace and God of glory.”

            Fosdick had written the hymn in 1930 for the dedication of Riverside Church, where he would serve as pastor.  The nation was in the throes of the Great Depression and was between the two world wars.  However, fascism was already rearing its ugly head on the continent of Europe.  

            Fosdick was an eloquent and highly-regarded preacher. He was known for his concern for the class of poor people created by the Industrial Revolution.  Among the members of his flock was the industrialist John D. Rockefeller – who gave $5 million for the construction of the new church.

            His lyrics were prophetic in both senses – the truth about “now” and the truth about the days to come:

God of grace and God of glory,
on thy people pour thy power;
crown the ancient church's story;
bring its bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the facing of thls hour,
for the facing of thls hour.

Lo! the hosts of evil round us,
scorn thy Christ, assail his ways!
From the fears that long have bound us,
free our hearts to love and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the living of these days,
for the living of these days.

Cure thy children's warring madness,
bend our pride to thy control;
shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
lest we miss thy kingdom's goal,
lest we miss thy kingdom's goal.

Set our feet on lofty places;
gird our lives that they may be
armoured with all Christlike graces,
pledged to set all captives free.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
that we fail not them nor thee,
that we fail not them nor thee!

Save us from weak resignation
to the evils we deplore;
let the search for thy salvation
be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
serving thee whom we adore,
serving thee whom we adore.

            In the early 1960s we had moved well-past the challenges of the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and the First and Second World Wars.  We, in the South, were confronting our own demons – internal, societal demons.  These words from Fosdick’s hymn cried out for divine guidance: Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of thls hour,for the facing of thls hour.

            It was a long and trying journey.  The days of the early and mid-1960s in Meridian were not easy.  The Ku Klux Klan (one of its most virulent arms) was very active in the Meridian area.  There were the murders of three young civil rights workers.  There was a bombing of a synagogue.  There was the attempted bombing of a prominent Jewish businessman.  George Wallace was the political hero of those days.

            I must admit, I hear echoes of those sentiments even today.

            All that came back to me today – but different lyrics from that hymn were on my mind.  As I listened to the President’s comments from the Cabinet Room on the news today, I heard him speak of the financial prosperity this nation is enjoying while he was minimizing the challenges we face and blaming others for all the problems. The message was clear, “Our financial success overshadows all these problems.” Minimized were issues such as class warfare, immigration and its myriad offshoots, international peace, and world trade.

            My internal response was instantaneous: Luke 12:15-21. Here are those words:

15And Jesus said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ 16Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” 18Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” 20But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’

            Then, I recalled the words, from so many years before, of Harry Emerson Fosdick’s hymn, “rich in things but poor in soul.”

            I was stunned by the accuracy of Fosdick’s words, written nearly 90 years ago.  But they bespoke truth.  The combination of those words and Jesus’ teaching about priorities being skewed had the stinging ring of truth to them.

            I was reminded of the prophets who spoke God’s truth to Israel and Judea before the downfall of those two kingdoms.  Those prophets were ignored, rejected, and even killed by the leaders of “civil religion” in their day. Their words are painfully relevant today.  The prophecies of 2,500 years ago need to be read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested today.

            When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the leaders of the civil religion asked him to quieten his disciples, who were proclaiming his greatness. Jesus’ words spoke to the religious authorities then, and they should speak to true religious leaders today:  40He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’