Atticus Was Feeble

The virtues of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird hardly need to be sung by me. But if you are, like me, someone north of 50, a male, who does little to arouse the admiration of anyone, you will enjoy Scout’s ruminations on Atticus’ feebleness.

Atticus was feeble: he was nearly fifty. When Jem and I asked him why he was so old, he said he got started late, which we felt reflected upon his abilities and manliness. He was much older than the parents of our school contemporaries, and there was nothing Jem or I could say about him when our classmates said, “My father—”

Jem was football crazy. Atticus was never too tired to play keep-away, but when Jem wanted to tackle him Atticus would say, “I’m too old for that, son.”

Our father didn’t do anything. He worked in an office, not in a drugstore. Atticus did not drive a dump-truck for the county, he was not the sheriff, he did not farm, work in a garage, or do anything that could possibly arouse the admiration of anyone.

Besides that, he wore glasses. He was nearly blind in his left eye, and said left eyes were the tribal curse of the Finches. Whenever he wanted to see something well, he turned his head and looked from his right eye. He did not do the things our schoolmates’ fathers did: he never went hunting, he did not play poker or fish or drink or smoke. He sat in the living room and read.

I can relate.

Models of Biblical Decency

The BBC drama Foyles War starring the perfectly cast Michael Kitchen as an unflappable British detective during and after WWII is, for me, must watch television. Watch it. Watch every episode. Savor it. And as you do, consider Inspector Foyles’ character. Note his integrity and the hints of compassion and kindness. Note his perseverance and wisdom and attend to his gentle longing to be reconnected with his estranged son. And then, in one of the final episodes, listen carefully as another in his world speaks of Foyle saying, “He is a decent man.”

Christian men aim for more than decency. I get that. We are to be godly and Christ-like. But we could do little worse than to find models of mere decency and learn from them.

To find such models requires searching not because they are rare. Rather, decent men are not bombastic and they do not promote themselves any more than is necessary for their particular calling. Find men who care for their corner of the world and do so faithfully. These will be the decent men. Flawed they will be, for sure, and broken in ways they themselves may not be able to see. But their humility will lead them to face those flaws and seek to work beyond them. Reflect for a while, and you will think of men who bear the attributes that draw us: compassion, mercy, and kindness, with an ear quick to listen and lips that are careful to build up and not tear down. Decent men should be our models.

Popular culture gives us super-heroes whose impulse is to fight and exact vengeance. More people know of John Wick or Jason Bourne than of Christopher Foyle. Others should be known. Many know of Atticus Finch, the courageous and quietly compassionate attorney in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m struck, too, by the decency of Tom Robinson, the harassed and falsely accused black man whom Finch defends, or of Boo Ridley, the reclusive rescuer of children. Decent men, they are, functioning as best they can in a broken world.

In Alan Paton’s wonderful novel Cry, the Beloved Country the Zulu South African Anglican pastor Stephen Kumalo lives with his wife in poor, desolate Ndotsheni. There he cares for his church and all who live in its vicinity. He loves them and they love him. Circumstances lead Stephen to the big city of Johannesburg where tragedy and heartbreak await him. Though he gives in to the impulse to hurt others at times, his repentance is real and deep. Most of the time he sees the right thing to do, and does it though it costs him dearly. His decency is so real that I have a hard time remembering that he in fact never existed. I want him to exist. He is a decent man.

I’m drawn as well, as have been many others, to the fundamental decency of the Reverend John Ames, the congregational pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s novels Gilead, Home, and Lila. The Rev. Mr. Ames, too, is flawed. And yet those who meet him in these novels will remember his tenderness, his kindness, and his integrity. We walk away from time spent with him understanding that he is a decent man whom we wish to know better.

Decent men (and women) are those who, in spite of their imperfections and weaknesses, act in a direction that reveals genuine character and virtue. The men profiled here never existed. And yet they exist quietly all around us and should become our models, models of biblical decency.

Cry, the Beloved Country

My friend Roy (whose blog should be added to your regular reading list as he will one day publish a book and become famous and you will be able to say your were a fan before being a fan was cool) has not read Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, the novel from which the title of this blog is (ever so inaccurately) lifted. Apparently the novel had been assigned to him as a high school student and been therefore mentally blacklisted ever since. I hope to change that for him, and for whomever else I can. It’s simply a great novel that bears multiple readings. It is one of my favorites.Cry

Paton constructs a story of two men whose lives are lived in geographic proximity and cultural isolation. One is a poor black Anglican priest, Stephen Kumalo (“a parson, so(m)ber and rather dull no doubt, and his hair was turning white”) and the other, James Jarvis, is a wealthy white farmer living nearby. Events in the crumbling 1940s culture of South Africa bring these two men together in a dramatic and surprising and tragic way. South Africa was on the cusp of formalizing the racial divisions that were existent in the policy of apartheid and against that backdrop, lives play out, mercy is displayed, and reconciliation is glimpsed. But much here breaks the heart.

The Rev. Kumalo is genuine, a pastor who loves his God and his people. His heart breaks for his country, his land, his parish, his family, and his church. He is honestly drawn as a man who struggles with temptation, loses his temper, and is not above acts of manipulation, but who also repents of his anger and acts with great compassion to those who cross his path. Like the friend he meets in the city of Johannesburg, he is “a weak and sinful man, but God put His hands on me, that is all.” There is a potent reality to these men.

With these men, the heart breaks for the beautiful land that is South Africa.

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.

The land is beautiful but it and the people living on it are broken. For that, there is mourning.

Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end. The sun pours down on the earth, on the lovely land that man cannot enjoy. He knows only the fear of his heart.

But the crying and the fear can lead to something greater, even to something beautiful in small acts of grace and in the softening of the hearts of men.

Yes the book breaks the heart, but it heals it as well. It leaves us hopeful, knowing that even though there is death in the land, and that things are not as they are supposed to be, yet small acts of grace can bring significant reconciliation, and sacrificial love can bring life in the midst of death. Maybe we are to realize as well that we are weak and sinful people on whom God has put his hands. One can hope.

As one can hope that my friend and many like him will finish that high school assignment that they might be blessed by this book.

The Spirit of St. Theresa

I know a priest who writes books and self-publishes them. They are good books, born of his heart and experience. These are books I believe could be published by a genuine publishing house. Maybe they should and maybe someday they will be.

But this is not the spirit of my friend the priest. He is not seeking the renown or satisfaction that would come (or which wannabe writers IMAGINE would come) from publication. He does not write in order to see his name printed on a book or to get invited to all the best conferences or to supplement his income.

Rather, the books he writes and self-publishes he gives away to his flock. He writes them for his church as a way of extending his care to his people. He writes them based on the needs he sees and the changes he longs to see among his people. His act of writing is the act of a shepherd concerned for his sheep, and is detached from any interest in fame or attention or glory or riches.

I suppose there are many ways the spirit of the newly canonized St. Theresa can be reflected and carried out in a person’s life. My friend’s selfless and quiet giving of himself and of his gifts is a reflection of that spirit.

May that spirit be born in a fresh way in many more of us and especially in me.

Prayer and Broken Relationships

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

Several weeks ago, a reader asked in a comment for clarification regarding what we called one of prayer’s ‘limiting factors’. Circumstances prevented a rapid response, so it now seems better to reply here as one more post dedicated to prayer.

The questioner asked for clarification regarding the fifth limiting factor. This suggested that prayer might be hindered by ‘broken and unreconciled relationships’. The kind of relational brokenness in view is pictured here:

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (1 Peter 3:7)

As a husband, this verse is sobering. Mistreatment of my wife will not be tolerated by a just and compassionate heavenly Father and may even cause him to turn a deaf ear to my prayers. Crump is very careful in how he develops this, however. One might say that in my weakness, I’m rarely treating Barb in an ‘understanding way’. Am I always to despair of my prayers being heard? Crump anticipates such concerns.

Persistent mistreatment of brothers and sisters in Christ inhibits our ability to communicate with the Father, and this Father never turns a blind eye to domestic abuse. Until the perpetrators repent and seek the necessary reconciliation, their petitions will remain ineffective.

The question whether there are relationships unreconciled in our lives and hindering our prayers is one that is worth asking. Nevertheless we should not become desperately self-critical.

It would certainly be disheartening to imagine that none of my petitions have any hope of ever being heard by God until every aspect of all my relationships are put in perfect working order. If that were the case, all petition becomes hopeless again! Fortunately, by revisiting the original contexts we are reminded that the New Testament writers were addressing deliberate, persistent misbehavior. The sinner refuses to change despite (a) the sin having been openly confronted and (b) the necessary correction having been explained and then ignored. Consequently because the culprit willfully ignores God’s word, the Father may choose to ignore his or her prayers.

Self-examination is always appropriate, but perfection is never in view. God welcomes prayers from his most broken and inconsistent and weary disciples. Just keep praying.

God Is Faithful

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

I wrote this series with the presumption that not many, if any, readers of this blog would actually pick up David Crump’s book and read it. I hope I’ve done justice to it in my summary. As I’ve said, I need regular and frequent encouragement to ‘just keep praying’ and this book does that for me. I hope this summary has done so for you. I hope that we remember, through our tears and fears and doubts and questions, that he cares and hears. Just keep praying.

Early this summer I corresponded with David Crump about his book and about this series. (As much as I could – I emailed him through his publisher, and he was kind enough to email me back.) Even in this, I was encouraged, and determined to share a portion of that correspondence with you, as a fitting conclusion to this series.

I am reminded of a conversation I had when I was speaking at a denominational prayer conference in LA.

Before speaking the fellow introducing me asked, “Having written a book on prayer, what is the most important lesson you have learned from your study?”

I told him, “Though I still struggle with it, I have learned to believe that God is always faithful.”

I could tell from his face that he was a bit disappointed. “God is faithful. That’s it?” (I suspect that he was hoping to hear something about the power of prayer. We Americans are obsessed with power.)

Yep. That’s it. When we stop to think about it, what could be more important? Though I struggle to appreciate, much less fully apprehend, how completely all of my life hangs on those three little words, God is faithful.

Jesus Loves Me

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

These sentences from the final chapter of Crump’s book capture the struggle many of us have with prayer. It’s not with form or method or discipline or time. It’s with God.

“What kind of God allows such horrific tragedies to screech their unkempt nails across the cosmic blackboard…. Is there any rhyme or reason to the discordant notes and garbled syllables spat out at us by this occasional nightmare called life?…. There is a Grand Canyon-sized difference between theological answers that satisfy intellectually and a living faith that sustains a broken heart long after all sense and sensibility have evaporated from a tear-stained life.” (278, 279)

My prayer life has been forged over the past several years in a world in which those reflections seem very real. And I know that the same is true for some of you. And sometimes the theological answers that seemed so satisfactory to us at age 19 begin to seem a bit tenuous from the standpoint of a broken and tear-stained life. Are there answers? And where, if at all, does petitionary prayer fit into such a world?

These are the questions that Crump addresses in his final chapter. He proposes answers but in the end, I think there are no completely satisfactory answers other than those that lie on the surface of scripture. God is sovereign. He invites us, in fact commands us, to pray. His prophets prayed as if such praying was the ‘sinew that moved the arm of omnipotence’ (an evocative phrase from another fairly good writer, Charles H. Spurgeon). Jesus prayed that way, and Paul prayed that way. All believed in the absolute sovereignty of God and all prayed as if their prayers moved the hand of God. And if there was no conflict in their minds, how can I let such a conflict exist in mine?

And so, I ask. I ask for things that seem impossible now. I plead for God to bring more of his not-yet kingdom into my already experience. I plead for others that their tears may be taken away and that they might taste at least a small amount of happiness. I beg him to do things that I can’t really see him doing. I ask out of faith, foolishness, confidence and unbelief, and sometimes all at the same time. I do so because he says to do so, and I do so because he is my Father. I do so to hasten the kingdom and I do so to find solace in my own heart.

The one thing that causes me to stop praying is not losing confidence in prayer and it is not my inability to get sovereignty and responsibility to lay down arms. I lose confidence in prayer when I forget that I am loved by a heavenly Father who, for all the mystery surrounding him, loves to give. So perhaps the best place to find rejuvenation, in the end, is here:

“Jesus loves me, this I know,
for the Bible tells me so.”

Excursus: Evocative Turns of Phrase

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

The primary reason I have found myself coming back to this book is because it makes me want to pray more. It does so not through anecdotes of great practitioners of prayer (apart from Jesus and Paul) which often leave me overwhelmed and under-equipped, but rather through a careful unfolding of the biblical teaching about prayer.

Crump unfolds this biblical teaching with a detailed attention to what the text means and not to what we might want it to mean. In the process, he elevates the reader’s appreciation for the authority and sufficiency of the Bible. That is a gift.

As well, I appreciate the satisfying blend of scholarly rigor and pastoral sensitivity. I don’t know David Crump – though I think I wish I did – but he has clearly spent time out of his books and in the lives of Christian people stumbling like the rest of us through life ‘with wandering steps and slow’.

Further, Crump weaves into his presentation a knowledge of the fundamentalist/evangelical tradition’s misrepresentation of some aspects of prayer. But he does so with gentleness and respect. He is critical, but not with meanness or mockery. That is a gift. Where possible, he illustrates these aspects and his own wrestling with them with illustrations from his own life, but never to distraction.

But all of this he presents with a style that is accessible and often evocative. In these later chapters, for example, I am captured by some of his phrases.

“[Mark 14’s account of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane] confronts its reader with [a dense] constellation of Christological conundrums….” (255)

“Even the best of intentions frequently run aground on the shoals of execution. Commitment fades. Resolve melts away, leaving only the frail skeleton of human vacillation.” (260)

“[God] remains unmoved by selfishness, no matter how emphatically it is launched heavenward.” (276)

Never is his writing unnervingly flowery or trite. It is evocative and thoughtful, and a pleasure to read. (And he does it all without once quoting C. S. Lewis. He may the only contemporary evangelical author able to pull that off.)

Click to go to the next post in this series.

Prayer’s Limiting Factors

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

The unquestionable benefit of Crump’s book in my life is that as he strips some of the evangelical and fundamentalist encrustations that have been attached to the idea of prayer, I have been left with a greater desire to pray. That is no small feat. But the nagging question of whether prayer ‘matters’ never quite goes away. “If God is sovereign….” is the thought that continually flits around the edges of our praying minds and hearts.

But that question is not one that ever seems to trouble the writers of scripture. They write as if in fact prayer does have an impact upon the movement of God. How and when and why are not addressed. All our questions fall off into the abyss of mystery, but we are told to pray, and we are encouraged to believe, with integrity, that prayer does in fact shape the future. Obviously sometimes, and for some of us it may feel more like ‘all the time’, God answers our requests with a ‘no’. But what father does not?

In concluding his study through the New Testament with a look at the references to prayer in the remaining books, Crump summarizes what we might properly understand to be factors that limit the effectiveness of our prayers, if ‘effective’ is defined as receiving an affirmative answer the the plea. These six factors are worth simply noting here, hoping that those interested enough to have come with me this far will either grab the book or ask me for clarification.

Those six factors are as follows:

1. The failure to ask

2. God’s unwillingness to bless selfishness

3. Foolish prayer

4. Prayer encouraging or arising from disobedience

5. Prayer in the context of broken and unreconciled relationships

and ultimately, of course,

6. The sovereign wisdom of God’s timing

Crump wisely and helpfully reminds us, as he has done often in the book, that these are not ‘rules’ or ‘laws’ of prayer. God is a person. God is not a vending machine into whom we pour the proper coinage. He is a person, and prayer is a conversation between two persons. As he says,

“As in any personal relationship, certain attitudes and behaviors are more or less conducive than others to open communication.” (page 275)

It serves us well to remember that prayer is not the manipulation of the forces of the spiritual or natural world. It is not, as we have said, magic. Prayer is the approach of children to their father who loves to give.

Click to go to the next post in this series.

Prayer: No Cape Required

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

We are very skilled at creating superheroes out of ordinary human beings. We do it with the celebrities of contemporary culture and we do it with the celebrities of our religious tradition. Consider, for example, Saul, a Jewish rabbi from the city of Tarsus. Upon his conversion to Christianity he became Paul the Apostle, planting and nurturing the church in significant cities throughout the Roman Empire and writing letters that form a significant portion of the New Testament canon. We are not content that he remain merely human. We make him into a superhero.

Superheroes don’t have weaknesses. Superheroes are not flawed. And ordinary people cannot identify with what it means to be a superhero much less do the things that he does. So, no doubt Paul in his letters says a great deal about prayer and demonstrates even more, but we can’t be expected to pray like a superhero.

And that is the downside of elevating a flawed person like Paul to superhero status. Paul himself does not do that. In Paul’s engagement with prayer, we find a person, like us, who prays, who struggles, and who points us down paths that we can, in fact, pursue.

First, it is worth noting that Paul, like us, struggled to know how and what to pray. Paul is no stranger to the 2nd person pronoun, but he chooses the first when he says,

“For we do not know what to pray for as we ought…,” (Romans 8:26”).

We are not alone in struggling to know what to pray.

Secondly, though Paul confessed weakness in prayer, he still prayed. A lot. And he prayed expecting that it actually compelled God to act, even though there were prayers to which he didn’t get the answers he sought. Paul prayed as if it mattered, and so should we. Can we put this together in a nice, tight theological bundle? No. David Crump reminds us,

“…we need to acknowledge that a text can answer only what it was written to address, and very few texts ever address all the questions we would like to raise.” (page 210)

We need to be Biblical first and foremost. Paul, the great theologian of the absolute sovereignty of God prayed as if prayer impacted God’s actions. So should we.

The third thing I, at least, learn from Paul is that too often I pray for the wrong things. Specifically, Paul encouraged prayer with thanksgiving; I forget how to be grateful, much less to express it.

Further, Paul prayed time and again that his correspondents would grow in love for God and for one another and deepen in their faith. Those priorities too easily get lost in my prayer life. To pray deeply for another means that I come to know what they really need, not just what they want. It’s often simpler to pray for your new job and or your pesky cold and leave it at that. But Paul doesn’t, and neither should I.

These are not superhero things. They rather picture a man who struggling to pray nevertheless believes in prayer. We can’t be superheroes. But we can be this.

And we don’t even need a cape.

Click to go to the next post in this series.