The War Prayer (National Day of Prayer, 2008)

Since today is the National Day of Prayer, as I’ve done before, I thought I’d post my favorite short story from Mark Twain, The War Prayer. I found an illustrated copy of this a couple weeks ago in a used bookstore here in Nashville, and just came across an animated version here. I think the last line is brilliant.

The War Prayer by Mark Twain
written approximately 1904-05

Editorial Note: Outraged by American military intervention in the Philippines, Mark Twain wrote this and sent it to Harper’s Bazaar. This women’s magazine rejected it for being too radical, and it wasn’t published until after Mark Twain’s death, when World War I made it even more timely. It appeared in Harper’s Monthly, November 1916.

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener. It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came — next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their young faces alight with martial dreams — visions of the stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! Then home from the war, bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag, or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation

God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest! Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory —
An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there waiting. With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued with his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, “Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside — which the startled minister did — and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

“I come from the Throne — bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import — that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of — except he pause and think.

“God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two — one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this — keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

“You have heard your servant’s prayer — the uttered part of it. I am commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it — that part which the pastor — and also you in your hearts — fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. the whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory — must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it — for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause.) “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits!”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

Festival of Faith and Writing – Rob Bell, part one

Friday evening, I heard Rob Bell speak for the first of three times that weekend. Fresh off his trip to Seattle where he had spent a couple of days with my uncle and on panels with the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, he talked a couple of times about the thrill of sharing the stage with them.

He opened his talk by wondering about how strange it is to talk about writing, and read the quote (often attributed to Thelonious Monk), “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”

He explained the process of how he wrote his first book, Velvet Elvis (with his Velvet Elvis painting, which inspired the book’s title, leaning against his chair). First, he tried giving a friend, an established author, his material to turn into a book, but when he read it, it just sounded to him like his friend had stolen his work. So then he tried dictating it to a court stenographer, which didn’t work, and a couple other methods, before, “I came to the awful realization that I was going to actually have to write this book.” He quoted Gene Fowler, “Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” But we write because we have no other choice, “we do the work because there is something inside of us that we have to get out or we will spontaneously combust.”

One of the things that Rob is most often criticized for is who he quotes. So, following that train of thought, I now have even more reason to like him. In the middle of his talk, he quoted a paragraph from the latest book by my favorite author, Frederick Buechner’s Secrets in the Dark. When he said Buechner’s name, I cheered, and he asked, “Are there other Buechner fans here?” A lot of hands went up, and he said, “Man, I am with my people.”

He said, when you write, “you have an edit button. Turn it off.” He explained his process, saying he will frequently write something two or three different ways, trying to find the best way to say it, and then pick the best one later when he is in the editing process.

He talked about the “tension of the new”, saying “tension is your friend.” And sometimes, to follow through, to get your work out, you have to have “intestinal fortitude.” And, “Don’t type as if people are going to read what you’re writing.”

Rob was using powerpoint during his talk, and at one point, he said, “Some of you are worried about letting other people see what you have written because they might think you’re strange.” As he finished that sentence, with perfect timing (which he later reveled in), he advanced to the next slide, which said simply, “Maybe you are.”

Festival of Faith and Writing – Yann Martel

The first evening session on Friday was with Yann Martel, author of the bestseller Life of Pi. After reading a friend’s review of it back in October, I’ve been meaning to pick it up, but haven’t had a chance to yet. Hearing Yann talk about why and how he wrote it made me want to read it first chance I get.

The first thing I have written in my notes, and I can’t remember if this is how Yann started his talk or if it was from the person introducing him, is “We gather tonight to look at God’s creation and remember our place in it.”

Yann began by talking about his love for books, for reading, and said “I clearly remember the first time I cried over a character in a book, when I was ten years old.” He said he went into the bathroom so no one else would see him crying, since he didn’t know why he was. And, “One of the great things about art is that it gives you more lives. Every time you read a novel, you live another life.”

On writing, he said, “As far as I can tell, we start writing because something is not right in our lives.” But there is a danger there, that we can rely on our writing to give us our confidence and self-assurance, our self-worth. “You have to have people in your life who love you unconditionally, even if you write really bad short stories and novels.”

The impetus for writing The Life of Pi came when he thought “what if I wrote a novel where the central character had faith?” Living in India at the time, seeing what life was like ‘on the ground’ and the religious practices of those around him, he said “Since I was not going to a church or temple or synagogue to find reasons to hate being there, a whole new world was opened to me. The person who is religious is someone who is committed to searching out the mysteries of life.” And so, he made Pi, the titular character, a practitioner of Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam.

The book opens by declaring that the story of Pi “will make you believe in God.” Expanding on that, Yann Martel in one sentence summed up what I felt was one of the dominant themes of the festival, probing into why we have and need art. “God is not in the story in the Pacific. God is the reason there are stories.”

Shaun in the Dominican Republic

Shaun is in the Dominican Republic this week with Compassion International, filming the stories of children and familes that have been rescued by Compassion. His pictures and stories bring back memories of the time I’ve spent in the Dominican.

Back in the summer of 2001, I went to the Dominican for a week to help build a church. That week ignited an interest in learning Spanish and living in another culture, so about six weeks later, I moved to San Miguel del Monte, ninety minutes outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina, to study at a Bible Institute. I lived there for about fifteen months, taking Bible classes and traveling around Argentina running sound and lights for a couple of their different drama groups. After moving back to the states at the end of 2003, I found out my friends that I had gone to the Dominican with were moving there to start a church. So, I took time off from the T.V. station I was working for and spent five weeks that summer in San Pedro de Macorís helping with all the details that are involved in starting a church, like designing and printing a songbook/hymnal, painting the building they rented to use as their facilities, spreading the word about the new church, leading and translating for home Bible studies, and whatever else needed to be done.

All that to say that I am looking forward to hearing and seeing the stories that Shaun will come back telling, stories of the glimpses he gets of what happens when the “curtain becomes translucent”, as N.T. Wright said Tuesday, times when “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is more than just a nice sentiment.

So what can we do? Compassion is doing a push now to raise money to fight malaria. $10 buys one mosquito bed net, $50 buys five. You can give on their website. Why not?

Consider the lilies…

After posting the Kathleen Norris quote yesterday, “I think sometimes that sacred space is found in an encounter with another person,” I went over to Seth’s blog, Five Cent Stand, and noticed this:

I think if maybe ever’ once in a while we could try to know our neighbor, then maybe we wouldn’t be so worried about predestination or whatever. I think if I can spend about 3 minutes not thinking about myself and ponder the wonders of that tree covered in white flowers, just swaying in the wind like its waving at the sky, I’ll probably get the best theology lesson I’ve had in weeks, maybe years.

After all, Jesus didn’t say, “Consider the Trinity…” or “Consider free will,” or “Consider dispensationalism.”

Nope, He said. “Just sit still for a minute. Stop worrying. Consider those Lilies over there.”

Maybe the best theology lessons are sometimes found in loving our neighbor and looking at lilies.

Thanks for the reminder, Seth.

Festival of Faith and Writing – “Looking Backward, Looking Inward”

The last afternoon session I caught on Friday was Looking Backward, Looking Inward: Scott Cairns and Kathleen Norris in conversation. Scott grew up in the GARBC, and Kathleen was raised as a presbyterian. Katherine is still presbyterian, but is also now an oblate of a Benedictine order, and Scott converted to Greek Orthodoxy a few years back, so a lot of the talk focused on that.

Kathleen Norris said that growing up in a secular environment, she found herself looking for people who wouldn’t laugh when you said “religious experience”. She studied psychology for a period, and said that “psychology makes a pretty good substitute for religion, up to a point.” She referred a couple of times to fortuitous moments in her life, and said “I guess I’d call it, not blind luck, but blind grace.”

Scott talked about how, when he told his priest he wanted to convert to Greek Orthodoxy, his priest asked him “What are you now? A Christian, right? Don’t say convert, say embracing finally the fullness of the faith,” and mentioned that some of those he grew up with think he has left the faith. He told us that when you become aware of the breadth of faith, you are free to make the choice about which to be a part of, or to stay and help those in your faith tradition understand the same. “The difference to me came down to living a faith, embodying the faith, not just believing the faith.”

Kathleen Norris told a story about the value of communal prayer, how “when you can’t say the Lord’s Prayer or pray the Psalms, there are others who can carry you along.”

Discussing the liturgy, Scott said “You become the Christian you are to be bit by bit; the liturgy helps me become that person.”

Norris talked about her time spent in monasteries, and said the movie Into Great Silence (Jeffrey Overstreet’s favorite film of last year, and number three on my list) recaptured the feelings she had during those times better than anything else she has experienced. She expanded on the reasons she likes visiting monastery, but then talked about being in the opposite environment, having lived in Manhattan, and said “I think sometimes that sacred space is found in an encounter with another person.”

She told us she watches a lot of movies, and said that a movie that draws us to show compassion for a character that we wouldn’t normally give more than a scornful glance to is, by her definition, a Christian movie. And so, she declared, with trepidation, that Clerks 2 and Borat are Christian movies, in that sense. “When humor and compassion mix, it is a wonderful thing.”

On the subject of religious experiences, of faith, Scott said “Inevitably you are going to come up with ways of talking about faith, but you can take it too far. You can fine tune it to the point that you are no longer talking about faith.”

Near the end of their conversation, Scott recounted what ended up being my favorite story from the whole festival. After “embracing finally the fullness of the faith,” he has taken several trips to Greece to talk with monks who have become his spiritual guides. On one trip, he was outside one of the monasteries of Mount Athos, having been engrossed in conversation with Father Iákovos for several hours, when a tourist, a Baptist minister, approached them and interrupted. He demanded of Father Iákovos, “Do you have Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?” Father Iákovos looked up, paused for a moment, then replied, “No, I like to share him with others.”

Interview with N.T. Wright

Before Bishop Wright’s lecture Tuesday evening, Trevin Wax sat down with him for an interview that he has just posted on his blog. It’s quite long, but very good. You can read it here.

After answering a question about what he believed about the future, he made a statement that he repeated during the lecture later that evening, that “I try to insist in the book and in my lecture on this that all our language about the future is like a signpost pointing into a fog. We don’t have an actual photographic description of what we’re going to find when we get to where the signpost is pointing. But we do have assurance that if we follow down this track, we’re going in the right direction.”

I think that one of the crucial roles theology plays is in the asking of better questions, in the digging for answers to the issues that confront us every day. A key point here is that we are not to be afraid of questions. If we disagree with the answers someone else comes up with, the study of theology dictates that we do the hard work of trying to answer the same questions, not just dismiss them. Bishop Wright addressed a criticism that Doug Wilson and other have leveled against him on the subject of debt forgiveness in the interview:

“This injustice is actually the sort of thing about which the Old Testament prophets had a great deal to say. Some have said to me, “Go read the works of F.A. Hayek because he will show you that actually giving handouts to the poor just encourages a dependency culture and that’s not the way to go.”
Very well. Imagine the parable of the Good Samaritan. Here comes an economist and he looks at the poor man, but he realizes that if he helps him, he is actually going to increase a dependency culture, so he passes by on the other side. Sorry. That’s just not good enough.
I’m making a plea for mercy. It’s not rocket science. It’s not macro economics and Ph.D-level complicated. It’s just asking, “What’s wrong with this picture of the way the world is working at the moment?” And I hear Doug Wilson and others as saying, “We don’t want to listen to that question.” You might not like my answer to the question, but please listen to the question.”

A couple weeks ago, on Easter Sunday, I heard a sermon in which the speaker talked about a time he was in a class and was able to set everyone else straight by quoting the C.S. Lewis Lord, Liar, or Lunatic argument (although he didn’t credit it to Lewis). After he corrected everyone, “no one could respond.” I mentioned to a friend that I don’t like, or agree, with that argument any longer, and he asked why. This quote from Bishop Wright helps put into words at least my reservations about C.S. Lewis’ argument:

“His summary that Jesus must have been either mad or bad or God fails to take into account the subtleties and the nuances of first-century Judaism. Lewis’ views on the historical Jesus are odd because Lewis in his own professional work spent a great deal of time telling people (famously) in his studies on words that when you’re reading an old book, and you come to a word you don’t understand, you look it up in the dictionary. But the real danger is when you come a word you do understand in modern use, but it means something slightly different or completely different, and you don’t look it up, which will cause you to misread the passage. I wish he had taken that same lesson back into the first century and said, Hmm. Let’s actually find out what’s going on there. There’s nothing to be afraid of in doing that.”

Here’s the link for the interview.