Archive for April, 2011

In spite of theological differences among Christians throughout the ages, as well as presently, there is a common thread of caring for the poor, the downtrodden and the hungry.  Though I only review four individuals below, each from different traditions, their examples are replicated by thousands of individuals whose names will never be known.  This writing is meant to be illustrative and thus does not include so many others such as Quakers, Salvation Army, many Roman Catholic orders, inner city missions, Wesleyan abolitionists, nuns such as Mother Teresa and the establishers of hospitals throughout the world.

St. John Chrysostom, Saint for both Eastern Catholics and Orthodox (349-407 C.E.)

Chrysostom was bishop of Constantinople, “Rome of the East” and is mostly remembered for his homilies, hundreds of which were written and are still in existence.  St. John Chrysostom was fearless when facing rulers and the wealthy, chiding them for their laxity in being faithful.  This is an example of his statements that point to the responsibility of Christians for the poor:

“Do you wish to honor the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: “This is my body” is the same who said: “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food”, and “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me”… What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.”  In Evangelium S. Matthaei, hom. 50:3-4: PG 58, 508-509.

Chrysostom offended too many in power, and to make a complex story simple, he was sent into exile.  His liturgy for worship is still used weekly in most Eastern Orthodox churches across the world.

St Francis of Assisi, Roman Catholic (1181-1226 C.E.)

This Catholic friar became one of the most venerated religious persons in history.  Francis was born into a wealthy family but after life experiences among beggars during a pilgrimage, he returned to his home and became sort of a street preacher.  Living in total poverty he soon developed a group of followers and by 1210 his order was recognized by the Pope, later to be known as the Franciscans who still serve the poor internationally.

Francis heard a sermon from Matthew 10 where Jesus tells his disciples to go into the world, proclaiming Kingdom of Heaven and take no money with them.  He took that seriously.  Churches of the era often ignored the needs of the poorer population, but Francis spoke to them in the streets and fields, living often without even shoes.  Leading by example, the Franciscan brothers took it upon themselves to focus their energies upon “the least of them” and care for those living in poverty.  Soon a women’s order was also formed to undertake the same work, “The Poor Clares.”

Large volumes have been written about his life, often telling about his love for animals.  It is said that he would stop and preach to the birds that would flock around him to listen.  St. Francis is recognized also by Anglicans and Lutherans but his spirit of caring is honored by all Christians.  He died in 1226 while singing Psalm 141.  A great film about his life was made about 20 years ago and is available on DVD, Brother Sun, Sister Moon.

John Wesley, Anglican and Methodist, (1703-1791 C.E.)

John Wesley, originally an Anglican cleric, along with his brother Charles, is credited with launching Methodism, though his intent was never to birth another denomination.  Wesley recognized the sad state of the poor in England and felt the Church of England was not paying them the attention they deserved.  Wesley took his preaching to the coal miners and to farmers in the fields.  As his bands of followers formed small congregations called “societies” they focused on holy living and compassion for the downtrodden.  Though not considered a theologian like Calvin, his faith emphasis leaned toward the experiential, much like earlier Orthodox teachings.  The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a simplified and balanced method to understand his movement:  Scripture, Tradition, Experience and Reason.

Wesley and his followers are credited with changing child labor laws and pushing the government into educating the poor by establishing schools for them.  Methodists became the force behind prison reform and abolitionism.  His efforts on the behalf of the downtrodden became the passion of Methodists, which still exists now, 300 years later.

Charles Wesley provided the hymnody balance to Wesley, being credited with penning some 2,000  hymns.  Today the worldwide Methodist “family” which includes the numerous sects that were birthed in the movement, total 88 million adherents.

Dr. David Platt, American Protestant

David Platt pastors a sizeable church of 6,000 in Birmingham, Alabama.  His passion is evangelism but, like Wesley, he sees that being accomplished by convincing his congregation and Southern Baptists especially, to give up their reaching for the “American Dream” and to focus on outreach. His methodology is to urge the use of the wealth of individual Christians and also church bodies, for ministry work among the poor, and to evangelize among them.

In 2010 Dr. Platt spoke in front of the huge Southern Baptist national convention.  He held up the denominational newspaper, and quoted from one column that mentioned the completion of a $13 million dollar church facility; he then referred to another column that thought is was wonderful that the Southern Baptists had raised $7,000 for relief efforts in Darfur.  You could have heard a pin drop in the large hall.

His church, Brook Hills, has ceased adding to their physical plant and deleted a number of “nice” programs, diverting the funds to outreach.  Some members have given up their homes in upscale neighborhoods and moved into the inner city to establish a vital Christian presence in the community.  Dr. Platt asked the county for Birmingham how many children they had waiting for adoption, which was about 150.  His church members took them all.   Like the leaders described through the history of the Church, he wasn’t immediately considered to be a hero, and some folks left his congregation.  History repeats itself.


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On the west side of our town lay a wooded park that covered maybe five square miles.  It had been established some time after the Civil War and it was just known as the Borough Park.  Winding roads and hilly woods were ready to welcome townsfolk.  Even though it was meant to be open during the day, it is probably a truth that some teens conceived new citizens along those roads.  At one time prior to environmental concerns the town dump was located in the park and everyone just dumped whatever there: furniture, garbage, tree stumps, and probably some dead cats entombed in plastic bags.  Sometimes our dad would scour around the dump and pick up scrap metal that could be sold.  We didn’t like to see him doing that because it branded the whole family as pickers.  Maybe he didn’t like doing it either but perhaps the money was used to buy our Christmas presents.

Down through the park wound a beautiful creek, known as “The Crick.”  Before the 1960’s the tannery east of town would dump their vats of tanning material into the creek, sending slime down towards Lake Erie.  Of course there were times when we played in the crick whether it was clear or slimy.  The slime had sort of a reddish brown color and it clung to the rock base of the crick.  It was tricky to not fall on your butt on the tannery dump days.  Nobody really fished in the crick and now I know why!  Of course the water flowed into Lake Erie and we ate those fish.  Maybe that’s why I have brown spots on me.

At the point where the crick ran into the lake there was a small harbor and a nice beach.  This area was just called “The Mouth.”  About a quarter mile up from the mouth was an old brick farmhouse with quite a history.  During the Civil War this was a final stop on the Underground Railroad that smuggled slaves from the South into Canada.  Kids swimming at the Mouth seldom realized that the same old trees on the hill had 85 years earlier observed thankful black slave families bidding goodbye to their years of slavery and heading for a place called Canada.

Still the area had its own beauty.  In the spring the woods were strewn with splashes of color as thousands of violets sprung from the ground.  Summer brought us kids down, often playing some kind of cowboy and Indian games.  We all knew our area was home to Native American Iroquois up until the 1800’s and we often wondered if some braves had died here in a battle.  The grandest flourish of color came in early October as the leaves began to turn and to finally be released by their mother tree,  covering the ground.  The first to turn were some maples with fiery red tones.  Later the oak, ash and others would bestow their own special riot of hues.  Town folks often brought their leaves down to the dump and burnt them there, sending a not unpleasant smoke floating down the valley.  Thus the smell in our little park resembled downriver of the Ganges, with smoky air from smoldering funeral pyres.

There was some sled riding during winter months but most of the park had too many trees to enable good sledding.  The thick lake effect snows added another layer over the fallen leaves, blanketing our rich parkland and preparing it for the cycle of spring violets.  Driving down through the park is always a trip down memory lane.  I’m glad the park is still there.  In some places it would have been turned into a housing project of little look alike bungalows.  I have seen the waters of the Rhine River in Germany, the Thames in London and the Mississippi in St. Louis but none were any more beautiful than our little Elk Creek, aka The Crick.   I hope kids are still enjoying the park that was bestowed on our town.  If I believed in cremation I think I would like my ashes to be flung over the gray cliffs into Elk Creek and end up fertilizing the frenzy of fragrant violets come spring.

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Camp Meeting

( If you didn’t grow up in a Baptist/Methodist/Pentecostal tradition, you might not understand any of the following.)  This was written from the viewpoint of a teenager in the 1950’s and is not intended to denigrate any institution.

An old Protestant tradition in the United States is the summer camp meeting. In the 19th Century some of them had campers in the thousands and were most likely found in the southern states. Methodists were famous for these meetings out in the woods where the faithful could sing, testify and hear good, and sometimes long and loud, preaching.

Now we were in the bland and fairly calm 1950’s. Old Ike was not only the president but kind of like our grandfather. Small town folks still hated Truman for firing General MacArthur, though history would prove him right. During this time the Free Methodists had a camp meeting south of Erie in a sometimes damp grove for a 10 day period. It had a few permanent buildings like a dining hall, some housing and rest rooms. Everything else was done in tents which had been set up for those about to arrive.  Families could get a big tent for a few dollars and folding cots served as beds. Young folks could come without parents, with boys having one line of tents and girls in another.  A large circus type tent served as the “tabernacle” where services were held. The folks sat on folding chairs and the floor was covered with sawdust. For teens, the services seemed long and dry, except for song service where some of the more excitable folks would “get blessed” and shout a bit, like “Hallelujah” and wave their hands in the air.

The goal of the camp meeting seemed to be to get young folks “saved.” Saved in evangelical language meant you decided to follow Jesus. The method of becoming saved was to listen to the preaching, followed by a lot of singing, deciding to follow Jesus and then walking through the sawdust to the front of the tabernacle where you knelt down and confessed your sins, shed some tears and bang, you were saved. In church jargon this was also called “hitting the sawdust trail.”

One of the songs they sang for this “altar call” was “Almost Persuaded.”  For those unfamiliar with the song, you can see the words could really work on a young person’s psyche and help them make a faith decision.  And remember this was done in kind of a country sound and was in a real minor key:

Almost persuaded now to believe; Almost persuaded Christ to receive;
Seems now some soul to say, Go, Spirit, go Thy way,  Some more convenient day, On Thee I’ll call.

Almost persuaded, come, come today; Almost persuaded, turn not away;
Jesus invites you here, Angels are lingering near, Prayers rise from hearts so dear; O wanderer, come!

Almost persuaded, harvest is past! Almost persuaded, doom comes at last!
Almost cannot avail; Almost is but to fail!  Sad, sad, that bitter wail, Almost, but lost!

The point of the song was that you were making a decision between faith and doom. So if you decided on faith you would live a decent life, giving up evil things like smoking, drinking and cussing. Sex wasn’t mentioned because you didn’t talk about that in the 50’s. So every year the young folks would get saved all over again. This didn’t seem strange because Methodist theology, also called Arminianism, taught that you could lose your salvation if you stopped living up to your faith commitment. Or sinned of course. So to rectify the situation, you just got saved again the next year at camp! Later I was confused about this because those Baptists and Presbyterians believed that if you were saved once, that was enough. I suppose their camp meetings were thus different in some degree because fewer folks needed to get saved.

At this period in the evolving history of conservative Evangelicals, a lot of attention was paid to traditions that had begun 100 years earlier when this brand of faith began. Women were especially restricted on wearing “modest” clothes, which meant no shorts for sure. Many older women rejected wearing makeup or any jewelry, quoting some Bible verses. We weren’t sure why the Baptists hadn’t found those same verses. It was also interesting that the Bible verses about avoiding jewelry were followed a few verses later by prohibitions against women speaking in church. Somehow we descendents of Methodists chose to follow the jewelry verses but let women preach. Baptists wore jewelry but wouldn’t let women preach. But both of course were against smoking and drinking. And didn’t talk about sex. Fifty years later many of the old traditions evolved into less restrictive guidelines of behavior.

The camp meeting folks had good hearts and meant well. They mainly wanted their kids to avoid singing “Hound Dog” along with Elvis and stick to singing “The Old Rugged Cross.” It worked for some but not for others. It would be redundant probably to note that many kids met their first love at camp and experienced their first kiss.  Old folks and the pastors were always upset when they found boys and girls necking out in the woods.  At our age we weren’t sure why cause it felt natural and was really rather innocent.  But on the religion side, some of us just didn’t fit in.

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My Home Town, Girard PA

The cemetery in our town had gravestones so worn by weather that the bones they held were now anonymous.  But there were others from the 1800’s that reminded us that some history had transpired here over the centuries.  Our grandparents and aunts and uncles were scattered around the sacred ground.  In the middle of Main Street a monument stood honoring those who died in the Civil War.  This is only notable because it was the first monument in the country dedicated to those on both sides of the bloody war.  A large cannon from that era stands on one side of the street facing the monument. reminding us that war can be bloody, and on the other side is a large stone watering trough for one’s horse.  There are still tunnels under some of the streets where runaway slaves were hidden by the local Unitarian Church, fierce abolitionists.  We were one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad.

Girard had five bars and five churches plus the American Legion Hall where one could get a drink on a Sunday.  When we were in grade school, the Catholic kids were our enemies, because they went to a different school and were generally tougher.  Plus there was that “Pope thing” of course.  By the time we were all in the same high school, they often were often our best friends.   Much of Main Street was old and now is even older.  Midway down Main was the Battles Bank, with four huge pillars in front, resting on a waist high platform.  Old guys including our Uncle Howard would sit up there at night, gabbing and smoking cigarettes.  Kids always wondered what they found to talk about every night.  Maybe they were complaining about Harry Truman because he was not well liked in that area.  Our grade school was also named Battles.  We think that is because during the depression Battles Bank was one of the few in the country that was solid and lost no one’s money.  The Battles’ family home is now a museum that honors the family who conscientiously handled the savings accounts of the citizenry.

The base of the economy here were the folks who worked in the little factories, aka shops, on the edge of town.  In years past, one could raise a family on the wages because the cost of homes and goods was much less than today.  Teaching school was considered a “real career” as was selling insurance or running a grocery store.  Things haven’t changed much because everyone who wanted to do better in life usually left town.

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It may seem odd to the reader that an initial blog is about the end of life.  However, if one deals with their end, it is easier to get a grasp on the speed with which life moves and to make the best of it while it is speeding along.  So here we go.

Our town had a population of only 2,000 but its cemetery has five thousand of its former citizens resting within its black iron fences.  The cemetery dominates Church Street, halfway between the hundred year old brick Presbyterian Church and the Nickel Plate Railroad.  The main funeral home is just north of the cemetery, so funeral processions are short and don’t obstruct the traffic up on Main Street.

Back when we were children we used the cemetery as if it were a unique park.  We were always respectful while playing there, avoiding stepping on the mounds that marked final resting places.  We knew where all the unusual monuments were located.  One huge, white monument was made of marble and was hollow.  The young and the brave would shout through the small grate on the end and feign terror as they heard Satan echo back from Hades.  Near the main gate was a cast memorial of a beagle.  The hound sat in a captain’s chair, his head worn smooth from the pats of children’s hands.

The old folks in town still say Decoration Day when referring to Memorial Day.  And decorate they do!  Small flags are placed on the veterans’ graves, while cut flowers and geraniums are used as remembrances for family or friend.  The town’s holiday parades always terminated at the pointed monolith erected by the wealthy Culbertson family.  Here some politician would deliver a short, but rousing, speech.  Ten old vets from the American Legion would fire a salute with their M-1 rifles.  The roar of the rifles and the pungent odor of gun smoke sent visions through our heads of John Wayne charging up Iwo Jima beach.  Respectfully we would listen to the haunting bugler, sounding taps for those resting beneath the flags.  Then we would scramble for the empty cartridges.

The cemetery was landscaped with a variety of ancient trees, but was dominated by tall, old hemlocks.  Some of those erect and proud trees reminded me of the guards at Arlington.  These green soldiers performed their guard duty well during the Halloween season.  The wind moaned when it passed through their branches, and the moon cast ominous and eerie shadows on the ground beneath their limbs.  This kept vandalism at a minimum.

Autumn was the kid’s favorite season.  Back in the older section were a number of horse chestnut trees.  Their inedible brown nuts were fashioned into long necklaces to be worn on Halloween.  Early winter would soon roll around and the cemetery would be abandoned to the squirrels for a short time.  When snow fell, however, the gang was back because the best hill in town for sledding rose in back of the cemetery.  We whooshed bright eyed and bushytailed close to those icy white marble monuments in our winter playground.  We were usually silent when passing through in winter.  The ominous silence of a forest of stone markers and the snowy whiteness of death overcame our exuberance as we headed for an afternoon of merriment.

So I will be satisfied with a nice pine box here, since it will be empty on That Day anyhow. But on returning to this earlier playground, I received a new message from those trees and monuments.  They now seemed to whisper, “We watched you laugh and play here; we’ve observed you grieve beneath our ancient arms.  We’ll guard you someday when you rest here.”  Then the pines and maples arched their backs as though having a good laugh.  The granite and marble teeth grinned at me like a Chesire cat, mocking and hissing, “Mortal, mortal, mortal.”  The old cemetery was teaching another lesson.

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