Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Great Memories and Wide Hopes
Harry Emerson Fosdick, well known preacher of the Riverside Church in New York in the middle of the 20th century, was a favorite of the pastor who mentored me into ministry. Ray gave me a copy of his classic, A Book of Public Prayers, when I was in seminary. I returned the book to him a few years later when his entire library was lost in a fire. Some years after that I found a second hand copy to restore my own collection and, from time to time, open to one of the prayers for reflection. The general gloom of this week seemed a good occasion for one of Fosdick’s prayers.
The horrific events in Norway that took the lives of so many innocents, the budget deadlock in Washington that seems to portend further economic woe for many of us, the retreat from compassion as a mark of our society – Obama mentioned the wealthy and the middle class ten times in his speech this week but not once referred to poor people – the ticking and seemingly ignored clock on Israeli Palestinian negotiations prior to September’s confrontation at the UN, all conspired to assault my spirit. Then there are the more private things ranging from the mundane (problems with my car), to the professional (disappointment in a staff search), to friends (someone dear to me under unjust and frightening attack), to the more intimately personal challenges. All these tend to cast a veil of discouragement over the days. The oppressive heat hasn’t helped! I suspect there are many among us who struggle with a kind of chronic, low grade depression that, while not debilitating, does undermine enthusiasm for life. The dog days seem to have come early this year.
So the prayer I turned to randomly this morning came as a good antidote to self-indulgent gloom and unfounded pessimism. Fosdick wrote in part,
“Lift us above the immediate and set our lives in the wide horizons of abiding verities. Our eyes grow too accustomed to man’s ugliness and sin, to the world’s tumult and disorder. Today remind us of the goodness that is here, of the beauty that our eyes have seen in nature and in human life, of friendliness that has been visited upon us, love that has sustained us, character that has undergirded us, and of thy goodness that has been patient with us. Today put Christ in our remembrance and those strong and radiant lives who have followed in his steps. Awaken gratitude in the hearts of some of us who have forgotten to give thanks, and around the evil that depresses us throw great memories and wide hopes,” (Harry Emerson Fosdick, A Book of Public Prayers, 1959, p. 28).
It is so easy for us to become constricted by the perils and problems of the moment. They are real. But they are not all. There are great memories evoking gratitude even amid grief. There are wide hopes calling forth life and love even amid death and despair. The horizon of our lives is expansive even when we feel fixed in a difficult place. When Elijah cowered in his cave lamenting the unfairness of life, God chose not to console but to drive him back to life, to the very place he had fled where he would find companions to surround him and colleagues to follow him. Perhaps you’ve indulged in an Elijah-like “cavism” this week. Perhaps feeling sorry for yourself has become your source of blighted enjoyment. Immediate events sometimes do seem to justify such behavior. But honest memories and real hopes call us to other places and to a righteousness centered not in ourselves but in God’s grace.
So thank you Ray and Dr. Fosdick, for words that reach prayerfully across the decades. May their petitions “recenter our lives around faith instead of fear.” And my we hear what was spoken over half a century ago speak once more today: “Let thy refreshment fall in benediction on some spirits here and bring them power to overcome the world.”
John H. Thomas