Now when Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went into his house; and his windows being open in his chamber toward Jerusalem, he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as he did aforetime.
With the election of Democrat Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, I’ve watched a number of friends, family members, and acquaintances—conservative Christians, every one—come unglued. It would seem that this is the end of America As We Know It and the beginning of the Age of Antichrist. “I keep telling myself that God is in control!” was said or blogged by more than several of them.
“What does this mean?” I ask along with Luther’s Small Catechism. Yes, God is in control. He is in control here, just as he was during the Bush administration, the Clinton administration, the Bush administration, and the Gorbachev administration. His sun shines and His rain falls on the just and the unjust, and sometimes He even sends the Assyrian “against an hypocritical nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.”
These days, Christians in America seem more politically minded than ever before. We blogged about this election, passed out voters’ guides for this election, anguished over this election, and prayed for John McCain to win this election. We went to sleep with the sound of portentous FOX News in our ears.
“In the evening, when you go to bed, you shall bless yourself with the holy cross and say: In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.” Thus begins the section on bedtime prayer in the Small Catechism. After the Creed and the Our Father are three short sentences.
I thank Thee, my Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Thy dear Son, that Thou hast graciously kept me this day, and I pray Thee to forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night. For into Thy hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Thy holy angel be with me, that the Wicked Foe may have no power over me. Amen.
A child can say those words; they are easy for young minds to memorize. They make a sweet conclusion to a bedtime ritual that includes a story, a hug, and a kiss. Luther concludes, “Then go to sleep promptly and cheerfully.”
But sleep doesn’t come easy, here in God’s country. We have busy schedules and much to worry about. The condition is reflected in an all too American metaphor: We have too much on our plates. And while a gracious Lord sends His holy angel, we just don’t have the time to notice that he’s there.
Time marches on, and the children continue to grow, but today it all proceeds at a hectic pace. The passing of seasons and days is marked by schedules and scheduling conflicts. We have too much on plates that are passed to us through drive-thru windows, that balance on our laps in the TV room, that go from freezer to microwave. We hit pause or mute so we can say grace. God is good God is great thank Him for the food we ate—aye-men.
“The children and servants shall go to the table with folded hands and reverently, and say: The eyes of all wait upon Thee, O Lord; and Thou givest them their meat in due season; Thou openest Thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing.” Obeying this admonition from the Catechism requires faith as well as something that was a commonplace in Luther’s day: a family gathered around a table. And to avoid hypocrisy when beginning the prayer with that passage from Psalm 145, the family must engage in good husbandry, as the Catechism notes: “To satisfy the desire means that all animals receive so much to eat that they are on this account joyful and of good cheer; for care and avarice hinder such satisfaction.” Whither my Double Whopper with Cheese king-sized value meal? “Then the Lord’s Prayer . . . ” By the time we get to the actual petition for the Lord’s blessing, it’s starting to feel like a church service—in terms of both content and duration. “[A]nd the prayer here following: Lord God, Heavenly Father, bless us and these Thy gifts, which we take from Thy bountiful goodness, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.”
Alas, we’re just getting started. After dessert and coffee, or when the last fry has been mined from the bottom of the bag, we are, in fact, told to thank God for the food we ate.
Likewise also after the meal they shall reverently and with folded hands say: O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endureth forever. He giveth food to all flesh; He giveth to the beast his food, and to the young ravens which cry. He delighteth not in the strength of the horse; He taketh not pleasure in the legs of a man. The Lord taketh pleasure in them that fear Him, in those that hope in His mercy.
No, sit back down. We’re not finished. I don’t care if you’re late to tae kwon do. “Then the Lord’s Prayer . . . ” Isn’t this “vain repetition”? I thought we were Protestants. “[A]nd the prayer here following: We thank Thee, Lord God, Father, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, for all Thy benefits, who livest and reignest forever and ever. Amen.”
Imagine that—one of those little services at breakfast, before work and school, and then another when everyone gets home, not to mention prayers upon waking and prayers before sleeping. Who has the time? Or the energy? The whole thing is so . . . otherworldly.
And that is precisely the point.
The Christian Faith emphasizes what some call the “already but not yet.” The Kingdom is Christ’s, and yet we pray for it to come. Meanwhile, the Word of God penetrates the present darkness, surrounding and infusing His people with light. Most gloriously, on Sundays before the altar, we join with “angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven” to praise God before partaking of a “foretaste of the feast to come.”
Yet not all of life is lived in a church service. Very few of us live in a parsonage or a rectory and can walk over to Matins or Vespers or Compline every day. But here in the first term of President Barack Hussein Obama, the veritable Age of Antichrist, we still have a considerable number of freedoms. In particular, we are free to order our lives according to the invisible reality that is the Kingdom of God. Saint Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing” is not one item on a to-do list to fit into our schedules: It is an encouragement for the faithful to be aware constantly of the presence of God and His angels and His saints here and now, outside the walls of church.
The blessings of the lectionary and the Church calendar are gifts from our tradition designed to counter human frailty. We cannot remember the whole of the history of redemption each and every Sunday. Similarly, the rituals of the Daily Office, or the Catechism, or quiet time, or family Bible hour—once as common among Christians as the family table—provide regular interruptions in our rat race, preventing us from the seemingly benign sin of overscheduling.
This is nothing new for God’s people. Captive and enslaved by the pagan Persians, Daniel knelt facing the Holy City and prayed. His friends and his enemies knew where to find him at least three appointed times each day.
Daniel, as you may recall, was a eunuch—he was made “prince of the eunuchs,” in fact, against his will. Most American Christian men, on the other hand, are neither slaves nor eunuchs—or at least they weren’t before the vasectomy. Like most men throughout time, they have families. Stretching back as far as the patriarch Job (before Moses and perhaps before Abraham), a man was priest of his household. The addition of the Tabernacle some years later, then the Temple, then the synagogue, and their transformation and fulfillment in Christ and His Church, did not mitigate the responsibility of the father.
Church statistics guru George Barna says that, among Protestants, the “churches” that are seeing the most growth in the United States are “home churches.” As many as 20 million people, including Barna himself, attend these gatherings of around 20 people each. According to the Washington Post, Barna said that home churches “are attractive to those who want to deepen their relationships with God and one another, and they also suit Americans’ growing taste for flexibility and control of their schedules.”
There is much to deplore in today’s churches—pap-filled psychobabble sermons, excruciating pop music, the silliness of dramas and dances—but the fact remains: Home is not church. We can set aside (for the briefest of moments) what this or that denomination may teach about ordination and the sacraments. There is no way to read the history of the early Church or the Pastoral Epistles and conclude that, when things go badly at church, you can start your own at home. What to do, then?
“Mercy! Good God! What manifold misery I beheld!” That was Luther’s response when he visited the churches of Saxony. “The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas, many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach.” His solution? “The deplorable, miserable condition which I discovered lately when I, too, was a visitor, has forced and urged me to prepare this Catechism . . . in this small, plain, simple form.” Vivify the churches by vivifying the households!
The Small Catechism does not address individuals—or rather, it addresses one individual: not the pastor, nor the schoolteacher, not the elector (or, for that matter, the president-elect). Each section, including the instructions for daily prayers, begins “As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household.” For this to work, then, there needs to be more than a family table. There needs to be a family head. In the divine economy, a man is head of his household, whether he likes or admits it. He is responsible for the continuing spiritual education or formation of wife, children, and even servants (if he has any).
American men prefer a quick and one-sided fix. Bariatric surgery beats diet and daily exercise. Voting will save babies. Eunuchs can better afford to send their kids to college. And yet the days and the seasons and the years continue to pass, the churches become increasingly decadent and irrelevant, and the kids’ mouths get smarter. What does this mean?
It means we have to go home. It means that we have to gather around the table. And it means that Dad must take up the mantle of Job as household priest. This might mean taking some things off our plates. At least here, in the Age of Antichrist, we’re still free to do that.