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Saturday, October 13, 2007
(6:12 PM) | Stephen:

Take a look here first.

So, cats. It's perhaps not the subtlest story you've ever seen, but I think it does a good job of showing just how ludicrous we can be with our traditions and habits.

A few posts back Lewis left a really good comment:
It used to be that the fundamentalist churches would have a week-long revival scheduled twice a year. I hated them.

After working all day, I had a hour commute. Only time to have a snack and then - to church. The evangelist felt that his job was to get someone down to the altar to pray through.

Think about it. Small town - small church - the only ones at the meeting were church members.

Give me a break.

What we should have done was to have a designated sinner go down and pray through at the first sign of an altar call. Then they would get up and testify how evil they had been and that Jesus had come into their heart and cleaned them up. Evangelist is happy, we get to go home early - great preaching!
I too remember those twice-yearly revivals, the parade of itinerant preachers and singing families that came through. And there was of course church camp, both age level and Family Camp. And Vacation Bible School. Sunday morning and evening church services and Wednesday nights. And this was all just during the summer.

Let's see: 1 revival + VBS + 2 camps + regular services = 62 sermons over the course of summer vacation (approximately). And around 20 of them would be explicitly "evangelistic," with "altar calls" and everything. A friend of mine who, as a child, traveled with his singing evangelist father, told me that one summer alone he was born again 18 times, which sounds about right.

And all of this can be understood as the Teacher's cat.

By the mid-19th century, Christianity wasn't doing too well. For the civilized upper classes it was an opportunity to gather in a socially acceptable place and be polite to socially acceptable people. For the lower classes it was largely irrelevant. In the midst of this preachers started to come up who could really speak to people's condition, to the state of society whatever place in society a given person might occupy.

This was the beginning of camp meetings and revivalism, though it must be understood that no one held any revivals. No church scheduled a revival meeting. Those traveling preachers with tents were not holding revivals. They simply called these things "protracted meetings" or something like that. It was only after the fact that people might begin to talk of a particular meeting being a revival.

I've read several journals and letters from the late 1800s to the early 1900s as part of a job that I had in the Church of the Nazarene's Archives. I believe that there were actual "revivals," that people did actually change as a result of them. At least, it would be hard to sustain such a large conspiracy for so many years across such great distances, which is what would have needed to happen if none of it were true.

The faith tradition in which I grew up was a full-fledged member of the camp meeting and Revivalist movement. Early Nazarenes were viewed as a riotous lot, prone to shouts and people running around a sanctuary or tent. The beginnings of the Church of the Nazarene (ca. 1890 - 1908, which is the official date of the church's establishment) saw a group that not only ordained women but had no problem putting them in leadership even over other pastors. The older members were committed abolitionists and expected younger members to adhere to the same philosophy. They established charitable organizations everywhere they went, even and especially on the "mission field." There are hospitals and nursing colleges that exist to this day in South Africa, India and Papua New Guinea, and I know I'm forgetting some.

I must admit that even though I no longer attend a Nazarene church - and probably never will - I still view people like Phineas Bresee, H.F. Reynolds and H. Orton Wiley as great men, even heroes.

The men and women of the early Church of the Nazarene were, in my opinion, worthy of emulation by later generations, and that is exactly what happened. The Nazarenes were active in the Temperance movement, a good-intentioned if too extreme movement. They didn't drink alcohol, and neither did those who came later. They didn't go to dances because they felt that it led to sexual immorality, so neither did later generations. Gambling was a scourge, especially in the Western US, and most early Nazarenes felt that moving pictures had storylines that didn't inspire people to be more Christlike. So later Nazarenes never went to the movie theater (officially) and never gambled - for that matter, they never used normal decks of playing cards or played regular card games. So Spades was right out, but Rook was ok, etc.

In the 1950s and 60s "compassionate ministry" fell out of favor with theologically conservative denominations. The classically Liberal churches were increasing their social commitments, and conservative churches were looking for any way in which they could distinguish themselves from the mainline denominations. So various orphanages, soup kitchens, clinics and other places where the down-and-out could find a hand up were closed, one by one, until almost none were left.

Which was a tragedy on many levels. Phineas Bresee, regarded as the principle founder of the denomination, was a Methodist Episcopal pastor, a presiding elder. He was in line to become a bishop in that denomination, and he pastored the largest Methodist church in the American West, with the largest auditorium of any type on the west coast as his sanctuary. He left it all so that he could be a chaplain at a soup kitchen.

Bresee was able to not go to movies, not drink and not gamble as a prominent and successful pastor. But he believed that he couldn't adequately pastor the poor, and so he left it all behind.

When Bresee and others died, we kept their teachings and their cats. We made sure to have revivals just like they did. We had camp meetings, and more and more people started to see "evangelist" as a career calling just like "pastor" or "blacksmith." The degradation of the role of the evangelist came about simply because of competition. Churches evaluated you on the basis of how many people got saved or sanctified during your meetings, and if you didn't consistently get the numbers that the churches wanted, you were out of work. So you did all that you could, all that you needed to in order to get the people off the pews and down at the altar, crying and shaking as they either were born again by being saved or born again again by being sanctified. Thank God, literally, that the Church of the Nazarene allowed everyone to be counted at the altar at least twice, the doctrine of backsliding helping out even more. Especially with teenagers.

When the great women and men of the Church of the Nazarene died, we did make a good faith effort to keep their teachings alive. Thing is, though, teachings don't make constant demands on us. Cats, however, do. Cats require daily maintenance, and even when they don't need anything they're much more noticeable than something as prosaic as teachings. As time went on and the teachings got blurred, the cats were still there. We remembered to not dance or drink, but we forgot how to resist the temptation to devalue women. We remembered that movie theaters were bad, but we forgot the ability to make wise entertainment choices in any medium.

We lost the teachings, but we damn sure kept the cats around. This is the story for all of us, all the time. We see it in our politics, in our religions, in our families. It is for this reason that God sent Israel the Prophets and why what the prophets said was written down so we would remember. It's for this reason that we have had people like both Martin Luthers, like Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez, and yes, like Dennis Kucinich and even Michael Moore.

If you can catch them in lies, then heap on condemnation and allow me to join in. But if you can't, then understand that those who hate them do so only because they're so busy taking care of a bunch of cats they've forgotten who they are and what they are on this earth to do.

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