by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)
I’ve been telling you that it was during his pastorate in Akron, Ohio, that Lloyd Douglas began to develop his distinctive theology, and last time I promised to summarize the message he preached during those years. Perhaps the best way to begin is to share some of the prayers he offered from that same pulpit; for, as I explained in an earlier post, Douglas believed that the church’s primary mission was to offer people a chance to worship. He felt that a lot of the racket of the street had found its way into the typical Sunday morning service, and he did what he could to “make worship worshipful” (his words).
So! Instead of following a laundry-list approach, outlining his beliefs as bullet-points, I think it would be best to begin with the things he said to God, in worship. Douglas thought that praying off-the-cuff in a church service was one of the worst things a minister could do, because it gave his parishioners the misimpression that the preacher was on a first-name basis with God. Instead, Douglas wrote out his prayers carefully and read them from the pulpit. After his death, his daughters retyped some of these prayers and collected them in a small bound manuscript volume, in preparation for publication of some of his sermons.
The first time I read them, I was surprised. Douglas’s main concern was to bring the gospel up-to-date so that people could live their faith vibrantly in the twentieth century; and yet his prayers were extremely conventional, using Elizabethan language (Thee’s and Thou’s). Over time, however, I realized that this was consistent with his theology. For him, God was (and is) the “sacred presence… Our Father…
Lord of the vast spaces and the unceasing years; Lord of the stars and seas, mountains and forests; Lord of all powers and energies; Lord of the nations; and Lord of our lives who are Thy children.
Make us conscious of Thyself at this hour. Give us understanding that Thy Spirit is in this place, and recreate our desire to live according to Thy will…Prayers of Lloyd C Douglas, n.d., p. 4. In Douglas Papers, Box 3, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.
I do notice, however, a slight but significant change in his prayers over the years, so I’ll come back to them from time to time in this blog, showing you how his developing theology revealed itself in the things he said to the Divine.
Here are some of the prayers he offered during his years in Akron (1921-1926). One parenthetical note: in both his sermons and his prayers, Douglas used commas and hyphens as breath marks. Since these things were written for use in the pulpit, he punctuated them in a way that would indicate where to pause, although this often meant that he did not follow standard rules of punctuation. Although this habit makes reading his works tedious at times, it also gives us an indication of how his sermons and prayers sounded to the people in the congregation, which is valuable information for later generations like us. I usually remove the distracting punctuation when I share a quotation with you in these blog posts, but today I’ll leave it in, so that you can hear these prayers as he actually uttered them:
Tell us – Our Father – WHY we live.
For a little while we breathe, we love, we strive, we fall – our little orbits change. We seem the helpless children of an inexorable Fate – blindly driven, and very tired – homeless strangers, eager to find a better way for our weary feet.
And then Thou comest with Thy Fatherly assurance that we are Thy children. And, into the sad, bitter chalice of our years, we find love poured – with all its smiles and tears – and, quaffing this, we are content.
So lead us on – triumphant in this faith – until our rest be won.Prayers of Lloyd C Douglas, p. 7: Akron, Ohio, October 16, 1921.
Some of the words rhyme (years/tears; on/won), and if you follow the breath marks, there’s a kind of poetic cadence. That’s characteristic of Lloyd Douglas the Preacher. He wrote poetry and often included these creations at the conclusion of his sermons. His aesthetic faculties were finely tuned. Nor is this just a stylistic remark that I’m making, for it tells us something important about his theology. He believed that God should be approached with awe and that our prayers should be expressive – and even beautiful.
He offered this prayer over a New Year’s Day communion service:
We invoke Thy divine blessing upon this sacred feast, spread before us, symbolic of the Love and Courage and Faithfulness of Him whose name is graven upon our hearts.
Do Thou bless these symbols of His deathless affection for our souls [long hyphen]
And give them power to renew within us an abiding consciousness of Thy presence, and to restore unto us THE JOY OF THY SALVATION.
And in this newfound strength may we go forth, into the privileges and responsibilities of THE NEW YEAR – prepared for whatever may betide us – whether of joy or of pain.
May we thus meet all the experiences of life, with smiling faces and exultant hearts – walking confidently and fearlessly as Thy children.Prayers of Lloyd C Douglas, p. 8: Akron, Ohio, January 1, 1922.
Through these prayers, we begin to see glimpses of some of Douglas’s most heartfelt beliefs. We see reverence for a God who is bigger than we can imagine; a passionate devotion to Christ; the importance of connecting with Them here and now; and what follows naturally from forming and maintaining such a connection (strength, joy, peace, confidence).
The following prayer was offered at an Easter service, if I’m not mistaken:
Liberate our souls, today, Our Father, by the power of that LOVE that dwells in the heart of Christ.
Unloose our chains, by the Influence of that TRUTH that makes men free.
Banish our fears of DEATH by the LIGHT that streams from the door of HIS BORROWED TOMB.
And cause us to walk, unafraid, the road that leads to liberty and life, following the nail-pierced footprints of him who knows the way – along the plain paths of daily duty, and through the shadowed valleys, and up the steeps of pain – confident that we shall AT LENGTH reach the hillcrest, and FACE THE DAWN.Prayers of Lloyd C Douglas, p. 9: Akron, Ohio, April 16, 1922.
In the next blog post, I’ll dive more deeply into his beliefs, but these prayers give us a good jumping-off point. He believed in a God of majesty, yet also believed that God was available to every one of us, to guide and empower us “along the plain paths of daily duty, and through the shadowed valleys, and up the steeps of pain.” This last prayer is perhaps the best, most concise summary of what he thought Christian life was all about (at least as of 1926):
Attune our hearts to the symphony of Thy heavenly grace, that we may evermore understand Thy will for us, in our daily lives, and realize increasingly the peace Thou wouldst have us bear in our souls.Prayers of Lloyd C Douglas, p. 10: Akron, Ohio, October 10, 1926.
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