Memory eternal -- Preacher Jess Moody

Memory eternal -- Preacher Jess Moody

Months after the end of World War II, leaders of Youth for Christ sent evangelists to work in the battered cities of Europe.

The rally teams were led by two of the new ministry's rising stars. The preacher in southern Europe was the Rev. Billy Graham of North Carolina and, in northern Europe, the Rev. Jess Moody of Texas filled that role.

That says something about the oratorical skills of Moody, whose life story was later turned into a Gospel Films feature called "Riding the Pulpit."

So it was no surprise that Moody later served as president of the Pastors' Conference of the Southern Baptist Convention and, in 1969, was asked to address tensions in the Vietnam War era. Moody's sermon -- "The Christian and War" -- left many pastors stunned and others infuriated.

"My country is sick and cannot seem to get well," he roared, offering what he called a "personal paraphrase" of the Prophet Jeremiah. "My countrymen have not been ashamed when they commit all kinds of hell-raising. … It has become impossible for them to blush. This means they are going to fall."

Then Moody veered into another life-and-death issue affecting those committed to ministry in urban America.

"This is my blood I'm spilling in this sermon," he said. "I've been loyal to this convention for the past 25 years and I intend that every breath I take of God's free air will be a Baptist breath, but you listen. … It takes the black and the white keys to play the Star Spangled Banner! And you can't do it without both.

"We must solve the problem of racial hatred within the next 10 years or prepare to become the dinosaurs of the 21st century."

Moody died last month at the age of 93, after several decades out of the spotlight. He lived to see Southern Baptists slowly, but surely, denounce the sin of racism. In 1995 the SBC repudiated "historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past." America's largest Protestant flock apologized to African-Americans for "condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime."

Tensions lingered, and in 2017 the SBC made headlines by repudiating "white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as a scheme of the devil" that continues to attack America, while urging advocates of "racist ideologies" to repent.

The faithful soul of Jackie Robinson

Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey knew that the first black player in major league baseball was going to go through hell. That's why the cigar-chomping, Bible-thumping Rickey set out to find a man who would keep believing -- when facing bitter, scathing racial hatred -- that the powers of heaven were on his side. As baseball writers have often noted, Rickey needed someone who could turn the other cheek, as well as turn a double play.

In writer-director Brian Helgeland's new epic, "42," Jackie Robinson states the challenge in blunt terms.

"You want a man," Robinson asks, "who doesn't have the guts to fight back?"

Rickey replies: "I want a man who has the guts NOT to fight back."

The fit was perfect. In Helgeland's script, Rickey offers this churchy equation: "Robinson's a Methodist. I'm a Methodist. God's a Methodist. We can't go wrong."

That's the stuff of movies, alright, but this kind of faith reference remains somewhat unusual in a Hollywood blockbuster, acknowledged Eric Metaxas, who is best known for writing the global bestseller "Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy." The problem, he said, is that "42" omitted many other details that would have demonstrated that faith was crucial to the whole story.

There's no doubt that Robinson was a remarkable man, argues Metaxas, in his new "Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness." But Robinson was also a remarkably courageous and truly devout Christian man. Thus, he included Robinson's story in a book that explores the faith commitments of George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Pope John Paul II, Chuck Colson and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

In the classic "Chariots of Fire," which won the Oscar for best picture, the Olympic runner and future missionary Liddell is repeatedly shown preaching, parsing scripture and discussing the beliefs that led to his pivotal decision not to run in Sunday races at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. "Try to imagine that movie without those scenes," noted Metaxas, in a telephone interview.

The key "42" scene -- when Robinson meets Rickey on Aug. 28, 1945 -- could have depicted what actually happened at the time. Rickey pulled out a copy of a classic devotional work, "Life of Christ" by Giovanni Papini, and read aloud the passage in which the author discusses the Sermon on the Mount, including the reference that describes the "turn the other cheek" challenge as "the most stupefying" of the "revolutionary teachings" of Jesus.

It wouldn't have taken long to read the scripture that so inspired Rickey and Robinson, said Metaxas. The Gospel of St. Matthew states: "Ye have heard it hath been said, An eye for and eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."

The reason, quite literally, that Rickey "choose Jackie Robinson was his strong moral character and his Christian faith," said Metaxas. "There were other great black players out there. But could they have taken the stand that Jackie took? ...

"That first meeting is the moment. That scene is the heart of this story and Jesus is right there in the middle of it."

It would have been wonderful if "42" had also noted the strong faith of Robinson's mother, Mallie. Then there was a crucial Methodist mentor named Karl Downs who taught the great ballplayer that obeying the command to "resist not evil" was not cowardly, but heroic, said Metaxas.

But movies are movies and, often, what matters the most are the visual images. Thus, it's crucial that Helgeland didn't include scenes in which Robinson is shown doing what he repeatedly said that he did day after day in those tense early years in major-league baseball -- getting down on his knees, praying for strength and patience.

"I'm not saying that this is a horrible movie," stressed Metaxas. "Yes, Robinson is shown closing his eyes for 0.87 seconds before he runs out onto the field and he's hit by the occasional inspirational ray of sunlight. ... But why are people afraid of showing a true American hero getting down on his knees and praying? What's so scary about that?

"It's like people think that prayer is a sign of weakness. Well, getting down on his knees didn't make Jackie Robinson weak. That's what helped make him strong."

Preaching to a tempting choir

The YouTube era has produced a few Catholic stars, priests whose performances have inspired scores of web surfers to pass along emails full of grief or glee.

Who can forget "The Barney Blessing," with the priest who traded his vestments for a purple dinosaur suit before the final prayer of a Halloween Mass? Then there was the trendy priest whose loopy dance to the altar, accompanied by trumpets and drums, inspired comparisons to Prince Ali's arrival in the Disney classic "Aladdin."

But these were tiny tremors compared with the online earthquake that followed Father Michael Pfleger's sermon in which he pretended to be Hillary Clinton, sobbing because of her losses to Sen. Barack Obama.

"She just always thought that, 'This is mine. I'm Bill's wife. I'm white,' " said the priest, speaking at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. "Then out of nowhere came, 'Hey, I'm Barack Obama.' And she said, 'Oh damn, where did you come from? I'm white. I'm entitled. There's a black man stealing my show.' ''

It's natural to watch these cyber spectacles while muttering, "What were they thinking?" The answer is quite simple, according to Father John F. Kavanaugh of St. Louis University. Like many preachers before them, they fell for the temptation to "preach to the choir," their listeners who already agreed with them.

"You're supposed to be a messenger. You're supposed to be the person who brings people the Good News," said the Jesuit, author of "Following Christ in a Consumer Culture" and other books on faith and ethics. "But instead of being the mediator, you can end up putting the focus on yourself. You can become the message and, before you know it, people can start basing their faith on you instead of God."

Catholic priests, of course, are not alone in this temptation. There are plenty of other preachers, in this media-saturated age, who act like stand-up comedians or performers in their own faith-based reality shows. Many big churches have been known to tremble when a skilled communicator leaves the pulpit.

The Pfleger case, said Kavanaugh, is particularly sad after his decades of service at St. Sabina's on Chicago's South Side.

The sandy-haired, blue-eyed priest has helped build a thriving, predominately black parish and parochial school. Pfleger has clashed with gang leaders as well as bishops, while adopting two African-American sons and leading campaigns against alcohol, cocaine, cigarettes and other addictions. He has been hailed as a spectacular preacher, especially on the sin of racism, in an era in which Catholics are not known for their pulpit skills.

The problem is that success leads to unique temptations.

Father Pfleger and clergy who make similar mistakes are not "crazy persons. But they do have problems of their own," stressed Kavanaugh, writing in America, a Catholic weekly. "They are the problems of the preacher. ... I know there are few moments to compare with the affection and approval of parishioners after Mass, especially if you have been helpful in strengthening their faith. But the most distressing moment for me was the one homily I gave that evoked applause. Of course, it was gratifying; but it was disturbing. What was the applause for?"

It's easy for preachers to keep telling the faithful what they want to hear, he said. Preachers must be self-critical and become aware of when they avoid some tough subjects or choose to soften a message, in order not to offend. The flip side of this is when preachers decide to pound away on popular subjects and easy targets, seeking to please people who are already in the pews.

One way for priests to regain perspective, said the Jesuit, would be reading -- in the pulpit -- classic sermons by the saints or popular Christian writers that focus on timeless issues. Another way to keep from "defanging the Gospel" is to confront a congregation with the undiluted words of a sermon by Jesus, as written in scripture.

"Whether you are preaching to liberals or conservatives, it's hard to tell people truths that they don't want to hear," said Kavanaugh. "It's hard to tell people to love their enemies. It's hard to tell people to repent of their sins and to forgive others. ... If your people are smiling and applauding all of the time -- all of the time -- that's when warning flags need to go up."

The roots of King's dream

The telephone rang after midnight and sleep was not an option for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., after he answered it.

It was late 1956. Years later, King quoted that hellish voice: "Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren't out of this town in three days, we are going to blow your brains out and blow up your house."

King ended up in the kitchen, meditating on the mystery of evil and worrying about his family. He began praying out loud, voicing his feelings of weakness, frustration and fear. Soon, he fell into a waking dream in which God gave him comfort and courage. He glimpsed the future.

The next day, King told reporters: "I had a vision."

This became a touchstone event and shaped one of his signature themes. But the wording had changed by the time King reached the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963.  By then the voice of the Civil Rights Movement was crying out: "I have a dream."

Four decades later, this speech may be the only exposure that millions of young Americans have ever had to King's preaching and writing, said Drew Hansen, author of "The Dream," a new book that offers an in-depth analysis of the history and content of the speech.

This is sadly limited view of a complex man and his times, said the 30-year-old Seattle lawyer. But many who watch or read this speech may be inspired to learn more. After all, that is what happened to Hansen during a Yale Law School class on civil rights. He dug deeper and what he found was both inspiring and sobering.

"It's easy to focus on this speech and King's victories and all those barriers that fell back in the days when things were so bad," said Hansen, an evangelical Christian who graduated from Harvard and also studied theology at Oxford University.

"Focusing on this speech alone is certainly a lot easier than meditating on all of the barriers that remain. ... But still, this is a wonderful place to start as we give King the homage that is his due as a preacher, public philosopher, field general and prophet."

It is crucial to grasp the context. Hansen noted that King traveled about 275,000 miles and delivered at least 350 speeches during the year of the March on Washington. Witnesses said he worked on the text up to the last minute, literally marking out passages and scribbling in others as he sat waiting to speak.

Hansen's book includes material from rough drafts prepared by aides as well as a side-by-side comparison of the text as King wrote it and then delivered it. This includes detailed descriptions of the preacher's vocal inflections and use of dramatic pauses and repeated sentence constructions that let his listeners to respond to his words like skilled jazz musicians.

"King knew how to read his audience," said Hansen. "That had been part of his training since he was a little boy in his daddy's church. This address was a case of a talented preacher getting caught up in a call-and-response experience, not just with the audience in front of him, but with the whole nation. "That's why these words touched people then and they touch people now."

It was supposed to have been a political speech. Yet nearly every significant metaphor in it can be traced to a biblical source, noted Hansen. Growing up in black Baptist churches, King had been baptized in the words, grammar and imagery of the King James Bible. This provided a solid foundation as he spoke to African Americans and, ironically, to white Protestants in the Deep South. King knew that the Bible had authority --authority to inspire and to judge.

This is what King turned to as he faced the nation. The entire "I have a dream" section of the speech was not in his written text.

"He wrote a political address," said Hansen. "It's not that other people wrote a political address for him. King's own draft was nothing like a sermon. But the speech he actually delivered was not dominated by that kind of political language. He left lots of that out and everything he added was rooted in biblical images and themes. That changed everything."