The next line from Miss Clara’s prayer goes:
“We need an army of believers, Lord.”
All I could think about reading this part of the prayer is a very obscure debate within the Presbyterian church over a hymn called “Onward Christian Soldiers.” I vaguely remember a dinner-time conversation from my childhood about changes to the hymnal. (I’m embarrassed to think of the hours of committee time devoted to this debate!) I wasn’t sure where to put this prayer in my Bible, so I looked up the hymn. It’s been such a long time since I’ve thought about this hymn that I was surprised that reading the third verse moved me to tears: “Like a mighty army moves the church of God; Brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod; We are not divided; all one body we, One in hope and doctrine, one in charity.”
I found an article from The Christian Century referencing this controversy. The Presbyterian author likewise found herself moved to tears (and surprised!), as she sang this hymn with a small gathering of graying church goers at nearby Methodist church. She wrote:
When I realized that “Onward Christian Soldiers” was our opening hymn a few weeks ago, I groaned. But then we sang it, all 20 of us. The irony of the moment caught me off guard. There we were, most of us graying, some infirm, a hearing aid or two whistling in the background, singing, “Like a mighty army moves the church of God.” If it hadn’t been worship, I might have laughed out loud. Instead I teared up. …When we realize that what we say in worship can be true only in the improbable reign of God, we regain our souls and sound the trumpet, this time for an army that marshals no troops but the frail saints, bears no arms but the sword of the Spirit, makes no advance except that of love and has no enemy but that which undermines God’s hope for human flourishing.
The hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” has fallen out of favor in my denomination, but it speaks to our need to unite and reminds us of who the real enemy is. The hymn begins with a focus on Jesus and ends with the anthem “Glory, laud, and honor, unto Christ the King.” (What the thief would like to steal most is God’s glory.)
As I reflected on Miss Clara’s prayer, I had two thoughts: 1) Veteran’s Day gave me occasion to marvel at the diversity of our nation’s military and how service men and women unite to protect this nation. Likewise, the army of believers needs to rise above differences and petty conflicts. 2) An army in battle shares a common enemy and we would do well to remember as Christians that our battles are not against flesh and blood. Failing to recognize Satan as the spiritual force behind disharmony and discord only results demonizing one another. God calls us to fight our common enemy by fighting like Jesus: praying, loving, speaking truth in love, and sharing grace, especially to those most in need of God’s mercy.
It may not be in the Presbyterian hymnal, but it’s now in my Bible (feeling naughty!)…
While I was searching for pictures of Miss Clara, I found a picture of a prayer warrior named Molly Bruno, who inspired the movie. I love how God uses unlikely heroes on the front lines of his battles!