By Rev. Canon Christopher B. J. Pratt
The publishers of the Forward Day by Day devotional works known and used by so many people also generate a social media special event which they offer during the Season of Lent called “Lenten Madness”.
Styled after the kind of basketball playoff system, which is a featured part of any fan’s calendar, individuals whose life story reflects their faith are paired off and, as the days go by, the long list is narrowed down, by popular vote, to one.
This year, the individual who came through that process was Jonathan Myrick Daniels. If he is unfamiliar to you, I suggest that you are not alone. You may wish to explore his story.
You will discover that as a seminarian in the 1960s, Jonathan took an extended leave from his studies in preparation for ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church, to respond to a call from the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr. to support the Voting Rights movement among the Black citizens in the Southern United States.
In the midst of those challenging times Jonathan Daniels placed himself in front of an unarmed young woman who was also a civil rights activist when she was being threatened by an armed individual. Jonathan was shot and killed immediately when the shotgun which had been aimed at the young woman was fired.
Dr. King, reflecting on the situation said that ”one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels.”
I am drawn to this sacrificial story from another perspective.
A number of years ago, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to take a Sabbatical leave from parish ministry. A key part of the time I had was spent going to the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane in Bardstown, Kentucky. That community of Trappist monks served as the home of Thomas Merton, whose writings have been an important part of my own spiritual journey.
One of the features on the grounds of the Abbey is a walk through the woods to view a sculpture group called “The Garden of Gethsemani”. There are three essential elements of this work, which has been placed on a hillside. At the base of the hill is a collection of figures whose depiction reflects the sleepy confusion of the disciples in that moment and in that setting. Further on up the slope is a solitary figure. Jesus is presented in anguished prayer. In sight, but further up the hill, was a small Cross, the sign of things to come.
This powerful sculpture is dedicated to the memory and the martyrdom of Jonathan Myrick Daniels.
A quarter of a century after his death, the Episcopal Church of the United States declared Jonathan Daniels to be a martyr. August 14 has been designated as a day of remembrance for all the martyrs of the civil rights movement.
I share all of this with you because of the motivation behind the work of the Forward Movement. They indicate that their ministry is motivated by a desire to ”inspire disciples and empower evangelists”. Those words are reminiscent of the words offered at the time of the Baptismal Covenant.
All those who are baptized or who renew their Baptismal promises hear the questions:
Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?
Not all of us will ever find ourselves in a position where martyrdom will be an option as we identify ourselves as followers of Jesus. However, there are moments, not lost in the mists of time, but in relatively recent days, when faith has a cost attached to it.
Sunday worship is not an entertainment. It is a moment during which God’s people are educated, empowered and equipped as they are given the tools needed for service and ministry in the wider world. At the core of who we profess to be as followers of Jesus, is the gift of the Spirit, which empowers us at all times to let our words and our actions be a recognizable declaration and demonstration of our faith.
May that be true for us all.
Rev. Canon Christopher B. J. Pratt has retired from full time parish ministry, but continues to offer priestly ministry in the Diocese.
Photo: Jonathan Daniels' funeral, 1965 (The Archives of the Episcopal Church, DFMS)