Stanley Hauerwas Can't Get Saved

In this passage from Stanley Hauerwas' memoir, the famous theologian tells how a life of ministry began with his mother's prayer.

BY: Stanley Hauerwas

 

I became a theologian because I could not be saved.

I was baptized at Pleasant Mound Methodist Church in — you will not be surprised — Pleasant Mound, Texas. Pleasant Mound Methodist was Methodist, but like most folks in that area, we were really Baptist, which meant that even though you had been baptized and become a member of the church, you still had to be "saved." Baptism and membership were Sunday morning events. Saving was for Sunday nights. Sunday night was an hour hymn sing, a time for "personal prayer" at the altar rail, a forty-five minute to an hour sermon, and then a call to the altar for those convicted of their sin.

If you came to the altar, it was assumed that you had struck up a new relationship with God that was somehow equivalent to being saved. I wanted to be saved, but I did not think you should fake it.

I am not sure how old I was when I began to worry about being saved, but it was sometime in my early teens. I had begun to date a young woman who also went to Pleasant Mound, which meant I was beginning to sin. I was pretty sure I needed saving, but I just did not think I should try to force God's hand. All this was complicated for me because the church was at the center of my family's life.

Our minister was Brother Zimmerman. Brother Zimmerman had actually gone to college and maybe seminary, but he preferred to be called "Brother" to show, I suspect, that even though he was educated he was not all that different from the rest of us. He was thin as a rail because he gave everything he had to being a minister. I remember him as a lovely, kind man, but he believed we did need to be saved.

It was never clear to me why we needed to be revived, but you could always count on some members of the church, and they were often the same people year after year, being saved. I sometimes think they wanted to be saved in order to save the preacher, because it was assumed that the Word had not been rightly preached if no one was saved.

So there I sat Sunday night after Sunday night, thinking I should be saved, but it did not happen. Meanwhile, some of the youth were "dedicating themselves to the Lord," which usually meant they were going to become a minister or a missionary. I am not sure how this development among the youth of Pleasant Mound began, but it was not long before several kids, a bit older than I was, had so dedicated their lives. So finally one Sunday night, after singing "I Surrender All" for God knows how many times, I went to the altar rail and told Brother Zimmerman that I wanted to dedicate my life to the Lord. I thought that if God was not going to save me, I could at least put God in a bind by being one of his servants in the ministry.

When I took that trip to the altar, I assumed I was acting "freely," but in fact I was fated to make that journey by a story my mother had told me.

My mother and father had married "late." My mother desperately wanted children. She had a child that was stillborn — something I learned when I was looking through her "effects" after she had died. It was then that I discovered my original birth certificate, which indicated the previous birth. But my indomitable mother was not deterred by the loss of a child. She had heard the story of Hannah praying to God to give her a son, whom she would dedicate to God. Hannah's prayer was answered, and she named her son Samuel. My mother prayed a similar prayer. I am the result. But I was named Stanley because the week before I was born my mother and father saw a movie — Stanley and Livingstone.

It was perfectly appropriate for my mother to pray Hannah's prayer — but did she have to tell me that she had done so? I could not have been more than six, but I vividly remember my mother telling me that I was destined to be one of God's dedicated. We were sitting on the porch of our small house trying to cool off at the end of a hot summer day. I am not sure what possessed Mother to unload her story on me at that time, but she did. My fate was set — I would not be if she had not prayed that prayer.

At the time, God knows what I made of knowing that I was the result of my mother's prayer. However, I am quite sure, strange servant of God though I may be, that whatever it means to be Stanley Hauerwas is the result of that prayer. Moreover, given the way I have learned to think, that is the way it should be.

Was I not robbed of my autonomy by my mother's prayer? Probably. But if so, I can only thank God. Autonomy, given my energy, probably would have meant going into business and making money. There is nothing wrong with making money, but it was just not in my family's habits to know how to do that. All we knew how to do was work, and we usually liked the work we did. As it turns out, I certainly like the work Mother's prayer gave me.

Mother told me only that Hannah had Samuel because she had promised to dedicate her son to God. I do not know if Mother knew that Samuel was to be a Nazirite or that he would be the agent of God's judgment against the house of Eli. On the Sunday evening when I dedicated myself to the Lord, I certainly did not think that I was assuming a prophetic role, and I am by no means a Nazirite: I have drunk my share of intoxicants, and I am bald. Some might think, however, given the way things have worked out, that I have played a Samuel-like role and challenged the religious establishment of the day. It is true that I have tried, with no more success than Samuel, to warn Christians that having a king is not the best idea in the world, at least if you think a king can make you safe.

But I have never tried to be Samuel. I did not even know the story of Samuel before I went to seminary. I certainly have not tried to be "prophetic," as I am sometimes described by others. Toward the end of his life, Samuel asked the people he had led to testify against him if he had defrauded or oppressed anyone, or taken a bribe. They responded that Samuel had not defrauded or oppressed anyone, nor taken anything "from the hand of anyone." If I have any similarity to Samuel, I hope people might cast it in terms like these.

After leaving Samuel with Eli, Hannah rejoiced that God had made her victorious over her enemies, who had derided her for being childless. It is a wonderful victory song, not unlike the great songs of God's triumph over the rich and powerful sung by Miriam, Deborah, and Mary. I should like to think that I have tried to do no more than remind God's people that, as Hannah sang:

There is no Holy One like the Lord,
no one beside you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.

It would take years for me to understand the significance of songs such as Hannah's. But I would have never known such songs could be sung without Mother's prayer.

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