Don McClanen loved to pray. But it wasn’t always pretty.
Don was an important but little-known figure in 20th century American Christianity. He lived in or near Germantown, MD, from 1962 until his death in February 2016 at the age of 91.
Before coming to the Washington, D.C., area, he had founded and led the Kansas City-based Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) for its first seven years. The sports ministry is now the largest of its kind in the world, with 2 million annual participants in 56 countries.
Don also created a series of other ministries, ranging from leadership training for inner-city youth to church-renewal movements. Most notable was his Ministry of Money, whose conferences and international trips to cities of great poverty challenged hundreds of American Christians from across the country to reevaluate their mindset concerning wealth and want.
As a spiritual entrepreneur, Don was an action guy. He loved to conceive the vision, gather the troops, hunt down the resources and build the programs. He loved the challenge of a $100,000 budget gap or a washed-out bridge. In the process, he could be a model of warmth, compassion and fun, someone whose enthusiastic and caring presence amplified your life.
But all strong personalities have their shadow side. At times, Don’s single-minded intensity and fits of anger alienated others and ruptured relationships. He suffered periods of anguish, doubt and depression. His self-understanding was that his life was that of a deeply flawed individual who nevertheless became an instrument that God could use in numerous powerful ways. His prayer life reflected the flaws and the power.
In 1960, Don and his wife, Gloria, were struggling. They had lost their 10-year-old daughter to a congenital heart disease, a devastating blow after losing a son in infancy. And they felt they were being pushed out of FCA by tensions with the board of directors.
One day several months after their daughter’s death, Don was swept by an unusually strong wave of grief and began screaming at God, using every curse word he could think of. Two years later, after moving to Maryland and starting work as a low-paid farm laborer, Don walked to an isolated spot after an argument with his wife and again screamed, “God, God, God, I hate you. What are you trying to say to me? What else do I have to do? You’ve taken my kids, you’ve taken my life’s work. Now it seems you might be taking my marriage.”
In retrospect, Don saw his uncontrolled outbursts at God as healthy — he could be real with God, and God, despite being reviled, loved him for his honesty. Don felt like a child coming to his father with a grievance, trusting in his father’s ability to work through their differences without resentment. As Don shared an openness and vulnerability in prayer with others, they were often liberated to stop prettying up their prayers and to be brutally honest with God.
Another striking aspect of Don’s prayer life was his devotion to silence.
He learned this discipline of nonverbal prayer from the Washington, D.C.-area church he joined, the Church of the Saviour. This small congregation was devoted to the concept of joining an inward journey of increasing spiritual depth with an outward journey of ministering to the hurting world. The result was a remarkably ambitious array of outreaches, from housing to medical care to job training, to the city’s lower-income residents.
One of the key inner-journey disciplines the church taught was that of silent retreats and wordless “centering prayer.” Don learned the power of this approach to waiting patiently for God’s still, quiet voice instead of focusing on all his self-talk. For instance, it was during a seven-day silent retreat that the Holy Spirit planted in him the seed of the Ministry of Money. He found that starting meetings of his ministry teams with 15 minutes of silence often made them more focused, inspired and productive.
Outpourings of raw emotion and silent waiting — those were the two poles of Don’s prayer life. And in between were ordinary, daily offerings of praise and petition, which over the years thousands were privileged to witness through his ministries. “Oh, Jesus, we love you, we love you, we love you. Lord, we pray for all those who go without food and other necessities this day, and also for those who have so much food and other possessions that they don’t even know the poor exist. Thank you for the anger, thank you for the guilt, thank you for awakening me.”
No, Don’s prayers weren’t always pretty. But they were always real.
• Joe Murchison wrote a biography of Don McClanen, entitled “Caution to the Wind: Faith Lessons From the Life of Don McClanen, Founder of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Ministry of Money” (Cross Training Publishing, 2008).
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