Onward Christian Socialist
By Terry Wynn
"Like a mighty army
Moves the Church of God:
Brothers we are treading
Where the saints have trod."
Sabine Baring-Gould (1834 - 1924)
ODDS ON GOLIATH
In today's materialistic, hedonistic society it's easy not to be a Christian. It's not fashionable to go to church and it's sometimes difficult and downright embarrassing in many circumstances for some ordinary churchfolk to ever admit they go to church. The hard part is being a Christian and being prepared to live out your faith in your words and deeds.
As a full-time politician, I am in the limelight. As a Methodist local preacher to boot, the limelight becomes a spotlight, looking for the slightest misdemeanour. Most active Christians are often ridiculed in some way or other, usually at work. The guy on the shop floor, the teenage girl at school - they are put on an imaginary pedestal ready to be knocked off when they say something out of line. That's why the "News of the World", or "The Sun", love the failings of the clergy to give them their "Vicar in Sex Romp" headlines because they know that people like to read about the so-called righteous being brought down a peg or two. After all, if they are susceptible to sinning then the misdemeanours of ordinary mortals aren't so bad after all, are they? Yet countless people do display their faith in their everyday lives and it rubs off on others.
As stated earlier, Christian faith is best witnessed by everyday folk, living everyday lives, facing up to life's problems with their faith secure. They know where they stand in this society and they know that they don't stand alone.
Don't be confused by genuine Christian faith and those who are hypocritically religious. The travesties in Northern Ireland, so-called perpetrated in the name of Protestantism or Catholicism, had nothing to do with belief in Christ. The problem there, as in what was Yugoslavia, also occurs in the Middle East; it is tribal brutality. It wasn't religion that pitted Hutu against Tutsi in Rwanda; it wasn't religion that pitted ANC supporters in South Africa against Inkatha supporters; it wasn't religion that caused the war in the Middle East between Iran and Kuwait; it isn't religion but language that divides the population of Belgium. Too many use their religion as the excuse for hating others.
The test for the pondering Christian is "What would Jesus do in my situation?" The answer would not be killing or violence, it would be compassion and understanding. Is it any wonder it is difficult to be a Christian when you see what human beings do to each other in the name of religion? This may put people off going to church, it may make them critical of religion but it doesn't necessarily make them atheists, that is to believe in nothing.
Let me quote Colin Morris again from his l990 Lenten Lectures: "Some scholars say that our society is now maturely secular. Chance would be a fine thing! We are riddled with religiosity; awed by astrology; eerie about exorcism; phased about fate; gone on ghosts; spooked by the supernatural. The human response to the transcendent may be sublime, it may be ridiculous but it is invariable. You cannot breed it out of us."
It may not be maturely secular, but it is a long way from being a Christian society and in these circumstances the task of the Christian is not an easy one.
As a child I always liked the story of David and Goliath; I think most children do. They can equate the little guy against the big guy and the little guy winning similar to watching Tom and Jerry. The situation of most Christians today in our secular society is not unlike that of David. They are vulnerable, up against the odds and seem to be unarmed for the task. Lined up against them is an army of apathy, atheism, agnosticism, materialism and self-centredism. All the Christian has is his or her faith.
Yet God's army is made up of the likes of Les Rudd, Jim Corbett, Doris Wynn, Colin Morris, Bernard Coyle, Bessie Metcalf, etc. Who would put a bet on the outcome? The battle cry could easily be that lovely wayside pulpit notice "For the triumph of evil, it only needs good men (and women) to stay silent", or, just as relevant, "The Devil's greatest weapon is that people don't believe He exists".
If modern day Christians in the UK think the task is a tough one, all they have to do is remember what the early Church and Christians went through. I doubt if we will ever match their hardships of being fed to the lions or being tortured and crucified. We mustn't forget that their faith and efforts, and those of succeeding Christians through the centuries, have ensured that we can worship today as we please. So, comparatively speaking, today's battle is easier but it has to be fought constantly with faith and endurance, just like David.
Is it any wonder people don't want to be part of it, and of course there are those who say, "I don't have to go to church to be a Christian." It's like the armchair football fan who says I am a Liverpool supporter. How long would Liverpool FC last if all its supporters stayed at home giving only token support?
Yet God needs people now more than ever. Consider the world in which we live, when so many people have the problem of having no shoes; for many of us our daily problem is usually which shoes to wear to match our outfits. God wants the former rectified but to get it done it needs the will of the people on the planet. This free will that God gave us allows us to help our brothers and sisters, or not to.
In March 1991 the eight days I spent in Ethiopia must rate as one of the most demanding and interesting periods I have had. It involved attempting to get political prisoners released, meetings with Government ministers, assessing European aid projects, visiting refugee camps and having talks at the Organisation of African Unity. It also taught me a lot about a lot of people.
Unfortunately, when I landed in Addis Ababa my suitcase didn't arrive with me - where it went, no one knows. The first night meant staying at the state-owned Hilton Hotel, where there was certainly no food shortage; it's the only Hilton I've seen doing carry-out pizzas. Thankfully it had no shortage of clothes which I had to buy - I never realized baggy, white underpants were still popular. Maybe that's because the films on TV included such classics as "The Life and Loves of Elsie Tanner", with Pat Phoenix. Dennis Tanner in his Y-fronts is a sight to behold!
The previous year Ethiopia was a Marxist-Leninist state; when I was there, it saw itself as a bastion of Christendom against Islamic fundamentalism and coloured underpants.
What really happened was that the country was in such a mess that over a couple of years the Government had been influenced by non-party, middle-class intellectuals who were now in a position of authority. They wanted the war to stop and wanted to build a more open society.
I had several meetings, formally and informally, with Government ministers and was impressed by their approach.
They reckoned that if peace came then Ethiopia would be quite capable of being self-sufficient in food. They had real hope for the future. They would still have a million refugees from Sudan and Somalia to cope with, but they wouldn't starve.
Away from the capital it was a world of difference and was definitely a long way from my home in Leigh, Lancashire. Up-country Ethiopia is like going back in time to witness a peasant, feudalistic society. It's also quite nerve-racking when the transport breaks down in the middle of nowhere at night. Julian Pettifer, the journalist, writing about his time in Vietnam, coined the phrase "Happiness is a dry fart". I know exactly what he means. For me, though, happiness is a tarmac road.
The aid projects I saw did at least give a lot of hope and showed that things were being done. One particular project was run by an Italian couple, working for a Christian NGO, who have been in Ethiopia since 1971. They were building wind-powered water pumps for villages - windmills like you see in the Western movies. They loved their work, and the people they were working with and for, and the villagers loved them. The children we saw lacked everything but a smile. Rosanna Gigi Simonini and her husband were providing people with clean water and looking after them as best they could because they wanted to and were committed to their task.
These villages were fortunate in that they had water in other areas where drought prevailed; women had to walk for up to six hours to get to water - and not clean water at that. Consequently, I didn't complain when the place I stayed at in Dire Dawa had no water.
To stand amongst those poor souls, to hear the babies crying, to see the hopelessness that they must feel, tends to put things in perspective. If my main worry was lost luggage or unfashionable underpants, then I hadn't got much to worry about compared to the people I met.
One of the aid workers asked me what I thought, as we stood at a food distribution point. I said I felt completely helpless; then I realised that I am far from helpless. If elected full-time politicians can't do something for countries like Ethiopia then who can? If it only means constantly bringing it to Parliament's or public attention, then that's a job that needs to be done.
It's about influencing the decision-makers to stop the senseless war that were causing so much suffering there. And it's also about never forgetting that this world has ample resources for all God's children and it's about time we began distributing our wealth a bit more evenly. The cry of the skeletal child in the Ethiopian refugee camp is the voice of God telling us to do something about it. We can. But do we want to?
There is the technology and enough fertile land to feed and give access to fresh water to all people on this planet. People don't have to live in cardboard cities; pollution of the planet doesn't have to occur; this heaven-of-an-earth doesn't have to be changed into a hell-on-earth by selling vast quantities of arms around the world to help wars rage.
This is God's world and we humans are the custodians of it, it's in our keeping. He wants it to be kept well. Unfortunately, we are not making too good a job of it because our free will too often makes us selfish and uncaring. The Devil must be laughing his socks off.
Existence on this planet is a battle between conflicting forces. I do not believe that we can fight the battle, this army of Davids, without Jesus in our lives. For those who have never heard of Him, or experienced Him, I do believe that the Holy Spirit works in and through many non-Christians and thank goodness for them, a kind of foreign legion of God.
It's easy to have a faith when life has no problems but millions have had their faith strengthened when they have lived with problems. As stated in the previous chapter, faith makes it easier to face the world against personal disasters, hardships, losses, bereavements and heartaches. There are times when people think, "What's the point?". Their world is crumbling around them yet, with God's help, they still pull through. These are the things that life consists of, each one is a battle in itself, each one means taking on a Goliath.
When that has been the training ground and faith has seen the David through, then God has an army that can take on the evils of the world.
There is a story told of Gladstone and a young man in conversation: "What do you want to do with your life?”, asks Gladstone.
"I intend going to Oxford University and getting a first degree", the young man replied.
"What then?", asked Gladstone.
"I intend becoming a lawyer in a London practice", he replied.
"What then?", asked Gladstone.
"Then I intend to pursue a career in politics, becoming a Cabinet Minister", he said.
"What then?", asked Gladstone.
"Then I shall retire to a house in the country",
"What then?", Gladstone asked again.
"Well, then I shall die", he answered hesitatingly.
"What then?", said Gladstone slowly.
"I hadn't planned beyond that", he said.
Gladstone looked at him and said, "Young man you are a fool. Go away and rethink your plans."
If Gladstone were alive today and he confronted many of the Christians I know with the question, "What do you want to do with your life?", I'm sure the answer would be, "To serve God as best I can". They do it in their everyday lives amid the problems and the troubles and the ridicule.
I often wonder why faith is ridiculed; why goodness, good works, kindness and humility are laughed at and scorned in our modern society. What makes the faithful carry on, this army of simple folk, this wide variety of humankind, who worship and serve God in a variety of ways? They do it because they have no pretence about who they are, because they can admit their weaknesses and faults and, strange as it may seem, it's from this that they get their strength.
I can best illustrate this by plagiarising a sermon of Scott Campbell, the Minister of the International Protestant Church of Brussels, where we go when we are in Brussels at weekends. To many churchgoers the terminology is quite easily understood. Others may find some words strange or archaic, if you do, bear with me until Chapter 7 at least, when I discuss the use of language in church.
Scott preached this on December 2nd, l990, the first Sunday in Advent. He took his text from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, Chapter 63, verses 16 to 19, and Chapter 64, verses 6 to 9. This is what he said:
"Today is the first Sunday in Advent. When I began to look over the scripture readings for today, I must confess that I was puzzled by the inclusion of this passage from Isaiah among the Advent texts. I had forgotten, once again, what Advent is really all about. ‘Why’, I wondered, "Is there all this talk about how far the people have wandered from God? Why is there this obsession with sin?".
"Isn't Advent supposed to be a season of hope and expectation? Isn't it a time of waiting and watching for the coming of the Messiah? What does this Isaiah passage have to do with watching?
"Then, of course, I remembered what I tend to forget every year. Advent is a season first of penitence... then of hope. In the long history of the Church, this season has been understood in this double context. Advent can be summed up in the communion words of assurance. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Confession. It's not an easy one for us, is it? We don't know quite what to make of it.
"I can remember my Catholic friends when I was growing up talking about having to go to confession. It was some kind of strange ritual in my mind, some kind of game for which I didn't quite understand the rules. I'm a Protestant, I don't have to confess anything, but what do you tell the priest?, I would ask.
“‘Oh!’, they would reply, ‘Stuff like I said a swear word, or I lied to my mother, or I hit my brother or something’. Small sins, if there's any such thing. I'm reminded of the priest who heard the confessions of the Sisters at a convent. ‘It's like being stoned to death with popcorn,’ he said.
"But we Protestants didn't know quite what to do with our failures, big or little, so, all too often, we just keep them inside. If we didn't talk about them, maybe they would go away. ‘No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you’, writes Isaiah, ‘For you have hidden your face from us, and made us waste away because of our sins’. We kept our distance from God when it came to our sins.
"Some years ago there was a cartoon strip which dealt with the theme of confession. You may be familiar with the character Broom Hilda, a funny-looking little witch. In the opening frame Broom Hilda is telling a friend, ‘I've done a lot of mean things in my life and I've never told anybody about them. I wish I could get them off my chest’. Her friend says, ‘It's too bad you're not Catholic, you could confess’. The next frame has Broom Hilda asking, ‘Well, what's that?’.
"Her friend says, ‘Well, you go into a booth and tell your sins to a priest and he grants you forgiveness and you feel a lot better’.
"Frame three shows Broom Hilda's friend continuing, ‘Now I've got an idea for you. Go tell everything to that tree over there. Sometimes just the act of speaking out your transgressions makes you feel good’. Frame four shows the little witch talking to the tree and saying, ‘I feel kind of silly but I'm going to try it anyway’.
“Frame five shows her confessing her sins to the tree. Frame six has Broom Hilda walking away from the smouldering ruins of a devastated tree. Her friend, looking at the ashes around the blackened stump, says, ‘Imagine what that would have done to a priest.’
"Perhaps a more apt question for us this morning is, ‘What was such a burden doing to the person who was carrying it around?’. Is not confession the first step towards wholeness? La Rochefoucauld once wrote, ‘Almost all your faults are more pardonable than the methods you think up to hide them’.
"When I was ten, I had a cavity in my tooth. My mother made an appointment at the dentist for me and I was supposed to stop there on my way home from school. Some things just beg to be forgotten and this was one of those things. I conveniently forgot. When my mother came home from work late that afternoon, she, of course, asked about the trip to the dentist. ‘Oh’, I replied, ‘It was the strangest thing. I got there and his office was closed. He must have had to go somewhere’. I can still remember the sceptical look on her face but, as I was not in the habit of telling lies, she let it pass rather than confront me.
"That night however, I couldn't sleep. My lie just kept replaying in my mind, over and over, and each time I felt worse about myself. Finally, I could take it no longer. I stumbled out of bed and down the stairs to my parents' room.
‘I lied’. I wailed, ‘I didn't go to the dentist’. ‘I know,’ my mother said, ‘It's okay’. She hugged me and kissed me and sent me back to bed and that time I fell asleep.
"I know it's just a silly little story but, somehow for me, it has always helped me to imagine what God is like. Like children, we make choices in our lives which estrange us from God. We fail to live up to the expectations of our Lord. ‘All of us have become like one who is unclean and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf and like the wind our sins sweep us away.’ We need to make peace with our creator but, too often, we make peace with our sin instead.
"Isaiah confesses the sins of his people and seeks a restored relationship with God. There is no justification or brokenness, no making peace with second best. And now, after confession, the way is cleared for restoration. The penitent heart is ready to receive the good news. The confessing soul is ready to drink of the living waters of the Christ.
"Fred Craddock is one of the premier preachers in America these days. He draws heavily on his personal experiences to enrich his preaching. He once told this story about his dad:
When I was growing up in North Tennessee, my father didn't go to church. He was at home fussing about lunch being late on Sunday. Once in a while the pastor would come and try to talk to him, but he was kind of rough on the minister. He would say, ‘I know what you fellows want down there at the church. You want another name
and another pledge. Right? Isn't that the business you're in? Another name and another pledge.' It embarrassed my mother. She would stay in the kitchen and cry. Once in a while they would have a guest evangelist and he would come with the pastor and the pastor would say, ‘Here is the toughie, see him!’
My father would always say something like, ‘You don’t care about me. You want another member - another pledge.
That is how the churches operate. You don't care about me. He said it, I guess, a thousand times. One time he didn't say it. It was in the veterans' hospital. I rushed across the country to see him. He was down to seventy-four pounds. They had taken out his throat but they said it was too late. All that radium stuff had just burned him to pieces. They put in a tube so he could breathe, but he couldn't speak. I looked around the room. In the windows, on the tables, flowers - cut flowers and potted plants - even that table that they swing out over your bed to put food on had flowers on it. He couldn't eat.
I looked at the little cards sprinkled in all the flowers and every one of them - every one of them - Men's Bible Class - Women's Fellowship - Youth Fellowship, pastor, others at the church, everyone of them, the flowers and the deep stack of cards stacked beside the flowers - from persons and groups within that church.
He saw me look at those cards. He took a pencil and wrote on the side of a Kleenex box a line from Hamlet: ‘In this harsh world draw your breath in pain, to tell my story’.
I asked, ‘What is your story, dad?’ And he wrote a confession: "I was wrong!"
"Maybe sometimes we have to be able to say, "I was wrong" before the way can be cleared to receive grace. Isn't this, after all, what Communion is finally about, confession and forgiveness, presenting ourselves as we are, without pretence, in order that we can be made new and whole? Whoever does not know he is broken, whoever does not know she is wounded, cannot be healed.
"Advent is a season of penitence ... and hope. Our hope rests in the sure and certain promise that, if we confess our sin, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
Those who want to serve God as best they can, aren't scared of saying where they go wrong, they aren't scared of admitting their faults and weaknesses as stated earlier and also, as stated above, it's from this that they get their strength. The following chapter takes on this theme.
This seemingly weak army is there to fight the destructive forces of the world, it's there to praise God, it's there to spread His word and it's there to fulfil Jesus' commandments. The job is there to be done, the battles are full of Goliaths, but this army of God keeps plodding on. It's amazing where He gets His recruits from.
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