Onward Christian Socialist
By Terry Wynn
"Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but Thou art mighty;
Hold me with Thy powerful hand;
Bread of heaven,
Feed me now and evermore."
William Williams (1717 - 91)
Tr. Peter Williams (1722 - 96)
YOU, ME AND MOSES
One of the problems of compiling this was trying to take account of the different readership. For those who have experience of the Church, references to Biblical chapters or characters is far easier to understand than for someone who has no experience whatsoever. In the previous chapter, the reference to "Come on down" could mean that the participant has come on down to a very strange environment. I mean, does the average non-churchgoer know a fraction of what we talk about in church?
Scott Campbell's sermon in Chapter 5 used words that are commonplace in a church but are not part of everyday conversation. Today's youngsters do not talk of their penitence or unrighteousness or even sin. Scott once asked the kids in church, who knew what sin was; they all looked at him somewhat bemused. In that lovely, infectious, humorous voice of his, he said to them, "Sure as anything, when I was a kid I knew what sin was."
When I go to rugby matches there's this guy with his sandwich-boards boldly proclaiming, "Be sure you Sins will find you out" or "Repent and seek Redemption". If he put it in modern English, the fans might understand what he's trying to say.
In the major towns and cities you can see street evangelists talking of the promise of redemption for everyone. I'm sure the woman with two bags full of shopping, two screaming kids and at her wits end, thinks of little else. If she went home and looked in the dictionary, she would see, "The act of redeeming or the state of being redeemed, especially salvation from sin and damnation by the atonement of Christ". Which begs the question what is salvation, damnation and atonement? Do people always need recourse to a dictionary to understand this esoteric language that is used in churches, that is a use of words that outsiders don't understand.
This is a problem that the churches have to come to terms with. If a stranger walked into a church, if someone did actually decide to give it a go, to take that significant step and actually go to church, would he or she be able to understand what was being talked about? If we want people to understand what the Christian faith is all about, we won't do it by talking to them in a foreign language to them.
It reminds me of when I am in Brussels or Strasbourg. I sit in taxis or stand in lifts with other people who don't speak my language or me theirs. I'm desperate to say something about the weather, or the traffic or the day in general. Instead we sit there or stand there, not understanding each other, existing in a vacuum of our own language. I, like most British people, expect foreigners to understand English; I expect them to know what I am talking about. The same applies to churches and the message of the Christian faith. How should the message be transmitted then?
Well, let's take this word "redemption" and see what we can do with it. So what is it, redemption? How do we explain it to congregations, never mind someone who has set foot inside a church for the first time. For the Jews it was to be set free from slavery. They were taken by God from Egypt to the “promised land” - an act which is as fundamental to the Jewish religion as is Moses, who God used to perform this act.
The Red Sea crossing is mighty important to the Jews - it was their deliverance - they were saved, being taken from one form of life to another, that is from slavery to freedom. For those who don't know the story, Moses had been born in Egypt when the Pharaoh or King decided to kill all male babies of the Jews who were slaves of the Egyptians (the Old Testament is full of such atrocities). His Jewish mother hid him by the river where Pharaoh's daughter found him, kept him for herself and he was raised as an Egyptian.
One day he saw an Egyptian guard mistreating the slaves so he killed him and fled south to a place called Midian, where he settled down and got married. Here he was in Midian, content with life, many miles away from Egypt and its troubles. However, the Old Testament tells us that it was here where he came to know God. To paraphrase the event God said something like, "Hey-up, Moses, I have a job for you to do. You're going back to Egypt to set the Jewish people free".
"Thanks a lot", he must have sarcastically thought under his breath. When he did return, the King was not too pleased as to what he was asking for, "Er, excuse me Pharaoh, I've come to set the slaves free; what about letting them go then?".
The writer of Hebrews tell us that Moses was unafraid of the King's anger because of his faith. In fact we are told he could do all God wanted, because of his faith. But Moses was never the bravest of the brave. He had fled Egypt in the first place out of fear and, in Exodus Chapter (6 : 12), he pleads to God "Even the Israelites will not listen to me, so why should the King? I am such a poor speaker". Hardly a born leader!
Nevertheless, he was the one who took them from Egypt. He changed their lives. This highlights the fact that people are redeemed or saved by the acts of simple men and women. People are set free from their mental anguish, trials, suffering, from the drudgery of everyday life, from the enslavement of materialism when they are led, if not to the “promised land” like Moses did, then to the promise of knowing Jesus. And that happens to people because others help it to happen. God uses a variety of ways and certainly a variety of people to do the leading. The ones who do it, the ones who "spread the Good News", and it is good news, will openly admit that they can't do anything of the kind. Modesty often prevents them from even acknowledging that they may have influence in some way. They do it by their actions and words, by gossiping their faith in their daily lives. Each person in God's army probably has the same feelings as Moses did - he was doubtful, unsure, lacked self-confidence and felt a lack of security.
If someone were to ask them "Why do you believe in God?", I'm pretty sure the answer would not be to be redeemed. To talk of redemption, salvation, damnation, etc., would be well nigh impossible for most, including me. But to talk of love, joy and contentment, because of knowing Jesus as a person, that's far easier and a better way of communicating to others.
Please don't think that simply going to church brings that about; it doesn't. The language used in a church service would often flummox the newcomer, but chatting with those who are themselves set free, i.e. redeemed, is the first step to understanding what it's all about.
One of the problems with today's society is that too many see the Church as being irrelevant to their everyday lives and needs. If they could see the reasons why others go then it should be tempting them to ask why they go and what they get from it. The trouble is that the majority of those who do go don't communicate very well why they go. The Church needs to be wanted, as it is in countries where people are oppressed; there the Church is found at its best.
After German unification, Ulrich Meisel was one of the eighteen East Germans designated as official observers to the European Parliament. He was also a Methodist local preacher and came from the industrial town of Dessau, which has tremendous environmental problems. His accounts of the events before the Berlin Wall came down, and the role of the Churches, were fascinating as were the details of the Methodist Church in the former GDR. It had 300 congregations and 150 ministers, 100 lay preachers and 200 local preachers.
The Church is involved in running hospitals, homes for the elderly, retraining centres, groups for the handicapped and alcoholics. It also has deep roots in the peace movement with 40% of young Methodists refusing to do military service in the final years of the GDR. All this with a membership of about thirty thousand.
According to Ulrich, their Church has strong ecumenical links and it was through these links that the Churches began the events that led to the Berlin Wall coming down. He became involved in the Ecumenical Assembly for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, which had one hundred and fifty members and set out to discuss the problem issues of the day in the GDR. It was interesting to hear that the churches were the only places where people could speak frankly about the problems of the country. The media didn't write about real problems such as the environment, therefore the attraction for young people especially, was to go to the churches.
The documents that they drew up were distributed to congregations and fifty thousand people replied to them after being discussed by half a million members. The final papers were discussed in May, 1989 and people came and crammed into the churches in order to debate the issue of the thirteen working groups of the Ecumenical Assembly. The aim was to make the Communist system more acceptable. No one expected any significant changes and yet it was from this exercise that the roots were put down for the non-violent revolution in the autumn of 1989.
When the revolution began, the churches were once again the meeting places. Whilst the Methodist Church was only small, it led the way in some towns and its ministers and lay people were very politically active. The fact that the Churches themselves practised their own parliamentary system, i.e. elections to church councils, committees, debates, votes, in fact democracy, meant that their members were well placed to be involved in political elections and democratic systems.
What a life he has led; born in 1943 his first memories are of the RAF and the USAF flattening 85% of Dessau including the Methodist church. His Christian upbringing meant he never succumbed to the Party indoctrination and, in fact, refused to do military service.
He said that people didn't leave the GDR for political reasons, or for money, but mainly because there was no possibility to change anything. You had your flat and job but couldn't move to another town or area - life became monotonous. The Churches were the means to do something about it.
He said Gorbachev was their one and only chance. As he told his congregation, "We have seen in our lifetime, literally, the walls of Jericho falling down with people playing guitars. The Berlin Wall, you see, was built on sand not on justice, peace and the integrity of creation."
The Churches in East Germany couldn't separate politics from religion. When they spoke of justice, peace and the integrity of creation in God's name, it rang bells with those outside the Church, people living in an official, atheist state. It was said in words they understood, not in any esoteric way, and it gave hope. They could see their redemption was achievable.
As Ulrich says, "Before German reunification the evil was institutional, now the evil is the regime of money; that's all people talk about, the money in their pockets. There's also the problem of our youngsters and the rise of the extreme right and, of course, our churches are not now full of people."
You can read each day of the role played by the Catholic Church in Central and South America, of what has become known as “liberation theology”, where the Church identifies itself with the poor and the oppressed. You can witness the significant role played by the Churches in South Africa in the struggle against apartheid. I've been there several times since Mandela's release and in February, 1993. I was in Johannesburg. I had been invited to take part in an ANC conference that was setting out what needed to be done in the run-up to the elections. People had come from all five continents to show their solidarity and it was an historic occasion. The conclusion of the weekend's business culminated in the Catholic Church of Regina Mundi, in the heart of Soweto, where the delegates took part in an ecumenical service. It's something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Politics and religion are inseparable in South Africa and everything about the service showed what practical Christianity should be about.
I love music, just about all kinds, and I especially like Welsh male-voice choirs. But even the best of them could not have matched the mixed, sixty-strong Imilonji KaNtu choir in the Cathedral. They sang unaccompanied, in perfect harmony, with such power and feeling, I was covered in goose-pimples just listening to them. The congregation clapped and swayed and cheered. It was a great service. I went to church three times on that Sunday and each sermon was a political speech. It was the language of the people and it was putting God on the side of the oppressed.
A month later I was back in South Africa and I heard the choir again, this time giving a concert in Soweto. It was more than a concert, it was an emotional experience and if ever the Holy Spirit was present at a gathering that I've attended, then it was there in Soweto on that day. Doris and I were in the company of Cedric Mayson and his family. At that time he worked for the South African Council of Churches and first went to South Africa in 1953 as a Methodist minister. After the Sharpeville massacre his activities in the struggle against apartheid increased. His book, "A Certain Sound", tells of how his faith and his fight against the system were inseparable.
He was banned by the Government (i.e. virtually under house arrest, not being able to meet more than one person at a time) imprisoned, spent time in solitary, tortured and put on trial. He escaped from the country in l983 and nine years later returned with his family to continue living and working amongst the people of South Africa.
I have met priests like Sean O'Leary who work in the townships, who dedicated their lives to the struggle. I've met everyday black folk who readily thank God for what they have and for strength to go on.
You see, the Church in East Germany, in Central and South America and in South Africa was and is helping people to be redeemed. It's taking them from oppression to freedom and, in those situations, it is needed and indeed wanted by the people. The message that still needs to be got across is that, because a society becomes free or affluent, it does not mean that churches or faiths are redundant.
The likes of me will probably never endure experiences like those of Ulrich Meisel or Cedric Mayson. A lot of us in our middle-class lifestyles far too often look on God's work half-heartedly making excuses why we can't do this or that, and there is invariably something else that takes priority. Whenever I get like that, I'm reminded of a cartoon on the wall of my office in Brussels which reads, "If you were tried for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?". The answer is always no.
However, He is always there, ready to help, ready to listen, ready to encourage. Without God, we are nothing, all of us. We are here on Earth to do His will, to make it a better place, to help people to be redeemed.
The fact remains that God acts through people, not through esoteric words, and that's why He needs us especially at those times when we think we've failed Him for, rest assured, He hasn't finished with us yet.
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