Onward Christian Socialist
By Terry Wynn
"Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
Be all else but nought to me, save that
Be Thou my best thought in the day and
Both waking and sleeping, Thy presence
Irish c. 8th century
Tr. Mary Byrne (1880 - 1931)
FAITH, VISION AND COCONUTS
Read daily newspapers, or watch the TV news, and it's seldom good news. It's usually one disaster or tragedy after another. As long as it doesn't affect us personally, it's not our problem. We become apathetic. One of the reasons is the feeling of hopelessness, of "What can I do?". Too many people have lost hope for a better world. They don't trust politicians ("They're all the same") and they feel a lack of direction in society in general. Whether it be wars, cruelty, drugs, alcohol, families being torn apart - they tend to "Tut-tut" and think, "There's nothing I can do to alter any of this, so why bother".
They become pessimistic about the world about society about so many things including themselves. I usually tell them that people have the power to change things and instead of being disillusioned about politics, they should get involved. "Join the Labour Party" is my advice - which doesn't get heeded by Tory or Liberal voters and, not often, by Labour voters.
I did say in the previous chapter that God only works through the people who allow him to use them and that they are part of God's army. The variety of denominations only indicates the different regiments - it's still one army. Well, if God can only rely on an army of pessimists then he ain't going to get much done, is he? As I often remind people, you can either be an optimist or a pessimist; you may not affect the end result but the optimist has the better time.
With all the problems around us, with all our feelings of inadequacy, God still wants and needs people with optimism in their hearts and hope for the future. Too many of us have a habit of saying, "They should do something". When you begin to realize that the they is you, it makes you consider what you can do.
If you want this planet to be a better place for mankind and the environment, if you want to build a heaven on Earth, then you have to do your bit towards it no matter how menial a contribution that may be. If everyone did a little, a lot would be done. If you really want to change things to make this world a better place, then the changing has to begin with you. If you think the environment is being neglected, you have to ponder on what you are doing towards that neglect and you'll probably have to change a thing or two that you are doing now.
I find it funny when some people I know, especially politicians, condemn hypocrisy when they are the biggest hypocrites. Let me give you an example; in regular conversation four-letter words are commonplace. It's the done thing to "eff and blind". This applies to women too, which may sound sexist, but this old seaman still can't get used to hearing women swear - in men it's a weakness of expression, in women it's simply out of place. Yet, the same people would never talk like that in Parliament, at public meetings, or to their mothers or daughters, and the same people will condemn football crowds for foul-mouthed chants, saying it brings the game into disrepute. If they think that swearing enhances anyone's vocabulary, I've never heard them argue for it. If they think that society would benefit by less swearing, then they are the ones who need to change first, to set the example.
The same with Christianity, the churches are full of hypocrites. I admit it and when an MEP colleague wrote to me accusing me of hypocrisy, I almost replied:
Thanks for your letter.
But in admitting it the Christian has to be prepared to do something about it. Being a Christian means changing the way you live your life, being aware that everything you say and do is known by God.
My favourite book in the Bible is the letter of James, it's all about practical Christianity, such as: - Chapter 2, verses 14-17.
"My brothers, what good is it for someone to say that he has faith if his actions do not prove it? Can that faith save him?
"Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don't have enough to eat, what good is there in your saying to them, ‘God bless you, keep warm and eat well’ if you don't give them the necessities of life?
"So it is with faith if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead."
Being a Christian is more than proclaiming "Hey! I'm a Christian - ain't I good"? It's about putting Christ's teachings into practice or it's not what you believe but what you do with your belief. Going down that road means deepening your beliefs, it means putting life into your life, it means learning more about God and yourself together.
But why go down that road in the first place, why should anyone be convinced it’s worth it? Well look at what it does to people around the world. Just consider the Church in the former USSR, or in Albania, where priests were executed for being priests. Communism could close the churches but it couldn't destroy the faith of the people in God. Those who suffered because of their faith are the ones who most treasure it.
In our affluent society we think we can manage without faith and consequently close the churches and strangle faith. We tend to think our material things are the things to worship. We fail to see the world around us, get immersed in our own little world and fail to appreciate that the rush through life often means that we miss the full picture of how life can be lived.
The best advice the father of a colleague of mine once gave his son, when he was going to a meeting in Corfu, was "Take time to smell the flowers". In the hustle and bustle of political life, the location is often immaterial. European politicians jet into and out of places often without seeing anything other than the airport, the hotel and the meeting room. But here he was, going to Corfu, when his father in effect said, "Take time to look around you, at the beauty, at the colours. Bask in it for a while. Appreciate what it's all about."
A lot of us need to take time to smell the flowers, to begin to appreciate our world, to appreciate that it is God's creation and that it is wonderful. Take time to smell the flowers could just as easily be, "Take time to appreciate God".
What's really needed is to put faith in God back into people's lives; we need to be welded back to Him. But that means change. Many people hear how significant Christ can be in their lives, yet at the same time decide they can't do what Gerald Williams did because they fear the unknown. Simply put, they fear change, as most people do.
I once travelled the one hour's journey from Belfast to Derry in a taxi with a driver whom I shall never forget. He had mentioned in passing that his son-in-law was a Protestant. It was easy to surmise he himself was a Catholic. I asked how he felt when he knew his daughter was courting a Protestant. "I was shattered, I couldn't sleep and I was worried sick", he said. "One night in our chapel there was a mission taking place and the priest said if anyone had any problems they wanted to talk about then he would be in the vestry." He continued, "I said to my wife I had to go and see him. She said no, but I said I had to see him. So we went. When we sat down the priest said, ‘Now, what's your problem?’ I replied that our daughter wanted to marry a Protestant.
“‘I asked for people with problems', stormed the priest. ‘You haven't got a problem; that young man is as much entitled to his religion as you are to yours. Go on, don't be wasting my time.’
"Do you know, I walked from that chapel as if a load had been lifted from me. And y'know, the son-in-law is a grand lad."
My taxi driver's fear was soon dispelled.
Years ago I saw a smashing little Lancashire play called "Lizzy" about an old lady who lived in a terraced house. I could identify with her immediately as I saw the coal-scuttle, the nails in the back door to act as coat hooks, the dolly tub and posser, the brass fender, the art of mopping the front doorstep. She used to tidy up before the home help came who she accused of “only disturbing the dust.”
Lizzy was offered a bungalow with central heating and all mod cons, including an indoor WC. Everyone she knew tried to persuade her to leave but she didn't want to; she felt content, safe and sure where she was and she was scared of change.Most of us are no different from Lizzy; we naturally resist change.
There's the intriguing story in the New Testament where the rich young man asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus tells him to give his possessions away and follow him. The young man can't bear to part with his wealth and goes away disappointed. The point is, he wouldn't have needed his riches had he followed Christ but he couldn't face the change to his lifestyle.
If someone had said to Lizzy, "Give away your brass fender, your dolly tub and your posser", she would have panicked - yet she could do without them - in her new home they weren't needed. A lot of the emotional and material ballast that we carry around with us, isn't needed if we are prepared to change, if we are prepared to put our faith in Christ. But then that faith has to lead to actions.
We are God's workers, here to build a better world, to rid it of famine, poverty and want - we have the means to do it; it only requires the will, especially the political will.
A prayer from the Methodist Association of Youth Clubs, London Weekend, May, l99l, said this:
Lord as we worship today give us vision,
Move us by your Spirit.
Give us a vision that will carry us through
our disappointments and our failures,
our anxious and unhappy times,
and the monotony of boring routines.
Give us a vision that will lift our lives
and lead us to new ways of service.
Help us to dare to dream of love in a world
that speaks of hate;
Help us to dare to dream of hope in a world
that speaks of despair;
Help us to dare to dream of peace in a world
that speaks of war;
In our worship today, Lord, give us vision.
It's that vision of a better world that inspires me in my work. If you take out the religious references in the above, I'm pretty sure that most socialists have a similar vision that inspires them. In politics there are more disappointments and frustrations than successes but each success is a small step forward that compensates for all the steps backwards.
We once discussed, at our Wednesday ecumenical meeting in Strasbourg, the subject of truth in politics; of what people want to hear and what we tell them. I'm convinced that integrity is the prerequisite for any politician and that the truth cannot be hidden. That may not guarantee popularity, and may even be costly, but it is essential. People get the politicians they deserve; if they all tell lies then the people should do something about it. That's the beauty of democracy, that people can change politicians: unfortunately the majority are too apathetic about politics and democracy and end up mistrusting all politicians.
I don't profess to be some kind of squeaky-clean Mr. Nice Guy - but I do like having a good night's sleep and going to bed with a clear conscience helps. I try to be truthful but I know at times that an adherence to specific Party or Group lines leaves me at times economising with the full facts.
I realise that a lot of people expect a lot from me, as I wear my lapel cross in the corridors of Brussels and Strasbourg. Here I am, on my pedestal, sheepishly marching as to war. The trouble is, as mentioned in Chapter 5, it only needs the slightest trip to bring it all crashing down and the damage that is done can be catastrophic for God. The Christian in public life must watch his/her behaviour, language and attitude. The ones who make public their faith are easy targets such as Cliff Richard, Glen Hoddle, Garth Crooks, Kris Akabusi or Michael Chang, the tennis player.
The Rev. Drew Wingfield-Digby, a former first-class cricketer and now full-time director of the British "Christians in Sport" movement, once told the press, "When someone like Michael Chang nobly gets up in public and says, ‘Jesus helped me win’, he's not invested himself with supernatural 'coaching' - in fact he's just setting himself up to be rubbished by you blokes, if the truth were told".
It's no wonder that the Christian often stumbles and falls when you consider what you are asked to do. For instance, in Paul's letter to the Colossians (3:12,13) we are told to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient, forbearing with one another and forgiving and, above all, be loving. In politics? How easy does it sound? All we have to do is to be compassionate - all the time - even against those who have hurt us to the extent of hatred. All we have to do is to be kind - all the time - even to those bullies with whom we work or see about us. We have to be humble - all the time - no self-praise, even for politicians, for all that hard work that we've put in. We have to be gentle and patient - all the time - even to those objectionable neighbours, to the drug pushers in our streets and to the lager louts who abuse us. Added to which, we have to be tolerant with one another - all the time - even to those whom we totally oppose and find objectionable. And, of course, we have to be forgiving - all the time - to those who hurt us, bully us, offend us and can't stand us.
Easy? It's far from easy. No one ever said being a Christian was easy and I doubt if there is a perfect Christian on this Earth. We are all human, with all the human weaknesses, but with God's help we can do our best and achieve what we are capable of. When Christ lives in your hearts, at least you are trying to achieve the above virtues.
It's then that you begin to put your beliefs and objectives into your conduct. It's simply about putting faith into practice, not simply paying lip-service to it. Unfortunately, there is a lot of inconsistency in belief and action - just look again at Northern Ireland, for example. It just shows that there is a lot of inconsistency when some people can hate under the pretext of a faith. Not everyone who goes to church, behaves as Paul instructed in Colossians. Not all those who profess a faith in God, live their lives as they should. It's not a matter of pick and choose, Christianity is not an "a la carte" faith.
An article in the Methodist Recorder (l5.6.89), by Kenneth Lysons, gave the following as a good example:
"In a now forgotten book ‘The Laughing Methodist’, W. H. Saturley tells how a missionary named Cartlew was teaching the commandments to his local congregation. ’Thou shalt not steal’, said Cartlew. ‘Thou shalt not steal’, echoed the congregation amiably. They expected Cartlew to proceed but he didn't. Instead he repeated the commandment with an addition.
"’Thou shalt not steal COCONUTS’. The congregation sat up sharply in dead silence. To subscribe to the commandments in one way was one thing but to apply them to coconuts was unreasonable. They got the words out at last but still Cartlew didn't go on to the commandment against false witness. ‘Thou shalt not steal BANANAS’, was his next bombshell. After much hesitation and squirming the banana proposition was passed but still the terrible missionary went on:
"’Thou shalt not steal CHICKENS’.
"After all, why not? Too many sermons deal in generalities rather than specifics. Consequently, hearers are not challenged to apply abstract principles to concrete situations. ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ is fine in the abstract. It is much harder to assent to it when you are competing with your neighbour for a job you both want. In practice it means working out the implications of belief for daily living and then striving to live them out. It can be done, sustained by prayer and God's help."
As we go through life we often face challenges, problems, worry or difficult situations. For the Christian he or she has to ask, "If Jesus were in my position, what would he have done?".
When we have a choice to make, maybe after an argument, do we apologise and make up, or sulk and hold a grudge? What would Jesus have done?
When the old tramp is flaked out in the road with an empty bottle in his hand, do we quickly walk by or do we enquire how he is? What would Jesus have done?
When you hear gossip about someone, do you join in talking behind their back or refrain from saying anything if there's nothing good to say? What would Jesus have done?
How do other people view the Christians they know - with contempt, suspicion or admiration? More importantly, if it is admiration, do they want to be like them?
Let me close this chapter by referring to Scott Campbell again.
He was talking about the Cincinnati Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in l868. At this august gathering they passed a resolution on the use of alcoholic beverages, which read in part as follows: "We believe if all ministers of our country would but do their duty ... a single year would not pass till every drinker would be outside of the church, where they belong."
Scott reckoned that Jesus could have made the same statement by changing only one word of the resolution, so that it read: "We believe that if all ministers of our country would but do their duty ... a single year would not pass till every drinker would be INSIDE the church, where they belong."
He was right, of course. Christianity is about turning the world upside down. Stopping with a cold cup of water for a thirsty beggar becomes infinitely more important than supping the finest champagne money can buy.
An aged grandmother, who never attended school, once gave her granddaughter a slip of paper with all the advice she would ever need to have to lead a good life. It said: "Wash what is dirty. Water what is dry. Heal what is wounded. Warm what is cold. Guide what goes off the road. And love people who are the least lovable, because they need it most".
Not only because they need it most, but because the Christian's very soul is at stake. It is in these, the least and the lowest, that we find our salvation. They hold the key to our deliverance and not the other way round.
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