Thursday, 5 November 2015

'This do in remembrance of me'

With Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day almost upon us, I have found myself in a strange headspace.  I feel torn between honouring those who have paid the greatest price in conflict, and protesting against such conflicts. It's like I want to remember those who have died, but want to forget how and why they died, if you know what I mean.  After all, there is something noble, godly, even, about pacifism. But many have fought for peace, and maybe that's right too.
It occurred to me today, though, that remembrance of someone's ultimate sacrifice is biblical. Jesus told his disciples, at the Last Supper, "This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19 - I don't usually quote from the King James Version, but sometimes you just have to...).  Jesus gave himself to the world and for the world. But at the same time, he was taken, brutalised, abused, by oppressive and corrupt systems and forces (the religious authorities, the political powers and their enforcers).
I was drawn to that remembrance line as I pondered Remembrance. I was reminded of what Elvis Costello said of his (in my opinion) greatest track, Oliver's Army:

"I made my first trip to Belfast in 1978 and saw mere boys walking around in battle dress with automatic weapons. They were no longer just on the evening news. These snapshot experiences exploded into visions of mercenaries and imperial armies around the world. The song was based on the premise 'they always get a working class boy to do the killing'. I don't know who said that; maybe it was me, but it seems to be true nonetheless. I pretty much had the song sketched out on the plane back to London."

He's right. Most of those who have lost their lives in the armed services in conflict have been from the working class. They have often been sacrificed by oppressive, corrupt systems and forces (politicians, elites, ideologues and ideologies, economies, empires...).
When Jesus suffered the full force of these structures and powers, he called them by name and disarmed them, scorning and mocking them. Perhaps our fallen do the same of the powers and structures, and of war itself. Therefore, we will remember them and their sacrifice, each one a protest and indictment against war and the machinery behind it.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

The Salvation Army - a reflection

  What’s in a name?  A name can be difficult to live up to, or can be misleading.  When London’s Imperial War Museum was recently refurbished, it was observed by one journalist that the attraction has often had to overcome one obstacle: “the three words of its title”[i] – all of which can turn potential patrons off.
  The Salvation Army, it seems to me, also has a problem with its name.  This is more of an identity crisis, a danger of falling short of living up to its name.  To understand who we are as a movement, a body, a phenomenon, requires digging deeper into the meaning of our title.
  I will look at the words in reverse order, starting with the most common shorthand for our movement: Army.  This automatically throws up the much-debated issue of the military metaphor, which is plagued by the same PR crisis as the Imperial War Museum.  The military metaphor may or may not be satisfactory, although this article does not call for a name change, but greater ownership of the name.
  Similar tension surrounds the Army-related issue of uniform.  Again, one can legitimately ask questions around the suitability and practicality of full Salvation Army uniform (granted, there is a time and a place), but what we should focus on here is the way in which our clothing can identify us.  I would also stress the difference between unity and uniformity: unity is everyone being together; uniformity is everyone being the same.  The former is crucial, the latter undesirable to say the least.  Uniformity implies homogeneity, which is contrary to our DNA as The Salvation Army (the “whosoever” probably won’t look like a lot of Salvationists).  Unity, however, is what we must strive for.  This is born of the kind of sacrifice, selflessness, and humility present in Jesus Christ (cf Philippians 2:1-11, for example).  It suggests a body of people who are prepared to take a bullet for one another, to put themselves on the line for the cause and for each other.
  Identifying ourselves as an Army carries other implications.  Along with the idea of sacrifice for one another, there is the call to sacrifice on behalf of those whom we serve in mission.  And mission is necessarily risky.  Roman Catholic priest and missiologist William Frazier once commented that “Those who receive [the missionary cross] possess not only a symbol of their mission, but a handbook on how to carry it out”[ii].  Mission is costly, potentially dangerous business, and an Army is therefore well-placed to engage in this enterprise.
  An Army is disciplined.  Trained.  In fact, we could shorten the word ‘disciplined’ to ‘discipled’.  Our Army must be discipled, every member a disciple, a student, a follower, of the Master, Jesus Christ.  We seem to accept, in general, that our music requires commitment and discipline.  We build into our programmes musical practices, but what about spiritual practices?  While personal, individual devotions are essential, and we each need to take responsibility for our own spirituality, it is clear to me that we need also to create a culture of spiritual accountability, of training together.  This may take the form of prayer meetings, bible studies, small groups, accountability partnerships, mentoring.  I would not want to prescribe how it should happen, but rather that it should happen.  We are good at training for Sunday morning, but as Message Trust founder Andy Hawthorne has observed, Sunday morning isn’t the match – it’s the teamtalk.  The match – or war, to use our favoured metaphor – happens the whole week.  Let’s train for that.
  As an Army, we must assess whether we are a marching army or a standing army.  A marching army ‘marches as to war’; this is a flexible, fighting force, advancing into enemy territory, breaking new ground, pushing boundaries.  A standing army is stationed with a defensive posture, its primary function and duty to protect key strategic points and guard boundaries.  It remains within its own territory, it is well-drilled in parades and performance.  A good example of this contrast is found in the respective armies of King David and King Solomon.  Only a generation apart, David’s army was a marching army, while Solomon’s was a standing army.  David (latterly, his general, Joab) led his troops into battle, expanding his territory, overcoming enemies.  Solomon, however, inherited his father’s large kingdom, and defended it with a standing army (cf 1 Kings 10:26).  Solomon devoted considerable attention and resources to the administration of his kingdom and building projects (albeit spectacular ones).  What happened after Solomon should sound a note of caution (his kingdom split, ultimately collapsing).
  If, then, we are a marching Army, to which war are we marching?  For whom, for what, and against whom, against what, are we fighting?  We have “a burning desire to… fight for social justice” (from the Territorial Vision Statement).  This is consonant with the gospel, the mission and ministry of Jesus involved a head-on battle with social injustice in many guises.  However, some will argue that our battle is spiritual warfare.  Again, Jesus cast out many demons, and engaged the devil himself.  Paul wrote to the Ephesians that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).  He then goes on to list the items of the armour of God, but many of these refer to this-worldly struggles for social justice, as much as to spiritual battles[iii].  Like the apocalypticists, perhaps we do well to see battles here, intertwined with heavenly war.  Jesus did not see the social and the spiritual as dichotomous, and never the twain shall meet.  Rather, in the mission of Jesus, we see a holistic approach, whereby people are set free from whatever is holding them.
  This brings us nicely to the concept of Salvation.  What do we mean by salvation?  When someone is saved, what are they saved from?  From hell and damnation?  We hope so!  But not only as an eternal, yet-to-come possibility, but a here-and-now reality.  For many people, life is a sort of hell, they are already living as the condemned.  People currently suffering abuse, or survivors of abuse; people who are oppressed, in various ways; people living without a consciousness of God.  People need salvation from all these situations.
  It might be helpful here to revisit our doctrine of total depravity (Article 5: “We believe that our first parents were created in a state of innocency, but by their disobedience they lost their purity and happiness, and that in consequence of their fall all men have become sinners, totally depraved, and as such are justly exposed to the wrath of God”).  It seems to me that the total depravity of humanity is not such that every human being is a monster, with no moral compass, and no possibility of ever doing any good.  Rather, I suggest it has to do with the breadth, rather than depth, of depravity, the range.  Sin has gotten into every aspect of humanity.  Every level and dimension of human life is under the effects of sin.  In fact, sin affects (or infects) the whole of creation, as Paul suggests in Romans 8, because of human distortion of God’s order.
  Thus, sin or evil takes many forms.  There is personal sin, which is perhaps the most obvious and easy to conceptualise.  I find the following definition of sin quite helpful: ‘going against the known will of God’.  Thus, if I know (or believe) that a certain action goes against God’s revealed will, but choose to do it anyway, I am sinning.  This is also helpful, because it frames the issue in relation to the kingdom of God, God’s reign.  God’s reign is about God’s will being done.  So, in the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, we find, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Heaven is the place, the state of affairs, where God’s will is done, absolutely and completely and perfectly.  Sin hinders this heavenly order on earth.  But this sin operates in many dimensions.
  There is also structural or systemic evil, whereby sin takes hold of structures or systems (eg, organisational or social) and manipulates these to oppose God’s will.  So, for example, any system which is designed so that, or as a corollary causes the situation whereby, privilege is maintained over against the exploitation or disadvantage of others.  To ground this example in real life, in a corporation where the directors are on six-figure salaries, with even larger bonuses, while the labourers (be they factory workers, retail assistants, etc.) are on barely the minimum wage (or less, as the case may be), I would suggest that structural evil holds sway.  In such a case, the salvation war might call us to boycott their business, or to campaign for greater economic justice (such as the rule of 10%, whereby the lowest salary in the corporation cannot be less than 10% of the highest).  This is just an example, among far too many, alas, of the reality of structural sin.
  Another “consequence of their fall” is bound up in the problem of suffering.  Why does suffering happen?  Why are there natural disasters that wipe out thousands of innocent lives?  Why do good people get cancer?  These are questions which cause heartache, and for some are even deal-breakers between them and God.  I have no intention of trivialising any of this, or trying to explain these away.  Such questions are valid, and deserve to be explored.  But for now, I would offer that the world, the created order, life itself, is under the power of sin, and this means decay and destruction dog our every step.  Paul suggested something along these lines in what is considered by many his magnum opus, Romans 8, as noted above.  It is not just humans who are affected by sin, but the whole creation.  One day, however, we will see “thy great salvation,/Perfectly restored in thee” (SASB 438), as He makes all things new, and removes all suffering, all sickness, all sorrow, all sin.
  It seems to me that we are called to advertise this coming kingdom.  We are called not to build the kingdom, but, as Jesus said, to seek it.  To look for it, to anticipate it, here and now.  And that means we can enact it, on some level.  We can work to alleviate suffering.  We can be there when disaster strikes – personal, communal, ecological, economic, and so on.  Sometimes we can relieve the problem, sometimes we can only live through it with someone.  But that kind of solidarity is holy – Christlike, as He came to share, to take on our pain and weakness, and everything else that human life and inhuman death involves.
  Therefore, if sin affects every dimension of our existence, then so does God’s salvation.  God’s salvation, I suggest, involves the restoration of all relationships.  It involves individuals coming into proper relationship with God, our Father, through Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Lord.  It involves individuals being brought together into the new humanity, where they can relate properly to one another.  It involves individuals being brought into proper relationship with themselves: understanding who God has made them to be.  It involves humanity being brought back to its initial state of proper relationship to creation (cf Genesis 1:28ff).  A salvation which fails to take seriously, but also integrally, the individual and corporate and societal, the spiritual, physical, social, and the ecological dimensions is a salvation which fails to reckon on the God who is “the Creator, Preserver, and Governor of all things”, and who as Trinity is perfectly relational, and invites everyone and everything to join His community of love and wholeness.
  And finally, we come to the beginning.  One little word, easy to overlook, the definite article: “The”.  We do not purport to be simply a Salvation Army, as though there are other such groups.  We make the bold claim that we are “The Salvation Army”, and as such we are saying that we have a particular, perhaps unique or exclusive, calling.  Salvation, it seems, is our business.  But what is our Unique Selling Point?  After all, surely, the Church universal is called to this business, to mission, stemming from God, to the whole world.  How do we differentiate ourselves, so that we can truly own our name and calling as The Salvation Army?
  I would suggest that this has to do with how far we will go.  To the ends of the earth?  In a sense, although not so much geographically, as socially.  We were raised up to reach the parts of society that other movements were not reaching.  Those who would not ‘fit in’ within the existing church cultures and structures.  A wise colleague officer once pointed out to me that we are there to catch those who fall through the gaps – gaps in welfare provision, in church affiliation, in our communities, and so on.  As The Salvation Army, we are perhaps God’s ‘special branch’, for the purposes of search and rescue; of going behind enemy lines and bringing down strongholds; rescuing captives and hostages; disrupting enemy operations.
  Comrades, there is a war going on.  Are we The Salvation Army?  Often, I hear those parting words of the Founder ringing in my ears:
  “While women weep, as they do now, I’ll fight.  While little children go hungry, as they do now, I’ll fight.  While men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight.  While there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor, lost girl upon the streets, while there yet remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight.  I’ll fight until the very end.”
  William Booth’s sight was failing by that time, but his vision was undiminished.  He could still see clearly that we were called to the salvation war.  One day, The Salvation Army will find itself in the heavenly version of the Imperial War Museum, as the fighting will be over.  There will be no more weeping.  No hunger.  No crime, no criminals, no victims.  No addiction.  No poverty.  No darkness without God, because everyone will see His light.  Our mission will be accomplished.
  Until then, we fight.  We are The Salvation Army.

[i] Marina Vaizey, 22 July 2014,  ‘Imperial’ is a throwback to an era many of us are ashamed of, or mourn.  ‘War’ is not a popular word or reality in many cultures, not least in a liberal democracy such as our own.  Even the word ‘Museum’ makes many of us yawn, I would suggest.
[ii] Quoted in Bosch, David J., Transforming Mission, 1991, Maryknoll, NY, Orbis, p.122
[iii] It seems obvious to me that Paul would be well aware of these Hebrew Bible references: in Isaiah 59:17, God puts on the breastplate of righteousness and a helmet of salvation to intervene in the corrupt state of affairs on earth; in Isaiah 11:5, the servant, the shoot from Jesse, will wear faithfulness, or truth, as a belt; also, no shoes are mentioned, but the feet of the one who brings good news (gospel) of salvation are beautiful on the mountains in Isaiah 52:7 (the content of that gospel: “Your God reigns”); God as a shield is a common Old Testament motif, for instance, Psalm 18:30, Proverbs 30:5; God’s word as a sword is not an Old Testament concept, but does feature in the deuterocanonical work Wisdom of Solomon, 18:15f (“your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed, a stern warrior carrying the sharp sword of your authentic command…”)

Monday, 18 May 2015

Shepherd's warning

(Study passage John 10:1-18)
[This study was submitted to Salvationist magazine months ago.  They haven't published it.]

I remember, as a child, hearing the old saying, ‘Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight; red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning.’  I have no idea whether this is accurate or not, but my interest in it is the contrasting pictures it paints.  This is a common motif in the Gospel of John, who seemingly has an obsession with dualisms, with contrasts between light and dark, love and hate, life and death, sight and blindness, and the list could go on.

  My other reason for mentioning that saying is the shepherd.  In churches, the words ‘pastor’ and ‘pastoral’ are frequently used.  They are generally associated with those in leadership positions within the church community, and carry connotations of caring, of nurturing.  The origin of the word pastor is Latin, where it is the word for shepherd.  The pastor is the shepherd of the flock.  The exemplar of this, of course, is Jesus, who described Himself as the good shepherd in John chapter 10 (verse 11).

  John 10 is a wonderful chapter, but the key to tapping the rich resources of this passage lie in its juxtaposition with the preceding chapter (John 9).  These two, together, provide a classic Johannine contrast, and offer up several more, which will be clear as we proceed: good and bad; give and take; in and out; life and death; come and go; security and insecurity; generosity and jealousy.

  John 9 sees Jesus controversially giving sight to a man born blind.  This leads to the Pharisees investigating the healing.  It’s hardly the stuff CSI is made of, but there you go.  The Pharisees bring in the heretofore-blind man for questioning.  They try to discredit the man, and Jesus.  They even bring in the man’s parents as witnesses.  The parents duck the questions, for fear of being put out of the synagogue (9:22).  The Pharisees, here, are seen as oppressive and exclusive.  Everyone and everything must fit into their categories, and on that basis they decide who gets to participate and who doesn’t.

  When the seeing man is thrown out, Jesus finds him, and has some stern words for the Pharisees.  And the Pharisees overhear.  And it is then that Jesus starts John chapter 10, by talking about thieves and bandits trying to get in on the act.  That most famous and ever popular phrase “life in all its fullness” comes a few verses later, but even this verse (John 10:10) in all its fullness is a contrast.  It starts with the statement that, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy…” The thief is self-seeking, self-serving.  In contrast, says Jesus, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”.  Jesus is open, inclusive, liberating.

  What kind of outlook do we have, as individuals, as Corps, as a church and organisation?  What is our attitude, our contribution?  Do we give, or take?  Are we about life in all its fullness?  Or are we stealing, killing, destroying?  Are we only out for what we can get?  Members signing up, more money in the pot, or whatever we might seek to gain?  Or are we, instead, all about promoting and presenting and providing abundant life?

  Are we secure in ourselves (and in God), or insecure?  Secure people don’t grab and snatch and grasp.  They are relaxed, ‘light touch’.  Gentle and humble (sound familiar?).

  Jesus, the gate for the sheep (10:7), offers salvation (10:9).  And this is coupled with the image of the sheep coming in and going out and finding pasture.  Interesting that pasture is not (only) found “in” but “out”.  Could it be, then, that Jesus never intended a cosy club, a holy huddle, in specific sacred, sanctified and sanitised places?  But rather, that ‘pasture’ is found ‘out there’, on the road, in our ongoing journey with Him, and with one another – note that this passage is about sheep, plural.

  A final observation.  “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  The hired hand … sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them” (10:11, 12).  To reiterate, the word pastor means shepherd.  And Jesus is our model.  He lays down His life for the sheep because they are His.  The hired hand doesn’t have that deep connection, commitment, investment, with the sheep.  So when the chips are down, he’s not there.  He’s looking after himself, his own interests.  Perhaps herein is the shepherd’s warning: how good are we as shepherds?  Not just the Officer, or the PCC.  At every level of The Salvation Army, what kind of shepherds are we?  How deep is our commitment to our people – to one another, to those who really need us?  Are we really investing in people’s lives?  So that, when the wolves come – relationship problems, health concerns, employment issues, financial crises, and so on – are we there, laying down our lives?  Or do we disappear?

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Losing the plot

In Matthew 21:33-46, Jesus tells a parable of a landowner who plants a vineyard, doing all the right things (he puts a fence around it, and a wine press and watchtower in it).  He then leases it to tenants and leaves the country.  At harvest, he sends his slaves to collect the produce. The tenants mistreat and kill the slaves.  He sends more slaves, and the same happens.  Finally, he sends his son, thinking, they'll respect him because he comes in my name, as my representative... That's not how it turns out.  The tenants see the heir, and kill him, thinking they'll get his inheritance.
Jesus asks his audience, 'What do you think the landowner will do to them when he comes?'  They reply, 'Put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.'
Jesus goes on to warn that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from them (his hearers) and given to a people that produces the fruits of it.
This passage is not anti-Semitic.  I once sat in a New Testament class when this passage was being looked at.  Almost everyone in the room thought that this passage was about God 'dumping' the Jews for his new squeeze, the Christians.  However, if we look at the dramatis personae of the piece, we find that this is not at all the case.  It is true that God is the landowner. But if we read verse 45, it clearly tells us that the chief priests and Pharisees got the message: they were the tenants.  Further proof that the tenants are not to be understood as Israel, or the Jews, is given by following the reference upon which Jesus builds this parable: Isaiah 5.
In Isiah 5, God builds a vineyard, the right way: he puts a fence around it, and a winepress and watchtower in it.  He loves the vineyard, he does everything necessary for it, but instead of grapes, it produces wild grapes.  That vineyard, Isaiah tells us, is Israel.  And again, in Jesus' parable, the vineyard is God's kingdom, the ideal, or fulfilment of, Israel.  (It's also worth remembering here that when Jesus told this story, there were no Christians as distinct from Jews.)  The problem, for Jesus, isn't Israel.  It's the powers that be.  The establishment.  They're taking liberties with what God has entrusted to them.  Oppression and structural violence are their modus operandi.  And even when Jesus comes along, they abuse him.
Jesus speaks truth to power.  That's what this parable is about.  Power.  Jesus challenges those who hold it about their relationship with it.  Ultimately, Jesus will remove these people from power and entrust his kingdom to those whose lives reflect it.  The kind of people Jesu wants in power, I suggest, are those who exercise power under people, not power over people.  People who lift others up.  Who encourage, who empower, who release.  Not people who bring or keep others down.  Who discourage, who disempower, who burden.  These latter will lose the plot - the vineyard of God's  kingdom.  After all, didn't Jesus say that the rulers of the Gentiles "lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you" he told his disciples; "but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:42-45).  And in a great enacted parable, he got down from the table, took a towl and a bowl of water, and washe his disciples' feet (John 13).
So how are our relationships with power?
It's not enough to claim we are acting in Jesus' name if we are acting contrary to his will and ways.  The tenants thought they would get the son's inheritance by killing him.  How stupid.  Yet many believe that by acting counter to Jesus' kingdom - crucifying him over again - they are getting a share in his inheritance.  No.  They are losing the plot.