Archive for April, 2011

What is the Gospel? (part 2)

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

The Gospel of the kingdom. One thing that has perplexed evangelicals for at least the last hundred years is that Jesus seems to speak in different terms that the apostle Paul (with whom evangelicals tend to be more comfortable). Paul speaks of the gospel (ex: Rom. 1:1, 16) Jesus, on the other hand, speaks mostly of the Kingdom of God. But this is only a matter of emphasis. The truth is that underneath the difference of terminology is a common vision:

The rule of God demonstrated in both salvation and judgment.

This mesage was preached by both Paul and Jesus as “the gospel of the Kingdom” (Matt. 4:23, 9:35, 24:14, Acts 28:30) As we’ll see, the gospel of the Kingdom is truly holistic and avoids the errors of the sacred/secular split.

Creation regained. The Kingdom proclamation is summarized in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Your God reigns” (52:7) Listen to the  words of the prophet:

How beautiful upon the mountains

are the feet of him who brings good news,

who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,

who publishes salvation,

who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

This gospel is the proclaimation of good news, the news that the Lord Almighty, the King, Creator, and Sovereign Emperor of the universe has bad enough of sin, suffering, and Satan and has decided to get his hands dirty. He is reclaiming his sin-diseased creation. All that was corrupted by the fall: the divine-human relationship, the human-land relatiosnhip, and the plight of human conflict will all be addressed by God’s radical (i.e root addressing) gospel.

The social. But the good news of the kingdom of God isn’t merely about the divine/human drama. Since Adam turned on God, we have turned against each other in all manners of social strife. The gospel is the means through which the Spirit of God forms a new community. This gospel-shaped people are a foretaste of what relationships are to be in the New Creation, where all love is self-sacrificial, and all wounds are mended. This was God’s plan, mentioned in seed form back in Gen. 3:15, and more explicit in the call of Abraham in Gen. 12. To take these texts together (as I beleive we should) is to recognize that the serpent-crushing seed of the woman, the one who will bring rest from the curse of the ground (cf. Gen.5:29) is to be a blessing to all nations, for Jews and non-Jews alike. But in order for this to happen something both glorious and horrible must happen.

The cross. It’s not uncommon these days to hear people say that the gospel of personal reconciliation with God is too individualistic and misses out on the grand sweep of God’s cosmic redemption. While I sympathize with this criticism of much of hyper-sentimentalized evangelicalism when pushed too far it misses one crucial truth:

Without the salvation, reconciliation, justification, and redemption of individual people (the lost and fallen images of God) that can be no cosmic redemption.

The former is the condition of the latter.  All of the benefits of Christ and his kingdom are ours because of the cross-work of King Jesus. In order to reclaim his creation, God must address his rebellious, covenant-breaking image-bearers. If creation is to be regained, God’s designated vice-regent is to be redeemed. According to Paul creation was “subjected to futility” because Adam’s sin. When God’s vice regent, the climax of His creation, is enslaved to sin, so is the rest of the cosmos. Listen carefully to Paul’s words:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Rom. 8:18-23 ESV)

If God’s rescue mission is as comprehensive as I’ve argued God must address the root of the problem: human rebellion and sin. Notice the ordering of Paul’s words, because too often in our zeal to proclaim the gospel of “cosmic redemption” we read Paul backwards. We’re tempted to think that humans are saved as a part of the greater redemption of the cosmos. But this isn’t what Paul says. He says, “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now[…] wait[ing] eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Creation itself is, according to Paul’s imagery, sitting on pins and needles, waiting for the redemption of the bride of Christ, the church. That’s Paul’s way of looking at this.

This is why as Paul sets up the “problem” the gospel addresses in Romans 1 he doesn’t start with the breakdown of the family, or racial strife. Paul highlights a particular sin, idolatry, or as D.A. Carson calls it, the “de-godding” of God. In idolary fallen image bearers exchange the true God for a false one created in it’s image. The gospel of the cross tells us that Christ Jesus takes the punishment for our cosmic rebellion on himself. Again, listen to the apostle Paul:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

And that’s the message in a nutshell: Jesus lives the life of a perfect covenant-keeper, wholly devoted to the glory of his Heaven Father. And he dying the penalty for covenant-breaking…and he does all of this in the place of those who will be united and joined to him in humble faith. And why is faith God’s chosen instrucment to unite us to the benefits won for us by Jesus? Because faith is like an empty hand that acknowledges that the ground, the basis, and the foundation of our restored relationship with the king of the universe isn’t our own goodness, worthiness, or merit. True faith, the kind that demonstrates a changed heart by the gospel, looks to Jesus and the infinite value of his life, death, and resurrection as the basis of our acceptance with God.

Archbishop Kwashi’s message of hope

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

Julian Mann Church of England Newspaper April 15

The suffering and growing Church of Jesus Christ in Africa, represented by Archbishop Ben Kwashi of Jos, Nigeria, and his remarkable wife Gloria spent three days in a South Yorkshire parish and the result was tremendous blessing.

They visited Oughtibridge, a commuter village on the north-west outskirts of Sheffield, before this week’s New Word Alive conference in north Wales to cement a recently-formed link between the Parish Church of the Ascension and St Luke’s Cathedral Church in Jos. Canon Christopher Sugden, Anglican Mainstream executive secretary, arranged the link on behalf of our church when he visited Jos just before Christmas.

At a church family meal on Saturday night, the Kwashis described both the explosive church growth they have witnessed in the Plateau State of Nigeria and the Islamist attacks they have experienced.

In 1987, when Archbishop Ben was a vicar, his church and house were burned down. In 2006, in the wake of the Danish cartoon furore, Gloria was savagely attacked in their home and had to have surgery in the United States to restore her eyesight. In 2007 Archbishop Ben himself was threatened with death by intruders into their home who fortunately did not carry out their stated intent but did steal valuables and caused considerable damage.

The Kwashis accommodate 50 orphaned children in their home whom they feed and educate. A further 150 children, housed nearby, are also educated in the compound. Christian grace under pressure is a compelling witness to the living Christ anywhere in the world. On the Friday of their visit the Kwashis did a pre-recorded interview for BBC Radio Sheffield’s Sunday breakfast programme in which they testified powerfully to the love of Christ. Asked how they coped with the suffering they have experienced, they simply expressed their desire to be a blessing to others in the place in which God has called them to be Christ’s witnesses. Such Christian integrity impacted powerfully on the Oughtibridge congregation to whom Archbishop Ben preached on Sunday. Gloria was wonderfully bedecked in her Mothers’ Union dress and headdress. His text was the raising of Lazarus in John 11, one of the Lectionary readings for last Sunday. His sermon about the raising of a dead man by the power of the living Christ resonated powerfully in a ‘middle of the road’ Anglican parish church.When my wife and I arrived in Oughtibridge in 2000, the middle of the road was where the parish church perceived itself to be. Though eschewing incense and reserved sacrament, it cherished its candles and coloured altar cloths. It also prided itself on not being ‘happy clappy’.

However, I soon discovered as vicar that the middle of the road is a dangerous place to be when you are a hedgehog.The Oughtibridge congregation had declined during the 1980s and 1990s in common with many such churches.Ours was virtually the only family in the regular congregation when we arrived. Indeed on Christmas Day in 1999, during the inter-regnum, there had been no children in the parish church, a feat of which Oliver Cromwell would have been proud or perhaps not if Sunday had fallen on December 25th during his Puritan Protectorate. The church was unsustainable back in 2000 – it did not pay its way in terms of parish share and still does not, though the congregation by God’s grace has grown younger and there is an agreed agenda on PCC to increase our contribution to the cost of our ministry. But the politically incorrect reality is that without significantly more Christian men of working age, the church will struggle to become a sustainable and viable parish church.

Oughtibridge churchwarden, Mrs Helen Kean, who joined the church in 2004 through bringing her daughter for baptism, describes the spiritual benefits of the Kwashis’ visit: “As a church family we have been encouraged enormously by both Ben and Gloria’s true commitment and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Through much suffering and pain they stand firm in what they believe and what Jesus has taught us through the Gospels. We are so very excited about this link that the Lord has provided us with and we look forward to praying for and supporting our brothers and sisters in Jos.”

The hymn after Archbishop Ben’s sermon was Charles Wesley’s ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise.’ My English reserve almost failed me when we sang: “He speaks and listening to His voice, new life the dead receive, the mournful, broken hearts rejoice, the humble poor believe.” Perhaps it would have been more appropriate on this occasion if the stiff upper lip had broken its line.

Julian Mann is vicar of the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire –

Culture of Divorce, Culture of Death

Thursday, April 21st, 2011


“Come sit over here,” my wife whispered to me. “Let’s give Dad a chance to be alone with her.”

It was a quiet room in a hospice, the only sounds the muffled pumping of oxygen, and the softer and slower breathing of my mother-in-law, Esther, as she lay a few hours before her death. Her husband, Herb, stood by the bedside, stroking the gray curls on her forehead, a slight gesture. It seemed to wave away 50 years of sorrow and disappointment and strife, leaving only the love he felt for her in the beginning, like a seedling under the ruins of a city.

He could have abandoned her years before — not for another woman, but for what the world calls peace. Dad is not a Catholic, so he had no Church precept to warn him against divorce. He didn’t need any. “You never know what you’ll get in life,” he put it to me once. “You have to do the right thing, because if you don’t, you’ll probably make things worse.” So he never left, and at the last moment of Esther’s life he was there, fulfilling a patient vigil, his eyes red with weariness and loss.

“Moses allowed our forefathers to present their wives with a bill of divorce,” said the Pharisees to Jesus. “For what cause do you think a man may put away his woman?”

Consider them the pundits of that time, eager to learn whether on this matter of public policy the preacher from Galilee would position himself on the left or the right. Would he agree that you could divorce your wife for burning the soup, or would he hold out for a far narrower range of grounds — adultery, for instance?

“You never know what you’ll get in life,” he put it to me once. “You have to do the right thing, because if you don’t, you’ll probably make things worse.” So he never left, and at the last moment of Esther’s life he was there, fulfilling a patient vigil, his eyes red with weariness and loss.

But Jesus rejected the terms of the question. “Moses permitted you to divorce,” he said, “because of the hardness of your hearts; but it was not so from the beginning. Therefore you have heard it said that a man should leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife, and they two shall become one flesh. So I say to you that any man who puts away his woman — I am not talking about fornication here — and marries another, commits adultery.” He concludes with a stern admonition: “What God has joined together, let no mere man put asunder.”

We may be too familiar with these words. They should strike us with the same shock that once silenced the Pharisees, or enraged them, when the Lord reached back behind all the history of the Israelites, behind the Temple and the kings and the judges and the tribes, behind even creation itself, as He said, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” Here alone, in this discussion of marriage, does Jesus answer a question about good and evil and human life by appealing to the time before the Fall. “It was not so,” he says, “from the beginning.” It was no part of God’s plan for innocent mankind. It can be no part of God’s plan for man regenerate in Christ.

Jesus has presented to us two potent truths, each unbearably alive and full of import for fallen man, yet leaving it to us to connect them. The first has been celebrated joyfully by Pope John Paul II: Man and woman are made for one another. Our bodies, our very souls are stamped with a nuptial meaning, and in the embrace of man and woman, an embrace that in God’s providence can bring into being a living soul, we recall our innocence in the Garden, and we share in and anticipate the wedding feast of the Lord. The second? We were not made for sin and death, for alienation from one another and from God, our life. That too was not so from the beginning.

Make the connection. Culture of divorce, culture of death.

If any man had cause for procuring a divorce, short of adultery and mayhem, my father-in-law had it. Esther was a difficult woman to live with. Over a trifle, as when we should leave for the diner, she could go into a towering rage, then storm off to her bedroom, her face set like flint, certain that she was right, that she was ill-used by everyone, and woe to my wife if she tried to reason with her. “Gram’s on the warpath,” she’d say. She could jest about it then, nervously, but when she was a girl she didn’t dare bring any of her friends to the house, for fear that her mother would cause a scene. Hers was a lonely childhood.

What caused this habitual anger, I can’t say. Perhaps a deep insecurity, a hunger to be loved; her own mother was by all accounts a tyrant in the household. When Esther returned home with Herb from their elopement, her father said to him, “If you can live with her, more power to you.” And she was her father’s favorite.

For a few years they lived together happily, in unlikely conditions: quarters for married midshipmen at a naval base in the Bahamas. They always spoke about that time with wistful humor. The poverty was something they shared and couldn’t help, so they took it in stride, and made jokes about how much they grew to hate bananas. Esther was also one of those women who genuinely enjoys the company of men, and whom men will treat with a big-brother jocularity and kindness. Those years were good for them.

It was as if someone had told her that her little world, so fraught with suffering, so fragile, yet so beloved, would be smashed to bits. She broke down in bitter tears. Her mother backed away, and God would bless her for it. The word “divorce” was never uttered again.

Then they settled down in New Jersey, where they would live most of their lives. Dad is a sharp man and a hard worker, holding down two and three jobs all his life before he retired. But for a while money was tight, and though Esther grew up with eleven other children in a rented house with an earthen floor, or maybe because she grew up in such straits, she never learned any measure in her spending. She was one of the most generous people I’ve known, lavishing my children with Christmas presents, but she spent on herself, too. She wanted nice things they could not afford. So she upbraided her husband about his pay, and went to work herself.

My wife was born then, and maybe all would have been well had Esther been able to trust her husband’s industry and thrift, and had she not been afflicted by a painful condition that compelled her to have a hysterectomy. It was a severe loss. In her frustration she took a job at a monstrous candy mill, working at rotating shifts, two weeks in the day, two weeks in the evening, two weeks in the dead of night. The body never accustoms itself to that; it is always sleep-deprived. So she took to having a nightcap before bed. Then she fell in with some cynical companions at work who also liked to drink. Soon she was an alcoholic.

Many readers will be able to fill in the details. She was impossible to predict; sometimes ingratiating, sometimes as unappeasable as rock. She would throw cups and dishes about the kitchen. Her fists were not idle. She’d shut herself in her room for days of terrible silence. She insisted on separate bank accounts, throwing it in Dad’s teeth that it was her money, that she made more than he did (for a year or so this was true), and that she could spend it as she pleased. My wife cannot remember when they shared the same bed.

But to her credit, Esther recognized that Dad was a terrific father, and in her own way she was true to him. Nobody else dared criticize him — but she would humiliate him publicly. He didn’t care, or didn’t let on. They could unite only in their love for their daughter, whom they showered with gifts, partly to compensate for their inability to give her what she wanted more than anything, namely love for one another. Finally, when she was 15 and presumably capable of surviving the blow, her mother approached her with bad news.

“I can’t take it anymore! Your father and I are getting a divorce.”

But divorce was still rare in those days, and my wife hadn’t entertained the possibility. It was as if someone had told her that her little world, so fraught with suffering, so fragile, yet so beloved, would be smashed to bits. She broke down in bitter tears. Her mother backed away, and God would bless her for it. The word “divorce” was never uttered again.

Divorce destroys a world; it smothers an echo of Eden. What was the Fall, if not man’s first attempt to divorce? “Where are you, Adam?” calls God in the cool of the evening. “You haven’t come out to meet me as you used to do.” Adam is steeped in shame. He doesn’t want to be seen. Consider the unselfconsciousness of little children who parade naked in front of their parents, because they sense no separation; they feel themselves to be at one with mother and father. Only later, with a growing sense of separate identity, and a growing loneliness, does the child wish to hide. Adam is hiding not because he is naked, but because he is alienated from God, and it is that separation that causes him to look upon his nakedness, an emblem of his own being, with shame.

But the severance could not end there. When Adam and Eve admit their guilt — a graceless and skulking admission — they chisel the fissure more deeply, divorcing themselves from one another and from creation. “It was this woman you gave to be my help,” says Adam. “She gave me the fruit, and I ate it.” Eve passes the blame in turn. “It was this serpent you created! He tricked me, and I ate the fruit.”

There you have the motto for a culture of divorce. Cain’s words assume that the brother, the parent, the spouse, the neighbor is not worth keeping. What to do with one who obstructs my will, or casts a pall over my daydreams? If I can get away with it, and if I am angry enough, I put him away.

What can we expect should follow? The very earth shuns us. The ground shall bear thorns and thistles, and in the sweat of his brow must man eat his bread; the woman will bear children in pain, and will have to submit to the domination, not the loving headship, of her husband. Their children grow up in separate pursuits — Abel a shepherd, Cain a farmer — and in envy for a blessing he lacks and does not sincerely desire, Cain slays Abel, not in rage, but in cold malice. When God accosts him, as he once accosted Adam, we see in Cain’s reply that the fissure has widened into a chasm. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he sneers.

There you have the motto for a culture of divorce. Cain’s words assume that the brother, the parent, the spouse, the neighbor is not worth keeping. What to do with one who obstructs my will, or casts a pall over my daydreams? If I can get away with it, and if I am angry enough, I put him away. No matter. Around any house or barn there’s plenty of noisome matter to be buried, shoveled over, cast into a pit, or burnt. We rid ourselves of the sights and smells.

Cain begins in Genesis a saga of family strife, occasioned by lust or greed or envy. Lamech is a multiple murderer, and proud of it. Men begin to take several wives. Lot listens to his grumbling men and separates from Abram, taking that fateful left turn toward Sodom. After Sarah finally conceives a child, she cannot bear the sight of the woman she had encouraged to become Abraham’s concubine, so she forces her husband to send Hagar and Ishmael away into the desert. Though God would bring forth good from her guile, Rebecca causes deadly enmity between her sons when she tricks Isaac into giving his blessing to Jacob and not Esau. Jacob’s uncle Laban tricks him into marrying Leah, whom he does not love, and then extorts seven additional years of work from him in exchange for Rachel, whom he does love. The intense rivalry between the two sister-wives causes a rift in the family between the sons of Leah and the sons of Rachel, whom old Jacob favors. One of those sons, Joseph, is hurled down a well by his brothers, then sold into slavery.

If heaven is filled with life and light, a wedding feast to celebrate the marriage of the Lamb to his bride the Church, then hell, as C. S. Lewis imagined it, may be the Great Divorce, a realm of alienation, whose “citizens” detest even the thought of a city, and who wish, in an endlessly fissiparous parody of the Heavenly Jerusalem, to move further and further away into the outskirts, to put as much distance between themselves and God (and their neighbors in damnation) as possible. Dante saw it too: One of the traitors in his Inferno, fixed in ice up to his head along with all the others of his ilk, defines his neighbor simply as that one “with his head in my way to block my sight” — a head that will annoy him for all eternity, and that he would gladly lop off if he could, with no more compunction than if he should swat a fly.

But Herb and Esther never departed for that gray city that promises much and delivers nothing. They stayed with one another; they endured. They kept their vows. “Son of Man,” said the Lord God to Ezekiel as he stood before a valley of dry bones bleaching in the desert sun, “tell these bones to rise.” And from those vast dead sands they did arise.

Not immediately. They sent their daughter to college, and after years of wandering in the academic wasteland, joining a tent revival, falling away, brought closer to the Lord by a rabbi, a musician or two out at heels, a good old girl from Tennessee, a motorcycling professor of Milton, and a lover of Crashaw, she ended up in North Carolina, where we met; and I had left my own footprints over many a desert mile. Each of us became the instrument by which the Lord brought the other one home. We fell in love; we worshiped together at Mass. At our wedding, our priest delivered a sermon on the Song of Songs, and on the righteous souls in Revelation, the communion of saints whose robes have been washed white in the blood of the Lamb.

But Herb and Esther never departed for that gray city that promises much and delivers nothing. They stayed with one another; they endured. They kept their vows.

I have a picture of Herb walking down the aisle with my wife. He looks embarrassed, as if he couldn’t tell how he had come to be there. He had been raised in an evangelical church. His father, a sternly righteous man, took the faith seriously, but imparted little of the joy of it to his children. Herb’s churchgoing did not survive the Navy. Esther, meanwhile, had been raised with hardly any religion at all. She may have attended a Dutch Reformed church for a few years as a child, but her parents paid so little attention to it that they failed to have her baptized. By the time we were married she had given up drink for good, and the AA meetings she attended may have turned her toward the Bible; or maybe she had turned on her own. In any case, though she was ashamed to be found in a church on Sunday, she read a little of the Bible every night, in secret.

I don’t know if, except for marriages and funerals and an occasional Easter long ago, Herb and Esther had ever been in a church together. I do know that our marriage, and our increasing steadfastness in the Faith, made them happy. They suddenly had something new to unite them. If they could not love one another, or at least not admit to it, they could together love my wife and me, and then the little girl and the little boy we brought them — the only grandchildren they would ever have. Esther was a hard woman, but she had also the corresponding virtue of loyalty. If you hurt someone she loved, she might never forgive you, but if you loved the one she loved, her heart would swell in gratitude. Now she and Herb had unexpected reasons to be grateful to one another. They could tattoo their house with pictures of the toddlers, who adored them in their turn, as was just.

“God is not the God of the dead,” said Jesus to the Sadducees, whose hearts were too cramped to believe in any resurrection, “but of the living.” To accept divorce as a way of death — no way of life — is to deny the very being of God as revealed by Jesus. It is to say that love can, or should sometimes be permitted to, die utterly. But had God so acted toward us, all this universe would have winked out of existence at the first sin of Adam. With every sin we commit, we pretend to sever ourselves from the fount of our being, as if we were lords of life and death; yet should God respond to us in kind, we would find the divorce complete, and would fall into the nothingness of everlasting loss. But He does not do so, and at the last moment, like the thief on the cross who joined the others in their jeering, but who then thought better of it — and maybe it took the torment of crucifixion to wake him — we may turn to Christ and hear him say, “This day you shall be with me in Paradise.” Christ did not put away that dying criminal. So much the better for us, who are all criminals, dying.

Esther too was dying, though nobody but my wife noticed it. “Something’s wrong with Gram. She remembers things that never happened.” Old age, I supposed. Esther did not look like she was about to depart. She still fought mercilessly with her husband. She still squandered her money, though it had been many years since illness had forced her to retire from the factory. She still raged against how badly everyone treated her. She still slammed the door to her room, to hide, to be miserable; and, at night, to open her Bible, though she never talked about it.

But she was suffering a series of small strokes, as we learned much later. These strokes compromised her memory and her ability to get things done around the house. Herb never complained. He’d always been handy, and now he began, unobtrusively, to take on chores she could no longer perform, sweeping and vacuuming, loading the washer, tending the garden, along with all his old chores and his hard work, post-retirement, at his auto junkyard. The strange thing was that as Esther’s memory faded, so did her rumination upon all the wrongs she thought people had done to her. Weakness wore away the edges of her anger.

Now, as she grew more helpless, she was glad to accept it from him, and he gave it without stint. She called him, in a moment of tenderness and lucidity, her “savior.” She was not far wrong.

All this took more than ten years. It was punctuated by times of madness, when she would storm out in the dead of night and pound on a neighbor’s door, because a “strange man” was in her house — her husband; or when on a snowy Christmas night she forgot that she was visiting us 250 miles away, and insisted that she was going to walk home. I had to sleep in front of the door to bar her way. But in general she was softening, mellowing. When, after his open-heart surgery, Herb could no longer take care of her and she had to move to the county home, she was pleasant to the nurses and the beauticians, and would brighten up whenever anybody came to see her. Herb visited her three or four times every week, which was as often as her condition could bear, wheeling her down to the solarium where they would talk with other patients and visitors for the whole afternoon.

Esther could be most kind when she wanted to be, and could accept kindness too, but for much of her married life she would not accept it from her husband. Now, as she grew more helpless, she was glad to accept it from him, and he gave it without stint. She called him, in a moment of tenderness and lucidity, her “savior.” She was not far wrong. His most important act of kindness he performed just before his operation and her entering the nursing home. He’d become friends with a local Presbyterian minister, a genuine believer in Christ. Now he knew that Esther was too ashamed to admit that she hadn’t been baptized. He also knew that if he were to suggest a baptism, she would reject it in anger and hurt, and that would be the end of that. So he told everything to Pastor Forbes, and invited him to visit now and then, so that Esther would get to know him. Then the subject might come up unbidden, or certain suggestions might be made. So he did; and, not long before the time would pass when she could reasonably make any decisions she would remember, without any prompting she asked to be baptized. A few days later, Pastor Forbes baptized my mother-in-law, a frail old woman but at last a daughter of God, in her own kitchen, christening her in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

We in a culture of death hunger after life, but on our own terms, and at the expense of others, even at the expense of their lives. But some of us will only begin really to live when we have lost all capacity to pretend that we are our own. That is one of the meanings of Jesus’ mysterious saying, that unless we become like little children, we shall not enter the kingdom of God. Esther now entered that childhood, and Herb was there, to feed her, to wheel her about when she could no longer walk, to talk to her even toward the end, when a massive stroke had left her still wishing to speak, but unable to form more than one or two intelligible words.

How can we know what fleeting notes of grace came to her in those last hours? If God wills, who can obstruct Him? After nearly 53 years of struggle and disappointment, yet 53 years of faithfulness and duty, Herb stood by, never divorced.

And he was beside her those last few days, making sure, if by some miracle she regained the ability to swallow, that the hospital staff would not abandon her to starvation. He would not allow them to hasten her death with morphine, prescribed less often to alleviate pain than to soothe the onlookers and free the doctors and nurses from the ennui of a natural death. We watched by turns at the bed of the dying woman, not because we believed there was something magical about squeezing out each breath from the clamp of death, but because it was the right thing to do. She was going to die, but we didn’t want her to die alone. The dying life was a mystery. It was not our place to abandon it, to cast it away as inconvenient, as trash, as we are urged to do to so much else in our barren lives.

How can we know what fleeting notes of grace came to her in those last hours? If God wills, who can obstruct Him? After nearly 53 years of struggle and disappointment, yet 53 years of faithfulness and duty, Herb stood by, never divorced. The Lord God, against whom she had sinned the more mightily, never turned from calling her back to Him, and as a child of over 70 years she finally answered that call.

What keeps people from believing that a good God loves them and desires never to be parted from them, unless they themselves should flee that love? Look in the mirror, and see the cause of despair in others. Do not repeat the words of the great divorcer at the bottom of hell, who says in his loneliness and misery, “I am my own, I am my own.” Say rather, “I am a wayward child, and the one I am called to stand beside is a wayward child.” Do not dare mull over your “quality of life” and your “fulfillment” — wrapped in a shroud of deadly self-regard, while the Lord of life, who dies to bring you to life, gasps for His last breath on the cross above. If anyone had grounds for divorce, He had; no one ever loved as deeply as He, and no one was ever betrayed as He. You, reader, have betrayed Him shamelessly, as have I. Yet He remains faithful, and waits for us, to bring us life:

And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

And He that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.

Call for churches to endorse gay marriages

Monday, April 18th, 2011

Andrew Stone

Daily Despatch East London

A former Grahamstown Anglican Church bishop and a retired archdeacon have called on all Christian churches to bless and endorse gay marriages.

Retired Archdeacon Daes of East London

Retired Archdeacon Deas of East London

In remarks that will most certainly re-ignite the debate on church policy, Bishop David Russell, who now lives in Cape Town, and Graeme Deas, a retired archdeacon of the Anglican Diocese in Grahamstown and former rector of St John’s Church in East London, have come out in support of same-sex marriages taking place in churches.

“This is an issue that all churches are grappling with and we’re trying to encourage dialogue on the issue because it’s not going to go away,” said Russell, speaking to the Dispatch yesterday (March 11).

“Traditionally, the Church has taught that homosexual behaviour is not in keeping with the scriptures.”

But both Russell and Deas believe the issue needs to be revisited as the Church has adapted and changed or relaxed its stance on other contentious issues, such as divorce, in the past.

“The values we place on heterosexual relationships should apply to homosexual relationships, too,”  Russell said.

“We need to recognise the diversity of sexual orientation in people and accept that God made (homosexuals) and accepts them as they are.”

Deas said that while society was becoming more accepting of same-sex relationships, it was often an issue still frowned upon by the Church.

“It is in churches that gays and lesbians often find themselves more discriminated against than ever. Ultimately, we would like to see a situation where all churches in South Africa perform same-sex marriages and offer a place where gays and lesbians can openly go and worship.”

Deas said they wanted to engage with and help people who had a different perspective on the issue. “I personally don’t believe the Bible was cast in stone and it’s a product of its time,” he said. “There are people who believe that if you’re not straight you will go to hell.

“But we’re saying God makes us all, and gays and lesbians should be able to celebrate who they are because God made them that way.”

The majority of churches around East London contacted by the Dispatch said they welcomed gays and lesbians, but said that due to existing policy they could not perform same-sex marriages.

Reverend Larry Dias of the AGS Charisma Church in Southernwood said the church fell under the Apostolic Faith Mission, which dictated policy.

“According to the constitution we are not allowed to marry same-sex couples, but they are welcome to attend church meetings,” he said.

But Pastor Gavin Cox of the Highway Community Church said that pursuing a gay or lesbian lifestyle and a Christian lifestyle would be “contradictory”.

“But if someone approached us for help to break out of that lifestyle we would accept that person,” he said.

Pastor Stephen Dalziel of the Judah Worship Tabernacle said they were “totally committed to the word of God”.

“We don’t believe in (same-sex marriages) and will not perform them. God does not hate gays and lesbians; He hates the sin they commit.”

Nigeria is ‘missing Anglican solidarity’

Monday, April 18th, 2011

Ed Thornton reports in the Church Times:

THE Archbishop of the province of Jos, Dr Benjamin Kwashi, said that “solidarity” with Christians in Nigeria, who have been subjected to violence in recent years, “is missing” from the wider Anglican Commun­ion.

Speaking in London on Thursday of last week, during his two-week visit to the UK, Dr Kwashi said that the Primate of Nigeria, the Most Revd Nicholas Okoh, had “shown deep interest and concern over the situation in Jos”. The Primate had “not only visited but . . . made rehabilitation possible for some of the displaced and suffering people.

“Unfortunately, you can’t say the same thing for the rest of the Anglican Communion,” Dr Kwashi went on. “We do get letters and encourage­ment, which is wonderful . . . but the solidarity is missing.”

Last year, Dr Kwashi wrote an open letter after more than 500 people were killed after outbreaks of violence in the Jos area (News, 12 March 2010). He accused the government of failing “to provide full security for its citizenry”, which left people “with very little option but to provide for their own kind of security”.

In recent weeks, however, there had been signs of the situation improving. In two attacks on villages, in which several people lost their lives, security forces had shown up within about 15 minutes, he said.

Loss of life, however small, is “bad news”, but “the damage is not as bad as it used to be . . . the scale [of killing] has been reduced. I think that the federal government is taking the threat of terrorism very seriously.”

Dr Kwashi also expressed hope that the Nigerian elections, which are taking place this month, would be conducted fairly. He said he was “very impressed” with the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission in Nigeria, Professor Attahiru Jega, who he said seemed “to be a man of integrity so far. . . He has shown himself firm and determined to do what is right.”

But, despite small signs of hope, Christians in Jos continue to live “in total fear”.

Both Dr Kwashi and his wife, Gloria, who was almost blinded after being attacked and tortured in her home in 2006 (News, 24 February 2006), are angered by media reports claiming that Christians in Nigeria have committed violence against Muslims.

“They say Christians in Africa are intolerant, Christians in Jos are intolerant, but that’s a generalisation. The fact that Jos is largely non-Muslim doesn’t mean it is Christian. You have pagans who react differently to situations, and when that happens the media is quick to say ‘Christians have done [this]’. . . These are tribal people who are reacting in the way they best know how, to the situation they’re facing.”

The Archbishop showed pictures of some of the 50 orphans who live with his family in Jos. “If you came to our prayer meetings in the morning, or particularly at night before we sleep, and you hear prayers, we will just say, ‘Lord, save us.’ We don’t take anything for granted.”

He chose not to attend the Lambeth Conference in 2008, he said, because the gathering of bishops ten years before “was not ready to hear my story. In the midst of suffering, I had evangelised and produced 300 churches from 85, [but] nobody wanted to know that.

“My position was that if I could raise £5000 to attend the Lambeth Conference, that was going to be dominated by a discussion that, in my opinion, shouldn’t have even have had a front burner on the issues, I would take that £5000, [and] I have 300 orphans around me who would be so eternally grateful to God for what that money can do in their lives.”

Dr Kwashi said that at the GAFCON meeting in Jerusalem, in 2008, “my story . . . was not tucked into a corner”; the plight of Christians in countries such as Nigeria and Sudan led the agenda.

“People not only wept and prayed, people showed solidarity. After that, people from GAFCON did visit Jos, did go to Sudan, [and are] still going

. . . we don’t want your money, just a visit to encourage . . . to put your hand on my shoulder and say ‘Brother, we’re with you.’ That never happened in Lambeth.”

The future of GAFCON, he said, will be focused on mission, not structures. “GAFCON may not have all the structures, but mission does not need structures. What mission needs is mission, and then for the mission to determine its own struc­tures, and I think that’s what GAFCON’s going to do.”

In Nigeria, Dr Kwashi would like to see the government instigate a “process of justice” that brings out “the evils done to people, whether they are Muslim or Christian”.

The government and politicians “must stand in the gap to show that we want to build a nation where Christians are human beings; where Christians have the same rights as any other people, and cultures are re­spected by all.

Nigerian Anglicans May Control the Future of the Church

Monday, April 18th, 2011

As the Anglican Communion faces the looming threat of schism, the Church of Nigeria finds itself courted by both sides

April 14, 2011

With 18 million members The Church of Nigeria is the Anglican Communion’s second largest province after the Church of England itself, and its fastest growing one. It boasts the President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, among its congregation. However, the relationship between the Nigerian Primates and their mother Church has not lately been a happy one.

The opposition of Nigerian Bishops and their congregations to any softening of attitudes towards homosexuality has made them increasingly uneasy with the notion of being in full communion with overseas churches which allow – in their view – an unacceptable latitude in sexual matters. The size and faithfulness of this province means that in any ensuing schism, to be able to claim communion with the Church of Nigeria will be invaluable for a body seeking to present itself as the genuine inheritor of the Anglican tradition.

As British, Australian and North American churches fight within themselves over the status of women Bishops and active homosexual clergy, the Church of Nigeria, along with the other African provinces such as South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, finds itself courted by traditionalists and reformists, Anglo Catholics and Evangelicals, as a fountain of legitimacy for whatever schismatic or unifying agency can claim it.

In an extraordinary moment of thwarted ecumenicism the low church, evangelical, and frequently anti-Catholic African Anglicans even found themselves rejecting an advance by Pope Benedict XVI, who wanted to bring them into his newly formed Personal Ordinariate, where they would have been permitted exceptional latitude in liturgy and practice, including the ordination of married men.

The irony of this is that the Church of Nigeria itself is relatively untroubled by internal dissent. The old debates between Anglo Catholicism and Evangelism which wracked British and North American Churches in the 19th century barely touched the African Provinces, where Anglicanism was always defined by its distance from both the Catholic Church on one side and the Baptist and Pentecostalist movements on the other.

In the 20th century the Church seemed contentedly traditionalist on the ordination of women (which they do neither practice themselves, nor oppose in other Anglicans) and collectively conservative in sexual matters. This relative theological unity owes much to the Church’s rapid growth through the 1990s, which means that many of its members are converts, prepared to take Nigerian Anglicanism as they find it. In addition, the issue of homosexuality is unlikely to prove a divisive one in socially conservative Southern Nigeria.

It has been, however, this social conservatism that more latitudinarian Churches in North America have been troubled by. No-one has ever expected the Nigerians to ordain active homosexuals in the forseeable future, when even the Church of England pays lip service to Issues in Human Sexuality, a statement by the General Synod that requires the clergy to be celibate or married. However, considerable unease has been caused by the former Primate of the Church, and Bishop of Abuja, Peter Akinola.

In 2006 the Committee of the Church of Nigeria, headed by Akinola, issued a statement commending a bill which would see homosexuality punishable by up to 5 years in prison. Three years before, the Episcopal Church in America had consecrated the practising homosexual Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.

These radical departures threaten the delicate line that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, and other unifying forces in the Lambeth Conference, have always tried to walk: demanding heterosexuality and celibacy in Anglican clergy while attacking homophobia and the persecution of gays by national governments.

These were the divisions that wracked the communion during the lead up to the 2008 Lambeth Conference. Bishop Robinson was not invited to attend, but even so the Primates of four African churches – Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda – as well as a number of other traditionalist Bishops and high ranking clergyman, boycotted the ceremony. The reason given for this refusal was an unwillingness to share communion with, or receive it from, clergyman who held what they view as heterodox and immoral views.

This claim has little grounding in mainstream Anglican Eucharistic theology, with the 26th Article of Religion explicitly separating the worthiness of the sacrament from that of the minister providing it. The boycott was instead seen as a statement of dissatisfaction with the direction of the Anglican Communion, and a possible desire of the four Provinces to remove themselves from it.

A month before the Lambeth Conference the African Primates met with other discontented clergy in Jerusalem, for the seven day Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCon). The conference hoped to bring together Anglican clergy unhappy with the direction of the communion on a number of theological issues, but the main issue under discussion was that of the American Episcopal church and its divergent stance on homosexuality.

It is to the GAFCon, rather than to Lambeth, that the Church of Nigeria declared their allegiance when rebuffing the Vatican’s advances last year, and it seems that Nigerian Anglicans, as well as those in Uganda, have comprehensively rejected Rowan William’s attempts at compromise.

However, whatever one’s views on the ordination of homosexuals, there are very good reasons to be wary of GAFCon and its future. The Reverend Doctor Mouneer Anis, the Bishop of Egypt and presiding Bishop of Jerusalem and the Middle East, a doctrinal conservative and member of the Global South grouping whose steering comitee Peter Akinola chairs, warned that the ‘Global South must not be driven by an exclusively Northern agenda or Northern personalities.

The meeting of the Global South in ’09 will be critical for the future, and the agenda will need careful preparation ahead of time.’ It is certainly true that GAFCon, which depends for much of its legitimacy on the huge memberships of its African Churches, saw a great deal of its agenda set by the majority of British, Australian and North American clergy who made up its leadership council.

The main achievement of the conference was the establishment of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, a grouping of traditionalist churches which will have little impact in unified Nigeria but a great significance in the divided north. It is hard to see how practice or worship will be altered for Nigerian Anglicans, but impossible to deny the significance for the schismatic Anglican Church in North America, which is now in full communion with the Church of Nigeria.

Nigeria now exists in an uneasy union with the Anglican communion. At GAFCon, former Nigerian Primate Peter Akinola stressed his desire to avoid schism, stressing “we have no place to go, nor is it our intention to start another church”, but the Church has made clear it considers itself in more perfect communion with the Anglican Church in North America than the Episcopal Churches of the United States and Canada.

However, the complexities of Anglican ecumenicism is of little importance to congregations in Nigeria. The real significance of the Church of Nigeria’s relationship with its sister churches will be felt far outside its own borders, among congregations in Europe, America and Australia for whom the support of Anglicanism’s second largest province would confer legitimacy on whatever segment of the fracturing Communion they belong to.

What is the Gospel? (part 1)

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

Here is the central question of the Christian faith: what is the gospel? It’s strange that the very question that should provide a solid bedrock for Christian unity has often divided groups otherwise thought to share a common profession of faith. While the “formal principle” of the Protestant Reformation was sola Scriptura (Scripture is the only infallible authority for the Christian), it was the “material principle” of sola fide (addressing the question of how a person is accepted by God) that divided Protestants from the Roman Catholic Church. So it’s a hot button issue. But it needs to be addressed because how we answer this question (“what is the gospel?”)-the answer we confess deep down in our hearts-will determine our final destiny. So let’s start quickly at creation followed by the bad news. Hopefully we’ll see that the gospel message is tied up with the whole story of Scripture.

Creation: Gen 1-2. The King of the universe, Yahweh, creates the universe out of nothing and declares it good (Gen. 1). Distinct from the rest of his creation, God creates humanity unique, in “the image of God” (Gen. 1:26).  Among other things, this means that humanity is charged with the unique responsibility to mediate God’s rule on the Earth. All things are to be done to the glory of God, for the good of his people (the divine image bearers).

Fall: Gen 3. Though God placed the first man, Adam, in the perfect environment, nevertheless both he and his wife Eve chose the way of self-sovereignty over humble submission to their regal King and heavenly Father. How such cosmic treason could take place is truly a mystery of the faith. But, either way this was a major turning point in human history. When our first parents valued their own judgments over the Spring of all life, they began to die physically and decisively died spiritually at that very moment.

This rebellion, autonomy and moral pollution (what the Bible calls sin) now corrupts the very image of God (that is to say every aspect of their humanity was tainted by sin). According to Paul, the Apostle, Adam’s fall wasn’t his alone. All his descendants (that’s you and me) have inherited his guilt and spiritual state (Rom. 5). As a result we are all hostile toward each other and above all, God. This anti-God instinct is imbedded into the very fabric of our fallen human nature. It’s a terribly difficult pill to swallow for sure; offensive in fact.

But it doesn’t end there. It gets worse.

Being that Adam was created as the “co-king” of all creation his treason brought with it a curse to his kingdom. Now the Earth will no longer produce crops easily; it would hand over thorns and thistles instead (Gen. 3:18). Famine, earthquakes, tsunami’s and mudslides are all a result of the curse (Rom. 8). When the image of God is in rebellion, the cosmos is in rebellion. Sin is social as well. Because we are hostile toward God we are likewise hostile toward those made in His image. War, injustice, racism, sexism, slavery, manipulation, theft, and sex-trafficking are all expressions of the sinful anti-God impulse.

But it gets worse still.

The fallout of sin isn’t merely impersonal strife. The Bible is clear that the chiefly offended party is Yahweh Himself. All sin is a person attack against His character; a slap in His face despite His kindness and mercy toward us in giving us life, breathe, and every good thing (Acts 17:5, James 1:17). Above all, God cherishes the glory of His name (Is. 48:11). So He is not pleased. He is supremely good, and opposes everything vile, wicked, corrupt, and morally unclean. This is precisely why Paul informs us that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who supress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18) We all fall under condemnation by this passage. The chief problem we have as a result of sin isn’t low self-esteem, loneliness, or guilt feelings. No, it is real guilt; it is the wrath of a supremely holy God who will stop at nothing to vindicate His character and put His kingdom back to rights. So the gospel isn’t ultimately about our deliverance from sin or even Satan. As Hebrews makes clear, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” We’re saved from God. We’re saved by God, from God, to God.