Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Best of Times: The worst of Times

A friend celebrated his 80th birthday last night and I had the privilege of bringing greetings from one group of his well wishers. I did not say it then, but thought after, that he was, and by extension we all are, living in what Charles Dickens famously described as, " The best of times and the worst of times".
Best because it is good to be alive to witness the first African American about the assume the Presidency of the most powerful nation on earth. Best, because advances in technology allow us to communicate with each other across the world with the "speed of light", thus making us truly, a global village But worst, because, certainly here in Jamaica, murder has reached frightening levels, thus throwing an entire nation into a state of panic. Worst, because the economic fallout of failed alternative schemes at home, the meltdown in the financial markets abroad, and what some in the media are describing as indecisive political leadership, have all combined to produce extreme hardship, the kind of which has not been seen in this country for decades. So despite some of the good things taking place around us, many are fast losing hope and wondering what to do.
And as I listened to the news report about the brutal killing of four people in the western section of the country, whilst traveling to work this week, I reflected on how much and how quickly our nation would change, if only more people were to turn to the Lord Jesus. How quickly things would turn around if many of those very same leaders in the media, and the political and business arena, who are lamenting the high crime rate and the cowardly focus on murdering women and children, oftentimes after sexually abusing them, would seek Christ. But then I realized that they are not willing to give up their pleasures and comforts and their own limited understanding of life, in order to save the nation. So as prophesied by Hosea;

" There is no faithfulness, no love,
no acknowledgment of God in the land.
There is only cursing, lying and murder,
stealing and adultery;
they break all bounds,
and bloodshed follows bloodshed......
my people are destroyed from a lack of knowledge.
Hosea 4:1-6 NIV

But there is yet another problem. We Christians, who are supposed to be the " light to the world". We who are supposed to represent ' The best of times" in and through Christ Jesus
have been guilty of contributing to "The worse of times". In two ways. The first one is a double edged sword. In the sense that some us , both the ordained and the lay members of the church, have not heeded the warnings from Ezekiel :

" You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered, they became food for all the wild animals". Ezekiel 34: 4-5. NIV

Now there is no question that everyone has to take responsibility for his or her actions. And therefore the church cannot be blamed this particular - there have been others - spirit of madness which has overtaken Jamaica, and indeed many other parts of the world. But the reality is, that it is precisely because of the inability of humankind to rid themselves of depraved and wicked behaviour and to stop rebelling against God, why the Sovereign ruler of this Earth, out of deep and tender love, sent His Only Son, to die on a Cross at Calvary. So that " bloodshed may not always follow bloodshed". It is therefore incumbent on us who follow Christ, who are His disciples, out of love for the our brothers and sisters, wherever they are , and whatever they have done as , " all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God", to seek the salvation for their souls. But no, far too often, together with those who do not know better, we have been more than willing accomplices in passing judgement on the stray, the lost, the sick, the weak and the injured. And not just those who suffer from physical ailments , but equally importantly, those who are afflicted spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically - there is difference between the two.
Think about it , do our hearts really reach out to the prostitute, the thief, the rapist, the murderer, the child abuser, the homosexual, those with course manners, the unkempt, the mischief maker, the wife beater, the foul mouthed, the annoying and even violent street boys. The Rastafarian, the Jehovah's witnesses, the Muslims, the Mormons. The fallen politician or tele-evangelist, the disgraced lawyer, the unethical doctor, the embarrassed teacher. Those who have stopped going to church and have become the worse critics. The unapologetic atheist, the rich and famous who feel that they have no need for religion. The young and impressionable who are falling prey to pornography, the don, violent lyrics and the "bling bling " culture. Do we really love them, who like us, have been made in the image of God, despite their wayward behaviour. Or have we forgotten the words of St. Paul:

" Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God. Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters not adulterers, not male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
1 Cor. 6.9-11. NIV

So some of us were murderers....but were washed and sanctified and will see God's face.
So why are we in a hurry to hang them. Some were homosexual offenders ....but were washed and sanctified and rescued from their vile acts. So why are we, even figuratively, " stoning them"? One of the most powerful lines ever written comes from a well known hymn:

Amazing love, how can it be that God my God shouldst die for me. And this is it.

" He left His Father's throne above.
So free, so infinite his grace;
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam's helpless race
'Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God it found out me.

We may very well fail to convince men and women, girls and boys - Adam's helpless race - that it is never too late nor too early to submit their lives to the One who died for them. As ultimately, it is only the Holy Spirit who can convict anyone of Sin. But we must try. But we will only try if we truly love those who persecute us and do not share our faith. We must share the live changing, the game changing, the nation changing gospel, by word an by deed, with all who come into our lives. For as people who have been rescued, washed and sanctified, ultimately, we have no greater purpose on earth but to share the gospel. But is this the reality. No, and that's why it is the worst of times in the nation. People who called themselves Christians but are not prepared to act like Christ, but like Caesar or like Pontius Pilate and wash our hands of our brothers sins. O Lord have mercy on us.
The other part of the two edged sword is :

" Is it not enough for you to feed on good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water. Must you also muddy the rest with your feet. Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet....... See I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken".
Ezek 34 :17-24 NIV

Clearly there are many ways to interpret that piece of Scripture, but what is on my heart is the way many churches set up roadblocks to prevent people from placing their focus on Christ and Christ alone for their salvation ...muddying the waters. Telling young girls, in particular, that they cannot wear make up to church or jewellery or that " red dress". " Not in my church "!. Really now, what does that have to do with accepting Christ as Lord and Saviour. Or in the case of my Anglican church, how many times have heard that "the Cannons do not permit that action". Now, there no gainsaying the need for rules and regulations and discipline in the life of a Christian, but equally so there no need to go overboard and " drive away the weak sheep".
Telling divorced women, even for unfaithfulness, that they cannot get married again - ruling them harshly and brutally. Demanding that those who fall away - chiefly on account of sexual sins - that they must " sit on the back bench", be "read out" of church, and be required to get
" baptized again". Or even worse, telling people that if they " don't get in the Spirit", then they are not really "Holy Ghost filled". Do we have any idea how many lives have been ruined, and the weak led further into a sinful life on account of this " muddying of the stream". No wonder then, that " bloodshed follows bloodshed in my country.
Finally the issue of sound doctrine. What do we understand? What do we believe? This week, once again, the Lord led me to reflect very deeply on the 6th chapter of 2 Corinthians. I do not claim to understand it fully. But what I do know, is that if we did, then the power which is available through the Holy Spirit, would be much more active in our lives, and bloodshed would not be following bloodshed, almost inevitably in the nation - for a lack of knowledge. For our hope is rooted in our dying so that the life if Christ may be manifest in and through us.

" Since therefore by God's mercy we have this ministry ( the ministry of mankind's reconciliation with God through Christ as stated in Chap 5-6) we do not lose hope.....For we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, " Let light shine out of darkness", made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
But we have this treasures in jars of clay to show that this all-surrounding power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side but not crushed; perplexed, but in despair; persecuted , but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carrying around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Christ may be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus', so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you".

I must tell you that I have found this passage extremely challenging. But also the basis for my hope as Christian in this troubled world. This is indeed the radical Christianity which St. Paul practiced and which we have diluted and shied away from. It demands too much. And hence the weak nature of the church in the 21st century. But let us recall that we are called o follow a suffering Christ - not a triumphalist Christ. Not a " gentle Jesus meek and mild". Not a Jesus who came only to bring " Joy to the world", and " Peace to all mankind " as we will soon sing at Christmas, in a very limited understanding of that Joy and Peace. But appreciating that Someone died for that Peace and Joy. And therefore, if we are faithful, so must we too.
Otherwise bloodshed will always follow bloodshed and at the judgement what will we say to the Lord? Or more importantly what will the Lord say , " Come or Depart".