Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A slave to Sin or Freedom in Christ: An Ash Wednesday Message

My country has become a " slave" to debt.  In an unprecedented  address to the nation this past week, when both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance jointly addressed  the nation, we were told the bald facts. " Straight up", as they say in my country. 55 cents out of each dollar we earn goes towards paying off the debt; 25 cents for wages; and  after that only  20 cents is available for improving our road infrastructure, building hospitals, schools and satisfying  other demands of a 20th Century Nation. The Government, pushed by IMF " prior action conditionalities" ( before we can get any help)  has announced a way, including a huge tax package,  to escape from the debt trap. We all await the results. Some expectantly. Others with great doubt.

Like many other countries, my country has also  become a slave to the spirit of the times. Prone to outbreaks of the kind of outrageous acts gratuitous violence which has become the subject of so much debate in the USA.   Caught up in the maelstrom of the shifts in attitudes to human sexuality which manifested itself recently in the decision to allow same sex marriages in the UK. The " mother country", from which  Christian Missionaries, " slipped their moorings",  to spread out and evangelize the British Empire, of which Jamaica was a part. And thus the Gospel of Freedom from Sin and death in and through Christ Jesus, came to my country. And now from the same " mother country", this great Sin is being held up as " Justice" for one group of persons - the gays and lesbians. Also like many other countries, we have become known for producing " con artistes", who scam the unsuspecting, and and if truth be told, quite often the greedy, of their hard earned money. Sadly, these folks are often in the twilight of their lives and will find it extremely difficult to recover. Hence the recent report of a proposed US Senate hearing on this matter which has affected many , but not only, US citizens.

This past couple of weeks, two friends and members of my church family, " slipped their moorings", like a great ocean-liner, and went off, not to the great beyond, but to be  with the Lord in heaven. I had gone to see them both. Separately, and then finally together whilst they were in the same hospital. One died a couple days later. The other lasted a few days longer. I felt an unusual sense of loss, and in my profession we are  not unaccustomed to death, having seen them both alive one minute, and gone the next. The one that died first was a  lady. A proper lady.  Mrs Jean Casserly. The other a gentleman. A true gentleman. Mr. Neville " Teddy"  McCook.  Both grew up in a different Jamaica from what many, especially the younger ones among us, have come to know. A gracious time. A time of fine manners and impeccable behavior. A time when a man's word was his bond. A time when a ladies,  mothers, and even more so grandmothers,  were protected and celebrated.  A time when the Word of God held in high regard and thus affected the values and attitudes of the society. In the home. At school. At the workplace. And in public life.  Both made a significant contribution to national life. One quietly. The other publicly. Both have left behind a different Jamaica from when they first arrived on earth.

On this Ash Wednesday, when the Lord inspired me to write this note, not to anyone in particular, but to be included in the Sunday night message, a couple of things struck me. One, a comment from my wife, speaking as a grandmother,  as we headed to church this morning. How come, and she was clearly pondering the " dissing of Ash Wednesday" in the USA, America is so much against religion in the schools, but every-time there is a Jewish holiday, the schools are closed?  The other was a story in the Bible which I had not read in recent times, and perhaps never understood the profound message until a sister raised it in a quiet time after church today. It's the story of Onesimus the slave, about whom Paul writes in his letter to Philemon. The story is worth reading as there is a lot to gain from it.  Onesimus met Paul, after he had been stolen from Philemon, and through the ministry of Paul, became a Christian. Paul then writes a personal appeal to ask Philemon to accept Onesimus as a Christian brother, not as a slave. It's a letter according to my Bible,  a case study in the cost of asking for forgiveness. But as compelling as the story is,  it was not so much Philemon that caught my attention, but a meditation found in my  Classics Devotional Bible, in the midst of the book.


Frederick Douglas ( 1817-1895..the self- educated son of an American slave escaped his owners in 1838. A career as an abolitionist began in 1841....and under threat from the fugitive slave laws he escaped to England in 1845. There he aroused sympathy for the abolitionists' cause and admirers purchased his freedom...and he returned to the USA where he became the " station-master and conductor" of the Underground Railroad in Rochester. He campaigned for Abraham Lincoln in 1860....and the pro-slavery retinue refused to believe that Douglas had been a slave...because he was so intelligent and articulate)  ...... Perhaps like Obama.

Verse: Philemon 17

Our  house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe. Those beautiful vessels, robed in white, and so delightful to the eyes of free men, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me  with thoughts of my wretched condition. I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer's Sabbath, stood all alone upon the banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean. The sight of these would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul's complaint in my rude way with an apostrophe to the multitude of ships.

" You are loosed from your moorings, and free, I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip. You are freedom's swift-winged angels, that fly around the world; I am confined in bonds of iron. O, that I were free! O, that I were one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing. Alas! betwixt me and you the turbid waters roll. Go, on, go on; O, that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone: she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hell of unending slavery. O, my God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free! - Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught or get clear. I'll try it. I had as well be killed running as die standing. Only think of it: one hundred mile north, and I am free! Try it? yes! God helping me, I will. It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave. I will take to the water. This very bay shall be yet bear me to freedom.

As I write, the thought  struck me that this short note ought to be an Ash Wednesday message. A message which, perhaps inspired by the reflection by Frederick Douglas may lead someone to,  seek the "freedom"  from Sin and death, which Christ offers, and" Repent, and trust in God". The purpose for the season of Lent!  A time of repentance!  A time of asking for forgiveness! A time to be reconciled to God, as Paul writes in 2 . Corinthians 5:20.
Today too as I read the entire book of Joel, a part of which constituted the second lesson at church today, I was led to send out the following text message to some folks, who have been on my mind.

" Do you love the Lord Jesus? Then ' Return to the me with all your heart with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and compassionate and slow to anger and abounding in love ( it ends with ....and he relents from sending calamity). Joel 2: 12-13 NIV.

Let us then pray with the divine power that St. Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 , and to which the Lord graciously led me to read  and to use in my own personal prayers this week.

" For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of this world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and very pretension that sets up itself against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it captive to Christ."

Let us pray that, " strongholds", that keep my country in economic, moral and spiritual slavery, will be demolished, and so set my people free. Whether those strongholds be  in the corridors of power in the boardroom of corporate Jamaica; in the corridors of power in the political system; corridors of power  controlled by " Dons" and Scammers, or people of ill repute with power  in the communities, in the entertainment industry, and elsewhere.  As it is not the will of God that we should live  in slavery, of any kind,  anymore, but embrace the free gift of salvation and mercy that Jesus offers. 

Let us pray that all of us as a nation, may individually and collectively, Repent and trust in God. The God who Joel, and other prophets,  described

as  gracious and compassion, slow to anger and full of mercy, and will relent from sending  calamity if we repent. For make no mistake, in the same way that God warned His chosen people, the Jews, and other nations who had ruled over them, to turn away from their foolish ways, or calamity would befall them. So too must we go on our knees, not only for our country, but equally so for the people of the UK, and the USA,  and others, where, in far greater numbers, with already  sobering events taking place, people have turned away from the very God to whom their forebears bore witness,  in
" heathen lands".

There is a very haunting version of " Freedom" as done by the late Nina Simone which comes to mind as I close - part of which goes like this:

"Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me
And before I'd be a slave I'll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free".

I pray God, that in the same way that Elisha prayed and the eyes of his servants were opened so that he could see, " That there are more with us that those against us". So too the divine power of God will break down strongholds that prevent His  people in Jamaica, the UK, and indeed the entire world, from understanding that a life which is not reconciled to God is in slavery.   That a nation that is not reconciled to God is in slavery. And that such a condition calls for repentance. It would better therefore to die to this kind of life than remain any longer enslaved to Sin.  And now, in this Lenten period, is the time given by the Lord to Church, to receive and to  send out this message to the entire society. That Christ has paid the penalty for our Sin, and so we are already set free. We need only then to repent and ask for forgiveness. But there is a cost. To become obedient to God and listen to His Son. No wonder then that in the UK and USA, Ash Wednesday is not a Holy day on to the Lord. But an ordinary day. And if the forces of evil have their own way, this will be the fate of Jamaica that Jean  Casserly and Teddy McCook  let behind. But we trust in the God who has always been, and continues to be  " a very present help in times of trouble". As He was for Onesimus, Frederick Douglas and others who have placed their trust in Him over the ages. Amen

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