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

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Are we listening to Jesus and loving one another: or are excitement and life's challenges distracting us?

It should have been tonight, but because of scheduling problems with the media, our Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance will jointly address the nation tomorrow night instead. What will they tell us? Almost certainly something to do with the current IMF negotiations. But already the buzz is why the joint statement, a most unusual occurrence in the history of our local politics?
All of this coming hard on the heels of a glorious and highly unexpected stellar performance by the Reggae Boyz at the Azteca stadium in Mexico, where they drew nil all with the mighty Mexicans. Gaining a point for the first time ever at that venue in at any level of football. So to achieve that goal in a World Cup qualifying match was simply fantastic. I gather there was so much talk about the match that it was " trending " on twitter....with 95 million tweets per day on Twitter, to be trending is a big thing.
Two final things struck me this week. One was newsworthy. The other one is not. Sariefa Saddler that 14 year old young girl whose body was unceremoniously dumped on this side walk,  and which act  provoked widespread anger and dismay, was also raped, according to the autopsy report released this week. A colleague to whom I have writing for years about the Christian faith, and whose wife is very involved in the church, remains sadly and firmly in the unbelievers column. So too a journalist, who has a tremendous following in my country. And to whom, in addition to other, perhaps equally celebrated media practitioners, I have writing also. For a long time, with the same results. And while they decline to recognize and  join in the appeal to the One True and Almighty God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, young girls like Sariefa are brutalized. To whom then must we turn for help?

In that respect,  I have written about it before, but it bears repeating now. On a visit to Singapore many years ago, early one morning whilst exercising, I saw a young girl waiting on the school bus in the dark. Alone. The answer to my obvious question, born out of my Jamaican experience, was that no one would dare cause her any harm. Since then, it has been my dream to live in a country where young girls and women could walk about unmolested. Just that. No extraordinary riches. No first world living standards. Just respect for the " fairer "  sex. Sadly, for many of us  this dream  has become a nightmare. But God is able - to do abundantly more than we can ask or imagine.... so we press on in hope.

In the midst of all of what happened this past week, and what is likely to happen this coming week, the Lord spoke though His Word, and inspired words, a message of hope. And challenge! Not only to the individuals in question, but to all unbelievers and to all of us  who claim to believe also.
Perhaps none more challenging that a hymn we sang at church today:

Once to every man and nation
comes the moment to decide,
in the strife of truth with falsehood,
for good or evil side;
some great cause, God's new Messiah,
offering each the bloom or blight -
and the choice goes by for ever
'twixt that darkness and that light

Then to side with truth is noble,
when we share her wretched crust,
ere her cause bring fame and profit,
and 'tis prosperous to be just;
then it is the brave man chooses,
while the coward stands aside,
till the multitude make virtue
of the faith they had denied

By the light of burning martyrs,
Christ, thy bleeding feet we track
toiling up new Calvaries ever
with the cross that turns not back.
New occasions teach new duties;
time makes ancient good uncouth;
they must upward still and onward
who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper,
yet 'tis truth alone is strong;
though her portion be the scaffold,
and upon the throne be wrong -
yet that scaffold sways the future,
and, behind the dim unknown,
standeth God within the shadow
keeping watch above  his own.

One of the many messages, revealed in that beautiful hymn, is the essence of the Christian faith: That out of evil cometh good. Everytime!. That's the basis of the hope, the foundation, on which we can survive the savage attacks on our precious children. And, believe it or not (God is really is good God and we  should listen to Him more often that we do)  that - good comes out of evil -  was the essence of a note written to the unbelieving journalist and colleague, concerning how Western Culture came to value and to cherish Freedom.


There is  nothing to beat an eyewitness in reporting a story. That's the basis on which justice is often meted out and news carried to a nation. So why should we not believe Paul, whose testimony is highlighted not only in the Holy Bible, but equally so,  in the seminal, but highly secular,  work of Professor H. Orlando Patterson's " Freedom in the making of Western Culture". ( Chapter 19. Paul and the Freedom of Mankind).
Patterson ends his book, after writing 22 chapters,  in this fashion, towards the end of CODA.

"If this history of the West's most important value has taught us anything, then it is not mainly the "fragility of goodness," as Nussbaum rightly but rather too gently conceives it, and certainly, not, to take the opposite brutalist extreme of  RobertMichaels, that there are iron sociological laws of freedom that go " beyond  good and evil". There are no such iron laws in human culture, and nothing goes beyond good and evil. To its great credit, Western culture has never tried to conceal this terrible truth, although it is one our present era is all too eager to shun.
From its secular Greek roots, the West learned the lesson of the tragic dramatists that the only wisdom worthy of remembrance comes from struggle and unfathomable suffering: freedom is the gift of " the wisdom won from pain". From itsJudeo-Christian religion, forged in the sickening horror of Roman slave society, the West learned the reinforcing spiritual truth that " out of evil cometh good". The vision of Israel emerged from the bondage of Egypt. Redemption - spiritual freedom - was not simply liberation from slavery to sin, but as Paul saw with his fearsome vision, the suffering of sin made necessary the coming of Christ and the promise of the cross - that central and most protean civilizational symbol of death and rebirth, estrangement and reconciliation, slavery and salvation. Less obviously, but for that same reason, more subliminally potent, in the image of the nailed, dying God, we see the permanent horror of constraint; in the image of the wooden cross - the vertical crossroads, the Pythagorean " Y" - we see the ultimate veneration of choice. Whether we chose to believe this or not, it is this strange, terrifying vision, at once mortal and divine, that has fashioned the culture and genius of the West.
All who have come up from the abyss of slavery and serfdom - the children of slaves as well as the children of slave mongers - must be humbled by this truth each time we celebrate our freedom.

" Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them - yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed."  1 Corinthians 15: 1-11 NIV ( The New Testament reading appointed for the Anglican church for Sunday).
Sent from my iPad

Finally, at church today, the preacher posed a serious question. I took notes and sent the following summary to the congregation - along with pictures of the highlights after service,  which is my accustomed habit, each week.


Last week Father Kitson posed the question during his sermon: " Do you love Jesus"?. This week Father Tony's question was : " Are we listening to Jesus?". Both very important issues as we are about to enter into our Lenten disciplines. . Perhaps we will soon hear one on : " Are we being obedient to Jesus"? 

 This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him. This is how God described the Transfigured Jesus on the Mount to his sleepy disciples. Moses was there, representing the Law, which they had refused to listen to...according to Father Tony. So was Elijah, who represented the Prophets, who, again the people of Israel had ignored. So the Lord sent His Son. Question is, are we being like the children of Israel or are we listening to Jesus. And what specifically is Jesus saying to us. According to Father Tony, He has given us a " new commandment". " Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another". 

And the ultimate love that Jesus showed was manifest on the Cross of Calvary. So we are called to love one another sacrificially! Wow! Further, in quoting from the Epistle in that famous Corinthians Chapter 13, Father Tony reminded us that  love is patient"; patient with those who have been socialized differently from us...patient with our church family....patient with siblings....with other family members...with those less fortunate. Love is the vulnerable. Love is not envious of those who may appear to be getting more love from others than we are. Teachers in particular, with whom children spend so much of their waking hours, need to be very patient and mindful of the awesome role they are called to play in molding the children under their care. Without love we are nothing...good sermon....wonderful acts of kindness..without love is pointless...called to love and be patient even with the road users..great sermon.

Final Comment: In the final analysis, when we come face to face with the One true and Almighty God, as we all will, regardless of whether we believe or not,  it is not how much  joy we gained  from watching football or Track and Field; it is not how much we contributed to the economic development of our country; it will not matter if we are bright and intelligent and " can work out things for ourselves"; it is not even whether we attended church all of lives, that will matter. No, simply, it will be whether or not we loved. Whether we loved the Lord Jesus who God sent. Whether we listened to Him? Whether we loved one another? Whether we loved the least among us. Whether we loved one another, in the same way that Jesus loved us. That is, sacrificially! That's the Truth that  is Jesus. So as the song writer encourages: " Then to side with truth is noble...then the brave man chooses". I pray God that this week and as we enter into Lent, we may choose well. As other Shariefa's and a nation future, hang on the actions, the love and the faith of those who trust in an Almighty God. Amen.