Onward Christian Socialist
By Terry Wynn
"Faint was I, and fears possessed me,
Bruised was I from many a fall;
Hope was gone, and shame distressed me;
But His love has pardoned all."
Francis Harold Rowley (1854 - 1952)
COME ON DOWN
A holiday in "the country", i.e. a rural environment, was foreign to me as a child. Nobody went to "the country" unless they were posh or daft. There was nothing to do there. It was just full of grass and cows. A holiday, a real holiday, was to go to the seaside, to Blackpool or Southport, or Middleton Tower Holiday Camp at Morecambe. Now, they were holidays!
One of the highlights of the year was the annual Labour Club trip to Southport. Hundreds of kids from Platt Bridge piled onto double-decker buses on Saturday morning for a big day out. We were given a £1 note and had our dinner (i.e. lunch) in the Baths Cafe on the Promenade. In later years we were given a packed lunch which was usually eaten before we left Platt Bridge.
On the lapel of your jacket there was pinned a cardboard badge. On one side it read "Platt Bridge Labour Club Trip" and on the other something like, "If this child is lost, please return to Platt Bridge Labour Club". That badge was your security if the coaches left without you; it was your insurance that someone would get you home.
I often think that a lot of grown-ups need a badge which says, "This person is a child of God - if lost please return to Him". A lot of people get spiritually lost, not knowing what they want from life or where they are going. They have a great time, like we used to at Southport, but then they miss the bus.
A good example is that of Gerald Williams, the BBC Television commentator and journalist, who said in "Power for Living":
“There were two elements in my life that I considered indestructible, as I headed towards Fleet Street, and a byline on the sports pages and, beyond that, to radio and television commentary. Those elements were my family and my marriage.
"In five years, first my mother died, then my wife left me for someone she loved more, then my elder brother died and finally a second, senseless, romantic, tempestuous marriage fell to pieces almost before it had started.
"One night, alone in my house and unable to sleep, I shouted out to God: ‘Where are you? If you're there prove yourself!’.
"After all the years of Sunday churchgoing - originally forced, then intermittent - it was the first prayer I had ever prayed from the depth of my heart. God answers that sort of prayer, I discovered.
"The first thing He did was to get a friend to hand me a book. It made the mind-boggling claim that God is much more than some wise figure up there in the heavens; that He is alive today. With an unquenchable hunger, I sought Him and He came, at my invitation, to begin the work of making me a new person. The Bible says: ‘When anyone is in Christ, he is a new being, the old is passed away ...’. It is true! It is supernatural! I had to be humble enough to ask, daring enough to believe. In desperation, I did, and it was the making of me."
I'm reminded of one of Jesus' parables that I could never quite understand. It's the one about the prodigal son, the young man who took his share of his father's inheritance before his dad died, went off, blew the lot then decided to return home. The old man lays on a great celebration on his return, he is absolutely thrilled to see him. His brother, who stayed at home working the land, was not over pleased at his dad's actions. Dad says to him, "Listen son, for all intents and purposes your brother was dead but now I know he's alive and he's back home. I don't love him more than you, I love you both", or something like that. Now for years, I couldn't figure this out. The brother who stayed at home had my full sympathy, his dad was far too forgiving to this waster and layabout who deserved all he got.
That was until my own kids began to grow up and I discovered that a parent loves an eighteen-year-old just as much as when he or she was eighteen days old or eighteen month’s old. Even now at the time of writing my son is twenty-seven and my daughter twenty-four; I love them just as much now as I did on the day they were born even though they drive me to despair at times. It's the same love that the prodigal's father had for his son; I now know how glad he was. No wonder he celebrated. Parents never stop loving or worrying about their children.
So it is with us, we go off, enjoy our day out of life, we use our God-given free will to do what we want, consume what we want and believe what we want; we don't really care. But when it's time to say, "Maybe I'm not doing things right" when, like the prodigal, you want to say, "I'm sorry, forgive me" to God, then He too celebrates. He doesn't condemn or castigate us - instead we are welcomed with open arms because He loves us as any father or mother loves their children.
That's what families are for and we are all part of God's family but, you have to feel wanted within the family. Rest assured that God has all His love there for you, even if there may be one or two people like the prodigal's brother, but that shouldn't detract from knowing God's love. Wanting to be part of the family is half the battle won.
Have you ever seen the TV programme, "The Price is Right", with Leslie Crowther? If you had any sense you'd avoid it like the plague but millions did watch it (millions read "The Sun", so that means nothing). It was all cheering and clapping with prizes galore and with the audience keen to get at them. Leslie Crowther would pick a name, read it out and shout, "Come on down", to the lucky person who then got a chance to win the prizes. Even if they didn't win they always said, "I was pleased just to take part in it".
Should the non-believer, who is trying to find out what it's like in church, sit in many a typical congregation, he or she would more likely than not die of boredom, understanding very little and wondering why there is a lack of joy. Of course, it's also easy to find lively churches but the congregation does not have to be like "The Price is Right" for it to be enjoying itself or glad to be taking part? Once you know the routine, and feel God's presence, then it really is a pleasure to be taking part, regardless of the style of service.
Don't expect the minister, priest, vicar or preacher to shout out your name to "Come on down", but do expect God to do just that; as was said in Chapter 3, He calls all kinds.
In Chapter 3, it was said that if Big Graham could become a Christian then anyone could. (Incidentally he has been out of prison for a number of years and travels about talking of his experience). This shouldn't come as a surprise because, throughout the history of Christianity, God has called those who would least expect it. In the first instance, the disciples were hardly the Palestinian intelligentsia or the aristocracy of the day. They comprised such occupations as a tax collector and fishermen. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was from the working class as was Joseph, her husband. St. Paul may have had a certain social standing, but he hardly expected to become a follower of Christ since he spent so much time persecuting the followers of this man, Jesus.
The fact is that God often calls people who least expect it; He often acts in surprising and unexpected ways.
I like the bit in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (1 : 26), where he tells them they weren't chosen because they were powerful or upper class; he says God chooses the weak to shame the powerful. What better example than the work of Amnesty International to illustrate how "weak" people can shame governments into action.
In the same chapter in that letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells them that God chooses what the world considers nonsense to shame the wise. For example, that a man can rise from the dead and that his teachings are still growing throughout the world two thousand years later. Nonsense? Not at all.
He also says that God chooses what the world looks down on and despises. Big Graham, fishermen, tax collectors. The rich and powerful have no automatic hot line to God because of their wealth and power.
Paul is telling us that God chooses those who least expect to be chosen and, when someone knows that they want to be involved or committed, then begins an unexpected adventure, uncertain of what the future holds, but certain that God is in it and with them.
Faith in God through Jesus is there for the taking. It's a faith that is prepared to accept God's will and is content to let it take shape.
People who become Christians do so by a variety of routes. Some by immediate conversion, some by experience, most by a long association with the Church, a gradual process. In each case it's a matter of God calling them. Those who were brought up in the Church and haven't left, have stayed for a reason. Those who leave and drift back, do so for a reason.
A mate of mine, Hal Blackburn, died at the age of thirty-seven. I'd known him and Beryl, his wife, since the youth club days. When he died Beryl found no comfort in the Church or in the minister who visited her. I led the memorial service on the Sunday evening after the funeral and I felt deeply for Beryl - her faith had gone from her. What had God done to her?
She tells how Jim Dahlman, the American pastor from the local Church of Christ where Hal's mother went to worship, paid her regular visits. Jim and his wife, Melissa, had settled in Platt Bridge, this old mining village with its problem council housing estates - a million miles away from their Florida home. He gave Beryl the chance to vent her feelings and had the right things to say at the right time. He helped tremendously.
Beryl tells how two things happened to her. The first was during her work. She trained newly-blind people how to adapt to life. "One day I had to stand on one side of the street while my trainee was on the other; my job was to observe her crossing the road", she said. "I was feeling extremely sorry for myself when I looked down at my feet. I was standing in cherry blossom petals that covered the pavement; I was making an arc of them with my foot when I realized how beautiful they were. Then I realized my trainee would never see such beauty. From then on I stopped feeling sorry for myself, realizing how fortunate I was in life."
The second thing was when she was on holiday in the Alps. "I was sitting on a mountain, looking at the view and I realized how wonderful the world was. At that point, I knew God existed, and I knew that I wanted to belong to Him."
Hal's death could have been the end of her faith but she came through that heartbreaking, black period to become the effervescent, laughing, loving, living person that she is today, complete with her faith. In fact, she would make a good contestant on “The Price is Right”.
People come to God for a variety of reasons. To do what and to get what from it? Well, it's not to get glittery prizes. Just look at what the disciples got, or the early Christians or Christian martyrs through the ages. You get challenged, you get confused, you get frustrated but you also get immense joy and satisfaction. I said at the beginning of Chapter 5 that it's not fashionable to be a Christian, nor is it easy for many people, but those who do want to take up the challenge of being called to "Come on down" have a role to play.
Some may find it difficult, considering themselves not to be worthy of doing so. They may suffer from self-imposed images - "I'm hopeless; I'm pathetic; I'm a failure; I'll never be any different; I'm too old; I'm too thick; I'm too poor.” The things that trap people and rob them of the power to "Come on down". Colin Morris talked of these attitudes being "Mind-forged manacles", which can be smashed off by Christ's teachings. They can be free of the self-imposed images and images imposed by others. It's done by Christian conversion. Don't cringe in embarrassment at the word conversion, even though it may be tarred with the brush of religious fanatics overtly displaying their piety and wanting to know if you are saved.
The fact is that conversion is a process that occurs continually in society. How do you think society changes? Because in politics, science and culture people are converted to and from "isms" and "ologies" all the time and, as a consequence, readjust their attitudes and thoughts, sometimes radically. The next chapter illustrates this when it discusses the word "redemption". Suffice to say that conversion is the process whereby a captive personality is liberated by the power of the person and the teaching of Jesus even though this may take years to achieve. Conversion is about making a cool, calm commitment to follow the route that leads to Jesus rather than any other one.
The object is not to become a “Holy Joe” but to make sure that you can handle the pressure points in your life. Conversion means facing up to the challenges of life; it's not meant to affect your hymn singing.
At one of the best services I ever attended, the minister, David Saunders, instead of preaching a sermon did interviews with members of the congregation, a kind of mock TV interview. The simple question he asked was, "How does your Christian faith effect you as a ..." it could have been a nurse, a mother, a trade unionist. People were put on the spot and in effect were giving testimonies of their lives.
It went okay until one old gentleman complained that this wasn't worship and was out of place in a church. Years later I did something similar, only this time I pre-warned the people I would ask. Whilst they were good - they were also lengthy, since they’d had time to think about their roles as musician, youth worker and teacher.
Time only allowed me to get responses from three people. After the service Helen Shegog, a wonderfully young octogenarian, came up to me. She had been one I had asked, as a mother, but I hadn't had the time to reach her. She gave me a note and on it was what she would have said. "You may be able to use it some other time”, she said. I have done on many occasions. Here's what it said: "I became a Christian in my early teens after attending a service at the local Gospel Hall. My first testing was after my first baby son died, which was devastating for a young mother. It was my faith which helped me through. Fortunately I had two more sons later.
"The second testing was when my husband became ill and spent nearly two years in hospital in North Wales. We had only lived in Hindley Green for nine months and my boys were aged nine and eleven. I didn't know many people but as we had joined the Bethel Church I made new friends who were extremely kind and supportive. As petrol was rationed, I had to depend on someone to take me once a month to visit George, or make my own way on the bus. Again my faith sustained me.
"Of course your faith has to be active too. Again I was challenged when Mr. Burrel, one of our ministers, brought a letter from the Children's Department to see if we would foster a girl of seventeen. I thought and prayed about it and as I was a Christian I felt bound to take Vivienne, which we did, and later we took her fifteen-year-old brother, Don. They were very happy with us. They still write to us and Vivienne calls every Christmas with her daughter. It is remarkable what you can do if you trust in God.
"The two commandments Jesus gave us, namely you should Love the Lord your God, and your neighbour as yourself, help me to live out my faith. Also, the Psalmist says, 'Be still and know that I am God' and this is my reassurance when in trouble, as well as Jesus' words, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you’.
Not everyone will be evangelists, missionaries, ministers, healers or work with those in need. The vast majority of God's people simply put their talents to His service, like Helen Shegog.
Let me again digress for a moment and comment on a point made in Chapter 5. The statement often heard, "I can be a Christian without going to church", is absolute bunkum. The Church is the body of Christ on earth today, there to do His will, made up of millions of individuals who need to work together in order for the whole to function. A disunited bunch of individuals would not give encouragement to each other, would not celebrate the sacraments together, would not build up for the future or invest in spreading “The Good News”. The Church may often seem disunited but at least it is a bunch who are trying to work together for a common aim.
The old story of the young man who reckoned he could leave the church because he could worship alone, best illustrates this. The elder person he was speaking to at the time, as they sat in front of a coal fire, took the poker and knocked one of the burning coals from the fire. They watched it together until it slowly burned out. The fire continued to burn, of course, and the old man said, "And that is what will happen to your commitment to God, it will last a while then be extinguished. As part of the rest, you will continue to burn."
We go to church if for nothing else, to get our batteries charged for the week ahead, and if you're in a church where you feel worse at the end of the service than when you went in, then you're in the wrong Church; get out or change it.
Rob Frost, a Methodist Minister, said that many churchgoers have a look on their face as though they were on the way to the dentist - and after the service when they go home, they look as if they have been.
Churches are expected to be there if only for others to use them for baptisms, weddings and funerals, the hatching, matching and dispatching routine that people expect. What is forgotten is that buildings need money, time and commitment to keep them going. Non-churchgoers "expect" the local church to be there for when they want to use it, but who do you think pays for its upkeep; pays the wages of the ministers? In the Methodist Church there isn't a bottomless, central pit that pours money out. On the contrary, many thousands of local people throughout the country give of their time (a precious gift), efforts and money to ensure that churches continue to exist throughout the land.
This may seem irrelevant, but it means people give of their talents to God through caretaking, maintenance, acting as treasurer, helping where possible in whatever way they can. I know a lot of people who lack self-confidence, especially women, who say, "I can't do anything", yet they can - a lot. If it were not for women, I doubt if there would be a church open in the world. For them being called to "Come on down" means they run the church, balance the books, heat and repair the place for God's benefit and the benefit of others. If no one bothered, where would the Church be, what would be left of the body of Christ on earth?
And for this work there are no accolades, no memorial stones, no statues, no names in stained-glass windows. They won't be canonized, or remembered in history books, but God knows of their work, work that is not without pain or sacrifice.
The talents we have should be used as best we can. Not everyone will work for the local church. For most it's a matter of simply displaying one’s faith by the way you live your life. Not by ramming it down people’s throats, not by boring them rigid but by simple works, by gossiping your faith, by being different in a world where people are expected to conform.
It's not easy but it's a joy to take part in it. To quote a piece from the NOW Magazine of the Methodist Church:
"Become involved for the sake of the world for
which Christ died. If you have no wounds, God
might ask you, ’Was there nothing worth fighting
for?’. The one who made Heaven and Earth, who
neither slumbers or sleeps, will be your helper."
God looks for scars, not medals, for His service.
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