A few weeks ago, Canon Andrew White, better known as the ‘Vicar of Baghdad,’ visited our city (I have many Anglican friends, but with respect I don’t enjoy terms like ‘vicar’ and ‘bishop’ and ‘priest’ because Christ is all those to every believer). I wasn’t intending to attend his meeting at a mega church venue, but at the last moment felt prompted to do so. I’m glad I went. He shared many rich things about himself and his congregation, St. George’s Anglican Church, in the heart of Baghdad. Besides his ministry at St. George’s, Andrew White has played some key ‘dialogue’ roles between Middle Eastern Jews and Muslims, politicians and religious leaders.
Some things of interest…
- Baghdad has a population of some 7.2 million. It’s a large city!
- St. George’s does wonderful work in terms of education, daily feeding of the poor, medical relief, reconciliation, etc.
- While I knew that Iraq’s roots lay in ancient Eden and Mesopotamia (the home of Abraham), I had missed the point that it was that reluctant evangelist Jonah who had totally evangelised ancient Nineveh (to his dismay), from whom many modern Iraqi’s stem. I.o.w. they have rich ‘Christian’ roots from way back then!
- Most Iraqi Christians living outside of Iraq today are found in Chicago, USA. One can imagine how many doors that could open up for the reconciliation and restoration of Iraq.
- In the Baghdad ministry many miracles have been witnessed – provision, healings, even resurrections. That happens, of course, when we live and proclaim ‘the Good News of the Kingdom.’
- Canon White sees no sense in dropping bombs on ISIS, angrily declaring it ‘absolutely useless!’
Of course the speaker shared something of the enormous price Iraqis and the Iraqi Church have paid in the past years due to dictatorships and military intervention, and are paying due to civil strife, religious wars and more recently the annexations of ISIS. He mentioned the case where a Christian father had tried to protect his children by pretending to convert to Islam, and his resultant guilt and brokenness – Canon White assured him that most fathers would have done the same in his position. Was it the same case or another (I’m following my hastily scribbled notes) where ISIS soldiers were interrogating some Christian children, and they replied ‘But we’ve always known Jesus, we’ve always served Jesus…’ On that confession they were summarily shot. Someone brought a comforting reminder that those very children were ‘now dancing in heaven!’ I’m sure they were, and perhaps father Abraham and evangelist Jonah were dancing with them too!
I loved the Canon’s obvious, overflowing, unfeigned love for children! He obviously spends much time with the children of his parish and city, and they love him in return. I loved the way he handled the children in the audience that night, one little girl in particular by the name of Michelle – she crept into our hearts as Andrew and she engaged in banter. He told us about his recent fund-raising visit to Seattle, where one little boy gave him $ 1 for the poor of Baghdad – that simple act led to others joining and the result was $ 1 million raised for the cause!
I also loved his simplicity of faith, despite being a man of academic achievements (Cambridge University, Yeshiva College) and other professional qualifications. When one well-known local mega church pastor asked him a loaded question (eschatologically) as to ‘Iraq’s salvation role in the Middle East right now,’ Canon Andrew mused for a moment and then burst into a simple children’s song about ‘Jesus coming soon’ – all 700 of the audience joined in enthusiastically, and there were few dry eyes. I thought of how often Jesus pointed adults to children, exalting their simplicity and trust, and underlining their attitude as the way forward for all his followers (Mt. 18, etc). Asked if he was ever fearful amid the dangers of Iraq, Andrew intimated that he had never been fearful because he was assured of Jesus’ love (cf 1 Jn. 4:18) – this prompted him to start singing, ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’ [which, by the way, when asked by university students what was the essential core of his theology (consisting of massive volumes under the title Church Dogmatics), the renowned 20th century theologian Karl Barth was said to reply in the same words, ‘Jesus loves me…’] The Canon reminded us that of course the days before the Lord’s return would be exceedingly difficult, but at the same time exceedingly ‘glorious!’
Let me conclude with two final impressions (I’m aware, of course, that all the above is a reflection of the meeting through my eyes – others may have seen things differently).
- Words uttered by Canon Andrew which will remain with me for ever are these, ‘We have lost everything… we have only Jesus left!’ What a prophetic word for the world at large, for the Church at large. In my blogs over the years I have maintained that the Church in the West, particularly, has too much of everything: talent, money, charisma, organisation, power, publicity, etc, and we have yet (largely) to discover/re-discover JESUS. [cf. Philip Yancey’s (Editor-at-Large of ‘Christianity Today’) ‘The Jesus I Never Knew;’ theologian N.T. Wright’s ‘The Challenge of Jesus’ and ‘Simply Jesus;’ etc]
- Another sentence that challenged me was, ‘Every day we should take a risk for Jesus!’ When last did you, did I??
In the words of the song by Chris Rice, ‘Carry your candle, go light the world…’ Or in the words of Jesus in his great Sermon on the Mount, ‘You are the light of the world – like a city on a mountain, glowing in the night for all to see. Don’t hide your light under a basket! Instead, put it on a stand and let it shine for all…’ (Mt. 5:14-15/NLT). For all South Africans, who suffer the frustration of electric power and lighting cuts too regularly these days, these words should have extra impact!