WHEN WE’VE LOST EVERYTHING…

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!

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SELFIES AND THE BIGGER PICTURE

There’s surely nothing sinful about selfies, but I guess when you start suffering from ‘selfie stick elbow,’ things are somewhat out of control. I think most believers would agree that our present world is rather besotted with ‘things’ and ‘self,’ perhaps many wouldn’t agree that that same ‘worldly’ spirit’ has all but swamped the contemporary Church. Just yesterday I was told of a young mother whose ‘committed’ Christian mother refuses her grandchildren entry into her pristine lounge lest her ultra-luxury couches get scratched or marked.

It doesn’t help when much (most?) of today’s Christian literature sold in ‘Christian’ bookstores peddles authors and preachers catering for every selfish mindset on planet earth. Just yesterday I visited one of the most popular stores in town and was once more appalled by the materials on sale – I could mention some of the top-selling ‘Christian’ authors promoting a theology of self, but perhaps let’s just leave it there. On the other hand I was able to purchase a brand-new hard cover book by the renowned author Phyllis Tickle, marked down from R. 185 to R. 25!

In short, one can hardly get people to buy into any form of Christianity unless you present the carrot of ‘WIIFM,’ ‘what’s in it for me?‘ In contrast, reading through 1 Peter 2 for family prayers a fortnight ago, my wife and I were struck by the words of 2:11ff, where the once ego-centric disciple turned Christo-centric apostle reminds the suffering Gentile churches of Asia Minor (MSG), “Friends, this world is not your home, so don’t make yourselves cozy in it. Don’t indulge your ego at the expense of your soul. Live an exemplary life among the natives so that your actions will refute their prejudices… Make the Master proud of you by being good citizens…” (no other-worldly, harps-and-halos gospel here).

Somehow we have allowed the enemy to blind us to ‘the bigger picture’ of the Bible. It has taken the likes of N.T. Wright (Jesus and the Victory of God, etc) to point out how YHWH was forever trying to get his covenant people to understand that their true calling lay way beyond the nation:  elect Israel was to take his light to the nations and make him King of all the earth! [note Abram’s calling in Gen. 12, note the prophets from Isaiah to Zechariah]. “The narrative of YHWH’s dealings with Israel was designed to contribute to the larger story, of the creator’s dealings with the cosmos” (Wright).This was exactly the message of Jesus! He came proclaiming God’s story, the story of Israel’s God and his dealings with Israel and the world, the story of how that larger story was reaching its climax in his person and work. In the most radical way imaginable, Jesus presented himself and his message as a story about an alternative order of reality that, he believed, would be accomplished through his death and resurrection. It was in this context that Jesus called Israel to repent and believe the good news of the kingdom (Mk. 1:14-15). For more of the bigger picture, perhaps re-read Paul’s Letters to the Ephesians 1-3 and Colossians 1-2. Col. 1:15ff (MSG) reads, “We look at the Son of God and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely every thing, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank of angels – everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before anything came into existence and holds it together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body. He was supreme in the beginning and – leading the resurrection parade – he is supreme in the end… So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – people and things, animals and atoms – get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood poured down from the Cross.”

Much recent preaching and writing has focussed on ‘discovering your destiny,’ ‘finding your purpose,’ ‘making it happen,’ etc. There’s a measure of truth there – as long as it doesn’t begin and end with yourself. The bigger picture is that it begins and ends in Christ and God’s new creation in him! Recently I looked into the life of that genius psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), survivor of the Holocaust, founder of logotherapy. His best-selling book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ expounds our essential need for purpose, in all forms of life even the most brutal ones. What kept him going in the death camps was the discovery that ‘love is the ultimate and highest goal to which Man can aspire… The salvation of Man is through love and in love…’ Frankl was a Jew and a humanist – how more should we have purpose as beneficiaries of the cross-shaped love of Jesus! (cf. 2 Cor. 5:11-6:2).

Is there an ‘antidote’ for mankind’s (and even the Church’s) narcissism?

  • Ask the Spirit to reveal the bigger picture to you (Eph. 1:17ff). Let us repent of our ‘selfy’ view of God’s purpose (individual and corporate) and ‘believe’ the good news of God’s kingdom (Mk. 1:14-15).
  • Count Zinzendorf of the Moravian movement, which did more for world mission in twenty years than the whole church in the previous two hundred, said ‘I am destined to proclaim the message, unmindful of personal consequences to myself.’ Being Church means both community and mission, in fact they are inseparable twins.
  • The secret is (by grace alone) accepting Jesus’ conditions for discipleship and life:  Mk. 8:34ff (MSG), “Calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, ‘Any one who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?'”

[NB:  I have deliberately quoted the above scriptures from E. Peterson’s paraphrase ‘The Message,’ because over-familiarity with our favourite translations can sometimes rob us of the freshness and impact of the authors’ intent]