We took a step back in time this week (maybe that’s why I’m a day later than usual with the blog.) We were in Toronto and visited Linda’s niece. She lives a couple of blocks from the old Church Army complex that we just had to stroll by. It looks quite different now. It has the same façade but has been developed as condominiums. We both had spent two memorable years there during our training period and then several years later moved back as I came on staff as Field Secretary. I worked in personnel and was Captain T.’s personal assistant for seven years.
The training period was wonderfully formative and I remember those times with a warm nostalgia. The community life with the rhythms of prayer, study and service is responsible for making me the person I am today. It wasn’t all fun, formation never is, but our memories are filled with joy. From early morning chapel services to singing before meals to a regular Thursday Night Prayer Meeting featuring a missionary home from some exotic mission field, these were the occasions where we ‘caught’ the zeal for the Gospel.
When I first entered the training, I knew the Gospel narrative and I knew many of the stories of the Old testament and the Acts of the Apostles but it was here that I began to grasp the connected and overarching story of God and his people. It was here that I began to formulate a theology that would sustain me through the years. The training though was as much about practise as it was about theoretical learning. Each student had a challenging practical placement outside the academic studies.
Community life is never easy, but in hindsight it was the very best feature of those days. Solomon writes about iron sharpening iron and that was certainly the case! We learned that we were inadequate to the task and to trust in God. The way to personal growth often lay in the shade of humility fostered in failure. We were thrown in over our heads and were to sink or swim. More often folks sank and I realise this may not be the most proficient discipling model, but it worked for me. I will be eternally grateful for those days. I find myself sorry that the students of today will never know this kind of formation. Time has marched on, as it inevitably does, and different methods are adopted for a different time.
Real formative discipleship remains essential, though. Education alone does not suffice. Our church in the west may be the most educated and simultaneously in steep decline. The answer is not in the head alone but in heart and in the hands. Zeal is sometimes scorned in our education dominated church culture, but it remains indispensable to the carrying out of the commission of the Church. The hands too need to be engaged. Our words without our action become meaningless to hurting world. My training reinforced the lesson I learned in elementary school. It is all about “Show and Tell!”
Liza first came into our circle several years ago. We met her through our friend Catherine who had an amazingly fruitful ministry among the women on the streets of Saint John. Liza was homeless and Catherine literally took her in. They became more than room mates. They became good friends. Liza went on first to employment with the Y and later as sexton at Stone Church. She would come to our Bible Study on her breaks and she was an energetic volunteer in the days when we put on community meals. She used to bring a box of doughnuts to our Sunday evening services. She would make sure no one took the apple fritter which was designated for me nor the Boston Cream which was for her. She could be gruff but despite herself she revealed a heart of gold. We shared innumerable meals together. She loved to share her cheesecakes with us.
About two years ago she was given a diagnosis that shook us all! She had only a year to live! Through these last two years she suffered much pain all the while continuing her two physically taxing jobs. She became so thin that you could probably circle he calf between thumb and forefinger.
During this time, I often thought about the passage from Romans “And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; character hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, he has given us.” Liza suffered and she persevered valiantly and by doing so evidenced Christ-like character. She knew a hope that sustained her, because she experienced the love of God. This is a hope that does not disappoint!
I imagine her now swapping cheesecake recipes with our Street Hope friend Larry, who went before her. They both loved cooking and sharing their efforts. Liza has realized her hope! To be absent from the body is to be with the Lord!
We already miss her terribly, but we are rejoicing that the suffering is over and that she no longer has to persevere. God’s final refining of her character is complete, and she is at rest.
We laughed and cried together, and we shared a hope that never disappoints!
Last night we celebrated another example of hope at a friend’s 14th anniversary of sobriety. While we congratulate our friend, it is the hope that this same ‘miracle’ is available to any who turn in submission to God and walk in obedience to his way. It is, again, a hope that does not disappoint!
Often in conversations the topic “Who was the greatest?” crops up. Who is the greatest hockey player? (Gordie Howe). Who is the greatest hockey goalie? (Terry Sawchuk) Who is the greatest actor (Meryl Streep) etc.
This week a new question arose. Who is the Old Testament character who is most like Christ?
One nominee is Moses. He was instrumental in the deliverance of his people. He taught them a new way of living. He interceded with God on behalf of his people. He had an intimate relationship with God. He too, had a miraculous birth story. On the flip side he had a temper that caused him to: murder, shatter tablets, and strike a rock he was told to speak to.
Another nominee might be Joseph, who bore injustice and remained faithful. He became the instrument for saving the people of Israel. He is the very picture of mercy and forgiveness in the face of egregious treatment at the hands of those he loved. In all things he resisted the worship of Mammon and stayed true to God. Adversity made him better rather than bitter.
King David might be another. He is described as the “apple of God’s eye”. His kingdom is looked upon as the Golden Age for the nation of Israel. He is a worshipper who points others to God. He is a conquering warrior. In so many ways he demonstrates a heart for God but at the same time he demonstrates so many flaws that he better represents you and me than he does Christ.
My nominee though is perhaps a little ‘off the board’. I suggest that Hosea is likely the most Christ-like of all the Old testament characters. In obedience to God Hosea sets his affections on an unworthy object. Gomer is a faithless idolatrous and adulterous woman. Hosea commits himself unconditionally to her. Time and again she turns from the purity of his love for her to the pursuit of trinkets and short-term pleasures. Finally, when she has hit ‘rock bottom’ and carnal pleasures have faded and failed, Hosea, at great personal expense buys her back. He literally redeems her! She has done nothing to earn or deserve this. It seems to me that it is in offering unconditional love that Hosea is most Christ-like.
This is a reminder to us as Christians (people who are called to be like Jesus) that we are most like him when we actively love the unlovely. The love of Christ ought to constrain us to love in kind with a Saviour, who lavishes that love on unworthy recipients like you and like me. Like Hosea I want to be obedient to God in loving and not letting love be contingent on reciprocation.