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The Substance of Things Hoped For
by Lieut.-Colonel Ian Barr

 

Visitors to Woolsthorpe Manor, Isaac Newton’s childhood home in middle England, are often shown a large tree in the garden. This is the “very tree” from which the famous apple allegedly fell and from which Newton reportedly formed his theory of gravitation.

 

I say it is the “very tree” but is it? A long time ago the actual tree fell, but another tree has grown from it and every autumn it produces the same kind of apples that Newton would have known. A couple of years ago I was conducting a party of school children round Westminster Abbey. When we stopped at the grave of Isaac Newton I was able to show them an apple I had picked up from the “very tree.”  Since apples are perishable goods, I gave the apple from the “very tree” to a child who was first to answer a question about Newton.

 

At the time, I confess I was unaware of a biblical connection.

“At least there is hope for a tree:

If it is cut down it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail.

Its roots may grow old in the ground

And its stump die in the soil, yet at the scent of water it will bud

And put forth shoots like a plant.”

(Job 14: 7-10)

 

Job then goes on to contrast the rebirth of the tree with the hopelessness of the human condition.

“But a man dies and is laid low;

He breathes his last and is no more.”

The scene is set for a redeemer, a bringer of life who will engender hope that sees beyond the grave.

It would be less than certain to suggest that Job was hoping for what is sometimes called an after-life. His hope was very much grounded in encounter with God in this life.

“I know that my redeemer lives,

And that in the end he will stand on the earth.

And after my skin has been destroyed,

Yet in my flesh will I see God.”

(Job 19:25 – 26)

 

The more established doctrine of the hope of heaven comes much later in the Bible.

 

I do not discount the hope of everlasting life in heaven with Christ, it is an important theme in Christian teaching. However, when the issue of life after death is reduced to questions of reward and retribution, or the resumption of earthly relationships in the form of family reunions in Heaven, or the threat of hell hanging over folk we disapprove of, we do a disservice to our faith and to the world God has given us for today. Worse still, is the terrible idea that this life is merely a rehearsal for the next.

 

Job’s vision is not for another world; it is that he will catch the vision of God in this world and that he, Job, would see God “in my flesh”

 

Given that I am not far short of my three-score-years-and –ten it is only natural to think about what happens to me when I die. To be honest, apart from the funeral plan I have already paid for, I really do not know and I am not much concerned.

 

After a series of seemingly unconnected illnesses I found myself in hospital last year. The diagnosis was pneumonia. After a process of trial and error the doctors concluded that I did not have either of the types of disease they thought I might have. In a word, I was getting worse. One night three nurses arrived in my room to carry me off to the intensive care unit. A young lady doctor asked me a number of seemingly innocuous questions: my age, my full name, my religious affiliation, things I like to eat. This was all by way of a preamble to the big question: did I want to be resuscitated if I were to go into cardiac arrest? She was so nice about it all, I immediately said yes.

 

Faced with the possibility of imminent death I was curious rather than full of faith or full of fear: just curious. What would it be like to die? St John tells us that “Jesus knew that he came from God and that he went to God” and this apparently informed his decision to take a basin and towel to wash his disciples’ feet. I knew that I would return to God when my earthly life was over, so before I went to sleep I uttered the simple prayer “Into thy hands do I commend my spirit.” Depending on how you read this prayer of Jesus it can be an expression of faith, or hope or even just resignation. In my case it was all three.

 

The lesson I draw from Job’s testimony, Jesus’ knowledge of where he came from and where he was going, and my personal experience, is that we can leave Heaven to God, and that he expects us to live out our faith and set our hopes in the present world.  When we die we leave all we have been and done to God and allow him to bring something new and fruitful to life from the fallen tree of our own generation.

 

So, these signs of hope for the world in which I find myself today, the small world of The Salvation Army.

 

The first source of hope for me is found in a simple mantra. ‘The Army belongs to God.’ I claim no originality in this, St Cyprian of Carthage said it first, “The Church belongs to God.” That is not to say we are not stewards of what God has entrusted to us, rather that we need not be febrile in our thinking and planning about the future. It is not for us to worry about the future of the Army, God has it in hand, albeit the human element may at times seek to confound God’s best plans and purposes. The question is not “How will the Army survive?” or even “How will the Army manage without me?” The solid ground of our hope is Jesus Christ, saviour, redeemer and leader.

 

My second cause for hope is the quality of our people, especially our younger officers. (By “younger” I mean anyone who is younger than me.) From observation, I have seen a change in the expectations and approach to Christian leadership.

 

The majority of officers I know are able to distinguish between “leader” and “administrator.”  Most are free of any ambition to advance through the administrative ranks or acquire legislative power. Many are also happily free of the myth of the “the dynamic leader” – few of whom are found in the New Testament. They are happy doing what they do in their community. They have vision for long-term change in human society, and for the transforming work of Christ in individuals and communities. The technical word for this is “disinterestedness” – the desire to serve free of self-interest, without expectation of recognition or worldly return. I applaud their self-denying and self-giving attitude to Salvationism and Christian service. They and those who follow them, are our hope for a faith grounded in the world as it is. The world which God loved enough to give his only Son.

 

In my own officership I regret the times I tried to be ‘relevant’ when what the world was really looking for was that we be ‘real.’  The world I live in demands authenticity before theological or even political purity.

 

Younger generations seldom share the precise values and preoccupations of the previous generation, this has been the case throughout history. Thank God, it is true of the Army today. There is a longing for the substance – or essence – of The Salvation Army, rather than a desire to maintain the outward forms of Salvationism. The ‘forms’ are only useful insofar as they express the essential message of the Army. This is not confined to our hymnody, musical sub-culture or formal uniform wearing. These are all up for discussion. The signs of hope are all to do with our essence: the revival of interest and commitment to social justice; openness to people from all kinds of background; acceptance of difference; respect for ‘the other’ and a genuine love that looks beyond the world as we would like it to be and seeks to see it as God sees and loves it.

 

We cannot tell what heaven will be like, save that we will be with Christ which is somehow far better. For the present, we look for signs of new life springing from the fallen tree of previous generations. Our “commonwealth is in Heaven” but this world is very much our home and we are not just passing through.

 

 

 

  

 

 

   

 

 

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