29 April 2013 You are here:

To serve the present age

To serve the present age… with sincere apologies to William Booth!

To serve the present age, my calling to fulfil, O may it all my powers engage, to do my Master’s will!

We sing it with great determination, although many of us sing with considerable trepidation as well. Serving our world, our time, our age, is not merely a noble intention, it is our holy vocation – as the song, from which the stanza above is taken, clearly confirms.

At an inspirational Half-a-Divisional Welcome And Celebration in a packed Staines corps hall a week ago (the other half – equally inspirational and packed out – was held at Dunstable the following afternoon), we were considering this responsibility: to serve the present age. Earlier, the divisional leaders had encouraged the Salvationists present to see and seize the limitless opportunities that present themselves to us as God’s people.

I spoke of our need for a foundation – that our past forms our identity and informs our theology. I then moved to the present and spoke about the age in which we live – the plethora of “isms”: humanism, secularism, extremism, consumerism, radicalism, fundamentalism, relativism, postmodernism and post-postmodernism. The chaos of contradictions, including rude wealth alongside abject poverty, open borders with increasing xenophobia. I spoke about the challenges we have being the Church in a context where values were different to ours, with a different worldview. Then, I added: “This [serving the present age] is, arguably, a lot more challenging today than it was in Booth’s day... we are starting behind the starting-line in connecting with our context... the absolutes which connected Booth to his audience are no longer to be found.”

The next day, I listened as a nonagenarian related his mother’s teenage experiences in Booth’s Army. He spoke with some pride of the 16 year old lass “walking the gauntlet” of Skeleton Army missiles with her dauntless comrades. And, as I listened, I recalled what I had said the evening before about Booth’s context. A few minutes later, I sat beside another nonagenarian who described – with surprising detail – the start of her life as a corps officer, just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. She heard Chamberlain’s announcement in a stranger’s house, in an unknown town where she had been secretly sent with evacuee children from London the night before. And, as I listened, I recalled what I had said the evening before about Booth’s context.

Later that same day, I sat beside two octogenarian missionaries – one who spent decades of her officership in India, the other, almost as long, in Africa. I listened, fascinated, to the briefest of snapshots from their lives “out there”. And, as I listened, I recalled what I had said the evening before about Booth’s context.

Two other missionaries were there – much younger (only in their seventies – and, yes, I know they’re called septuagenarians, so don’t write in!), but with equally fascinating stories of the challenging conditions in which they served in Africa. And, as I listened, I recalled what I had said the evening before about Booth’s context.

Last Thursday, I went on the International Heritage Centre’s Whitechapel Walkabout with some 19 others “walking in Booth’s footsteps”. I listened to the enthused and engaged Lieut-Colonel Sandy Morrice speak fervently about Booth’s passion and the beginnings of The Salvation Army. A lot of what Sandy said was known to me – although there were some wonderful anecdotes I had not heard before – but it was refreshing to be “on the spot” and it helped me as I tried to visualise the setting of the incidents Sandy was describing.

As I “saw” Booth and those early pioneers, battling not only the social evils of their day, but the aggressive and, indeed, violent opposition from those with a vested interest in his failure, as well as the institutionalised opposition of the established Church, I recalled what I had said last Saturday about Booth’s context: “We’re behind the starting line compared to Booth”. Ever since I made the statement, I’ve been reminded that, actually, Booth didn’t even have a running track, let alone a starting line! So, my sincere apologies to Booth for making small the gargantuan challenges he faced!

As I “walked in Booth’s footsteps” and listened again to the way those early pioneers carved out the track on which they would run – as they ran – I found that my feet were too small and my stride was too short. I found that I couldn’t keep up with Booth’s missionary, revolutionary, risky striding into the challenges he faced. I felt that, instead of being prepared to tread water, I have wanted to wallow in the safety of the shallows; that instead of believing what I sing (“And I will soar with you…”), I have wanted to know that the landing ground will be stable and firm before I leap; that I have been preparing myself for failure by thinking about how challenging the task is. The problem with preparing for failure is that it leaves you with little opportunity, and no inclination, to prepare for success.

Do not misunderstand or misquote me – I am not talking about recklessness, where no responsible consideration is given to outcomes and consequences of one’s actions. I am talking about choosing to go with God, stepping out of the boat, crossing the Jordan River, marching around those Jericho walls, taking that step even though we are not entirely sure where it will lead nor what happens next, because we are assured that God, who is in control, does!

My prayer for myself and for the territory is that, indeed, we will serve the present age. Like Elisha (see 2 Kings 6:17), may we see beyond the challenges that surround us to the hosts that are on our side.

To serve the present age, my calling to fulfil, O may it all my powers engage, to do my Master’s will!