God’s love and a German soldier

It was 1945, World War II had drawn to a close, and a young man sat broken inside a POW camp. He had been a reluctant soldier in Hitler’s army and here, inside a prison in Scotland, he had months to contemplate what had been and what was to come. The cities of his homeland had been reduced to rubble and the people impoverished. His sleep was filled with repeating nightmares in which the terrors of warfare were lived over and over.

And then came what was for me the worst of all. In September 1945, in camp 22 in Scotland, we were confronted with pictures of Belsen and Auschwitz. They were pinned up in one of the huts, without comment… Slowly and inexorably the truth filtered into our awareness, and we saw ourselves mirrored in the eyes of the Nazi victims. Was this what we had fought for? Had my generation, as the last, been driven to our deaths so that the concentration camp murderers could go on killing, and Hitler could live a few months longer?… The depression over the wartime destruction and a captivity without any apparent end was exacerbated by feelings of profound shame and having to share in this disgrace. That was undoubtedly the hardest thing, a stranglehold that choked us.

An unshakeable shame saturated his being and the only future he could see stretching out before him was one that filled him with despair. Yet it was in the midst of this shame and despair that God found him. A visiting chaplain gave the soldier a Bible and, with little else to do, he began reading it. In the lament Psalms he heard resonant voices, the agony of people who felt God had abandoned them. In the story of Christ crucified he encountered a God who knew what it was to experience suffering, abandonment, and shame. Feeling utterly forsaken himself, the German soldier found a friend in the One who cried “my God my God why have you forsaken me”.

In 1947 he was given permission to attend a Christian conference that brought together young people from across the world. The Dutch participants asked to meet with the German POWs who had fought in the Netherlands. The young soldier was one of them. He went to the meeting full of fear, guilt and shame, feelings that intensified as the Dutch Christians spoke of the pain Hitler and his allies had inflicted, of the dread the Gestapo bred in their hearts, of the family and friends they had lost, of the disruption and damage to their communities. Yet the Dutch Christians didn’t speak out of a spirit of vindictiveness, but came to offer forgiveness. It was completely unexpected. These Dutch Christians embodied the love the German soldier had read about in the story of Christ and it turned his life upside down. He discovered despite all that had passed “God looked on us with ‘the shining eyes’ of his eternal joy”, that there was hope for the future.

That German soldier was Juergen Moltmann, who would go on to become one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century. Years later, with the message of the loving, crucified God still indelibly printed on his heart, he penned these beautiful words.

But the ultimate reason for our hope is not to be found at all in what we want, wish for and wait for; the ultimate reason is that we are wanted and wished for and waited for. What is it that awaits us? Does anything await us at all, or are we alone? Whenever we base our hope on trust in the divine mystery, we feel deep down in our hearts: there is someone who is waiting for you, who is hoping for you, who believes in you. We are waited for as the prodigal son in the parable is waited for by his father. We are accepted and received, as a mother takes her children into her arms and comforts them. God is our last hope because we are God’s first love.

Source: Moltmann’s writings. Quotes from The Source of Life.The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life. Fortress Press 1977

Hillbilly Preacher

Being prophetic in leadership and preaching is challenging but it can also be transforming. Take the case of the once racially segregated churches in South Carolina, USA. One of the Baptist Churches there appointed a new preacher, who though very uneducated, understood the gospel. Most pastors would recoil at his preaching method.  For his first sermon he simply flipped the bible open and started preaching the words his finger landed on, Paul’s words to the Galatians that in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. In 1950’s southern USA where churches were racially segregated the application was obvious, at least to the preacher. There shouldn’t be black churches and white churches, there should just be churches made up of black and white.

The deacons weren’t so appreciative of this message and demanded that their new preacher preach something different! The preacher did do something different – he fired the deacons and kept on preaching his message of racial unity. Many people left the church. His already small congregation became even smaller, dwindling to just four people. But then it started to grow, bit by bit, until it included people of all races.  One congregation member was a lecturer in English Literature at the university of Southern Carolina who would drive 70 miles to listen to this uneducated preacher. His reason? “Because that mean preaches the gospel.”

Source: Reported in Tony Campolo, You Can Make a Difference

Transposing the Gospel

How would you get young people interested in classical music? A few years ago Richard Dreyfuss starred in the movie Mr Holland’s Opus. You’ve probably seen it. Mr Holland is a high school music teacher who is passionate about music. He loves Beethoven, Bach, Mozart. For Mr Holland “music is…about heart, it’s about feelings, moving people, and something beautiful, and it’s not about notes on a page.” But how do you communicate that passion to a bunch of teenagers who have as much energy for Bach as they do for household chores? When Mr Holland starts talking about the classical composers he meets a sea of blank faces and bored looks.

And then one day Mr Holland discovers something amazing. He starts playing one of the hit pop songs of the time. All of a sudden the students perk up, their feet start tapping to the beat, their heads start nodding with the rhythm. “You like that huh?” asks Mr Holland. “Do you know what it is? It’s Beethoven.” This pop song has taken one of Beethoven’s melodies and set it to a rock beat, played it with electric guitars rather than violins, and given it lyrics that speak about boys and girls falling in love. All of a sudden Beethoven is not some ancient relic of a bygone era. All of a sudden Beethoven is relevant, Beethoven has become meaningful to Mr Holland’s students. Beethoven connects.

When people hear about about Christianity they can sometimes become a bit like Mr Holland’s students. Their eyes glaze over, their face goes blank, and they’re bored by it. They’re telling me, “I’m not interested in a faith which is nothing more than an ancient relic of a bygone era. I’m interested in a faith which is a dynamic force in my era. I’m not interested in a faith that speaks to the questions of yesterday, I’m interested in a faith that speaks to the questions I face today. I’m not interested in a faith that dredges through the issues of the past. I’m interested in a faith that engages with the issues of today.” Do you ever find yourself feeling like that?

You know the wonderful thing about the Christian faith is that it can be like Beethoven was for Mr Holland’s students. It’s a song that can be played anew in every era; a melody line that repeats through history, but played using the instruments of our time, with a beat we can dance to. And the task of the Christian church is to take this ancient song and play it in such a way that it connects with the people of our time, the mood of our time and the issues of our time.

 

Source: Scott Higgins

Mutineers From the Bounty

In September 1808 an American sailing ship, The Topaz was halfway between New Zealand and South America when it came across an uncharted island. Although it was not safe to land the Captain of The Topaz saw a canoe making its way out from the shore toward his ship. To Captain Folger’s astonishment the two youths dressed in native clothing spoke perfect English and claimed to be Englishmen. Before long Folger had unravelled a mystery that had intrigued the world for two decades.

Thirty years before Folger came across Pitcairn island a sailor by the name of Fletcher Christian had led perhaps the most famous mutiny in  history – the mutiny on The Bounty. Casting Captain Bligh and his officers adrift in a longboat the mutineers set sail for the tropical paradise Tahiti. Against astonishing odds William Bligh found his way back to England and the British Government dispatched a warship to hunt down the mutineers. When the warship arrived at Tahiti some of the mutineers were captured, but seven of them seemed to have disappeared into thin air.

Those seven knew the British would come after them and set sail from Tahiti with six Polynesian men and twelve Tahitian women they kidnapped. Along the way they picked up another two Polynesian men. Eventually they came to the uncharted Pitcairn island, burned The Bounty to avoid detection, and these fifteen men and twelve women set about making this tiny island their home. Their story is not a pretty one. By the time Captain Folger discovered them in 1808 twelve of the fifteen men had been murdered, one had committed suicide, and one had died of natural causes. Three of the women were also dead.

Soon after the mutineers and their companions arrived at Pitcairn the white men assumed privileged positions and sexual jealousies raged. Coupled with alcohol made from the root of the Ti plant violence and murder exploded on the island.

Yet when Captain Folger arrived in 1808 he found a thriving, peaceful and virtuous community made up of the surviving mutineer, the surviving women and the children who had been born during the community’s short and previously violent life. Indeed, over coming years visitors to the island were struck by how idyllic the community was. What had brought about such change?

Historians debate the causes, but it seems that a large part at least was the conversion of the Pitcairners to Christianity. The last surviving European, John Adams, had assumed the role of chief, and had been converted himself after learning to read the Bible and Prayer Book that had been taken from The Bounty before it was destroyed. Adams set about converting the others and soon after the islanders were living by the principles they found laid down in the Bible. The result was by no means a perfect community, but it was a community marked by peace and the desire to live virtuous lives.

Source: Reported in Trevor Lummis Life and Death in Eden. Pitcairn Island and The Bounty Mutineers (Phoenix 1997) and Christianity Today August 7, 2000