Friday, 30 January 2015

The church of the new start

I was up North a couple of weekends ago and met an old friend, a Baptist pastor. We got talking about my tangled spiritual (and unspiritual) journey over the past six years and I said to him that I had found myself at home in the Salvation Army simply because here I have found a community that genuinely accepts and offers a new start to a wrecked life. He said, "You couldn't make a better recommendation of any church than that."

I want to be careful; my experience of the SA is not wide; I dare say that maybe not all corps and communities are equally grace-driven. Nor am I saying that such attitudes of acceptance are unique to the Army; the very friend I was speaking to has been consistently full of grace over the years. 

But I do think that a "new start to the wretched" is built into the Sally's DNA in a special way. What applies to the addicted and the down and out applies to the disgraced pastor too. I am not talking about being coddled (how William Booth hated "coddling"!) or pushed into being something I shouldn't be. I am talking about acceptance. 

I know what it is to be accepted on paper, but to be looked on as a weird pariah. I know how the "fruit of repentance" that people are looking for needs to be long term after a long term sin. I know that those who know me personally, who sat under my ministry, or whom I have hurt most, will never see me the same way again. I know that there are deep issues. 

But I also know that the coolish shoulder is not limited to those I have hurt personally. The honest testimony of what has happened is enough to repel some, while others fling their arms wide. And I have found a lot of wide-armed welcome in TSA. 

All churches need to look hard at their foundation in grace. I have written before about the current tendency to see grace as an almost spineless acceptance which doesn't challenge to change. Real grace ain't spineless - but it is real and not just a concept on paper. As my son said in a previous discussion on grace, quoting a recent preacher at his church, talking about the parable of the Prodigal Son:

"I think there's lots of theological reasons why people don't come to church today, but could it maybe be this one as well: that too many people out there - they bump into the older brother before they get to the Father. Maybe that could be the reason."

The Salvation Army is at a crossroads. Never has the question of its identity been more acute. Its ecclesiastical eccentricities, its public perception as a charity, its mixed-source funding, its internal theological tensions, its particular stress under the external pressures of a postmodern, multicultural world - all of these things impact TSA in a special way as we approach the Army's 150th anniversary. 

It is easy to moan and criticise at such a time. But this new boy is thankful for the grace and new start that he has found here. Grace that comes from the Cross, grace that accepts, grace that embraces, grace that helps you to "go, and sin no more."

May that model of grace, as we find it in Jesus Christ, be the foundation and keystone for the next 150 years of the Sally Army. 

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