Last week a fascinating, candid film on BBC4 took an inside look at the Salvation Army’s national training college in London. It followed some trainee officers – including Nick and Shelley Ward who now lead the Salvation Army in Thurso – through a year of their course.
The film showed the Army’s impressive, non-judgemental compassion as the cadets spent time on the streets of London, interacting with people in need, listening sensitively to workers in a lap-dancing club, an empathic presence.
We learned that some of the trainees had their own personal struggles - with bad stuff in the past or with doubt in the present – but were learning to ‘serve out of their weakness so that it becomes a strength’ as a senior officer put it.
We also learned something of the doctrinal beliefs of the Army, especially their attitude to what happens after death. ‘Those who believe in Jesus go to heaven and those who don’t believe go to hell. And they’re eternally damned forever’ as one officer put it uncompromisingly.
One of the TV critics described that Salvation Army as we saw it in the film as being rather ‘like a loving and dysfunctional family where doubt is the accepted partner of belief and compassion triumphs over dogma.’ You could, I think, almost hear him saying ‘If only we could have the compassion without the doctrine.’
It reminded me of George Herbert, the great old poet of divine love who got cross with the complex ideas of theologians, and focussed instead on the simple teaching of Jesus, ‘those beams of truth’ – ‘Love God and love your neighbour. Watch and pray. Do as you would be done unto.’ And receive Christ in the bread and wine.
Many folk – and some of us Christians in our more doubting moments – would go further these days, and ask ‘Do we need religion? Surely love is the power which changes relationships and can change the world if we’ll only let it.’
But on our clearer-seeing days Christians make bold to believe that love is not an abstract force, but a person, for God is love. And this love has chosen to reveal itself to us in Jesus.
That’s why George Herbert, in rejecting dry theology is nourished by faith in a God who is there, whose love we can respond to, and a Jesus who served out of his weakness so that it might become a strength, dying and rising from death to offer the whole world healing and freedom.
When it comes to what happens when we die, many Christians, like that Salvation Army officer are convinced that only by specific, personal faith in Jesus can we enter the place of light and joy after we die. After all, didn’t St Paul describe the way to salvation in these words: ‘If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’
That’s why Darron Boulton in the film was so distressed – the gran who had rescued him and his brother from a dysfunctional household and shown them boundless love died without ever having expressed faith in Christ. ‘The thought of my beautiful grandma not being in heaven horrifies me,’ he said.
But many other Christians, myself included, worry about this. Didn’t Jesus talk about people embracing light through the choices they make – to serve, to love? We believe some people choose hell by rejecting every whisper of goodness and grace. But what about those who don’t hear about Jesus, or have a distorted picture of him, or follow another faith - good people though flawed like us all - who listen and respond to those whispers?
Does God love people less than we do? Surely God cares even more for Darron’s gran than Darron does himself.
We are often so quick to make judgement as to who is ‘in’ or ‘out.’ Can’t we trust God, who knows all our hearts, who sees and encourages each flicker of love in us to judge fairly in the light of our responses to those ‘beams of truth’?
I like to think that in God’s perfect new world, when the wonder of Jesus’ work in healing a broken universe and broken lives will be fully seen, that there will be far, far more people in God’s kingdom than we had ever imagined.
George Herbert’s most famous poem is about a Love which bids us welcome even though we are ‘guilty of dust and sin.’ Whatever our circumstances, the Love who is God reaches out to us in the name of Jesus. Daily, all of us in the sometimes dysfunctional Christian family, regardless of our disagreements, encourage ourselves and others to respond to this wonderful, welcoming God.
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 16th January 2014)