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The Prophet as Both Lion and Lamb: the Example of Menno Simons

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Menno Simons (1496-1561) was so significant a figure in Anabaptism in the Low Countries that the movement could be divided into three phases: “before Menno”, “under Menno” and “after Menno”. His travels in the church’s service took him from the Rhineland across the Baltic lands to Danzig (Gdansk) in Poland, always in danger, with a price on his head – and accompanied by his wife and children! Records show that he won followers wherever he went – some of whom died as martyrs, refusing to renounce the truths he had taught them. In the judgement of the Mennonite Encyclopaedia:

“Menno’s significance lies in the fact that he prevented the collapse of the northern wing of the Anabaptist movement in the days of its greatest trial and built it up on the right Biblical foundation. He did this as its leader, speaker, and defender, through his preaching as he journeyed from place to place, and through his simple and searching writings. Particularly the Foundation-Book did much to restore the original Anabaptist concepts and principles, which were in grave danger of being lost.

“His writings were effective not so much because of their superior and logical qualities as a theological system, but because behind them stood a man formed according to the Scriptures who sincerely and honestly wanted to give all for the Christian church and the glory of God. Through Menno’s courageous and devoted life a distinctive witness in the Reformation movement, representing a Christian brotherhood and a Christian way of life, was preserved.”

He knew full well that he could be arrested at any moment. He also knew the crucial importance of unity among the scattered groups of Anabaptists who claimed allegiance to him. He had to mediate and be diplomatic, yet set a tone that others could follow. He called leaders’ conferences, he encouraged debate, he urged brotherly grace. This has led to Menno being treated in the history books as a moderate among the Radical Reformers. Given the tight line he had to keep, this would hardly be surprising. Many of his writings restate the root principles and doctrines of Anabaptism and plead for wholesale acceptance of them.

Menno's grave at Bad Oldesloe, Germany

Menno’s grave at Bad Oldesloe, Germany

Thus far we have the lamb-like side of a true prophet of God – a nature drawn from Jesus the Lamb himself. But what of the lion? A prophet is more than a skilled counsellor and pastoral guide. There is the cut of the two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12) to prophetic ministry, again drawn from Jesus (Revelation 19:15).

Certainly, Menno was no lamb! One of his writings can serve as our example: ‘The Reason Why Menno Simons Does Not Cease Teaching And Writing’, written in the 1540s, is outspokenly hard-line in its exposure of sin, its naming of idols, and its call to repentance and a holy life.

“When I look to find a magistrate who fears God, rightly performs his office and uses his authority properly, I find, as a general rule, nothing but a wine-sodden Lucifer. Again, when I look to find true pastors and teachers, such as are sent of God, quickened by the Holy Spirit; who sincerely seek the salvation of their brethren; who are not earthly-minded, but preach the saving word of our beloved Lord Jesus Christ, in purity of heart, and who are blameless in their doctrine and life – I find instead nothing but robbers of the glory of God, and murderers of souls; deceivers, blind watchmen, mute dogs, masters of sects who are carnally, earthly and devilishly minded; enemies of the cross; serving their bellies instead of serving God; false prophets, idolaters, vain talkers, liars, and tricksters.

“If any person does not believe my words, let him prove their walk by the word of the Lord; let him compare their doctrine, sacraments, spirit, object, walk and life with the doctrine, sacraments, spirit, object, walk and life of Christ, and even common sense will teach you who has really sent them, and what fruits their teachings bear!”

Menno would not be the first apostolic radical to be accused of being kindly when present and tough when writing from afar – St Paul had the same thing levelled at him [2 Corinthians 10:1]. Perhaps the underlying principle here is to show grace and understanding to open hearts, while slicing into falsehood and self-centredness in backslidden or blind hearts, with a view to winning them. We see Jesus Christ Himself doing this, so we may safely conclude that this is the heart of the true radical. And yes, where necessary, it is obnoxious!

The Pipe-Smoking Prophetess who Enabled a Revival

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In my reading of Church history, I regularly find colourful characters who didn’t fit the usual pattern but whom God used in surprising ways. Perhaps it was always so? As early as Genesis 20, King Abimelech of Gerar talks with God and behaves uprightly, yet the patriarch Abraham cannot see the possibility of good in anyone in Gerar.

One of these “oddballs” – outsiders who were, in God’s view, very much “in” – was an unnamed woman from Cornwall, England, in the 1850s. We meet her in William Haslam’s autobiographical From Death Into Life (download free here). Haslam was greatly used by God in a revival in Cornwall, with many conversions and amendment of life. Yet it almost never happened, because Haslam nearly died – but for the pipe-smoking prophetess. We read:

[There was] ‘a tall, gaunt, gipsy kind of woman, whom they called “the wise woman.” She had a marvellous gift of healing and other knowledge, which made people quite afraid of her. This woman took a great interest in me and my work, and often came to church and house meetings.

‘One day she visited the parsonage and said “Have you a lemon in the house?” I inquired and found that we had not. “Well then,” she said, “get one, and some honey and vinegar, and mix them all together. You will need it. Mind you do, now.” Then she put the bowl of her pipe into the kitchen fire and, having ignited the tobacco, went away smoking. The servants were much frightened by her manner.’

[Later that day, Haslam was caught in a thunderstorm and held house meetings in wet clothes all evening.]

‘At three o’clock in the morning I awoke, choking with a severe fit of bronchitis. I had to struggle for breath and life. After an hour or more of the most acute suffering, my dear wife remembered the lemon mixture, and called the servant to get up and bring it. It was just in time. I was black in the face with suffocation, but this compound relieved, and, in fact, restored me. I was greatly exhausted with the effort and struggle for life, and after two hours I fell asleep. I was able to rise in the morning, and breathe freely, though my chest was very sore.

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‘After breakfast, the “wise woman” appeared outside the window of the drawing-room, where I was lying on the sofa. “Ah, my dear,” she said, “you were nearly gone at three o’clock this morning. I had a hard wrestle for you, sure enough. If you had not had that lemon, you know, you would have been a dead man by this time!”

‘That mysterious creature, what with her healing art, together with the prayer of faith and the marvellous foresight she had, was quite a terror to the people. One day she came, and bade me go to a man who was very worldly and careless, and tell him that he would die before Sunday. I said, “You go, if you have received the message.” She looked sternly at me, and said, “You go! That’s the message!” So I went. The man laughed at me, and said, “That old hag ought to be hanged.” I urged him to give his heart to God, and prayed with him, but to no effect. The following Saturday, coming home from market, he was thrown from his cart and killed.

‘She was not always a bird of evil omen, for sometimes she brought me good news as well as bad. One day she said, “There is a clergyman coming to see you, who used to be a great friend of yours, but since your conversion he has been afraid of you. He is coming; you must allow him to preach; he will be converted before long!” Sure enough, my old friend W. B. came as she predicted. He preached, and in due time was converted, and his wife also.’

‘Her sayings and doings would fill a book; but who would believe these things?

Please feel free to take up this final question and use the COMMENTS option. What can we learn from such unconventional figures and behaviour – and of God who uses them?

Heaven Touching Earth: Christoph Blumhardt and the Kingdom Rule of God

We Christians think of a heavenly kingdom; I came to see that God intended an earthly kingdom, or rather, a heavenly kingdom on earth. God’s name was to be hallowed on earth, His kingship seen on earth, His will done on earth. The earth should announce eternity: God on earth.”

In a number of writings, Christoph Blumhardt (see previous posts) presented his understanding of the kingdom of God and how it is forever breaking in to life on earth – for that was always God’s intention.

The angels have God in heaven, I have not – I want to pray down here. I must have God here. The earth is the stage set for the kingdom of God, because the kingship of God is in direct relationship with this earth: the Saviour, down here. God’s intention is the here and now: Jesus challenging poverty, sin and misery on earth.”

A post on the John Mark Ministries blog considers the significance of Blumhardt’s writings on the kingdom of God. ‘His ideas had seminal influence on Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and more recently on Jacques Ellul and Jürgen Moltmann – theological giants among whom he would most certainly feel a stranger. Despite this legacy, Blumhardt is relatively unknown. To begin with, Blumhardt’s life was a provocation. He also expressed his ideas in impressive and unconventional phrases. His message excited both shock and indignation, for it went against the currents of both the church and the world. He represented something quite different from what we generally understand by Christianity.

‘Blumhardt didn’t care about matters of religion and church, of worship services and dogma, not even of inner peace and personal redemption. For him, faith was a matter of the coming of God’s kingdom, of God’s victory over darkness and death here and now. The kingdom of God was the creative reign of Christ’s peace and justice on earth. His vision of God’s righteousness on earth was an unconditional and all-embracing one: God’s love reconciles the world, liberates suffering, heals economic and social need – in short, it renews the earth.’

Christoph Blumhardt at his desk

Christoph Blumhardt at his desk

Blumhardt believed that the prophets and Jesus wanted a new world: the rulership of God over all reality. He could not identify with most Christians’ longing for heaven and enduring this earthly life as a necessary precursor. In his view, heaven must come down to earth.

“Many people long and yearn for heaven; they stretch out toward heaven. I would like to tell them: Let your minds reach to the heights that we can already perceive on earth. Down here is where Jesus appeared, not above in the invisible world. Here on earth he wants to appear again and again. Here on earth we may find him.”

Here you will find a further meditation by Blumhardt on the in-breaking kingdom of God – and the amazing but urgent opportunities that gives for Christian witness.

Woman of Courage: Elizabeth Fry Overcame Depression and Marked the Nation

From 2001, her face was on every Bank of England £5 note, but who was Elizabeth Fry? She was born into a banking family in Norwich, England, in 1780. When she was 18, she heard a Quaker preacher and was converted. She joined a Quaker assembly, where a woman had a prophecy for her: “You are born to be a light to the blind, speech to the dumb and feet to the lame.”

Immediately, Fry was moved to charitable acts. She collected old clothes for the poor, visited those who were sick in her neighbourhood, and started a Sunday School to teach children to read. Marriage took her to London, and motherhood kept her so busy that after 12 years she lamented: “I fear my life is slipping away to little purpose.” How wrong she was!

Another Quaker minister told her of the horrifying conditions in the capital’s prisons. Fry went to the infamous Newgate jail to see for herself. She found hundreds of women and their children living violent lives in unsanitary conditions and sleeping on the floor without bedding.

Fry sprang into action. Immediate practical needs had to be met. She enlisted local women to make clothes for the children. She got permission to start a school for prison children. She founded an organisation of women who would visit prisoners, pray and read scriptures with them, and provide them with materials to sew and knit goods which could be sold to give them some income.


But more visionary action was required if lasting change was to happen. Fry took to spending some nights in the jail and invited members of the aristocracy to come and do so too, to experience at first had the inhumane conditions. Her brother-in-law, a Member of Parliament, also promoted her work in government circles.

The atmosphere at Newgate changed so noticeably that Fry’s model was followed in other towns and even abroad. She became well known. She was the first woman ever to give evidence to a parliamentary select committee, leading to a series of prison reforms in the 1820s. Queen Victoria admired her and made donations.

Fry’s work didn’t stop there. Even while raising 11 children and suffering from what today would be called post-natal depression, she established a night shelter for the homeless in London; campaigned for more humane treatment of orphans; raised awareness of the plight of newly-released prisoners with nowhere to go; began an outreach ministry to sailors and founded a school for nurses. It was nurses trained at Fry’s school who went with Florence Nightingale to the Crimea.

She was incensed at the transportation of women prisoners to Australia. The night before they left, there were always riots in the prisons. The women would reach Australia penniless and with dependent children, leaving prostitution as the only option for many. Elizabeth lobbied parliament and personally visited all deportees, giving them materials for making clothes on the voyage which they could sell on arrival.

UK banknote commemorating Elizabeth Fry

UK banknote commemorating Elizabeth Fry

Together with her husband, Fry also agitated against capital punishment. At that time, upwards of 200 crimes were punishable by death. After initial indifference in high circles, they gained the ear of Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, who met with them and started the process of penal reform.

Elizabeth’s motives in all these activities were avowedly Christian. Her faith was the centre of all she did. Quakers allowed anointed women to preach, and Elizabeth did so. It is said that her voice carried such emotion that hard hearts would weep.

Let us cleave to God in spirit,” she exhorted, “and make it the first business of our lives to be conformed to His will and live to His glory, whether prosperity or adversity be our portion, and though our years pass away like a brief tale. Through His unbounded love, the blessings of the Most High will rest upon us.”

Fry proved it. The prophecy was fulfilled absolutely. Called “the Angel of Mercy” in her lifetime, when she died in 1845 over a thousand people lined the way to her grave, to honour the passing of a truly great woman.

‘The Cry of Slaughtered Millions’: William and Catherine Booth’s Aggressive Christianity

Image: inspirationalchristians.org

William Booth preaching
Image: inspirationalchristians.org

William Booth (1829-1912), Founder-General of the Salvation Army, certainly favoured the ‘in your face’ approach. With these words he began the front page article of the first issue of The War Cry, on 27 December 1879: Why a “War Cry?” Because The Salvation Army means more war!”

Today, the Army’s ‘fight’ against poverty and marginalisation takes many forms, from questions in parliament to individuals giving a few pounds to a homeless charity. But Booth’s radical eye saw deeper than mere deprivation and squalor: he saw inner lostness, people without hope because God’s love was not made real to them. Some churches tried, but in the main, Christians ‘walked by on the other side’. Not so the Salvation Army!

The cry of slaughtered millions rises up louder and louder to heaven, crying to our inmost souls, with irresistible violence, to arise and fight more furiously than ever for the salvation of our fellows from the forces of evil which are dragging them drunken, befouled, degraded, wretched down to an eternity of woe.

You can feel the passion, the indignation, Christ’s own love for the poor! Jesus our King, the dying Jesus of Calvary, still looks weeping on doomed cities and multitudes wandering without a shepherd, and begs us to lay down our lives for them as He laid down his life for us.

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If radicality has to do with roots, Booth bores into the very core of them, rebuking Christians for their lethargy, their compromise and their lack of real devotion to the cause of Jesus’ kingdom.

God will have his own people to repent and do their first works. He will have them abandon forever all friendship with the world, and all parley with evil hearts. Let all that name the name of Christ depart from iniquity. No more unbelief; no more pride; no more worldly pleasure or worldly dress or show; no more covetousness or self-seeking!

Armybarmy.com is the web page of a think tank and renewal group within today’s Salvationist ranks. Their wonderfully named Journal of Aggressive Christianity reproduced Booth’s original article as the front page of their own first issue in 1999. You can read the General’s entire broadside here. Prepare to be stirred!

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William’s wife, Catherine (1829-1890), is held by many to have been the ‘power behind the throne’ in the Salvation Army. Her faith was unswerving and she saw the need for Christians – with God’s help – to awaken lost souls from their sleep, by whatever means. In 1880 she published Papers on Aggressive Christianity. You’ll find a free download here. Here is a flavour:

Many do not recognize the fact as they ought, that Satan has got men fast asleep in sin and that it is his great device to keep them so. He does not care what we do if he can do that. We may sing songs about the sweet by and by, preach sermons and say prayers until doomsday, and he will never concern himself about us, if we don’t wake anybody up. But if we awake the sleeping sinner he will gnash on us with his teeth. This is our work – to wake people up!

Oh, people say, you must be very careful. You must not thrust religion down people’s throats. Then, I say, you will never get it down! What! Am I to wait till an unconverted, godless man wants to be saved before I try to save him? He will never want to be saved till the death rattle is in his throat. What! Am I to let my unconverted friends and acquaintances drift down quietly to damnation, and never tell them about their souls, until they say, ‘If you please, I want you to preach to me’? Is this anything like the spirit of early Christianity?

Small wonder, perhaps, that the Army had the impact that it did on the areas of greatest poverty (spiritual and material) on two continents.

The Church and the Kingdom: the Blumhardts and the Victorious Christ

‘Treading on serpents and scorpions’ (Luke 10:19) Image: metropolita.hu

I devoted a recent post to Johnn Christoph Blumhardt. Part of his legacy is his unshakable conviction of ‘realised eschatology’. That sounds dry, but it is the glorious belief that the promises of scripture for the end times are meant for the Church now.

From Bible College onwards, he had had dealings with missionaries, doctors and exorcists, who had first hand experience of the power of the risen Christ to free those enslaved by evil. So when the young woman in Möttlingen was delivered from evil after eighteen months of prayer and spiritual warfare, Blumhardt was convinced of two things: Jesus is victor and His kingdom has come on earth. His experiences of healings at the sanatorium of Bad Boll caused him to interpret this in-breaking of God’s kingdom in an individual way. Jesus was doing for precious people what He did as He walked the earth: making the blind see, opening the prison door and releasing the bound (see Luke 4:16-21).

As Johann Blumhardt lay dying in 1880, he spoke a blessing over his son Christoph (1842-1919): that he might conquer in the strength of Jesus, the victorious Christ.

Christoph, like his father, had trained as a pastor. He was, by all accounts, a fiery preacher. The novelist Hermann Hesse recalls him saying that a Mohammedan with a real and honest heart is closer to God than many Christians.

Christoph Blumhardt

Christoph Blumhardt

Blumhardt grew increasingly disillusioned with the established church, so he returned to Bad Boll and assisted his father with the work there, until Johann’s death passed the mantle to him. He held healing crusades, which carried the same power his father had known.

But Christoph was on a different, more radical road. “A Christian must be born twice“, he wrote: “once from the human to the spiritual, and once from the spiritual to the human“. In other words, a spirituality or church commitment which had no interest in addressing the sufferings of people and the ills of society was a comfortable lie.

Christoph had a more developed notion of God’s kingdom. In later years he claimed that his father’s compassionate heart had swayed him in favour of the individual, whereas Christ the King has His kingdom rule – a rulership that includes all things, the universe, the earth, nations and structures. This kingdom was wider than the Church and not best expressed in a religious system which was a preserve of the middle-class, concerned only with power and influence.

Johann had begun with the ‘cosmic’ through the exorcism at Möttlingen (see previous post). His son saw the ‘cosmic’ aspect of the kingdom of God – that it was a Body hastening the return of Jesus Christ by shining as a light in darkness, a ‘city on a hill’ (Matthew 5:14). Johann had acted as if the Kingdom was part of the Church; for the son, the Church is part of the Kingdom.

We Christians think of a heavenly kingdom; I came to see that God intended an earthly kingdom, or rather, a heavenly kingdom on earth. God’s name was to be hallowed on earth, His kingship seen on earth, His will done on earth. The earth should announce eternity: God on earth.”

In a number of writings, Christoph Blumhardt presented his understanding of the kingdom of God and how it is forever breaking in to life on earth – for that was always God’s intention.

The angels have God in heaven, I have not – I want to pray down here. I must have God here. The earth is the stage set for the kingdom of God, because the kingship of God is in direct relationship with this earth: the Saviour, down here. God’s intention is the here and now: Jesus challenging poverty, sin and misery on earth.”

A post on the John Mark Ministries blog considers the significance of Blumhardt’s writings on the kingdom of God. ‘His ideas had seminal influence on Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and more recently on Jacques Ellul and Jürgen Moltmann – theological giants among whom he would most certainly feel a stranger. Despite this legacy, Blumhardt is relatively unknown. To begin with, Blumhardt’s life was a provocation. He also expressed his ideas in impressive and unconventional phrases. His message excited both shock and indignation, for it went against the currents of both the church and the world. He represented something quite different from what we generally understand by Christianity.

‘Blumhardt did not care about matters of religion and church, of worship services and dogma, not even of inner peace and personal redemption. For him, faith was a matter of the coming of God’s kingdom, of God’s victory over darkness and death here and now. The kingdom of God was the creative reign of Christ’s peace and justice on earth. His vision of God’s righteousness on earth was an unconditional and all-embracing one: God’s love reconciles the world, liberates suffering, heals economic and social need – in short, it renews the earth.’

Christoph Blumhardt at his desk

Christoph Blumhardt at his desk

Blumhardt believed that the prophets and Jesus wanted a new world: the rulership of God over all reality. He could not identify with most Christians’ longing for heaven and enduring this earthly life as a necessary precursor. In his view, heaven must come down to earth.

“Many people long and yearn for heaven; they stretch out toward heaven. I would like to tell them: Let your minds reach to the heights that we can already perceive on earth. Down here is where Jesus appeared, not above in the invisible world. Here on earth he wants to appear again and again. Here on earth we may find him.”

 

 

Rebuilding Broken Walls: the Apostolic Heroism of Menno Simons

My last two posts have looked at aspects of the ministry of 16th century church reformer and founder of the Mennonites, Menno Simons [1496-1561]. But I neglected to sketch an evaluation of the life and impact of this key figure. Let me put that right now.

Some of God’s radicals operated in days when the Church was strong and advancing. Others lived in times of hardship, confusion and decline. Their (equally heroic) task was to lead the way to restoration; to ‘rebuild the walls’, like Nehemiah in his day. One such ‘rebuilder’ was Menno Simons.

Born in rural Friesland, son of a dairy farmer, he showed piety and intelligence and at the age of 28 he became a Roman Catholic priest. But he was nagged by inner doubts about some aspects of Catholic practice, so he read widely, including the (officially banned) Martin Luther. The burning of an Anabaptist believer as a heretic, not far from Menno’s home, threw him into mental turmoil. The Anabaptists were everywhere condemned, but their teachings resonated in his own heart. As he studied scripture, he became convinced that he was called to walk with these persecuted brethren.

At this very point, however, the Radical Reformers’ movement was in turmoil. One group, at Münster in Germany, had fallen into religious mania. Nearer to home, a group of Anabaptists had occupied the cathedral in Bolsward and proclaimed revolution. Both groups had been ruthlessly wiped out by the authorities. Even so, Menno sensed that the Anabaptists were at core ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ (the Bible, Mark 6:34). In this darkest hour, he felt an inner call from God.

I renounced my worldly reputation and my easy life, he wrote, and I willingly submitted myself to distress and poverty under the heavy cross of Christ. I surrendered my soul and body to the Lord … and commenced in due time … to teach and to baptize, to till the vineyard of the Lord,… to build up His holy city and temple and to repair the tumble-down walls.

For the next twenty years he and his family were fugitives. With a price on his head, Menno toured Holland and northern Germany, never staying in one place longer than a few months. Always in danger, Menno preached, baptised and reconciled brethren. He wrote letters and books setting out a balanced Anabaptist theology. One of his key themes was the ‘new creation’: people, the Church and society can be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the love of Christ. In this lies hope for mankind’s future, in any age.

 

Mennonites of today in Los Angeles Image: boingboing.net

Mennonites today in Los Angeles  Image: boingboing.net

Menno was never captured. Even so, his hardships left him crippled in later years. Only one of his children reached adulthood. And he bore the constant burden of care for the Church. If Almighty God had not preserved me, he wrote, I would have gone mad. For there is nothing on earth that my heart loves more than the Church, yet I must live to see her in this sad affliction.

So he pressed on. Through his labours, Anabaptism was not only saved from extinction but given new vigour. Mennonites gained a foothold in northern Europe, then in America, and they still exist in significant numbers today. Menno’s was an apostolic ministry, not in the out-front manner of a Paul but the more hidden manner of an Epaphras or a Titus. It was also truly radical in that Menno searched for the roots of New Testament Christianity, returned to those roots, and did all he could to protect, strengthen and publicise these roots. Menno offers today’s evangelical Christians an inspiring model of leadership that balances zeal and discipline, passion and theological depth, courage and wisdom.

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