Sowing Dragons — Essays on Neo-Salvationism
BY CAPTAIN GEOFF RYAN –
“Saturated with ideas like dragon’s teeth producing dragon ideas.” –Frederik Neitzche
THE MILLENNIUM CRY
I want to share with you an image of hope that I will take with me into the 21st century. We planted a corps about 45 miles outside of Rostov, in a community called Kuleshovka, a village of about 12,000 people. The new district where we have our work grew up around a baby food factory built in 1976. Like most industry in Russia, it has fallen apart and people are out of jobs. This is a depressed area. Physically it is very ugly, with Soviet high-rise apartment blocks made out of watered-down concrete, falling apart. This village is known as the drug capital of the Rostov region, which is one of the primary reasons why we opened the corps. Talk to a street cop in Moscow, about a 1,000 miles away, and if you mention the name Kuleshovka he is going to say “drugs.” Go to the graveyard in Kuleshovka and over half the gravestones are for young people. Everyone, it seems, is on drugs because there is little else to do.
We have a wonderful Salvation Army soldier in Kuleshovka, her name is Tatianna. She is a middle-aged woman who has rarely travelled outside of her community. She has a daughter and she had a 17-year-old son, Anton, who was a drug addict. Two years ago when he was high he climbed to the top of their nine-storey building and, thinking he could fly, jumped off and killed himself. This is not a new story in Kuleshovka; most families have someone who has died or is in jail because of drugs. We had tried everything with Anton up until this point we sent him to treatment centres, he came and lived with our family, he lived with some of our soldiers, we prayed over him. It didn’t work, he couldn’t kick the habit.
We got the call on Friday and rushed out to the apartment. When he jumped he landed in a bunch of hedges. His father, Sasha, picked up his son and carried him into the house. We don’t have funeral parlors, or undertakers in Russia; you prepare the body yourself in your home and you bury it yourself. We walked in and Anton was lying in the living room. His face was caved in on one side; he wasn’t recognizable. The women were sitting in the living room around him and I asked where Sasha was.
I have a good relationship with Sasha, who is not a believer. He works in the factory, he’s big, tough and fairly inarticulate, and he is very proud of his years of service in the Soviet Army. He was tremendously disappointed that his son turned out to be such a waste, such a weak person, in his eyes. They were constantly in conflict and actually had an argument with Sasha hitting his son just before this incident happened. I walked into the bedroom and Sasha was sitting there on the edge of the bed, staring at the wall. He wasn’t crying because he is not a man who cries easily.
I asked, “How are you doing?” He didn’t look at me, he just said, “I went and picked him up, Geoff. It was like carrying a sack of sticks because everything inside him was broken and bones kept on falling out of places where they should be.” It was all he said.
I didn’t say anything. I had no right to. Is there any sight more sad than a man who has lost his only son? So we buried Anton the next day. Just before we put the lid on and nailed it shut Sasha walked over and collapsed in a heap beside his son. All he could say was, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry….” We closed the coffin, put it in the ground and covered it with dirt.
There is a tradition in Russia, after a funeral, to have something called the “pomniki,” the “remembrance,” when immediately after the funeral, you go back to the house for a sort of party which is sad but it is a time of remembrance. We said to Tatianna, “So we’re going to do the pomniki?”
She said, “No. We won’t do it now, we do it Sunday.” In the spring and summer months our evening service is held on the street.
“Something good must come out of my son’s death. We will do it Sunday. That will be his remembrance and I will speak.”
“Are you sure?” we asked.
As we gathered that Sunday, word had gone around the community. As we drove in that afternoon we could feel the whole community holding its breath. They didn’t like The Salvation Army in Kuleshovka they still don’t, they think we are a cult. Women would sidle up to Tatianna and say, “See what you get for allowing your son and yourself to get mixed up in this cult.” (There is a lot of occultism, superstition in the village.)
“Maybe the Salvation Army pushed him off the building….”
“Maybe it was a murder….”
Gossip, rumors, hurtful, hateful things flying around.
We started our meeting and I think almost the whole village gathered around. In the highrise buildings around the place where we had the open-air meeting people were hanging out of their windows watching, waiting and listening. I will never forget as Tatianna who had every reason to hate looked into the eyes of the people who sold drugs to her son; the eyes of the people who said, “Serves you right for following your God”; the eyes of people who made fun of her but did not support her in her time of need. She testified and implored them so that her son’s death would mean something. She prayed and cried for the young people of the village and for the parents to stop this plague that was killing the village. She is a very strong woman. As she was speaking I saw her husband Sasha off to the side. He wouldn’t join us but he stood immobile with his arms folded.
At that time our son, Sasha, was about one year old. Sasha is the Russian diminutive for Alexander. In Russia if someone has the same name as you, that person is your “toska,” which means that you have a special relationship with them. The Bible says that we will be led by children, and our Sasha toddled over to the father Sasha. I stood and watched as this man who had lost his only son looked at his namesake, then took his hand and walked away together while the remembrance service continued and his wife spoke in love, giving hope to the community out of her pain and suffering. Near the end of the service I walked around the corner of the building and there was Sasha, the older one, standing, staring across the fields. My son was nestled up in his arms asleep.
Tears were running down his face, he turned to me and said, “He likes me. I remember when Anton was this age.”
Tatianna chose hope over hate. She heard the question, “Who is my brother and where is my brother?” And her answer is: “They are here in my community and I will serve them in love, I will give them hope.” That is the image I will take with me into the 21st century.
Even though the world is falling apart, the Gospel is the only hope. The ministry of reconciliation the answer to that question, “Where is your brother?” is the defining question of our time. We need to ask that question with regard to our resources: our time, our money and our lives. I really hope the praises we sing are acceptable in God’s eyes. Let us give hope to a world without hope. Let us come against hate with the power of love, in Jesus’ name and for the world’s sake.
An anonymous writer observed: “The sins of the young are lust, while the sins of the old are doubt.” The Salvation Army has grown old. We are so woven into the warp and woof of society that we are part of the establishment. We think like the old, we act like the old and our sins, if we name them as such, are the sins of the old of which one is doubt.
What do we doubt? Many things, it seems. But most of all we doubt the veracities of our youth. Doubts about the things that seemed so very certain then, regrets about things we said and did.
Ah, the folly of youth!
We were so sure we were right. We thought we knew better.
We thought we were different. But now; but now we’re not so sure.
And that applies to our attitude to the sacraments.
Like old men sitting around outside a nursing home we mutter to each other and the muttering goes on and on in an endless round: “Were we wrong?” “Has the time now come to change, to fall in line with the rest?” “What are we proving?” “Why keep it up?” “The sacraments, the sacraments…” we mutter in our old age.
Regrets? Maybe. Doubts? Yes, doubts.
It was on the last International Leaders’ Conference agenda. It was discussed at the International Youth Forum in 1997, The Spiritual Life Commission mulled it over for ages where the young, as well as the old, muttered together in chorus: “The sacraments, the sacraments… What do we do about the sacraments?”
Many think the time has come for the Army to change its position on water baptism and the Lord’s supper and do as the other churches do. Things have changed. We have changed. It is time. Time to repent of our youthful rashness, admit our pigheadedness (theologically, that is) and give in. In a word, capitulate. While the kairos moment lasts, we’d better make our move before it’s too late. God’s patience will not last forever, and may be wearing thin with that rambunctious branch of His household known as Salvationists. But what are the implications, the unstated presuppositions of believing this?
In changing our theology we make the statement that we were, for the totality of our existence, wrong. More to the point, they were wrong. The Booths, Railton, Brengle, and all the saints in our Salvationist pantheon.
The presupposition underlining most Salvationist sacramentalism is that times have changed; culture has changed and so must we. The historical reasons no longer exist to bolster our rather weak theological explanations therefore, why not? What may have been good for them back in 1865 is not good for us in 2001.
Is the presupposition true or have we simply grown used to it as it has gradually achieved the status of “conventional wisdom” (being something which is usually not so much wisdom as convention). Have we simply thought up plausible reasons to give the appearance of rational thought to what is really a loss of nerve? Are the factors and forces swaying us really those that we admit them to be? In our “honesty” about our sacramental understanding, are we being honest with ourselves?
Granted, times have changed. The question is, have they changed in a way that renders our historic nonsacramentalism obsolete? Where are the men of Issacher who ‘understood the times and knew what Israel should do? Are they in the retirement home, too?
Our point of reference as an Army of Salvation should always be the nonbeliever, the sinner, the unsaved. And the nonbeliever, particularly in the West, where much of the sacramental muttering emanates from, doesn’t give a hoot about the sacraments! He, also, in this postmodernist age of non- traditionalism, in this post-Christian era of the repudiation of Judaeo-Christian heritage, in this “church-without-walls,” baby-booming, seeker-sensitive, non-denominational, relativistic and pluralistic soup, does not give much of a hoot about any of our traditions or biblical imperatives. He doesn’t think much about God; he doesn’t recognize the Bible as an authority; he certainly doesn’t lose any sleep over the sacraments.
So who does, besides us, care about it?
We all know who: the churches, our brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow believers. Believers care, and so we care because they care and they let us know that they care and that bothers us. But should it?
What should matter more to me as a Salvationist engaged in a life-and-death struggle for the souls of men and women? What John MacArthur, John Stott, J. I. Packer or Eugene Peterson thinks, or how my unsaved neighbor, the town drunk or the prostitute dying of AIDS thinks?
Our Army was, in its youth, a warrior army. The masses of the unsaved, and not the community of the saved, was our concern.
But as I’ve said, we’ve grown old. We’ve aged. We’ve become soldiers with our eye on the army, on the Church and not the battle, that is the unsaved. Therefore our priorities have shifted and so naturally enough we want to shift our theology to keep pace with whom we’ve become. Ecclesiastical pressure is pushing us to conform. In wanting this ourselves we have divested ourselves of our prophetic mantle. Our radicalism has toned itself down to an enshrinement of past glories, and in place of the abandonment of our youth we have become careful and timid.
We were dangerous; now we are safe.
The triumph of the mediocre echoes through the foundational presupposition of the sacramentalist: “We want to be like the other guys.” We are old and full of doubts and so it is best to do what everybody else is doing; best to settle down and settle accounts before the reckoning. It’s what the old always do, isn’t it clear their consciences before the end comes? Is that it? Is that what we’re doing?
Is it truly a matter of finally realizing that we need to baptize with water and celebrate the rite known as the Lord’s Supper, so that God can fully bless us (the implication being that blessing is withheld from the Army because of our mild heresy)?
Can even the staunchest postmodern Salvationist argue that we were without God’s blessing in the fiery days of our impetuous youth, when the sacramental question was settled with such finality that it simply wasn’t an issue for us?
Are we prepared to say to former generations of unbaptized forebears, who never celebrated the Lord’s Supper, that they were wrong, and their expression of faith was faulty, incomplete and inadequate an offense to the Almighty? For me this would mean a repudiation, in part at least, of four generations of Salvationists. It is no small thing to make a denial, even if only in part, of one’s spiritual heritage.
On we mutter though nothing new can be said or proved or discovered. It comes down to a choice. Which side do you stand on? Which position do you take? It’s a judgement call, albeit one that we have so far made corporately, and I suppose the final resolve will come only in Heaven. “Now we know in part, then we shall know fully….”
So why does the Army continue to mutter?
First, it is our age. We were once a young Army. Now we are older, old even. Our leaders are old. And old age is not a time for risk-taking or going against the grain.
Second, we are more educated than we were. This has brought us many benefits, but at a price. The systems and forms of higher education, particularly so far as theology and biblical studies are concerned, by their very nature seek the golden mean in their pluralism and so intrinsically discount distinctives in either practice or thought. Predetermined consensus is the rule.
When we were young, we hammered out our own theology. Now we study the theology of others, others with a different calling; a different part in God’s plan and therefore a theology to suit that. Do we care more about what those others think than what God thinks?
Third, we have subtly but almost completely divested ourselves of the prophetic mantle given to us by God.
Make no mistake, Booth considered himself, and was considered by others, to be a prophet. In our youth we had a very strong concept and understanding of the prophetic role to which the Army was called.
Our theology on female ministry, the sacraments, social endeavor, musical forms, incarnational identification, the priesthood of all believers and more this was all prophetic, ahead of its time. We were bursting wineskins all over the place.
If any blessing has departed from the Army, it is more likely over this abdication of our prophetic role than over anything else. In our youth we innovated and customized. In our old age we imitate and franchise.
Then we led; now we follow.
We were prophets. Now? Now we are conformists. We should have moved on, pushed the limits as prophetic pioneers with others continuing to follow in our wake.
CAPTAIN GEOFF RYAN (right) shown here with his family. (l-r) Captain Sandra Ryan, foster daughter Natasha (presently still in Russia), adopted son Sergei, Sasha and Anya. The Ryans now serve as corps officers at Project 614 In Toronto, Canada.
But we have grown old.
And so to warm our brittle bones and protect our thinning skins, we have sought solace in the old forms, in the comfort of the old ways, lest we fall and break a bone, lest we look foolish in the eyes of the other elders. Afraid to go out after dark, afraid of risks. Going to bed early with regrets about the past and fears for the future. Muttering darkly among ourselves of things long past as if they were yesterday and we doubt, we doubt.
In the end, unless we stop the muttering and make up our minds, we will likely crawl into the shade of an old, cracked wineskin, declare it good and safe and comfortable, declare it our true home, and there they will find us.
Excerpts from Chapter 4
SOWING DRAGONS – Essays in Neo Salvationism is available beginning April 1, 2001 from the Western Territorial Supplies and Purchasing Department. 130 pages. For information call 1-800-937-8896, fax 310/265-6554 or on lotus notes USW trade.