Riding up the escalator at the Uptown Mall (Victoria) I heard the sound of a jazz trumpet riffing off a Christmas tune. While my brother went inside Walmart to check out which DVDs might satisfy his compulsion, I drifted over to the music. There, under a tent, the trumpeter played with a small combo made up of a lead guitarist, two rhythm guitar players, a drummer and a couple of singers. They were celebrating the start of the Salvation Army’s Christmas Kettle campaign.
I smiled at being drawn in by the trumpet. When William and Catherine Booth first started the Salvation Army in London’s East End in 1865, the Booths regularly employed brass bands as a way of drawing a crowd. Still works.
Standing at the back edge of the crowd, watching the young guitarists, I was transported back in time as surely as if I had stepped through a time travel window of Dr. Strange’s conjuring. Forty-five to fifty years ago I was that guy. During my teenage years, Christmas meant going door to door receiving donations in exchange for the Christmas War Cry (the Salvation Army’s periodical), standing in snow drifts by the kettles and playing in throw together musical ensembles on the town’s main street.
I took a moment to be grateful for some gifts of that time.
The thorough grounding in the Bible
From the time I was 7 or 8 years old, almost every meeting of children or youth would include a version of the “sword drill.” A Scripture verse would be called out - Malachi 2, verses 2 and 3 - and the first person to find it in the Bible would jump to their feet and read it out. Eventually, I learned not only location of the Biblical authors but key phrases.
Much of what I learned about the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament and the Book of Revelation had to be un-learned later but at least the names and flow of the Grand Story was familiar.
A posture of inquiry
Though not the original intention, I am sure my very deep impatience and frustration with religious rhetoric grew during the twice a week church services. The result is my reflex reaction: Is this true? What was intended to be said by this story/message/doctrine? So what?
Practical Hope for the poor
When I got to theological seminary in the 1970’s the theology of liberation, with its emphasis on good news for the poor, was on the rise in academic circles. I remember being surprised at the enthusiasm. Raised in the Army I took it for granted that the gospel was about forgiveness of sin, a call to live in hope and to pay particular attention to the poor, the homeless, the hungry and the destitute.
The current enthusiasm for the rediscovery of mission - as meaning congregations need to look outward rather than inward - provokes the same reaction. The injunction to go out into the community, pay attention, discern needs and respond, first, with compassion and practical assistance was the same motivation that led Booth to abandon the conventional concept of a church as defined by the Methodist Reform church of the mid-19th century. Every Friday night Salvation Army officers would engage in “pub theology” as they made the rounds of the beer parlours, collecting donations and establishing relationships.
Too many of my teenage Saturdays were spent helping sort the “rummage” as it was called then. Long before mainline churches seem to have discovered Thrift Stores as both a revenue stream and a valuable means of community ministry it was woven into my understanding of church. Consequently, I have never fully grasped the anxiety about Thrift Stores not being the “real” work of the church. Maybe I have worn too many “thrift” items and seen my family receive more than a few hampers?
To be a Christian means you are different
At its extreme, the early days were marked by warnings about “the world.” At its best, the message was that to be a Christian came with a cost. Sometimes people would look at you differently, some things you could not do. The line in the Junior Soldier pledge (for those aged 7 and up), “to abstain from all intoxicating drink and tobacco” probably saved my life. Drugs were added later. The “spiritual practices” of daily prayer and bible study were simply expected.
The Power of Addictions - and God
Even in a small smelter town one cannot be engaged in work with the poor and the addicted without facing the life-destroying power of addictive and compulsive behaviour. Owing much of its practice to a Wesleyan heritage the sharing of life’s struggles was common. The family destroying power of drugs and alcohol was a powerful weekly witness. The power of good intentions and willpower are not sufficient for those who seek a new life.
Of course, there were other things. Coming from a small corps (congregation) I learned very early that poor leadership could be disastrous. Too often officers (ministers) were equipped with enthusiasm and rhetoric but not skill. I still fight for competent tradecraft.
Booth chose the name “Army” for a reason. The organizational structure was hierarchical and shared a few of the benefits and many of the liabilities of that structure. A teenager in the sixties was not predisposed to accept things “just because” they were in the Orders and Regulations.
Even the best of organizations can harden, practices become rigid, doctrine unresponsive. When I was young some women still wore Victorian style bonnets as a sign of commitment and resisted any change of style to the new “cowboy hats.”
Good intentions can harden until the language feels like a cat of nine tails lashed across the spirit. The ability to question was rarely encouraged. Along with standardized religious rhetoric, this proved to be the kiss of death for me.
Good intentions can harden until the language feels like a cat of nine tails lashed across the spirit.
All of this and more came back very quickly last Saturday afternoon.
I left with a sense of gratitude; fond recollections of my mother, a staunch Salvationist; buoyed by the trumpet and thinking the lead guitar could have been just a touch louder.
What memories do you have of your original spiritual home?