THQ weighs in

THQ weighs in

Sunday, January 25, 2015

What is an image of God?

It’s not a figure made out of metal.  It has been, and I imagine still is for many people in other parts of the world, but when we speak of the image of God we don’t mean something metal. For us, it’s something mental, the creation of our capacity to think, to picture things we can’t see.

I have, for instance, an image of the equator.  I crossed it when I was little. If I should be anywhere near it again, I wouldn’t see anything, but I still have a vivid image of it. It’s a black band around the middle of the globe.

We all have an image of God. For some, it’s nothing more than a blank. For some, it’s a picture of an overgrown man who manages the affairs of the universe.

For others, it’s an abstract principle. The law of gravity isn’t anything you can see; neither is the law of love.  Both are abstract principles; you can’t see either, but you see what they do.

When a person falls off the roof, you see what the law of gravity does; when a person gives one’s life for a friend, you see what the law of love can do.

For some people the picture of God is as clear as day, but for others it’s murky. But everyone has some picture. From that, let us proceed to the fact that your picture of God isn’t always the same, not even during your own lifetime.

When you were a child, God may have been near to you when you knelt by your bed and prayed, God bless mummy and daddy, and make me a good boy or good girl as the case may be.

Then when you became a young man or woman, and faced the complexities of life and saw before you the riddles of existence God disappeared completely, like the sun behind the clouds.

And then, when you grew a little older, God may have come back, but not exactly in the same way, but a greater, vaster God.

Also, down through the years the image of God has been constantly changing. In the primitive days of humankind it was the image of a spirit which dwelt in a river, or tree, or mountain. You can easily see how this happened.

What you can’t see so easily is that one small nation came to the point where they saw that the real image of God was the spirit of justice, and they found God, as Lincoln later described as the “great Disposer of Events”, the God of history.

Isn’t it amazing that those Jews so despised, had that tremendous insight that no one else had that God was the spirit of justice, of right and wrong, and the Disposer of Events.

Don’t be surprised if your image of God changes. It changes because you change. You know more about the world than you once did. The man or woman, for instance, who saw the world as a platter around which all the suns and stars and planets revolved, had a picture of God quite different from the picture of a person who sees the world in terms of interstellar spaces, light years and outer space.

We can assume, however, that more people than we think have the old image of God.  They picture God as a person ‘up there’ or ‘out there’ and therefore apart from the universe and the life we live. They speak in anthropomorphic terms and refer to God as ‘he’ and ‘him’. And by and large, ‘he’ is apart from them, ‘up there’, or ‘out there’.

We make this judgment on the way people act more than on what they say. There are two things that might lead us to that judgment as we observe their behavior. 

The first is the fact that most of the time they don’t pay any attention to God. They act as though God were completely apart from the life they live. They make their decisions and go about their business with no reference to God whatever. One day a week, perhaps, they go through the formality of recognizing God’s presence.

The second is the fact, that when they pray, they pray to that which isn’t always with them, but to something that’s ‘out there’, and they plead with ‘him’ to come and help them in time of an emergency, the way you call an ambulance, or the fire department, or a doctor.

Let me put it imperfectly in this simple figure. Suppose that you were attending the rehearsal of a play, and it came to your mind that you would like to meet the playwright. You ask someone “where is the person who wrote the play”?

No one seems to know.  So you begin to look. First you go on the stage and look up into the dazzling lights, and on the platforms that swing to and fro. You think that she might be up there looking down upon the players, but there’s no sign of her there.  Then you look in the wings; you think she might be there. Then you look in the prompter’s box, but she isn’t there. Then you think that she may be out in the dark theatre, sitting there watching the play where no one can see her. So you go through the endless rows of empty seats. Surely, in the last row you’ll find her. But there isn’t anyone there, every seat is empty; and you come to the conclusion that the writer isn’t there at all.

But you’re looking for the playwright in the wrong place. If you want to meet her – look for her on the stage, in the play. You may not meet her face to face; but the deeper you go into the play, the more you’ll come to terms with the mind and purpose of the writer who created it.

By the same token, if you want to meet God, don’t go higher and higher into space.  If you do you’ll run the risk of having the same experience as Rupert Brook, who wrote:

Because God put adamantine fate
between my sullen heart and its desire,
I swore, that I would burst the iron gate
rise up and curse God on the throne of fire.
Earth shuddered at my crown of blasphemy,
but love was as a flame about my feet,
proud up the golden stair I strode;
and beat thrice on the gate, and entered with a cry.
All the great courts were quiet in the sun,
and full of vacant echoes; moss had grown
over the glassy pavement, and begun
to creep within the dusty council halls.
An idle wind blew round an empty throne
and stirred the heavy curtains on the walls.

More people than we think have been through that experience. They’ve gone in the same direction looking for the God that Rupert Brooke was looking for, and when they got where they thought God should be there wasn’t anything there.

If you want to find God, go deeper into your own life, into the relationships you have with other people into the mysteries of life and death and as you go into those depths you’ll meet the God that is greater than anything you can think or do or be.

Let’s go back now for a moment and ask the question: Do we need, do you need, a new image of God. If you’re living on the image you had when you were a child, you’ll have no religious life that means anything at all.

Many of you, I know, have long ago given away your childhood image of God. You no longer have an image of God as a glorified man. Your image is of a living presence, of mind, purpose, power, love that sustains you.

You find it in the Bible, if you look in the right places, the one hundred and thirty ninth Psalm, for example, or the fortieth chapter of Isaiah.

But some people haven’t, I know that, too. They’re still looking for God in the wings, and if you’re in that position you need a new image of God.

There’s one thing to remember. In the New Testament there is a new image of God.

As far as I can find out, the only reference to the “ image of God in the New Testament is the one made to Jesus who is referred to “as the brightness of God’s glory and the express image of God’s very being.” Begin with him. Begin with the concrete, and then move into the abstract. For most people that is the way, I’m sure.

I’ll give you one illustration from my own life.

As a boy, I loved music, but I never had a chance to hear great music. We didn’t have a record player, or the stacks of classical records or c.d.’s people have today.

But one time, an older man took me to hear a famous violinist, who was playing in Central United Church, in Brandon, Manitoba. I don’t know who the violinist was, or whether he even played well or not, but it’s still for me the image of great music.  It was concrete.

I know that there’s a great deal more than that about music, and I hope that I’ve learned something since, but I began with that vivid image that was concrete and I shall never forget it as long as I live.

Begin with Jesus – the way he lived, the way he managed his life, the way he loved, his willingness to die for what he believed, the way he lost his life, the way he still lives now. If you begin with him you may find that Jesus is the window through which you may get a glimpse of the reality of God.

Dr. John Sullivan
Former officer

Friday, January 23, 2015

Something Better… ‘Autobiographical essays (Shaw Clifton)

General Shaw Clifton, LLB, BD, PhD, AKC was elected world leader of The Salvation Army in 2006. Having retired in 2011 after five years as General, we now have from his pen and personal Journal a collection of candid autobiographical essays revealing his heart and mind, and much about the Army God raised up to span the globe.

Something Better… review by Commissioner William W. Francis

General Shaw Clifton (Rtd), in his precise, comprehensive, and flowing style, has penned an autobiography. This exceptional edition contains the detailed and personal account of a gifted essayist, lawyer, and administrator.

More than simply a recording of the life of the Salvation Army’s 18th General, Something Better… reminds every reader that, with Christ, something better always lies ahead.

The book’s title is taken from the fourth verse of the Founder’s song “O Boundless Salvation,” which reads, “I feel something better most surely would be if once thy pure waters would roll over me.”

General Clifton describes his narrative approach as “…simply a series of self–contained essays of varied lengths, each one revealing—sometimes with a hint of candor—some aspect of my life’s story.”

For 20 years, my wife and I have known General Shaw and Commissioner Helen Clifton. We’ve worked closely together in the USA Eastern Territory, at International Headquarters, and when he was General as we served in territorial leadership. Although I thought I knew him reasonably well, I was surprised by the voluminous personal and corporate revelations disclosed in his book.

In his working relationships, Shaw Clifton followed the sound leadership principle of sharing information on a need–to–know basis. Hence, while reading the manuscript, I found myself thinking, Oh, that’s why this happened, or I never knew that, or Now it makes sense. The author reveals enigmatic aspects of his characteristics, roles, and multidimensional personality.

Throughout the volume, the sometimes complex and often subtle pieces of the “puzzle” come together, revealing a portrait of a Christian leader and a unique and remarkable human being.

I love reading biographies and I have the highest esteem for autobiographies, but this one is distinctive. Shaw Clifton writes with more clarity, insight, and honesty than I have found in reading any other biography. It is a proverbial “page–turner.”

General Clifton discloses behind–the–scenes accounts of previously unknown interactions with territorial leaders, such as the time when a commissioner misconstrued a second–hand account of the General’s health and wrote to the Chief of the Staff to call for a High Council to remove the General from office on the grounds of ill health!

And for the first time, the General chronicles the circumstances that occasioned the historic five years of communications between The Salvation Army and the Vatican. And throughout the volume, more unexpected and interesting revelations continue to illustrate and affirm that “there is always something more, something better God can do and is doing in us.”

The sequence of the essays is purely alphabetical by title—each using one word that begins with the letter “S.” Each essay stands alone and is further enhanced by the liberal use of revealing extracts from the General’s personal journal.

General Clifton confesses that this strategy works fairly well, but begs the reader’s indulgence for “Spectacles,” the title of Essay 8, which focuses on his reading habits and love of books.

The first essay deals with the Cliftons’ earthly lineage, as well as their courtship, early spiritual journey, and calling to officership.

The essay on “Sanctification” logically follows, focusing on their commitment, maturity, and growth in grace. Following this is an essay describing his leadership roles as a corps officer, a divisional commander, a territorial commander, and a General.

The author also tackles hard and challenging topics such as his and his wife’s illnesses, beginning with his Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis in 1969 and concluding with the full description of Commissioner Clifton’s promotion to Glory in 2011. Through poignant accounts of their health challenges, Shaw Clifton achieves his stated goal: “I intend an orderly account, free of self-pity or sentimentality, leaving little out and attempting openness and candour.”

‘Something Better…’ Autobiographical Essays by General Shaw Clifton (Rtd) is available in print from Salvation Books (SP&S, International Headquarters, £10.00, plus postage and packaging). Or from sps– or (prices may vary).

A Kindle edition is available from, as well as an ebook version from

A Crest Books edition is available through the USA National Headquarters. Enriching this 432–page work are 16 pages of b/w and color photographs. A detailed index is also included.


During his years in office, Clifton maintained a close interest in the connection between Christianity and social-ethical issues. He helped to shape current Salvationist positional statements on issues such as abortion, war, race and ethnicity, gender, marriage and family life, euthanasia, human sexuality and pornography.Clifton advocated a role for churches in social action, not just in social service, important though the latter is. Such a role should be a non-party role and it is not for the churches to tell believers or members how to cast their vote.When he served as world leader of The Salvation Army Clifton actively worked for heightened awareness of, and greater opposition to, human trafficking. His convictions on the Army's calling to work for social justice gave rise to the establishing of the international social justice commission based in New York near to the United Nations.He brought to the role the same interest in ecumenical relations shown in earlier appointments around the world. He encouraged still greater freedom of contact between the Army and other branches of the Body of Christ, including the Roman Catholic Church and enhanced communication with the Vatican.A strong believer in the equality of men and women in Christian leadership, Clifton consistently sought to promote talented women Army leaders into more senior roles.He emphasized the use of modern communication techniques in Christian ministry and encouraged a proactive book publishing programme by The Salvation Army's International Headquarters in London and around the world.He is known for writing and speaking on the practical possibility of living a pure and holy life in the secular world, by divine indwelling and grace. He draws upon the writings of the Reformers, John Wesley, William Booth, Catherine Booth, Samuel Logan Brengle, and Edward Read.In retirement he continues to write, preach and teach.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Balder and Dash: “A Grandfather Speaks”

“Grandpa, can I hold your hand?” asks my four-year old granddaughter as we walk on the sidewalk of South Street in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. “Of course!” is my enthusiastic response. Soon her twin sister catches up to us and wants to hold my hand as well. Not much can make a grandparent happier that holding hands with his twin granddaughters. Of course, they know that at a street crossing, they must hold the hand of an adult. They’ve been taught that by their mothers.

“Their mothers” is not a typo. My granddaughters have two mothers. One is, of course, our daughter. They live in a neighborhood where a two-mom family doesn’t raise eyebrows. Their preschool has two-mom families, two-dad families, single-parent families, mom-and dad families. It’s just the way things are. The church that our daughter and her spouse attend has the same family diversity. The lead pastor is openly gay and lives with his same-gender partner. It is not an issue! A walk in the park reveals ethnic diversity and different family constellations. Could this be a fulfillment of the prayer we repeat Sunday after Sunday, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” I’m confident the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

Yes, the word “spouse” was not a mistake either. Our daughter and her partner were united in marriage by a Presbyterian clergywoman who later made national news when she was reprimanded for performing another same-gender wedding. (Charges against her were recently dismissed.) It was a lovely ceremony with about 100 family members and friends gathered to celebrate the occasion. Incidentally there were eight ordained Covenant clergy at that wedding as well as several members from the congregation that I previously served.  Everyone from our family was in attendance and wonderfully supportive of the newly married couple. It was a great party!  It is legal in Massachusetts for same-gender couples to be married. Shouldn’t it be that way everywhere?

Well, we mean to do our part!  This past June my wife and I co-hosted a house party sponsored by Mainers United for Marriage. This is a coalition of groups banded together to support the ballot initiative this November to allow same-gender marriage in the State of Maine, which was defeated three years ago. We and many others hope and are working for its success this time.  We believe that folks are increasingly aware that being gay or lesbian is innate and not a choice and that no one should be denied a lifelong commitment through marriage.

The picture may be becoming clearer–not only am I a grandfather and a father but also an ordained Covenant pastor, a graduate of North Park Seminary (Class of 1964), and have served Covenant churches for almost 30 years. Furthermore, I am passionately committed to the notion that people, no matter what their God-given sexual identity, have the right to formalize Their love for another person through marriage. As for many, this stance and these convictions didn’t just happen. There are stories, events along the way, that helped to mold what I stand for now.

The religious stance in my childhood home was conservative and evangelical. We didn’t talk about sex and most certainly didn’t discuss alternative sexual identities. I have faint recollections of high school locker room comments about someone being “gay,” but I’m not sure I was aware of what that meant. Reflecting on my two years at North Park College(1956 – 58), I don’t recall thinking of classmates being lesbian or gay. However as time went on and my awareness progressed, I began to hear that some were. Later, with further thought and exposure, my rational response to the “gay issue” was one of openness and acceptance, although my visceral reaction to same-sex couples showing affection was discomfort.
Another “marker event” occurred in March, 1987. I had served the Covenant Congregational Church of Waltham, Massachusetts for 13 years. Two other churches, both American Baptist, and our church sponsored a Lenten Study Series entitled, “A Christian’s Look at Social Issues.”  I was the primary organizer. One session topic was “Alternative Life Styles—Homosexuality.”  Twenty five years later that doesn’t sound very dramatic, but if any readers can place themselves in that moment in time in a Covenant church along with two Baptist churches bringing in a resource person (an ordained Southern Baptist and PhD candidate at Boston University) to address this topic and lead a discussion, you realize that although it probably wasn’t quite “cutting edge,” it wasn’t far behind.

My exposure and comfort level were greatly enhanced in the early 1990’s as my wife worked in the graphic arts department of a nationally known magazine. Several co-workers were openly gay. Often at social gatherings with these folks we would be in the distinct minority as a straight couple.
Many of you have read Lynda McGraw’s poignant piece “My Beloved Brother” on Coming Out Covenant. I presided at her brother’s memorial service in the Covenant Congregational Church of Waltham in 1996. Mark had been in a confirmation class that I taught. His parents were close friends, so I had been aware of Mark being gay through many conversations with them. I knew that he had become ill and suffered beside them. I remember vividly gathering with Mark’s family and his partner, James, to plan the service. I wanted to be fully supportive. I hope that I was. It was a beautiful moment in the sanctuary of the Waltham church.

Because I’m a Covenant pastor, some will wonder how I can assume this open, affirming stance on LGBT issues. How can I disregard Scripture passages that seem to condemn homosexual behavior? My answer is neither profound nor unique. I simply ask, “How can we expect the biblical authors to have a positive approach to homosexuality without the evidence and insight we have now?” Why can we not label these verses as culturally tainted as are passages presuming that the earth is flat, slavery is acceptable, women must not speak in church  (certainly not with an uncovered head), divorced people must not be pastors, etc., etc.?  Peter Gomes’s The Good Book brought clarity to my thinking about these Biblical injunctions. He calls typical church views of homosexuality “the last prejudice.” I’m not sure I agree it’s the “last prejudice,” but it’s surely a prejudice the church should fight to eradicate. I’m absolutely convinced that, facing a choice of Scriptural interpretation, love of neighbor trumps everything.

Obviously I am very troubled by the current stance of our denomination, but I am confident that as our society progresses in understanding and affirmation, so the Covenant church will eventually grow. Other denominations have taken the lead and yes, have paid a price, but I suspect God cares more for people and principle than for impressive statistics!

In my 74 years, I’ve shed notions here and there and acquired new understandings along the way. I thank God and the people who have aided my growth. I intend to work and support to the best of my ability in my remaining years those principles that have become part and parcel of my being.  Of course, there will always be time to enjoy my beautiful granddaughters, watch them grow and become gracious women, and be thankful for their mothers who have given them life and, like all mothers, want all that is good for their children. That makes me as happy as my grandaughters wishing to hold my hand does now!

Rev. Alden Johnson