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Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Terrible Story – A Parable of Sorts

I gave blood today. I do this as often as I can. It’s an easy thing to do, to share what I have with others. As usually happens the nurse who pricked my finger to test the iron content of my blood, and pumped the sphygmomanometer to take my blood pressure made polite small talk. Our conversation dwelt on my church, The Salvation Army.

“I love the Salvation Army,” she said. “They do such good work. How long have you been with them?”

“40 years,” I told her without hesitation. She looked puzzled, trying to apply that number against the relative youthfulness of my appearance. “My parents are also Salvation Army officers,” I appended.  “I was born into it.”

“Ah. I see,” she said. “You must love it.”

I nodded. “And hate it.” She looked puzzled again.

“I’ve been around long enough to know of the public glories of my denomination and its darker private failures. I’ve seen the good and I’ve seen the bad and the ugly.”

“But you do so much to help people.”

“Let me tell you a story that was told me by a wise old Sergeant Major (which is something like a Deacon in other denominations). He told me of a faithful soldier (that is, a member, in the curious and idiosyncratic jargon of the Salvation Army) by the name of John Chevigny, who became concerned for the soul of man he worked with, an atheist by the name of Abraham.  John knew Abraham to be an honest man, trustworthy and worthy of respect, but feared that this good man and good friend would some day die without knowing the blessings of the Kingdom of God. John began to patiently urge his friend Abraham to find the peace of Christ, and to join with him in worship at The Salvation Army.

“Abraham replied that he felt the issue to be determined, he didn’t believe in God and felt no need to change. But John persisted (without making himself obnoxious about it) and continued to try to persuade his friend. And after some months, Abraham began to be moved, if not by John’s persuasions, by his persistence.

“One day he said to John, ‘Listen. You would like me become a soldier in your army of salvation, and I am prepared to do so on one condition: first of all, I shall go to your Territorial Headquarters to observe and interview the officers I see there. I will examine their lives and conduct, together with their ministry, and if they seem to me such that, added to all that you have told me, they lead me to faith, I will do as I have promised and join your band. If I remain unconvinced, I will stay as I am.’

“When John heard this be was very distressed, and said to himself, ‘I’ve made a hash of it all. If he goes to the territorial headquarters and meets the Commissioner and other officers there, and sees what foul and wicked lives they lead, he will never become a Christian, let alone join The Salvation Army.’

“And John tried to dissuade Abraham from such a course.  Come now, my friend, why should you make such a journey? You’ll have to take time off work and think of the expense…  Surely I can answer whatever questions you might have.’

“But Abraham was resolute, and set off to visit the Salvation Army’s headquarters. There he toured the building, and made appointments to meet many of the officers. He spoke to them privately and asked them many questions. He also met with many clients of Salvation Army programs and who opportunity to interact with the officers. Being a very perceptive person, Abraham discovered that many of them from the highest to the lowest officer were vain, and given over to various vices. They broke vows, they gossiped, they treated others with back-biting malice. He saw among them embezzlers and thieves.  He discovered improprieties and failures of many kinds.

“All this, and many other things that I could describe except that prudence bids me keep them silent, Abraham discovered during his investigations. And so, feeling that he had seen enough, returned home.  When John heard that Abraham was back, he went to him with much anxiety.

“’Well, having completed your research, what sort of impression did the officers at headquarters make on you?’

“’A very bad one,’ said Abraham. ‘I am surprised that God doesn’t strike down the whole lot of them. I saw lust, and greed, and fraud, and envy, and pride – oh so very much pride. I came to regard the whole place as a hotbed of wickedness rather than holy devotion.’

“’It is as I feared,’ said John with a sigh.  ‘I am sorry to have wasted your time.’

“But Abraham was not finished. He said, ‘As I drove home it occurred to me that The Salvation Army continues to do good work, here and around the world, despite the depravity of its leadership. I can only conclude that it must have the Holy Spirit moving within it. How else could one explain its continued preservation in face of all that your officers seem to be doing to destroy it from within? If I once refused to listen to your arguments, I am now fully persuaded. Sign me up, and fit me for a uniform, for I wish to become a soldier in your army.’”

“Is that true?” the nurse asked me.

“It’s the story I was told,” I said to her. “But the sergeant-major who told me that story was the most honest man I’ve ever known. He’d been around long enough to know a thing or two, and my own experience cannot contradict his story.”

“That’s a terrible story,” she said.

“I know.”

(Confession time – I’ve adapted this story from one of the stories told in Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron – but tell me that it doesn’t ring true, even in this free adaption.)

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