Bearded Gospel History: Josiah Henson

JOSIAH GRAPHIC (1)

by Aaron Alford

Born into slavery in 1789, Josiah Henson grew up witnessing human cruelty at its worst, and the fact that he grew up to become a truly remarkable Bearded Gospel Man is a miracle in itself.

When he was still a very young boy, little Josiah had an image etched in his memory which would stay with him the rest of his life: his father coming home close to death, his back mangled, blood streaming down his face. A slave owner had sexually assaulted Josiah’s mother, and when his father came to her defence, he was severely punished for laying hands on a white man. His ear was cut off and he received one hundred lashes, all of this done to the delight of a watching crowd.

Years later his father was sold, taken from his pleading family, and Josiah never saw him again. Such transactions were commonplace, and rarely was any thought given to keeping a family together. Husbands were routinely taken from their wives, mothers from their children. The threat of your family being separated at your owner’s convenience was constant. When Josiah was still a young man, his family was torn apart for a second time when his brothers and sisters were sold at an auction, one by one, as he and his horrified mother looked on. Josiah was sold, taken from his mother’s trembling hands. It was only after his mother desperately pleaded with her new owner that he eventually purchased little Josiah some time later, reuniting mother and son.

Josiah grew to be an invaluable asset to his new owner, showing great leadership and frugality as a foreman on the plantation. As horrific as the conditions of slavery were, Josiah, at first, refused to attempt an outright escape. He was proud of his position and achievements, which to some degree blinded him to his truly desperate situation. Besides, it was all he’d ever known. Ill-treated and despised as he was, longing for true freedom, he was convinced he could purchase it for himself rather than become a fugitive slave. Adding to this was the fear of what happened to fugitive slaves who were caught.

It was during this time that Josiah heard the gospel for the first time. John McKenny was a baker and part-time preacher who was known as an “upright, benevolent Christian” who despised slavery and who refused to use slave labour in any of his business dealings. One Sunday, Josiah heard this man preach, and was overwhelmed by the message given. Josiah later wrote of this event:

The divine character of Jesus Christ, his tender love for mankind, his forgiving spirit, his compassion for the outcast and despised, his cruel crucifixion and glorious ascension, were all depicted, and some of the points were dwelt on with great power; great, at least, to me, who then heard of these things for the first time in my life. Again and again did the preacher reiterate the words “for every man.” These glad tidings, this salvation, were not for the benefit of a select few only. They were for the slave as well as the master, the poor as well as the rich, for the persecuted, the distressed, the heavy-laden, the captive; for me among the rest, a poor, despised, abused creature, deemed of others fit for nothing but unrequited toil—but mental and bodily degradation. O, the blessedness and sweetness of feeling that I was loved!

Though still a slave, Josiah’s inner life was transformed. “Swallowed up in the beauty of the divine love, I loved my enemies, and prayed for them that did despitefully use and entreat me,” he later wrote. Led by this divine love, Josiah himself, while still a slave, became an ordained Methodist minister at the age of 22.

He wed a woman named Nancy, and they began a family. Still convinced that he could obtain his freedom through “legitimate” means, Josiah eventually struck a bargain with his owner to purchase his freedom for $450 dollars. Josiah had been able to put the first $350 down, and a contract was written that he would purchase his freedom when he had paid the last $100. But when he at last raised the hundred dollars, he realized a treachery. The legal note had been changed: a zero added to the 100. His freedom would now cost him not 450 dollars, but a thousand dollars (over $24,000 in 2015 rates).

It was then Josiah realized he would not obtain his freedom by any legal means. It would be years, however, before he and his family had an opportunity for escape. At last, as Josiah was facing being sold and separated from Nancy and his four children, he arranged an escape plan. Facing a harrowing journey that threatened his family with starvation and capture, Josiah and his family traveled from the Southern U.S., up through the Northern states, and eventually Canada.

In many stories of slavery and escape, this would be the happy ending. For Josiah Henson, however, it was just the beginning. Father Henson saw that many slaves who had escaped to Canada did not know how to begin a life of true freedom for themselves, and found themselves in living situations which were subservient and economically servile. So he began to teach trades and life skills to the community in which he found himself.

He would eventually return to the United States to assist other fugitive slaves in finding their freedom. He began a trade in high quality Canadian Black Walnut lumber, hiring and training many former slaves, and finding great success in exporting it to Great Britain. Throughout this time he continued to preach the gospel and work tirelessly as an abolitionist. In 1865, at the age of 76, he lived to see slavery abolished in the United States. Seventeen years later, at the age of 93 (an age he would never have reached had he remained a slave), Father Josiah Henson passed away peacefully in Dresdon, Ontario, Canada in 1883.

Father Henson is inspiring example of what it means to not only help people find freedom, but to equip people for freedom. So often we are content with an illusion of freedom rather than freedom itself, substituting grace for law and dynamic action and risk-taking for a comfortable (if constricting) status quo. Josiah settled for none of this. He risked his life not only for his own freedom but for the freedom of others. In his freedom he sacrificed what could have been a content and relatively easy life for the service of others. He traded the oppression of slavery for the freedom of servanthood. Thank-you, Father Henson, for your living witness to this truth. It is for this kind of freedom that Christ has set us free.

For Father Henson’s full story, I highly recommend reading his autobiography. It is a truly exciting tale, and contains fascinating insights into a remarkable time of history. “Father Henson’s Story of His Own Life / Truth Stranger Than Fiction” is available as a free ebook or pdf download from many sites, including this one: www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/49129 

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Bearded Gospel History: Saint Denis

by Aaron Alford

Denis

A good preacher can preach a sermon right off the top of his head. A great preacher can preach a sermon with the top of his head right off.

I would like to introduce you to just such a preacher: Saint Denis. This Bearded Gospel Man would hardly let something as inconsequential as decapitation keep him from preaching a message of repentance. (John the Baptist. What an amateur!)

Born in Italy some time in the third century AD, Denis was a missionary bishop. He was sent along with two companions (one a priest and the other a deacon) to evangelize Gaul (modern France), then part of the Roman Empire. The gospel had taken root there, and the Church of Gaul had even enjoyed a level of comfort and privilege for a time. But times changed with the rise of Emperor Decius. Decius saw himself as a reformer of the glorious Roman religion and its political system, and sought to completely exterminate Christianity from the Roman Empire. He wanted citizens faithful to gods and country. A Christian’s loyalties, however, were first and foremost to one God and his Kingdom. This was simply incompatible with Decius’s ideal of patriotism.

While the average Christian was given an opportunity to renounce their religion, priests and bishops were simply executed. This persecution, preceded as it was with a time of relative ease, took a great toll on the Church, and many recanted. The Church of Gaul was dwindling and suffering.

Along with his missionary brothers, Denis bravely went forth, eventually arriving in Paris. These friends powerfully communicated the Gospel in word and deed, and many came to believe in the Christ whom Denis preached. The love and fearlessness these friends displayed was bringing new life to the Church of Gaul.

But these conversions did not sit well with the local pagan priests, and soon Denis and his friends found themselves in the clutches of the Roman authorities. By some accounts the three were scourged, racked, and thrown to wild animals. Surviving these ordeals, still true to their King and his Kingdom, Denis and his friends at last faced the Roman sword.

One can only imagine what was going through Denis’s mind as he watched his friends meet their death. True as he was to the Kingdom he preached, he may well have been praying for the repentance and salvation of his executioners. Perhaps he was thinking, “This would be a perfect time for a sermon!” Odds are this was exactly what he was thinking, for it seems that mere decapitation could not keep him from preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom.

Legend says that when the soldier’s blade separated his head from his body, Denis calmly picked up his head and started preaching. He then walked down from the hill of his execution, proclaiming a message of repentance to everyone who would listen. Needless to say, getting people’s attention was not a problem. Finally, after about a six-mile sermon, Denis set down his head and died.

Regardless of how historically precise this account of his martyrdom may be, there is no doubt Denis was a passionate preacher with a deep and abiding love for Christ. At a crucial time when the Church had suffered the double blows of comfort and persecution, Denis revived and reinvigorated the Church through his faithful proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom. So here’s to Saint Denis, a Bearded Gospel Man who stands heads above the rest.

Hipster Hate and the Bearded Man

by Aaron Alforda6f965536fdee4911834c31293bf2691

Ah, the Hipster. You are so much cooler than the rest of us. How we love to hate thee.

You love old things in a way that seems to be a finger in the air to modernity, and you have an iPhone 6 1/2.

You purchase your western shirt at the thrift store for five dollars, and the plain white v-neck underneath it at Pretentious & Co. for 50.

You smoke American Spirit cigarettes because they’re all natural, destroying your lungs with no chemicals added.

You speak passionately about societal issues without lifting a finger to solve anything.

You feel superior to everyone around you, and it shows.

And, perhaps worst of all, you wear your facial hair ironically.

The Bearded Man finds this offence most egregious, because he does not want to be perceived as one of “them”. The Bearded Man should wear the beard simply because he likes it. But the Hipster, oh the Hipster! You know that moustache looks strange on you, and you know that we know it looks strange on you, which is why you call it “ironic”. But we both also know that you kind of think it actually looks cool, in a non-ironic sort of way. It hearkens back to the time of gentlemen, but now you’ve added a self-referential awareness that no gentleman would have had in the first place. It’s all so meta it’s just exhausting.

You are pretentious and self-righteous. You are the very embodiment of everything we despise. For all of these reasons and for so many more, we are allowed to hate you. And boy howdy does it feel good to hate you.

But there’s a catch, a catch that makes us hate the Hipster all the more: Hipsters hate Hipsters!

I’m definitely not the first person to write about this phenomenon, but it would seem that, hated as the Hipster is, he is everywhere and he is nowhere. I’m pretty sure I know one when I see one, but no one self-identifies as one. If no one claims to be a hipster, then what exactly is a Hipster?

A while ago I was in the midst of a conversation about said Hipsters, light-heartedly talking about what I hate about them. I was taken aback when my friend said, “But aren’t you a Hipster?”

I was a little offended, but the evidence was there: I like old-timey styles. I wear vests. I like wearing suspenders. Sometimes I wax my moustache into a handlebar. I’ve even worn a bow tie a time or two (though my beard length makes that somewhat pointless).

“What makes you not a Hipster?” my friend asked.

I’d always thought I was styling myself after a kind of bearded CS Lewis, but suddenly I was confronted with the truth: I was a Hipster! My defence was I didn’t love these things ironically, as “they” do, but I didn’t really have an answer beyond that. My only real justification was I shop at thrift stores not because it’s cool, but because I’m actually poor.

Speaking of thrift stores, it was two days later at the local Salvation Army when a man walked up to me and said in a thick, English-As-A-Second-Language accent I couldn’t quite locate, “Escuse me, I like you style. You look bery, um, cool. Like, um, don’t be offended, um, what is the word? Hipster?”

I smiled and sighed and sunk my bearded chin into my chest. There it was. Proof positive, from his strangely accented mouth to my own ears. I was a Hipster.

“Thanks,” I said, my pride getting a bit stuck in my throat as I tried to swallow it.

This revelation got me doing some self-evaluation. What is it that I hate in the Hipster? Pretentiousness? Hypocrisy? Their sense of superior coolness? Well, let’s see.

Pretentiousness. That’s the one where you want people to be more impressed with you than they should, when you try to put forth an image that gives people the impression that you are smarter, more cultured, more important or, at the very least, cooler than you really are. Yep. Gotta admit I have that one.

What about hypocrisy? Yes, pretty sure I’ve got that one well covered, too. I’m sure I have it by the very fact that I think I don’t. First rule of Hypocrite Club? Don’t admit you’re a hypocrite!

Feeling superior? Lordy, Lordy. Never do I feel so superior than when I’m standing next to one of “those” people. Stupid Hipsters.

If you can relate to any of this, then you guessed it: you might be a Hipster, too. Just name any aspect of the hated Hipster, or any group of people you find distasteful for that matter, and if you take off your sunglasses and stare deep into their reflective lenses long enough, you will have to admit to finding it in yourself. Let he who is without pretension cast the first stone.

Biker Dude who hates Hipsters: You are a Hipster.

Redneck-and-Proud Dude who hates Hipsters: You are so very a Hipster.

Guy Who Runs a Website About Facial Hair: You’re so Hipster it hurts.

It seems there has always been someone in society we love to hate. Before the Hipster, there was the Yuppie. Before the Yuppie, the Hippie. Before the Hippie, the Beatnik. And before the Beatnik… the Hipster. It all comes full circle. I suppose it doesn’t take too much digging to figure out why there’s always somebody to look down on. I don’t have to deal with my own flaws if I think that someone else’s are worse than mine. What was it That Guy said about splinters and logs?

Speaking of That Guy, he did exactly the opposite of what we are so prone to do. Rather than labelling people and finding reasons to despise them, he saw their individual humanity and loved them. More than that, he happily accepted the derogatory labels others put on him: Drunkard. Glutton. Sinner. He let himself be hated to the point of accepting death.

So, it would seem that the moment we hate someone, or feel disgusted by a certain cultural group, or merely look down on someone, that is the moment they look exactly like Jesus. Conversely, it’s only when we can admit our own hypocrisies and failings that we can be delivered from them.

Does this mean we can never have a laugh at how ridiculous the Hipster can be? Perhaps not, as long as we have the humility to admit we’re laughing at ourselves. Because, Lord, help us, we’re all Hipsters in need of a Saviour.

Man Enough to be a Mom.

by Aaron Alford

Image

Painting: Henry Ossawa Tanner – The Annunciation.

 

The angel Gabriel stands before a teenage girl named Mary. He has just announced to her the most important news in the history of mankind. A Saviour is to be born, the very Son of God, and she has been chosen to be his mother. All of salvation history, from Adam through to Malachi, has come to this point. God has made a people for himself, led them like a shepherd, slowly revealing to them his true character, making them to be a light to the world. He has sent them judges and kings and prophets, all in the hope of readying them for his ultimate plan of salvation from sin and death: the gift of his own Son, the Saviour of the world, the eternally begotten Word who shall live, suffer and die as one of them, and who will at last be raised from the dead into glorious life.

But for now, the angel stands before a peasant girl, and awaits her reply. 

Not even this angel who lives eternally in the presence of the Almighty can know what will happen if the girl says No. He simply hopes with his whole being she says Yes. Many kings and prophets who have gone before said No to the call of God, or at the very least tried to run from it. Eve herself, graced as she was to walk with God in the Garden, chose selfishness.

Though she’s been graced with a life that has prepared her for this moment, there’s still no reason she couldn’t refuse. She, as much as any before her, has a free will, to choose the good or not, and now everything hinges on her answer. The angel knows all of this, but of course you couldn’t tell by the look on his face. He simply smiles, and waits for her answer.

She takes a breath, holding everything the angel has told her in her heart. Finally, she speaks.

“Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord. May it be done unto me as you have said.”

And every angel in heaven breathes a sigh of relief, and a cry of jubilation.

This, obviously, is simply my imaginative conjecture on what happened in that moment so long ago, but the truth remains that at one point in history, God’s plan of salvation came down to the Yes or No of one girl. I’m sure we could have an interesting debate about what God might have done if she had said, “No, thanks!” but that’s not the point I want to make here. 

In a culture that has a particularly difficult time sorting out what it means to be a man or a woman, where our ideas of fatherhood and motherhood have been tainted by our own experiences of our own imperfect moms and dads, it can be a controversial and misunderstood thing to refer to God as “Father” or even as “He”. God, of course, is beyond our understanding of male and female. Indeed, the ideas of male and female originate from God himself, so both characteristics are fully and completely within his nature.

But for some reason, God chose to reveal himself in terms of a Father. So what does that mean for us? If God has chosen to identify as “male”, at least in terms of his fathering actions and attitude, could it be that we as humans are meant to identify as female? 

Sex, as it is meant to be expressed in marriage, is a man and woman embracing in a mutual act of love and self-giving. A husband offers himself to his beloved, and new life is created and born into the world through the loving consent of a mother. If God has ordained this as the most basic method of the continuation of life on earth, there may be something here we should pay attention to in terms of our spiritual lives and our relationship with God the Father.

Gentleman, we need to embrace our feminine side, because the world is in desperate need of some bearded moms!

I’m sure we’ve all had a “church chuckle” about being called the Bride of Christ, but it may be time to give a little more thought to this feminine aspect of our relationship with God. What does it mean to think of our spiritual lives in terms of the actions of a wife and mother? 

Mary said Yes to the Holy Spirit, who planted in her the Word of God. This Word, after nine months of quiet nurturing, was born into the world for the salvation of humankind. Like little Mary, we must be open to the work of the Holy Spirit. In every moment, we are in some sense standing before the angel Gabriel, and being given a chance to let the Lord plant in us the seed of his Word, to receive him in an act of self-giving love. And we are free to accept or reject his advances.

But first, of course, we need to be quiet enough to hear that angel’s greeting in the first place. We need to set aside our own agendas and shut up long enough for the Gabriel in our lives to get a word in edgewise! We must create spaces for intimacy. To quietly ponder, as Mary did, what is happening around us and what God may be doing. Then we need to embrace the simplicity and courage with which humble Mary received God’s Word to her, listening and responding with a humble “Yes”. Then, if we nurture the Word which the Spirit plants, in the fullness of time God will bring that Word into the world through us. We will see the fruit of the Father’s work in our lives and in the world around us.

What an awesome invitation, and what a staggering responsibility! God himself, in his vast humility, awaits our humble reply. Such a reply requires absolute trust, a determination of heart to trust in the Father’s providence and character, and a willingness to let go of our desire to control or predict the outcome. After all, Mary could never have predicted that she would give birth to her son while surrounded by cattle, but even then she trusted in God’s character and will. She was a model of courage and faithfulness we as men would do well to imitate.

So what is your answer? Will you face the Father with fear, or faith? Will you run like Jonah, or show the simple trust of Mary? More than that, can you receive this word with the love and care of a wife and mother? Will you patiently nurture that which God has planted, without rushing towards an early delivery? Can you say right along with the mother of Our Lord, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done unto me as you have said.”

Are you man enough to be a mom?