I got to know Rev Howard Lewis quite well when he was associate minister in Bloomfield Presbyterian Church. I discovered only recently that his father was Rev Ivor Lewis who was based in Berry Street Presbyterian Church in the Seventies when I was but a lad.
Howard was a remarkable man, he was one of those rare individuals who was a Christian but not religious. It was he who encouraged me discover for myself that it was religious people who crucified Jesus. That single fact changed my life forever, for when you take the next step by asking why they did it, your relationship with organised religion is transformed, unless that is, you choose to live in denial.
The secret in understanding the meaning of organised religion lies in the root meaning of the word. The word was invented by Cicero, a first century BC politician, philosopher and orator, to describe people who are ‘tied, or bound to a monastic code.’
And what did Paul the apostle say about Jesus? He said, ‘It was for freedom that Christ has set us free.’
So, back to Howard Lewis, the man was a free thinker, he could not be fitted into a box, he was bold, daring and brave. It was he, I believe, who was one of the founders of the annual Christian event in Belfast known as “Mandate”, to which up to 2000 men from all over the world come for a time of refreshing, instruction and fellowship.
I shall never forget what Howard said to me that if he thought ‘Mandate were to become an event’ that people come to for no other reason than they were there last year, he would wind it up.
Sadly it seems that’s exactly what happened, and even more sadly, the said founder of the annual pilgrimage has long since passed away.
We’re creatures of habit, aren’t we? For example, I led a Home Group attached to a church in my hometown some years ago. It was a great group of about ten or twelve good people of ages ranging from mid-thirties to almost eighty years old, but there was one occasion when I invited a couple of ‘outsiders’ to join us, and it created a stir. One older lady was quite vocal after the meeting; ‘But this is our group,’ and then she added, ‘?.. and she was sitting on my seat!’ - and that was the end of that particular Home Group.
God expects his people to be dynamic in the sense that they should always be on the move, always forging ahead, making new discoveries, doing new things.
The old prophet Isaiah said: “Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past. See! I am doing a new thing, can you not perceive it?” Religion makes a virtue out of sameness, it cannot distinguish between stagnation and stability, but that’s not how it should be.
Isaiah called on God’s people to break up the fallow ground that had become hard and impervious, with generations of pious bums polishing the same pews, all following the same beaten paths.
This life of faith is supposed to be exciting, risky, even scary but we settle for the safeness of predictability, head always below the parapet, but I don’t know if that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said, ‘I have come that you might have life.’