What an honour it is to pay tribute to an exceptional leader who I came to deeply respect!
Several times in my travels I have told the story of Hazel, a Salvationist whose testimony I heard in Australia. Her plans to commit suicide were frustrated at every turn. Falling in tears on her bed, she woke in the morning to find herself on the floor with her head resting on the bed. Reaching out to the bedside cabinet for a tissue her hand touched her Salvation Army song book. She pulled it down, and it opened at Song 238.
Do you sometimes feel that no one really knows you,
And that no one understands or really cares?
Through his people, God himself is close beside you,
And through them he plans to answer all your prayers.
Someone cares, someone cares,
Someone knows your deepest need, your burden shares;
Someone cares, someone cares,
God himself will hear the whisper of your prayers.
There on her knees and through her tears she prayed to God for forgiveness and, believing he saved her for a purpose, handed her life totally to him. The Lord used that song as the turning point. She not only lives but lives abundantly with a ministry that is making a difference to a whole community.
Several books could be written on how John Gowans impacted individuals through his songs, poems, preaching and personal engagement. Today I want thank God for the man he used to such a high degree to influence The Salvation Army.
There is nowhere I have travelled that his missional statement – saving souls, growing saints, serving suffering humanity – is not woven into the fabric of the territory. It was not a new mission direction but a brilliant yet simple restatement that captured our essence and purpose. And if ever we thought that they were three missions assigned to specific Army groupings, he dispelled that at the International Congress in Atlanta with his imagery of the three-legged stool. Ours is not only a balanced mission but an integrated one. This was not just the poet at work with clever words, this was the seasoned Salvationist whose grasp of God’s mandate, Army history and experience reminded us of our essential calling.
How important it is to The Salvation Army that we have models for leadership! When the Lord created John Gowans and called him to be an officer, he knew that this was no personality that could be squeezed into a mould. We thank the Lord for a man of God who was unique. Though he held various leadership appointments, I doubt if anyone ever viewed him as a typical Divisional Commander or Territorial Commander or General. The rank or the position did not define him. There was only one John Gowans – real, captivating, colourful, direct and perceptive. He taught us to trust God with being ourselves. We learned that we are not only the better for it, but the Army is enriched and God is honoured.
Like Charles Wesley, John Gowans had a gift for communicating the deep things of God, sound theology, in a language that we could all understand. But even more than this, he called us to a fresh perspective on what we believe. How easy it is for any Church to slip into a rules and regulation mode and convince itself that God shouts from a distance with displeasure at our weakness. Yet John saw him differently: ‘Ours is not a distant God, remote unfeeling…’
Human vulnerability was never denied, nor failure excused. His theology rose from our own statements of faith that call us to a Lord who hears the penitent cry and receives, restores and recommissions. Who of us has not sung ‘Knowing my failings, knowing my fears… Jesus, recall me, me re-ordain; You know I love you, use me again’ and made it a personal confession and prayer? John Gowans’ understanding of the human condition with its weakness and its high aspirations was expressed with the poignant prayer: ‘Holy Spirit, promised presence fall on me. Holy Spirit make me all I long to be.’ This was no wishful thinking. This was strong faith in an amazing God of grace.
The Salvation Army will be forever marked by the gifts and skills that John Gowans dedicated to God and used to his glory. I join the thousands who today thank God that he has crossed our paths.
Gisèle, you and your sons will take great comfort in knowing that this ever-present, ever-loving God is the One who comes alongside you this day and every day in the future. May the blessing of the Prince of Peace be yours.
General Linda Bond
Friday 14 December 2012