Monday, 6 July 2020

Still Quarrying 174: Read All About it!

A daily newspaper has been something of a luxury.  There was a suggestion early in the lockdown that a newspaper could be a risk.  Apparently the virus could survive on paper and anyway it wasn’t a good idea to go into a shop.  No great loss, you might think.  You have the internet, the telly and the beloved wireless.  But I have appreciated the few newspapers that have come to hand over the past few months.  You know, the smell of the paper, the ink on your hands, the rage when some idiot writes something you don’t agree with.  

So on Friday Gabrielle has things to do in the village and comes back with a Times.  A woman named Ann Treneman has a ‘Notebook’ in which she has a go at Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Describing herself as an ‘irregular churchgoer’ she writes:

‘The Archbishop of Canterbury when asked where God was during the pandemic, said “right in the middle of it”.  Hmm.  I take that to mean that the Almighty will be down the pub this Saturday, because no one can accuse the church itself of being anywhere near the action.‘    

This kind of thing seems to be part of a journalistic theme at the moment.  At the beginning of the lockdown the historian Simon Heffer writing in the Telegraph describes himself as ‘overtly godless’ but nevertheless criticises Justin Welby for his lack of spiritual leadership.   A similar piece appeared in the Spectator recently written by the well-known controversialist Douglas Murray who in the past has described himself as a ‘Christian Atheist’.  As well as indulging in a bit of Welby-bashing he accuses the Church of England leadership generally as being docile in the face of government pressure to close down the church buildings:

‘Perhaps they saw the opportunity for a longish sabbatical or a chance to rest their knees.’  

Murray acknowledges the online services and devotional material (including blogs!) which are being provided and the fact that Justin Welby is doing a stint among Covid-19 victims in a London hospital but he doesn’t allow any of this to affect his main argument that the Church has been spectacularly remiss during the epidemic.  

The interesting thing about all of the above is that at best, like Treneman, they are on the fringes of Church life or at worst, like Heffer and Murray, entirely absent.   So what do we take from this?  Being as charitable as possible, they may be hungering for spiritual reality in their lives and the Church of England’s output is just not satisfying them.  Or maybe they have to write about something and the Church is an easy target.  

If these journalists are looking for serious theological thinking in the face of a pandemic then this is not hard to find.  In the earliest days I found Professor Donald Macleod’s essay on God and the pandemic both challenging and comforting.  This can be accessed on his website.  There have also been contributions from John C. Lennox, John Piper, Tom Wright and Walter Breuggeman.   All honest grapplings with our vision of God and the challenges we face in the pandemic.  

If these journalists wish to engage in some form of worship then they are spoiled for choice.  There is scarcely a parish church in the UK that is not working hard to provide something online.  In response to Murray’s piece a letter was printed in the Spectator signed by 4 bishops in which they point out that over 5, 000 parishes in England are now offering worship online.  The picture is not much different in Scotland and far from ministers enjoying ‘a longish sabbatical or a chance to rest their knees’ we are finding that live-streaming and recording are far from an easy option.  

It crosses my mind that any defense we raise will have little effect on our three journalists.  At the best of times they appear to be dismissive of the Church and they are aware that the worst of times is always a challenge to the Church so let’s just turn the screws.   Reading that back I am aware that might come over as more than a little sour but sometimes experience does that to you.   The antidote, however, is to be grateful for those who have worked through the theological issues in these Covid-19 days and have been courageous enough to go into print.  Also, to be grateful to colleagues in many denominations who have worked hard at sustaining online worship as well as supporting the sick and bereaved when the pastoral care they would normally give has not been possible.  Their Christian witness has been unflagging.  

I do not believe any of this has gone unnoticed by God.  His Word assures us that nothing that is done for the Kingdom is ever in vain and that is despite unfriendly judgements.   In the end His is the only judgement that matters.  

Friday, 3 July 2020

Still Quarrying 173: Journeying Through Baca.

I had made up my mind that when I got back to preaching in the weekly recorded services I would not launch into a long expository series.  Better to ease myself in with passages of Scripture that have struck me as helpful in these Covid-19 days.  Maybe the Lord had other plans.  Quite by ‘accident’ I seem to have stumbled on a series.  Not preaching through a book or a passage but focussing on different Bible people and how they coped with crisis in their lives.  I began with ‘Paul In Lockdown’, then ‘David Hemmed In’ followed by ‘Hezekiah Under Pressure’.   A week on Sunday, if I am spared as my mother used to say, I hope to to preach on ‘John In Exile’.  

The one thing that links all these people, and who knows how many more we will find, is that they were restricted in some way and yet through faith in their God they not only coped but transformed their circumstances to His glory.  They call to mind one of my favourite passages in the Psalms: Psalm 84: 5-7.  

‘Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.  As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools.  They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.’

It is a picture of pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem passing through a particularly challenging area.   Opinions differ as to the the exact location of the Valley of Baca, barren and unfruitful, but it has become symbolic of difficult circumstances that yield to the influence of God’s people.  As they pass through this place that might break your heart they make it ‘a place of springs’, fresh and filled with promise.

That has been the story of the Church at its best, making a difference in the Bacas of this world with the truth proclaimed and the love embodied.   Christians have made a difference in famine, flood, earthquake, epidemic, prison, and concentration camp.  Arguably we face an equal challenge in transforming the spiritual deserts of the West where there is still confidence in humankind’s ability to overcome every adversity and little acknowledgement of the God revealed in the ministry of Jesus.   

It is possible to become overwhelmed by the conditions as we travel through Baca but would God place before us the vision of transformation if it were not possible?   We travel with His Word in our hands, His Spirit in our hearts and the example of Jesus before us.  Do we need more as we seek to work the desert to ‘a place of springs’.  

Friday, 26 June 2020

Still Quarrying 172: Telling The Story.

‘How does it feel?’ sang Bob Dylan in one of his most acclaimed songs.  In one way or another people have been asking me the same question over the past week.  How does it feel to be back preaching?  Well, it’s not the return I envisaged but in many ways these Covid-19 have helped me to get back in a limited way.  Colleagues are restricted in the work they can do and that has opened up the possibility of my making a contribution while still ‘shielding.’  And I have to say it felt good.  To be back in the building, to be working with our techie folk Chris and Hugh, to be engaged once again in the greatest privilege that could ever fall to a man or woman: preaching the Word.   On the day there was a bit of a sticky start.  After all, it has been 16 months.  But the beauty of recording is that you can ‘cut’ and start again.

There has been much discussion about the value of live-streamed and recorded services.  It has been much appreciated although in recent months there seems to have been a falling away since the pandemic forced us into lockdown.  Personally I am inclined to believe that if the preached Word is going out by whatever means then we are called to expect results.   Remember Isaiah 52: 10-11:

‘As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.’

Maybe this is what Professor Donald Macleod had in mind when he wrote in a recent email to me:

‘At the moment, the huge expansion in live-streaming of church services means that the showers of the Word are watering the earth as never before, and we have good reason to hope that they will bear fruit.’

Preachers need to embrace this vision not just in these Covid-19 days but in relation to our work in every time.  Many have accepted that the very nature of our culture works against the efficacy of preaching.  For the last hundred years people have been writing books on preaching in which they explore why ‘modern’ minds cannot easily accommodate preaching.  And not just the ‘minds’ in society at large but also within the Church!   I was recently given a book in which there is an essay on preaching by Alastair Haggart, former Primus of the Episcopal Church in Scotland.  He begins by saying: ‘Of all clerical activities, preaching is perhaps the one held in the lowest esteem.‘   To be fair, he goes on to argue for the significance of preaching in the life of the Church but he has a point.

Some of that is down to preachers themselves.  The German theologian Helmut Thielike once said: ‘People are not tired of preaching.  They are tired of our preaching.‘   There may be more than just a grain of truth in this.  Think about it.  In a society where ‘story telling’ is now regarded as an occupation, were people pay to listen to comedians talking for two hours, where TED talks draw huge interest and audiences - where are we going wrong?

Come in Rob Bell.  Yes I know he is a controversial figure and may have wandered from the path of Christian orthodoxy in some ways but years ago I attended one of his conferences in Grand Rapids USA.   It was on preaching and in his opening address he shared his belief that the day of preaching had yet to come.  He spoke about ‘this twitterized age’ in which we live and how it will eventually become more important for people to listen to ‘a real person, speaking in real time, about things that really matter.‘   And, he went on, when we are speaking of the Gospel we are handling ‘the greatest truths that anyone has ever stumbled upon.’  

There is something here for our encouragement. Maybe our culture is more open to listening to a message than we habitually believe.  But there is a challenge also.  Do we really believe that our message is one that the world needs to hear, that it contains the greatest of all truths concerning ourselves, concerning God, concerning the destiny of humankind?  That confidence was at the heart of the early Christian mission.  This is what motivated the earliest followers of Jesus and which led to the judgement of pagan contemporaries that they were ‘turning the world upside down.’  

That is a vision we need to keep before us with the prayer that the present output of preaching online will take the world forward to a greater sense of the Kingdom of God in our midst.  

In his book on prayer Eric Alexander reminds us:

‘ . . . true preaching is not merely an intellectual or oratorical exercise, depending on human skills.  It is a spiritual work, depending on the power of God to make His words living and effective, and the anointing of God, to make the preacher the vehicle of God’s grace.’  

Monday, 15 June 2020

Still Quarrying 171: Phasing In.

From today I am on a phased return to work.  Practically speaking this means I will be preparing and delivering services and being available by phone and other media.   As I am still ‘shielding’ I will not be able to conduct funerals.  This will continue to be the responsibility of Rev Ramsay Shields who remains as Interim Moderator of St Paul’s and Baldernock.  

Getting to this point has been a long haul with challenging treatment and some setbacks.  It’s good, however, to look back at the care and expertise of medical staff; the support of colleagues far and wide; the prayerful concern of the congregations of St Paul’s and Baldernock; and the love and long-suffering of Gabrielle and the family who have shared this experience with me.  

All of this has come to me within the good and loving purpose of our Heavenly Father.  It is quite awe-inspiring to think that from all eternity He has seen this day when I can begin to take steps back into ministry.  These steps may be small and tentative for the time being but I am trusting Him for the strength in time to engage more fully in the work of the Kingdom.  

It has been interesting for me to see how the online ministry of the Church has been developing over the past few months.   Our congregations, including St Luke’s, have been well served by Ramsay Shields and John Wilson.  These are men who live in the Word and it has been a blessing to receive what they have grasped in their ‘quarrying’.   Now it’s my turn to engage in this developing ministry.  As always I can depend on the patience, gifts and expertise of people around me.  Chris Scott for his technological knowhow, Derek Norval in his exceptional music ministry, and Hugh McGorm assisting Chris and generally looking after the minister.  

What I keep hearing is that this is a ‘steep learning curve.‘   But I am looking forward to the challenge in the knowledge that I will continue to be held in the prayers of so many.   Preachers are prevented from being too cocky when remembering that Paul constantly asked for the prayers of the faithful as he delivered the Word.  He once wrote:

‘Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.  Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.’  (Colossians 4: 2-4)

Just this morning I received an email from Professor Donald Macleod who mentions ‘the huge expansion in live-streaming of church services (which) means that the showers of the Word are watering the earth as never before, and we have good reason to hope that they will bear fruit.’  

That’s a bright vision to set before me.  These are undoubtedly strange and bewildering days but God has not forgotten us and we can depend on His Word working for the purpose He has intended in bringing all things in heaven and on earth together in His Son Jesus.  

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Still Quarrying 170: Off A Pedestal.

I’ve never been a fan of statues.   Placing a man or a woman on a plinth and inviting lesser mortals to gaze up in admiration is fraught with problems.  Whatever their achievement they were human beings who although created in the image of God are sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.  They share our inclination to fail at a moral and spiritual level and that should temper any impulse to raise them above the common run of humanity.   Many will see that as a pessimistic perspective on humanity but you don’t have to go too far into the Bible to see that even those who were deemed to be unique in their faithfulness to God still were capable of making wrong decisions which led to disaster for themselves and others.  This need for us to take our inner brokenness more seriously has emerged in the wake of recent events in the UK.

While being disturbed at the flaunting of social distancing and the mob behaviour at some of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations I do not mourn the removal of the statues of people who had strong links with the eighteenth century slave trade.   I also welcome the debate as to how in the future we deal with this blot on the history of the UK.   I am aware that there are people who do not like to think of themselves as British but if we home in on Scotland then the picture does not get any better.  Some years ago I heard a Professor of Scottish History being interviewed on the wireless.  He was passionate in his belief that we Scots should be learning the history of our nation from an early age but warned against idealising our past.  His particular interest was the eighteenth century and averred that whenever there was some ‘skulduggery’ (his word) going on in the British Empire someone from Dundee, Edinburgh or Glasgow wasn’t far away.  

The history I received at school was full of noble freedom fighters, dashing Jacobites, intrepid explorers, ingenious engineers, romantic poets and the odd missionary.   The Tobacco Lords were presented as high-powered businessmen who contributed much to Glasgow’s recognition as the Second City of Empire.   There was no mention of their heavy involvement in the slave trade along with other groups of Glasgow merchants.  John Glassford (1715-1783) whose name was given to streets in Glasgow and Milngavie even had an African ‘servant’.  

Just today Gerry Hassan writes in the online journal Scottish Review:

Scotland cannot escape from its role in Empire. Sir Geoff Palmer wrote last weekend that there is silence and omission when it comes to this part of our history, saying 'I believe that, in some quarters, "false national pride" has been responsible for this omission. There is the misguided belief that the Scottish people need protection from their own history'. And, as American academic Tommy Curry from the University of Edinburgh, put it: 'Scotland remains very much in denial about its racist heritage and colonial legacy'. ‘

When I was in my mid-teens I read my first biography of Martin Luther King.  It was written by Coretta his wife.  That book provided me with my first insight into how much the  economic growth of Western nations had depended on slavery and exploitation.  Coretta begins with Martin’s award of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964.  Before the ceremony in Oslo Martin and the family made visits to several European countries including London.  Correta describes a sight-seeing tour including the ‘great government buildings - the Admiralty and the Foreign Office - which stood like monuments to the great empire that had been and was no longer.‘   She and the children were obviously a bit starry-eyed.  But what about Martin?  She writes:

‘ . . . the beauty and the nobility of London were clouded for Martin by the thought, as he said, “that it was built by exploitation of Africans and Indians and other oppressed peoples.”’ 

That cloud hangs over many if not all nations in the West.  The way forward for us may be to remove statues and rename streets as long as this is the result of consultation and debate.  But whatever happens there should be no air-brushing of the past.  It happened and our nation was involved and many prospered.  

Genevan Calvinists lived under a particular cloud for many centuries.   In 1553 a man named Michael Servetus was executed for heresy.  It was a complicated business.  Servetus was also regarded as a heretic by a number of Roman Catholic states.  However, with the passing of the years Genevan Calvinists found the execution more and more difficult to justify.  So in 1903, on the 350th anniversary of the deed,  a committee from the Reformed Churches set up a granite monument to Servetus at the place of his execution with this inscription:

'Respectful and grateful sons of Calvin, our great Reformer, but condemning an error which belonged to his century and firm believers in freedom of conscience according to the true principles of the Reformation and the Gospel, we have raised this expiatory monument.'

I have no objection to memorials.  There are a number of instances in Scripture of God commanding His people to set up memorials as a remembrance of how He acted for them as individuals or as a people.  There seems to me to be no harm in having a physical focus for significant events in the life of a nation.  It’s a way of keeping history alive.  Maybe then we could follow the example of the Genevan Calvinists to find ways to acknowledge the errors of the past and to establish our commitment to follow better ways in the future.  

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Still Quarrying 169: Three In One?

Today is Trinity Sunday in the Christian calendar, traditionally an opportunity for Christians to reflect on the being of God and how He has chosen to reveal Himself to humankind.  It’s not easy to get your head around the thought that we worship one God who is three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It took a long time for the Church and much passionate debate before she was able to arrive at a satisfactory and coherent expression of this belief.  And it is still a source of contention.  Faith communities like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons deny the Trinity and that is before we get to the great monotheistic faiths, Judaism and Islam, who have consistently challenged the idea of a Three Person God.  

Personally I have never had much of a problem with the Trinity.  It is clear from Scripture that God has revealed Himself in different persons in the experience of His people.  The Father predominates in the Hebrew Scriptures; in Jesus God was embodied in a human personality; and with Jesus no longer physically present in the world the presence of God and His work is sustained through the Holy Spirit.  

The central problem of course is how these three persons can share the same nature.  Through the years I have been encouraged to think of examples of ‘three in one’ from everyday life.  Look at an egg!  Yolk, white and shell.  Three in one!  See the light from a candle.  It comes from wax, wick and flame.  Three in one!  Probably the most helpful illustration is to think of water, ice and steam.  All essentially H20 but in different forms.  

But, he says with a sigh,  as with all things related to God we eventually reach out for that catch-all for all our theological conundrums: mystery.  Actually, I am not totally uncomfortable with that.  Do we really think that we can pin God down with our human concepts and categories?  Who was it said: ‘You can’t put God in a test-tube?‘   That doesn’t mean that we cease to explore God.  To a large extent that is what is going on in the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Job, not to mention parts of Paul’s letters notably Romans.  As we ask questions and meditate on what has been revealed we come to appreciate more of God.  At its best theological study is a devotional exercise.  The deeper we go into God the more we appreciate and love Him.  

These Covid-19 days have inevitably brought out a number of Christian responses.  Naturally the churches have been at a stretch to provide practical help and support for those in need.   But it has also been a time for reflection on the being of God.  What have we to say about our God in this time of crisis?  Written contributions by Donald Macleod, John C. Lennox have been helpful.  I am currently reading John Piper’s Coronavirus And Christ and waiting for Amazon to deliver God And The Pandemic by Tom Wright.  These and others are all facing the challenge of believing through the worst of times.  

Reading Scripture with a Covid-19 mind leads you to some new insights.  I don’t think it ever really struck me that Bible people were constantly dealing with crises: flood, famine, earthquake, war, plague.  Sustaining their faith wasn’t always easy but even with negative thoughts and emotions they never gave up on the God they had come to know through faithful teaching and preaching.  The God to whom faithful people had borne witness through the generations.  So with all the challenges of these strange and bewildering days I can remember the Father who has created the earth and promised never to abandon it despite humanity’s fall away from Him.  I can remember the Son who embodied the being of the Father and through His death and resurrection has reversed the fall away and provided a vision of a New Humanity.  I can remember that believers are sustained in this hope through the gift of the Holy Spirit who brings the benefits of the Son’s completed work in forgiveness, renewal and the assurance of the coming Kingdom.  

So Happy Trinity Sunday!

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Still Quarrying 168: Trumpery.

Donald Trump’s response to the death of George Floyd has brought condemnation from many quarters.   Church leaders have been united in their criticism of Trump’s highly publicised walk to a church damaged by rioters where he brandished a Bible and his subsequent visit to the St John Paul II National Shrine in Washington.  It becomes all the more bizarre when you consider Martin Bashir’s suggestion on the BBC website that Trump does not consider church ‘essential to his personal life’.  He writes:

‘President Trump does not belong to a particular congregation, only occasionally attends a service and has said many times that he does not like to ask God for forgiveness.’  

Bashir is far too sensitive a commentator to make an ultimate judgement on Trump’s immortal soul but nonetheless it may be reasonable to suggest that the Bible brandishing and Shrine visiting has less to it than a sign of personal devotion.   The statistics show that significant numbers of Christians from various traditions voted for him and this is an election year.

You might say, what were these people thinking?  Well, this is politics and as such the answer is not straightforward.  There are American Christians, some of them registered Democrats, who for many reasons were hesitant in voting for Hilary Clinton.  Some held their noses and went ahead, others didn’t vote, a few voted for the Independent candidate.  I make no judgement on any of that.  It has been a long time since I have been able to place an unequivocal mark against a name in any election.  

But there are a few things on my mind not just about Trump but political leaders in general.  Richard Hofstadt was an American historian who made significant contributions to national debate in the 1950s and 60s.  One of his main impulses was to understand the cultural climate of his day where there was suspicion of expertise and enthusiasm for conspiracy theories.  This led to Hofstadt describing his country as ‘an arena of angry minds’.   Contemporary commentators have been applying this to these days of Trump with his sneers at the intellectual elite and outbursts against those perceived as undermining him.    I can see their point.   But consider this.  There is a lot of anger being directed against him, not a few conspiracy theories have him at the centre, leading to him being described recently as a ‘hate figure’.  

Despite my antipathy to Trump and my tolerance of ‘righteous anger’ when expressed at some of his policies and utterances I cannot believe that this contributes to a healthy cultural climate.  Do we really want to be part of ‘an arena of angry minds’?  Some of the best Christian witnesses through the millennia unite to remind me that when I feel dark emotions rising against anyone that I perceive to be in the wrong my prior need is to examine myself.  Am I the best example of a better way?  

I long ago came to the conclusion that politics has the potential to make wise people mad.  When you hear people making excruciating moral contortions as they defend the frailties of their political champions while pointing the finger at those who seek to undermine them.      I believe it’s called ‘whataboutism’.  And when you hear the crackling of the cellophane as party lines are unwrapped and you feel your eyes glazing over.  It was encouraging when at the beginning of the present crisis there was very little of this.  Unfortunately there are signs now that things are changing.  

None of this should ever deter us from our Christian responsibility to pray for what the apostles called ‘the governing authorities’.   There is no wriggle room here.  Whether we like it or not this is not an option but an apostolic injunction.  The way political power is wielded is important to God.  It may be abused and the door opened to laws and policies that are not consistent with His ways.  But history has shown the good that can be established, the enhancement to people’s lives, new expressions of justice that satisfy restless hearts.  Those who wield power should never be outside the embrace of our prayers.  If the Confessing Church in Germany in the 1930s could pray for Adolf Hitler, if Christians in Uganda in the 1970s could pray for Idi Amin, if Chinese Christians could pray for Mao-Tse-Tung throughout his reign, then surely I can pray for our ‘governing authorities’ even when I don’t like them.  

In praying for their oppressors of course all the above peoples were not just asking God to grant health and strength to them.   There were fervent prayers for a turning away from the ways of darkness and for reconciliation to God.  And that brings me to perhaps the most important point in all of this.  J.B. Phillips once wrote a book called Your God Is Too Small.  Is our God so small that He cannot break into the most resistant psyche and work through even the most unlikely people for His good?   Do you remember what was said about King Ahab of Israel:

‘There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, urged on by Jezebel his wife.  He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the Lord drove out before Israel.‘   (1 Kings 21: 25-26)

And yet when Israel was under threat of invasion from Syria an unnamed prophet was sent  to Ahab with a promise and a challenge:

‘This is what the Lord says: “Do you see this vast army?  I will give it into your hand today, and then you will know that I am the Lord.’  (1 Kings 20: 13)

There were more detailed directions from the prophet which Ahab was persuaded would lead him to victory.  So it could be said that Ahab walked in the ways of God - but only so far.  When as the victor he made a treaty with King Ben-Hadad of Syria this was outside the will of God.  Therefore the opportunity to be reconciled to God was not taken. 

What we need to take from this is that to establish His purpose God was able to work through the life of a man like Ahab ‘who sold himself to do evil’.   And furthermore Ahab was given a chance to recognise who was ‘the Lord‘ and be reconciled to Him.    If we can hold these things in our prayers for ‘the governing authorities’ then perhaps the diminishment of the ‘arena of angry minds’ will begin with us.