Monday, 31 October 2011

'Is the church where you would like it to be?'

This canny question (a 'strategy' question, not a geographic one, you understand)was put to me by a mature and savvy Christian when he was talking to me about church membership a while ago.

What, as a pastor, should one say? The knee-jerk reaction might be to say 'yes' as this gives the impression of a CEO in charge and in control and succeeding in getting things where one wants them to be. Thankfully I am not sufficiently CEO material and I paused before answering.

'No' I said. A further short pause. 'I think I would be worried if the church was ever where I wanted it to be'. Thinking it through as I spoke (not to be recommended unless you are put on the spot) I added, in the course of fruitful discussion, that if the church was where I wanted it to be, it would suggest that I was in charge of the church rather than the Lord. Also, it implied that I was setting the church's agenda, and if I was satisfied with where it was it suggested something woefully lacking in my desire for the church, or something woefully complacent in my assessment of where we were spiritually.

Yet - there surely is a place for planning and having a 'vision' for one's church. One can hardly lead effectively without it.

But - a good question he asked, don't you think? How you answer is likely to say far more about you than it will say about the church. It makes one think: where would I like the church to be? What would I like to see changed for the better? Where are we weak? What should I be concentrating on? In a way these questions are never far from the mind of a pastor, but sometimes the demands of the immediate cause one to lose sight of the ultimately important.

I am thankful that this man and his wife, with their children, have joined us. May we all work towards making the church more what the Lord would have us be.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The Cathedral of Nature

We went to London today. We took the boys to the Natural History Museum. Queueing to get in lasted an hour. Then we 'did' the dinosaurs who 'ruled the earth' from about 230 million to 65 million BC. Funny that, as they showed extracts from films like '10,000 (or was it 10 million? )Years BC' and 'The Flintstones' which had humans and dinosaurs on earth at the same time. There was some catastrophe about 65 million years ago and there have been about 100 possible explanations put forward as to what this was, including that they were all taken up by aliens or died of hay-fever when certain plants came along and the climate changed. A good dose of Beconase then could have saved these creatures for posterity. A flood was not one of the catastrophic options listed by the museum.

On the floor which tells you how we have evolved from apes I was delighted to learn that we are nearer gorillas or chimpanzees than to orang-utans or gibbons; it's something to do with the jaw. Baboons are not in the running apparently. Neanderthal man was prominent, if I recall, from about 500,000 BC to within 100,000 then the race who were our direct ancestors came long. Neanderthals and these ancestors co-existed for a time (a few tens of thousands of years). I must admit I thought the story was that Neanderthals were our ancestors; you learn something every day. When you realise that the total skeletal evidence on which these weighty conclusions are based would fit into the back of a not very large white van, one is amazed at the extrapolatory ability of palaeontologists.

But there is lots of less conjectural stuff in the NHM and it makes for an interesting day out. It is reading between the lines, however, which is interesting. They call it the 'cathedral of nature' and walking in, it certainly has that appearance. Moreover, sitting on his chair (cathedra, like ancient bishops) up on the steps as you enter, is His Grace Charles Darwin. His white marble statue was unveiled in February 2009 and the statue of Richard Owen who founded the museum in the 19th C, has been ignominiously shunted into an obscure corner - still to be seen with a polite plaque to his name. But he did not agree with Evolution as Darwin taught it, you see, and so has been demoted by Commissar Dawkins and his Stalinist atheist cronies, along with one or two contemporary men of science who dare to suggest that Evolution may not be the answer to everything. Cathedral it certainly is; even science needs its religious overtones. Dawkins interestingly has brought out a children's book called 'The Magic of Reality'. So having rubbished religion we are now back to magic.

After leaving the NHM, we took the tube to Victoria, walked to Buckingham Palace, saw a miniature version of changing of the guard, walked through a lovely autumnal St James' Park to Parliament Square, saw the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, Whitehall, Downing Street as well guarded as a military establishment, and Trafalgar Square where punters were abseiling down a specially erected white wall. All wonderful, apart from the scaffolding, plastic sheets and building paraphernalia defacing the Queen Victoria Memorial (outside Buck House), Trafalgar Square and Leicester Square. London, like our culture, seems to be undergoing major reconstruction.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Don't blame the referee!

We must not blame the referee for the defeat in Auckland. To lose 9-8 is no disgrace with 14 men, but 14 Welshmen can beat 15 Frenchmen any time. It wasn't the lack of men. The referee's decision actually made it a bit more of a contest. It was the fact that we didn't kick well. You can't expect to win World Cup semi finals if you miss two kickable penalties, a conversion and two drop goals (not to mention Halfpenny's magnificent effort in the last ten minutes).

Wales should have won easily. They lost it themselves. The second best team is in the final. As my wife said, at least Wales will not now have to play a final on a Sunday. It took me a while to be that spiritual.

But well done France for bearing up well against 14 Welshmen.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Marriages not made in heaven

The homosexual marriage debate is not about homosexuality. It is not about 'gay-bashing' and Christians who are often intimidated by that unjust jibe should not be afraid to take on the government over the issue of redefining marriage. It is not even about marriage. It is about: who is God? Is God God? Or is the government God? For in the proposal to redefine an institution which has its roots in the Bible and in ancient antiquity, the government is behaving with breathtaking audacity worthy of atheistic totalitarianism. One is reminded of the attempts by the French and Russian Revolutions to redefine the week.

There is an elderly Christian lady of my acquaintance who regularly tries to persuade me that Tony Blair is the anti-Christ. I remain agnostic on that equation, but I will say that never has the whiff of sulphur hung so pungently over a political leader as when David Cameron (yes, that nice man who defends the family) announced last week that he would seek to redefine marriage, at the same time as he bullied the supine party faithful to applaud him.

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less'.

'The question is,' said Alice 'whether you can make words mean so many different things'.

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.' (See 'Through the Looking Glass').

The question here, of course, is not just who is to be the master of words, but who is to define the reality that the words represent. The present government has taken upon itself that task.

There are two levels of reality. There is reality according to Truth, that which is as God made it, and of course marriage at this level will always be between a man and a woman. Nothing will ever change that. Homosexual marriage is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, and nothing the government ever does will be able to change that.

But there is another level of reality which is according to the Lie. This is the level at which people live most of their lives and which is the controlling sphere; it is the 'world', life according to the flesh. At this level meanings can be changed and manipulated. At this level marriage will, if the government has its way, come to include same sex relationships. People will be conned into living a lie. It is an example of the contemporary ability for what George Orwell would have called 'doublethink' in Newspeak (in '1984'):the acceptance of two mutually contradictory statements as correct (a very postmodern ability).

The government will have its work cut out. Why should marriage be restricted to one man / woman and A.N Other - why not allow for polygamy and polyandry? What will happen to the definition of adultery? And what of grounds for divorce?

Procreation does not feature as such in the present legal definition of marriage, but it is most certainly a key purpose of biblical marriage; clearly that will have to go.

This is without mentioning the place of religious bodies who will have all manner of objections to performing such ceremonies. My astonishment will sound naive I know but how can the government, for the sake of a small minority, go against millenia of religious belief and moral teaching of the world's major religions?

Christians must give the government a hard time over this issue; it is a most serious attack not only on Christian morality but on the nature of marriage and the family, on society, and on the prerogative of God to declare what is right.

'If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?'

The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord's throne is in heaven ; his eyes see, his eyelids test, the children of man.
The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence...
For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face'. (from Psalm 11:3 - 7).

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Commitment! Commitment! (as sung by Tevye to the tune of 'Tradition!')

So now we know. The moral imperative behind permitting homosexual marriages and the concomitant redefinition of marriage, is the desire and need to foster 'commitment'.

I am glad to know this - glad, that is, in the sense that having a bad answer to an investigation into one's health can be better than no answer at all - because I had asked Ms Lynne Featherstone in a letter to her after the Lib-Dem conference what the moral drive behind homosexual marriage was. I have yet to receive a reply, but the Prime Minister has rather answered it for me. Equality - yes (as I suggested to Ms Featherstone but also thinking there must be something else) and now we know, according to the PM - commitment.

Commitment is the fig leaf with which the government is going to try to lend moral decency to this breathtaking proposal. It is in some ways a shrewd move. Commitment is of course something no-one could easily oppose. It is a Good Thing. Faithfulness in relationships is something to be encouraged and applauded. We would want to see it in marriage. In any relationship. And if the committees (is that the right word in this context for two committed people?) happen to be two men in a sexual relationship, then surely we should expect it of them too. So let's encourage it and let them get married.

Indeed it could even be sung as a kind of anthem - as Tevye, the Topol character in 'Fiddler on the Roof' sings 'Tradition!' It sounds good, worthy, moving even.

The problem is that, like tradition, it is ultimately completely morally empty. Commitment is a 'formal' virtue; is is the husk to the kernel, the insulating protection to the wire that conveys the current. It has a definite usefulness; but it derives its real value from the matter it contains or carries. One can, it should not need to be pointed out, be utterly committed to totally the wrong thing. There is a certain honour among thieves, by which we normally mean they are loyal to each other for their criminal purposes. Men and women show incredible (even enviable) commitment to the most cruel, perverse and self-serving ideals and activities and have done all through history. Idolatry is a case study in commitment.

Nor is a distinction between commitment to people and to ideals or tasks valid here. All types of commitment have to be measured in the end by this criterion: commitment to what or whom or for what purpose. Commitment in itself means very little. It may even be a moral evil.

So I remain unimpressed by the moral high ground the government is occupying in this iniquitous and arrogant matter. Equality has come to mean that people must be allowed to do what they like (within grounds circumscribed by the government of the day of course). Commitment is dragged in to bolster what is obviously regarded as a weak case, but it is a staff to splinter in the hand that leans on it. Commitment to an immoral relationship will never make the relationship moral. In fact if it presumes to dress itself in the institution of marriage, so that marriage, that God-given ordinance,is now stretched and distorted to embrace moral perversion, then commitment has become an instrument of great evil. Law, as Francis Schaeffer might have said, has never been so sociological.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Augustine, sin and grace

I am nearing the end of the remarkable biography 'Augustine of Hippo' by Peter Brown, first published 1967, new edition 2000.

There is much more I want to work at, but two things have deeply impressed themselves on me. First, the unshakeable grip Augustine had on the depravity of human nature, inherited from Adam - original sin. His defence of this against the pride, optimism ans superficiality of Pelagius and his disciples is an object lesson in tenacity as well as in unscrupulousness. He held firm to his convictions, and whenever Augustine was convinced of something, he really was convinced, and fought for it. His errors were big too, but his efforts on behalf of the church were heroic.

How ironic it is that in an age when we are witnessing the empirical truth of what Augustine taught about human depravity, in wars and rumours of wars, collapsing regimes, corrupt politicians and financial leaders, in moral perversion and cruelty to the weak, at a time that is when you would have thought people may have lent a listening ear to the doctrine of original sin, on the contrary, they are busy proclaiming the opposite. In other words, the more that sin has dominion, the more it conceals its true nature; the more depraved man becomes, the less he is aware of the real nature of his problem. How right Augustine was, whatever reservations we may have about elements of his arguments. He was right on the big issues. Unlike some of us today, too, he fought for them.

Second, Augustine was a hero of grace. Nick Needham calls his book on Augustine 'The Triumph of Grace' and it is a good reflection of the man's great vision of God and of God's ultimate victory. The triumph of God and his church was, to Augustine, assured, in the midst of all the moral decay, superficial intellectuality and political collapse he saw around him. God was sovereign and would conquer. Grace will reign through righteousness unto everlasting life; sin abounds, but grace superabounds.

That is a vision of God worth going to bed on; and waking up with; and taking into the pulpit; and living and dying for.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Why pray for revival?

Yesterday I was present at a discussion among ministers about revival. We had had a stimulating and encouraging talk about the north Wales revival of 1904-05. The discussion tended to follow lines one has heard before, though it was none the worse for that.

A central issue always is: what is the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility? Can we in any way 'prepare' for revival? Can we contribute to a chain of causation leading to its coming? The human contributions may consist of prayer, preaching, penitence (repentance) and purity (a holy life - 'God can't fill a dirty vessel') yet the history of revivals shows God is notoriously difficult to pin down and bestows his blessing where he wills. There may be common themes in revivals but it would be a brave man who said 'this must happen or else there will not be revival' or 'if this happens, then revival will follow'. Charles Finney was such a man, of course.

Let us look at prayer for revival. Who would not pray at some point, 'Lord pour out your blessing on this land'? Increasingly one hears Christians , at long last slowly being brought to our knees and our senses by the abject failure of the church in its cleverness to make any inroads on the darkness around us, realising that without a great movement of the Holy Spirit we are lost.

Yet systematic prayer for revival is also characteristically tied to a postmillenialist eschatology - as in Jonathan Edwards' 'Humble Attempt' (1747). Revival is the way in which the gospel prepares the way for the Lord's return. If one is a premillenialist, then characteristically one would pray for the Lord's immediate return, as the Brethren apparently did in the 19th Century (and I have been told they forbade praying for revival).

What of the poor Amillenialist? The optimistic representative of this group is close to the postmillenialist and may pray in that manner; the pessimistic amillenialist is likely to think more like the premillenialist.

Can prayer for revival be separated from eschatological concerns?

Not entirely one would hope, or we are being less than fully theological about things (and that is something with which we could never charge Jonathan Edwards).

But surely the true Amillenialist is concerned above all with the glory of God (and I am not suggesting our friends in other eschatological camps are not). With this in mind, is not revival principally seeking God for his own sake and for his presence? It was rightly concluded at yesterday's meeting that the presence of God, felt and powerful, is the characteristic of revival proper. It is not the results, even though Jonathan Edwards would be right to see widespread revival as bringing in a gospel 'golden age'. But why does God send revivals? It would be presumptuous to think there is only one answer to this, or that we could certainly know it. One might, for example, say that it is because the world is getting so bad. But why at certain times in certain places, when we could say with some justification that other places and other times are as bad if not worse. Did the Isle of Lewis need that much more purifying in 1949-51?

Or is it because the people are praying, or holier than others? Or the church deader than others? It is difficult to pin down - why in 1904 did revivals break out in Rhos near Wrexham? The people were gathered for a series of meetings to deepen spiritual life. Is it preaching? Iain Campbell (Lewis) has said he has studied many sermons of the early 20th century of preachers used in revival times in Lewis, and there is no discernible difference on paper between times of revival and times of non-revival. The content is the same. The difference is the (greater) presence of the Spirit of God.

Is it because the people are seeking God? Even when, as we often see, no more than in 1904-05 perhaps, the theology leaves something to be desired?

Perhaps praying that is more concerned with the Giver than the gift is the prayer which , while we would not presume to call it or anything else the key to revival, is the praying that is closest to the heart of revival and most correspondent to the true effects of revival - a people enraptured with God. Perhaps it is out of his desire to cause people to love him for himself that God makes it so difficult for us to define the terms on which revival will come, and acts so gloriously sovereignly as to both time and place. Yet it may also give a hint as to why some areas are and have been more blessed than others.

As to fruit - Jonathan Edwards is surely right to say that love will be the fruit of a true work of God.

A final point - the theology of worship that says we gather together only to encourage and edify one another but not to 'worship', is surely selling itself short here in relation to expecting or longing for the felt presence of God. It is a theology that is inimical to revival. Yet those of us with a fuller theology of the Lord's Day meeting should not be triumphalist; God is known not to bless only because of correct theology.