Friday, 31 August 2012

Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville's 'Democracy in America' is full of nuggets of interest and value. For instance...

On Equality

Men's taste for freedom and equality are two different things but their passion for equality is greater. 'Democratic nations are at all times fond of equality but during certain ages their passion for it verges on excess...The passion for equality sinks deeply into every corner of the human heart, expands and fills it entirely...Do not bother to show men that their freedom is slipping from their fingers as their gaze is elsewhere; they are blind, or rather they can see only one advantage worth pursuing in the whole world.

'I think that democratic nations have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves, they seek it out, become attached to it, and view any departure from it with distress. But they have a burning, insatiable, constant, and invincible passion for equality; they want equality in freedom and, if they cannot have it, they want it in slavery. They will endure poverty, subjection, barbarism but they will not endure aristocracy.'

On Individualism

'Individualism is a recently coined expression prompted by a new idea, for our forefathers knew only of egoism. Egoism is an ardent and excessive love of oneself... Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which persuades each citizen to cut himself off from his fellows and to withdraw into the circle of his family and friends in such a way that he creates a small group of his own and willingly abandons society at large to its own devices. Egoism springs from a blind instinct; individualism from wrong-headed thinking rather than from depraved feelings...Egoism is a perversity as old as the world...; Individualism is democratic in origin and threatens to grow as conditions become equal.'

On American love of associating

'Americans of all ages, conditions and all dispositions constantly unite together. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations to which all belong but also a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very specialized, large and small. Americans group together to hold fetes, found seminaries, build inns, construct churches, distribute books, dispatch missionaries to the antipodes. They establish hospitals, prisons, schools by the same method...The English often perform great things as single individuals, whereas scarcely any minor initiative exists where Americans do not form associations... A government could take the place of some of the largest American associations and several individual states have already tried to do so. But what political power could ever substitute for the countless small enterprises which American citizens carry out daily with the help of associations?'

And thus - my 100th blog-post since beginning this digital pin-board in December 2009!

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Zeal for Godliness

My attachment to devotional books is not as great as it used to be and that may say something about me, but occasionally I find a good one and 'Zeal for Godliness' is one.

It is subtitled 'Devotional Meditations on Calvin's Institutes'. Would it make any difference, I think to myself, if 'Devotional' had been left out of that title?


It consists of about 240 meditations of three or four paragraphs, each one covering a few chapters of the Institutes. The contributors comprise some of the great and the good of Reformed theology: Sinclair Ferguson, Paul Helm, Philip Ryken,Iain D. Campbell, Ligon Duncan, Justin Taylor, Derek Thomas, Carl Trueman and others. Inevitably the content is theological but with a challenge to the heart. Sometimes one feels the need to refer to Calvin himself - which is I suppose no bad thing but could be time-consuming if it happens too often.

There is a certain danger in doing one's devotions not only at one remove (comments on the Bible) but at two removes (comments on a book based on the Bible) so it is no substitute for biblical meditation. But it is fresh and stimulating.

If you want something a little different to refresh your spiritual exercises, then this could be the book for you.

(Published by EP, 2011).

Monday, 20 August 2012

Green pastures in Brittany

The time has gone incredibly quickly but a week last Saturday we returned home from a wonderful family holiday in Brittany.

Our home for two weeks was a cottage on 'Le Venec', a farm near the village of Loperec in central Finistere, about 8 miles inland and slightly north from Chateaulin. John and Jo Bryant who own the farm (which has two other attached cottages on it) live next door and their generosity and warmth made the holiday special. John would pop in each day with something - courgettes the size of marrows, eggs, beans or an invitation for the boys to go to walk the dogs or paint the hen house with him. They did not really need much more to make their holiday. They could go out early in the morning; we could relax. Vacances completes.

But of course we did do a lot of other things. The beach - Pentrez Plage was the best with acres of clean sand and free parking on the edge of the beach so no miles to walk over pebbles carrying chairs, tent, spades and bags. A little beach near Douarnenez was good too but a bit hot and very busy the afternoon we visited. A swimming pool with water chute and wave machine was a good alternative one day when we visited Quimper.

Pont l'Abbe was the little town where I lived for 6 months in 1975 working as an assistant in the Lycee Laennec. It has not changed much. I could see the room in which I had lived and the classrooms in which I had conversed in English with groups of French teenagers.

We walked along the riverside path in Huelgoat, strewn with massive boulders, and revisited a week later for the boating lake - Thomas and Hilary in the 'police' boat, Nathaniel and I in the 007 boat. Then a family pedallo round the lake.

We visited Locronan, a highly commercialised but very picturesque medieval town, and the abbey at Landevennec, founded, like a lot of religious establishments in Brittany by a Welsh monk (this one by St Guenole, a big noise in early Breton Christianity). I had once stayed a night in a guest room there on a hitch-hiking trip, in the absence of a local youth hostel.

We twice visited the nearby village of Pleyben, with an immense junk-shop about two kilometres away, to which we walked, and poked around at loads of interesting and not so interesting stuff sourced from house and shop clearances. Pleyben also has a chocolaterie!

We could not stay in Brittany without eating crepes which we did in style twice, once in Le Faou and once in a delightful creperie on the edge of a lake a few miles north of Le Venec - a lake which has its own beach, so no problem in entertaining the boys afterwards.

Our one visit to church (the first Sunday we listened to a sermon in the house and sang some hymns with the help of a CD) was to an evangelical church in Brest where we were given a warm welcome and heard a good message on Jeremiah 1, translated for us by Jo Bryant. In the afternoon we took a picnic into a local botanical garden where it rained heavily for a while but we had a lovely walk down to the beach and back.

Meanwhile back at the ranch - we read, played Scrabble (Hilary usually wins), watched the Olympics and the boys enjoyed playing around on the farm, 'helping' John or scooting in the yard.

A great holiday; it went too quickly. Even the 11 hour drive back to Dunkerque did not erase the relaxation or the memories!

The Power of Parliament

In 1796 in 'The Constitution of England, or An Account of the English Government' J.L. De Lolme wrote: 'It is a fundamental principle with English lawyers, that Parliament can do everything but make a woman a man, and a man a woman'.

Perhaps the expected proposals to legislate for same sex marriage will be the next best thing, and the most self-exalting ambition yet for the sovereignty of Parliament.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012


You can of course lead a service of worship perfectly well wearing a tee-shirt and jeans. You can lead it very badly with a suit and tie and snow white shirt. Spirituality and ability are not affected by what we wear. Casualness is not just about our appearance.

In recent months I have for various reasons had occasion to worship in other churches in this country and abroad. 'Casualness' is the abiding impression left with me - due mainly to the person or persons leading the service, but also to some extent to the congregation. On one occasion (abroad) I did come away feeling I had worshipped God. The way things were led was conducive to worship and I felt edified. In other cases sadly I came away feeling as if I had not worshipped.

Casualness. What is it? Not just what we wear, though that may be an expression in some cases of a desire to be casual. Sometimes it is seen in the use of jargon. In two services recently in quite different places the preacher described the teaching of his text as 'heavy stuff'. Is that language coming back from the sixties?

Casualness is really more an attitude of mind.

I hope it isn't (though sometimes I fear it is) an attitude that says: Sunday is no different from any other day.

I hope it isn't (though sometimes I fear it is) an attitude that says: church is no different from any other place, and what we do there is no different from any other activity.

Above all it comes across as a refusal to show that we are making any effort. It is not 'cool' (there you are, jargon) to put effort into anything. We can dawdle into church (can we say 'God's presence' today - do people believe church gatherings are any more in God's presence than watching the Olympics or relaxing on the beach?) and be casual about how we dress, how we behave and how - we worship. We sing casually, read Scripture casually, pray (if we do at all - one service was horribly lacking in anything approaching serious prayer, certainly of intercession), and preach casually. And - yes, listen casually, of course.

Then, perhaps we live casually.

We are bound to absorb something of our culture. No generation of Christians can avoid that. What we can and must do is be sure that we are not absorbing worldliness. Is casualness sometimes at least a form of worldliness?

Does not God deserve, indeed demand, effort? One of the earliest books I read as a young Christian was entitled 'The Best that I can Be'. That doesn't sit easily with casualness. As Christians our worship and all else we do should be the best that we can do. God is worth no less.

Perhaps it is a sense of God that was most lacking in those services where worship did not seem to happen. God is not a casual God. Spiritual worship is the most difficult thing we can attempt. Striving, not casualness, should be the keynote of our lives and of our meetings.

Especially in those charged with leading the worship of the people of God.