Tuesday, June 19, 2018

He also glorified

Preaching on Romans 8:30 last Sunday, I've been thinking about what it means for believers to be glorified. Glorification does not mean that that our humanity will be absorbed into the divine. That would not be the redemption of man, but his obliteration. Rather, in glorification we shall become all that we were intended to be as God’s image-bearers.

There is an analogy between the glorification of the believer and that of Jesus' own humanity. At his incarnation Jesus became a divine person with a human nature. There is an unbreakable union between the divine and human in person of Christ, yet there is no confusion between his two natures. That which was God in Jesus did not become less than God when he was made flesh. That which was human in Jesus did not become more than human when his flesh was glorified. Jesus became like us in humiliation, that we might become like him in glorification. We will be glorified together with Christ. We shall partake of his glory and so we shall become partakers of the divine nature.

I've also been reading my way through The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way, by Michael Horton. He has a remarkable chapter on The Hope of Glory: "Those Whom He Justified He Also Glorified". A key theme in Horton's work is that the Christian account of the relationship between God and human beings is not that of 'overcoming estrangement' so that the finite is absorbed in the infinite. Instead the Bible teaches that finite human beings 'meet the Stranger', our infinite Creator, and in that encounter the creator/creature distinction is maintained.

It is with this in mind that Horton gives proper emphasis on the resurrection of the body in relation to glorification, as opposed to a contemplative vision of disembodied souls being infused with the divine.
Rather than sending the human soul upward, away from history and embodiment, this view [that of Calvin and the Reformed tradition] sees redemptive history moving forward to the consummation. Because of this emphasis on the historical economy of grace, Calvin and the wider tradition emphasized the the future resurrection of the dead as the place where the consummation occurs. It is the cosmic, eschatological, and redemptive-historical event of the parousia, not the allegorical, contemplative, striving ascent of the lone soul, that characterizes the Reformed expression of the beatific vision. (Zondervan, 2011, p. 697)
Glorification is the ultimate fruit of the believer's union with Christ. It is the final link in the 'Golden Chain' of salvation that Paul details in Romans 8:30. It is because we are in Christ that we will be made like him and be with him where he is in resurrection glory. Death may sever the union between the Christian's body and soul, but they remain united to Christ body and soul. Horton cites the remarkable words of the Puritan Thomas Watson in his Body of Divinity, "The bodies of the saints in the grave, though separated from their souls, are united to Christ. The dust of a believer is part of Christ's mystic body". (Emphasis added, p. 702, - from A Body of Divinity, Banner of Truth Trust, 1978, p. 309).

To be glorified is to share in the glory that God gave his own Son, "and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him." (Romans 8:17, see also John 17:4-5, 22, 24). 

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Meanwhile in LA Land

No, I haven't only just watched the blockbuster Hollywood musical. Saw that ages ago. Got to keep the wife happy with an occasional chick-flick. This is about education policy. You'll get no singing and dancing here. Anyway, that's La La Land. 

'You know what's wrong with schools?' asked Michael Gove, when he was Education Secretary, 'Local Authorities that's what. Schools need to be set free from the dead hand of council bureaucrats. Give 'em autonomy.' Yes, autonomy. Good schools could opt for it. Not so good schools would have it imposed on them by being taken over. Academisation was seen as a panacea for all educational ills. 

But, somewhat inconveniently, there is little evidence that already good schools were made any better by becoming academies. Even less that forced academisation was a force for good. For a panicky moment a couple of years back, it seemed like we were all going to have to embrace academised autonomy. Not singly, but in Multi Academy Trusts. Thankfully the Educational Excellence Everywhere white paper died the death, and the moment passed. Tidy, that, as while some MATs have done well, more than a few have failed, only to be taken over by other, er, MATs. 

Such has been the impact of the National and Regional School Commissioners who oversee the academy sector, that the DfE has deprived them of some key  powers. Not exactly a vote of confidence. Forced academisation has been dropped. NSC Sir David Carter announced his retirement a couple of weeks before Damian Hinds revealed these measures in a speech to the ASCL Conference. 

Many schools didn't see the advantage in becoming a stand-alone academy when that option was flavour of the month.. Maintained Foundation Schools enjoy a good deal of autonomy in relation to the LA, anyway. Why opt to join a big academy chain, and risk losing what makes your school distinctive? There is often little enthusiasm for forming local Community MATs, either. 

I doubt many LA schools have had to fend off any zombie-fingered interfering jobsworths from the council for a while. If at all. LAs monitor and support their schools, but don't try to run them. It's a myth to say that they do. But why shouldn't schools be held accountable to locally elected representatives?

Not so long ago it was in doubt whether LAs had a future at all in the world of education. But the DfE has signaled that statutory responsibility for improving outcomes in all schools and academies continues to rest with Local Authorities. LAs also remain responsible for safeguarding and provide valuable services such as payroll, HR and governor services.

In the maintained sector, governors are still governing their schools, not simply doing a bit of stakeholder engagement on behalf of a MAT board. Their Headteachers are busy making the board's vision for the school a reality, not having to look over his or her shoulder to see what a richly enumerated CEO wants them to do. 

The point about governors still governing in maintained schools (and stand alone academies) is worth reiterating. In MATs all powers of governance rest with the overarching board of trustees. Individual schools may have what is sometimes called 'Local Governing Boards', but they don't actually have any powers of governance. Whatever low level decision-making is delegated to LGBs by the MAT board may also be unilaterally withdrawn. As may their right to exist at all. Remember that, if your school is currently being courted by a MAT. Joining could be the last big strategic decision you make. 

A recent report by the London School of Economics revealed that LA schools have more freedom than academies. So much for autonomy. With apologies to Rousseau, "Schools were born free, but in MATs they are in chains". 

I'll admit that one advantage of MATs is collaboration across schools, but a joint effort to raise standards is not the preserve of Multi Academy Trusts. Collaboration in local clusters could be better, but it is happening and outcomes are improving. Around here, anyway. In the LA secondary school where I serve as a governor, our Progress 8 score is in the top 5% when 'contextual value added' factors are taken into account. 

We now have what is called a 'mixed educational ecosystem'. Around 70% of secondaries are academies, with 30% LA maintained, and the other way around for the primary sector. Academy oversight isn't going too well and the LAs ability to support their schools is hampered by budget cuts. 
The big idea now is developing school-led systems in which schools in the maintained and academy sectors support each other to ensure all pupils achieve well. New county-wide bodies are being set up to oversee the system. The Wiltshire Education Standards Board is due to be launched soon, with a view to starting work in September. Let's hope these boards can help bring some coherence to a badly fragmented educational system. 
I shudder to think how much taxpayers' money has been spent on removing schools from LAs and making them into academies. Or the funds used on new Free Schools, some which have failed miserably. Look at this example of £9m down the drain. Countless millions of pounds could have been better spent on increasing teacher pay, maintaining a broad curriculum, improving crumbling school buildings, etc.  Thankfully, the emphasis these days is on raising standards, not changing the status of schools, or fiddling around with the structures in which they sit.
Meanwhile in LA Land... 

Let's just say, some of us are in no great rush to leave. We have nothing to lose but our freedom. 

Tuesday, June 05, 2018


I’m probably showing my age, but I remember the days of the TV test card. It featured a girl playing Noughts and Crosses surrounded by an assortment of soft toys. People used to sit and watch the test card while they waited for programmes to start. It beat watching paint dry, but only marginally. Now we have countless TV channels broadcasting 24/7. Schedules have been made more or less redundant by various catch up services. ‘Total TV’ means you can pretty much avoid being alone with your own thoughts.

Then there’s mobile phones. Another device that was meant to be our servant, but ended up gaining mastery over us. A recent report suggested we switch off our phones after 10pm. Some users are so addicted to the things that they can’t get through the night without checking for emails, or glancing at Facebook. Smart phone induced sleep deprivation is making people depressed.

We have become over-stimulated by the multi-media delights of the modern world. It’s difficult to switch off. Yes, we have leisure time, but leisure is different to rest. The American novelist Marilynne Robinson reflected, “Leisure…is highly commercialised. But leisure is seldom more than a bit of time ransomed from habitual stress.” An occasional day out an amusement park is quite different to having a regular rhythm of work and rest built into our lives.

I wonder whether the craving for constant stimulation is an attempt to fill an aching void in our lives. A void that technology and leisure can never satisfy. The great Christian thinker Augustine of Hippo confessed to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you’. Finding this rest is not a matter of frantically trying to please God by our own efforts. Jesus said, “Come to me all who labour and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

* For various local publications. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Preaching as the Word of God by Sam Chan

Preaching as the Word of God:
Answering an Old Question with Speech-Act Theory,
Sam Chan, Pickwick Publications, 2016, 279pp

The Second Helvetic Confession expresses the high view of preaching that obtained among the Reformed churches when it says, 'The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God'. (Chapter 1). That is some claim to make. Can it be truly said that a mere human preacher can give voice to the very Word of God? The Reformers not only answered that question in the affirmative, they made the faithful preaching of the Word of God one of the identifying marks of a true church. 

Sam Chan sets out to examine whether the claims of the Reformers can be biblically justified. He brings the insights of speech-act theory to bear on the question in hand. First of all Chan investigates what Martin Luther and John Calvin had to say on preaching as the Word of God, and the preaching of the Word of God as a mark of the church. Copious reference is made to the writings of the two leading Reformers. They were in essential agreement on both points, while nuanced differences are teased out. Chan's discussion of the Reformers' views is illuminating. However, Luther and Calvin were lucid enough communicators for the writer to have foregone his summaries of what they had said after almost every quote. 

Attention is then given to the biblical materials. In the Old Testament God spoke to his people through prophets like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15-22). The Old Testament also looked forward to the coming of One who would proclaim the Word of the Lord in the power of the Spirit (Isaiah 61:1-4). Jesus is revealed as the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 18 and Isaiah 61. He was anointed by the Spirit to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God (Luke 4:16-19). Jesus then commissioned the Twelve apostles to bear witness to his works and words (Acts 1:8).  The church founded upon the apostolic testimony to Jesus was to preach the Word for the salvation of the lost and the building up of God's people (Acts 8:4, 2 Timothy 4:1-5). Chan's scriptural survey gives credence to the Reformer's claim that God indeed speaks through human beings. The preaching of the Word of God can therefore rightly be regarded as the Word of God through men and to men. 

But what exactly is meant by 'the Word of God', and how can we be sure that God is truly speaking through a preacher? The whole Bible may be regarded as the written and authoritative Word of God. But in a more limited sense, to preach the Word is to proclaim the gospel of salvation. That is certainly what we find in Acts and also in the teaching of the Reformers. To preach the Word is to announce the good news of Jesus as disclosed in the pages of Scripture. A message that fails at that point cannot be regarded as the Word of God. 

Chan draws upon speech-act theory as a tool that helps the church to discern the voice of God in the words of a preacher. Speech-act theorists divide language up into three key elements. Locutions, words or sentences. Illocutions, what a speaker is doing with his or her words. Perlocutions, the effect that words have on hearers. The main thing is that words are never 'just words'. To speak is to act. Applied to the Bible and preaching, in Scripture we have God's written words. But God is doing things with these words, such as making promises, laying down commands, or issuing warnings. The illocutionary intentions of God's words have their appropriate perlocutionary effects as promises are believed, commands obeyed and warnings heeded. Speech-act theory helps safeguard both the propositional and personal aspects of biblical revelation. We have the propositional locutions such as 'Jesus is Lord', and also the personal address, 'believe that Jesus is Lord and follow him'. 

Preaching is an act of divine self-communication through a human agent. For preaching to be counted as the Word of God the preacher's locutions must match those of the gospel given in Scripture. Like the Bereans of Acts 17 the church must "examine the Scriptures, to see if these things were so." (Acts 17:11). More than that, those who proclaim the Word of God must also press the practical illocutionary demands of the gospel; repentance, faith and obedience. The preacher, however, cannot secure the perlocutionary effects of gospel proclamation. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. 

While Chan's main focus is on the gospel as the Word of God, the same essential principle applies whatever portion of Scripture is being expounded and applied. That said, no biblical text is explained faithfully unless it it set in the context of the drama of redemption that unfolds in the canon of Scripture as a whole. The preacher, for example, may be expositing the food laws in Leviticus 11, but he will not have preached the food laws unless he relates that chapter to Jesus' teaching in Mark 7:18-19 and Peter's experience as recounted in Acts 10 & 11. Then the preacher must press home the key idea of sinners being made clean and included among the people of God by the gospel. 

Chan's  conception of the gospel seems to be rather narrow in scope. I am not sure it is right to say that Paul's teaching on Christ's coming and the resurrection of the dead in 1 Thessalonians 4:15 are 'not directly related to the gospel'. That is exactly the good news he proclaimed, 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10. 

None the less, I fully agree with the author's basic thesis. The Reformers were right. Scripture itself teaches that the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God, and is to be received as such by the faithful. Speech-act theory helps clarify how that is the case.  God as a divine speech-agent communicates his saving word through commissioned human beings to human beings. 

But no book on preaching, not even one on the theology of preaching can be regarded as up to the mark if it does not fire us up to preach the Word. In his own terms, Chan may have faithfully re-locuted what Scripture says about preaching as the Word of God, but the illocutionary force of the Bible's command to 'preach the Word' with urgency and boldness is somewhat lacking. The work can be dryly technical. Take Chan's conclusion, for example,
to preach the gospel as the word of God is to re-locute and re-illocute the divine speech act, the gospel, which itself was once locuted and illocuted by the prophets, Jesus and the apostles, and which now continues to be locuted and illocuted in the canonical Scriptures. (p. 212). 
I know what the author means, but that is not a definition of preaching that will inspire busy pastors to preach their hearts out next Lord's Day. If that was not Chan's intention in writing on preaching, perhaps it should have been. Since preaching is 'theology on fire', we also need a theology that will put fire into our preaching.The practical implications of the view Chan is advocating ought to have been spelled out more fully. The need for the empowering presence of the Spirit upon preacher and hearers alike is mentioned, but not given sufficient weight. Lack of space means writers cannot say everything that they would like, but there is a considerable amount of repetition in chapters 9-10. Choices have to be made on what to leave out and what to include. Less focus on linguistic technicalities and additional practical application would have made this a more useful book for preachers. A theology of preaching should generate heat as well as light. 

By all means read Chan. His treatment will help crystallise your thinking on what it means to preach the Word. His discussion of the Reformers' position and handling of the biblical materials are most helpful. Speech act theory reminds us that the preacher is swept up in the communicative action of the triune God. But you will need to supplement this somewhat theoretical work on preaching with something more soul stirring, like Preaching and Preachers by D. M. Lloyd-Jones, or practical, such as Preaching Pure and Simple by Stuart Olyott.

* I am grateful to the author for being kind enough to send me a free review copy. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

Some more pastor/governors?

Now, I'm not one of those types who thinks that because they are doing something, so should everyone else. You know, the pastor who has joined the local squash club to get themselves out of the ministerial bubble. They've only been at it a month and a bit, yet that's the thing. All self-respecting pastors should be out there slamming squash balls into walls. 

No, if everyone was doing exactly what I'm doing, I'd lose my USP. Anyone who's watched Dragons Den knows that's a big no, no. Besides, the knowledge that there might be loads of other people out there, all doing my stuff, might make me have existential crisis, or something. Can't be doing with that at my age. 

None the less, in this post I'm going to suggest that if you're a pastor, or have some kind of leadership responsibility in the church, then being a school governor might be something to consider. Not that all pastors should be govs. Some might be rubbish at it. It is the case, however, that ministers often have skills that are transferable to school governance. 

For one, you're a leader,  right? And not in the sense of a boss telling employees what to do, or they can collect their P45 on the way out. You're a leader of a group of volunteers. No one forced your people into church membership, or to take on a role/responsibility in the church. Same with school governors, apart from the Headteacher, for whom it's part of the job. You can't just order volunteers around. You have to take them with you. Ever managed to get a difficult decision past a church members' meeting without creating a split? The same skills will come in handy as a governor. Definitely, if you become chair. 

Plus, you're used to delegating responsibility for certain tasks to others and seeing their skills develop. I mean, if as well as pastor, you're church secretary, treasurer, main musical accompanist, welcomer, leader of the toddler group, etc, etc, you're probably doing it wrong. The concentration of too many roles in the hands of too few people means the overworked few eventually burn out and the undeveloped many eventually drop out. Again, same applies to governing boards. You get that. 

Another thing pastors should be good at is vision & strategy.  You'll have your vision for your church and its mission to the community that is both biblical and  contextual. And unless there's something badly wrong with you, you're a theology geek, yes? Systematic Theology, Biblical Theology, Historical Theology. How everything fits together as a coherent whole. That should help with strategic planning and monitoring progress towards the realisation of the board's vision for the school. A wide range of factors will make for a good education and they're all interrelated. School leadership, teaching and learning, curriculum, pupil attendance and behaviour, school context, and so on. The Department for Education publish richly detailed breakdowns of school data that enable governors to spot strengths and weaknesses in their school's outcomes. Long hours spent reading Berkhof and Bavinck means you should be able to join the dots. 

John Calvin said that pastors should have two voices. One for gathering the sheep, and another for driving away wolves. Governors similarly have a dual role. Their task is to support and challenge their school to make sure it is making rapid and sustained progress. Governors should also be willing to support and challenge one another. It is essential that the board remains focused on its side of the strategic/operational dividing line and doesn't try and meddle in the everyday running of the school. Sometimes it may be necessary to have 'courageous conversations' to bring wayward governors back into line. Wolfish govs who would enrich themselves at the expense of the school, or who are hugely disruptive,  must be warned off. 

Governance requires moral courage. Some schools 'off-roll' underachieving students so they don't have a negative impact on results. Others have narrowed their curriculum to devote more time to subjects that attract additional points in the School Performance Tables. Arts subjects have suffered as a result. It is for governing boards to ensure their schools do all they can for vulnerable pupils and that they offer a broad and enriching curriculum. Boards must be prepared to stick by their guns and not chase an improved standing in Performance Tables as the main indicator of success. The question must always be, 'What's the right thing for our students?' Pressures to compromise will come from various points, but as Martin Luther charged us, "Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”

Pastors should be aware that becoming a governor does not mean they should try and impose their faith upon a school, especially if it has no religious affiliation. There may be opportunities to be 'salt and light'. But I'm not arguing for a Christian equivalent of the Islamic infiltration of governing boards exposed under the 'Trojan Horse' scandal (see here).  

If your children are of school age, why not consider becoming a parent governor? If a local school governing board is looking to co-opt members of the community with skills you possess, why not at least go along to find out more? If the part of the world where you minister is disadvantaged, people from a 'professional' background may be at a premium, so you may be well placed to make a real difference.  

Not for everyone, I know, but perhaps think about it. 

The Inspiring Governance  portal helps to match skilled volunteers with schools. 

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Banner of Truth Ministers' Conference 2018 Report

When I was a younger man with a much sharper memory I used to make extensive notes of the Banner conference addresses. Partly with a view to posting blog reports. Now I'm older and can't retain so much I don't take any notes at all. I prefer to regard the messages as ministry that preaches to my soul, rather than lectures for which I should make notes.

Which is a bit of a problem when it comes to writing up a report. If you want outlines and stand-out sayings, Gary Brady has done a good job of live-blogging on Heavenly Worldliness. Beyond even Gary's efforts, Banner have kindly posted videos of the addresses online. So, what I'll try and do here is jot down what I found especially helpful, challenging and encouraging about this year's event. Based on my dodgy memory.

The overarching theme was 'Ministers of Christ'. What came home to me was...

The privilege of Ministry 

We are called to preach the word of God so that sinners are saved and believers built up. We have a wonderful message to proclaim, good news of what God has done to rescue and renew human beings by his Son and through his Spirit. What a calling; to 'preach the word'. Iain Murray issued a plea for evangelistic preaching, from Luke 5:1-11. Are we 'fishers of men', or simply preachers to the converted? Steven Lawson directed us to various aspects of the preaching-pastoral ministry in his three addresses. What he had to say was challenging and punchy. Some found him a bit too direct and confrontational. But with privilege comes responsibility and preachers will be held to account by the Lord Jesus for the way in which we have served him. I for one needed to hear Paul's words in 1 Timothy 4:12-16, 2 Timothy 2:15-16 & 2 Timothy 4:1-5 powerfully explained and applied. Yes, troubled pastors need to be soothed, but we also need to be stirred up to fulfill our ministries with faithfulness and zeal.

The pains of Ministry

Warren Peel set before us the example of Epaphras as described in Colossians 1:7-8 & 4:13, emphasising, as did Lawson the need for painstaking toil in ministry as we labour in giving pastoral care and the preaching of the word. Some are given to toil away in very difficult circumstances, which may give rise to despondency. Bill Hughes helped us to deal with discouragement in his helpful messages on Numbers 21 and Exodus 6. How God dealt with Moses is an object lesson for us on resilience in ministry when the going is tough. 

The joy and fear of Ministry 

Mike Reeves spoke on 'Spurgeon and the Christian Life' and 'Bunyan: The Minister's Fear of God'. In the first address Reeves drew a helpful connection between Spurgeon's joyful personality and his theology. He wasn't just a jolly old fellow, but a man who knew deep, soul-restoring joy in the Lord. Joy makes Ministers approachable to their people. Spurgeon wanted men whose 'door mat' said 'Welcome', not 'Beware of the Dog'. Bunyan's insightful handling of the fear of God helped us see the close connection between reverence for God and enjoyment of his goodness, Nehemiah 1:11, Isaiah 11:3, Jeremiah 32:39-40. 

Prayer in Ministry 

In his opening sermon Geoff Thomas spoke on the how the Lord opened Lydia's heart in Acts 16:14. The fact that only the Lord can do this, and that he does so though his word compels us to God-dependent prayer. In his closing address Warren Peel once more drew our attention to Epaphras in this regard, Colossians 4:12. Ministry is a 'task unfinished that drives us to our knees'. 

As ever, it was good to catch up with old friends and also to meet new people. On Wednesday evening we had our regular 'Taffia' meeting of men with Welsh connections. Geoff Thomas interviewed Steve Lawson on his life story and ministry experiences, which was fascinating and a real encouragement. 

I only bought one book, but it was a biggie, Sinclair Ferguson's Some Pastors and Teachers, which I very much look forward to reading, having benefited from Ferguson's ministry at past Banner Ministers' Conferences. 

I left the conference feeling reinvigorated refocused and refreshed. View the messages online. Whether or not you are in pastoral ministry, they will do you good. 

Next year's conference is planned for 8-11 April. Speakers: Ed Donnelly, Stephen Curry, Derek Thomas, Lindsay Brown & John Benton.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I'm not sure what this film was trying to be. Could have been a 'fish out of water' flick. Posh London girl, Juliet Ashton grows to love characterful Channel Islanders. How funny. Could have been a harrowing occupation movie. Jackbooted Nazis brutalising the only part of British Isles invaded by Germany. But they're not all bad. You know the kind of thing. Or a whodunit. What happened to the missing Elizabeth? Or a romance. Will Juliet fall for strong n' sensitive Dawsey? Or a filmic ode to the joy of reading. Or Whiskey Galore, but with Gin. Well, it's a little bit of all of these familiar tropes, but can't really decide which one to run with. 

The Downton cast-off cast did what they could, but with a meandering plot and clich├ęd script, there was no rescuing this film from its twee, knitted cardigan, mediocrity. 

Pre-showing ad was from Guernsey Tourist Board. 'You've watched the film, now visit our lovely Island'. Could as well have been the Devon equivalent. The old harbor and cobbled streets onshore looked suspiciously like Clovelly.

Never mind a pie. If this film was a biscuit, it would be a Custard Cream. Rich Tea, even. That bad.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Banner of Truth Ministers' Conference 2018

Later today I'll be setting off for the Banner Ministers' Conference. I started to go when I was a student at the London Seminary (1988-90). Back then I was young enough to attend the Youth Conference and then stay on for the Ministers' one. Wouldn't get away with that now. 

I love the blend of exegetical rigor, theological depth and experiential warmth that Banner represents. Together will a willingness to learn afresh the lessons of history that we might serve the Lord more faithfully and fervently in the present day.

Last year's move from the University of Leicester to Yarnfield Park, Staffordshire seems to have paid off. Excellent facilities. Apparently, this year's event sold out a weeks ago and some people had to be added to a waiting list for cancellations. 

I'm looking forward to renewing fellowship with old friends and meeting some new people too. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Facebook's Alt-Church Fail

In a speech last year Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he wanted the social network he founded to perform the role that once used to be played by churches. He suggested that with the decline of churchgoing, “people now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else." Sounds very noble and high minded, doesn’t it? The Church of Facebook, presided over by the geeky gods of silicon valley. They monitor almost every activity of their flock and then sell the valuable data they have gathered to advertising companies so they can flog us more stuff. It’s about connecting people, you see. With retailers. Friendship has become a commodity. And then there’s the sinister manipulation of social media for political ends.

Facebook’s mission statement is to, “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” But the social network is no substitute for the church. Online you can keep your ‘friends’ at a safe distance. Interact with them on your own terms. You can make sure they only see your best side, ‘Here’s me having a happy life, doing fun stuff. Hope you like my holiday snaps.’ If someone gives you grief on Facebook, you can ‘unfriend’ them with a click of a mouse or quick jab at a screen. 

Church means committing yourself to forging a community with a group of people with whom you meet on a regular basis. Actual flesh and blood people who are just as flawed and imperfect as you. They’ll get to see you at your best and worst. The frictions that come into any relationship between people have to be managed by giving and receiving forgiveness. You can’t just ‘unfriend’ your brothers and sisters in the faith. Doesn’t work like that.

The Christian faith isn’t meant to be a solitary pilgrimage to heaven. Jesus said, ‘I will build by church’. And by ‘church’ he did not mean a building, but a gathering of people who believe in him and follow him together. When Christians meet their sense of purpose and support deepens. The worship of the gathered church includes seeking God in prayer, singing his praises, hearing the Bible read and its message proclaimed, and eating the Lord’s Supper together. That’s right, eating a simple meal of bread and wine in memory of Jesus’ death upon the cross for our sins, and in hope of his return in glory. You can’t livestream, or download the Lord’s Supper, or ‘like’ a photo of other people doing it. You have to be there. And so the bonds of community are strengthened.

The church that gathers also scatters, seeking to follow Jesus in every area of life. Churches serve the wider community, running parent and toddler groups, visiting the elderly, running food banks, and so on. However much ‘virtue signalling’ we do by ‘liking’ worthy causes on social media, there is no substitute for giving practical help to actual people.

Facebook no doubt has  its uses, but Mark Zuckerberg and the gods of silicon valley can’t claim to have built a world wide community with a sense of united purpose. Hardly. They’ve just found a way of monetising us and our mates. But God has  gathered a global family of people from all nations and backgrounds. He hasn’t created this community in order to exploit it. No, God so loved his people that he was willing to give his Son to die upon the cross that they might be forgiven and become his children. That’s the church. Believe, belong.

*For Trinity Parish Magazine, Dilton Marsh & News & Views, West Lavington 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Quiet Place

It's a post-apocalyptic world. Townships are deserted. Stuff is left on shop shelves for foraging survivors. Survivors like the Abbott family. Husband and wife Lee and Evelyn (real life couple John Krasinski and his wife Emily Blunt), their daughter, Regan and sons, Marcus and Beau. 

Their world is a quiet place because sound means slaughter. Nasty crab-legged, Alien-headed creatures stalk the earth in search of prey. Their favourite food is human. They see nothing, but hear everything. 

Anything for a quiet life. The alternative is death. But the Abbots have an advantage. Regan is deaf. (played by real life deaf actress, Millicent Simmonds). Hence, the family is used to communicating in sign language. 

But it's difficult for the youngest child, Beau to fully understand the need for silence. When the family heads into town, foraging for meds, the little lad takes a toy rocket from the shelf of an abandoned store. A noisy toy rocket. Dad removes the batteries before the family returns to their farmstead home. Unnoticed, Beau  reinserts them and switches the thing on, with fatal consequences. 

If trying to keep an inquisitive toddler safe is tricky, imagine what it might be like when mom gives birth. In a bath. With 'all ears' monsters prowling the house, alert to the tiniest sound. Hubby's off fishing, so no hand to squeeze. The slightest whimper could prove deadly. And then there's the challenge of keeping the newborn quiet. Talk about ratcheting up the tension. 

Lee returns to find mother and baby safe and sound. Evelyn asks, "Who are we, if we can't protect our children?" It's the question all parents of younger children ask themselves, alert of the dangers of the world. In that sense the film is a parable on the perils of parenting, real and imagined. Evelyn makes her husband promise to guard their brood at all costs. He does. It will cost him.

Lee is no feckless, responsibility-shy modern man. Resourceful, strong and tender, he takes on the traditional male roles of provider and protector. Must have been reading Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Mum isn't to be messed with, either.

Along the way the film explores the themes of guilt,  forgiveness, love and sacrifice. Before meals the family hold hands and bow their heads. Seemingly in silent prayer. "Deliver us from evil"? See here for a helpful TGC review. 

The parts are convincingly acted, so you care what happens to the characters. The tenderness and tensions of family life contrast tellingly with the mortal dangers that lurk outside (and sometimes inside) the sanctuary of home.

It's scary. The enforced silence of the Abbott household and sparing use of sountrack music mean that the slightest noise is likely to make you jump. No popcorn crunching or drink slurping in this film, please. Breathing should be kept to a minimum.

Will wholesome family values and the power of prayer prove a sufficient antidote to the chaos of a ruined, monster-infested world? Go and see for yourself. Just don't make a sound.