Monday, May 25, 2020

Grace in a Town Called Malice?

Well, Happy Birthday to Paul Weller, whose songs have been the soundtrack to my life. We've been to see him live several times. His gigs are often brought to a rapturous conclusion by the old Jam hit, Town Called Malice (Ooo, yeah). The 1982 song has a catchy Motown beat, but the lyrics offer a rather bleak depiction of Weller's childhood home town, Woking. Town Called Malice also provided a powerful social commentary for Thatcher's Britain. The song crossed my mind as I've been following the furore over Boris Johnson's top SPAD, Dominic Cummings's alleged breech of lockdown rules.

No, I'm not about to give you my (un)learned opinion on whether Mr Cummings and his wife acted illegally in relocating to Durham to be near his family to ensure their four year old son could be looked after as they both suffered from suspected coronavirus. Neither am I about to weigh in with my views on how this plays out politically. To me he gave a reasonable account of his actions in this afternoon's press conference. Watch it here and make your own mind up. 

What I want to focus on is how people reacted to the story. News reports showed Cummings being mobbed by journalists and press photographers outside his home. The journos rather ironically demanding why he had defied government rules, while they bumped up against each other, in defiance of government rules on social distancing. A video clip showed Mr Cummings being barracked by his neighbours as he walked along the street. Much to the delight of some lefty journalists on Twitter. Social media at its tribal, self-righteous, virtue signalling worst.

Sleepy old CofE Bishops were roused to issue an urgent call for repentance in their Sunday sermons. Not to sinners in need of a Saviour, of course, but to the government, 'Repent and sack your chief SPAD' as Jesus didn't quite say. 'It's enough to make you stop believing... in a Town Called Malice, (Ooo, yeah). 

The Cummings episode illustrates a wider point regarding how we've responded to the pandemic as a country. In some ways, the coronavirus outbreak seems to have brought out the best in us. Key workers have risen to the challenge of caring for the sick and keeping us safe. People are looking out for their shielding neighbours. Most are good humoured as we give each other a wide berth when passing on the street on in shopping aisles. Whatever the rights or wrongs of Cummings's actions, at least he had the welfare of his child at heart. 

Some, however flout social distancing rules with a blatant disregard for other people, 'Covididots'. It has brought out the inner busybody in others. In late April it was reported that the police had received 200,000 calls from people snitching on their neighbours for petty misdemeanours. ‘Holier than thou’ social distancers  are quick to snap at anyone who inadvertently strays anywhere near them.

There is more than a touch of Pharisaism about the anti-Cummings brigade, spitting out their self-righteous venom on Twitter. Not to mention the bishops. Maybe the mitred hypocrites who fulminated against the SPAD-in-Chief have some repenting of their own to do now that they've had a chance to hear his side of the story? After all, doesn't the Good Book warn us, 'do not pronounce judgement before the time'? Try 1 Corinthians 4:5 for size.  

Both the rule flouters and the busybodies tell us something about human nature. Some delight in breaking the rules, while others do their best to keep them and despise those who don’t. Grace teaches us a better way. Despite what many people might think, the Christian faith is not about trying to get right with God by keeping the rules. The New Testament insists again and again that salvation is not by the works of the law. Jesus came into the world to save sinners. He did that by dying on the cross for our sins. God forgives and accepts us when we trust in Jesus for salvation. As a well-known hymn puts it, ‘the vilest offender who truly believes/that moment from Jesus a pardon receives’. That’s grace.

The self-righteous who pride themselves in their moral superiority find grace offensive. Jesus’ greatest opponents were the Pharisees who ‘trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others’. Grace humbles our pride and shows that all are in need of forgiveness. That makes us not quite so quick to sit in judgement on other people. But does that mean we are free to live as we please with little thought for God’s law or the good of our neighbour? No. As Augustine put it, "The law was given that grace might be sought; and grace was given that the law might be fulfilled." And love is the fulfilling of the law, (Romans 13:10). 

What's missing from our very own Town Called Malice is grace (Ooo, yeah). 

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Plague Journal: Week 10

On Monday 16 March the Prime Minister made an announcement to the nation on TV. To help prevent the spread of coronavirus people were advised to stop attending public meeting places such as restaurants and cinemas. Later that day places of worship were added to the list. Although this was advice and not legislation, we complied. Since then our church buildings have remained empty. The following Monday lockdown was imposed with the full force of law behind it. 

Lockdown measures are now being eased. The 'R' rate is below 1 in most parts of the country. The economic impact of lockdown looks horrendous, but many people remain paralysed by fear and will need some coaxing to get back to work. It is possible that Primary Schools will reopen in a limited capacity following the half term break. Non-essential shops may start trading in early June. The government has signaled that if the conditions are right, church gatherings may be permitted after 4 July.

In the absence of sector specific guidance on how to keep congregations safe, churches don't seem to be in any great rush to open their doors. The consensus among church leaders seems to be that we're in this for the long haul. It looks like online 'services' and keeping in touch with members of our congregations by phone call will continue as our modus operandai  for some months to come. 

In my Plague Journals over the last ten weeks I've charted how I've had to adapt my ministry to the current situation. Initially I used Facebook Go Live for ministry videos, but it was too glitchy. Buffering was a real problem. Then I switched to pre-recording YouTube videos which were posted at our regular service times. For our midweek prayer times we started off with Skype, but moved to the freebie Zoom platform as the latter gives better quality sound and video.

Now we've gone for Zoom pro, which meant that on Wednesday I could give the Bible talk in the meeting, after which we had a time of prayer. The trouble was that my poor old laptop could barely cope with hosting the meeting. The recording of the talk was like watching a badly dubbed Spaghetti Western. The audio was OK, though, which was something.

My laptop struggled again this morning. Due to 'system overload' or something it couldn't access the mic, so no one could hear me. I had my phone set up to record the Bible reading and message, but had to switch to using my mobile for Zoom. Thankfully, friends from church recorded the message using the Zoom's recording feature. They also sorted the song videos, which my laptop struggled to do in a trial run. I spoke on Psalm 50, 'A call to worship the God who is not safe, but good'. Thanks to a generous gift, a new higher spec laptop is due to be delivered this week.

I prefer livesteaming to pre-recording and it was with some reluctance that I abandoned FB's Go Live for YouTube vids. Since I last tried Go Live we've had a new WiFi router installed at home, as the old one was becoming unreliable. With that in mind I thought I'd have another go at livestreaming this evening to see if the new router had resolved the buffering issues. It seemed to go OK from a technical point of view, at least. I spoke on 'Jesus as our exalted Prophet, Priest and King' from Hebrews 1, 4, & 7.

Reading update. As of last week's journal I was up to p. 497 of Robert Letham's excellent Systematic Theology. Since then I've read what remained of Incarnation 2, the whole of Incarnation 3 and a good chunk of Christ Our Great High Priest. bringing me to p. 570. Incarnation 2 & are fine examples  of how historical theology can help us understand the teaching of the Bible with greater clarity and depth. There are few theological problems that haven't been pondered before by some of the greatest minds in the church. Reinventing wheels and chasing 'new insights' into what turn out to be blind alleys does not represent the height of wisdom. It's silly, in fact. In theology as in the natural sciences we see further by standing on the shoulders of giants.

That said, new questions in Christology have arisen and a number of these are discussed in Chapter 18, Incarnation 3. Some are 'Questions to Which the Answer is No!' Like, 'Did Christ Assume a Fallen Human Nature?' No! Did Christ empty himself of his divine attributes when he became man, or 'The Kenosis Theory'?  No! to that too.

Although I must say I was baffled by Letham's remarks on John Calvin and the Communion of Attributes in the Person of Christ. The writer suggests that Calvin sometimes smacks of Nestorianism on this point. Luther taught that divine attributes such as omnipresence were communicated to Christ's glorified humanity, which is hardly in line with Chalcedon. Calvin held that in Scripture actions proper to both divine and human natures are predicated of the Person of Christ.

Hence, while the divine nature cannot die, the 'Lord of glory' was 'crucified'. While Christ's glorified human nature retains its physical properties, he is said to  'fill all things'. The communicatio represents a 'figure of speech', said Calvin and entails no ontological confusion. See John Calvin's Ideas, Paul Helm, Oxford, p. 71-83. I am at a loss to understand what Letham means when he says by way of summary of his treatment of the Communion of Attributes, "Person-perichoresis (in the Trinity) and nature-perichoresis (in the incarnation, in which the divine omnipresence is transferred to the human nature) Crisp considers to be a mystery." (p. 518). Certainly a mystery to me.

No discrete chapter is devoted to 'Christ our Glorious Prophet'. Just a paragraph or so is given to our Lord's prophetic work in Chapter 16, 'Christ, our Great High Priest'. But Letham's discussion of Jesus' high priestly ministry is rich with biblical and historical insight. Penal Substitution is robustly defended within the framework of union with Christ and not at the expense of other biblical emphases. Next up in this chapter, sections on 'The Scope of Christ's Atonement' and 'Intercession and Benediction'.

On Saturday Sarah and I went for a walk to Shearwater lake on the Longleat Estate. To our surprise and joy the lakeside cafe was open for takeaways. Always wanting to support the local economy we treated ourselves to a tub each of Marshfield Farm's Heavenly Honeycomb ice cream. The easing of lockdown tastes sweet.

Plague Journal: Week 1Week 2, Week 3Week 4Week 5Week 6Week 7Week 8, Week 9

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Plague Journal: Week 9

It's been great to see the way people have risen to the challenge of Coronavirus, looking out for shielding neighbours, etc. But social distancing measures have also brought out the worst in some. There are those who flout the rules with a blatant disregard for others. Then there are the 'holier than thou' social distancers with their aggressive, 'Keep to yourself, do not come near to me' attitude (Isaiah 65:5). Yes, they exist. I met one the other day. 

Most people we've come across around here have been good humoured as we've given each other a wide berth when passing on the street or in shopping aisles. The worst we've encountered is an ignorant lack of acknowledgement when we've stepped into the road to allow others to proceed along the pavement. Doesn't cost anything to say, 'Thanks', my mum used to say.

But after adroitly tiptoeing around other shoppers in a local supermarket and patiently holding back while people dithered for ages over which tomatoes to buy, I had an encounter with a living, breathing 'holier than thou' social distancer. It happened when I returned  my trolley. A proper family sized one, while another bloke was waiting to return his mini model. He was hanging about between the two bollards at the shop entrance. I did my best to avoid him by going around the outside of the right hand bollard to return my trolley. 

In other words, I was nowhere near the chap. Yet I heard a gruff voice behind me, swearing and having a go at me, 'that wasn't two meters'. To which I replied, 'As far as I'm concerned it was.' That was pretty much it, really. Sorry if you were expecting something more eventful, like a fully blown explosion of trolley rage. This is Wiltshire, where little tends to happen. Very slowly. 

However, since mentioning this episode to friends, it seems that others have experienced similar things. The pandemic is bringing out the inner Pharisee in us, from tape measure Charlies to people grassing up their neighbours to the police for petty nonsense. In late April it was reported that the police had received 200,000 calls from busybody time wasters. I read with interest Dr John Lees's article in The Spectator, 'Ten reasons to end the lockdown now'. An 11th reason would be to take the wind out of the sails of plague time Pharisees.

It could be worse. At least lockdown measures are being eased in England. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland people are still pretty much confined to barracks. According to the Government's COVID-19 recovery strategy published on Monday, 'Our plan to rebuild',  there's a possibility that churches in England may be able to re-open after 4 July, although we will need sector specific Coronavirus secure guidelines from the government so we know how to keep worshipers as safe as possible. Some indication of when Toddler Groups and such like may be able to restart and under what conditions would also be good. 

Zoom was once something cars did, zooming away at speed, and that. Before the pandemic that's all the zoom I knew. Not now. Our church times of fellowship and prayer are via Zoom. There was a FIEC Zoom conference on Leadership in Lockdown on Wednesday. Very useful in getting to grips with what church life might look like after 4 July. On Friday I took part in a Zoom meeting between local church leaders and our MP, Dr Andrew Murrison. We were able to put our concerns to him, some about the challenges faced in our community and others about the impact of lockdown on church life. He got the point about churches needing sector specific guidance for when we reopen our doors and said he'd make representations to ministers. Good. Thanks, Dr. Murrison. 

Unlike with cars, living in the world of Zoom doesn't mean things get to go anywhere fast. Message prep still takes as much time and then messages have to be pre-recorded three afternoons a week, which cuts down on time for other stuff. In addition, with the help of my wife I recorded two more episodes in the Story of Moses for our One Way Club. There was a 'blooper' in Part 3. At one point the PowerPoint jumped ahead a few slides. Rather than starting again (this happened near the end), I thought I'd have a go at editing out the jumpy bit. How hard could it be?

Using the YouTube edit feature I carefully located the bit that needed editing out, deleted that segment and saved the video. When I checked it out I found to my horror that I had in fact edited everything else out and only a 45 second blooper sequence remained. This was shortly before I was due to post the video on our church Facebook page for children and parents to view. My wife dragged me out of the slough of despond and together we managed to find out how to revert to the original YouTube video, blooper and all. Just in time. Phew.

Last Sunday VE Day was still very much in people's minds, so I spoke on 'Peace' from Romans 5:1 in the morning and 'Victory' from 1 Corinthians 15:57 in the evening. For Wednesday's Prayer Time we looked at Exodus 31:11-18, 'Strive to enter God's rest'. 

We are enjoying the easing of lockdown measures. On Saturday we visited the nearby Heaven's Gate beauty spot and Shearwater lake. It was nice to see families having a picnic and others out for a stroll through the bluebell woods. A small glimpse of happier times before the virus struck. See snaps below.

My current 'big read' is Systematic Theology by Robert Letham. As of last week I had got as as far as p. 468. I am now on Part 6, 'Christ, the Son of God'. I read chapter 16 and am a good way though chapter 17, 'Incarnation (1) & (2)', taking me to p. 497. These chapters provide a good example of why preachers need systematic theology. I have sometimes heard experienced pastors say in their sermons that 'Jesus became a human person'. No, that's Nestorianism. Which makes you a numpty at best, or a heretic at worst. Rather, as Letham sets out so clearly, the Son as second person of the Trinity took a human nature.

In doing so Jesus did not become a third 'thing', partly God and partly man. Neither did Jesus suffer any diminution of his deity at the incarnation. The Word made flesh was fully God and fully man with two distinct natures forever united in the person of the Son. The human nature of Jesus has no personal identity of its own. His humanity is in-personal, the Son working in and through his human nature to suffer and die for us.

Of course, preachers are free to use time honoured theological terms like 'person' and 'nature' in anyway they like. By all means ignore the 2,000 years of theological reflection that finds its expression in the historic creeds and confessions of faith. Just don't be surprised you end up sounding like a heretic. For all their emphasis on Sola Scriptura, our Puritan forebears were not doctrinally idiosyncratic. They regarded themselves as Reformed Catholic Christians, deeply rooted in the theological heritage of the church. The one person/two natures Christology of the Definition of Chalcedon is echoed in the great Puritan confessions; Westminster, Savoy and Second London. If you want to avoid sounding like a hawker of dodgy doctrine, it should also reverberate in your preaching.

Preacher, don't be a numpty, read systematic theology. Capiche?

Plague Journal: Week 1Week 2, Week 3Week 4Week 5Week 6Week 7, Week 8

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Plague Journal: Week 8

"She has done what she could" (Mark 14:8). Those words were spoken by Jesus to the woman who poured costly ointment over his head days before his crucifixion. In John's account (John 12:1-8) she is identified as Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. Some of Jesus' disciples scolded her. What a waste. Better had the ointment been sold and the proceeds given to the poor, Mark 14:5. Jesus defended Mary, however. He understood that she had anointed his body beforehand for burial, Mark 14:8-9. 

Jesus' commendation of Mary in the teeth of criticism from others has been a comfort to me in trying to maintain ministry during lockdown. Not that I've been subject to an onslaught of criticism. Our people have been very supportive of my efforts, such as they are. But it's encouraging to reflect that our Lord Jesus accepted Mary's offering in these terms, "She has done what she could". Many of us pastors have struggled in getting to grips with video technology. Our efforts at Livestreaming or pre-recording ministry don't exactly have Hollywood style production values. In my case, it's just me in my study recording stuff on my Android mobile phone. Usually in one take. 

When the videos are posted online for our people to view, my wife likes me to sit and watch them with her, which is a bit excruciating. If anyone's acting like Mary's carping critics, it's me. 'Awful', I think. If I tried to sell a 'box set' of my YouTube videos I doubt the proceeds would raise much, if anything, for the poor. Certainly not "more than three hundred denarii" (Mark 14:5). Maybe other preachers in a similar situation feel the same? No doubt we can mitigate the awfulness somewhat by correcting the irritating habits of speech we notice, or whatever, but it's never going to be great, is it? We're preachers, not TV preseners. 

Preaching involves a living interaction between preacher and people. The preacher will (hopefully) have a clear structure in mind. He will have given thought to the substance of his message; exposition, doctrine, illustrations, application, etc. But things will always be a little rough around the edges, with room for improvisation in the act of preaching as the congregation responds. For all its miniature marvels, my trusty Xperia XA2 can't replicate that. You do what you can.

Last Sunday morning I spoke on Psalm 48, 'The City of God and the City of Earth'  in the evening on 1 Timothy 3:16, 'No fear of condemnation, but hope of resurrection'. Wednesday evening's 'Prayer Meeting' talk was on Exodus 31:1-11, 'Gifted to Build for God'. 

The usual May Bank Holiday Monday was moved to the Friday of this week to accommodate the VE Day 75th Anniversary celebrations. Public events had to be cancelled due to social distancing, but the BBC broadcast some good programmes on the day.  Work-wise, taking the Friday off meant I had to finish preparation for and recording of messages for the coming Sunday by Thursday afternoon. Saturday is my day off.

As I think I've said before that the mic quality is quite poor on my PC and my Laptop's doesn't work at all. Which has meant I've tended to use my phone for Skype and Zoom events. The trouble is that the mobile app version of both things is a bit limiting. I have a HD webcam with built in mic on order, but in the meantime I bought a cheapo widget thing from eBay, an 'External Virtual USB Stereo Sound Card Audio Adaptor Converter', £2.80. Anyway, it works. I was able to use my Laptop for Wednesday evening's Zoom Prayer Time.

On Thursday afternoon I took part in a FIEC Online Local Conference, South West for church leaders. Again, via Zoom. This time on my PC using the mic widget. It was a useful time. Although I had to fiddle with the Zoom settings to make myself heard, as the mic volume was set to zero by default. Got there in the end. About 20 of us took part, maybe a few more. Some of whom I knew. Johnny Prime, FIEC Associate Director led the event and spoke helpfully on Hebrews 13:7, challenging us to pass on a good legacy to those who follow us.

We watched a pre-recorded talk by National Director John Stevens on the sadly salient topic of pastoral abuse. The talks were interspersed by breakout groups in 'Zoom rooms' for prayer and discussion. I must admit I was a bit flummoxed by a question Johnny addressed to us all, 'What has made you smile when ministering during lockdown? 

I'm a veteran of many ministers' conferences and fraternals, but I've never been asked that before. Nothing in my training at the London Seminary, or years of pastoral experience had prepared me for such a query. We are jointly FIEC and Grace Baptist. I'm sure the Second London Baptist Confession, 1689 doesn't even mention anything about smiling. I was minded to grumpily dismiss the question, but those who responded before me managed to find some cheerful enough things to say, so I thought I should make an effort.

When my time came I mentioned how our people have been supporting each other and doing things like distributing audio CDs to those who can't access my video messages online. 'A typical FIEC question' was my parting shot. Certainly the move from personal interaction to Zoom meetings doesn't make me smile much. I resonated with Giles Fraser's recent article, Zoom takes away a piece of our souls. So draining. Especially when asked about smiley stuff.

I don't know what's going on in the government's press office. Earlier in the week it seemed that journalists had been tipped off that on Sunday evening the Prime Minister was going to announce a considerable easing of lockdown restrictions. 'Happy Monday' screamed the tabloid headlines. Now the indications are that a little modest easing is in order. More like another Blue Monday.  Chatting to pastor pals the consensus is that regular church meetings and activities won't be resuming for some time yet.

In answer to Johnny's question I was tempted to mention the lighter moments in Robert Letham's Systematic Theology. But that seemed a bit pretentious. Not at all like me. Progress update. As of last week I was on p. 409. Since then I've read Part 5, 'The Covenant of God', taking me to p. 468. Letham's key insight is that all of the biblical covenants (with the possible exception of the Noahic) are covenants of grace regulated by law. That includes the original 'covenant of life' with Adam. The Mosaic covenant is not therefore a republication of the covenant of works understood in strictly meritorious terms.

Letham helpfully distinguishes between the covenant of life, which was abrogated with the fall of Adam (but with ongoing effects), and the law which continues as an expression of what God demands of his human image bearers. The Ten Commandments give perfect expression to God's abiding  requirements. Grace does not set law aside. Rather, it is through grace that the law's demands are fulfilled for us by Christ and in us by the Spirit. Letham has a well aimed dig at New Covenant theology at this point.

I wouldn't agree, though, that the Abrahamic/Mosaic/Davidic covenants are administrations of the overarching covenant of grace, per the Westminster Confession of Faith. The covenant of grace was revealed in embryonic form in the promise of Genesis 3:15 and was further disclosed under the various biblical covenants. It was by believing in that promise that people were saved during the Old Testament period. But there is a difference between promise and fulfillment. The covenant of grace was only promulgated with the coming of the new covenant in Christ's blood, Hebrews 9:15-17.

The covenant of grace is between God and the elect in Christ. Not all who belonged to the Old Testament covenants were necessarily elect, as covenant membership was based on natural descent, Romans 9-11. The Old Testament dispensations were 'covenants of promise'. Their function was to point forward to the full realisation of the covenant of grace in Christ the Mediator.

With the coming of the 'Seed of Abraham', membership of the new covenant is on the basis of repentance and faith, symbolised by baptism, Acts 2:38. The types and shadows of the old covenant are no more. In Christ we have the substance. Next up is Part 6, 'Christ the Son of God', on the person and work of Christ. Very much looking forward to it.

At my induction service Andrew Davies preached on Colossians 1:28, 'Him [Christ] we proclaim'. That is indeed our calling, whether we proclaim Christ to a church gathering, or to those who watch our online efforts. When it comes to our faltering attempts at ministering in lockdown we can take heart from our Lord's words to Mary, 'She has done what she could'. He warmly commended her saying, 'She has done a beautiful thing to me.' (Mark 14:6). Our ministry vids may lack the slick professionalism of party political broadcasts, but if we seek to proclaim Christ and extol his worth, we have done a beautiful thing.

Oh, and my bid won in the auction for a 'Reversible Bucket Hat' on eBay. I gave it a try out when we went for a walk to Bratton Camp & Westbury White Horse on Friday. (Photos below). Cool, eh? Made me smile, anyway. FIEC should make them standard issue for pastors.

Plague Journal: Week 1Week 2, Week 3Week 4Week 5Week 6, Week 7.


Monday, May 04, 2020

‘A very present help in trouble’

PSALM 46 - GOD IS OUR REFUGE AND STRENGTH A VERY PRESENT HELP IN ... 
As I write (for 20 April deadline*) the government has announced that lockdown will continue for another three weeks. Ministers insist that they will follow the science when it comes to deciding when to ease measures designed to combat coronavirus. The trouble is that responding to Covid-19 is an inexact science. Experts don’t always agree on the best way forward. Some public health advisors worry that the economic and social effects of prolonged lockdown could be devastating. Maybe by the time you read this the Prime Minister will be back at the helm and an exit plan will have been announced.

Who knows? Christian believers have been just as affected as everyone else when it comes to  the current pandemic. Our faith gives us no immunity from viruses, or the disruption of lockdown measures. All of our church services and activities have been suspended. Fellowship is maintained by means of phone calls and Skype. Messages from the Bible are no longer proclaimed in church buildings, but posted online via YouTube and Facebook (see our website for more info: www.pbc-ebc.org.uk).

Covid-19 has exposed the limits of human knowledge, political leadership and scientific expertise. Hopefully we’ll get out of this eventually, but no one can be sure how, or when. Our sense that, ‘I am the master of my fate and captain of my soul’ has taken a serious knock. The fact is that we were never really in control. Our best laid plans were always subject to disruption by unforeseeable events. Coronavirus has just brought this home to us in a big way.

In a changing and uncertain world we need a message of hope that has stood the test of time. For generations believers have found encouragement in the words of Scripture. Psalm 46 assures us, ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’. The psalm affirms, ‘The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress’. God came to be with us in his Son, Jesus Christ. He is ‘Immanuel, God with us’ in human form. Jesus entered our world of suffering and grief to break the powers of sin and death. He died on the cross and rose again that we might be forgiven and have the hope of eternal life.

Psalm 46 points beyond this passing world to the City of God. The Book of Revelation offers a wonderful vision of that city where God will dwell with his people for ever: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.’” (Revelation 21:3-4).

One day pandemics will be a thing of the past. In the meantime it is good to know that we can turn to God and find him ‘a very present help in trouble’.

* For News & Views, West Lavington Parish Magazine and White Horse News 

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Plague Journal: Week 7

Boris is back. A bit breathless in his appearance at the Downing Street Covid-19 briefing on Thursday, but back. Political attention is now more clearly focused on how the country will emerge from lockdown. Such is the public's fear of coronavirus that the government may have a job on its hands in persuading people to return to work once lockdown measures have started to ease. When exactly churches will be able to gather in their buildings is far from clear. I guess we're likely to be bracketed with pubs, restaurants, cinemas and other public meeting places. If, so we may have to wait for some time before our regular services and activities resume. Even then, it will be church life, but not as we know it.

Some church members may be still shielding, or living with someone who is. They won't be able to attend meetings. Smaller churches with mostly older congregants may find that their services won't be viable until a vaccine is rolled out, or some other way is devised of allowing vulnerable people  safely to leave their homes. For larger churches, what if a limit is placed on the number of people permitted to gather for a meeting? Not a problem for us, but it looks as though we may be in a position where some of our people will be able to meet, while others, not. If so, we'll need to continue posting video ministry online and maintaining fellowship by phone and Skype/Zoom/Whatever. 

Questions, questions. What about church members' meetings where important decisions are made and finances reported? Thought will need to be given as to how we can avoid  members with no internet access being disenfranchised, as they can't join in online members' meetings. I guess they could dial in for Zoom meetings, but it won't be the same. And then, what about Toddler Groups in a world of social distancing, or children's meetings, or outreach activities that involve cooking and eating? Could we even be in a position where refreshments can't be served after Sunday services? Isn't there something in the FIEC Doctrinal Basis that the provision of tea, coffee and squash after services is one of the marks of a true church?   

The 'new normal' to use the hackneyed phrase is going to force us to take a long hard look at what church meetings and activities may be like in the months ahead. The 'old normal' may not begin to return until sometime in 2021. In the meantime we continue as best we can. Last Sunday I posted ministry videos on Psalm 47 in the morning and John 17 in the evening. I recorded the John 17 one after lunch on Sunday, hoping to post it on our Facebook page at 6.00pm. But after uploading it on to YouTube, it got stuck at 95% for the processing bit and was posted later than billed. The previous Wednesday I concluded a mini-series on Colossians 1:9-14 for our 'Prayer Meetings'. This week I resumed the pre-lockdown Bible Studies on Exodus, with a message on Exodus 30:17-38. I didn't want to make too much reference to the current pandemic, as people get enough of that in the news. But Exodus 30:21 included this instruction, 'they shall wash their hands...so that they may not die'. There's no getting away from it. 

Following a trial run Zoom meeting on Monday evening, we used Zoom for our Wednesday 8.00pm prayer time. Much better sound and image quality than Skype and one of our people was also able to join the meeting by phone. 

On Friday evenings we would normally have our One Way Club for primary school aged children. In place of that we had a 'virtual' OWC, posting Part One of a series of  story/activity videos on the Life of Moses. All these videos are filmed using my Android phone, which are then uploaded to YouTube and posted on the church Facebook page at the regular meeting times. I also host the Zoom meetings with my phone, which means I can't access all the features. The sound and video quality on my PC and laptop aren't good enough. As it looks as though we're in this for the long haul, I've just ordered a HD webcam with built in mic, which will enable me to film videos and host Zoom meetings using my laptop. Should help, when it is eventually delivered.

I was interested to listen to a Pastors' Academy podcast, 'John Webster for Pastors: A Conversation with Mike Allen' hosted by their Tutor in Ethics, Matthew Mason. I enjoyed Webster's Holiness, which was recommended by Allen as a good place to start and also his Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. The podcast discusses Webster's contribution to the world of theology and some of the key themes in his writings. Well worth a listen. 

Speaking of theology, I'm still not making as much progress as I would like with Robert Leatham's Systematic Theology. Last week I was up to p. 365, now I'm on p. 409. I read chapter 13, 'Humanity in Sin', which was sobering, but very well done. Letham refuses to choose between the 'realist' and 'federalist' views on the transmission of Adam's sin. Adam is both our common ancestor and representative head.  The chapter ends with this magnificent quote from Herman Bavinck, "believers are willing to look at the disturbing reality of life; they do not scatter flowers over graves, turn death into and angel, regard sin as mere weakness, or consider this is the best of all possible worlds. Calvinism has no use for such drivel." (p. 400). I'm just a little way into Part 5, and the chapter on 'Election and the Counsel of Redemption'. So far an irenic, gracious, and solidly Reformed treatment. I'm reading a review copy of the book for the Banner of Truth Magazine. The deadline is the end of May, so I'd better get my skates on. 

Still enjoying The Crown. The Queen's first PM was Winston Churchill, political hero of the current incumbent of 10 Downing Street. We watched Series 1 Episode 9 last night. Very powerful and poignant drama, featuring Graham Sutherland painting Churchill's portrait for the Prime Minister's 80th birthday. Winston hated it, as it showed him as the old man he had become. 'Change and decay in all around I see, O thou who changest not, abide with me.'

Pic from today's wander along the Westbury to Bratton bridle path below. 

Plague Journal: Week 1Week 2, Week 3Week 4Week 5, Week 6