Friday, February 09, 2018

Blogging in the Name of the Lord: Jim Sayers

GD: Hello Jim Sayers, and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

JDS: I live in Abingdon with my wife Helen and our son Josh (who is now 2” taller than me at 6’4”). Laura is a relay worker in Glasgow and Meg is studying costume construction in London. Helen is a teaching assistant and I have been Communications Director for Grace Baptist Mission for nearly 9 years, following 16 years in pastoral ministry.

GD: You blog at https://jimsayers.wordpress.com/. What made you start blogging?

JDS: Hard to remember exactly. When I had a sabbatical in 2007 I had run a short, rather bland travel blog so my flock knew what their pastor was doing on sabbatical – churches I has visited, books I’d finally finished. That came off the web when I left for GBM in 09. I watched a few friends start their own blogs, but was busy doing an M.Th with Edinburgh Theological Seminary on the biblical theology of nationhood. Coming to the end of the writing process, I found we were in the middle of a minor referendum, so I decided to blog some of the key ideas about nationhood. This caused lift-off with about 500 hits the night before the Brexit vote – a feat not repeated since! Since then I’ve tried to make the blog live up to its billing, by looking at a wider range of issues related to mission, nations, culture and worship. When my work takes me to another country, it helps to write about the culture I visit. Then there are cultural moments to reflect on, books to review that fit the theme, and the occasional ‘seven things I’d like to….’ kind of posts that spill out too easily. I think it’s better to post thoughtfully and well on what you know well, rather than expose everything you think in some regular daily diatribe.  

GD: Which blogs do you enjoy reading and why?

JDS: I love Eddie Arthur’s Kouya.net – short, pithy and well read – the place to start in world mission blogging. Chris Green’s MinistryNuts and Bolts is always good value on the skills of pastoral ministry. Stephen Kneale’s Building Jerusalem is consistently good. John Steven’s DissentingOpinions is provocative, and as a minor law graduate I love the posts that draw on his legal background. (John does seem to get an FIEC connection out of everything from Rolf Harris to eternal subordination!) No one blogs better than David Robertson’s The Wee Flea, which because I studied with the Free Church years ago is specially good for connecting with the Scottish scene. And of course there is an exiled preacher from Wales who likes his rugby!

GD: You're too kind. What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for reflection on theological and ministry matters?

JDS: It is good to be able to get your thoughts into something shorter than a sermon or the chapter of a book. I learnt to write by reading the editorials of Prof. Donald Macleod in the Free Church Monthly Record – so pithy, with short, punchy sentences full of passion and wit. He used his commas sparingly. He preferred the full stop. He connected theology with politics to great effect. When I was a pastor in Kesgrave, I had a column in the local community magazine where I had a 750 word limit to write an apologetics piece. I thrived on it. You learn the discipline of thinking your way into your audience’s mind, and working out what they will make of your obsessions and convictions. So blogging is a good discipline for we preachers who are wont to go on a bit. Its weakness is vanity – the expectation that the world’s public need to read my meagre offerings. After 2 hours graft at my imagined brilliance, the stats page tells me that six people bothered to read it. The blogosphere is big these days, so don’t imagine you can gain a wide audience. Keep a sense of perspective.  

GD: Do you use other forms of social media, and why/what for?

JDS: I was on Twitter first, which is a great place for keeping up with ministry friends. I went on Facebook last August just to keep up with a few friends. I’ve decided that Twitter is like the news vendor shouting his headlines, whereas Facebook is like the ladies at the bus stop next to him having a good gossip. Mind you, put your blog posts on Facebook and the hit-count goes through the roof. I get bored with facebook, but the wit of Twitter is a joy. For GBM I am also now running an Instagram account.

GD: Which character from post-New Testament church history would you most like to meet and what would you say to him/her?

JDS: William Wilberforce, who is a real hero for me. I would want to commend him for his faithfulness, discuss the rather incremental way in which he set about the abolition movement – not going for complete emancipation at once. Can that say something to the pro-Life movement today? I’d also like to ask him why he became addicted to opiates!

GD: Tell us how you felt called to pastoral ministry:

JDS: I wanted to go into politics as a teenager – the full speech-in-front-of-the-bathroom-mirror variety. But at 17 I heard a preacher expound 2 Timothy 4 and knew God had spoken to me. When I went to Uni to study law, I heard Geoff Thomas preach and ached to be an expositor. From time to time I have wondered about politics, but gospel ministry always pulls me back.

GD: Where did you train for the ministry and what did you find especially helpful about your training?

JDS: Geoff Thomas wanted to send me to Westminster in Philadelphia, but when that wasn’t possible I went to Free Church College Edinburgh. Mostly I loved it, especially John L Mackay’s OT lectures and Alasdair I Macleod’s homiletics and pastoral studies. But the big pull was…..

GD: Who has had the greatest influence on your theological development?

JDS: Donald Macleod. A real privilege to study systematics under him. Every lecture was top quality, building a framework of thought. He would pause every couple of days for questions, and it was like pressing a button and out came another flow of brilliance.

GD: What would be your three top tips for budding preachers?

1.   JDS: Preach within your range. Don’t do John 13-17, Romans 1-8 or Jeremiah to start with. 2. Don’t feel you have to say everything. Leave plenty on your desk and preach what you can make vivid and coherent. (3) Learn to apply well. That means inhabiting the lives of your hearers, more than half of whom will be women. Don’t be abstract – connect directly into their daily challenges.

GD: Why the switch to working for Grace Baptist Mission?

JDS: God had involved me in GBM and in some mission trips to West Africa before the job came up. I knew it was time to move on from Kesgrave, but couldn’t see a way out. When my job because free, it was obvious to us that this was God’s next step for us.

GD What does your role as Communication Director involve?

JDS: I am in change of all GBM communications – magazines, website, our monthly video bulletin Prayer Waves, our prayer diary etc. I also run our Envision programme of short-term mission opportunities. Together with Daryl Jones the Mission Director, we work with sending churches to help them care for their missionaries, and we both preach out among the supporting churches.

GD: What are some of the greatest encouragements and challenges faced by GBM at present?

JDS: It is wonderful to see new churches being planted in several places across Europe, and to see the rapid movement of church growth in places like India and Kenya. Helping churches send new missionaries is a real joy. The big challenge is just to stand still. The average missionary serves for ten years. We need to be helping sending churches to send at least two couples a year just to replace those coming home. Mission support is now much more focussed on giving to individual missionaries rather than mission agencies, so we have to restructure our costs. We need to connect with a new generation of supporters, most of all through the new media.  

GD: You believe that God has a special plan for nations. Which is?

JDS: We have to read gen 10 and 11 together, seeing a world of nations living quietly together as God’s norm, and being aware of the dangers of a Babel-like tendency to think ‘global is best’ and we can solve the world’s problems by some global structure. All such empires end in failure, and often in bloodshed. So rediscovering the humility of biblical nationhood without descending into the idolatry of nationalism is vital. Biblical nationhood is a third way that avoids both the hatred of nationalism and the hubris of empire. Christian mission should honour every nation by dedicated contextualisation and a commitment to working in indigenous languages.

GD: How do you understand the relationship between the local churches and mission agencies such as GBM?

JDS: GBM is a mission agency without any missionaries. We help churches to send and care for their missionaries. We cannot tell a missionary to come home. Only their church can. But at the same time they need us to help them raise the support from other churches that their missionary needs. So it is a partnership. It is a joy to be in a review meeting with a church who really take their missionary’s care seriously.  

GD: What does it mean to be a ‘Reformed/Grace Baptist’ in terms of theological and ecclesiological distinctives?

JDS: Grace is central, and we need to understand it in all its biblical richness – the grace that chooses, becomes incarnate, atones, calls the dead to life, equips Christians to live, and glorifies us. This shapes the way we preach the gospel, how we do evangelism, and how we pray. It should also make us more gracious – a tall order in a selfish age. In terms of the Church, everything flows from union with Christ. We must not have an individualist/supermarket approach to church. To be alive in Christ is to be united to our fellow-Christians, and that is shown in baptism, which brings into membership of the local church, which identifies itself when it takes communion together. Grace Baptist churches are also known for their commitment to church-based mission.

GD: What is the most helpful theological book that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because?

JDS: The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson. The marrow controversy is little understood today, but it cuts to the heart of our understanding of how the free offer of the gospel is preached, and the basis of our assurance. I think it is essential reading on the doctrine of the Christian life. He deals brilliantly with the similarities between the legalist and the careless sinner, and also takes apart the NPP on his way.

GD: You claim, “Marilynne Robinson is the world’s greatest living novelist.” Why is that?

JDS: She is still quite undiscovered in the UK. I love all three Gilead novels. She has created a new genre – the pastoral novel, in the sense of the life of the pastor. I’m not entirely sure she gets the justice of God as clearly as the grace of God, but the contrast between the legalist Jack Boughton who can’t save himself, and Lila Ames who can’t imagine she could be saved, is quite brilliant. Students will be reading her in 100 years’ time.

GD: A very fine writer. What do you do to relax?

JDS: I did my allotment, where all life’s problems unravel slowly. I also love quality TV drama: The West Wing. The Crown. Endeavour. We love doing National Trust properties. Walking by the Thames.

GD: Care to share your top three songs or pieces of music?

JDS: Beethoven’s 6th. Wade in the Water – Eva Cassidy. Coat of Many Colours - Dolly Parton.

GD: And finally, what is the biggest problem facing evangelicalism in the UK today and how should we respond?

JDS: A truly Lloyd-Jones question! We are a mission field where the church is in decline, but most of our troops have left the front line, and we are doing maintenance. Huge amounts of effort go into conferences, yet very few Christians are equipped to relate the gospel to everyday life. Huge expectations are made of pastors, but so many Christians are detached from church life and cruise from church to church. There is a chronic lack of discipleship. There are a few problems to be going on with. The Doctor would have known which one was the biggest question facing the Christian Church today. 

GD: No doubt. Thanks for dropping by for this conversation, Jim. 


Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Free Speech

Freedom of speech is of fundamental importance in a democratic society. There can be no true liberty where citizens are not free to speak their minds. As the film Darkest Hour bears eloquent testimony, the thing that drove Churchill as wartime Prime Minister was his determination to safeguard the freedom of the British people. That is what roused him to stand up to Nazi tyranny at all costs, while others were flirting with appeasement.

One of the first freedoms to fall when tyranny takes hold is free speech. Tyrants don’t welcome public criticism. They are threatened by the free exchange of ideas that may call into question their state-sanctioned dogmas. Free speech is under threat today because people think they have the right not to hear things with which they disagree, or may find offensive. We are in danger of falling prey to the tyranny of fashionable opinion.

University students demand ‘safe spaces’ where their opinions won’t be challenged. They require ‘trigger warnings’ should their lecturers touch on controversial subjects. Look at what happened just recently when Jacob Rees-Mogg was invited to speak at the University of the West of England in Bristol. Whether or not we agree with his views, surely he had a right to express them without being shouted down, or pushed around.

Winston Churchill once commented, “Everyone is in favour of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.”

Freedom of religion goes hand in hand with freedom of speech. No one has the right to impose their beliefs on others. Faith must not be used as a pretext for inciting hatred or violence. But the freedom to practice and proclaim one’s faith in the public square must be upheld. 

Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman is to be commended for standing up to Islamic extremism in English schools, but she struck a worrying note when she equated "the most conservative voices in a particular faith" [Christianity included] with "ideologies that close minds or narrow opportunity". 

It is possible to be a theologically conservative Christian and hold socially conservative views, while believing that schoolchildren should study a broad and enriching curriculum that will lead to opportunity for all. 

There is a danger that Ms. Spielman's 'muscular liberalism' could prove almost as close-mindedly intolerant  and opportunity narrowing as the extremism against which she has rightly taken a stand. I mean, are not, 'individual liberty' and 'mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs' meant to be Fundamental British Values? Maybe 'different faiths' has been redefined as 'different liberal versions of faith'. If so, religious freedom is under threat, and with it, freedom of speech. 

Freedom of speech is allied to the search for truth. Having our views challenged helps us come to a better understanding of things. According to the Christian faith human beings are truth-seekers because we are made in the image of the God of truth. We may seek him and find him because God has made himself known to us in Jesus Christ. As Jesus said, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Darkest Hour

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."

May 1940 did indeed seem like the darkest hour for good old Blighty. Hitler's divisions were smashing their way though Europe. The British Expeditionary Force had been pushed back to the sea. The USA was in 'America First' isolationist mood. Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was in a weak position, having failed to garner the the support that was needed from all sides of the House of Commons. There was one thing for it. Britain's political leaders were edging towards negotiating peace terms with thF├╝hrer

The only man Clement Attlee's Labour Party would unite behind in that time of crisis was Winston Churchill. He was disliked and distrusted by his fellow Tories. His record as a war time politician was chequered to say the least. His brainchild, the Dardanelles campaign was one of the great British military disasters of WWI.  

But he was the man for the Darkest Hour. Churchill's first speech to the Commons set the tone. There would be no more talk of appeasement,
You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs—Victory in spite of all terror—Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.
The Tory grandees were appalled. But Churchill was right. Appeasement would mean surrender and surrender would mean submitting Great Britain and her Empire to Nazi tyranny. 

The film is a study in leadership though speech. By his words Churchill intended to rouse the British people to show a courage that that did not yet know they possessed. 

The episode showing Churchill on the District Line chatting to commuters was fictional, but it stood for the way in which the war leader was inspired by the indomitably of his fellow Brits, just as much has he inspired them to fight to the end.  

A prosthetically enhanced Gary Oldman brilliantly captures the many facets of Churchill's personality. He could charm, he could bully, he was a great wit, he was dogged by depression. Oldman's Churchill adopts the tone of a suppliant when begging Rooesvelt for  American military aid. In the Commons he was master of all he surveyed. 

Lilly James plays Elizabeth Layton, the Prime Minister's long-suffering secretary. He reduces the poor woman to tears on their first encounter, earning Winston a rebuke from his formidable wife, Clementine, a fine turn by Kistin Scott Thomas. The focus on Layton's work with Churchill shows the tremendous effort he put into his speeches. Clemmie was ever a source of strength for her husband and a provided him with a  refuge from the tensions of leading the country in the desperate days of spring 1940.

The film may use a little bit of dramatic licence here and there. It is a drama after all and not a documentary. Churchill by Roy Jenkins is a good place to start for a more factually accurate account. 

Come early summer, Churchill's political position was still uncertain. Tory grandees such as Lord Halifax and others wanted rid of him. They were still bent on pursuing a policy of appeasement. Churchill's speech on 4 June 1940 put paid to that,
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
In the film the Commons erupts in cheers and the vigorous waving of order papers from MPs on the Opposition benches. Chamberlain signals his support and the Conservatives join in the applause. A friend of Halifax asks what had just happened, to which the Foreign Secretary replies, "He has mobilised the English language and sent it into battle."

Darkest Hour is a powerful testimony to the lost art of political oratory. World War II was won by words as well as deeds. Churchill did not tell people what focus groups had informed him they wanted to hear. He led the nation by his speeches and led them to victory. Very moving. 

We're not exactly living through Britain's Brightest Hour right now, but our contemporary political leaders struggle to find the words needed to lead the nation to a better future. Lame 'strong and stable' soundbites from the Tories and the tired slogans of the old Left on Labour's part don't quite cut it. 

The power of words to change history should not be lost on preachers, whose task it is to proclaim God's Word, testifying to God's Son in the power of God's Spirit. Through Jesus' sacrifice alone will humanity find victory over the dark powers of death and destruction.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper

Vintage, 2017, 577pp

"Never meet your heroes" says the old adage. The Martin Luther we 'meet' through the pages of Lyndal Roper's biography is not the heroic figure of popular Protestant folklore. At least, while he was capable of great heroism, Dr. Luther could also be something of a villain. At the heart of the Reformer's teaching was the idea that the believer is at one and the same time 'justified and yet a sinner'. Luther  was certainly both right with God and terribly wrong in many ways. As are we all.

His was not a 'theology of glory' based on human effort to merit God's favour, but a 'theology of the cross' that looked to God alone in Christ for salvation. This was Luther's decisive breakthrough. He came to understand that the 'righteousness of God' by which the 'just shall live by faith' (Romans 1:16-17) is not the righteousness that God is, or demands of us, but the gift of saving righteousness received by faith in Christ. This shaped Luther's reading of the Bible and informed his critique of the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. If we are justified by faith, we have no need of popes, the priestly sacrifice of the Mass, indulgences, and so on.  

Germans seem to have a knack of coming up with a single phrase that says what it would take several words to express in another language. Schadenfreude is one - a malicious glee in the suffering of others. Luther's 'say a lot of stuff in one word' thing was, Anfechtungen. It could mean a sense of terror the sinner experiences in the presence of a holy God, or the trials the believer suffers in this life. The devil may be the immediate cause of many Anfechtungen, but behind the devil is God putting his servants to the test. Let's just say Luther was not an early advocate of prosperity theology. 

Lyndal Roper sets Luther life against the backdrop of his times. She provides a richly detailed picture of the commercial, religious, academic, political and cultural aspects Luther's Germany. There's a wealth of information here. Roper draws on the Freudian Oedipus complex theory as key to understanding Luther's personality. According to the Greek tragic tale, poor old Oedipus unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. On discovering his monstrous error he then poked his own eyes out. Roper detects Oedipal tendencies in Luther's rejection of his father's plan that he should become a lawyer, when he jacked in his legal training to become a monk. But I wonder whether that course of action had more to do with Luther's sense of himself as a sinner before a just God. It was the thunderstorm event that drew out of him the vow, 'Help me St Anne and I will become a monk'. It was only when Luther discovered justification by faith that he understood that the just God is also a gracious Father. 

In the film Darkest Hour, Clemmie encourages Winston to 'just be yourself' when he accepted the role of Prime Minister. Churchill responded, 'Which self shall I be today?' For he was a multi-faceted man. Something similar could be said of Luther. You could almost say there were three of him. The God-terrified monk, the bold 'Here I stand' Reformer of the Diet of Worms, and the somewhat grouchy and paranoid Luther of  his mature years. We sympathise with Luther I, admire Luther II, but find Luther III a bit more difficult to like. 

Luther III is a complex figure. He could be imperious in asserting his leadership of the German Reformation and a temporiser, slowing the pace of reform to keep the Elector of Saxony on side. He could be welcoming and magnanimous, a warm friend, and excluding and vengeful, an implacable enemy. Luther in turns coddled and bullied Philip Melanchthon. They remained 'best friends for ever'. He fell out catastrophically with Andreas Karlstadt, goaded him into making his private criticisms public, and then treated him as the worst of foes. 

I would have liked to have seen more attention given to Luther as a pastor and preacher. Would have made for a more rounded portrait of his life. The focus here is more on Luther as Reformation leader. In that role he had strengths and weaknesses. His courage, conviction and clarity of vision were massive strengths. But Luther's weaknesses were also glaring. His intransigence stopped him being a unifying figure among the Reformed. His view of the Lord's Supper, for example, just had to prevail over and against 'Sacramentarians' such as Zwingli, Bucer and the later Calvinists. Baptists, let's not even go there. 

Perhaps a better key to understanding Luther is not Oedipal tendencies, but  'Founder's Syndrome'. This malady presents itself when the powerful founder of an organisation surrounds themselves with 'yes men and yes women'. The over-mighty founder brooks no rivals and accept no accountability. Their will must prevail at all costs. Think of  Camila Batmanghelidjh of the Kids Company. Luther often reminded those who had the temerity to argue with him that he was the one who stood alone at the Diet of Worms. The Reformation was his. Any threat to it, whether from Karlstadt's hastily implemented reforms at Wittenberg, or the peasants taking his message of freedom as inspiration for revolution had to be stamped out. 

Roper comes down hard on Luther for his antisemitism. Some have tried to suggest that what he was against was Judaism, because as a religion it taught salvation by works, rather than grace. But the statements quoted by Roper from all periods of the Reformer's life reveal a disturbing prejudice against Jewish people. Luther can sometimes be intemperate and potty mouthed when engaging with theological opponents. 'Speaking the truth in love'? Not always. But I question whether Roper is being entirely fair in suggesting he was quite so fueled by hatred and anger. Even in his 'Luther III' Grumpy Old Man phase. 

As I say, Luther was a justified sinner, a flawed characher whom God used to accomplish tremendous things. Among them: the reassertion of the authority of Scripture over and against the church, the translation of the Bible into German, the rediscovery of justification by faith alone, steps towards reforming the church as a priesthood of all believers, marriage and family life as an honourable estate for pastors and people. Luther's ideas had a transformative effect on German politics, culture and national identity. The Reformation he started needed to be taken further. Much further, but it was Luther who ignited the flame of Protestant reform that would engulf first Europe, and then the world. There is no denying he was a great man. But we cannot deny that he also had great faults. 2 Corinthans 4:7. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Hostiles

It's a tell. When a Western opens with a homestead mom teaching her sweet children about adjectives, you know something bad is about to happen. It does, in the form of a Comanche raiding party. Only the wife and mother Rosalie, played by Rosamund Pike survives. Brutal. That's hostiles for you. 

No wonder US Cavalry Captain Joseph P. Blocker (Christian Bale doing gruff) hates them. Indians are like ants he says, no matter how many you lock up or kill, they just keep coming. No wonder he isn't too pleased at being made to conduct his old enemy, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and family back to Montana so the Chief can die in peace. 

Turns out that Blocker has done some pretty savage things in the past. As has his old comrade in arms, Master Sergeant Thomas Metz. Both were involved in the genocidal Indian wars. Gave as good (or bad) as they got. 

Around the campfire on an early stage of the journey a soldier sings Guide me O thou great Jehovah, making the trek to Yellow Hawk's homeland a kind of pilgrimage; a journey of faith.

The embittered Blocker and his party encounter the grief-stricken Rosalie. The battle hardened Captain treats her with great dignity and respect. Same with Yellow Hawk's family. 

As they brave repeated Comanche attacks, a grudging respect develops between Blocker and Yellow Hawk. The film doesn't demonise the Cavalryman or romanticise the Indian ChiefBoth were capable of barbarity and bravery, depravity and decency. The problem isn't race, but broken humanity. 

Fresh from officer training, Lieutenant Rudy Kidder talks about seeing his first action with PTSD-addled Metz. The Master Sergeant assures him that after a while you cease to feel anything when taking a life. 'That's what I'm worried about.' Kidder responds. But in reality Metz is crippled by guilt. At one point he offers Yellow Hawk some tobacco as a peace offering and asks to be forgiven for what he did to Native Americans. Metz longs for mercy, but despairs of finding it. 

At one point Rosalie sees Blocker reading a Bible and asks whether he believes in the Lord. The Captain says he does and indicates trust that Providence is watching over them. The traumatised widow confesses that were it not for her faith she couldn't have coped with what happened at the homestead. But there a no easy answers and Rosalie admits she'll never get used to 'the Lord's rough ways'.

Blocker finds redemption in fulfilling his mission. Yellow Hawk is laid to rest in Montana, but the pilgrimage is costly. 

Hostiles holds up a mirror to the grime and grandeur of humanity. It's a sometimes harsh reminder that, 'All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God' (Romans 3:23). 

While Blocker is exposed as a racist at the start of the film, it's a profoundly anti-racist movie. The closing scene hints at the possibility of love and racial harmony in a hostile world. 

The film is beautifully shot and well acted. We managed to catch it in Bristol on the way home from dropping our son off at Nottingham for Uni after the Christmas break. Wasn't showing more locally. 

Given man's race-fueled inhumanity to man, mercy and forgiveness are hard to find, but poor old Metz need not have given up hope, 

0 all-embracing Mercy,
0 ever-open Door,
What should we do without Thee
When heart and eye run o'er?
When all things seem against us,
To drive us to despair,
We know one gate is open,
One ear will hear our prayer.

[Oswald Allen, 1861]

Monday, January 22, 2018

Blogging in the name of the Lord: Adrian Reynolds #2

GD: Hello Adrian Reynolds, and welcome to back Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

AR: I’m married to Celia (27 years) with three daughters, two of whom are married. Been in full time ministry 18 years after a career in business. I love books, cycling and music.

GD: You contribute to the FIEC blog: https://fiec.org.uk/news and have run a number of blogs in the past. What made you start blogging?

AR: Originally it was a way of keeping in touch regularly with church members who needed daily help. I find collecting and organising my thoughts helpful and so it serves others - I hope - as well as being useful for myself.

GD: Which blogs do you enjoy reading and why?

AR: I think my favourite by some distance is The Babylon Bee which hits the mark almost every time. I have 30 or so blogs in my reader but I’m more likely to click through on a few trusted curators.

GD: What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for reflection on theological and ministry matters?

AR: It’s a pretty well-rehearsed question. The medium doesn’t really engender a nuanced debate. Nor do I find it useful for ‘thinking aloud’: I belong to a couple of closed groups for that. But it does help to stimulate my mind.

GD: Do you use other forms of social media, and why/what for?

AR: I tweet and use Facebook but only for work purposes not family/home. It’s a very efficient way of achieving low level maintenance on friendships and connections.

GD: What are some of the advantages for independent churches of belonging to a group such as the Fellowshipof Independent Evangelical Churches?

AR: I think it’s primarily sharing a national vision. We are pretty good as Independents thinking about our locality and even world mission but weaker when it comes to the national scene. Our strength as Independents is working together to achieve this.

GD: How does the FIEC seek to engage with the wider Christian world, while holding a strong line on ecumenism?

AR: The FIEC staff are engaged on all different levels with a number of people. It’s key because the gospel need is so great and it’s too urgent to put all our resources in one place. We do much of this through Affinity but also through personal friendships that we intentionally cultivate.

GD: What does being training director the FIEC involve?

AR: In broad terms it’s helping churches think about training (in its broadest sense) and representing churches to training providers to make sure we get the inputs we need. I guess this is being a catalyst on the one hand and being a representative on the other.

GD: How can smaller churches benefit from the FIEC’s training initiatives?

AR: Indirectly smaller churches are often pastored by those who have come through some of our larger churches. More directly we have a Training Fund which has given more than £1.2m in training grants and much of this has gone to smaller places or hard to reach places.

GD: Tell us how you felt called to pastoral ministry:

AR: See my previous set of questions! [See here for a 'forgotten' previous interview]. Nothing has changed. God graciously placed a burden on both my wife and I almost simultaneously.

GD: Where did you train for the ministry and what did you find especially helpful about your training?

AR: It was a mix of formal and informal. Most useful and formative was sitting at the feet of my Gamaliel for several years (a retired pastor called Eric Lane). Formally I did the Cornhill Training Course and a Cert.Th. by distance. Plus I read a lot.

GD: Who has had the greatest influence on your theological development?

AR: Almost certainly Eric. He gave me a desire to always be questioning and willing to change my position if it was warranted. He was still doing this in his eighties.

GD: You have written a short book entitled, Progress: Lifelong growth for gospel workers.Why do pastors sometimes stagnate and what key things should they be doing to help ensure continued growth and development?

AR: All kinds of reasons. Laziness is one. But busyness is other. It will vary from one to another. But generally it’s because it’s easy to stagnate and relatively straightforward to convince people we’re more of a finished article than we really are. There is no substitute for a good band of brother leaders who are also friends. A congregation also needs to invest in a pastor’s growth through such things as conference sponsoring, book allowances and sabbaticals.

GD: How can pastors avoid becoming trapped in a ministry ‘bubble’ so that they end up having very little to do with non-Christians?

AR: I’ve been very guilty of this. Partly this is a sin issue. I feel my time needs to be filled because I self justify myself this way. So I squeeze out other things. I’ve recently discovered the merit of engaging in outside activities in two’s (it’s in the Bible!). Join a local activity with a mate and you can spur one another on and - importantly- Non Christians will see how Christians interact.

GD: Which character from post-New Testament church history would you most like to meet and what would you say to him/her?

AR: I said before Ulrich Zwingli. Now I’ve moved to Market Harborough I want to say Philip Doddridge who was principal of one of the first Dissenting Academies here in MH and planted Harborough Congregational Church, now sadly liberal.

GD: What would be your three top tips for budding preachers?

AR: 1. Listen to trusted feedback. 2. Belong to a preaching group/fraternal (these two points may be linked). 3. Study a book for yourself before you preach it - maybe 6 months ahead.

GD: What is the most helpful theological book that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because?

AR: It’s normally the last one. In this case it was Dai Hankey’s book on self control, A Man's Greatest Challenge. It’s a wholly neglected subject that all Christians need to wrestle with.

GD: What do you do to relax?

AR: I cycle, Read and play the piano but not all at the same time.

GD: Care to share your top three songs or pieces of music?

AR: I have very eclectic tastes. Right now I’m listening to Zombie by the Cranberries (whose lead singer has just tragically died), alongside Il faut partir, a very moving farewell aria from La Fille du Regiment by Donizetti. For my third I’m loving the new Sovereign Grace version of ‘All creatures of our God and King’. Tomorrow it will be three different tunes.

GD: What is the biggest problem facing evangelicalism in the UK today and how should we respond?

AR: Only 2.5% of UK is born again. Slightly more in London. Less in the north, industrial Midlands and rural areas. In technical terms that makes us an unreached nation. The casualness with which we approach home mission and evangelism is thus deadly.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Blogging in the Name of the Lord: Stephen Kneale

GD: Hello Stephen Kneale, and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

SK: Hello! My friends call me Steve (some very close friends and family run with Stevie) I prefer being called Steve but hate it in conjunction with my surname, hence Stephen Kneale. Err... anyway that’s my name (hope you’ve made room for this). I was born in Oxford, began my schooling in Birkenhead, finished my secondary education in W. Berks, did my undergrad degree in History & Politics 10 years ago at Liverpool, where I also met my wife Rachel. From there, I took a Religious Studies & Philosophy PGCE  and had a very brief career as a secondary school teacher in Newbury. After a hefty bout of depression, I left teaching and completed an MA in Theology (I had intended to do it with the Artist formerly known as WEST, but their distance programme wasn’t suitable for me at the time). At this point, we were in Shrewsbury due to my wife’s work. From there, we followed my wife’s work again to Manchester where I became a self-employed researcher serving the recruitment sector and serving with a church in Moss Side. From there, I was called to be the pastor at Oldham Bethel Church around 3 ½ years ago. Since then, you asked me to do this a few hours ago, marking the zenith of both my theological development and overall growth as a person.

GD: It doesn't get munch better than this. You blog at https://stephenkneale.com/. What made you start blogging?

SK: My blog began as a primarily political blog with a bit of theological comment thrown in. It has morphed somewhat since then, moving from Blogger to Wordpress and undergoing a couple of rebrands before landing on the form it takes today.

I began for a variety of reasons. I spent the early part of my university years shouting at people for not being political enough and, in a brief flirtation, knocking around with the SWP. Blogging seemed like a more efficient way to shout at a wider range of people. It became apparent that some of the radical SWP views didn’t quite square with the radical Socialism with a Christian bent I tended toward. As I began writing, much of the material was drawn from whatever I was studying or reading infused with a theological twist and a soupcon of my own thoughts. It soon became less a tool to shout my rightness at people and more a means of formulating my own views on a given subject and starting a discussion.

As it morphed into more theological and social comment, I found it helpful in forming my own views or pushing against things that struck me as sub-optimal in the Christian world, as I perceived them. It has also proved to be a making our little corner of the UK, and our unique challenges, a little wider known.

GD: Which blogs do you enjoy reading and why?

SK: You can hardly be reformed and not read Tim Challies blog. Funnily enough, I have valued his a la carte feature as much as anything as it has led me to several blogs I would never have read otherwise.

David Robertson at The Wee Flea is always good value. He is so insightful and absolutely excellent on the pressing social issues of the day.

Then I have valued several smaller blogs of folk working in similar areas to us. Duncan Forbes at Council EstateChristianity has much to say as does Dave Williams at Faithroots.net. Mez McConnell is normally churning out something interesting at the 20Schemes blog too.

GD: What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for reflection on theological and ministry matters?

SK: At its best, blogging can bring real clarity to an issue. More usually, it is helpful in starting a discussion and process of thinking. Occasionally, it descends into arguments because one cannot say in everything 1000 words (particular if someone has a particular something in mind that you chose not to say!)

I have found blogging valuable in offering a quick response, or a basic outline of thoughts, addressing issues that arise in the both the local and wider church. It has also been a useful exercise in offering a position to the church that we would work toward. Due to a combination of character traits (some good; some less good) I appear to have a particular penchant for puncturing what I perceive to be blind spots that are passed around, especially as they relate to how things are on the ground in our particular context.

I have found blogging exceptionally helpful in raising the profile of our work in Oldham. It has also given me room to make clear to those who might support our work to “prove” I am kosher and share their core convictions, rather than relying on some unspoken shibboleth or a secret Reformed handshake (no one has shown it to me yet!)

GD: Do you use other forms of social media, and why/what for?

SK: Being the appropriate age, I joined Facebook when it first hit universities and never really came off it. I joined Twitter much later with almost minimal use and am on Linkedin but rarely visit.

Since becoming a pastor and determining to blog much more frequently, I primarily use all of these as a means of publicising my blog. However, I have since come to value Twitter the most. I have built up a small, but supportive, group of people who are either in similar situations to us, theological training or are inclined to support work such as ours. More than a few excellent steps forward for our church can be traced back to Twitter in some respect.

GD: Who has had the greatest influence on your theological development?

SK: Without doubt, my Dad. I was brought up in a sound Evangelical family. My Dad’s family were traditionally raised in the Brethren and, whilst my Dad was at Bible College in Birkenhead, we attended a Brethren Assembly on a ‘problem estate’. Whatever else one may say about the Brethren, I have no doubt that my Dad’s evangelistic zeal stemmed from here and passed down to myself (now a pastor) and my brother (now a missionary). When we moved down South, we ended up in Grace Baptists circles – partly due to a lack of Brethren Assemblies and my Dad’s theological shift – and it was here that I essentially became the convinced Reformed Baptist that I remain to this day. But that is all background really. My Dad’s consistent love for the Lord, clear devotion to the word and obvious zeal in evangelism – leading him into a full-time role as Executive Officer with United Beach Mission for a decade – has without doubt had the biggest impact on me, hands down.

GD: Which character from post-New Testament church history would you most like to meet and what would you say to him/her?

SK: What a great question (almost impossible to answer)! I am struggling, I’ve already come back to this twice. It would perhaps be fascinating to go back and ask John Stott for his views on 1966 in the wake of current goings on in the Anglican communion, but that is nothing more than dissenting rubber-necking really isn’t it?

GD: Tell us how you felt called to pastoral ministry:

SK: I’m going to point you to a blog post I wrote a while ago re calling (here). It is a little relevant to the answer. I essentially did my MA for two reasons: (1) a vague sense of wanting to ‘do something’ in ministry at some point in future; (2) as a means of recovering from depression, being well enough to need something to focus my mind but without being able to go back into work. It fit the bill perfectly and the setup of my distance-learning course meant I could fit all this around how I was feeling. I mention this because at that point I wasn’t specifically looking.

I was quite happy serving in our church in Manchester and working in recruitment when I was called. I very definitely was not looking at the time. The outgoing minister was retiring and my pastor at the time had made contact through the NW Partnership and offered to cover their preaching for a time. I was duly dispatched to help, not knowing the church were on the lookout for someone to come in. At some point, my training and background must have been discussed (alongside potential future plans) but I honestly don’t remember much about it. Having made myself available to help fill their pulpit with some frequency, as far as I was concerned I received a call out of the blue asking if i would consider becoming their pastor.

My wife and I prayed about it and, frankly, weren’t sure but couldn’t find any reason to object. I took it to our elders, fully expecting them to laugh at the idea. I intended to speak to all of them together but ended up talking to two independently first (one being the pastor). Both of them was individually very encouraging and said it was a confirmation of their own thinking at the time – the other two elders agreed when we got to meet with all of them. I spoke to my parents, who similarly told me I should go for it. In the face of one church asking, another church telling me it was a good idea and my Dad also affirming the idea, it seemed hard to say no really. So, as per my linked post, I felt called when I actually was called, to be honest.

GD: Where did you train for the ministry and what did you find especially helpful about your training?

SK: All of my undergrad and postgrad work has been useful. But, my direct theological training came in the form of an MA at Kings Evangelical Divinity School.

The course was great for handling the Bible and considering (from an academic stand point) cultural issues pertinent to ministry. But my degree was a purely academic one.

GD: What would be your three top tips for budding preachers?

SK: I’m not sure I’m qualified to comment! Everything I have learnt from preaching has come from Stuart Olyott’s writing and watching others.
I’d probably go for: (1) Stick closely to the text; (2) illustrations are useful but overrated i.e. preach as though what you’re saying is inherently interesting; (3) be yourself in words and dress so that the guy apart from the sermon sounds/looks like the one delivering it.

GD: Describe the situation where you are now ministering. What are some of the key challenges you face?

SK: Oldham is the most deprived town in England. The borough is 230,000 people and is in the top 10 of all the polls you’d rather you weren’t. The town is very segregated with S. Asian Muslims areas almost entirely separated from working class white estates. Joblessness, poverty, homelessness, racial tension and asylum seekers are all rife. We are the only FIEC church in the borough and one of only two gospel partnership churches.

Our main challenges are severaly fold: (1) the church has been through something of a journey over the years. Whilst the eldership is overtly and decidedly Reformed, the congregation is not. We are working with many from Pentecostal backgrounds and trying to lead them to Biblical truth; (2) trying to break into the local Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities (we are making some inroad but it is a drop in the bucket); (3) We function bilingually due to the large number of Iranian and Afghan asylum seekers coming into the church and converting (we are now 50% Farsi-speaking). This has difficult challenges in discipling and teaching new believers when hardly anything exists in Farsi and what does is typically rubbish that leads to the similarly bad delivery of English stuff by English guys like us and the hope it is being adequately translated on the hoof. (4) Reaching asylum seekers and the jobless means we are not solvent as a church (we have a regular £1500 deficit), are unlikely to ever be and thus rely on outside supporters. We have a few but not nearly enough to cover the gap in finances caused by a combination of people unable to give substantially, my salary and deep practical needs among the membership. [Info on how to Give in support of the work].

GD: How can Reformed Evangelicalism reconnect with disadvantaged communities?

SK: By teaching the truth of the gospel. The false promises of the Prosperity Gospel take hold easily but always fail to deliver. Methodism has had a stranglehold in Oldham for decades, but a social gospel is great for those using its services but quickly falters for those doing the serving (and does little for the souls of those coming). The borough is littered with failing Methodist churches that have dwindled down to a handful because, essentially, people got sick of serving just because it’s a nice thing to do.

It is only the gospel that will reconnect with the poor. That is what Jesus called good news – not the feeding of the 5000, but the gospel itself. If we want the promises we offer people to last, we need to offer them the unfailing promises of Christ in the gospel. If we want people to stick in the church, we need to give them something more than ‘serving is nice’. We need to serve them and give them the reason for the hope that is in us.

GD: Is the church you serve part of a wider group? If so, what are the benefits of belonging to the FIEC/NWP

SK: We are a part of both the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches and North West Partnership. Both these groups have given us churches we can pass new converts who have had to move onto. They have also given us a ready made network of churches with whom we can work in the gospel both locally and more nationally. They have also provided something of a platform for us to share our work with those who would otherwise never have heard of it. These links will come into their own, particularly as we look to plant into unchurched areas of the borough.

GD: What is the most helpful theological book that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because?

SK: There are several that are good contenders. We were doing a lot of work on polity and membership this last year. Whilst Dever’s 9 Marks of a Healthy Church was extraordinarily helpful, I think Thom Rainer’s I am a member was probably the simplest and easiest that laid out in the clearest possible work what membership should be from a members point of view. I suspect it would be the book to have the biggest impact on our members if we all read it together as a church.

GD: In a recent blog post you argued that it isn’t necessary to wear a suit and tie in the pulpit. Since when was scruffiness next to godliness?

SK: When in Rome... (and, of course, according to the Bible!) According to my Facebook comments, the turning point seems to be somewhere around 55.

GD: What do you do to relax?

SK: My wife would say, ‘not much’. I genuinely like blogging and find it quite cathartic. But, if that sounds too close to work, I tend to veg out of TV of some sort. Streaming boxsets are very helpful.

GD: Care to share your top three songs or pieces of music?

SK: Just 3? I’m not sure they’re top 3 but they are 3 I have really been enjoying lately:
  1. Start a War – The National
  2. Hail to the Lord’s Anointed – The Welcome Wagon
  3. Tom on the Boulevard – The Innocence Mission
GD: What is the biggest problem facing evangelicalism today and how should we respond?


SK: Presuming we are saying in the UK, it is hands down the overwhelming white educated middle class and Southern nature of British Evangelicalism that is seeing swathes of the poor and needy heading for Hell because we are unwilling to go to them because we are, frankly, comfortable where we are in our middle class enclaves. Evangelicalism will always remain minority unless we revive the missionary spirit and make a concerted effort to reach those in deprived communities, not just those people like us with whom we are comfortable, where the schools and cafes are to our liking.

GD: Agreed. Thanks for dropping by for this conversation, Steve.