Friday, June 25, 2010

Some lessons from the House of Mourning

Better to go to the house of mourning
Than to go to the house of feasting,
For that is the end of all men;
And the living will take it to heart.

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
But the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
(Ecclesiastes 7:2, 4)

My father-in-law passed into the presence of Christ in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Here are some reflections from the 'house of mourning'.

1) A death reminds us of the uncertainty of life. On hearing that my father-in-law, who was suffering from a brain tumour had taken a turn for the worst, our well laid plans for the next couple of weeks had to be changed. On Monday I had to take Sarah to London to be with her family rather than attend a Ministers' Fraternal. Arrangements had to be made for the children to go to friends of ours after school that day. The date of the funeral - next Tuesday clashed with a meeting at which I was due to speak, so the meeting had to be rearranged. All this is a reminder that life is uncertain and while it is right to plan ahead, our all our plans are subject to the providence of God. We are not in ultimate control of our lives. He is, James 4:13-15.

2) Death is not a friend, but the last enemy. Death can sometimes be sentimentalised, even by Christians. But death is a merciless foe rather than a kindly friend. Watching death prey on 'grandad' was witness enough to that sobering fact. Death robs a man of his life and loved ones of a dear relative or friend. It is the devil who has the power of death (Hebrews 2:14). But death has been defeated by the death and resurrection of Christ. On his return Jesus will utterly destroy the last enemy and his people will be raised immortal (1 Corinthians 15:26, 53-55) .

3) A well lived life will be deeply mourned in death. It was a damning indictment on the wicked life of Jehoram, king of Judah that, "He was thirty-two years old when he became king. He reigned in Jerusalem eight years and, to no one’s sorrow, departed." (2 Chronicles 21:20). The dying may be well intentioned in saying to loved ones, "Do not stand at my grave and weep", but tears and sorrow are a natural response to the loss of a cherished family member. The greater the bonds of love in life the greater the sense of loss in death. Such is certainly the case with my father-in-law, a beloved husband, father and grandfather. The fact that he was a believer and is now with his Lord, free from pain and full of joy means that our sorrow is not without hope, but there is heartfelt sorrow and grief none the less, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14.

4) The kindness of friends. Not only in expressions of condolences and the assurance of their prayers, but also the many offers of practical help. Thanks.

5) The excellence of palliative care. My wife's father was in some pain and discomfort in the hours before he died, but his Macmillan nurse and other carers did all they could to minimise his suffering, treating him with great compassion and respect. This strengthened my conviction that giving the dying effective palliative care is the best way to treat human beings with dignity in death rather than euthanasia.

6) Reflecting on the inevitability of death and the brevity of life, Moses prayed, "So teach us to number our days, That we may gain a heart of wisdom." (Psalm 90:12). Death puts things into perspective. Suddenly England's progress in the World Cup wasn't quite so important. Tuesday's Emergency Budget seemed to pale into insignificance in the light of eternity. "The things which are seen are temporary, but the things that are not seen are eternal."  (2 Corinthians 4:18). We only have one life to live and we will only live well if our main aim is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever. Be wise. Don't waste your life.

7) The power of the Christian hope, wonderfully expressed in the words of the Westminster Larger Catechism:

Question 86: What is the communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death ?

Answer: The communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death, is, in that their souls are then made perfect in holiness, and received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies, which even in death continue united to Christ, and rest in their graves as in their beds, till at the last day they be again united to their souls. Whereas the souls of the wicked are at their death cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, and their bodies kept in their graves, as in their prisons, till the resurrection and judgment of the great day.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Fly the Flag

Something strange is happening. Wherever I look houses are draped with a while flag emblazoned with a red cross. Cars whoosh by carrying smaller versions of the same banner. For a Welshman it's all a bit bewildering. What's it all about?

My inkling is that this outbreak of English patriotism could have something to do with a certain football tournament currently taking place in South Africa, but then again I might be wrong.

Apparently the Cross of St. George has been recognised as the English flag since the Middle Ages. That's what it said on Wikipedia anyway. Let no one say that these articles are not properly researched.

The central feature of the flag is the Christian symbol of the cross. All around England the cross is flying high, which is a bit weird if you think about it. 1) Because England is supposed to be a "post-Christian society". And 2) Because at first glance the cross of Jesus is nothing to be proud of. After all, why celebrate that fact that an innocent man was horribly executed? Why make that event the symbol of a nation?

That God's own Son died on a cross in weakness and shame seems to be utterly foolish incomprehensible. But for those who believe, the cross of Jesus is the supreme revelation of the wisdom, power and love of God. He died not as another helpless victim of human cruelty, but as a substitute. Jesus died in the place of sinners so that we might be put right with God.

Christians are not ashamed of the cross of Jesus. It is the royal banner that rallies us to faith and action. However England do in the World Cup, those who follow the flag of Jesus can be assured that they will share in his victory over evil and death.

* An edited version of an article for July/August edition of News & Views, West Lavington Parish Magazine.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Change of date for Cheltenham PTS Meeting

The head that once was crowned with thorns
Is crowned with glory now

A few days ago I flagged up a Protestant Truth Society meeting at Cheltenham Evangelical Free Church on 28th June, where I was due to speak on Who is the Head of the Church? see here. The meeting has been rescheduled for 20th July as I will be attending my father-in-law's funeral on the original date.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Defeated by the Beauty of the Infinite

I like to try and read beyond the confines of the classic Reformed tradition and so I thought I'd have a go at Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite. Its a weighty 448 page volume and while I hardly ever fail to read a book right to the end, I got stuck on page 44. That was about a year or so ago and the bookmark hasn't moved since. It's not as if I have an aversion to big books. In my 20's I read Berkhof's Systematic Theology from cover to cover. I even finished Kevin Vanhoozer's tightly printed, 488 page The Drama of Doctrine and I'm making good headway with his latest offering, Remythologizing Theology. But when it came to The Beauty of the Infinite I had to admit defeat. It was Part 1: Dionysus against the Crucified that did it. Have a read of this:
In this sense postmodernity would be merely the dialectical completion of the metaphysical project, the homecoming not of Geist but of a protean and capricious god for whom creation and destruction are as one. With the disappearance of the Idea, the flux of unlikeness does not abate, but overflows its banks; an ephemeral Parmenides yields to an everlasting Heracletios; the intricate achitectural ingenuity of Apollonian violence exhausts itself before the unmasterable pandemonium of Dionysian violence; Socrates drinks hemlock, but Athens remains - forever at war. (p. 39).
Comprende? Not me. The effort of typing out that excerpt didn't help either. I left school with a Classical Studies 'O' Level - Grade  C, and therefore have a nodding acquaintance with Homer. Yet Hart's text is so packed with Classical allusions that I can't follow what he's trying to say. That might well be my fault for being so ignorant, but I'm still stuck on page 44 and can't see myself coming unstuck anytime soon. This is a shame as the author can write with great bite, clarity and verve when it suits him. Have a look at this article in First Things for a rather more accessible DBH, where he lays into the "New Atheists". HT Gary Benfold.

Which books have defeated you?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Football Fever

There is no getting away from it, the Football World Cup, hosted by South Africa is truly underway. The TV schedules are dominated by the tournament. Paradise for football fans. Not much fun for those who have little interest in the game. True to their gender stereotypes, my son would watch every match if he could, while my daughter scarpers for her bedroom  at the first sign of football on TV.

Who can tell how far England will go before they get knocked out after yet another nail biting penalty shoot out? After an unconvincing start against the USA, we'll have to see. Oh, and for the benefit of American readers,  1-1 was a draw, not a victory fot the USA. Do the math. England will have to beat Algeria tonight if they hope to progress to the later stages of the tournament.

Bill Shankly, the renowned Liverpool manager once quipped, "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I can assure you it is much, much more important than that." That almost makes football a religion. What could be more important than life and death other than matters of eternal significance?

Perhaps one reason why Shankly's quote still resonates with people is that football fans are often passionate about the side they support. Football fever enters their souls. They mourn their team's defeats and cheer their triumphs to the echo.

By way of contrast Christians can sometimes seem to lack passion for their faith. But that is not how it should be. Following Jesus is more important than life and death. Believers should be lively witnesses to the life-transforming power of Christ. After all, when our time comes to an end in this world it won't matter whether we have supported England, USA, or Brazil. But trusting in Jesus Christ will make all the difference.

*  An edited version of an article published in June's News & Views, West Lavington parish magazine.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Wisdom raises her voice in the markets

This morning I took part in an open air witness in nearby Bradford on Avon. Thursday is market day in the town. A number of local FIEC and Grace Baptist Churches have been working together to spread the good news of Jesus in West Wiltshire under the banner of the Good News Partnership. Today we were joined by my friend Jim Henry of the Open Air Mission (pictured in action above). Jim gave a couple of talks while the rest of us handed out evangelistic literature and engaged passers by in conversation. I had a long chat with a lapsed Roman Catholic.

Open air preaching has a long and noble tradition. Many of the Old Testament prophets proclaimed the word of the Lord outdoors. Jesus preached wherever he could find a hearing; in town centres, by the sea and on mountain sides. The apostles heralded the gospel in public places. George Whitefield, Howell Harris and the Wesley brothers were open air preachers. Today it is widely assumed that Christianity is a private matter that has no place in the public square. Open air preaching challenges that view and brings people face to face with the claims of the gospel in town and city centres. By and large people outside Christian circles aren't coming to church to hear the gospel, so we need to go to them. How will they hear without a preacher?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

PTS Meeting: Who is the Head of the Church?

In preparation for the above meeting I've been having a fresh look at the Theological Declaration of Barmen that set out the Confessing German Evangelical Church's opposition to the Nazification of the Church in the 1930's. Recent government attempts to impose its secular values on the Church in the UK have given the Barmen Declaration added relevance for our situation. The Declaration was drafted by Swiss theologian Karl Barth who was a professor at Bonn University at the time. He was later thrown out of Germany for refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler. You don't have to be a card carrying Barthian (and in case you are worrying - I'm not) to applaud the Declaration's ringling affirmation of the Lordship of Christ and the independence of the Church from unwarranted state interference. 

8.11 Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

8.12 We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God's revelation.

8.17 The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance.

8.18 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Abortion and the 'Ultrasound Jesus'

The Guardian reports on the Christmas advertising  poster, featuring an image of Jesus in vitro complete with obligatory halo. The paper's slant is that the ad is implicitly pro-life and is therefore, at least according the the spokesman of the National Secular Society,  "politically motivated". Considering the recent controversial screening of the Marie Stopes advert offering abortion services, that's a bit rich. However, that's not my main point here. The Churchads poster reminds us that the virginal conception and birth of Christ has implications for bioethical issues such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research. But this needs to be handled with great care, with sensitivity to the witness of Scripture and awareness of the creedal heritage of the Church. The Guardian article cites the comments of John Smeaton of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children,

"The advert is saying that Jesus was alive as a person before he was born. They have a halo round his head and you don't have a halo around the head of a blob of jelly or a cluster of cells. This is not a cluster of cells but a human person and it just happens to be the God man Jesus. It is about the humanity of the unborn. That is a very, very powerful statement that will strike a chord with the general population."

I know what Smeaton is getting at, but his statement is theologically misleading. Jesus was not a human person either in the womb or after his birth. He was a divine person with a human nature, see here. In his book, God Incarnate: Explorations in Christology (reviewed) Oliver Crisp devotes a chapter to Christ and the Embryo.

Crisp reasons that if human life (in Christian theology this means ensouled human life, not just biological life) does not begin at conception, then Christ was not fully human from conception. If we hold that ensoulment happens some time after conception, then in Christ's case that would entail an interim Apollinarian account of the incarnation where the divine Logos albeit temporarily took the place of Jesus' human soul. Apollinarianism is a heresy, which rules out this version of the enfleshment of Christ.

Of course there is a difference between the humanity of Christ and the humanity of all other human beings. All other humans have a human nature and are human persons. The Son of God did not become a human person. That confuguration was the error of Nestorianism which was condemned by the Council of Chalcedon. Rather Christ is a divine person with a human nature. Yet just as the Son assumed an ensouled humanity from the moment of the conception of his human nature, so also all other human beings are conceived in an ensouled state. With humans apart from Christ that means all human beings are human persons from conception.

Stated with all the care and precision of Crisp's analytic theology, the virginal conception of Christ certainly has ethical implications for abortion, embryonic stem cell research and certain IVF treatments. Human beings are fully human from the moment of conception. Human life in the womb should therefore be cherished and cared for, not destroyed, even when babies suffer from disabilities. In 2009, 189,100 babies were aborted in the UK (see here). Recent news stories registered disgust that around 80 women a year opt to terminate their pregnancies after receiving IVF treatment. It seems that at least for some having a baby (or not) is just another consumer choice.

Now, I'm not overly keen on visual representations of Jesus. Did the embryonic Christ really have a halo? The image is something of a Christological cliche. But if the poster prompts people to reflect afresh on the value of human life in the womb in the light of the birth of Christ, then that's a good thing.

Oliver Crisp interviewed.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Holy Scripture and the Church

 Yesterday evening I spoke at North Bradley Baptist Church on Holy Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God. I was attempting to reflect on the relationship between God, the Bible and the Church. Here  is the concluding section on the how Holy Scripture serves the revelatory presence of God in the Church.

1. Holy Scripture and the Church

i. The Word of God and the formation and growth of the church

The Bible is not simply a text book that shapes and informs the beliefs of the church, it is the God-given script that the people of God have been called to perform in the theatre of this world. The church was called into existence by the Word of God and she was founded upon that Word, Ephesians 2:19-20. The church exists to perform the Word of God and proclaim the gospel of salvation to the nations, 1 Peter 2:9.

There are lots of church growth theories these days. Some of them may be more or less helpful. But it is noteworthy that in Acts Luke attributes the church growth to Word growth, (Acts 6:7, 12:24, 19:20). It is important to remember that Luke sets such statements in the context of the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:5-8, 2:1-4). He makes it clear that preachers need to be filled with the Spirit to empower them to proclaim the word boldly and effectively, (Acts 4:31). Where the agency of the Word alone is mentioned in Scripture it is assumed but not always stated that it was the Holy Spirit who made the word effective in the salvation of sinners.

We should always remember that the Church will only grow as the word of God has free course and is glorified, 2 Thessalonians 3:1. How important it is that the church is centred upon God’s self-revelation in Holy Scripture.

ii. The people of God need to hear the Word of God read

According to the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God, the reading of Holy Scripture in the context of public worship is one means by which the Lord builds up his people in their most holy faith,
Reading of the word in the congregation, being part of the publick worship of God, (wherein we; acknowledge our dependence upon him, and subjection to him,) and one mean[s] sanctified by him for the edifying of his people, is to be performed by the pastors and teachers.
The reading of Scripture was vitally important for Israel as the Old Testament people of God Deut 8:3, 31:9-13, 2 Kings 22. God acts by his word as it is read, Jeremiah 36:1-3, 6-7, Nehemiah 8:1-3, 7-8. Also in the New Testament: Jesus, Luke 4:17ff, Paul, 1 Thess 5:27, Col 4:16.  

A good portion of Scripture should be read out in worship services, not just a few verses. If the sermon is based on a short passage, then those leading worship should read the whole or at least a good portion of the chapter in which the verses are set. If the preacher is engaged in a series of sermons on a Bible book, preaching through chapters a few verses at a time, then a related passage of Scripture should be read. This will ensure that a decent portion of God’s Word is read out and will give a sense of how Scripture fits together as a coherent whole. As Paul charged Timothy, "Give attention to reading", 1 Timothy 4:13.

iii. The people of God need to hear the Word of God preached

2 Timothy 4:1-5. The Holy Spirit gave us the Bible and he continues to speak through Scripture. He transforms the lives of preachers and empowers them to so preach Christ that sinners are saved and the church is built up. God is actively present in the church by the power of the Spirit when the people of God assemble to hear to the Word of God proclaimed.

Given our acceptance of Scripture as the written Word of God, it follows that all preaching should be expository, 2 Timothy 2:15. Preach the Word in the form that it was given. But even when not preaching a series, our aim should still be to expound the meaning of the passage. I am commending expository preaching. Bible studies have their place people need to be taught and given the relevant Bible knowledge. But preaching involves more than that. We need to aim at conveying the communicative action of the text so that by the power of the Spirit the message takes effect in the lives of those who hear it 1 Thess 2:13. The aim of our preaching should be to enable our people to faithfully play out their roles in the drama of redemption. What is God saying and doing with the text on which we are preaching? Is he making a promise? “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved”. Then he wants the people to believe it. Is he issuing a command? “Be holy for I am holy”. Then he wants us to obey it. Is he giving us a warning? “We must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ.” Then let us so preach that people heed the admonition.

The Second Helvetic Confession states that,

THE PREACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD IS THE WORD OF GOD. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: (Chapter 1).
The Holy Spirit is the one who gave us the inscripturated Word of God and it is his mighty voice that continues to speak as the message of the Bible is proclaimed. Knowing this encourages us to preach the Word in prayerful dependence upon the Spirit, expecting that he will work by his word to fulfil his gracious purposes. The Spirit's empowering presence enables preachers to proclaim the Lord Jesus with boldness, liberty and life-transforming effectiveness. His presence makes preaching an event where the God of the gospel is encountered in all the fullness of his grace and power. Romans 1:16, 10:17. Let us then seek to preach the gospel with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven!

iv. Scripture and confessions of faith

If as William Chillingworth said, “The Bible alone is the religion of Protestants” what need do we have of confessions of faith? It is sometimes assumed that the Protestant Reformers swept aside the theological heritage of the church and looked to the Bible alone. But their commitment to sola Scriptura did not mean that the Reformers saw no value in the historic teachings of the church. They rejected the unbiblical traditions of the Rome on the basis of the supreme authority of the Bible. But they valued the ancient creeds and the writings of the church fathers. The Reformers drew up confessions of their own in order to state and defend biblical truth in their own setting. The solo Scriptura attitude of Fundamentalists who claim to eschew all tradition for the sake of the Bible alone is quite different to that of the Reformers and tends to an individualistic reading of the Scripture.

Creeds and confessions of faith are not infallible. They are open to revision and correction in the light of Scripture. Also, confessions of faith need to be updated to address contemporary errors and concerns. The great Reformed confessions gave more attention to the authority of Scripture and justification by faith than the historic creeds because they were the issues at stake. If we were revising WCF, SDF or 1689 what modern day errors would we want to address?

2. Holy Scripture and the Christian

We tend to take it for granted that Christians have access to copies of the Scriptures in their own language. We stress the importance of personal Bible reading. But it is only since the advent of the printing press in the 16th century that ordinary Christians were able to possess a personal copy of the Bible. Before those times believers encountered the Bible as it was read in church and its message proclaimed in preaching. While it is good that believers have their own personal Bibles, there is perhaps a danger of today’s Christians having an overly individualistic attitude to God’s Word. It is all about what God’s Word means to them, which can sometimes lead to highly subjective and irresponsible readings of the Bible.

We need to stress that the Christian reads the Bible as a member of the people of God. Their reading should be informed by the preaching and teaching of the church. Preaching should model responsible interpretation of the Bible and application of its message. It is beneficial for believers to use commentaries and study notes which help to explain and apply the Scriptures. The Geneva Bible helped to make the English a people of the Book largely because it was a Study Bible, complete with notes. There are various modern day equivalents such as the ESV Study Bible. These aids can make prayerful Bible reading more meaningful and helpful.

John Webster writes the, "Faithful reading of Holy Scripture in the economy of grace is an episode in the history of sin and its overcoming." (Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, p. 87). How we ought to remember that when tempted to skim through our daily Bible readings! We need to cultivate and commend to our people a deep, meditative and prayerful engagement with Scripture. Timothy Ward helpfully suggests that we should approach Scripture with the question, "What is God wanting to do to me and in me, through the words I am reading?" (Words of Life, p. 176-177).

“as newborn babes [may we] desire the pure milk of the word that we may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:2).

3. Conclusion

Holy Scripture serves the revelatory presence of God, as the Father brings his people into fellowship with himself through the work of the Son by the power of the Spirit. It is for the church to believe, perform and proclaim this living and active Word.

‘The grass withers, and the flower falls but the word of the Lord remains forever’. And this word which by the gospel was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:24-25).

Monday, June 07, 2010

Paris Travelblog

Our half term trip to Paris went well. We had never travelled abroad as a family before (the Channel Islands isn't really abroad), so last week's mini-break in France was quite an adventure for us. We caught the early Eurotunnel train on Tuesday morning and then I drove from Calais to our hotel in Val d' Europe, not far from Paris. As it was motorway for most of the journey, driving on the "wrong" side of the road wasn't so bad. Although going anticlockwise around roundabouts felt a bit weird. My trusty Garmin SatNav plotted the way, thoughtfully translating French kmh speed limits into mph.

We hit Eurodisney by mid afternoon, and although it was raining, we enjoyed exploring the place and had a go on some of the rides. For our evening meal we ate at Anette's Diner, a 1950's American style eatery complete with massive US sized portions and roller skating waiters/waitresses. The whole place seemed to go wild when Greased Lightning from Grease was played. We just about managed to contain our enthusiasm, but a bloke from the neighbouring table totally freaked out.

We spent the whole of Wednesday at the park and the weather was much better. More rides, shops, shows, food etc. The rides were great. We went on The Temple of Peril, Big Thunder Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, Rock 'n' Roller Coaster and Thunder Mesa Riverboat, Armageddon Special Effects and the Studio Tram Tour. Only Jonny and I dared try the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, where you plunge down 13 floors in a stricken Hollywood Hotel's service lift. Not recommended on a full stomach. The stunt show in the Studio Park was cool.

On our final day in France, we caught the train into Paris to see the sights, taking in the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. The city was pretty busy, with loads of hawkers pushily selling cheap souvenirs and countless beggars, all with a suspiciously similar sob story trying to prey on gullible English speaking tourists. We climbed up to the second level of the Eiffel Tower, which afforded panoramic views of Paris. After that we headed for the Eurotunnel, arriving back in the UK around 9pm.

We spent Thursday night in a Premier Inn in Ashford, Kent and on the way home we visited Leeds Castle, where a jousting tournament was being held. A nice way to round off our hols.

But it's back to work now. I preached twice yesterday. Today I worked in the study this morning, made a pastoral visit in the afternoon and this evening I'll be chairing a church AGM.