Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Confessions of an Exiled Preacher at the Banner Ministers' Conference 2013: Book III

And so, Lord I bring my confession to a close. Two men shared a four-part sermon series on The Gospel. Warren Peel spoke on The Gospel: The Life and Liberty of the Church and The Comfort and Joy of the Church. On good days when we pray, witness and are kind the righteousness of your Son covers our sin and shame. On bad days when we are prayerless,  slow to speak of Jesus and unkind, the righteousness of your Son covers us just the same. You, Father justify the ungodly and sanctify the unholy by your grace. 

Jeremy Walker preached on The Gospel: The Motive and Message of the Church and The Security and Hope of the Church. In the second address Walker proclaimed the risen Lord with passion and power from 1 Corinthians 15. Because he lives we live also. 

What a gospel you have revealed in Holy Scripture, to be proclaimed in saving power to all who will hear. Your gospel rescues lost sinners, transforms the saints, builds up the church and glorifies your name. 

The gospel unites us in fellowship too and it was good, Lord to see old friends at Leicester and meet some new ones too. Pringles crunched, pastilles were munched, and pop flowed, as did earnest conversation and  friendly banter at the  'Taffia' meeting of (mostly) Welsh Ministers. 

But now preaching and psalm singing, prayer and table fellowship are a memory, a dream and a fading one at that. Lord, grant that your Word may not return to you void, but will accomplish what you purpose in my life and ministry. Amen. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Confessions of an Exiled Preacher at the Banner Ministers' Conference 2013: Book II

Now suppose I say "forgetfulness" and once again recognise what I mean
by the word, how do I recognise the thing itself unless I remembered it?
(Confessions Book X:16)
I must, Lord continue with my confession of your goodness at the Banner Conference while what was said and done is fresh in my mind. My notes disappeared like chaff before the wind when my Android Tablet crashed and would not be awakened from its sleep. I will speak of your servant Michael Reeves and testify of what you said to me through his ministry. 

In his first address Reeves spoke on God's Glorious Missionary Heart from John 20:19-23. I saw with fresh clarity that you, O Father, Son and Holy Spirit are a great missionary God. Father, you sent your Son to rescue our world from sin. Son, you breathed forth your Spirit upon the church that we might speak of you to the world. Beloved Trinity, you are so very great, an overflowing ocean of love, light and life. By your overflowing goodness you made the world. By that same goodness you sustain it. But who would have though that your love could reach out from within your being and from among your persons to a rebel world like ours? May we worship you, the giving God of all grace and so may we become like you in overflowing love, light and fruitfulness. Send us forth on your mission; to proclaim the saving Son by the power of your Spirit that others too may taste and see that you are good and glorify the holy name into which we are baptised; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Then Michael Reeves told us of Augusine of Hippo: A Life of Commending the Gospel. I had read the Confessions of the great church father, but Reeves so spoke as to magnify your grace in him afresh. It was you who saved him from sin and error and made him a preacher of the good news of Jesus. Fired by your grace he fought against the unforgiving Donatists and the grace-denying Pelagians. May our lives also commend the gospel of our Saviour. But late did I love you too, wasting too many years in sin and unbelief before you found me, 
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace. (Confessions Book X:27)
But, Lord while a fire kindles in my heart at the memory of Michael Reeves' words, the words themselves are fading from my forgetful mind. As Augustine said, 'forgetfulness, when we remember it, is not present to the memory in itself, but by its image, because if it were present in itself, it would cause us, not to remember, but to forget? Who can possibly answer this or understand how it comes about?' (Confessions Book X:16). I do not have sufficient recollection to make a report, but I confess your goodness in that you did me good by letting me hear these things, 'Bless the Lord O my soul and forget not all his benefits' (Psalm 103:2). 

Oh, and I remember that our side won Tuesday's football match 5-4, thanks to my valiant efforts in defence. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Confessions of an Exiled Preacher at the Banner Ministers' Conference 2013: Book I

O Lord, you know that my life is but a breath, my years are but vanity and less than nothing before you. As a young man I aspired to preach your word. I yearned for your truth in all its depth and splendor. I longed to proclaim this good word to your people, to the lost, a barely glimpsed treasure, made mine by grace. I had learned of you from your Holy Book and the books of dead men opened my mind to its life-giving meaning. Good Spirit give me light. My youthful mind greedily devoured Owen and Sibbes, Edwards and Lloyd-Jones. A Banner of Truth unfurled. Lord, you shaped me and changed me through these good books and still I wanted more. 

I knew of a gathering of preachers, the Banner of Truth Ministers' Conference, where truth was loved and felt. Now as a student of the blessed theology I myself could go. The half was not told me. Al Martin portrayed the straight gate as never so narrow and yet inviting. Sinclair Ferguson made sanctification dazzle with a holy splendor. Edward Donnelley showed us our Jesus vanquishing the Foe. But it was you, Lord, who spoke by these heaven-sent speakers and I heard your voice. That was in 1989.

Since then, Eternal One, time has flown more swiftly than a weaver's shuttle and yet still Leicester beckons in the spring, promising light, warmth, and the blossoming of new life. This year the theme was 'The Gospel: What it is and Why it matters'. Sinclair Ferguson spoke on The Greatness of the Gospel's Power/Logic/Mystery. Your servant opened up Romans 1:16-17, 8:31-39 & 16:25-27. How great you are, triune God of the Gospel. Your power justifies the ungodly, propitiates eternal wrath and liberates poor slaves. None can condemn those whom you have justified, none can separate a saved sinner from your love in Christ. You strengthen us according to the gospel, according to the revelation of the mystery, according to your command, everlasting God. Lord, let me live to preach that Good News. May your Gospel be a Matter of Life and Death as Jonathan Watson showed it was for Paul in Acts 20:24.

But while the heart still burns, the memory of these things fades and my Andriod Tablet which contains all my notes won't reboot. How weak and frail are all created things compared to you, O Lord. You know all, you remember all, apart from our sin, which has been wiped from your memory by the never-to-be-forgotten death of your Son. This is why I make no report, but offer a confession of your goodness, with more to come. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Off to the Banner of Truth Minsters' Conference

Later this morning I'll be off to this year's Banner Conference. I first started going when a student at the London Theological Seminary, (1988-1990). Back then I was so wet behind the ears that I was able to attend the Youth Conference and then stay on for the Ministers' event. From my early years I vividly remember hearing Al Martin speak on conversion, Sinclair Ferguson on sanctification and Ted Donnelley on the temptation of Christ. Great stuff.

I  stopped going for several years when in between pastorates, but have been attending on a regular basis for  the last seven or eight years. I'm looking forward to the ministry, fellowship and maybe a game of football. I used to return from Banner with bags full of discounted books, but I don't tend to buy so much these days. I have too many unread volumes of Puritan theology to warrant buying any more. Apart from that, freebie review copies and Kindle e-books are enough to keep me going for now. 

Not sure whether I'll be taking notes of the various addresses for a blog report, or not. If not, some hazy recollections will have to do. Anyway, I've a church Men's Meeting to attend and some packing to do before I go, so over and out. 

Monday, April 08, 2013

How the mighty have fallen: some thoughts on Margaret Thatcher

My boyhood political heroes were Wat Tyler, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Clem Attlee. I was never going to be Mrs. Thatcher's no. 1 fan. But I was old enough to feel the impact of the 'Winter of Discontent'. I remember my parents explaining to me that the country had ground to a halt due  industrial action. Rubbish piled up on the streets and the dead remained unburied. A palpable sense of gloom had descended upon late 1970's Britain. Even a twelve year old boy could sense that. 'Great Britain'? Pah! We were on a seemingly inevitable spiral of post-imperial decline. 

Then Mrs.Thatcher was elected as Prime Minister in 1979. I can recall watching her on the television news reading the prayer of St Francis of Assisi on the steps of Number 10. 'Where there is discord, may we bring peace.' The sentiment rings rather hollow now, although I'm sure it was well meant  at the time. Her period in office was one of perpetual conflict rather than peace; the miners strike, Falklands war, poll tax demos, Europe. Not to mention the tensions within her own party the eventually led to her downfall. But many of her battles needed to be fought and she showed courage and determination in facing down her political and military opponents. 

As something of a leftie I instinctively opposed may of Mrs T's policies, tut tutting at 'police brutality' during the miners' strike and loathing the Poll Tax. But there is no denying that she was a conviction politician who changed Britain for good. For good in the sense of permanently and for good in the sense of for the better too, although it didn't seem like that to me at the time. 'Maggie, Maggie, Maggie. Out! Out! Out!' was the cry. 

But things couldn't go on as they were with overstaffed, inefficient nationalised industries and overmighty trade unions. Modern day Britain is a very different place. No more wildcat strikes bringing the country to its knees. No more state-owned airlines, car, coal and steel industries. No more natioanlised gas, electricity and telecommunication providers. However, not enough was done to provide decent jobs for unemployed miners and factory workers. The industrial heartlands of South Wales still haven't properly recovered from the Thatcher Revolution.

Deregulated markets lead to a credit-fueled consumer boom. We all wanted to be 'Yuppies', even as we affected to despise them. We aped their double-breasted business suits and carried around fake, cheapo Filofaxes. The Thatcher era  helped to foster a spirit of individualistic consumerism. Hapless Brits were freed from the union Barons only to be enslaved to admen and bankers as they maxed out their credit cards in a quest for materialistic satisfaction. We all know where that led. 

When Labour returned to power in 1997 under Tony Blair, the party did not attempt to turn back the clock to pre-Thatcher Britain. In opposition the party gained electoral credibility by ditching Clause 4, of its constitution, which committed the party to the public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. In terms of running the economy, New Labour offered Thatchernomics with tax credits. Oh, but unlike the Tories, with Blair/Brown at the helm there would be 'no more boom and bust.' Well, at least until credit was crunched in 2008. 

I don't know where I'd place myself on the political spectrum these days, Red Tory or Blue Labour. But whatever one's political predilections you've got to have a sneaking admiration for Thatcher as a political leader. Her immediate predecessors in No. 10, Heath, Wilson and Callaghan were managers. The 'Iron Lady' was a leader, who knew what she wanted and stopped at nothing until she got it, whether a rebate from the EU or the Falkland Islands. She bestrode the world stage, helping to win the Cold War with Ronald Regan. With her at the helm Britain began to feel Great again, even though that may have been an illusion.  

But now the once mighty, almost regal Baroness Thatcher (remember 'we are a grandmother'?) has fallen. She has gone the way of all flesh. Dust we are and to dust we shall return, whether paupers or Prime Ministers. We lament the passing of a controversial Stateswoman whose achievements will long outlive their architect.  

Unlike Blair and Cameron who have sometimes seemed intent on destroying the Christian heritage of our country, Thatcher recognised that the Christian moral vision is a force for good in society saying,  ‘I find it difficult to imagine that anything other than Christianity is likely to resupply most people in the West with the virtues necessary to remoralise society in the very practical ways which the solution of many present problems require’. In a speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988 she declared,
we must not profess the Christian faith and go to Church simply because we want social reforms and benefits or a better standard of behaviour; but because we accept the sanctity of life, the responsibility that comes with freedom and the supreme sacrifice of Christ.
That supreme sacrifice is our only hope in life and death.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Christians must put the gospel first, not social reform

Tim Montgomerie's piece in yesterday's Times, Christians must put families first, not politics got me thinking. (You'll need to be a subscriber to view the article). The writer takes issue with Lord Carey's recently expressed concerns about Christians being persecuted by Tories. Montgomerie makes a valid point that church leaders are much more likely to complain about the redefinition of marriage than speak out on the sobering fact that 200,000 abortions are performed in the UK each year.

He also questions whether Church groupings should be attacking the Government's program of welfare cuts, aimed as at least as some of them are at getting the workshy to earn their crust. Whatever happened to the Protestant work ethic, or are latter day Christians proposing a Protestant shirk ethic? Didn't the apostle Paul say something like, 'if anyone will not work, neither shall he eat'? (2 Thessalonians 3:10-14).

Benefits should provide a safety net for those too ill to work and give a helping hand for the temporarily unemployed as they seek new work, but that's about it. No one should be allowed to live on state handouts as a lifestyle choice. Saying that doesn't make me an enthusiastic cheerleader for all Government spending cuts. But there is certainly a place in the social teaching of the Church for a tough love that demands people grow up, get a job and take responsibility for their lives.  

However, rather than whingeing about Christians being oppressed, or protesting against welfare cuts, Montgomerie puts his finger on what he thinks should be the big issue for the church; the family. He says, 
If you want my theory as to why the West is in trouble I’d nominate the collapse of the family as a major contributory cause. Strong families are better carers of the young, the sick, the old and the disabled than the State. Strong families are essential to education, neighbourliness and civic participation.
I'd certainly agree that family breakdown is one of the key reasons why Western Civilisation is in trouble. Philip Blond argued as much in book Red Tory, which helped to set the agenda for David Cameron's (now-defunct?) 'Big Society' policy idea. According to Blond the traditional family unit, meaning a married man and woman and their offspring, is a force for good in society,
For the family offers the site of both sharing and nurture: it is where people learn to limit their desires and give to the greater good. It is the site of character formation and life orientation. In short, the family is a profoundly relational institution and, since it places individuals within a context of obligation and responsibility, it embodies the essence of mutuality. The fact that many now celebrate its destruction as somehow part of the liberation of women only testifies to the destruction of the chance for a real feminist founded on what most women want - marriage and children alongside creative work and social engagement. (Red Tory, p. 91).
Montgomerie doesn't quite see it like this, chastising Christians for trying to exclude gay people from family life. Excuse me, but as same-sex relationships aren't capable of creating families it's a matter of self-exclusion, dictated by the facts of biology, rather than a rule that has been arbitrarily imposed by meddlesome believers. Marriage as redefined to accommodate gay couples would include no requirement to consummate the relationship and could not be invalidated by same-sex infidelity. The proposal amounts a serious weakening of what is meant to be an exclusive, lifelong union. If family breakdown is the problem, it is hard to see how 'equal marriage' is part of the solution.

But I don't want to get sidetracked on that one. On the big point, Montgomerie is right, the love and commitment of parents to their children is the essential building block for a good society. He concludes that the 'celebration and sustenance [of family life] should be the Church’s primary social proclamation.' I would simply add that love and commitment are best expressed the union of a man and woman in marriage. But I guess you can't have everything.

But and it is a big 'but', the Church's main task isn't to preach about the family. While it might be arguable that the family should be the Church's primary social proclamation, the Church's proclamation isn't primarily one of social change. What were the Baptist Union, Methodists, United Reformed Churches and the Church of Scotland doing, issuing a joint-statement on welfare cuts, on Easter Sunday of all days? The Church of Jesus Christ is not a political pressure group, but a movement with a mission. And that mission is to proclaim salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Yes, when that message is preached and believed, lives are changed and that often has a positive impact on society in general. The massive social reforms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the wake of the Evangelical Revival bear witness to that fact. But still, the horse of gospel proclamation must always go before the cart of social reform. What else can break the grasping selfishness of our 'because you're worth it' consumer society, where immediate personal gratification is put before all else? When that kind of attitude prevails it is little wonder that relationships founder when faced with the stresses and strains of family life.

The Christian gospel is about the power of love embodied in the Easter Story. Jesus Christ laid down his life for our sins and rose again from the dead to give those who believe in him the hope of everlasting life. The Spirit of Jesus transforms the lives of his followers and fills them with a love that drives them to serve other people and reach out to those who are in need. At the centre of Christian teaching on family life is the idea that marriage should be modeled on the Christ's self-giving love for his bride, the Church. It is a gospel-centred vision of family life. When the gospel has done its work individuals and families are transformed. Communities and even countries are changed for the better. But it is the gospel message, not the social teaching of the church that is the 'power of God to salvation'. That is why Christians must not put the family, but the gospel first.