Monday, November 25, 2013

Faith in The Times

One thing I enjoy doing of a Saturday morning is to have a good read through The Times. I was interested to see a number of faith-related stories in last Saturday's edition. Much attention has been given to the assassination of JFK fifty years ago, but it's not so well known that on the same day Lee Harvey Oswald gunned down the President, two prominent literary figures also shuffled off this mortal coil (here p. 28 - paywall protected). One, Aldoux Huxley, writer of the dystopian  novel, Brave New World, passed from this life to the next in a haze of LSD. The other was C. S. Lewis, Christian apologist and author of the Chronicles of Narnia. Huxley is almost a forgotten figure, while Lewis' stock has rarely been higher. His books continue to sell in droves and have been turned into big budget movies. A memorial to Lewis was recently unveiled in Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey. It features his words, I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” A fascinating BBC radio programme juxtaposes the two literary figures, Brave New World. 

Next, Matthew Parris devoted his opinion piece to discussing the thought that 'Christianity opens minds. Even to atheism' (here-p 23). His main thought was that the Christian faith is a quest for truth and meaning. It has the ability free people from their cultural baggage empower them to stand up for what they believe is right and good. Although a self-confessed atheist, Parris distances himself from Dawkins here, who tends to dismiss all religions as evil and oppressive. Christianity sharpens its followers appetite for meaning opines the columnist and in doing so gives the individual the opportunity to choose to reject God. The strange thing is that for C. S. Lewis it was the other way round. What the author witnessed of the horrors of World War I only served to confirm his unbelief. But he came to realise that his anger at injustice and cruelty in the world was a tacit acknowledgement of an objective standards of goodness, namely the Christian God. He was the light by which he saw the darkness against which he railed .   

The quest for meaning and truth only makes sense if we presuppose that God is there and he has revealed himself to us as his human image bearers. Without that assumption there is no objective standard of right and wrong and no ultimate meaning or purpose in life. If morality is the product of 'evolutionary psychology' or a mere social construct, then moral absolutes cannot be upheld with any conviction. On what objective basis does Dawkins rail against the evils perpetrated in the name of religion? Who decides whether it is more moral to crash aeroplanes into the World Trade Center, or discover the cure for cancer?  In rejecting Christianity, atheists turn their backs on meaning and purpose in life and render the quest for truth and goodness pointless. Christianity opens minds because it points people to God the Father through Jesus the Son by the presence and power of the Spirit of truth. Atheism is a dead end. 

I usually skip Janice Turner's Saturday column. There is only so much whinging feminism a man can take on his day off. But the headline accompanying this week's piece had me intrigued. 'Labour has forgotten that vice causes poverty: The Co-op should its Methodist roots that inspired the fight against drink, gambling and addiction' (here p. 25). Turner could easily have used her column to lampoon Paul Flowers, the 'Crystal Methodist' Minister and former Chairman of the Co-op Bank. Rather she makes the serious point that the Co-op and the British Labour movement as a whole has drifted too far from its original Methodist heritage. Harold Wilson once said that 'The Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marx'. Wesley urged his followers, 'Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.' That kind of responsible, yet generous attitude to wealth led to the founding of co-operative societies. The old Methodist approach to finance was far better than the New Labour variety, which, according to Turner was, 'Borrow all you can, gamble all you can, lose all you can'. But vice does't pay, as the unfortunate Mr. Flowers has found out to his cost. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Pastorate Tenth Anniversary

It's been ten years since I was inducted to the joint-pastorate of Providence Baptist Church and Ebenezer Baptist Church. To mark the occasion our people laid on a special tea on Sunday afternoon. My wife told them that I didn't want any fuss, but they didn't listen. Deacons from both churches gave kind tributes and a lovely cream tea was served. Listening to the tributes seemed a bit like attending my own funeral, but in this case I was able to answer back and thank members and friends of the churches for all their love and support over the years. 

I was presented with a copy of The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way, by Michael Horton, Zondervan, 2011 and two, yes, two boxes of  Milk Chocolate Brazils. A cake with a picture of the Davies family taken at my induction at 2003 was a nice touch. I'm looking forward to getting my teeth into the volume of systematic theology once I've finally finished Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4, which won't be until the New Year the way things are going. The chocolates will be consumed a little more quickly, however. 

Mention was made that both fellowships are now much more engaged in the local community, with outreach initiatives of various kinds having begun since I started. Opportunities to serve in unexpected ways have opened up, including writing, radio work, speaking at the occasional conference and becoming Chair of Governors at the local secondary school. I didn't realise it until Andrew Stone, a Providence deacon mentioned it that over the period of ten years I've preached through or led Bible Studies on around a third of the Bible. At that rate if I carry on here for another twenty I will worked though the whole lot. 

This is my longest pastorate, as the first one was rather brief, followed by a period as an itinerant preacher when we were based in Dorset. Knowing that my tenth anniversary was due this year I was interested to read Gary Brady's blog series on A long term ministry - pitfalls and positives. I think he's right when he says that,
When a man moves from place to place, especially if he does that a number of times, then obviously his time is going to be taken up each time with the move, with getting to know his situation – the congregation, the community, his living situation. Time spent on this is time that cannot be spent on other things. 
Gary quotes from his father-in-law, Geoff Thomas,
You learn your trade. You learn from the lectures you received in theological seminary. You learn from hearing men speak on these themes at conferences. You learn from sitting under the best ministry. You learn from books and from the web, from whatever sermon series are contained there. There are finally appearing in the public domain through all these media examples of fine consecutive preaching on books other than the epistles of the New Testament. You are a foot soldier in the army of the church of the Lord Jesus alongside others. You seek to grow as a preacher.

People will never hear all the Bible preached to them in a lively, vital, applicatory manner without sitting under a minister whose intention is to remain in that pulpit for as long as it takes to preach the whole of Scripture. 
There have been times of heartache and disappointment as well as joy and blessing in my time as joint-pastor. But I'd be quite content to stay here serving Lord's people at Providence & Ebenezer until I retire or they finally get fed up with my Welsh Rugby sermon illustrations and tell me to clear off. I was reminded that Andrew Davies' text for my induction service was Colossians 1:28 'Him we preach'. If nothing else, I have endeavoured to preach Christ from all the Scriptures.  What greater work could there be? 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Augustine on prayer before preaching

In his book, On Christian Doctrine, Augustine sets out some of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith and gives guidelines for interpreting Holy Scripture. In the final section of the work he devotes attention to the matter of how Christian doctrine ought to be communicated. Clearly after having painstakingly discussed theological and  hermeneutical matters, he does not believe that a man should simply turn up in church and say the first thing that comes into his head. Preparation for preaching involves sound exegesis, deep theological reflection and careful consideration of the applicatory force of biblical truth, 
The eloquent divine, then, when he is urging a practical truth, must not only teach so as to give instruction, and please so as to keep up the attention, but he must also sway the mind so as to subdue the will.   For if a man be not moved by the force of truth, though it is demonstrated to his own confession, and clothed in beauty of style, nothing remains but to subdue him by the power of eloquence. (St Augustine of Hippo (2012-07-08). On Christian Doctrine (Kindle Locations 4808-4813). Veritatis Splendor Publications. Kindle Edition.)  
As he says, 'Accordingly, he who is anxious both to know and to teach should learn all that is to be taught, and acquire such a faculty of speech as is suitable for a divine.'  But, Augustine does not yet consider the preacher's preparatory work to be done. He urges that the 'Christian orator' give himself to prayer for the empowering presence of the Spirit in preaching. Through his Spirit God enables the preacher to speak the Word in a way that is most appropriate for the congregation, 
And so our Christian orator, while he says what is just, and holy, and good (and he ought never to say anything else), does all he can to be heard with intelligence, with pleasure, and with obedience; and he need not doubt that if he succeed in this object, and so far as he succeeds, he will succeed more by piety in prayer than by gifts of oratory; and so he ought to pray for himself, and for those he is about to address, before he attempts to speak.   And when the hour is come that he must speak, he ought, before he opens his mouth, to lift up his thirsty soul to God, to drink in what he is about to pour forth, and to be himself filled with what he is about to distribute.   For, as in regard to every matter of faith and love there are many things that may be said, and many ways of saying them, who knows what it is expedient at a given moment for us to say, or to be heard saying, except God who knows the hearts of all?   And who can make us say what we ought, and in the way we ought, except Him in whose hand both we and our speeches are?   Accordingly, he who is anxious both to know and to teach should learn all that is to be taught, and acquire such a faculty of speech as is suitable for a divine.   But when the hour for speech arrives, let him reflect upon that saying of our Lord's as better suited to the wants of a pious mind:   "Take no thought how or what ye shall speak; for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak.   For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you." The Holy Spirit, then, speaks thus in those who for Christ's sake are delivered to the persecutors; why not also in those who deliver Christ's message to those who are willing to learn? St Augustine of Hippo (2012-07-08). On Christian Doctrine (Kindle Locations 4864-4888). Veritatis Splendor Publications. Kindle Edition. 
As envisaged by Augustine, preaching involves both diligent preparation and a readiness to improvise when in the act of declaring the Word under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That is a fine line to tread. If a speaker is too tied to his sermon notes, his  message will take the form of a lecture. His delivery will lack the spontaneity that comes from the interplay of preacher and congregation that is of the essence of preaching. On the other hand, if the preacher presumes to speak without due preparation, trusting in the impulse of the moment under the guise of relying on the Spirit, he is a lazy slacker who has neglected his calling to 'labour in the word and teaching' (1 Timothy 5:17). The preacher must give himself to 'prayer and the ministry of the word' (Acts 6:4). As Augustine put it most eloquently,  'And when the hour is come that he must speak, he ought, before he opens his mouth, to lift up his thirsty soul to God, to drink in what he is about to pour forth, and to be himself filled with what he is about to distribute.'   

Friday, November 01, 2013

Half Term Jottings

Half term week was meant to be a little less busy than usual, but things didn't quite work out like that. Stepping in to take a funeral in a neighbouring church took time to arrange and take. An elderly church member was admitted to hospital necessitating a visit. Then, of course there was sermon prep for our Sunday services. 

Managed to take some time off on Tuesday afternoon, however. We headed for Stourhead, which looked beautiful in its autumn hues. Our daughter was able to take lots of snaps for her school photography project. One of the project themes was 'isolated'. So, we made our way up a nearby valley to find a well in the middle of nowhere that apparently marks the head of the river Stour. 'Isolated' is the word. Click on the picture above. The well is the thing with a mini-spire on top. 

Nice to have a break from governor-related stuff, though. Although I did have a meeting with my mentor, Keith Clover on Monday morning. He attended the last Full Governors' Meeting and we were able to do a bit of 'post-match analysis', which was useful. 

Good to hear of the work of the Spanish Gospel Mission at our Wednesday meeting. 

Two writing deadlines this week too. Submitted a column for the next edition of the White Horse News and wrote an article for the Christmas edition of Wiltshire Phab Magazine. I'll probably post it here when seasonally appropriate. 

Little time for reading outside of prep this week and no time for decorating the living room either. Not too disappointed about the latter, but when I've a few spare moments I've been enjoying Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton, by W. Andrew Hoffecker (P&R). Making some progress on Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics Vol 4. The chapter on Justification is typically thorough and satisfying. Great stuff in Augustine's On Christian Doctrine on apostolic eloquence that I might blog about some time.