Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016: A year in music

2016 may go down as a year of political upsets and celebrity deaths, but closer to home it was a year of celebration. Not all the time, of course. But we did have a couple of biggies to celebrate. July marked our 25th wedding anniversary and August my 50th birthday. 

Sarah and I enjoyed great holidays in Rome/Venice in May/June and Portugal in August. We also attended a number of music concerts and performances during the year. Quite a few, in fact now I think about it. 

We saw The Beatles show, Let It Be, which was fab. Caught some other tribute bands, playing homage to Madness and The Who. Pretty good, but nothing beats the real thing. 

I was a teenage mod, into The Jam, Secret Affair and other 'mod revival'  bands of the 1970s and 80s. We saw Secret Affair at The Fleece, Bristol and caught From The Jam at Frome and Salisbury. Nice to hear the old songs, but it's a bit of a pity that they haven't moved on much since their heyday. Bruce Foxton procued a new album this year, Smash the Clocks. Pretty good, but the bassist evidently didn't have the confidence to include more than one new song in the set of either gig. At lest with Weller there's always something fresh and new at his concerts. 

We saw Coldplay at Wembley Stadium in June. They were off the scale in terms of creating a stadium filling live event. Flashing wrist bands, confetti showers, oversized bouncing balls, huge screens projecting fantastic visuals. It was all there. Chris Martin was a bundle of energy, bouncing up and down the runway that dissected the stadium. Great accompaniment provided by the band. People don't like to admit to liking Coldplay, but you've got to love the effort they put in to making a gig such a special event. They played a good mix of songs old and new. From their early Indie sound to the more recent poppy stuff. An unforgettable way to celebrate our 25th.

For the last few years Westbury has played host to the Village Pump Folk Festival, a folk music weekender. We hadn't attended until this summer, although the venue is just up the road from us. Partly because I thought folk music was a bit hairy beardy, double denimy. Not my scene, really. But, then again, I quite like some of Billy Bragg's stuff and  a number of Paul Weller's albums have a folk vibe; Wild Wood and 22 Dreams, for instance. Anyway, the organisers were offering discounted evening tickets for locals. The Proclaimers were on the bill Saturday evening, so we got some cheapo tickets and headed for the White Horse Country Park. Really enjoyed it. Keston Cobblers Club were great fun, fine musicianship from Scottish folkies Breabach. The Proclaimers performed a set of songs old and new, culminating in the inevitable 500 Miles. 

We saw Madness at their House of Common one day festival in August. That was a good day out. A band that's been going for ages, but is still producing songs that stand up well against their back catalogue. Old favorites It Must Be Love, Baggy Trousers, and Our House had the crowd bouncing. 

Feeder played the Bristol O2 Academy in support of their new album,  All Bright Electric. I've long had a soft spot for their brand of melodic rock. Not just because they are Welsh.  We enjoyed their show back in October. 

What else? 

We caught local Northern Soul act, The Allnighters a couple of times, including their Christmas party at Frome. Fast paced, upbeat sweet soul music. Pity I can't dance, otherwise I'd have given my bowling shoes a good workout. 

Saw a couple of classical music concerts at Colston Hall with friends. As I recall, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra performed Brahms' Violin Concerto and Mahler's 1st Symphony. The Tchaikovsky Orchestra played Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams, Sibelius' Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony. 

For 2017 we've bagged tickets to see Paul Weller at the Royal Albert Hall in March and Radiohead at Manchester Arena in July. 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

David Sky: The Gov-Father (A Christmas Special)

I know, it's been some time since I updated you on what's become of my old friend,  David Sky. People have been asking (really), but 'least said, soonest mended' and all that. 

Fact is, I hadn't seen him for ages. Then I unexpectedly bumped into him at a school governor training session. Yes, that's right, Sky is a governor. Chair of Governors at that.

He and Bathsheba now have a daugther, Solomena, who has just started primary school. David hadn't heard of governors before, but he thought they seemed like important people and that he should be one of them. Whatever they were. He was a bit hazy on that at first, but then most people are. Even some governors.

Good job that as a parting gift form the outgoing HMCI Ofsted has produced something to show us how it's done. Bye, Sir Michael. Oh and while I remember, Pale Rider was a Preacher, not a Headteacher. Get your own Wild West shoot-em-up heroes to serve as role models for the education sector. 

Anyway, David Sky. There I was at this governor training session on the finer points of RaiseOnline (don't ask), and I spied him sitting at another table. 'What's that monkey doing here?', I thought to myself. Unusual. Then I twigged. It was my old sparring parter, Mr. Sky. 

Before I could head over to his table and grab a word, the training presentation began. I'll gloss over that bit, unless you'd really like a run down on  Raise and Progress 8... No? Lightweights. 

Coffee time. I really needed a caffeine boost after the first presentation of the morning, but held off in an attempt to catch up with Sky. I could hear him holding forth on how his school had the best Progress 8 scores in the world for the last five years. Strange that, as it's an England-only system that was only fully rolled out for the 2016 results. 

'Sky', I said. He didn't miss a beat. Around four years had gone by since I last heard from him, but his slightly amused contempt for me hadn't diminished one bit, 'Understand any of that? Come over so I can explain?' 

Sitting right next to him was a purple Telletubby-like thing. 'What's that?' I asked. 'That' he replied, speaking slowly as if I was a bit dim 'is Robo-Clerk. With computers these days you can have driverless cars on the roads, and pilotless drones in the air, so why not robotic clerks with enhanced artificial intelligence?' What will they think of next? 

I wondered why Sky had brought his Robo-Clerk to a training session. He explained that he could never remember anything from training and it was too much like hard work to put any of it into practice, so he got Robo-Clerk to record the sessions. She could then pre-write minutes that made it seem as though his governing body knew their stuff and ticked all boxes for Ofsted. 'But how's your school actually doing? I asked. 'I dunno, ask her.' he replied with a shrug of his shoulders. 'Trust your chair's on top of his brief, then.' I said, hopefully. Sky: 'I am the chair. No use being in something unless you're the boss of it, as someone once told me.'

I had so many questions for Sky. Last I heard Taffia Godfather, Dai Corleone was after him because Sky had escaped his clutches. He'd gone into hiding, as he didn't want to be forced back into service as a tea boy. That was all sorted now. Turning the tables, Sky had made Corleone an offer he couldn't refuse,  promising him a lifetime supply of Glengettie tea and Welsh Cakes if the feared Godfather called off his henchmen. 

'I hope you haven't been using Taffia tactics on your governing board.' I cautioned. Threatening  governors that you'll have them 'sleeping with the fishes' if they vote against you, is contrary to the National Governors' Association Code of Conduct. 

'Don't worry' Sky shot back, 'no one's voted against me since the last one got zapped by Robo-Clerk.' 

I'm sure there must be a rule in the Governance Handbook against weaponising the clerk. Apparently, it wasn't deadly, but still. 

The session ended and Sky was eager to leave as soon as possible. Christmas was coming and Bathsheba expected something really special, and expensive, and unique as a present. Or there'd be trouble. And Solomena was beginning to take after her mother. There are some things than not even Robo-Clerks can fix. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Took my girls to see this on Saturday. Many of the familiar features of the Star Wars universe are in the film. The Empire's Death Star super weapon, snazzy space ships, stormtroopers clad in white plastic armour, laser guns going 'whoosh, whoosh, whoosh', and so on. But none of the 'goody' characters. No Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Wookie, R2D2 and that. Baddies get a look in, mind; Darth Vadar and his henchmen. We'll have to wait for the follow up to The Force Awakens to see what happens to our familiar heroes. 

Not that this spin off was altogether lacking on the hero front, with the feisty Jyn Erso played by Felicity Jones leading the charge. 

Saga-wise, Rouge One fills in some gaps between Episodes 3 and 4. We discover that the Death Star was built with a deliberate fatal flaw. The drama concerns a mission to discover the plans to the Death Star that will enable the rebel alliance to pinpoint its weak spot and finally destroy the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.  

Cynical types may dismiss Rogue One as superfluous spin off, designed to part fools from their money as fans of the franchise impatiently await the next film in sequence to The Force Awakens. But it's a decent enough contribution to the series. A bit slow to start with, some good action sequences and a pretty gripping plot. Interesting new characters. Fantastic visuals.  

At the start the Rebels are a sorry lot. The will to fight sucked out of them by the apparently overwhelming power of the evil Empire. Resistance seems futile. But Jyn rallies the insurrectionists to action with the words, 'Rebellion is built on hope.'

Interesting thought. The powers of darkness in this world appear so unassailable. There seems little point in resisting the reign of sin and death. But there is hope in the form of a weak and vulnerable baby, born around 2000 years ago. Of him it is written, 'For this purpose the Son God God was manifested, to destroy the works of the evil one'. 

Zechariah, father of John the Baptist prophesied of Jesus,

"the sunrise shall visit us from on high
 to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
(Luke 1:79)

Through his lowly birth, redeeming death and mighty resurrection the Son of God has triumphed over the kingdom of darkness. When the Lord returns in glory death, the 'last enemy' will be destroyed. 

In the meantime those who belong to Jesus are called to join the rebellion against sin's tyrannical rule. Here are our marching orders, 'Sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace." (Romans 6:14). 

Resistance is not futile. With the high praises of God in our mouths and a two edged sword in our hands (not a lightsaber! - Psalm 149:6), we march in to battle. Confident of victory. The note of praise we sound is not servile and demeaning; it is the liberty song of redeemed rebels,  
Praise is the great act of rebellion against sin, the great repudiation of our wicked refusal to acknowledge God to be the Lord. (John Webster, Holiness, SCM Press, p. 76). 
Jyn was right. Rebellion is built on hope. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Renewal: Church Revitalisation Along the Way of the Cross by John James

10Publishing, 2016, p. 130

For bright young things contemplating a call to pastoral ministry church planting is where it's at. Or at least service in an already large and thriving work. Why bother trying to turn around a dying church when you can start a new one? After all, isn't the gospel all about new birth and fresh starts? Certainly. But let's not forget that the God of the gospel is also the one who raises the dead.
Where villages, towns and areas of cites are totally devoid of evangelical witness there is certainly a case for church planting. No argument there. But in many cases communities could be reached with the gospel more effectively by the revitalisation of existing churches.   

Not an easy task, admittedly. Struggling churches are often small, demoralised and disconnected from their neighbourhoods. A stuck in the mud membership may be reluctant to embrace change. Considerable ‘cons’. But there are ‘pros’ too. An established work is likely to have its own buildings, at least some presence in the local community and a group of seasoned Christians who may be longing to see the Lord visit the church afresh by his renewing power.

Sometimes it may be too late and a church will need to close its doors. But if a leader is willing to take on the challenges and the church is willing to embrace change, revitalisation becomes a real possibility. After all, with the Lord nothing is impossible.

John James writes from his first-hand experience of church revitalisation at Crossway Church, Northfield in Birmingham. But this is no ‘this is how I did it – go and do likewise’ manual. James knows that there are no silver bullets or copy and paste programmes for turning around dying churches. It takes the grace of God at work in pastor and people and the faithful application of biblical principles of church life.

A leader involved in revitalisation ministry is going to need bucket loads of God-given grit, determination and stickability. Not to mention the patience and wisdom required to know how best to implement change without alienating established church members. Leaders mustn’t shy away from conflict, but they also need to ensure that the church is united behind a common vision for reaching their community with the gospel.

To that end, James recommends that churches bear four essential questions in mind: 1. What has brought us together? 2. What are we aiming to do together? 3. Where does our authority come from? 4. How will we make decisions together? Regular reflection on these questions will help fellowships maintain their gospel focus and embrace an outward facing growth mentality.

In a way, all pastoral ministry is revitalisation ministry along the way of the cross, whether in congregations large or small. Ultimately it is only the risen Jesus who can breathe new life into dying churches by the power of his Spirit. This book helps us to see some of the biblically sanctioned means by which our Lord may do just that.

John James provides valuable advice and counsel for people who may be thinking about engaging in church renewal ministry, and gives welcome encouragement to those already involved in that difficult, yet rewarding work. Expect a healthy dose of realism mixed with a good dash of faith in the God who awakens the dead. Re-establishing a vital gospel witness in every community in the United Kingdom is going to require thriving gospel churches in every community. Who will say, 'Here I am, send me'?

*Reviewed for Evangelical Times 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016


They gave it away said the film critics. How clunky to reveal up front that Sully, the eponymous pilot hero managed to land his A320 on the Hudson river, saving the lives of all 155 souls aboard.

I thought the film makers were respecting the intelligence of their audience. The emergency landing back in 2009 was reported all around the world. I can still remember the news reports from back then. We all know the plane is going down. 

The dramatic heart of the film concerns whether pilot Sully was indeed the hero he was made out to be immediately after the event. I didn't know anything about that bit. Couldn't he have landed his stricken plane on a nearby runway rather than in a river? Risky business, landing on water. Usually deadly. 

Tom Hanks plays the Sully role in his customary 'ordinary bloke in extraordinary circumstances' kind of way. He's done it as a soldier, sailor, lawyer, toy cowboy and now as an airman. But this isn't Hanks on autopilot by any means. He brings out the quiet, understated dignity and warmth of his character. His humanity as a husband, father and pilot. 

Humanity is the key thing here. The panel charged with investigating the forced landing speak of computer algorithms and run flight simulations, but little account is taken of human decision making processes. In captain Sully's case decisions honed by years of flying, consummate professional skill and nerves of steel. Computers don't do instinct. 

The reviews I read also complained that the landing on the Hudson is replayed numerous times during the film. But each time the action is gut wrenching and adds layers of meaning to the event. The final showing being the most revelatory. 

The film is a paean to dignity of work and a testament to the value of human life. Bemused by being labelled a hero, Sully says to his copilot, 'We were just doing our jobs' - in saving 155 lives. If a job's worth doing it's worth doing well, whether as an airline pilot, a teacher, a refuse collector, or a preacher,  Colossians 3:23-24.  

It's worth waiting for the real life sequences played alongside the credits at the end of the film, showing the real Sully and the passengers and crew he saved.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Christmas Disruption

Well, 2016 was an eventful year. What with Brexit, Trump and what have you. After those shocks to the geopolitical system isn’t it nice to be able to anticipate the warm, familiar glow of Christmas? It comes but once a year, bringing with it fond memories of Christmases past. Family gatherings, turkey and trimmings, pressies, the Queen on telly and so on. A chance to stop the world and get off for the festive season.
The first Christmas was rather more disruptive. Wise men from the East arrived at Herod’s palace seeking the new born King of the Jews. Herod’s reaction wasn’t, ‘Aw, baby Jesus, how sweet.’ The power grabbing ruler could brook no rivals. He wanted the infant King killed. Shocking isn’t it?
The message of Christmas is disruptive. It disrupts what we may think about God. We might expect him to make a universe to display his glory. But do we imagine for one minute that almighty God would enter the world as one of us, a flesh and blood human being? That’s exactly what happened when Jesus was born. He is the Son of God born as man. His name is ‘Immanuel’, meaning ‘God with us’ as one of us.
Why did Jesus come? The Bible explains it was ‘to save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). That too is a disruptive thought. It suggests that all is not well between us and God and that we need to be forgiven to put things right. Well, yes. In the Gospel accounts there is a direct road from Bethlehem where Jesus was born to Calvary where he died for the sins of the world.

The wise men got it. They believed in Jesus, sought him out and worshipped him. They were prepared to embrace the disruptive power of God’s grace in Jesus. How about you?  

Scroll down to the bottom of this page for the low down on Providence & Ebenezer Christmas services.  

* For December News & Views, West Lavington parish mag 

Friday, December 02, 2016

Some help from Beza on the eternal submission of the Son

Controversy has been raging on the other side of the Pond over whether we may rightly speak of the eternal submission of the Son to the Father. See here for my thoughts on the matter. But I've had some second thoughts. Kind of. For one, would it not be better to speak of the submission of the Son to the Father in eternity, rather than the eternal submission of the Son? The latter expression may be taken to imply the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father, which strains homoousios almost to breaking point. The Son is of the same divine being as the Father and God in his own right. Any talk of subordination is therefore inappropriate. 

That the Son submits to the Father in eternity, concerning his role as mediator and Saviour of sinners is less open to objection. Now we are talking about 'God for us' (or the economic Trinity), rather than 'God in himself' (the ontological Trinity). Besides, Scripture itself speaks of the elect being chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) and of grace being given us in Christ before time began (2 Timothy 1:9). In eternity the Son submitted to the divine purpose that he should become flesh, die and rise again to save his people from sin (Galatians 4:4-6, Philippians 2:5-11).

But this was a divine purpose to which the Son was also party. As Calvin showed, Christ is both the electing God and the One in whom we were elected (see here). Calvin's successor at Geneva, Theodore Beza also grasped this point clearly. Richard Muller summarises his teaching, "Beza denied the charge that speaking of Christ as the executor of election he lost sight of Christ as the foundation of the decree. Beza resolved the issue of making a distinction between Christ as mediator and Christ considered according to his divinity as eternal God: 
On the one hand, therefore, Christ is considered as the efficient cause of predestination with the Father and the Holy Spirit; on the other hand as being the first effect of predestination itself, on account of the servants mercifully elect in him." (Christ and the Decree, Richard Muller, Baker Academic, 2008, p. 82).
The Son no less than the Father was involved in the decree to save via his mediatorial work. In eternity the Son submitted to the triune decree that he would be sent into the world by the Father and through the power of the Holy Spirit. And so it was that in the fullness of time he came to seek and save the lost.

Stressing the co-equality of the Son with the Father and the Holy Spirit as the efficient cause of predestination in no way compromises the order of persons in the Trinity. The Three are not interchangeable. Each has his own distinguishing personal characteristics. As to their persons, the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. That is why it was singularly appropriate that the Father sent the Son to accomplish the work of salvation by the Holy Spirit. 

The divine persons do not jostle for position, with one seeking to force the others into subordinate roles. The Three are One in being, will and acts. The Son seeks the glory of his Father, the Holy Spirit the glory of the Son and the God the Father is glorified when the whole universe acknowledges that Jesus Christ is Lord. It was in line with this attitude of 'other-seeking-glory' that in eternity the Son willingly submitted to become man and die for his chosen people. Before he went to the Cross, Jesus prayed to his Father who sent him into the world, "Father, the hour has come, glorify your Son that your Son also may glorify you." (John 17:1). 

The cause and effect of the decree to save are the will and actions of the triune God; all for the glory of the One God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.