Saturday, December 23, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Just saw this. We watched Paddington 2 the other week. Missed Paddington 1 because we thought it was just for kids. But so many grown-ups raved about it that we succumbed. Watched the first film on telly and then headed to the cinema for the follow-up. Really enjoyed both. Hugh Grant was a superior villain in the sequel, which made for a better film. Very funny. 

I guess adults watching kids films based on childhood TV characters is all about nostalgia. The Star Wars reboot is an attempt to tug on that same sentiment. The 'story so far' bit told by the bold yellow lettering that slowly recedes into the distance transported me back to when I watched the original films back in the 1970's. In a galaxy far, far away. Well, the Odeon, Newport. Or was it the ABC? Can't remember. Was a time long ago.

I enjoyed The Force Awakens and thought this one was pretty good too, building momentum towards the inevitable clash between Jedi-girl Riley and Darth Vader #2, Ren in the next episode. It's visually pretty sunning. The fight sequences are nicely realised. Riley, Ren and Finn are developing as characters, but don't seem to have the same charisma as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Darth Vader.

What the Rebel Alliance really needs to defeat the evil First Order is not a lightsaber-wielding Jedi, but Paddington bear. Think of what he did to that bunch of prison inmates. Even the hard bitten cook. Had him making cup cakes. If only Paddington could get Ren to sit down and share a marmalade sandwich, he would soon be lured from the Dark Side. Failing that, a hard stare should do it. 

More seriously, the theme of self-sacrificing love in The Last Jedi hints at the true way dark forces have been defeated, 1 John 3:8. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Christmas Special: David Sky vs Martin Luther

'Here I stand! Here I stand!' I had a Playmobil Martin Luther for my birthday in August. He's kind of cute with his little feather and tiny German Bible. But Luther been playing havoc with delicate balance of my study's ecosystem. He and David Sky don't get on for starters. 

My pet monkey was removed from being chair of governors at his daughter's primary school. The other board members got fed up with being zapped by Robo-Clerk. That and the school being rated totally and utterly inadequate by Ofsted. 

Robo-Clerk had a battery failure on the day the inspectors visited and it was evident that Sky didn't actually know anything about the school. He thought Pupil Premium was a superior kind of tea for kids. 'Just guessing.' he said. 'But what about the gaps?'  the inspectors persisted. 'Gaps? We prefer to call them perforations in the trade.' Sky explained, helpfully.

The school is going to have to join a MAT. One that doesn't allow monkeys to act as chair of governors, and where Robo-Clerks are banned. A story on the debacle featured in one of the National Governance Association's Friday newsletters. Top item. The monkey was so chuffed.

Anyway, Sky now has some time on his hands and likes to hang around my study. Just like the old days. Apart from the presence of Martin Luther. 'Here I stand! Here I stand!' he keeps exclaiming and then goes around standing on stuff. Even David Sky's head. 'What do you think I am, the diet of Worms?' the monkey complains. Then Luther tickles Sky with his feather, which he really hates. Cue big row.

It's getting a bit much, really.

What's especially awkward is that I'm currently reading Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lindal Roper. It's a bit 'warts and all' and little Luther has been reading it. Makes him really mad, 'But I was right! I was right! Here I stand! Here I stand! Karlstadt was my enemy. He took the bent coin. He took it! And I do not have an Oedipus complex!' Sky chips in, 'Oh give over. Calvin was a better Reformer than you. Everyone knows that. Much more biblical. Why were you so mean to poor Karlstadt? And who's Oedipus Complex exactly, when he's at home?'

You can imagine what it's like with those two arguing. Once Sky offered Luther a nice cup of tea as a peace offering. 'Nein. Get me Wittenberg beer.' was the reply. Cue another big row. 

'Bad case of 'Founder's Syndrome', you, mate.' opined Sky. 'I looked it up on Wikipedia. Suits you  to a T': 
Founder's syndrome (also founderitis) is a popular term for a difficulty faced by organizations where one or more founders maintain disproportionate power and influence following the effective initial establishment of the project, leading to a wide range of problems for the organization.The passion and charisma of the founder(s), sources of the initial creativity and productivity of the organization, become limiting or destructive factors.
'Ring any bells, Marty?' 

'Look', Luther shot back, 'I'm the most popular Playmobil figure in the world. Over 1 million of me sold. I was the first Reformer. 95  Theses. Diet of Worms. Here I stand! Here stand!'

'95 Theses, eh?' replied Sky. I read somewhere that rather nailing them to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church with an actual hammer and nails, you used glue. Glue. Afraid of hurting your poor little thumb? Blu Tack, was it? Pritt Stick, perhaps?  Like a little kid. Anyway, you're only a toy, not the real Martin Luther. And don't go all Buzz Lightyear, thinking you're real. You're not, OK?'

'Has serious academic Lyndal Roper written a biog of you, monkey boy?' asked Luther. 'Have they made a film of your life with Mike Reeves doing the voice-over in his best interesting voice for children? And if I'm not real, you're not.'

Sky: 'If I'm not real, why are you arguing with me, weirdo?'

Luther: 'Aaaaaarghhh! You're the worst Anfechtungen ever!'

Me: 'Right, you two. Behave or Bathsheba and Kate are coming round.'
Just then the doorbell rang. Carol singers. The strains of Silent Night could be heard from the study. Sky chimed in, 'Silent night, holy night' and Luther sang out, 'Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht'. Harmony at last. It's Christmas Eve and all's well with the world. Well, almost. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

After Darkness Light

December is the darkest month. 21 December is the shortest day of the year, with only 7 hours, 49 minutes and 44 seconds of daylight. But it is also the brightest month of the year when High Streets and houses are lit up with a dazzling array of Christmas lights. 
The association of darkness and light is appropriate for the message of Christmas that Christians celebrate at this time of year. Of Jesus it is written “the light shines in the darkness”. 
It is true that the world can sometimes seem a dark place, what with conflicts, natural disasters and personal tragedies. We hope that there will be light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel can sometimes seem very long and very dark. 
In his account of the Christmas Story Luke tells of shepherds watching over their flocks by night. Suddenly an angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord around them. Some Christmas lights! Not even the grandest High Street illuminations could beat that. 
The angel had been sent with news that would light up the shepherds’ lives, ‘Today in the City of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Christ, the Lord.’ The shepherds hurried to see the sight. That very night they saw a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a lowly manger. That baby was none other than Jesus, the light of the world. He came to, 
shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace. 
Jesus took on the darkness of sin and death by dying on the Cross for our sins.  He rose again from the dead, the ultimate triumph of light over darkness. The Lord Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ Are you following the light of the world?

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Westminster Conference 2017 Report

Stephen Clark
When I was at the London Seminary many moons ago, students used to refer to the Westminster Conference as Back to the Future because attending was a bit like travelling back in time. Without the aid of a DeLorean. We were young and foolish then and didn't perhaps appreciate the value of what might be learned from the past. 

We tend to think that how we see things now is 'it', while years ago peoples' views were historically and culturally conditioned. The fact is, we're just as culturally situated today as people were years ago, but just in different ways that we don't always appreciate. 

Also, we can get into thinking that how we understand things now is inevitably better and more enlightened than in the past. 'This is the 21st century, you know'. You'd have hoped that in some ways, having benefited from the breakthroughs of yesteryear, that we would have more light than our forefathers. At least that is how it ought to be. But if we see further it is only because we stand on the shoulders of theological giants such as Tertullian, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Bavinck, and so on. 

It needs to be said that progress in understanding and isn't always a case of 'onwards and upwards'. Important gains can be lost, vital insights forgotten that then need to be re-appropriated. If we lack an awareness of the Great Tradition of church history, the danger is that we will read the Bible simply in the light of our own personal limits of knowledge and experience. 

We can then be blinkered to some of the things that God is showing us in Holy Scripture because they fail to resonate with where we are. That can especially be the case in the realm of spiritual experience and communion with God. We only see in the Bible the what we have thus far experienced ourselves, rather than allowing Holy Scripture be the measure of our experience of God. 

That fact is that Reformed Evangelicalism in the UK isn't exactly in the throes of a mighty revival at the moment. We may view expressions of our forefathers like, the 'felt presence of God', or 'full assurance of faith', or a 'plentiful outpouring of the Spirit' as rather quaint, or weirdly mystical. But perhaps they knew something in their communion with God that is more rare today. That is what made them better able to expound upon what it means to experience the 'joy unspeakable and full of glory' of which the Bible speaks. 

In his paper on 'The Holy Spirit and the Human Heart' Stephen Clark drew upon the wisdom of the past to show that in the Reformed tradition the Holy Spirit is said to work 'in, by and with the Word' in regenerating and sanctifying the heart. As a sovereign, divine Person, the Spirit is not so bound to the Word that Scripture read and preached always has the same unvarying effect upon its hearers. The Spirit's work may be more or less intensified and dramatic in its effects. It is therefore both legitimate and necessary to pray for more of his empowering presence. 

I spoke on Thomas Goodwin's work, A Child of Light Walking in Darkness: Knowing, Losing and Recovering a Felt Sense of the Presence of God. John Owen urged his readers to pursue a deeper experience of God, “If there are no such things, the gospel is not true; if there are, if we press not after them, we are despisers of the gospel. Surely he hath not the Spirit who would not have more of him, all of him that is promised by Christ.” Goodwin would have us, "Sue this promise out" that "Holy Ghost [may] come and fill up your hearts with joy unspeakable and glorious, to seal you up to the day of redemption." 

Andrew Young gave a paper on 'Calvin - Worship and Preaching', setting before us the Reformer's high view of the worship of the gathered church ordered according to the pattern of Scripture. It is true that the whole of life is worship, or at least should be. But there is something distinctive about the collective worship of God's people on the Lord's Day, where our God addresses his people by his Word and receives the prayers and praise they offer. 

Phil Arthur spoke on Jacob Arminius, his life and views. A warm, insightful and generous-spirited paper on a theological opponent from a good old Reformed Baptist. Benedict Bird charted the Calvinistic response to the challenge of Arminianism at the Synod of Dort (1618-19). Both papers served as a reminder that we have much to learn from the theological controversies of the past, as well as from what those who went before us knew of the presence of God in their lives.

Mark Thomas brought the conference to a fitting conclusion with his address on 'William Williams Pantycelyn (1717-91). The life of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist leader, preacher and hymnwriter was sketched out and valuable lessons were drawn out from his works. Williams embodied a combination of solid Calvinistic doctrine and deep experiences of God. Mark urged us not to allow our current experiences to place a limit on what might be know and experienced of our glorious God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

Sometimes we need to go back to the past to be stirred up to pursue more of God in the future than we have yet known of him. It is surely not unbiblical mysticism to seek what God holds out to us in his Word: full assurance of faith, our Father’s smile and loving embrace, joy unspeakable and full of glory in Christ, and the direct witness of the Spirit. As Goodwin would say, let us ‘sue this promise out’ of a ‘more plentiful communication of the Spirit’ than we have hitherto known or experienced.  

Times of discussion followed all addresses bar the final one. The papers will be published sometime in 2018. 
1. Speak, I pray Thee, gentle Jesus!
O, how passing sweet Thy words,
Breathing o’er my troubled spirit
Peace which never earth affords.
All the world’s distracting voices,
All th’enticing tones of ill,
At Thy accents mild, melodious,
Are subdued, and all is still.
2. Tell me Thou art mine, O Savior,
Grant me an assurance clear;
Banish all my dark misgivings,
Still my doubting, calm my fear.
O, my soul within me yearneth
Now to hear Thy voice divine;
So shall grief be gone for ever
And despair no more be mine. 
(William Williams)

Monday, December 04, 2017

Westminster Conference 2017

I'll be off to the Westminster Conference bright and early tomorrow morning. Early anyway.

I'm due to give a paper on A Child of Light Walking in Darkness: The Felt Presence of God. The Child of Light... bit in the title refers to a work by the Puritan Thomas Goodwin. It's essentially a series of sermons on Isaiah 50:10, with some extra 'box set' material thrown in for good measure.

My brief is to reflect on what Goodwin has to say on knowing, losing and then recovering a felt sense of God's presence and favour. Also interacting with the views of Goodwin's old pal, John Owen.

Getting hold of Owen's stuff is easy enough. Banner of Truth published his 16 Volume Works decades ago and they are still in print today. I purchased my set when a student at the London Seminary (1988-90).

Goodwin ain't so easy to obtain. Banner has only published Volume 8 of his Works. Odd titles are available as e-books, but not A Child of Light Walking in Darkness. Only realised that after I'd agreed to speak at the conference. Something of a problem. 

Handily, my old church history lecturer at the seminary, Robert Oliver lives nearby.  He is also a member of our local Ministers' Fraternal. Robert kindly lent me Volume 3 of Goodwin's Works, which includes A Child of Light...

Goodwin's piece isn't too long. Owen on Psalm 130 takes up most of Volume 6 of his Works. Took a while to wade through. But, as ever with Owen, was worth the effort. 

I was a bit unwell towards the end of September and into October, which slowed me down when it came to writing up the paper, but I got there in the end. 

I'm looking forward to hearing the other speakers (see here for the programme) and also to meeting up with some old friends at the conference.