Monday, July 20, 2020

Glory Unmasked

File:Wear Face Coverings Icon.svg - Wikimedia Commons
The time was that if you wore a mask into a shop you were probably going to rob it. I mean, why else would you want to try and hide your identity? Although, Zorro and the Lone Ranger were goodies and they wore masks, as did Batman. But on the whole those who wore masks in public were a suspect bunch. If you saw someone looking a bit shifty on the streets after dark with a stripy top, wearing a mask and with a bag slung over their shoulder, you’d probably call the cops.

However, from 24 July we’re all meant to wear face coverings when visiting the shops and other venues. Indeed, mask wearing has become a hallmark of responsible citizenship. Like many other people, it’s not something I’m especially keen on, but I’ll go along with it. We’ve all got to do our bit to halt the spread of Covid-19. Donning a face covering does make me feel a bit awkward, though and that’s not just because they make my glasses steam up.

Human beings are social beings and to live in a community with other people you need to be able to communicate. Yes, we communicate primarily with words, but body language and facial gestures are also important. That’s why electronic communications often involve misunderstandings. You can’t see the twinkle in someone’s eye when they type a gently ironic remark, so you’re offended at their cold sarcasm. You point this out, only for them to explain that’s not how they meant it at all.

Similarly with face coverings. We can’t always tell what’s going on behind the mask, a welcoming smile, or a tetchy grimace. Something essential to proper communication and interaction has been lost. The longing for community and communication is hard-wired into the human psyche. Christians believe that is because we were made in the image of God. The God of the Christian faith is not a solitary loner. In the one God are three persons; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who have ever existed in loving fellowship. Made in the image of God, we are social beings. We find the deepest fulfilment in our relationships with others, whether family or friends.

For reasons of public health we’ll wear our face coverings as the government requires, but they do act as a communication barrier. The sooner we no longer need the things the better. Sin acts as a barrier between us and God. It prevents us from seeing his glory and enjoying fellowship with him. That’s why Jesus came to die for our sins that we may be reconciled to God. As we turn to Christ the barrier is removed and we glimpse the glory of God reflected in Jesus’ face, But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Race, Identity and Grace

England Rugby fans may be banned from singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot. It has slavery connotations, apparently. Which it does. But not in a William Colson kind of way. According to anti-racism campaigner, Trevor Phillips, the song was composed by a freed slave just after the American civil war. The ‘Sweet Chariot’ was the Underground Railway, a network of secret routes that helped runaway slaves escape to freedom. Swing Low was a favourite of Louis Armstrong and Martin Luther King. As well as celebrating the Underground Railway, the song was probably an allusion to a dramatic episode in the Bible, when chariots of fire appeared and the prophet Elijah was swept up to heaven in a whirlwind.  

You’d have thought the English rugby authorities would be pleased that fans had adopted an anti-slavery anthem as their song, but no. Writing in The Times (19 June), Phillips argued that an obsession with symbols has overtaken a desire to change the world. Toppling statues and banning songs won’t deal with the issue of racial equality. But such gestures may help us to feel better about ourselves.

Is it just attention deflecting 'whataboutery' to ask why aren't people taking to the streets to protest against modern slavery, rather than vandalising public iconography? The killing of George Floyd was an outrage, but in recent weeks scores of Christian villagers were slaughtered at the hands of Boko Haram in North East Nigeria. See this Open Doors report. You won't hear a lot about that in the media. Christians don't tend to rank very highly when it comes to oppressed victimhood status. 

Welcome to the increasingly febrile world of identity politics. Martin Luther King famously dreamed of a day when people would be judged not on the colour of their skin, but the content of their character. With identity politics, race itself is politicised. The effect is to further divide, rather than bring healing and reconciliation. The hip hop artist Kayne West was denounced as ‘not black’ because of his support for the Republican Party. Closer to home Labour MPs wrote to Home Secretary Priti Patel, questioning her authority to speak out on racism, here. The Black Lives Matter movement has Marxist sympathies. 

Why am I wading in on the subject of an England rugby song? You wouldn’t catch me singing it, anyway. I’m Welsh and can happily sing, Bread of Heaven, knowing that it’s author, William Williams Pantycelyn (1717-1791) wasn’t tainted by slavery in any way. Williams was caught up in the Evangelical Revival that swept across the United Kingdom in the Eighteenth Century. He was a physician turned preacher and a prolific hymn writer. Many of the leading campaigners against the slave trade were Evangelicals such as John Newton and William Wilberforce. 

Their argument against the vile trade was based on the Bible. The Bible teaches that all human beings are made in the image of God, whatever the colour of the skin. There is only one race, the human race. Scripture teaches that we should love our neighbour as ourselves. Jesus was crucified, enduring the death of a common slave to save the world from sin. In the church, a person’s primary identity is in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

In the light of those beliefs slavery had to go. The icon of the anti-slavery movement was a black man in chains with the caption, "Am I not a man and a brother?" In the light of those same beliefs discrimination on the basis of skin colour has to go. But virtue signalling identity politics isn't the answer. Identity politics tends to be quick to denounce and tear down, but knows little of grace or forgiveness. The Christian faith offers hope to a broken and divided world. The preacher John Newton was once a captain of a slave ship. Later in life he bitterly regretted his involvement in the trade and worked with Wilberforce to campaign against it. Today’s ‘cancel culture’ would show him no mercy, but in advanced old age Newton could say this, 'Although my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Saviour.' 

Monday, June 15, 2020

Plague Journal: Weeks 11-13

Back by popular demand. Or at least one or two of our church people asked what had become of my  weekly Plague Journals, last entry, Week 10, 24 May. Since then we've had three more weeks of lockdown, albeit with some easing of restrictions. After experiments with various kinds of online 'services' we've now settled upon a format that seems to be working OK.

On Sunday mornings at 10.30am we have a Zoom Service that includes a Bible reading, children's talk, song videos, open prayer and a message from the Bible. The reading and talk are recorded for posting online or distribution via CD for people with no internet access. On Sunday evening I do a Facebook 'Go Live Service' with prayer, Bible reading and talk. On Wednesdays we have a Zoom Prayer Time with a Bible Study and time of open prayer. 

I had a week off from 25-31 May. We didn't go anywhere, apart from local walks. Mostly we did jobs around the house. We were meant to be staying with friends in North Wales for the week, but... As I was 'on holiday' men from the churches gave the message in our Zoom meetings on Wednesday (Matthew 15:15-28) and Sunday, (Ephesians 3:14-21)  which you can find here and here. It was good to be able to sit under the ministry of the word after having spoken twice on a Sunday and each Wednesday since our meetings stopped in mid-March. On Sunday evening we joined the friends at Bradford on Avon Baptist Church for their livestreamed service. 

On Wednesday 3 June I spoke on Exodus 33:1-17 and on Sunday 7 June on Psalm 51 and John 7:37-39. Then on Wednesday 10 June on Exodus 33:18-34:9. It never ceases to amaze me how relevant and up-to-date the Bible is, even in these extraordinary times. What a privilege it is to proclaim the Word of God. For sung worship we've been using some of the Evangelical Movement of Wales song videos, recorded at their Aber Conferences. I think they have 99 hymns on YouTube, a good mix of trad and new, see here. You can't beat proper 'in person' congregational singing, but they are the next best thing. Thanks EMW! 

Now the theology bit, which some of our church members say they can't always understand. It's not that Robert Letham's Systematic Theology is especially inaccessible, just my reflections on it. As of Week 10 I'd got as far as p. 570 . Now I'm on p. 612, which is the start of Chapter 22 on 'Salvation and the Church'. In many ST's the doctrines and salvation and the church are treated separately, but Letham wisely integrates the two. Chapters 20 & 21 were on 'Christ Our King' and 'Union with Christ'. Excellent stuff in both. Letham's strictures on  Van Drunen's Two Kingdoms teaching were thought provoking, especially as I was quite sympathetic to the 2K view (see here and here).  

One thing missing from a Letham's discussion of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King is a detailed consideration of our Lord's prophetic role, which is not accorded a discrete chapter. Another lacuna is the relative lack of attention given to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This is made good to some extent in the chapter on 'Union with Christ', but still. Reformed STs need a greater focus on the meaning and significance of the resurrection of Christ. Richard Gaffin has done excellent work in demonstrating that in the teaching of the apostles the resurrection as well as the death of Jesus are of central gospel importance. See especially his Resurrection and Redemption, P&R. Similarly with N. T. Wright's massive, The Resurrection of the Son of God, SPCK. Yes, you can't say everything there is to be said about everything, even in a 1000 page volume, but choices have to be made and the resurrection of Jesus is a key doctrine that deserves more than a quick glance. End of theology bit. Not that difficult, was it?

I'm becoming a proper 'Zoom-head' now, despite having never heard of the thing before the coronavirus outbreak. I've been tuning in to the FIEC's helpful webinar series on 'Leadership in Lockdown'.  Our Bradford on Avon Ministers' Fraternal last Wednesday was also a Zoom meeting,  It was good to catch up with the men and their wives and spend time in prayer together, Andrew Davies spoke very encouragingly on the Pilgrim Fathers, who set sail for the New World 400 years ago, 'All Aboard the Mayflower' . I also signed up to EMW's 'Bala Lite' Ministers' Conference from 15-17 June.  More on that in the next journal update.

I wrote to my MP Dr Andrew Murrison last week on a number of matters, including the government's proposals to make divorce easier, liberalisation of Sunday trading laws, the need for clear Covid secure guidance on church meetings and activities, excess deaths in residential homes and the government's botched attempts at getting more children back to school. That was probably enough for him to be getting on with. I look forward to his response.

There are serious questions about the government's response to the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent lockdown. Claims that ministers were just 'following the science' are disingenuous when scientists disagree on how to proceed. It also seems that some scientific modelling was deeply flawed, especially the model championed by the disgraced Neil Ferguson. His model massively overinflated the likely number of deaths in Sweden in the absence of lockdown. That same model when applied to the UK was a factor in the government imposing a tight lockdown here.

In the end, as the saying goes, advisers (even scientific advisers) advise, but Ministers must decide. It is the job of politicians to weigh up scientific advice, economic factors, the impact of measures on people's mental health, pressures on family life, disruption of education and so on. That is why we elect them to wield power, to make informed policy decisions that will help promote the common good, while maintaining our basic freedoms.

The easing of lockdown and the gradual reopening of businesses are moves in the right direction, but the government should now step back from micromanaging people's lives. By all means let Ministers issue Covid secure guidance for various sectors to follow. People should maintain social distancing and the most vulnerable should be protected. But it is time the government started to treat us as responsible adults who are capable of making our own decisions on who we see and where we go. And that includes going to church, as well as the High Street.

Cley Hill from Saturday's walk

Monday, May 25, 2020

Grace in a Town Called Malice?

Well, Happy Birthday to Paul Weller, whose songs have been the soundtrack to my life. We've been to see him live several times. His gigs are often brought to a rapturous conclusion by the old Jam hit, Town Called Malice (Ooo, yeah). The 1982 song has a catchy Motown beat, but the lyrics offer a rather bleak depiction of Weller's childhood home town, Woking. Town Called Malice also provided a powerful social commentary for Thatcher's Britain. The song crossed my mind as I've been following the furore over Boris Johnson's top SPAD, Dominic Cummings's alleged breech of lockdown rules.

No, I'm not about to give you my (un)learned opinion on whether Mr Cummings and his wife acted illegally in relocating to Durham to be near his family to ensure their four year old son could be looked after as they both suffered from suspected coronavirus. Neither am I about to weigh in with my views on how this plays out politically. To me he gave a reasonable account of his actions in this afternoon's press conference. Watch it here and make your own mind up. 

What I want to focus on is how people reacted to the story. News reports showed Cummings being mobbed by journalists and press photographers outside his home. The journos rather ironically demanding why he had defied government rules, while they bumped up against each other, in defiance of government rules on social distancing. A video clip showed Mr Cummings being barracked by his neighbours as he walked along the street. Much to the delight of some lefty journalists on Twitter. Social media at its tribal, self-righteous, virtue signalling worst.

Sleepy old CofE Bishops were roused to issue an urgent call for repentance in their Sunday sermons. Not to sinners in need of a Saviour, of course, but to the government, 'Repent and sack your chief SPAD' as Jesus didn't quite say. 'It's enough to make you stop believing... in a Town Called Malice, (Ooo, yeah). 

The Cummings episode illustrates a wider point regarding how we've responded to the pandemic as a country. In some ways, the coronavirus outbreak seems to have brought out the best in us. Key workers have risen to the challenge of caring for the sick and keeping us safe. People are looking out for their shielding neighbours. Most are good humoured as we give each other a wide berth when passing on the street on in shopping aisles. Whatever the rights or wrongs of Cummings's actions, at least he had the welfare of his child at heart. 

Some, however flout social distancing rules with a blatant disregard for other people, 'Covididots'. It has brought out the inner busybody in others. In late April it was reported that the police had received 200,000 calls from people snitching on their neighbours for petty misdemeanours. ‘Holier than thou’ social distancers  are quick to snap at anyone who inadvertently strays anywhere near them.

There is more than a touch of Pharisaism about the anti-Cummings brigade, spitting out their self-righteous venom on Twitter. Not to mention the bishops. Maybe the mitred hypocrites who fulminated against the SPAD-in-Chief have some repenting of their own to do now that they've had a chance to hear his side of the story? After all, doesn't the Good Book warn us, 'do not pronounce judgement before the time'? Try 1 Corinthians 4:5 for size.  

Both the rule flouters and the busybodies tell us something about human nature. Some delight in breaking the rules, while others do their best to keep them and despise those who don’t. Grace teaches us a better way. Despite what many people might think, the Christian faith is not about trying to get right with God by keeping the rules. The New Testament insists again and again that salvation is not by the works of the law. Jesus came into the world to save sinners. He did that by dying on the cross for our sins. God forgives and accepts us when we trust in Jesus for salvation. As a well-known hymn puts it, ‘the vilest offender who truly believes/that moment from Jesus a pardon receives’. That’s grace.

The self-righteous who pride themselves in their moral superiority find grace offensive. Jesus’ greatest opponents were the Pharisees who ‘trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others’. Grace humbles our pride and shows that all are in need of forgiveness. That makes us not quite so quick to sit in judgement on other people. But does that mean we are free to live as we please with little thought for God’s law or the good of our neighbour? No. As Augustine put it, "The law was given that grace might be sought; and grace was given that the law might be fulfilled." And love is the fulfilling of the law, (Romans 13:10). 

What's missing from our very own Town Called Malice is grace (Ooo, yeah). 

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Plague Journal: Week 10

On Monday 16 March the Prime Minister made an announcement to the nation on TV. To help prevent the spread of coronavirus people were advised to stop attending public meeting places such as restaurants and cinemas. Later that day places of worship were added to the list. Although this was advice and not legislation, we complied. Since then our church buildings have remained empty. The following Monday lockdown was imposed with the full force of law behind it. 

Lockdown measures are now being eased. The 'R' rate is below 1 in most parts of the country. The economic impact of lockdown looks horrendous, but many people remain paralysed by fear and will need some coaxing to get back to work. It is possible that Primary Schools will reopen in a limited capacity following the half term break. Non-essential shops may start trading in early June. The government has signaled that if the conditions are right, church gatherings may be permitted after 4 July.

In the absence of sector specific guidance on how to keep congregations safe, churches don't seem to be in any great rush to open their doors. The consensus among church leaders seems to be that we're in this for the long haul. It looks like online 'services' and keeping in touch with members of our congregations by phone call will continue as our modus operandai  for some months to come. 

In my Plague Journals over the last ten weeks I've charted how I've had to adapt my ministry to the current situation. Initially I used Facebook Go Live for ministry videos, but it was too glitchy. Buffering was a real problem. Then I switched to pre-recording YouTube videos which were posted at our regular service times. For our midweek prayer times we started off with Skype, but moved to the freebie Zoom platform as the latter gives better quality sound and video.

Now we've gone for Zoom pro, which meant that on Wednesday I could give the Bible talk in the meeting, after which we had a time of prayer. The trouble was that my poor old laptop could barely cope with hosting the meeting. The recording of the talk was like watching a badly dubbed Spaghetti Western. The audio was OK, though, which was something.

My laptop struggled again this morning. Due to 'system overload' or something it couldn't access the mic, so no one could hear me. I had my phone set up to record the Bible reading and message, but had to switch to using my mobile for Zoom. Thankfully, friends from church recorded the message using the Zoom's recording feature. They also sorted the song videos, which my laptop struggled to do in a trial run. I spoke on Psalm 50, 'A call to worship the God who is not safe, but good'. Thanks to a generous gift, a new higher spec laptop is due to be delivered this week.

I prefer livesteaming to pre-recording and it was with some reluctance that I abandoned FB's Go Live for YouTube vids. Since I last tried Go Live we've had a new WiFi router installed at home, as the old one was becoming unreliable. With that in mind I thought I'd have another go at livestreaming this evening to see if the new router had resolved the buffering issues. It seemed to go OK from a technical point of view, at least. I spoke on 'Jesus as our exalted Prophet, Priest and King' from Hebrews 1, 4, & 7.

Reading update. As of last week's journal I was up to p. 497 of Robert Letham's excellent Systematic Theology. Since then I've read what remained of Incarnation 2, the whole of Incarnation 3 and a good chunk of Christ Our Great High Priest. bringing me to p. 570. Incarnation 2 & are fine examples  of how historical theology can help us understand the teaching of the Bible with greater clarity and depth. There are few theological problems that haven't been pondered before by some of the greatest minds in the church. Reinventing wheels and chasing 'new insights' into what turn out to be blind alleys does not represent the height of wisdom. It's silly, in fact. In theology as in the natural sciences we see further by standing on the shoulders of giants.

That said, new questions in Christology have arisen and a number of these are discussed in Chapter 18, Incarnation 3. Some are 'Questions to Which the Answer is No!' Like, 'Did Christ Assume a Fallen Human Nature?' No! Did Christ empty himself of his divine attributes when he became man, or 'The Kenosis Theory'?  No! to that too.

Although I must say I was baffled by Letham's remarks on John Calvin and the Communion of Attributes in the Person of Christ. The writer suggests that Calvin sometimes smacks of Nestorianism on this point. Luther taught that divine attributes such as omnipresence were communicated to Christ's glorified humanity, which is hardly in line with Chalcedon. Calvin held that in Scripture actions proper to both divine and human natures are predicated of the Person of Christ.

Hence, while the divine nature cannot die, the 'Lord of glory' was 'crucified'. While Christ's glorified human nature retains its physical properties, he is said to  'fill all things'. The communicatio represents a 'figure of speech', said Calvin and entails no ontological confusion. See John Calvin's Ideas, Paul Helm, Oxford, p. 71-83. I am at a loss to understand what Letham means when he says by way of summary of his treatment of the Communion of Attributes, "Person-perichoresis (in the Trinity) and nature-perichoresis (in the incarnation, in which the divine omnipresence is transferred to the human nature) Crisp considers to be a mystery." (p. 518). Certainly a mystery to me.

No discrete chapter is devoted to 'Christ our Glorious Prophet'. Just a paragraph or so is given to our Lord's prophetic work in Chapter 16, 'Christ, our Great High Priest'. But Letham's discussion of Jesus' high priestly ministry is rich with biblical and historical insight. Penal Substitution is robustly defended within the framework of union with Christ and not at the expense of other biblical emphases. Next up in this chapter, sections on 'The Scope of Christ's Atonement' and 'Intercession and Benediction'.

On Saturday Sarah and I went for a walk to Shearwater lake on the Longleat Estate. To our surprise and joy the lakeside cafe was open for takeaways. Always wanting to support the local economy we treated ourselves to a tub each of Marshfield Farm's Heavenly Honeycomb ice cream. The easing of lockdown tastes sweet.

Plague Journal: Week 1Week 2, Week 3Week 4Week 5Week 6Week 7Week 8, Week 9

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Plague Journal: Week 9

It's been great to see the way people have risen to the challenge of Coronavirus, looking out for shielding neighbours, etc. But social distancing measures have also brought out the worst in some. There are those who flout the rules with a blatant disregard for others. Then there are the 'holier than thou' social distancers with their aggressive, 'Keep to yourself, do not come near to me' attitude (Isaiah 65:5). Yes, they exist. I met one the other day. 

Most people we've come across around here have been good humoured as we've given each other a wide berth when passing on the street or in shopping aisles. The worst we've encountered is an ignorant lack of acknowledgement when we've stepped into the road to allow others to proceed along the pavement. Doesn't cost anything to say, 'Thanks', my mum used to say.

But after adroitly tiptoeing around other shoppers in a local supermarket and patiently holding back while people dithered for ages over which tomatoes to buy, I had an encounter with a living, breathing 'holier than thou' social distancer. It happened when I returned  my trolley. A proper family sized one, while another bloke was waiting to return his mini model. He was hanging about between the two bollards at the shop entrance. I did my best to avoid him by going around the outside of the right hand bollard to return my trolley. 

In other words, I was nowhere near the chap. Yet I heard a gruff voice behind me, swearing and having a go at me, 'that wasn't two meters'. To which I replied, 'As far as I'm concerned it was.' That was pretty much it, really. Sorry if you were expecting something more eventful, like a fully blown explosion of trolley rage. This is Wiltshire, where little tends to happen. Very slowly. 

However, since mentioning this episode to friends, it seems that others have experienced similar things. The pandemic is bringing out the inner Pharisee in us, from tape measure Charlies to people grassing up their neighbours to the police for petty nonsense. In late April it was reported that the police had received 200,000 calls from busybody time wasters. I read with interest Dr John Lees's article in The Spectator, 'Ten reasons to end the lockdown now'. An 11th reason would be to take the wind out of the sails of plague time Pharisees.

It could be worse. At least lockdown measures are being eased in England. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland people are still pretty much confined to barracks. According to the Government's COVID-19 recovery strategy published on Monday, 'Our plan to rebuild',  there's a possibility that churches in England may be able to re-open after 4 July, although we will need sector specific Coronavirus secure guidelines from the government so we know how to keep worshipers as safe as possible. Some indication of when Toddler Groups and such like may be able to restart and under what conditions would also be good. 

Zoom was once something cars did, zooming away at speed, and that. Before the pandemic that's all the zoom I knew. Not now. Our church times of fellowship and prayer are via Zoom. There was a FIEC Zoom conference on Leadership in Lockdown on Wednesday. Very useful in getting to grips with what church life might look like after 4 July. On Friday I took part in a Zoom meeting between local church leaders and our MP, Dr Andrew Murrison. We were able to put our concerns to him, some about the challenges faced in our community and others about the impact of lockdown on church life. He got the point about churches needing sector specific guidance for when we reopen our doors and said he'd make representations to ministers. Good. Thanks, Dr. Murrison. 

Unlike with cars, living in the world of Zoom doesn't mean things get to go anywhere fast. Message prep still takes as much time and then messages have to be pre-recorded three afternoons a week, which cuts down on time for other stuff. In addition, with the help of my wife I recorded two more episodes in the Story of Moses for our One Way Club. There was a 'blooper' in Part 3. At one point the PowerPoint jumped ahead a few slides. Rather than starting again (this happened near the end), I thought I'd have a go at editing out the jumpy bit. How hard could it be?

Using the YouTube edit feature I carefully located the bit that needed editing out, deleted that segment and saved the video. When I checked it out I found to my horror that I had in fact edited everything else out and only a 45 second blooper sequence remained. This was shortly before I was due to post the video on our church Facebook page for children and parents to view. My wife dragged me out of the slough of despond and together we managed to find out how to revert to the original YouTube video, blooper and all. Just in time. Phew.

Last Sunday VE Day was still very much in people's minds, so I spoke on 'Peace' from Romans 5:1 in the morning and 'Victory' from 1 Corinthians 15:57 in the evening. For Wednesday's Prayer Time we looked at Exodus 31:11-18, 'Strive to enter God's rest'. 

We are enjoying the easing of lockdown measures. On Saturday we visited the nearby Heaven's Gate beauty spot and Shearwater lake. It was nice to see families having a picnic and others out for a stroll through the bluebell woods. A small glimpse of happier times before the virus struck. See snaps below.

My current 'big read' is Systematic Theology by Robert Letham. As of last week I had got as as far as p. 468. I am now on Part 6, 'Christ, the Son of God'. I read chapter 16 and am a good way though chapter 17, 'Incarnation (1) & (2)', taking me to p. 497. These chapters provide a good example of why preachers need systematic theology. I have sometimes heard experienced pastors say in their sermons that 'Jesus became a human person'. No, that's Nestorianism. Which makes you a numpty at best, or a heretic at worst. Rather, as Letham sets out so clearly, the Son as second person of the Trinity took a human nature.

In doing so Jesus did not become a third 'thing', partly God and partly man. Neither did Jesus suffer any diminution of his deity at the incarnation. The Word made flesh was fully God and fully man with two distinct natures forever united in the person of the Son. The human nature of Jesus has no personal identity of its own. His humanity is in-personal, the Son working in and through his human nature to suffer and die for us.

Of course, preachers are free to use time honoured theological terms like 'person' and 'nature' in anyway they like. By all means ignore the 2,000 years of theological reflection that finds its expression in the historic creeds and confessions of faith. Just don't be surprised you end up sounding like a heretic. For all their emphasis on Sola Scriptura, our Puritan forebears were not doctrinally idiosyncratic. They regarded themselves as Reformed Catholic Christians, deeply rooted in the theological heritage of the church. The one person/two natures Christology of the Definition of Chalcedon is echoed in the great Puritan confessions; Westminster, Savoy and Second London. If you want to avoid sounding like a hawker of dodgy doctrine, it should also reverberate in your preaching.

Preacher, don't be a numpty, read systematic theology. Capiche?

Plague Journal: Week 1Week 2, Week 3Week 4Week 5Week 6Week 7, Week 8

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Plague Journal: Week 8

"She has done what she could" (Mark 14:8). Those words were spoken by Jesus to the woman who poured costly ointment over his head days before his crucifixion. In John's account (John 12:1-8) she is identified as Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. Some of Jesus' disciples scolded her. What a waste. Better had the ointment been sold and the proceeds given to the poor, Mark 14:5. Jesus defended Mary, however. He understood that she had anointed his body beforehand for burial, Mark 14:8-9. 

Jesus' commendation of Mary in the teeth of criticism from others has been a comfort to me in trying to maintain ministry during lockdown. Not that I've been subject to an onslaught of criticism. Our people have been very supportive of my efforts, such as they are. But it's encouraging to reflect that our Lord Jesus accepted Mary's offering in these terms, "She has done what she could". Many of us pastors have struggled in getting to grips with video technology. Our efforts at Livestreaming or pre-recording ministry don't exactly have Hollywood style production values. In my case, it's just me in my study recording stuff on my Android mobile phone. Usually in one take. 

When the videos are posted online for our people to view, my wife likes me to sit and watch them with her, which is a bit excruciating. If anyone's acting like Mary's carping critics, it's me. 'Awful', I think. If I tried to sell a 'box set' of my YouTube videos I doubt the proceeds would raise much, if anything, for the poor. Certainly not "more than three hundred denarii" (Mark 14:5). Maybe other preachers in a similar situation feel the same? No doubt we can mitigate the awfulness somewhat by correcting the irritating habits of speech we notice, or whatever, but it's never going to be great, is it? We're preachers, not TV preseners. 

Preaching involves a living interaction between preacher and people. The preacher will (hopefully) have a clear structure in mind. He will have given thought to the substance of his message; exposition, doctrine, illustrations, application, etc. But things will always be a little rough around the edges, with room for improvisation in the act of preaching as the congregation responds. For all its miniature marvels, my trusty Xperia XA2 can't replicate that. You do what you can.

Last Sunday morning I spoke on Psalm 48, 'The City of God and the City of Earth'  in the evening on 1 Timothy 3:16, 'No fear of condemnation, but hope of resurrection'. Wednesday evening's 'Prayer Meeting' talk was on Exodus 31:1-11, 'Gifted to Build for God'. 

The usual May Bank Holiday Monday was moved to the Friday of this week to accommodate the VE Day 75th Anniversary celebrations. Pubic events had to be cancelled due to social distancing, but the BBC broadcast some good programmes on the day.  Work-wise, taking the Friday off meant I had to finish preparation for and recording of messages for the coming Sunday by Thursday afternoon. Saturday is my day off.

As I think I've said before that the mic quality is quite poor on my PC and my Laptop's doesn't work at all. Which has meant I've tended to use my phone for Skype and Zoom events. The trouble is that the mobile app version of both things is a bit limiting. I have a HD webcam with built in mic on order, but in the meantime I bought a cheapo widget thing from eBay, an 'External Virtual USB Stereo Sound Card Audio Adaptor Converter', £2.80. Anyway, it works. I was able to use my Laptop for Wednesday evening's Zoom Prayer Time.

On Thursday afternoon I took part in a FIEC Online Local Conference, South West for church leaders. Again, via Zoom. This time on my PC using the mic widget. It was a useful time. Although I had to fiddle with the Zoom settings to make myself heard, as the mic volume was set to zero by default. Got there in the end. About 20 of us took part, maybe a few more. Some of whom I knew. Johnny Prime, FIEC Associate Director led the event and spoke helpfully on Hebrews 13:7, challenging us to pass on a good legacy to those who follow us.

We watched a pre-recorded talk by National Director John Stevens on the sadly salient topic of pastoral abuse. The talks were interspersed by breakout groups in 'Zoom rooms' for prayer and discussion. I must admit I was a bit flummoxed by a question Johnny addressed to us all, 'What has made you smile when ministering during lockdown? 

I'm a veteran of many ministers' conferences and fraternals, but I've never been asked that before. Nothing in my training at the London Seminary, or years of pastoral experience had prepared me for such a query. We are jointly FIEC and Grace Baptist. I'm sure the Second London Baptist Confession, 1689 doesn't even mention anything about smiling. I was minded to grumpily dismiss the question, but those who responded before me managed to find some cheerful enough things to say, so I thought I should make an effort.

When my time came I mentioned how our people have been supporting each other and doing things like distributing audio CDs to those who can't access my video messages online. 'A typical FIEC question' was my parting shot. Certainly the move from personal interaction to Zoom meetings doesn't make me smile much. I resonated with Giles Fraser's recent article, Zoom takes away a piece of our souls. So draining. Especially when asked about smiley stuff.

I don't know what's going on in the government's press office. Earlier in the week it seemed that journalists had been tipped off that on Sunday evening the Prime Minister was going to announce a considerable easing of lockdown restrictions. 'Happy Monday' screamed the tabloid headlines. Now the indications are that a little modest easing is in order. More like another Blue Monday.  Chatting to pastor pals the consensus is that regular church meetings and activities won't be resuming for some time yet.

In answer to Johnny's question I was tempted to mention the lighter moments in Robert Letham's Systematic Theology. But that seemed a bit pretentious. Not at all like me. Progress update. As of last week I was on p. 409. Since then I've read Part 5, 'The Covenant of God', taking me to p. 468. Letham's key insight is that all of the biblical covenants (with the possible exception of the Noahic) are covenants of grace regulated by law. That includes the original 'covenant of life' with Adam. The Mosaic covenant is not therefore a republication of the covenant of works understood in strictly meritorious terms.

Letham helpfully distinguishes between the covenant of life, which was abrogated with the fall of Adam (but with ongoing effects), and the law which continues as an expression of what God demands of his human image bearers. The Ten Commandments give perfect expression to God's abiding  requirements. Grace does not set law aside. Rather, it is through grace that the law's demands are fulfilled for us by Christ and in us by the Spirit. Letham has a well aimed dig at New Covenant theology at this point.

I wouldn't agree, though, that the Abrahamic/Mosaic/Davidic covenants are administrations of the overarching covenant of grace, per the Westminster Confession of Faith. The covenant of grace was revealed in embryonic form in the promise of Genesis 3:15 and was further disclosed under the various biblical covenants. It was by believing in that promise that people were saved during the Old Testament period. But there is a difference between promise and fulfillment. The covenant of grace was only promulgated with the coming of the new covenant in Christ's blood, Hebrews 9:15-17.

The covenant of grace is between God and the elect in Christ. Not all who belonged to the Old Testament covenants were necessarily elect, as covenant membership was based on natural descent, Romans 9-11. The Old Testament dispensations were 'covenants of promise'. Their function was to point forward to the full realisation of the covenant of grace in Christ the Mediator.

With the coming of the 'Seed of Abraham', membership of the new covenant is on the basis of repentance and faith, symbolised by baptism, Acts 2:38. The types and shadows of the old covenant are no more. In Christ we have the substance. Next up is Part 6, 'Christ the Son of God', on the person and work of Christ. Very much looking forward to it.

At my induction service Andrew Davies preached on Colossians 1:28, 'Him [Christ] we proclaim'. That is indeed our calling, whether we proclaim Christ to a church gathering, or to those who watch our online efforts. When it comes to our faltering attempts at ministering in lockdown we can take heart from our Lord's words to Mary, 'She has done what she could'. He warmly commended her saying, 'She has done a beautiful thing to me.' (Mark 14:6). Our ministry vids may lack the slick professionalism of party political broadcasts, but if we seek to proclaim Christ and extol his worth, we have done a beautiful thing.

Oh, and my bid won in the auction for a 'Reversible Bucket Hat' on eBay. I gave it a try out when we went for a walk to Bratton Camp & Westbury White Horse on Friday. (Photos below). Cool, eh? Made me smile, anyway. FIEC should make them standard issue for pastors.

Plague Journal: Week 1Week 2, Week 3Week 4Week 5Week 6, Week 7.

Monday, May 04, 2020

‘A very present help in trouble’

As I write (for 20 April deadline*) the government has announced that lockdown will continue for another three weeks. Ministers insist that they will follow the science when it comes to deciding when to ease measures designed to combat coronavirus. The trouble is that responding to Covid-19 is an inexact science. Experts don’t always agree on the best way forward. Some public health advisors worry that the economic and social effects of prolonged lockdown could be devastating. Maybe by the time you read this the Prime Minister will be back at the helm and an exit plan will have been announced.

Who knows? Christian believers have been just as affected as everyone else when it comes to  the current pandemic. Our faith gives us no immunity from viruses, or the disruption of lockdown measures. All of our church services and activities have been suspended. Fellowship is maintained by means of phone calls and Skype. Messages from the Bible are no longer proclaimed in church buildings, but posted online via YouTube and Facebook (see our website for more info:

Covid-19 has exposed the limits of human knowledge, political leadership and scientific expertise. Hopefully we’ll get out of this eventually, but no one can be sure how, or when. Our sense that, ‘I am the master of my fate and captain of my soul’ has taken a serious knock. The fact is that we were never really in control. Our best laid plans were always subject to disruption by unforeseeable events. Coronavirus has just brought this home to us in a big way.

In a changing and uncertain world we need a message of hope that has stood the test of time. For generations believers have found encouragement in the words of Scripture. Psalm 46 assures us, ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’. The psalm affirms, ‘The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress’. God came to be with us in his Son, Jesus Christ. He is ‘Immanuel, God with us’ in human form. Jesus entered our world of suffering and grief to break the powers of sin and death. He died on the cross and rose again that we might be forgiven and have the hope of eternal life.

Psalm 46 points beyond this passing world to the City of God. The Book of Revelation offers a wonderful vision of that city where God will dwell with his people for ever: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.’” (Revelation 21:3-4).

One day pandemics will be a thing of the past. In the meantime it is good to know that we can turn to God and find him ‘a very present help in trouble’.

* For News & Views, West Lavington Parish Magazine and White Horse News 

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Plague Journal: Week 7

Boris is back. A bit breathless in his appearance at the Downing Street Covid-19 briefing on Thursday, but back. Political attention is now more clearly focused on how the country will emerge from lockdown. Such is the public's fear of coronavirus that the government may have a job on its hands in persuading people to return to work once lockdown measures have started to ease. When exactly churches will be able to gather in their buildings is far from clear. I guess we're likely to be bracketed with pubs, restaurants, cinemas and other public meeting places. If, so we may have to wait for some time before our regular services and activities resume. Even then, it will be church life, but not as we know it.

Some church members may be still shielding, or living with someone who is. They won't be able to attend meetings. Smaller churches with mostly older congregants may find that their services won't be viable until a vaccine is rolled out, or some other way is devised of allowing vulnerable people  safely to leave their homes. For larger churches, what if a limit is placed on the number of people permitted to gather for a meeting? Not a problem for us, but it looks as though we may be in a position where some of our people will be able to meet, while others, not. If so, we'll need to continue posting video ministry online and maintaining fellowship by phone and Skype/Zoom/Whatever. 

Questions, questions. What about church members' meetings where important decisions are made and finances reported? Thought will need to be given as to how we can avoid  members with no internet access being disenfranchised, as they can't join in online members' meetings. I guess they could dial in for Zoom meetings, but it won't be the same. And then, what about Toddler Groups in a world of social distancing, or children's meetings, or outreach activities that involve cooking and eating? Could we even be in a position where refreshments can't be served after Sunday services? Isn't there something in the FIEC Doctrinal Basis that the provision of tea, coffee and squash after services is one of the marks of a true church?   

The 'new normal' to use the hackneyed phrase is going to force us to take a long hard look at what church meetings and activities may be like in the months ahead. The 'old normal' may not begin to return until sometime in 2021. In the meantime we continue as best we can. Last Sunday I posted ministry videos on Psalm 47 in the morning and John 17 in the evening. I recorded the John 17 one after lunch on Sunday, hoping to post it on our Facebook page at 6.00pm. But after uploading it on to YouTube, it got stuck at 95% for the processing bit and was posted later than billed. The previous Wednesday I concluded a mini-series on Colossians 1:9-14 for our 'Prayer Meetings'. This week I resumed the pre-lockdown Bible Studies on Exodus, with a message on Exodus 30:17-38. I didn't want to make too much reference to the current pandemic, as people get enough of that in the news. But Exodus 30:21 included this instruction, 'they shall wash their that they may not die'. There's no getting away from it. 

Following a trial run Zoom meeting on Monday evening, we used Zoom for our Wednesday 8.00pm prayer time. Much better sound and image quality than Skype and one of our people was also able to join the meeting by phone. 

On Friday evenings we would normally have our One Way Club for primary school aged children. In place of that we had a 'virtual' OWC, posting Part One of a series of  story/activity videos on the Life of Moses. All these videos are filmed using my Android phone, which are then uploaded to YouTube and posted on the church Facebook page at the regular meeting times. I also host the Zoom meetings with my phone, which means I can't access all the features. The sound and video quality on my PC and laptop aren't good enough. As it looks as though we're in this for the long haul, I've just ordered a HD webcam with built in mic, which will enable me to film videos and host Zoom meetings using my laptop. Should help, when it is eventually delivered.

I was interested to listen to a Pastors' Academy podcast, 'John Webster for Pastors: A Conversation with Mike Allen' hosted by their Tutor in Ethics, Matthew Mason. I enjoyed Webster's Holiness, which was recommended by Allen as a good place to start and also his Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. The podcast discusses Webster's contribution to the world of theology and some of the key themes in his writings. Well worth a listen. 

Speaking of theology, I'm still not making as much progress as I would like with Robert Leatham's Systematic Theology. Last week I was up to p. 365, now I'm on p. 409. I read chapter 13, 'Humanity in Sin', which was sobering, but very well done. Letham refuses to choose between the 'realist' and 'federalist' views on the transmission of Adam's sin. Adam is both our common ancestor and representative head.  The chapter ends with this magnificent quote from Herman Bavinck, "believers are willing to look at the disturbing reality of life; they do not scatter flowers over graves, turn death into and angel, regard sin as mere weakness, or consider this is the best of all possible worlds. Calvinism has no use for such drivel." (p. 400). I'm just a little way into Part 5, and the chapter on 'Election and the Counsel of Redemption'. So far an irenic, gracious, and solidly Reformed treatment. I'm reading a review copy of the book for the Banner of Truth Magazine. The deadline is the end of May, so I'd better get my skates on. 

Still enjoying The Crown. The Queen's first PM was Winston Churchill, political hero of the current incumbent of 10 Downing Street. We watched Series 1 Episode 9 last night. Very powerful and poignant drama, featuring Graham Sutherland painting Churchill's portrait for the Prime Minister's 80th birthday. Winston hated it, as it showed him as the old man he had become. 'Change and decay in all around I see, O thou who changest not, abide with me.'

Pic from today's wander along the Westbury to Bratton bridle path below. 

Plague Journal: Week 1Week 2, Week 3Week 4Week 5, Week 6

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Plague Journal: Week 6

A song I really hated in the late 70s was 'Video Killed the Radio Star' by The Buggles. A harbinger of trashy 80s synth pop. At the time (1979) the angry class war of The Jam's 'Eton Rifles' was more my thing. But we're all wannabe video stars now in the ongoing disaster movie that is the coronavirus pandemic. One of those disaster movies where the protagonists are lost in a wood where dangers lurk behind every tree. 

Preachers make for poor 'video stars'. We have a go. Our sermons are livestreamed via Facebook Go Live, or pre recorded on YouTube and posted at the usual church service times. It's ministry, but not as we know it. Video negates the element of human interaction between preacher and congregation that is of the essence of true preaching. Messages are delivered to an unblinking camera that captures every awkward pause for thought and odd facial expression.

The thumbnail extracted from YouTube videos when the things are posted online always seems to pick a shot of the speaker with a weird face on. I only just found out you can select the thumbnail from a few options. I take comfort from John Benton's 'Face for Radio? blog. John helpfully points out that when it comes to our video efforts, pastors are not show ponies. We are ministers of the Word. Biblical substance matters more than a slick presenting style.  

The journalist John Rentoul had a long running series of articles in The Independent newspaper, Questions to Which the Answer is "No!" Robert Strivens adds to the list in his blog, 'Are we meeting online?' Flesh and blood interactions cannot be replicated on the internet or by phone call. All we can do, says Robert, is encourage each other as best we can in these strange times, even as we long to gather together in person once more. 

That said, I'm gradually getting used to ministry via YouTube. When I'm really gripped by the message self-consciousness recedes and I feel a bit more free. Last Sunday I spoke on Psalm 46 & John 20:24-31. Wednesday's 'Prayer Meeting' talk was on Colossians 1:12-14. My wife asked whether I might smile a little more in these videos. I guess that's another Question to Which the Answer is "No!"

Like others, our church fellowship and prayer meetings are taking place via video conference call. It's been Skype for us on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday evenings, but I've been told Zoom is the way to go. I took part in my first Zoom meeting on Wednesday morning, under the auspices of South West Gospel Partnership. Seemed to go OK. A better format than Skype for group chats. It was good to know that some of the larger churches are pretty much doing the same things as us, but on a bigger scale. It was also useful to reflect on what church life and activities might look like post-lockdown, but with shielding (for some) and social distancing (for all) still in place. See here for a SWGP blog reflecting on 'Ministry in the Coronavirus age'. 

We had a church officers' meeting via Skype on Thursday evening. We reviewed how things are going, considered whether all of our people were getting regular contact and checked that Bible ministry was getting through to everyone. CDs are being delivered to people with no internet access. I'm going to host a Zoom 'dummy run' meeting for church officers on Monday evening as a step towards moving to that format in place of Skype. With a bit of help from my techy friends I've worked out how to allow those with only a landline to participate in Zoom meetings, which will enable us to include more of our people in times of fellowship and prayer.

Each month I write articles for local parish magazines circulated around the villages of Dilton Marsh and West Lavington. The Dilton Marsh mag is only published in hard copy and won't be coming out in May due to lockdown. To my surprise they've found a way of posting the West Lavington one online, and so the editor was in touch to see if I could do something. I submitted a piece on, 'A very present help in trouble', reflecting on the current crisis from a Christian perspective. I'll post it on the blog in due course.  

Friends have for some time been waxing lyrical about Netflix drama, The Crown. Not having a subscription, it passed us by. Three ten episode series have now come out. We only usually watch a bit of telly in the evenings. Before the pandemic struck I often had meetings of various kinds at that time of the day, so catching up would have been difficult. Plus, you have to pay a monthly fee for Netflix, which would have been on top of our Virgin Media bill. However, last Saturday we took the plunge, paid our £5.99 and now we're six episodes in to Season 1. We thought we'd splash out now that we can no longer go out for lunch on a Saturday (my day off), or watch a film in the cinema, etc.

Overall, The Crown is really well done. Brilliantly acted. Some elements are in poor taste, though. The coronation episode was especially poignant, with the juxtaposition of the Duke of Windsor watching the Queen getting crowned on TV. The first couple of shows were dominated by the demise of King George VI. It's an iron rule in film and telly land that if a character coughs, they are bound to die soon. Poor old George coughed a lot, which was a bit covidy, but it was lung cancer, not a virus that did for him.

My current 'big read' is Systematic Theology by Robert Letham. Last week I'd got as far as page 311. Now I'm on Part 4: The Image of God, this week reading chapters 11 & 12 on 'Humanity in Creation' and 'Humanity in Covenant', which brought me up to p. 365. Very helpful treatments, especially of the 'covenant of works', or 'covenant of life' in chapter 12. Not a strict legal covenant, because God has always dealt with humanity on the basis of grace, regulated by works. Even more so after the fall. 'Humanity in Sin' is the next chapter. Letham's is rapidly becoming one of my favourite STs, although I guess I will have some disagreements with his Presbyterian stance on the covenant of grace and infant baptism. When will Reformed Baptists rise to the challenge of producing a landmark Systematic Theology? 

I was saddened to hear of the death of Irving Steggles earlier in the week. See this tribute by Bill James, current principal of London Seminary, where Irving served as chair of the board for many years. He was also moderator of Providence & Ebenezer churches when I was called to the joint-pastorate in 2003. A gracious and godly brother with a real heart for pastors and churches. "And I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Write this: blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on'. 'Blessed indeed,' says the Spirit, 'that they may rest from their labours and their works follow them'" (Revelation 14:13-14)

There are signs that the government is moving towards easing lockdown measures. The nod has been given for some sectors to get back to work. Writing in The Times on Saturday Matthew Parris was right to argue, Ministers can’t keep hiding behind the science. While ministers should take note of scientific advice, lifting lockdown is a political decision. A balance need to be struck. Yes, the vulnerable must be shielded and the NHS can't be overwhelmed by Covid-19 sufferers. Yet the economic and social costs of the government's 'stay at home' policy could prove disastrous if allowed to go on for too long. The indications are that PM will return to work sometime this week. He'll need the wisdom of Solomon as he grapples with the toughest call of his political life. At least we can pray on his behalf, James 1:5. 

For our Saturday walk we had a wander around Clanger and Picket Woods, where the bluebells are a magnificent sight at this time of year (see below). As we walked I couldn't help thinking of the Paul Weller track, 'Wild Wood', with its promise, 'you're gonna find your way out of the wild, wild wood'. 

Plague Journal: Week 1Week 2, Week 3Week 4, Week 5

Friday, April 17, 2020

Plague Journal: Week 5

Plague Journal: Week 1Week 2, Week 3, Week 4

On Thursday the government announced that lockdown will continue for another three weeks, as it is too early to relax the measures designed to combat coronavirus. Meanwhile, political leaders are under pressure to make their exit plans public. There is a growing realisation that the economic and social costs of a long-continued lockdown could prove disastrous. 

After last week's busyness on the ministry videos front, this week was a bit quieter. I prepared and recorded Easter Sunday talks on 'The sign of the prophet Jonah' and 'The last Adam became a life-giving Spirit'. I also made a 'Prayer Meeting' video on 'Strengthened with all power'. Pre-recording videos that are then uploaded to YouTube has meant I'm no longer battling with the frustrations of Facebook Go Live. 

But it makes doing the talks feel even more remote. Rattling on at my mobile phone screen isn't the same as preaching to a gathered congregation. I miss the personal interaction you get when preaching and, of course other aspects of gathered worship that can't be replicated online. A pastor friend of mine felt the same when we spoke on the phone the other day. 

We haven't worked out a way of singing together. It seems odd to record myself praying for people to view later, so I don't do that. The Lord's Supper is for the gathered church, 'when you come together', and we're not in a position to gather at the moment. On Easter Sunday evening I mused, 

There was no livestreaming of the body that stirred and stone that
moved on the first day of the week.

Nothing so remote as that. Only astonished eyes to see and fearful
tongues to tell, "The Lord is risen indeed".

Yes, there are some pros. Viewing stats suggest more people are watching the ministry videos than would ordinarily gather for our meetings. We've had some good chats and prayer times via Skype, but 'virtual church' is no substitute for the real thing. A number of our people aren't internet savvy, but recordings of my messages are being placed on CD for self-isolating members and friends of the fellowship to listen to. 

When speaking to some of our people by phone it has been encouraging to hear that they are bearing up well with the Lord's help and that others from church keeping in touch with them. 'Blessed be the tie that binds'. As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, 'But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavoured the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face'. (1 Thessalonians 2:17). 

Monday was a Bank Holiday, so Sarah and I went for a local walk along the bridle path between Westbury and Bratton. It was a lovely day and the route afforded a magnificent view of the town's White Horse. (See pic below). Slides shared at the daily Downing Street press briefings continue to show that the South West has the lowest number of hospital admissions due to Covid-19, which is something else to be thankful for, along with the beautiful countryside. 

I've been able to make a little more headway with Robert Letham's Systematic Theology. In last week's journal entry I was on p. 252, which was more or less in the middle of a very helpful chapter on The interpretation of Scripture, towards the end of 'Part 2: The Word of God'. Now I've just finished 'Part 3: The Works of God', with chapters 9 & 10 on Creation and Providence (up to p. 311). I'm really enjoying Letham's work, which is well written, biblically insightful, theologically rich and historically literate. Unlike some rather dry systematics, you get the impression that this one was written by a human being. 

He has a word of reassurance for devotees of disaster movies, "The Noahic covenant counters...the fear of universal annihilation through a collision with a large asteroid". (p. 295). Well, that's one less thing to worry about. There are even shafts of humour, "He [God] determined that it should rain this morning in Bridgend, Wales - he frequently decides this." (p. 297).

But there are also poignant passages where the author reflects on divine providence in relation to 'Evils, atrocities and major disasters'. We live in a world where trains crash and aeroplanes fall from the sky. Letham recalls hearing the sound of the Harrow and Wealdstone train crash of October 8, 1952 where 112 people died and 350 were injured. He was not yet five years old when he and his mother heard a noise like the 'clash of a large pile of saucepans' twice over. A classmate was deprived of his father on that day.

Were Letham writing today, he might have added coronavirus to the mix. But God is sovereign in all things and nothing happens apart from the outworking of his will. The 'tapestry' of providence may look like a disordered mess of threads to us, but 'God sees the whole in one instantaneous act of cognition.' The resolution of the mystery of providence with all its riddles and enigmas is not for this age, 'being eschatological, at the last judgement, when God sets all things right.' (p. 310).

Until that day the church in this world of suffering and grief cries out, 'How long, O Lord?'