Friday, March 27, 2020

Plague Journal: Week 2

In Plague Journal: Week 1  I described how our churches responded to the government's measures to combat the spread of coronavirus, announced on Monday 16 March. Like most other fellowships we suspended all our regular meetings and activities. Older church members and those with underlying health conditions self-isolated. As a result pastoral visiting was also suspended. Pastoral phoning is now the order of the day. 

On Monday of this week I sent out an updated contacts list for members and friends of the church. Just getting that together was a hassle. The contact info I had for some people was out of date, meaning several corrected editions had to be sent out.  I tried to 'buddy-up' out and about members with those who are shut in. It seems to be working. When I ring members and friends they often mention that 'so-and-so' had been in touch with them. Our people are a lot more cheerful than I expected. Earlier this week Sarah (my wife) and I had a Skype chat with two of our members. They were full of the joy of the Lord and we had a little time of singing the Lord's praises together. 

Boris Johnson announced even stricter social distancing measures on Monday 23 March, which have affected us all in many respects. We are only leaving the house when necessary, combining our government approved daily walk with a visit to the shops/pharmacy. Members with serious health conditions are now in complete lockdown, making keeping in touch via phone, etc all the more important. 

Yes, we are trying to maintain contact via email, text, phone call and Skype, but there is no substitute for meeting one another in the flesh. Skype can sometimes be a bit fiddly. The other evening we could see one couple who had dialed in for a group chat/prayer time, but not hear them. I often find myself thinking of the words of the apostle John in 2 John 12 & 3 John 13-14, where he said he would rather talk with his fiends face to face than write to them with pen and ink. Make that ring/Skype them. 

The initial novelty of getting to grips with livestreaming has given way to frustration at the limitations of the medium. I've been using Facebook's 'Go Live' feature on the Providence Baptist Church FB page. Sunday's talks went without a hitch, although my attempt to play guitar following the evening's effort provoked some hilarity. Wednesday's 'Prayer Meeting' talk on Colossians 1:9 was interrupted due to signal failure, even though I was broadcasting from my study, where the Wi-Fi router is located. 

I tried to get to grips with YouTube as an alternative to FB 'Go Live', but my laptop doesn't get on with it. Several friends have recommended Zoom. I've downloaded the app, but can't work out how to get it to do what I want. Which is, like 'Go Live', to create a publicly accessible livestream, which can then then posted for people to view later. I guess it'll have to be 'Go Live' for now, although if the signal fails once more during a livetream,  I may instead pre-record videos and then post them at our regular meeting times. We'll see. 

Sunday morning's talk was based on Psalms 42-43, which seemed apt. In the evening I spoke on the fact that Jesus 'suffered and died alone that his people may never be alone'. Obviously talking to my mobile screen isn't the same as preaching to a congregation, where there is an element of interaction with the people. But needs must, and it's encouraging to note that more viewers seem to be accessing the ministry than would usually gather with us on a Sunday.  

These are odd days in many ways. I expected to have a bit more time on my hands without the regular round of church meetings and activities, but time somehow seems to have sped up. Other pastors I've spoken to have said the same. Just trying to get YouTube to work took a while, all to no avail. Frustrating. That said, I have been able to get some sustained reading done, enjoying Robert Leatham's (excellent so far) Systematic Theology. I'm up to p. 237 of a 1072pp book. Preparation had to be done for Wednesday evening's talk and notes made for Sunday's livestreams. I posted a review of The Shadow of Calvary, by Hugh Martin on the blog.

The NHS is doing a marvellous job in immensely challenging circumstances, as are other essential services. Schools are doing their bit by looking after the children of key workers. Earlier in the week I responded to the call to serve as a 'GoodSAM' volunteer. Intriguing that the initiative is named after a parable of Jesus (Luke 10:25-37). Still waiting to hear what they want me to do. We tried to drop off some food and essential items at Crosspoint  this afternoon, but it was shut. Another chap arrived with a bag full of goodies at the same time as us. Was supposed to be open. Maybe they are having difficulty in getting people to staff the facility? 

I hope the government's restrictions on everyday life will be lifted as soon as can be done. Our civil liberties should only be curtailed temporarily. The over 70s often help run things like food banks, which are now struggling to operate when needed most. Churches are an active presence in their communities, organising toddler groups and so on. It seems a bit excessive that solitary dog owners are having their collars felt (slight pun intended) by the police for diving their cars to remote spots to take their pets for a walk.

Today it was announced that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock are now in self-isolation, having contracted coronavirus. I pray that they will have a speedy recovery and that God will guide them as they continue to lead the government's response to COVID19. Human frailty is common to all, for

"All  flesh is like grass
    and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
    and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord remains for ever.”

I look forward to the time when the scattered church is able to gather for worship, fellowship and service once more. In the meantime, I plan to have another go at livestreaming some Bible ministry on Sunday at 10.30am & 6.00pm and on Wednesday at 7.30pm on our Providence Baptist Church FB page. With the help of God, we press on. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Shadow of Calvary, by Hugh Martin

 Banner of Truth Trust, 2016, 250pp

At the Banner of Truth Ministers' Conference it is customary for speakers to recommend titles that attendees might like to purchase from the bookshop. I believe it was on the strength of Sinclair B. Ferguson's recommendation that I bought The Shadow of Calvary by Hugh Martin. Ferguson spoke warmly of Martin's penetrating insight into the biblical text and of his rigorous use of 'holy reason' to draw out the precious truths contained therein. I must confess that having  flicked through the book, I placed it to one side in my study and didn't pick it up again for a year or so. 

I had been preaching a series of sermons loosely based on the words of 1 Peter 1:10-12, which speak of the 'sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories'. I had devoted several messages to various aspects of Christ's suffering and then wanted to zero in on the events leading up to Calvary. Namely, our Lord's prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, his arrest and trial. Yes, I have various commentaries on the Gospel accounts of these events, but they can sometimes be lacking in theological reflection, which is what I was after. 

A bit like when Pharaoh's cup bearer remembered his fault in forgetting to put a word in for Joseph, I also recalled Hugh Martin's neglected book near the bottom of a 'to read' pile in my study. I'm glad I did. Reading Martin is like entering another world. His handling of the biblical narratives of Gethsemane, the arrest and trial of Christ is freshly original without being quirky. Martin had the knack of bringing out the doctrinal meat of a passage that had always been there, but you had not necessarily noticed it before. If Martin's reading of Scripture is theological, don't take that to mean his material is in any way dryly abstruse. Here you will find 'theology on fire' as the author unfolds the logic of gospel truth and warmly applies it to his readers. 

A few examples will have to suffice. At one point in his consideration of Jesus' prayer in the Garden, Martin ponders why our Lord was in such an agony over the prospect of bearing his people's sin. Why did he pray repeatedly to the Father, 'If it be possible take this cup from me, but not my will, but yours be done'? After all, Jesus was not about to become personally sinful and face the judgement of God upon his own sin. Rather he was going to bear the weight of his people's sin imputed to him. Martin's use of gospel logic is astounding at this point. He asks the believer whether having Christ's righteousness imputed to them fills them with great joy, even though it is not their own righteousness, but an alien righteousness that is put to their account? And so similarly, our Lord felt agonising sorrow over the prospect of 'becoming sin for us', with the cup of God's wrath pressed to his lips in our place. 'It is difficult to understand the sorrow and amazement of agony of a holy being in having sin thus by imputation imposed upon him'. (p. 26). 

Again, Marin considers why our Lord had to die having been arrested by legitimate authorities and then duly tried, rather than at the hands of an angry mob? Because, he explains, our Lord had not come to die as a  martyr to a cause, but as a sin-bearing sacrifice. As Romans 13 tells us, the 'governing authorities' are 'instituted by God'. The ruler is 'an avenger who carries our God's wrath on the wrongdoer'. Jesus was to be 'numbered with the transgressors', arrested, tried and condemned in our place. That is why he  did not resist arrest. That is why he remained silent before his accusers and judge. Jesus could not plead his own case and that of his people's before heaven's throne. 

As Martin reasons, 
There must be an explanation that will gloriously vindicate the justice of God in pursuing and prosecuting legally the man of sorrows. There must be an explanation which will not merely vindicate the character of God, in the sense of showing that this process or prosecution which the divine 'determinate counsel' carried on, is no impeachment of divine justice... There must be an explanation which will even swallow up the scandal in glory and make the very offence of the cross a fountain and a revelation of his high moral excellence and triumph - not only not the eclipse, but the victory of righteousness. 
The doctrine which thus at once vindicates the personal innocence of Jesus and the public righteousness of God, and transforms the scandal into glory, and the shame into moral loveliness, is the suretyship and substitution of Jesus in the room of his people, with the imputation to him, thereon, of his people's transgressions. (p. 95-96)
The writer did not content himself with mere exegesis of the details of the text. He perceived and set forth the driving theological message the Evangelists wished to convey. He was also profoundly aware that his readers had an eternal future ahead of them. In Chapter 12 Martin contrasts believing Nathan to whom Jesus says, 'hereafter you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man' (John 1:51), with unbelieving Caiaphas, to whom Jesus says, 'Hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven'. (Matthew 26:63-64). Martin presses the point home, 'You must either stand with Caiaphas in rejecting the Christ or with Nathaniel on receiving him. Each of them has a 'Hereafter'. And the question is, which of these two 'Hereafters' do you prefer? 'Today, while it is called today', you have your choice. 'Behold, now is the accepted time: behold, now is the day of salvation.' (p. 232-233).

We can certainly go to Hugh Martin (1822-85) for an enriched understanding of Scripture, but he is also a fine model of warm-hearted doctrinal preaching. How often do contemporary preachers 'stand as if they pleaded with men' to receive the offer of salvation in Christ?  

I hoped to be able to buy a copy of The Atonement by Hugh Martin at this year's Banner Ministers' Conference, but it was one of the many events that had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak. Martin's work on the cross of Jesus was the next title we were due to discuss in our local theological study group. Who knows whether June's meeting will be able to go ahead? One thing is sure, time spent in the Shadow of Calvary and contemplating Christ's Atonement is never wasted. We look to the one who 'took our illnesses and bore our diseases', that 'with his stripes' this sin-sick world might be healed (Matthew 8:17, Isaiah 53:5). 

Friday, March 20, 2020

Plague Journal: Week 1

The week began as weeks always used to. On the first day of the week Providence Baptist Church gathered to worship God. Even then, there was a sense of foreboding. After the service we discussed whether our Holiday Bible should go ahead during the Easter break, given the developing coronavirus crisis. We opted to wait and see what additional measures were announced by the government before making a final decision. It seemed our our plans were no more written in concrete, but sand. And the tide was coming in. (James 4:13-15). 

On Sunday mornings I've been preaching through the Book of Jeremiah. The chapters are quite long, so I've tended to focus on the overall theme of a chapter, or pick out a key verse. Reading Jeremiah 6 to the congregation I was struck with how applicable it was to our current panicky situation, with the prophet's talk of an enemy at the gates and 'terror on every side'. The Word Health Organisation has described coronavirus as 'an enemy against humanity'. I preached on Jeremiah 6:14. See here for recordings of the Jeremiah series. The one on Jeremiah 6 should be added soon. 

At the conclusion of the service we gathered around the Lord's Table to eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of Jesus. I didn't say anything at the time, but as we partook of the Supper together, I wondered whether this might be the last occasion we would be able to enjoy Communion together for some while. I used the doxology found in Hebrews 13:20-21 to bring the service to a close. 'Now may the God of peace...equip you with everything good to do his will'. We certainly need God's help as we seek to find new ways of maintaining fellowship when we can't meet and serving our community when our regular activities are at a standstill. 

On Sunday afternoon we had a 'Bake Through the Bible' activity meeting, which was well attended by a number of families with younger children. A clear gospel message was given on the Philippian jailer's question, 'What must I do to be saved?' Future BTTB meetings have been cancelled until further notice. 

As no school closures had yet been announced, our Bright Sparks parent and toddler group ran as usual Monday morning. I normally give a number of helpers a lift there, my wife included. But  I was otherwise engaged, giving a talk on Thomas Goodwin's A Child of Light Walking in Darkness to a Ministers' Fraternal in Honiton, Devon. All the chatter over coffee on arrival and at lunch afterwards concerned the possible impact of  coronavirus on our churches. 

Every third Sunday we take in donations for the local foodbank . On my way home from the fraternal I popped into the Chapel to pick up the stuff our people had provided and took it to Crosspoint. As usual, it was a big tub full, plus several large bags of food and  other essential things. Supplies were already running low and the centre is run mostly by over 70's, who have now been told to keep away from public places. Shops are running out of foodbank staples like pasta and tinned foods. I hope vulnerable people aren't left to go hungry as foodbank stocks are depleted. We need to keep giving if we can. I've encouraged our people to use a 'Love Your Neighbour' flyer (see here) as a way of offering practical help to self-isolating neighbours. 

Later in the afternoon the Prime Minister made his announcement on added social distancing measures to combat COVID 19. People were advised to avoid all pubs, cinemas, theaters and other public gatherings. Church meetings weren't mentioned explicitly,  but the strong implication was that they should stop. Health Secretary Matt Hancock later confirmed this in answer to a question in the House. The FIEC has produced this helpful guidance for churches. 

Church members at Providence and Ebeneezer were informed that all our meetings and activities had been suspended. What now? I thought I'd have a go at livestreaming some Bible ministry and found that could be done via the church's Facebook page. Scroll down to see an introductory video posted on Tuesday and something I did in lieu of our usual Wednesday evening Bible Study/Prayer meeting. Comments have varied from 'helpful message', 'encouraging message', to 'tidy up your study'. 

For as long as we can't meet I plan to livestream via FB at 10.30am & 6.00pm on a Sunday and at 7.30pm on a Wednesday. The videos will then be posted for people to view later. So far the two talks have attracted 363 and 216 views a piece, which is certainly reaching more people than would gather in our meetings. I'm toying with doing 3 talks for children in place of our Holiday Bible Club (was due to take place 7-9 April). I'll have to set up our digital projector in our living room and somehow film the PPT talks with my phone. We'll see. For church members who have it, Skype might also be a way of facilitating talking and praying together. 

Meanwhile, I've been updating the church contact list to help people stay in touch by phone. I'm in the process of buddying up members who can get out and about with those who can't to make sure everyone who is self-isolating gets a regular phone call to make sure they're OK. Sarah (my wife) and I will also try and ring people on a regular basis. John Benton of the Pastors' Academy has posted a very useful blog on Pastoring people you can't see in response to the coronavirus outbreak.  

Like most places, the supermarkets around here are quickly running out of essentials like toilet paper and handwash. We couldn't get any fresh meat in our local Lidl yesterday. But the High Street butcher had plenty, so we managed to get a free range chicken for our Sunday roast. Everything seems up in the air at the moment, but this is the United Kingdom and some things must go on as normal. Sunday roasts is one of them. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

'The Mystery of Providence', by John Flavel

Banner of Truth Trust, 1976 reprint, 221pp 

The other Friday was a bit crazy. On the way to dropping one family member off at the railway station and then taking another to the Doctors, my car had a puncture. I managed to get to the station on time, but had to change the tyre before driving to the surgery. The car jack was bolted down so tightly that I struggled to get it free. It was raining and cold, but the spare tyre was duly fitted. Thankfully the Doctors honoured the appointment, although by now we were running late. 

Later that morning I went to get a new tyre fitted. As I returned home, I found my key wouldn't open the front door. Apparently, the end had snapped off in the lock. Someone was home and was able to let me in, but now the lock wouldn't work on the outside, which was no good. A locksmith was called and the lock was replaced within hours. Great. But I needed cash to pay the tradesman and none of the cashpoints in town were working. Thankfully, my wife returned from work just at the right moment and we had to plunder her unspent Christmas money. 

Oh, and we also found out our boiler needed replacing on that day . 

Meanwhile I was trying to prepare a sermon for our Sunday evening service. 

As a good Calvinist I couldn't put all that down to 'bad luck'. It was part and parcel of what the Puritan John Flavel called 'The Mystery of Providence'. At one point in his work he counsels believers on how to bear up under 'dark and doubtful providences'. My experiences a few weeks ago were hardly Book of Job territory, but the feeling that whatever I did was going to go wrong left me wondering what weird stuff Providence might have in store for me next.

Well, since starting this post a few weeks ago and then putting it on the back burner, the coronavirus pandemic has blown a massive hole in everyday life. Including bringing regular church meetings and activities to a juddering halt. And I thought my 'freaky Friday' was bad. 

How can an old 17th century book help us come to terms with the ups and downs of life?

What is probably Flavel's most famous work is an an extended meditation on Psalm 57:2 His basic thesis is that 'The Church is [Christ's] special care and charge. He rules the world for its good, as a head consulting the welfare of the body' (p. 27). He divides his treatment into three main parts.
  • The evidence of Providence 
  • Meditation on the Providence of God 
  • Application of the Doctrine of Providence 
Flavel urges believers to consider the Lord's dealings with them. Our birth, conversion, employment, family life, and sanctification are all subject to the Lord's overruling providence. Meditating on providence will foster an attitude of gratitude in believers.

The Puritan preacher writes with great pastoral sensitivity, but not of the 'there, there, never mind' variety. He is tremendously robust in dealing with afflicted saints. Flavel will not leave us wallowing in self-pity when everything seems to be going wrong.
His sovereignty is gloriously displayed in His eternal decrees and temporal providences. He might have put you into what rank of creatures he pleased. He might have made you the most despicable creatures, worms, or toads: or, if men, the most vile, abject and miserable among men; and when you had run through all the miseries of this life, have damned you to eternity, made you miserable for ever, and all this without any wrong to you. And shall this not quieten us under the common afflictions of this life? (p. 130).
Yes, COVID-19 may have upset our holiday plans, disrupted our work and made us anxious for our health, but it could be worse, and deservedly so. You could be a despicable toad, or a damned soul in hell.

We don't know for how long coronavirus will mean restrictions on everyday life, or when we will be able to gather for worship once more with God's people. We can become impatient for the Lord to bring this horrid virus outbreak to an end. But Flavel won't let us off the hook. We who delayed repenting from sin and believing in Christ cannot complain if the Lord requires us to wait upon him a while before he answers our prayers.

Directives are given on how believers may know that 'afflictive providences' are being used for our spiritual good.
It is a good sign that our troubles are sanctified to us when they turn our hearts against sin, not against God. (p. 201) 
Never does a Christian take a truer measure both of his corruptions and graces, than when under the rod. (p. 203)
Flavel urges the practice of recording the Lord's providential dealings with us, for our own benefit and for the encouragement of others. Let me say that today we had a new boiler fitted. Seems to be working well. More efficient than the old one. Doesn't leak. Although the government's measures to deal with coronavirus means all our church meetings and activities have been suspended, Providence is opening up new ways of ministry and fellowship via phone and social media. We can still serve our local community. Our people are reaching out to elderly neighbours with offers of practical help and support. The Lord is good and his steadfast love endures for ever.

When reading The Mystery of Providence, I was often reminded of the hymn 'Great Providence of Heaven' by David Charles (1762-1834) translated from the Welsh by Edmund Tudor Owen. It's almost a sung version of Flavel's work. A hymn for our times. Listen here.

Here's a concluding thought from John Flavel for us to meditate on in these uncertain and anxious days:
How Providence will dispose of my life, liberty and labours for time to come, I know not; but I cheerfully commit all to Him who has hitherto performed all things for me (Psalm 57:2).