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Is Sunday School best for our children?

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On Sunday, our morning service began, and the church’s children were not with the adult congregation. That is usual. We hadn’t lost them somewhere in transit. Honest. Instead, they were in Sunday School and Bible Class with their teachers and leaders, taking part in age-appropriate lessons, complete with worship songs, games and crafts (for the youngest ones), all intended to reinforce the main teaching points for the day. After an hour, as the adult offering was being received, the children were reunited with the congregation for the final 25 minutes of corporate worship – the sermon having been delivered – but a vital 25 minutes or so in which the Apostles’ Creed and Lord’s Prayer normally are included. The children, minus those who attend the crèche, worshipped with the adult element of the congregation for about one third of the morning service.

Is that a good thing? Is that helpful to their Christian development and training? Is this the best way to disciple children and young people? It’s what we do. It’s what most churches do. John Piper doesn’t think we should.

In an article entitled ‘The Family: Together in God’s Presence‘, John Piper argues against the separation of children and their parents or guardians in the worship of the Church. He believes that this misses a key opportunity to teach children about the holiness of God and to expose them to the historic riches of the Church’s worship and spirituality. Nor does he believe that there should be a place in the collective worship of the Church for a specific ‘talk’ or ‘sermon’ directed at children. This only serves to introduce a mood of irreverence and chattiness into the joyful solemnity (my phrase, not his) that should characterise collective worship. There are 168 hours available in every week. Surely, for a short space of time on Sundays, the Church can turn away from the trivial and mundane:

we don’t have a children’s sermon as part of our Sunday morning service. It would be fun for the children, but in the long run would weaken the spiritual intensity of our worship. To everything there is a season. And we believe that, for at least one hour a week, we should sustain a maximum intensity of moving reverence

John Piper argues that the worship of the Church, when young and old gather together without age-differentiated learning, is akin to a healing balm for the rushed and harassed nature of modern life, in which the generations are hard-pressed to meet each other and to share in corporate activity. We are all so busy that we have no time to sit alongside one another; to be together. The corporate worship of the Church offers us a chance to sit beside each other, young and old. This is invaluable. Can we do without it? John Piper argues:

Worshiping together counters the contemporary fragmentation of families. Hectic American life leaves little time for significant togetherness. It is hard to overestimate the good influence of families doing valuable things together week in and week out, year in and year out.

It’s hard to resist the force of his pastoral argument, and I don’t intend to try. I find it convincing, albeit with some caveats. But this was the oft-repeated point made by William Still, for 52 years minister of Gilcomston South Church, in Aberdeen. He believed that the impact upon a young child of seeing his or her mother and father with head bowed on a Sunday morning in the presence of a holy and righteous God would make so deep an impression on the young personality that it would likely last for eternity. There is moving power in that argument, and as a young child I have never forgotten the sight of my rugby-playing father making his emotional way from the back of the Salvation Army hall to the mercy-seat at the front in order to repent of his sins and to make peace with God, having been convicted of sin by the Holy Spirit. These moments of human obeisance before an almighty yet merciful God indelibly impress themselves on children:

Children should see how Mom and Dad bow their heads in earnest prayer during the prelude and other non-directed times. They should see how Mom and Dad sing praise to God with joy in their faces, and how they listen hungrily to His Word. They should catch the spirit of their parents meeting the living God.

I remember, too, in that far off Salvation Army childhood, that Sunday School did take place, but that it took place before the start of the morning meeting, early on Sunday morning, and when it was done, the children then took their places with their parents in a form of corporate worship in which little concession was made for the presence of children. And what did we do? We read, or coloured in, whilst subliminally learning the hymnody of our church. We imbibed the holy scriptures. We heard snatches of sermons. And we learned the discipline of Christian worship. In time we believed, and we received Christ as understanding grew. Would this have happened otherwise? Not sure. This is what John Piper says:

Music and words become familiar. The message of the music starts to sink in. The form of the service comes to feel natural. The choir makes a special impression with a kind of music the children may hear at no other time. Even if most of the sermon goes over their heads, experience shows that children hear and remember remarkable things.

It may be a considerable unorthodoxy to suggest that the Sunday School, as good as it is, may also be the enemy of the best. It teaches, but doesn’t incorporate. A generalisation, I know, but is there some truth there? When children ‘leave’ the church on Sundays, after the children’s sermon/talk, and depart the sanctuary for Sunday School, will they come back, as teenagers, having spent most of their childhood without any serious exposure to the worship and ethos of the adult congregation? John Piper again:

We do not believe that children who have been in children’s church for several years between the ages of 6 and 12 will be more inclined or better trained to enjoy worship than if they had spent those years at the side of their parents. In fact, the opposite is probably the case.

I can’t escape the nagging feeling that we are not helping our children as much as we might by offering them a Sunday School. In effect, we may be unchurching many of them at the very moment in life at which we want them to learn from the piety of their parents and from the richness of the Church’s liturgy and worship. And there is always that small and sacrificial cohort of Sunday School and Bible Class teachers and leaders who faithfully, every Sunday, are denied a regular ministry of the word – particularly if there is no evening service – because they have left the church along with the children.

I think that John Piper over-eggs this particular pudding, but only a little. A good, well-delivered children’s sermon or talk serves an important purpose and need not damage the ‘intensity of moving reverence’ within collective worship. God is not averse to laughter or to the enjoyment of collective fun in the presence of his Spirit. But John Piper’s main point surely deserves reflection:

Worship is the most valuable thing a human can do. The cumulative effect of 650 worship services spent with Mom and Dad between the ages of 4 and 17 is incalculable.

Is the Sunday School doing all that we want it to do? Are most of us missing something crucial?

Don’t stone me, but I wonder.

Soli Deo Gloria

A glass ceiling for the Reformed?

give-take-compromiseThere hasn’t been any blogging on this site for some time – I’ll say something about that at some point soon – but the impulse is stirring once again and my attention has been caught by the current public process, initiated by the Church of Scotland, to find the next Moderator of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly.

The Moderator, whoever he or she will be next time round, will chair the Church’s week-long meeting of ministers, deacons and elder, held in Edinburgh every May, and will then visit various corners of the Church’s life and work to bring encouragement and to provide a degree of denominational cohesiveness.

In recent years, the job of annually selecting the General Assembly’s Moderator has retreated into greater secrecy and confidentiality than was the case in the past. This happened a small number of years ago, after some opposition from outside the relevant nomination committee to the candidacy of a moderatorial nominee, when the nominee’s name appeared in the media, as was customary, along with the names of the other candidates then under consideration. It was felt from that moment onwards, and with justification, that the work of the Church’s committee, given the task of finding a new Moderator, might be open to ‘outside interference’ if the names of moderatorial candidates were not kept entirely under wraps until the committee’s work was done and the successful candidate duly selected.

And now, a process that has for the reasons above become more confidential and closeted is, at the same time, pressing towards greater openness and involvement, at least to the extent that members of the Church of Scotland are being asked to suggest the names of possible candidates. This was once the private domain of the committee elected to nominate the Moderator. Now, we are in the age of ecclesiastical glasnost. We have greater openness. The Church’s members will be given a fair shout. And there are just six days left to submit your nomination, if you are so minded. There is even an online application form on which the candidates credentials, qualifications and consent to being nominated can be recorded.

With just six days to go, perhaps a good number of nominations have been posted. Who knows? Maybe some last minute applications will hastily be put together this weekend. No one has yet contacted me to ask me if I consent to being nominated, so I guess that this year will not be my year, which is a shame because I think that a Moderator looks better and more dignified in frills and lacework when in his fifties than when he is in his sixties, when he is more likely to take on an unmistakably Falstaffian or even piratical appearance. But what is much more to the point is whether or not a theological evangelical, with reformed biblical convictions, of any age and appearance can accept nomination within the next six days and be selected by the committee in due course, probably in October.

Evangelical ministers have been in a small minority within the Church of Scotland since the Disruption. Our numbers have never been large but there were once signs of hope. Church of Scotland evangelicalism reached its peak at about a third of the Church’s ministry just prior to the recent domination of the Church by the revisionist trajectory and its agenda, when a number of ministers and Church members left in protest. The number of evangelicals may increase yet, but it is not clear if the number of evangelical ministry candidates coming from other countries and from other Churches will have any effect. The present state of affairs, then, is that that the number of possible evangelical candidates for the moderatorship of the General Assembly is small. You could perhaps count them on three fingers.

Is that significant? There is a  more basic issue than the number of potential candidates, and it concerns the role that the Moderator is expected to play, principally but not exclusively within the Assembly. Here is the real question. Can an evangelical minister or elder carry out the role of Moderator of the General assembly of the Church of Scotland with true evangelical and reformed integrity? Could an evangelical fulfil the role without compromising his or her reformed, biblical convictions along the way?

In recent years, the Church of Scotland has had evangelical Moderators. This brought a sense of hopefulness to evangelicals throughout the Church of Scotland, a wondering – is this the harbinger of something notable, the turning of the waning, reformed tide? But hopefulness for some soon turned to concern and disappointment for others. Evangelical Moderators continued to chair the Assembly meetings that facilitated and encouraged the development and dominance of the revisionist trajectory that is now taking over this Reformed Church. Ought they to have done so? They presided over the very Assemblies that led the Church further away from a biblical, historical and ecumenical understanding of the Christian life, with its emphasis on biblical faithfulness and gender complentarity as a revelation of the divine purpose for human flourishing at all times and in every age. They welcomed speaker after speaker who sought to lead the Church’s membership and the flock of God away from a biblical standpoint regarding marriage, from which the Church itself has not been able yet to formally depart.

I do not know why they participated in this. One can only assume that they did so because they believed that some greater good was in sight, and that the evangelical opportunities which the moderatorial year might bring would be worth spending the whole year holding one’s nose whilst administering liberal theology’s odiousness. I understand this, though I don’t agree with it. I thank them for their service. But I believe, on the other hand, that when reformed and evangelical Moderators serve the revisionist trajectory, a trajectory that redefines sin and holiness in the image and likeness of Man, this is a form of collusion that affirms on the one hand the desire of the Church to grant a place to evangelicalism whilst at the same time tying evangelicalism’s hands with the silken cords of Church office and preventing it from declaring a fully-orbed Gospel, of message and lifestyle.

Here is the remarkably under-recognised consequence. Some evangelicals will accept nomination to the moderatorial office. True. They know that the revisionist trajectory is wrong, but they will purse their lips and look away whilst hoping that good, Gospel things can go on in the midst of it all, for however long ‘it all’ will last. But other evangelicals, who might have served moderatorships characterised by godliness and evangelical zeal will feel that there is now a theological glass ceiling in place. There is the appearance of equal opportunity – nominations are sought from the Church’s membership – but the expectations of the Church for its Moderator will be of such theological breadth and diversity that they cannot compromise a bible-shaped conscience by accepting nomination to office. This is a great shame, and a source of weakness for the Church. The Moderator of genuine reformed doctrine and evangelical piety inescapably must further the revisionist project, and this they cannot do. They are forced instead to expend their efforts in the lower courts of the Church where, perhaps only in the Kirk Session, can the reformed and evangelical minister truly carry out a moderatorship that does not involve compromising one’s theological convictions by remaining true, paradoxically, to the Church’s confession and articles.

What is the bottom line? Evangelical and reformed ministers and elders are forced to retreat towards a ministry and Christian life that is de facto congregational in polity, simply because full participation in the presbyterian government of the Church, which they wish for and to which they felt called, now involves them more and more in the gradual abandonment of historical, presbyterian standards.

How much can we give and take?

Six days are left.

Soli Deo Glori

 

Kirk ministers and Roman Catholic bishops to ‘exchange’ roles and offices with one another

John Knox

The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is now just a couple of months away and a drip feed of likely proposals and plans will soon begin.

Amongst the many obvious issues that will make it on to the agenda, there is one that is guaranteed to raise eyebrows and generate debate.

In this age of ever-closer ecumenical co-operation, in which experienced churchmen are ‘loaned’ out to help with difficult issues, the General Assembly this year will be asked to approve a novel gesture in which some senior ministers of the Kirk and some bishops of the Roman Catholic Church will ‘exchange’ roles and offices with one another, in a one-of-a-kind exchange of ministries not ever seen anywhere else.

Even though the failed effort of SCIFU is far from forgotten, the General Assembly will be asked to agree that some of the Kirk’s ministers be ‘seconded’ for a year to the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland to serve as temporary diocesan bishops – there is a shortage – albeit with restricted sacramental authority, whilst a small number of Roman Catholic bishops be permitted to ‘guest’ serve as Moderators in a number of selected and willing Presbyteries.

It’s hoped that greater understanding and fraternal closeness will emerge, and perhaps a cross-fertilization of liturgical ideas and theological insights. Sources say that if it goes well, it could become a regular opportunity for both sets of clergy, like a sort of international student exchange programme or work experience project.

It can only be a good thing.

‘Moderator Designate withdraws from Church of Scotland’s annual gathering due to ill health’ – The Herald

The minister appointed to lead the Church of Scotland this year has withdrawn from the position due to ill health.

Moderator-designate Reverend Angus Morrison said he has made the decision reluctantly as he undergoes medical treatment.

A new appointment will be announced on April 2 ahead of the opening of the General Assembly on May 17.

The Church of Scotland said it is the first time in living memory that a moderator-designate has stood down.

Rev Morrison was due to take over the annual appointment from the Right Reverend Lorna Hood.

The minister of Orwell and Portmoak Church in Milnathort, Perth and Kinross, said: “This has been a very painful decision but deep down I feel it is the right one. I am undergoing medical treatment and anticipate an operation ahead.

“The demanding role of moderator requires someone to be operating on all cylinders. I do not have the necessary reserves just now.

“It is with huge regret and reluctance that I make this decision. My heartfelt prayers will be with all those on whom unexpected burdens now fall. May God’s guidance, strength and peace be given to each one.”

Read the rest of this article here

Exceptionally sad news that the Reverend Angus Morrison will not now be able to take up the responsibility of serving as the incoming Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Let us not fail to pray for Angus and for his family members as Angus deals with issues to do with his health and strength. We should pray, too, for his successor, due to be announced in the next couple of weeks or so.

Rev John Chalmers, principal clerk for the Church of Scotland, said: “We ask the whole Church to remember Angus and his family in their prayers and we hope that his health is fully restored in due course.

We will all no doubt agree wholeheartedly with the Principal Clerk and will want to to say ‘Amen’ as the Lord surrounds Angus and his family members with His grace and peace.

Soli Deo Gloria 

The Russian invasion of Crimea

They are rare moments indeed, but every now and then an event or an incident of global proportions comes along that shatters the fantasy of everyday life and smashes the illusion that all is well with the human race, that the march towards human improvement and emancipation is unstoppable and inevitable.

The Russian invasion of Crimea and its de facto annexation of the sovereign territory of the Ukraine is such a moment. In truth, other conflicts in other global hotspots ought to have the same effect on us but they don’t. It takes a military threat on our European doorstep to shake us out of our self-confidence and pride.

At the very moment of defence cuts to Western armed forces down to the lowest levels seen in seventy years, we are now seeing the massive deployment of Russian infantry and armour onto Ukrainian soil. Russian soldiers encircle Ukrainian servicemen and women in their barracks and outposts. Though a shot has yet to be fired, the rapidity and totality with which Russia has taken possession of the Crimea embarrasses and shakes the humanist mantra that the world and humanity are on the glad pathway towards a political and economic utopia, in which Church and faith will have no place, and where men and women will live peaceably with one another in mutual love, collaboration and back-slapping.

It is just so very unfortunate, isn’t it, when original sin and human fallenness pop up wearing the guise of international power politics and completely ruin the humanist party?

There has not been any shortage of humanists who have worked hard to make religionists of all shades and flavours the bad guys when it comes to tracing the root cause of all the world’s ills. They are everywhere in the mainstream and social medias. They have declared it time and time again. Faith is the fault. Religion is the reason. Religion per se is the fons et origo of the world’s wars and conflicts. Religion therefore has to be eradicated from the public sphere, or actively persecuted and harassed into the private realm if it will not go there peacefully and of its own accord. They conveniently overlook the untold millions who died in the purges of Stalin and Hitler.

But humanists don’t monopolise an optimistic view of human nature whilst at the same time cherishing a pessimistic view of human fallenness. Within the Western Church, the doctrine of original sin is an embarrassment to many, even to many amongst the evangelical and theological orthodox ranks, where it ought to be the starting point for all right thinking about salvation and justification. But even here, it just sounds so arcane. Evangelicals in worrying numbers believe that it is bound to turn people off who might otherwise be interested in choosing Christ as their personal faith option. By way of rationalization, they attribute it to the errant theology of a group of desert-based hermits and Church Fathers obsessed with sex and matters of the flesh they had renounced.

They refuse to see it in the theology of Paul

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned (Romans 5.12)

Or in the pointedly sarcastic and, dare I say it, biting words of Jesus,

And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2.17)

Or even in the first biblical hint of the Gospel, of a remedy for humanity’s rebellion in the Garden, the promise of a Saviour in Genesis.

And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel (Genesis 3:15)

And yet, deny it if you will, its fruit today carries an automatic weapon and stalks the streets of the Crimea. It lands on the beaches of Sebastopol. It makes threats of violence and offers ultimatums about attacks.

What we are looking at as we watch Sky, CNN or the BBC, is not just the foreign policy of a newly-confident Russia, seeking to get back to the glory days of its Soviet past. We are seeing what original sin looks like in the arena of modern geo-politics, all the more shocking because we expect it – and ignore it – in those parts of the world where the sun shines at its hottest. We don’t expect to be brought face to face with the ascendance of human sinfulness and unaccountability on the very doorstep of our blessed European Union.

The Westminster divines knew this full well. Against the historical backdrop of the English Civil War and the Covenanters conflict in Scotland, the brutal flowering of human sin was apparent. The propensity for men and women to inflict great hurt upon one another was obvious. And, it must be admitted, the distance men and women of faith could go from the example and teaching of their Lord and Master had provided sufficient evidence of the power of sin and the depth of its root and influence, even in lives apparently redeemed and baptised.

And so the Westminster divines, touching on our first parents, on their rebellion against God, and on the subject ‘Of the Fall of Man, of Sin, and the Punishment thereof’ wrote:

They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation (Ch 6, Westminster Confession of Faith).

Here is the cause of the conflict in the Crimea today, the underlying power and purpose of it. Here is the reason why Russian soldiers march so boldly up to the gateway to Europe. This is why Vladimir Putin ignores the West and presses forward with his geo-political goals and aspirations. This is why so many are butchered in Syria this morning, and why limbs are blown off in Afghanistan. It is sin, deeply-rooted in all men and women, traceable back to the origins of humanity, and not able to be removed from the human psyche by human means. The fons et origo of all oppression and violence, for its originator is no other than Satan himself, a murderer from the very beginning (John 8.84).

If the nations of the world do not know this, then we must acknowledge that the Church of Jesus Christ is in danger of forgetting it also, if it even believes it any longer. We have become so fixated on meeting the needs of communities and people, in physical and material terms, that we are dangerously close to forgetting that men and women need a Saviour who alone can deal with the problem of original sin, and that men and women, once renewed and transformed by the Good News of Jesus, will, in turn, renew many around them with the same Good News. The world will not be changed by a renewal of international relations or by a new solution to a re-emerging Cold War, but by a rediscovered commitment on the part of the Church towards declaring and proclaiming the historic Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As Paul puts it so beautifully and enigmatically;

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5.17).

The renewal of the world can only take place if people are renewed, having encountered Jesus the Renewer.

Sin is the cause. Christ is the cure. Will the Church get this?

Soli Deo Gloria

Baroness Warsi is to be thanked

Britain’s most senior Muslim politician, Sayeeda Warsi, has warned that the persecution of Christians has become ‘a global crisis’.

Minister for Faith Baroness Warsi described ‘a rising tide’ in attacks on Christians in the war-torn regions of Egypt, Iraq and Syria where they often become ‘scapegoats’ for events taking place thousands of miles away.

Warsi, a mother of five and the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, pointed out that Christian minorities are threatened by Muslim majorities in the very places that gave rise to Christianity.

Read the rest at Mail Online here

Baroness Warsi is to be thanked greatly by Christians everywhere for having the courage to speak openly and honestly about the persecution facing Christians on a global basis. The Minister for Faith has not shied away from describing the suffering of Christians as a crisis, and a crisis is something that needs to be addressed and to which attention and resources need to be deployed with urgency. For this, Christians now look to the UK Government and to other Western powers.

Particularly bold is Sayeeda Warsi’s warning that majority Muslim communities threaten Christians in ‘the very places that gave rise to Christianity.’ The Baroness will not win friends in some quarters for pointing this unpleasant truth out, but she may certainly win friends in the Christian world for having the sheer guts and forthrightness for doing so.

The Baroness says, according to the Mail Online:

The bitterest irony of this persecution – ostracism, discrimination, abuse, forced conversion, torture and even murder – is that it is taking place in a region where Christianity has its roots. Sometimes these cases are examples of collective punishment: people lashing out at Christian minorities in response to events happening many miles away.

One imagines that Sayeeda Warsi is here referring in a veiled way to persecution of Christians and brutality towards them as a consequence of events taking place, or perceived to be taking place, in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority Area. It is the case that the Christian faith is perceived in some sections of the Muslim world to be a western religion. Christians appear to be considered by religious hate-mongers as fair game and as legitimate targets for the expression of frustration and hatred against western involvement in various countries and parts of the Middle East.

But hatred and violence against the Christian Church, the foundations of which are in the Middle East, and which feels itself in historical and geographical continuity with ancient Israel, pre-dating the arrival of Islam, is never justifiable on any grounds whatsoever, and certainly not on the grounds that it is an expression of Western ideology. Contrary to common perceptions, the roots of the Church are firmly in the soil and the sand of Israel, and the subject of the Church’s veneration is a Middle Eastern man, Jesus, a Jew. There is nothing Western hemispheric about any of that.

Christians everywhere, then, will warmly welcome the Baroness’ remarks and her concern for the safety and the protection of Christians, particularly in majority-Muslim lands.

The real issue now is not concern, as welcome as that is, but what is to happen next in order to protect Christians and to defend their human rights. How will the UK Government put its money where its mouth is? Words are one thing; actions are entirely another. The Mail Online tells us:

The peer, who is also a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister of State, said that ‘the government has elevated (religious discrimination against Christians and other minorities) to a key priority in the government’s human rights work.’

We should therefore expect to hear the Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron, speaking regularly about the plight of persecuted and suffering Christians. The Christian Church will look carefully to see if resources are being made available to highlight Christian human rights, and the Church will expect a Government that considers Christian human rights to be a priority to raise the issue with foreign heads of state at each and every opportunity. Christians most at risk from persecution and suffering should be allowed to emigrate to the West, and to the UK, and to Scotland, all places where indebtedness to historic Christianity and to the Judaeo-Christian faith, in all manner of ways, is colossal.

If it is indeed the case that the UK Government regards persecution and discrimination against Christians to be at the top of its list of human rights priorities, then the Church might reasonably expect to see actions and not merely words. It is actions that count, not words, after all.

In the meantime, Baroness Warsi is to be thanked most warmly for speaking forthrightly about the persecuted Church, and all Christians should encourage her to take this agenda as far as it can possibly be taken.

Soli Deo Gloria

Christians called to ‘martyrdom’ says Welby – The Telegraph

Christians are facing a new age of “martyrdom” across much of the world, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said.

Speaking in Istanbul, Turkey, the Most Rev Justin Welby singled out the persecution of believers across the Middle East and said Christians are still “called” to suffer and even die for the faith in the 21st Century.

But he insisted that religion is often just a “pretext” for violence and not the real cause.

He made his remarks at the end of a two-day visit with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholemew I, the most senior cleric in the eastern Orthodox church.

Read the rest of what Archbishop Welby had to say at the online Telegraph here

The Archbishop of Canterbury does the worldwide Church a great service by highlighting the terrible suffering of Christians in what appears to be such unprecedented numbers in modern times.

‘Martyrdom’ is the right and only way to describe the dreadful persecution presently facing Syrian believers on a daily basis. It is hardly possible for Western Christians to imagine the insecurity and fear that must be the everyday fare of the faithful in the Middle East. They are our brothers and sisters. We cannot close our eyes to their plight.

Justin Welby has said that martyrdom is a calling for some, and so it is. For many, not just for some, the pathway of Christian service is not a life of comfortable church involvement balanced alongside a happy career and fulfilling round of social activity. For them, the invitation of the Spirit is that they remain resolute and steadfast at the point of the sword or gun, and by the shedding of the lifeblood, give witness to the greater One who shed his precious lifeblood for the sins of the persecuted and the persecutors.

It is a grim irony that those suffering to the point of death in the Middle East, as well as in other places, would, in a Western church context, be considered by not a few as mere biblical literalists.

Be that as it may, they are suffering unspeakable horrors and witnessing to the unsurpassing glory of their risen, loving Lord with their last breath, and thus the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews well said of such as they:

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawn in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and ill-treated – the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground (Hebrews 11.32-38).

This world is not worthy of them.

The life of discipleship is not merely one of words alone. It is, as the Archbishop has said, a ‘call to witness in word and life.’ Words are one thing. Actions are another, and this world is weary of words. Actions may yet cause the heart that is hardened to the Gospel to see the truth in Christ Jesus. It will be when Christians regard this earthly life as nothing compared to the world to come, that the harsh certainties of the hateful, persecuting heart might start to crack and disintegrate.

Whilst the Archbishop’s  plea that we seek the ‘intercession of the Blessed Mother on Syria’ comes strangely from the lips of an evangelical churchman, his heart is in the right place, and we should be glad of his intervention for the suffering Church, as we are glad, too, of the intervention of the Prince of Wales.

But perhaps one would have wanted to hear something firmer and clearer concerning the universal, uniting power of Jesus Christ, and a declaration that, in him, the sinful hatreds and divisions of the world are truly and lastingly overcome. Furthermore, this was perhaps an opportune moment to proclaim that the injustices and inequalities of the world are addressed only truly by a Gospel that commands men and women to love their neighbours, in the world of business and commerce as much as in the personal realm, and to look upon the scarcity of the world with compassion and generosity.

The Archbishop’s analysis of the ills of the world are concise and spot on. But Christ alone is the cure.

Do our church leaders say this loudly enough?

Soli Deo Gloria

We are not in the Gulag yet, are we?

If Scottish police did behave as they are reported to have done over the arrest of American evangelist Tony Miano in Dundee high street yesterday, then it is rational to believe that arrests of Bible-believing preachers in their church buildings could soon be on the cards in Scotland.

Mr Miano’s latest arrest is much more serious for him than his arrest in Wimbledon last July when he was released without charge. This time, after being held in custody overnight, Mr Miano has today been released on bail to appear before Dundee Sheriff Court in April. He has pleaded not guilty to the charge of ‘breach of the peace with homophobic aggravation’.

Cranmer’s Curate offers further comment here

I haven’t met Tony Miano or Josh Williamson. Other than having read the online newspapers and a smattering of blogged comments and Facebook chatter here and there, I have no real idea about the content of their street preaching or of the decibel level of their raised voices. I am in the dark about these things. I notice that neither of them come from these here parts, and I therefore wonder if a measure of cultural misconception has played its part in the drama in which they have found themselves. But I do not know.

Both men have got on to the wrong side of the law whilst in the act of open-air preaching here in the UK. On separate occasions, they have been in trouble with the police for alleged offences. Most recently, Tony Miano was arrested in Dundee for an alleged breach of the peace.

The Courier reports about it here

Tony Miano is believed to have appeared in Dundee Sheriff Court yesterday.

Now, I am something of a veteran of open-air preaching. Back in the day, when I wore a Salvation Army uniform, I could often be found standing in a town centre with fellow Salvationists, microphone in hand, sharing a personal testimony or giving a word of Gospel explanation. There were a few hecklers, as I recall, but no one asked the police to come and arrest me. Perhaps if they had heard me singing, that might have done it. I also recall an occasion at Hyde Park Corner, with a group of committed Christian young people from the church I was attending at the time, standing on an upturned box of some sort and preaching as best I could for as long as I could until heckled and interrupted by those who disagreed. It was an exciting period, and the cultural atmosphere permitted an open exchange of religious views in the public sphere.

And that was simply par for the course. There were always those who disagreed with your open-air proclamation, and who engaged in banter and counter-argument, whose ripostes and debate you took in your stride because it was what you expected and came prepared for.

What you didn’t expect was to be arrested for exercising your right to free speech and the public expression of your personally held views and beliefs on the simple grounds that your views and beliefs made someone in the crowd or passing by angry.

We have come to a rather silly situation now when street preachers in the exercise of a democratic right are arrested by policemen and women, and held overnight, courtesy of the public purse, because someone’s feelings were hurt.

Now let me say this. I know that they want to declare the love of God, but I do wonder if these two gentlemen have also been rather hoping to get themselves into a spot of bother, as well. I am not making any assertions. Simply wondering.

The early church knew very well that there are always believers of an impetuous and excitable sort who seek martyrdom and who provoke confrontation for their own ends and reasons. The leaders of the early church had their work cut out trying to dissuade would-be martyrs from seeking their own immolation. There is, after all, a time for everything, and there must be a time to be bold as well as a time to be wise and sensible. But I am not saying this is the case with Mr Miano or Mr Williamson.

However, open-air preaching or demonstrating or speaking is an expression of our civil liberties. These are the marks of an open society that values free thought and human dignity. These are the signs and indications of a society that is mature and unafraid, rather than insecure and intolerant.

More than a few Christians, and perhaps a good number of others with no faith, now believe that the judiciary and the police are increasingly intolerant and bullying, partisan and insensitive. Christians have long supported law and order, believing that God has established law and order, government, for the good of us all. As far as the forces of law and order are concerned, the police and the judiciary, they have had no greater supporters than the Church. This is because, theologically, the Church has felt order and discipline in society to be a reflection of the character of God himself who created an entire universe of order and structure, functioning through laws and principles. The Church has therefore found it very natural and easy to be supportive of the police and its personnel.

But a sober note must be sounded and heard. This trust and respect is going to be eroded and might largely dissapear if the police are increasingly seen to be unaware of current laws and willing to act in every instance in a one-sided way, curtailing the right to free speech on the spurious grounds of political correctness, and simply because a member of the public felt offended.

But let’s try to take the heat out of things. Would it not make sense for church leaders in Perth and Dundee and in other places to seek to meet with police leaders to discuss matters and to work towards repairing damaged relationships? Would it not be most helpful if church leaders built bridges toward Police Scotland, and for both parties to agree a set of guidelines that satisfied all? Is it always necessary for street preachers to speak about sexual sin? Is it always necessary to mention homosexuality? And if preachers feel that these are issues that need to be spoken about, as they must from time to time, can church leaders and police officers not come to some sort of agreement about how that might be done without falling foul of laws connected with offending others and disturbing the peace?

Of course, it may be the case that no agreement is possible, in which case the Church and its open-air preachers must obey God not man and pay the legal penalty. Unlike the halcyon days of my youth, when open-air preaching was terrifying, exciting and challenging all at the same time, and no one got arrested, the cultural atmosphere in the UK may now have changed irrevocably. The right to speak freely without fear of imprisonment may well be disappearing irretrievably.

But wouldn’t it be better for local church leaders and associations of churches to meet with Police Scotland to try to iron out misunderstandings before matters get worse?

We are not in the Gulag yet, in spite of some of the hyperbole from some pastors and church ministers, but a measure of  common sense needs to be restored, if possible, and church leaders could do worse than meet police chiefs to discuss a mutually-acceptable way ahead.

Soli Deo Gloria

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 140,000 times in 2013. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 6 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

I’d like to say thank to everyone who reads this blog and to all of those who left comments and who participated in the discussion in 2013, as well as those who prayed as a consequence of something they read about here. I hope that you find the blog report, compiled by the WordPress stats people, interesting, including the list of the most frequent contributors!

To anyone who I may have upset by saying something wrong, or wrongly, I offer my apology. Strongly held opinions generate strong feelings, and I am only dust.

I’d like to wish you all a very Happy New Year and I pray that God will continue to bless you in 2014.

Soli Deo Gloria

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