Saturday, 23 January 2021

Clarification

"It is all about something that's happened here on earth, strong enough to break the actual hold of the law on us, strong enough that the earth itself is turned into a place of light, life and joy, to hear in the rustling leaves the sound of the gospel...It is a voice strong enough to make us and then keep us human, to enable us to live as we were intended to live, as free creatures of God". Gerhard Forde - Where God meets Man.

"Unfortunately, we usually look upon the love of God as the love of a Father for small child, but that is not throughly scriptural. The grandest, the complete, imagery employed is precisely that of a lover and the beloved - bride and bridegroom. It is the marriage of the church to Christ that is the grand finale of the long love affair between God and creation". Robert Farrar Capon - Hunting the Divine Fox.

The summer of 2005 wasn't an easy time for me. As my entire adult world crumbled and emptied in the loss of my wife to cancer, I found myself suspended between two inexplicably divided realities. On the one side was a sense of comfort in respect to my wife's safety in that death, and a palpable sense of comfort amidst the pain, but this was accompanied by a very real perception that my life that had been as a married man for 25 years was over - where was I to go, what was I to do now?

I raise this because I know that the vast majority of believers find themselves in a very similar dilemma at this time, especially those in ministry. They have sought to do their best in these incredibly trying circumstances to maintain something, often anything, that holds a semblance of continuing fellowship and ministry amidst these troubles, and it is so important we value that giving and sacrifice, even if we are troubled and critical of the manner in which this has (or hasn't) been delivered, so pray earnestly for those in such service.

Some 25 years before losing my wife, my first few years of marriage proved, until her death, to be one of the hardest moments of my life, because I had to learn, and learn fast, to grow up, and take hold of my responsibilities as a married man. It wasn't easy, and I certainly made a couple of major mistakes on the way, but the love at the core of our life held us as I grew to a point where I became someone who fulfilled the role marriage required of me.

We as church are in that place right now. There is what seems to be an overwhelming task ahead of us - to become the indisputable focal point in this crisis of the treasures of grace and unspeakable joy amidst this awful moment, and to do so with the manner of boldness evidenced amongst God's beloved so many times in prior centuries, so I'd suggest we need to give ourselves over to the ways and means to do so.

Some ten days after my wife's burial, I took myself away for a break to a coastal location amidst the beauty of Cornwall - somewhere where my wife and I had spent many years on holiday together. I spent the first day sitting on a beach just mourning, crying incessantly and allowing the raw wound inside me to be granted full expression. Over the next few days, I looked at what was now real in my life, and began to look at possible future steps from there in respects to both the whole and some of the details. That 'coming away' allowed me to begin another life, and some fifteen years later, I can see the numerous benefits that brought about in respect to location, vocation and ministry, work, friendships and most important of all, fellowship with God's people.

I'd simply suggest the place we need to begin to focus our attention upon right now is worship, and that may well have to begin with a measure of lament.

When The Lord of Hosts delivered the children of Israel from the violence of Egypt and the malevolence of Pharaoh, the immediate response of the people was praise. Moses Sang (Exodus 15) and so did Miriam, and bitter waters were made sweet to refresh them and bread from heaven fell to feed them. When Mary heard from Gabriel that she had been chosen to bear the Lord Himself, she offered her song to God in thanksgiving (Luke 1:46-55). 

There are though, other times when worship is marked by a deep sense of repentance and sorrow, not only for personal or corporate sin, but because the days have become marked with some blight or trouble - sometimes the reasons for such are clear, and sometimes they are hidden.

We are a people marked by such genuine offerings to God, and if this is muted or silenced, if this is left without full and true expression, then a vital part of our reasonable service is killed, and we are thereby disconnected from a key aspect of what we are about.

Heaven is a realm filled with such worship, and God not only inhabits, but desires such praise, coming down and amongst us in such moments, so all of life no doubt will one day be a rich and deep and continual expression of such beauty, as the whole world will be filled with His glory.

In the difficult days ahead, let us seek to come aside and press in to His greatness by our turning our hearts and minds and voices towards the eternal throne and truly rejoice in the one who sits upon it and reigns forever!



Wednesday, 20 January 2021

"Violations"

 "You are the salt of the earth, but if you loose your taste, of what value are you?"

Jesus - Matthew 5:13.

"All who rely on works generated to appease the law are doomed, for everyone who does not comply with every requirement of this is deemed judged and condemned".

Paul - Galatians 3:10.

Sometimes, 'renegade' is the only virtuous badge of honour.

If you recall in the last posting here, I drew attention to how both Jesus and His disciples found themselves in this particular camp on numerous occasions for involving themselves in such heinous things as dining with disreputable company or restoring those broken by sin and sickness.

It's clear we need to really understand what is happening in those oh so familiar stories in the Gospels and Acts.

These were men who crossed the line. Constantly.

What manner of deeds would the 'pious' view as unworthy of 'godliness' and draw that  manner of verdict in 2021? "Unauthorised" fellowship? "Public" Witness? "Expressions" of concern regarding the impoverishing of the church?

Clearly, there are seasons when 'bondage' to what is foreign and detrimental to the gospel must be ejected or, the church must move elsewhere to escape such poison.

Egypt once provided a haven for the likes of Joseph, Jacob, and their families. Jerusalem and Judea were fine for launching the good news. Rome provided the roads that allowed men from 'every corner under heaven' to become touched by the radiance of a reconciling word.

But, the day came...

One such moment when chains were broken in the more recent times of the 17th century, was when the Pilgrim Fathers founded 'colonies of conscience' across the ocean in the Americas. Again, it's imperative that we understand the motivation in these ardent searchers for a place where they could live in a fashion that would delight God and serve each other. Preaching to the House of Representatives in response to the manner of government which was framed by the Constitution just three years on from Independence in 1779, Samuel Stillman affirmed that "no laws are obligatory on the people but those obtained by like consent" (through those very people). Even then, he noted, "such laws are of no force" if they are used by a "corrupt majority of the legislature" (governors) to bring about a subversion of the very fundamental principles of (good) governance.

This is a profoundly biblical approach to civil government, echoing the manner of authority required by the Lord amongst His freed people (Deuteronomy 16:16-20). It's also a really high bar to clear.

So, here's the question - how well does this manner of approach fit 1. Civil authority in the West right now and 2. Ecclesiastical leadership in respect to the national, regional and local church?

Are we living in a moment when "laws" are founded and established by consent, and the ways these are implemented are genuinely good for those who are required to live beneath them? If we are honest, then the answer is we are far from that point now.

Just how far we've drifted becomes clear when we listen to another of those Puritan preachers revelling in the goodness of what is true when civil liberty, expressed in limited government, is married to the free expression of the Gospel.

Amos Adams, in anticipation of the coming new nation, preached in 1769 "It is a truth, impossible to dispute, that the spiritual tyranny that the the fathers laboured under, being inhibited in their worship of God, according to conscience, caused them to leave their native country, to inhabit a howling wilderness. Such a trouble on their consciences mightily assisted in the settlement of this place.The oppression under which they laboured, has, in the hand of Him who is the excellence of wisdom, proved to be a great blessing in the world, and a means to a glorious enlargement of the eternal Kingdom of the Great Redeemer".

Notice, again, what caused their actions - an inhibiting of worship. The Gospel always drives us towards the imperative that men and women are free to know, enjoy and serve God, even when this means driving against the mainstream, heading into a wilderness, and finding solace in God's good care in such hardship.

The only value of tyranny is to drive men towards liberty in their worship and their community, but there is another depressing reality to recognise.

The children of Jacob became so accustomed to their slavery that they had no appetite to escape it, and therefore, when they finally did depart, they had no setting within them for being those "made free" - they instead longed to return to their poverty.

The darkness and pain of false religion and authority is often identical to this malady. It kills genuinely civil society and genuine godliness because it impairs our capacity to hunger for these precious gifts, and burdens us with a dependance upon our own miserable resources alone.

A person who is a 'peaceable subject' of what is genuinely good, noted the Reverend John Leland in the 1800s, should be properly protected in his liberty to worship the Lord without any dictates beyond those of conscience, the laws of a civil society upholding such a necessity.

That splendour has to be recovered if we are to see something truly expressive of God's radiance amongst us once more.


Friday, 15 January 2021

Splintered

A short time ago, we may have heard the following:

 "Over the course of this year, I think the churches have been a let-down....the response of the churches (has been) a pallid echo of public health announcements - that's what health officials are for. The church is there to give answers, to situate what's happening in the context of what it is teaching. I haven't found that to be happening... I've heard almost nothing about the why and what of we're seeing from what the Bible says... I'd far rather hear this than some Bishop telling me that I should wash my hands".  Historian Tom Holland.

No one would deny that this past year has proved to be a arduous time for the church, and that its response has often been principally tailored to the health requirements imposed by government, but Tom's analysis here is decidedly telling about the way that response has effectively shut-down much of Christianity's 'voice' in the public square, and as the consequence of those actions, particularly as the closure of numerous congregations began to become apparent, it clearly became time for certain questions to begin to be raised and soberly faced.

Perhaps the place to start here is with why such adjustments have taken place.

During 2020, many governments issued strict orders in respect to social activity deemed hazardous due to the fact that Covid-19 was an infection spread by close inter-action with others. This in effect meant that many church activities, particularly worship services, were either closed down entirely (requiring an adjustment to engaging through social media) or highly restricted in order to ensure social distancing.

At first, with the intention to quickly 'flatten' the levels of infection in a short period, this appeared to be a wise precautionary measure, but as the length of time required for such 'wisdom' has extended from weeks, to months, to almost a year, and the view from many in authority is that this (such measures) will continue for lengthy periods to come, the concerns as to how this impacts upon the life and faith of the church have grown and become more urgent, so is the judgement of early 2020 what should be driving us as we approach a second year of troubles? Additionally, are there imperatives which need to drive us into more direct responses in respect to how we are commanded to worship and serve as church, that must come to the fore again?

Let's examine a few of the key aspects of this.

It's clear that scripture speaks of our need as Christians to heed and respect the rule of those placed in authority, but it's equally clear that there are some key points where such compliance is secondary to the rule and authority of God's commands. In cases where the rule and law of God Himself become crossed or, in effect, annulled,  by the requirements of men, God's claims must be placed first. Jesus Himself showed that this even went as far as breaking the prescribed law of the religious authorities of His day to actually fulfil God's far greater law of loving God by doing what was good for your neighbour (i.e. the many miracles of healing He performed deliberately on the sabbath - something that would be later echoed in the actions of His Apostles).

The wisdom of many church leaders at present has been to conform to the requirements of authorities in respect to church closures or the curtailment of worship (i.e. singing, physical activities such as hugging, partaking in the entirety of the Lord's Supper or holding baptisms), but this is clearly often at the expense of the commands of God. Whilst this may have been viable for very short periods, the seriousness of this continuing for months is dreadful, fracturing and allowing paralysis in the very nature of service and fellowship that we have been called to partake in every Lord's day, as a minimum.

The criteria often submitted for such continual restrictions is that to do otherwise would be to rupture the church's relationship with the wider community, becoming seen as a disruptive force, bringing penalties, working contrary to the 'health' of the society as a whole. There is no doubt much truth in this, but, of course, this is not the first time in history we have found ourselves here. Jesus was Himself looked upon as just that manner of a man - a wine bibbler and glutton, a creature of the devil, and finally, as a person whose only value was to be executed, expediently, for the good religious and civil stability by his enemies (and, again, the Apostles became the same 'wicked' disruptors).

Surely, though, that cannot be the entire situation! What, some may ask, of our relationship to the rulers and rules in this present crisis? Hasn't this been a 'christian' nation, so shouldn't we always seek to be respectable, good citizens?

This raises a matter in which the church (salt and light in the world) most certainly should have become far more vocal as this trial unfolded - just how legal, and more importantly, how right, was it for government to act and behave in the manner that it did in respect to constricting the actions of society to little more than what is normal inside a cage? The profound depths of the significance of this matter are going to unfold as hopefully, in the months ahead, the emphasis of this crisis moves from the immediate impact of a virus (hospitalisations and related deaths) to the huge swathe of desolation visited upon those in society who are the casualties of this. The numerous deaths caused by the virus, awful though they have been, will soon become as the receding waters before the surge of the Tsunami when these realities begin to set in, and one of the questions that will be asked in this analysis in a manner that was not required in prior times will be where was the church?

This is not an easy reality to face, and this is no doubt why the view of so many is that, whilst the past months have been troublesome, things are generally navigable and 'stable'. This, sadly, is to trade the presumed grasp on "practical" issues of the moment with the far deeper Wisdom of God, evidenced, as Paul tells us, only in its richest from in the folly of the Cross.

I have revelled in the freedom of life that has been common to many in the decades of general constancy for much of my life, but I have also known times of very genuine trouble in those days when I have sought to boldly speak out concerning the faith. Such hard days are upon us, and we must call to God to find remedy, wholeness and validity amongst this sad and pained generation.

Thankfully, we have a Lord who comes amongst those who are so desperately lost and rescues them, but He requires us to call to Him for such mercies.

Let us hope and pray that such a cry is heard in this day of trouble.


Thursday, 14 January 2021

The Calling

In the light of the current circumstances, I felt it would be helpful to share this summary that has been becoming imperative for the times:

The Decree of Christian Liberty

"For freedom Christ has set us free: therefore stand firm, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery".  Galatians 5:1.

As a creature made in the image of God, purchased by the redeeming, justifying, saving work of God in Christ, and therefore made free from sin, death and the law by that grace, I am free to serve God and neighbour in these ways:

1. To join with the assembly of the Saints in heaven and on earth, to participate in worship of the Most High God through thanksgiving for His excellence and majesty and the abundance of His great goodness and grace.To do so jointly and regularly by the sharing of Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual songs and the sharing of God's word, and by bringing our petitions before Him in prayer, confident in His eternal care.

2. To come with boldness and confidence before the throne of Grace at any time and there to find mercy, for if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive them and cleanse us, allowing us unhindered fellowship with Him and one another, through such genuine confession and absolution, which renews us.

3. To attend, as one baptised into His death and resurrection, the Lord's table, and there participate in the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is given to feed and nourish us and impart life eternal.

4. To fellowship with the saints on earth in hospitality, seeking to encourage and honour one another in the love of God, building ourselves together in the precious and good life of the faith.

5. To seek to hold out the word of life found in the good news of the Gospel amidst this generation, thereby exposing the darkness and the light so that others might be reconciled to God.

6. To seek to live in such a fashion that whatever is wise, true, pure, honourable, good, virtuous and beautiful can be evidenced by others, allowing them to see something of the one who has made all things beautiful in their time and placed eternity in our hearts, thereby witnessing something of the wonder and the love of God.

7. To aim to do what is good for others, which may include bringing attention to matters that break to heal, thereby aiding to a pointing to eternal truths.

Saturday, 9 January 2021

Breathing shallow?

"You may be a wonderful science officer, but believe me, you couldn't sell fake patents to your mother".

"I fail to see why I should care to seek to induce my mother to purchase falsified patents".

Harry Mudd and Mr Spock - I Mudd.

"We are not unaware of his devices".

2 Corinthians 2:11.


So, a few months back I received an order from across the waters that wasn't anywhere near the product that had been advertised. I contacted the seller, and they offered me a trifle of what I'd paid as compensation. Fortunately, I'd made the purchase via a third party, so I was able to lodge a complaint and send all the details to them. It took a while, but eventually my money was refunded and I gained a full if somewhat reluctant apology from the seller.

Sometimes, of course, we're not that fortunate.

Paul certainly felt infuriated that way when he saw how quickly and naively gentile churches were duped by all manner of 'teachers' and ideas that sought to circumvent and thereby undermine the genuine nature of the freedom and responsibility made ours by the Gospel.

In that sense, we're a little like Adam in the garden. After the Lord places him there, he says he is free to eat of any tree save one, but that he'll also need to 'tend' (guard) the place. Freedom and responsibility go together, because however much we may want to revel in the glorious liberty we've received, you can be dead certain there will be those who are itching to take it all away from us.

Sometimes this happens gradually.

A classic example of this is found in the story of the conquest of Canaan in Joshua chapter 9. The Gibeonites knew they were no match for God's victorious people, so they decided instead to beguile them into a compromise that allowed them to maintain their existence and forced Israel to co-exist with them. The lie cost Israel greatly, simply because they failed to understand what was really taking place under their noses.

The simple truth is that the powers arrayed against us truly hate the majesty and the weight of the position God has bestowed upon us, so they will seek any opportunity to either distance us from this or diminish its brightness by seeking to lie about its true place and worth.

When the Judaisers came to the Gentiles, they didn't come directly against Paul's teaching - that kind of assault would have caused issues. What happens is they seek to bring alongside what is doctrinal a 'better' way of seeing and doing things - one that promises to take you into a 'healthier' status than before, simply by adding a little wrinkle or two to where you were (which was OK for a while, but now you need to 'grow' into something deeper, better, truly mediatorial between the old and the new, so you be enriched properly by both).

Deception is always defined by promising something better by putting aside what is already possessed.

Paul identifies this for what it is. Such enemies despise the freedom we have - they wish to malign and denude it of its worth and power, because, in truth, they are enemies of the purchasing work of Christ's cross and blood, and it is the vital work of God that they seek to repudiate and replace with a method of self-righteousness, merited to their followers only by their combined success in carnal obedience, not naked, singular faith in Christ alone.

Such enemies, then, rarely enter by the back door, rarely tell you the full picture of what they're about, rarely give too much away until they have the confidence of believing they have what they're aiming for, signed, sealed and delivered... then reality kicks in, just like when receiving defective goods.

That's why we need genuine doctrine to override and lead us back home.

Let me conclude these thoughts by referring once again back to Eden.

When the serpent seeks to seduce Eve into succumbing to rebellion, he doesn't just tell her a lie (about death), but he wraps this in a promise - she would find her true identity (become god) by in effect seeking to make herself equal with the divine by what she knows. This moment should raise several considerations in us. Do we think, behave or define "godliness", for example, in such a manner that we, like Adam and Eve, in effect, undermine the real nature of godliness conveyed only in the genuine, reconciling work of God in His Son? Is our identity now defined principally by the life given by Christ in the Gospel, or does it derive from our own definitions of godliness and piety?

That's the crux of it, and how we seek to live in the light of such will mean that we're either pursuing what is genuinely excellent, or selling false patents to ourselves and others...


Saturday, 2 January 2021

Solid Ground

 A little something to get you going for the New Year :)

Friday, 1 January 2021

For 2021...

"Christ came to give Himself for us – for our sins – and it is that alone which cracks and crumbles the folly of the towering mansions built to house the rule of self-devised religion!
Our works or merits, ceremonies or contrition’s cannot budge the stubborn and perilous root of sin. What worth would there be in the death of Christ if they could?

It is because we are careless and so often make light of our sin or make so much of our own piety that we miss the true weight of what Paul has said here.

Sin is our only master, for we hold no power in us against it. So another must release us. We must arm ourselves with this single edict – sinner I am, but Christ has given Himself for my sin. That one truth is our deed of liberty. It alone raises us from our death to a life that comes from God". 

Martin Luther on Galatians 1.