Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Leicester Conference - some refelctions after 52 years

As a young student in the early 1990's I enjoyed attending the Leicester Youth Conference organised by the Banner of Truth Trust.  I was an Office Junior (tea boy) at the Banner in 1989 and 1990 so managed to get involved in the conference bookstall.  Fresh out of Oban I couldn't believe the size of the conference.  While I believe I was already converted by the mid 1980's the Leicester Conference was a huge help to me spiritually.

In particular, the 1991 conference was a real spiritual milestone for me with Rev Ted Donnally speaking on Nehemiah and Rev Alun McNabb on the 'Epidemic of Spurious Conversions.'  For the first time, it hit me powerfully that despite a Christian upbringing and profession, it was possible to deceive ourselves that we are Christians when in fact we are still not saved.  Perhaps the best recent example of this I read was in Leviticus 10 where Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, were consumed for offering 'strange fire' before the Lord.  As Dr Michael Barrett says in a recent article 'Nadab and Abihu stand as warning to all who think that pedigree or religion are viable alternatives to God's exclusive way' The Banner of Sovereign Grace and Truth, March 2014.

Most of the Banner talks can be ordered from here.
This year, for the first time in nearly 20 years, I am heading back to Leicester with my oldest son James.  I have been asked to help out with the bookshop like I used to all those years ago.  James is looking forward to hearing Euan Murray who he has met on several occasions.

What is perhaps most amazing is that my dad started attending the Leicester Minister Conference in 1962.  Three generations at Leicester is quite an achievement!  I was chatting to my dad recently about that first conference.    W J Grier opened the Conference with ‘Preaching and the Present Age’ and closed it with ‘The Preacher and Prayer.’ Iain Murray dealt with ‘Preaching in England in the Past’.  Professor Murray gave three addresses on ‘Preaching and 1) Scripture 2) Sanctification 3) Judgment’. The Rev Kenneth Macrae gave two addresses ‘Teaching Essential to Evangelical Preaching’ and ‘The Danger of Compromise in Preaching.’

Back in Stornoway after the 1962 Conference the Rev Kenneth Macrae addressing his people on ‘The Present Prospects of the Reformed Faith’, reported that he had seen in England ‘a little cloud like a man’s hand’ (I Kings 18.44). Reflecting on the Conference he wrote to a friend:

‘The earnestness and spiritual unity of those young fellows who gathered at Leicester was for me a real tonic and encouraged me greatly. So far, the movement towards the Reformed Faith may be weak and largely unorganised, but that there is such a movement cannot be questioned, and in it, by God’s grace, there are tremendous possibilities. Worm Jacob may yet thresh the mountains. May the Lord grant it so!’
My father wrote an article for the Free Church (Continuing) Witness several years ago giving a potted history of the Banner and the conference now in its fifty second year.  For those of us used to Banner books and take for granted the accessibility of reformed books, it is a fascinating insight into the last 50 years;
"The story begins in England with the Rev Iain Murray and the issuing of a magazine called The Banner of Truth in Oxford in 1955. This lead on to the formation in 1957 of a Trust which through its reprinting of Reformed classics was to play a major part in the re-discovery of the Reformed Faith in England. Mr Murray was by then the assistant to Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel, London where these doctrines had been preached with increasing power since 1939.

Meanwhile in the USA an exile Scot, Professor John Murray, was teaching the Reformed Faith in all its fullness at Westminster Theological Seminary. He was conscious of the need for a recovery of the doctrines of grace on both sides of the Atlantic. At that time he was scarcely known in the UK but invitations to speak at meetings in England coincided with the re-awakening of Calvinistic truth. The first announcement of the work which the Banner of Truth Trust planned to do expressed indebtedness to three men - Dr Lloyd-Jones, Rev W J Grier and Professor John Murray. Through his identification with the Banner work Professor Murray developed a much closer connection with the situation in England and gave further momentum to the recovery of Reformed truth.

Among Professor Murray’s chief concerns was for the restoration of true preaching. One who shared this view was the Rev J Marcellus Kik, a trustee of Westminster Seminary. This subject was discussed with Mr Kik when he was present in London in 1961. As a result he carried back to Professor Murray in Philadelphia a proposal that a conference should be held for ministers the following year in the UK, concentrating specifically on the need for a renewal of preaching.

Other men were consulted about this and among them was the Rev W J Grier in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Mr Grier had made a courageous stand against Modernism in the Presbyterian Church in Ulster and subsequently founded the Irish Evangelical Church (now the Evangelical Presbyterian Church). He had set up the Evangelical Bookshop, which even before the advent of the Banner was supplying to readers in the UK good Reformed books imported from the USA. His Church had strong links with the Free Church of Scotland, sharing in the training of students and missionary work.

The fourth strand in the development was the interest of the Rev Kenneth Macrae, minister of the Free Church of Scotland in Stornoway in the Outer Hebridies, the largest Presbyterian congregation in the UK. He was conscious of the drift that was taking place in Scotland and even within his own denomination. He longed and prayed for a recovery of truth and godliness and believed that ‘the tide will turn’. The advent of the Banner of Truth magazine in 1955 was an encouragement to him and he personally ordered quantities of between 150 and 200 copies. It was with the prospect of helping this work that he accepted the invitation to speak at the 1962 Conference. Although then in his 79th year he made the long journey from the Isle of Lewis to undertake what was his first and last preaching engagements in England. As well as speaking at Leicester he took the Communion services in the Free Church of Scotland congregation in London and preached for Iain Murray at Grove Chapel.

It was in this way that the Lord in his goodness brought men from different countries and Reformed traditions together to apply themselves to the restoration of preaching. A location was found through the good offices of the Rev Sidney Lawrence at College Hall on the campus of Leicester University.  Dr Lloyd- Jones was not present in 1962 but spoke in the Conferences of 1964 and 1965.

Among the 40 men who attended about 30 were ministers in pastoral charges. The majority were from England but there were 12 from Scotland and 3 from Northern Ireland. Wales was not represented. Most of the Scots were from the Free Church of Scotland and men, like Mr Macrae, who rejoiced to see this new movement - Rev Alasdair Johnston, Dumbarton, Rev James Morrison, North Uist,  Rev Donald Mackay, Watten, Mr Donald Macinnes, Inverness (who later became a probationer in the Free Church but died shortly after) and four Edinburgh men who had recently embraced the doctrines of grace. There were two ministers belonging to the Church of Scotland. I was privileged to be Secretary of the Conference and duly relieved men of the princely sum of £3, which was the cost of attending. If your travel expenses amounted to more than £1 you could claim help!"

Thanks to dad for his reflections!  I will post a full account of my return to Leicester over the next few weeks.  I might even get some reflections from no. 1 son on his first Leicester Youth Conference.





Tuesday, 11 March 2014

God's Institution of the Family

Ragged Theology is delighted to publish Dr Guthrie's Moderatorial Address from 1862 on Amazon.  Many thanks (again) to Michael Pate from GLH Publishing. 

There are few subjects more important today than 'God's Institution of the Family'. 

Click on the link to the address here.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Guthrie's First Sermon - Jonah 1 v 6 (13th Feb 1825)

This sermon has been kindly typed out from me by Christine Maciver and appears as written in the first appendix of Thomas Guthrie's Autobiography and Memoirs (1874).  Although he mentions three points in his sermon outline he only records the first and third point!
Marked by Mr Guthrie “My first Sermon as a Preacher.  Preached at Dun, 13 February 1825.”
Jonah 1:6 – What meanest thou, O sleeper?  arise, call upon thy God.
            In the Old Testament writings, we apprehend, there are frequently hid, under the mere detail of natural events, many of those grand and important doctrines which are peculiar to the Christian religion; and we believe also that it was on this account that many of them are detailed at such length; while to appearance they seem only to affect the worldly prospects of one individual, or the Jewish nation at large. 
            In the sojourn of the Hebrews, for instance, in the wilderness of Arabia, we see in that mere fact a most apt illustration of a Christian’s life; and in their at last gaining the promised land, after many a wandering, we see a figurative representation of that rest which remaineth for the people of God.   In the raising of the brazen serpent amidst the expiring Israelites, and in the command to look upon it and they should be delivered from the calamity which God had sent upon them for their sins, we surely see something more than a mere historical event which only affected them.  In the elevation of that serpent we see the elevation of Christ on the cross; and in the command given to the Israelites we see a command given to a diseased world to look unto him, and they shall be saved.  Deprive these events of that application, and you rob them of the very point which renders them so interesting to us; for what would it be for us to know that Abraham raised his hand against the life of his only son, unless we saw in Isaac, bound, a trembling victim, to the altar, our Saviour nailed to the cross of Calvary, and exclaiming in the hiding of his Father’s countenance, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
            In like manner, it appears to us that from the most interesting points in the history of Jonah, we may draw many a fact materially affecting us as spiritual beings. and discover in it no faint representation of the deplorable condition in which we are found by the Gospel.  Did Jonah disobey the command of God?  So have we, not only in Adam our federal head, but also in the daily sins with which we stand chargeable.  Did Jonah flee from the presence of the Lord?  So have we, in forsaking him, the fountain of living waters, and hewing out for ourselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.  Was Jonah, in consequence, exposed to imminent danger?  So are we in danger of the wrath that is to come, and is never to end.  Was he wakened to a sense of his danger in a ship, where he little dreamed of the extremity of his peril?  So the Gospel raises its warning voice, and proclaims to each living one of us, “What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God.”
            We proceed to show then:
1.            That all men are by nature in a state of danger.
2.            The necessity that springs from this, that they should arise and call upon their God.
3.            What they should call for from God.
  1. That all men are by nature in a state of danger
Were we to judge of the truth or falsehood of this statement by observations upon the conduct (not upon the professions) of mankind, we would be very apt to believe it to be false.  Men, indeed, in their approaches to God, either in private or in public prayer, confess that their souls are in danger of the coming wrath; but, as if the whole was a piece of solemn mockery, this acknowledgment is made with far more indifference than a man would show upon the loss of the merest trifle in his worldly concerns.
      How many sleepless nights and how many anxious days, how many hours of sorrow, and how many seasons of unwearied exertions will that man pass who has discovered that he is in danger of falling back in worldly matters; and with what earnest expectation will he watch for, and with what joy will he hail every favourable turn in the tide of business, until he has regained a sure and steady footing!  But if the soul of man is really in danger, do we meet it with any such marks of intense feeling of alarm on that account?  No.  Or do we witness in the body of mankind any such anxious earnestness to be delivered from the impending danger?  No.  If such danger does exist, strange to tell, there is nothing in the world occupies men less.  They are more afraid of losing a pound or a penny than their souls!  One man is occupied in business, and so completely do its cares take possession of his heart, that not a corner is left for the concerns of his soul.  From day to day, with undivided attention, he plys his busy task; ‘tis his first thought in the morning, ‘tis his last thought at night; it will hardly admit time for a hurried prayer, if prayer is said at all; and even while apparently engaged in the solemn duties of the Sabbath, his heart is in pursuit of many a worldly scheme – as if one day in the week was too much time to spend on the eternal interests of his soul.
      Now, though we do not affirm – far be it from us to affirm any such thing – that all men have equally lost sight of the welfare of their souls in their keen pursuit after earthly enjoyment, let that enjoyment be what it may, - still, we can appeal to every mind, without fear of contradiction, if the great body of mankind do not appear to live just as if their welfare through eternity was a matter too sure to be questioned; and just as if, therefore, their well-being in time was the only remaining object of their care.  But notwithstanding that our conduct in general gives very little proof of our apprehension of danger, we find most unquestionable authority that the curse of a broken law has gone forth against us, and that the punishment of a broken law awaits the closing of the day of God’s forbearance.
      He who stands charged by his conscience with the guilt of one single sin, stands exposed to the curse of an offended law.  He who hath offended in one point, is guilty of all.  Do not then entertain the delusion which is too apt to gain an easy admission into our hearts, “Have I been such a sinner as to expose me to danger?” but recollect that it rather is, “Have I been a sinner at all?”  So averse are we to believe that there is nothing before us but a fearful looking for of judgment, so humbling is it to the human pride, so contrary to all our notions of human dignity and human worth, and so pregnant with every feeling that is calculated to disturb the false peace of our slumbers – that, rather than submit to endure all the horrors of a sense of danger, and all the degradation of such a humbling doctrine, we will institute some favourable comparison between ourselves and others – forget our own sins and increase the guilt of theirs, magnify their defiance and lessen our own; and then, in the full belief that, though danger greatly hangs over them, it cannot surely have the same threatening aspect to us, thank God, like the Pharisee of old, that we are not as the publicans and sinners. 
      But we appeal to yourselves if it would not be a most strange and a most unwarrantable ground of confidence in a robber to believe, because he was not a murderer, that therefore he had nothing to fear; to waste his days in idle amusement, instead of applying through every channel for the exercise of mercy; and to make his cell a scene of thoughtless and of wanton riot, instead of solemn and serious reflection, just because he was not chargeable with the guilt of a fellow criminal by staining his hands with human blood.  If, then, such a mode of reasoning would be false and absolutely ruinous in the case of a criminal who has trampled upon  human laws, how much more certainly fatal will it be in the case of us who have despised the counsel and defied the power of God?
      Until the words of the sentence are passed by an earthly judge, absurd as it may be to entertain it, still a feeble gleam of hope may be seen in the darkness of a criminal’s prospects.  It is possible that the evidence against him, though apparently decisive, may still fail in some important particular; it is possible that some means of escape may be tried with success before the day of his doom arrives; and it is still further possible that though both of these grounds of confidence prove false, still the compassion or the weakness of his judge may plead or act so strangely in his favour that he may gain a full and honourable acquittal.  But to us, as offending criminals against a Divine law, there are no such favourable possibilities.  It is not possible that the proof against us can be deficient, for if one sin – instead of ten thousand which we must all acknowledge – be brought home to your conviction, then the curse falls upon us, as those who have not continued in “all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” 
      Neither is it possible that any door of escape can be opened to us, though we were to wander in search of it through boundless space; for where can we go from God’s Spirit, or whither flee from his presence?  Does death require, think you, the slow hand of disease to effect his purpose?  Does he require slowly and gradually to undermine the foundations of our life, or may not he rather get possession of it by an unexpected assault?  Might not the inhabitants before the flood have purposed the same thing when the waters overwhelmed them in universal destruction?  Might not the dwellers in Sodom and Gomorrah have made an equally fine resolution when the heavens rained fire and brimstone on their devoted heads?  Might not Korah and his ungodly company have been engaged in forming some such purpose when the earth clave asunder, and closed over them forever?  Might not every sinner have satisfied the demands of his conscience by a similar purpose, who has, still, been hurried from the scenes of business or of pleasure, without time even for a prayer for mercy, into the solemn presence of an unbending Judge?  But even though accident were not to sweep us to another world, ill-prepared to give in our account, still any resolutions of death-bed reformation cannot do away with the necessity that lies on us to awake at present, and call upon our God.
      If we believe that the last hours we spend on earth are the best fitted to prepare for heaven, surely gross darkness has come upon us.  That soldier, we apprehend, would have very little prospect of success, who deferred to buckle on his armour till the blows were falling upon him.  That sailor, we apprehend, would have very little prospect of escape who, though the storm was seen from afar, still refused to seek some place of refuge until it came roaring and raging on in all the horrors of its destruction.  And certainly we do apprehend that he who defers his escape from the dangers of the coming wrath until the hand of death shall be laid upon him, stakes his immortal spirit upon a less probable circumstance than any but a madman would stake the merest trifle of his worldly goods.  Death is a scene, not of preparation, but of conflict – a solemn and a fearful conflict in the hour and with the powers of darkness.  And oh! if the Christian who has long struggled with his spiritual adversaries, who has long wielded the sword of the spirit, who has long known how to use the shield of faith – if this well-tried and veteran soldier be hardly able to withstand in that evil day, how can success attend upon him who has newly enlisted under the Christian banner, and been all his lifetime a slave of sin?
      We do appeal to yourselves if that is a fit time to escape from the wrath to come, when the poor, expiring sinner is hardly able to lift his head under the load of his sickness, or when he is tossing in agony, or when he is buried in a lethargy so profound that no answer is given to the questions of affection and friendship, or when, in the ravings of a wandering mind, his loud and unearthly laugh startles the silence of the chamber of death?  If, then, you feel any interest for the welfare of your soul through eternity; if you feel any desire to meet God, not clothed in the terrors of an offended lawgiver, but welcoming you with the love of a reconciled Father; if you feel any anxiety to escape the worm that dieth not, and the fire that is never quenched, and to possess the glory that fadeth not, and the inheritance that is never corrupted, repose no longer in your fatal slumbers – awake and call upon your God with all the earnestness of those who know not but this very night their souls may be required of them.
3. What should be sought or called for from God
      The nature of the danger under which we lie decidedly shows that the main object we have to seek must be to escape from eternal wrath; and he who has reflected at all upon the character of God, or the means by which we have brought ourselves into this dangerous condition, ought to know that there is no way of escape but by the pardon of our sins.
      The only difficulty, then, we apprehend, is concerning the means by which this pardon is to be obtained; or the only question is, are we to arise and call upon God for the pardon of our sins, solely and exclusively upon the merits of Christ’s righteousness, or also upon some fancied virtue in our own obedience?  Now, far be it from us to take upon ourselves to judge of any man’s obedience, that being a matter which rests between him and his God; but still, upon the authority of Scripture, we are warranted to assert that a man’s own obedience or his own righteousness is nothing better than filthy rags, that by it he cannot be justified before God, and that, therefore, he who trusts to it leans upon a broken reed.  Were the robe of Christ’s righteousness too narrow to cover us, then we might be excused for putting on filthy rags; were His merits too inconsiderable to justify us before God, then we might not be so much to blame for adding our own works, poor, and wretched, and unprofitable as they have been; and were His rod and His staff not able to support us, even in the valley of the shadow of death, it would be something like a pleasing delusion to believe that we would be the better of a broken reed.  But, persuaded as we are that the righteousness of Christ is the only robe of salvation which will ensure our acceptance with God, persuaded as we are that His merits are so vast that no demerit can be too great which they will not atone for, and persuaded as we are that His rod and His staff are able to console a more disconsolate sinner than ever yet man has been, we hold that he who goes about to seek any other means of escape than this sows the wind and shall reap the whirlwind.
      We are indeed sensible that there is something very pleasing in the idea that, as it was by our own deeds that we fell, so by them we shall also rise; that there is something very flattering to our own vanity in the notion that we have obtained an occasion for boasting; and that, therefore, in calling upon you to seek salvation from the hand of another, we have to contend with the natural pride of a depraved heart.  But why give heed to the very suggestions which first brought ruin upon our race?  Why stand upon such idle fancies when the salvation of your immortal spirit is at stake?
      If your eyes are then opened to the storm of divine wrath which, like a black lowering cloud, is about to pour its thunders on your devoted head; if you feel yourself naked, defenceless, and unprepared to brave its fury – seek, we beseech you, the righteousness of Jesus Christ as a covert from the storm and a shelter from the tempest.  If you feel yourself to be a traveller in a barren and cheerless desert, where no cloud of mercy interposes to shade you from the sun of God’s anger, where your vigour is dried up, and your strength is withered away before it, where your hopes begin to decay and your spirit is sunken within you – seek, we beseech you, the righteousness of Christ as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.  If you feel yourself tossed on the billows of despair, and, looking around for some signal of hope, your eye meets nothing but a troubled heaven and a raging sea, and your ear hears nothing but thunder’s echoes and the rushing of mighty waters that threaten your destruction, and now you begin to think that the next wave will send your feeble bark to the bottom – then seek, we beseech you, the righteousness of Christ as an anchor of hope within the vail.
      There is no aspect, in fact, in which your danger can be viewed in which the righteousness of Christ does not appear fit for your deliverance.  Are you under the bondage of sin?  The price of your redemption was paid on Calvary.  Is there a handwriting against you?  It was nailed with your sins to a Saviour’s cross.  From the crown of the head to the soles of the feet are you wounds and bruises and putrefying sores?  There is a balm in Gilead and a Physician there.  Are you defiled with sin and loathsome in your iniquity?  There is a fountain opened in Israel for sin and for all uncleanness.
      Seek, then, the righteousness of Christ as it consists of that perfect obedience by which He made honourable a dishonoured law, and of that full suffering by which He satisfied the unsatisfied demands of Divine justice; seek it (as ruined) by that faith which is the gift of God; seek it as the groundwork of every blessing which will perfect you in holiness, and prepare you for heaven.  For, if you have sought this best of all blessings with success, you are not only delivered from a fearful looking for of judgment, but you are warranted to make incessant application at the throne of God for grace to help you in every time of need; not only are you delivered from the danger of eternal death, but you are authorised to call upon God for means of escaping from those wiles of the devil in which he would hold you for a season in spiritual death.
      We know, indeed, that upon the imputation of Christ’s righteousness our spiritual enemies are driven from the citadel of our heart; but still we know that, like an enemy unwilling to give up the conquests they had won, they look about and watch every opportunity to make an inroad upon the Christian’s peace.  Assailed as he is thus on the one hand by Satan and his emissaries, and on the other by the still lingering depravity of a once deeply depraved heart, if left to himself his life would be one continued scene of conflict and defeat; and hence, therefore, if we would not dishonour the Christian cause, and bring disgrace upon the Christian name – if we would not crucify our Lord afresh, and again expose him to an open shame – if we would give no occasion for an unholy shout of triumph from the dark and deadly host that is encamped against us – and if we would stand triumphant against that terrible array, defying all the power and hatred of hell – we must do all this by seeking and obtaining aid of the Holy Spirit.
      Though we may feel, by the power of a full assurance of faith, that the glories of the new Jerusalem cannot fail of being ours, still the path that leads to them is one of no common difficulty and no common danger.  The man of the world may pass the time of his sojourn here without once feeling an internal struggle, without once smarting under the sting of an accusing conscience, and without once being awakened from his dream of pleasure till he awake to find that he had dreamed of peace and now no peace is to be found: but you who have chosen the Christian course have chosen a life of no ruinous and inglorious ease; your path is beset with the wiles of the devil, your feet are surrounded by his snares, and you are continually exposed to his open assaults.  Slumber not, therefore, for this is an enemy’s country; repose not, therefore, for this is not the place of your rest; watch for your souls, watch for the cause, and for the honour of your God; and, as you mingle in the spiritual conflict, cry mightily unto the Lord, that the power of His Spirit would rest upon you, that His grace would be made sufficient for you, and His strength be perfected in your weakness.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

The Parochial Economy - the opening of St John's Parish Church (Nov 1840)

In 1840 Guthrie planted a new church in Victoria Street called ‘St John’s’.  Like Thomas Chalmers, Guthrie followed the ‘Parochial’ or ‘Territorial’ system of church planting.  Interestingly Guthrie’s new church was within 5 minutes walk of Greyfriars and yet Guthrie believed that the most effective method of outreach was for the church to be on the very doorstep of the community it were seeking to reach.   The Parochial System is defined by his sons in their Memoir of their father as; the church at the door of the poor, the church free to all, a properly equipped school in every parish and elders, deacons and district visitors used to make regular contact with parishioners.  As with others involved in the Disruption, Guthrie had no reservations in petitioning the government to support or ‘endow’ this work (the Establishment Principle).  As Guthrie said on one occasion; “Divide me the large towns into small manageable parishes, provide me with a free church, add to it an endowed school, and with a staff of zealous and active and Christian elders, I don’t despair, with God’s blessing of restoring the waste places, making the wilderness rejoice and the desert glad; but that you can’t get without an endowment” Thomas Guthrie and Sons, Autobiography and Memoirs (London 1896, p 320).  

The following is the address given by Guthrie on 19th November 1840 at the opening of St John's;
"One grand purpose for which this church has been erected, is to try the parochial economy in a large city; and so far as I know, it stands this day alone as a parish church within the burghs of Scotland; and amid all the glory and loveliness of this romantic city, it is not, in my opinion, the meanest jewel in her crown, that here she boasts a church where the gospel will flow as free to the parishioners as the water of their parish well. 
The founders of our church contemplated a very different state of things from what now exists in many parishes, from what is to be found, for example, in a parish within a stone cast almost of this house; and where, as if in mockery of the able and worthy men on whose back this mountain lies, two ministers have, as parish ministers, the charge of fifty thousand people.  In our ancestors wisdom was justified of her children; and they considered a charge of a thousand people ample enough for any man to manage.  Nor did they leave the minister alone to manage it.  No more than the captain of a ship of war is the only officer on her deck, was the minister to be the only man in his parish clothed with ecclesiastical authority; he was to be aided, supported, and surrounded by a staff of officers, a band of efficient elders and deacons; and as our ancestors thought that a minister had charge enough who had in his parish a thousand people, they thought an elder had charge enough who had in his district some ten or twenty families.  They never dreamt of such a state of things as we have in our days in Scotland now. 
I can point to districts with the population of a parish, and parishes with the population of a county.  Nor in the good and olden time did the elder fill a merely honorary or secular office; he did something else, and something better than stand by the plate, and vote in Presbytery or General Assembly.  He visited the sick, his post was often at the bed of death, he counselled the erring, he went forth to the wilderness and brought the wanderer back to the fold, and was at once a father and a friend, a counsellor and a comfort to the families of his charge; he was known to all of them, and all of them were known to him; his name was a household word, and he could tell the name of every man, woman, and child within his bounds; and, frequently discharging offices, both of temporal and spiritual kindness, he thus acquired within his small and manageable locality, a moral influence that was omnipotent for good.

Our present undertaking is intended to remedy these evils.  We wish from its ruins to rebuild the ancient economy, and to restore what is not to be found nowadays in any burgh in all broad Scotland, a manageable parish, split up into districts, each containing ten or twenty families, with a free gospel in its parish church, with a school where the children of the poorest may receive at least a Bible education, and with its minister, its elders, and its deacons, each in the active discharge of the duties of his own department.  Such is the machinery that, before many weeks are gone, we trust to see in beautiful and blessed operation in the parish of St John’s.  And what good, it may be asked, do we expect to follow?  No good at all, unless God give the blessing. 
Besides the machinery we must have the moving power; but if He smile upon our labours we enter the field confident of victory.  What this system has done in former days it can do again – and we have no fear though the eyes of enemies should look on, for we are trying no novel, never-before-tried experiment – our fathers tried it, and they triumphed in the trial – and with the same seed, the same sun, and the same soil, should not the same cultivation produce a harvest as abundant? . . . .
One great advantage of a parochial church with its full complement of machinery, will be found to lie in its drawing together the different classes of society, and narrowing, if not annihilating, the gulf which now yawns wide and deep and dangerously between them.  This total separation of the higher from the lower, of the more decent from the less decent, of the wealthier from the poorer classes of society, has originated much of the irreligion, the crime, and misery that deform the face of our city.  It is very easy to blame the poor, but we must say that they have been grievously sinned against, at the least as much sinned against as sinning.  On all sides beset, surrounded, besieged by temptation, they have been left to themselves, and have had too much cause to say, “No man cared for my soul.”  Visited by none whose good opinion they had to gain, and, having gained, to keep, they have never felt one of the strongest human motives to the virtues and decencies of life. 
Let a man of Christian character and kindness visit their too long neglected homes; let him prove himself their friend and counsellor; let him show that he has their own best welfare and that of their children at his heart; that he rejoices in their well-doing, and is grieved with their sins; and, with all the certainty of a law of nature, there will spring up in their breasts a desire to gain and to keep the regard of this kind and Christian friend. 
It were difficult to tell how many families in this city might have been saved from ruin by the timely counsels, and help, and kindness of such a visitor, especially in those periods of temporary distress to which the working classes are exposed, - for example, such a season as visited Edinburgh two winters ago (1837-38) when for some six or eight weeks there was no work for many, and of course no wages. 
The hand of Providence visits a family with sickness, or by some accident the head of the house is thrown out of employment, and, whatever be the cause, the family are brought to the very verge of want; the children cry for bread, and their mothers have none to give them.  What is to be done?  A man won’t sit down and see his children pine away with hunger before his eyes.  Their credit with the shopkeeper is exhausted; they are either ashamed to ask assistance of their neighbours, or their neighbours are unable to afford it.  They have too much principle as yet to steal, and too much pride to beg: in these circumstances of great distress, the eye that looks round for help falls on the sign and shop of the pawnbroker, its open door invites them in, and when they have once crossed the fatal threshold, in nine cases out of ten, their ruin is sealed.  As the readiest means of meeting a present and pressing evil, one article of furniture after another is carried to the pawn; and though I have known them bear much before parting with their Bible and Sabbath attire, the fatal Saturday night at length arrives when the key of the pawnbroker is turned upon these; and now, the house of God is deserted, the seat that once knew them knows them no more, and from step to step, dragging their children along with them, down they sink into the lowest misery, till the once well-spent Sabbath is passed by the children in play upon the streets, and passed by the degraded parents in drunkenness and dissipation.  “They drink to forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.” 
I believe, I know this to be the sad history of many families in this city; and all this evil might have been averted had they known one into whose arms, instead of a pawnbroker’s, they could have cast themselves, in whose sympathising ear they could have told their tale of suffering, and to whose kind, and wise, and Christian efforts to relieve them, they could have trusted in the hour of trial.  In the elders and deacons with whom we propose to stock this parish, such guides and guardians will be found, and we have no doubt at all that their labours will demonstrate that the parochial economy fairly, freely, and vigorously wrought, offers the best remedy to those evils which assessments, and police, and prisons, and gibbets, may in some measure restrain, but never can eradicate."

Monday, 20 January 2014

Thomas Guthrie on 'True Religion'

"I do not say that religious men have never cherished an exclusive and narrow spirit.  I admit that some excellent men have done so.  Still, it is not religion to speak bitterly of those who differ from us; it is not religion to minister at the alter with "strange fire;" it is not religion to serve the cause of a loving God with unlovely passions; it is not religion to defend Christ's crown with weapons other than His own sword; it is not religion to be serious on light, and great on little things; it is not religion to exalt points to the place of principles; it is not religion to contend as earnestly for forms of worship as for the faith of the gospel; it is anything but religion to dip our pens in gall, to give the tongue unbridled licence, and so to speak of others as to recall the words of others as to recall the words of Scripture - Their teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword."

Thomas Guthrie on James 1 v 27, True Religion, Man and the Gospel.

Monday, 13 January 2014

The Loss of a Child

Death in children is as unnatural as it is traumatic.  My own family's scars when we lost my sister in 1980 have left a mark on all of us that only eternity will heal.  It is impossible to celebrate Christmas and New Year without thinking back to those traumatic days in December 1980.  Lynda died of a brain tumour at the tender age of 13.  She was a bright, confident teenager full of hopes and dreams for the future.  As an 8 year old, death wasn't something that had visited our house and the thought that it could happen to my sister was unimaginable.  Many of the emotions defy words and perhaps rightly, remain within the family.
I couldn't (and still can't) really enter into my parents grief and as the father of 5 boys I just can't imagine how overwhelming the loss of a child must be.  As I think back over 30 years to the day I rushed home from school and into the arms of my weeping father, it is only now that I am a parent, I can, in some small way, understand the unnatural trauma of being separated from a child this side of eternity.  Only a few weeks ago I had dinner with a friend whose promising son was murdered in Liverpool nearly a decade ago.  Listening to his story was heart wrenching, and yet at the same time inspiring.  His grief journey was unique and incredibly humbling.  It certainly makes me hug my own boys a little tighter every night.  None of us know what the future might hold.
Thomas Guthrie and his wife also experienced death.  'Little Johnnie' died in 1855 at the tender age of 20 months.  Apparently Thomas Chalmers visited Guthrie around 1845 and said 'I have been a family man now, sir, for forty years, and we have never had a breach.'  Guthrie could almost have said the same were it not for his youngest child.  As late as August 6th 1855 there seemed to be some small hope for Johnnie with Guthrie writing; 'With the exception of an occasional cough, he lies with his little emaciated hands peacefully laid on his breast.  May this sharp trial be sanctified to us all; and if he be taken away, may our thoughts often turn, and our desires be more closely fixed, on that heaven, to which, first and youngest of our family, he leads the way' (letter to his son James in 1855). 
Only three days late Johnnie had died.  Guthrie again writes to his son James; 'Our dear child is in glory.  This morning they came to tell me he was worse, and I had better not come in, for there were slight convulsions.  However, I went to the cradle; and, dear lamb, it was but some gentle gasping, the last feeble billows breaking on life's shore, before they subsided into everlasting rest.  We have felt it deeply - not bitterly, no certainly not; but it wrung my heart some minutes ago to lock the door of his lonely room' (Letter to James Guthrie, 9th August 1855).  Before the year was over Guthrie has also lost his youngest sister Clementina.
So what comfort is there in the midst of overwhelming grief?  I am certainly no expert and can only admire those who have experienced such a loss with such full assurance in the goodness and providence of God. 
Firstly, we can say that we have a Saviour who knows what it was to mourn and experience loss.  He wept over the death of Lazarus and he is a merciful and faithful high priest able to comfort us (Hebrews 2 v 18).  We can take our grief, and our tears to him.  The verse on my own sisters grave is a comfort to us all; the wonderful words of Isaiah 40 v 11 'he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom.'  Sometimes in the greatest loss, we can also experience the greatest love from the Saviour.
Secondly, God is the one who can bring great good and fruit out of the most intense loss and grief.  My fathers little booklet about my sister 'Behind a Frowning Providence' has been a comfort to thousands around the world.  We take comfort that however we may feel 'all things work together for the best unto them that love God' (Romans 8 v 28, Geneva Bible).  We don't say that glibly but looking back over 30 years, we can see that God has brought good from a place of great pain.  Often those of us who have been battered and bruised are better able to help other in the same situation.  We need to remember with William Cowper 'Behind a frowning providence, God hides a smiling face.'
Thirdly, as with many others Guthrie believed that there will be many children in heaven.  As he says; 'Heaven is greatly made up of little children - sweet buds that have never blown, or which death has plucked from a mothers breast, just when they were expanding, flower like, from the sheath, and opening their engaging beauties in the budding time and spring of life. "Of such is the kingdom of heaven." How soothing these words by the cradle of a dying infant? Perhaps God does with his heavenly... garden as we do with our own. He may chiefly stock it from nurseries, and select for transplanting what is yet in its young and tender age - flowers before they have bloomed, and trees ere they begin to bear.'  Thomas Guthrie, The Gospel in Ezekiel.

Fourthly and finally, all death is a reminder to us off the fragility of life.  Death amongst children in our own country is very rare but none of us know what is ahead.  Death is a stark reminder of our own mortality and our need to seek Christ.  My own sisters death was the ultimate means of my own conversion and many can testify to a similar experience.  Death shows us in a very stark way how short and fragile life is.  What is life without God?  This is what Thomas Chalmers says; 'Strip human life of its connection with a higher scene of existence and it is the illusion of an instant, an unmeaning farce, a series of visions and projects, and convulsive efforts, which terminate in nothing.'  We are eternal beings and death reminds us that our lives are short and fragile.
When writing to Lord Southesk about the death of little Johnnie Guthrie says; 'Saved through Jesus, may we and ours meet in heaven; and from the place of many graves, be united in the house of many mansions.'  This world is a place of many graves but heaven will be a place of eternal life.  I'm certainly looking forward to reuniting with many who have gone before me and one day seeing our family being brought together again.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Everything to live for

It was good to see the response from exiled Scot David Murray to the Princess Trust research that 9% of UK young people say they have nothing to live for with the figure rising to 21% for NEET's.  These young people need our investment but most of all they need the gospel.  What is the gospel?  How about this;
  • Truth in a world full of lies
  • Peace in a world full of war
  • Love in a world full of hate
  • Life in a world full of death
  • Forgiveness in a world full of vengeance
  • Power in a world full of weakness
  • Certainty in a world full of confusion
  • Purpose in a world full of pointlessness
  • Beauty in a world full of ugliness
  • Hope in a world full of despair

  • In reading David Murray's blog I couldn't help but think of all the hope Thomas Guthrie gave to young people through his Ragged School movement.  In his remarkable 'Plea for Ragged Schools' he paints a picture of thousands of hopeless young people in Edinburgh consigned to a life of poverty and crime because of the circumstances they were brought up in. His response was not to encourage the government to punish and deprive these young people of the little they had, but instead to stir up voluntary love, care and kindness from the Christian (and wider) public.  As he said; 'These Arabs of the city are wild as those of the desert, and must be broken into three habits, - those of discipline, learning, and industry, not to mention cleanliness.  To accomplish this, our trust in the almost omnipotent power of Christian kindness.'  Guthrie developed a unique curriculum which incorporated vocational training alongside education and Christian teaching.  Young people were given the basic tools to live, work and most importantly were given new Christian values to rebuild the broken foundations they had been given by dysfunctional and often abusive families.  
    It was also interesting to read in the research that a staggering 72% of young people not in employment, education or training have nobody to confide in.  Again Guthrie, 160 years ago,  had much to say on this; 'the solitude of a crowd in the most painful of all' and again 'the solitary of a city is a lonesome being.'  The young people Guthrie sought to champion were seen as pests, scum and even vermin.  It was Guthrie's Christian worldview that infused his vision of Ragged Schools.  This quote sums it up well; 'Yes it is easy to push aside the poor boy in the street, with a harsh and unfeeling refusal, saying to your neighbour, "These are the pests of the city."  Call them, if you choose, the rubbish of society; only let us say, that there are jewels among that rubbish, which would richly repay the expense of searching.  Bedded in their dark and dismal abodes, precious stones lie there, to shine, first on earth, and hereafter and for ever in our redeemers crown' (all quotes from 'Seed-Time and Harvest; or Pleas for Ragged Schools').  Guthrie gave these young people a new family, a new supportive community where they received the help, support and love they needed to succeed.
    As Guthrie proves to us, with a bit of vision, and with the blessing of God, so much can be achieved for God's glory.  Recently I took a trip to Ardoch in Loch Lomond to see around the Columba 1400 centre.  From small beginnings in 1997 this remarkable leadership academy for young people has had a huge effect on the lives of so many young people.  With centres now in Skye, Loch Lomond and West Calder, they are bringing hope to some of the most marginalised young people in the country.  This is just one inspirational example of how people are responding to the increasing challenge of NEET's. 
    But what are we doing?  Perhaps we don't know what to do and are frightened of failure.  Doing nothing is not an option.  Let me leave you with the closing words of Guthrie in his First Plea for Ragged Schools,  to encourage you; 'It were better far in such a case to fail, than to stand idly by and see the castaway perish.  If the drowning man sinks before we reach him, it will be some consolation to reflect that we did our best to save him.  Though we bore home but the dead body of her boy, we should earn a mother's gratitude and blessing.  We had tried to save him: and from that blessed One who made himself poor that He might make us rich, - who was full of compassion, kind and patient to the bad, - and who hath set us an example that we should follow His steps, - we should at least earn this approving sentence, "They have done what they could."