Sunday, 6 August 2017

Skye Shinty Camp 2017

What do you get when you mix an unfit 45 year old with a couple of 28 year olds, two 17 year olds, 3 willing cooks and 17 kids?  Skye Shinty Camp 2017!  Nearly 48 hours on I feel like I've been hit with a large bus but overall I am so thankful to the Lord for sustaining us and keeping the kids safe over the last week. Running any camp is difficult but starting a camp from scratch is really tough.

Over three years ago I had the idea for a shinty camp.  Although I've had a lifelong interest in shinty, I haven't played much in my adult life.  I played a little with Edinburgh University and then Edinburgh and East Lothian but until I got involved with Camanachd Dhun Eideann about 8-9 years ago I hadn't played for most of my life. I now coach kids at least once a week and have taken my Foundation and Level 1 Camanachd Association Coaching Awards. I see shinty as hugely positive influence as it teaches kids (particularly boys) to channel their aggression, play together as a team, keep fit and overall, the shinty world is a wonderful community.  

A large part of my drift from shinty as a teenager was that I could never reconcile shinty with my love for the Lord Jesus Christ.  Growing up in Oban, shinty was fairly cliquey.  I loved playing it at school but after that I found shinty to be generally brutal and violent.  It was also always associated with heavy drinking. I've been to lower league matches fairly recently where vodka and whiskey were being passed round the team within minutes of the end of the game. After I professed faith around 1986 I felt that I couldn't in all conscience be involved in shinty and live a consistent Christian life. Like thousands of others I drifted away from shinty and became more involved in football.  But there is something about shinty that kept drawing me back.  One of the many reasons is that when my sister died in 1980, and my family went through years of grief, I remember my aunties taking me to shinty training.  During that bleak time, one of the things that kept me going was swinging a caman at shinty training.  It was a small slice of normality at a confusing and tragic time.

Shinty is of course largely played in the Highlands and some of my best memories of the last few years has been travelling to beautiful locations with my sons Davie and Calum to see a cup final. What could be better than an overnight at my cousins in Fort William followed by a great game in the most beautiful part of the world? What if I could combine my love for shinty, my love for the Highlands and my passion for the gospel in a camp? What if shinty could be seen in a more positive light, as a way for young people to keep fit, learn team work, have fun, develop their skills and hear the good news of the gospel?  Late in 2016 the Free Church Youth Committee gave the green light and the shinty camp was finally born.

During a trip to Portree in February this year my wife and I visited The Elgin Residence as a potential location for the camp.  It was perfect. After a huge refurbishment last year it has excellent facilities and we knew immediately it was the place for the shinty camp.  As well as excellent accommodation I wanted two other things: a supportive local congregation and a supportive local shinty club.  I visited Donnie and Debbie Macdonald at Portree Free Church in February and also met with John Angus Gilles from Skye Camanachd.  Both were delighted to offer their support.  All we needed now was a team of leaders and some campers!

My team came together very naturally.  I had been talking to Rev Sean Ankers and Calum Macrae for some time about the camp and both are enthusiastic shinty players.  Given that they are both 17 years younger than me they were slightly more in touch with the kids than I was. Calum in particular 'talks teenager' and can converse about an X-Box for longer than 5 seconds which is about my limit!  

My two Junior Leaders couldn't have been better.  I hadn't met Alexander Macleod since he was a baby.  I was very fond of his father Kenny 'Nostie' Macleod and I can't imagine what it must have been like for Alexander to lose his father to cancer when he was only 12.  All I can say is that Kenny would be immensely proud of Alexander - the kids thought he was wonderful. He is also a very gifted shinty player and has been very involved with Caithness Shinty Club since it was established in 2014.  My other Junior Leader was my own son James.  I am very biased but James is a wonderful young man. After 5 year in the Army Cadets he is mature beyond his years and with 4 younger brothers he is great with kids. Like his mother, he has a great attitude to serving others and is a hero to his two youngest brothers.  His shinty style is unorthodox to say the least but he was a great addition to my team.   

When I ran the All Age Holiday for 6 years, I always believed that the secret to a great camp/holiday is quality food.  If you get the basics right, almost everything takes care of itself. Camps tend to take on a life of their own as relationships form, events happen that were never planned and lasting memories are made. My own wife came along to do the cooking and I don't think we have ever been happier as we served the kids together in a Christian environment. Her quiet service and dedication are a constant rebuke to me.  She never grumbles and always goes above and beyond what I ask.  As well as cooking she had to administer numerous medications and look after our 2 young youngest children.  She was ably assisted by my sister in law Annis Maciver. There was never a morning when I didn't come down and find Annis in the kitchen preparing breakfast and she was always up late mopping floor and getting ready for the next day.  She gave up a week of her holiday and was away from her four kids for a whole week.  Words can't express my gratitude to her and Kirsteen for their quiet dedication.  They were ably assisted by Rona Macrae who visited for part of the week. The food was quite simply stunning with each day bringing a new level of quality. One camper from Dundee did his best to hoover up the left overs but there wasn't much left over.

Overall the week seemed to go well.  Mornings (until 10) were spent doing chores and rooms with a wide range of different results.  Some campers lack of personal responsibility was truly astounding. Some appeared to be genuinely shocked at being asked to do anything and seemed to live with the delusion that the leaders were being paid to be at camp and serve them in every way.  In the 20 years since I have done a youth camp I didn't appreciate the huge changes that have taken place.  Many kids today see themselves as completely autonomous and even when an adult asks them to do something they still seem to think they are under no obligation and care little about any consequences.  While it only applied to a small minority of children, it did strike me that many kids are growing up in a world where everything is being handed to them on a plate and have little sense of struggle.  When I was a camper at camps 30 years ago, when a leader raised his voice, you stopped talking and paid attention.  So many young people today simply don't recognise adult authority as something to be taken seriously.  As a social worker for 22 years I believe wholeheartedly in children's rights and have seen so many cases when kids have been neglected and abused, but I do wonder at times if the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.  

Mornings and afternoons were spent doing various drills and exercises.  There was a huge variety of shinty skills at the camp but it was great to see kids growing in confidence during the week.  Katie Drain, the Camanachd Association Shinty Development Officer for the North, came on Wednesday and it was good to see some new drills.  Throughout the week 4 teams of 5 players battled it out for supremacy: Kyles, Kingussie, Newtonmore and Oban Camanachd.  There were 18 games of 30 minutes each including various other big matches with all leaders and campers.  Most kids probably had an average of 5 hours of shinty per day and played at least 15 matches. Towards the end of the week it was hard not fall asleep in your corn flakes.  We were even able to watch the English Camanachd Association play 'Scotland' on Wednesday night.  The campers became big fans of 'Baffi' who was by for the fastest of England's finest.

I tried to break the week up by 2 visits to White Wave based in Staffin.  The 'camp song' was 'Caman Man' by Gary Innes and the campers belted it out as we drove everywhere.  I was looking forward to driving round the beautiful Isle of Skye but Tuesdays drive to Staffin via Uig was nothing short of traumatic. Trying to drive a 17 seater minibus on Skye roads was both stressful and at times verged on the farcical.  Trying to fit several camper vans in a passing place is no joke!  In the course of one short journey I met 5 large buses all screaming along a road designed for light car use.  The Isle of Skye is simply not designed for the number of tourists currently visiting.  On Wednesday there was a cruise ship in Portree and the town was crazy!  When we went to Kiltrock on Thursday for canoeing, a viewing point designed for perhaps 10-15 cars was besieged with 100's of tourists to the point where it was difficult to enter and exit.  Despite these challenges all the campers had a great time. Some had contact with water for the first time in several days and the leaders were mightily relieved that certain feet were smelling sweeter in the journey back!!

Of course the camp was organised with the primary purpose of introducing young people to the gospel.  About half the campers had no live church background.  Several came from challenging situations which is what I believe camps are all about. On Sunday we attended Portree Free Church both morning and evening and the preacher and congregation were great with the campers.  We can't thank them enough for all their kindness (and home baking).  I was poorly prepared for communicating the Bible to kids who literally knew nothing about the Bible and I believe, on reflection, I pitched my morning talks too high.  Evangelising a post Christian and post truth generation is challenging and something I need more help to do.  I was originally going to speak on 'Proverbs: Wisdom for Life' but became increasingly drawn to the book of Jonah with its story about running from God.  I covered the story under the headings of rebellion, repentance, recovery and rage.  I personally enjoyed the preparation and understood Jonah chapter 4 in a whole new way after reading Warren Wiersbe's commentary. Sean did an excellent job of introducing the campers to the gospel of Mark in the evenings with 'Encounters with Jesus'.  Concentration levels today are short, but Sean did well to keep their attention.  We saw some real fruit in the evening discussion groups. Many of the kids opened up about tough situations and we encouraged them to ask any questions they had about the Christian faith.  I would definitely use more small groups, with structured interactive material in future years.  Seventeen very tired kids in a meeting for 30 minutes can be a recipe for disaster!

The last night of the camp was great.  Portree Free Church organised a wonderful barbecue and all local parents were invited for the prize giving.  Kyles won the league led by a certain David Murray. A local lad, part of the Gillpin shinty dynasty, won best player of the camp. Overall there were 5 awards including a Fitness Award, Most Improved Player, Fair Play and Team Player Award. Our two girls, one from Lewis and one from Skye both got awards. Everyone got an engraved medal and attitude, fitness and skill were rewarded.  It was also a chance for me to pay tribute to my fantastic team of leaders and cooks.

Leading a camp is intense.  It is probably the most draining and intense experience I have had in many years.  It is relentless.  Every minute you are making decisions that that affect the lives of other peoples children which is a huge responsibility.  I got some decisions wrong and have learnt a lot. Even driving the minibus is a big responsibility.  One night the fire alarm went off at 10:30 pm.  I went running around the building checking everyone was out and fearing the worst.  When we got outside everyone was fine and we discovered that one of the kids had emptied an aerosol into his 'very smelly room'. Needless to say there were some rather stale armpits for the rest of the week after all aerosols were confiscated!  Looking back it was quite amusing but at the time it was very stressful.  During the last night an alarm went off in a nearby building and I literally jumped out of my bed to the bedroom door!  

In the last 20 years our society has gone through a huge change.  Many young people aren't even within touching distance of Biblical truth and have no anchor when it come to morality.  Some genuinely looked confused when we spoke about honesty, self sacrifice and denial.  During the first night when Sean announced the Psalm one boy turned to me and said 'what are Psalms?'  I said 'they are songs about God written by King David.'  He looked puzzled and then asked 'who was King David?' Without thinking I said: 'the one who killed Goliath with a stone and sling.'  He shrugged his shoulders in continuing bewilderment. A boy on the cusp of high school from the Highlands of Scotland had literally never opened a Bible or heard a single Bible story.  This, of course, is why Free Church camps are absolutely critical.  There is a generation of boys and girls growing up without a shred of Biblical knowledge and who have never heard of the incredible love of Jesus for sinners.  

I, for one, was not prepared for what I experienced at camp.  Despite my own work I feel I so often live in a Christian bubble.  Scotland desperately needs the gospel and I was privileged to be part of the first Free Church Shinty Camp.  We need to use every Biblical means possible to reverse the trend and bring the good news of Jesus to young people in Scotland.  Yes I'm tired but next year is provisionally booked. The work of reaching kids with the gospel is too important to not use this great opportunity again.   

Sunday, 2 July 2017

The Widow of Zarephath and the Power of Littles

The Bible is full of stories of very ordinary people being used to do extraordinary things. One of these is the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17.  The Prophet Elijah asks her for 'a little water in a vessel, that I may drink'. This is remarkable because the country is in the middle of a drought.  Elijah has just been at the brook Cherith which has dried up.  Water was in short supply. Elijah then asks the widow 'to bring me a morsel of bread in your hand'. The widow would have every right to object and explain that she was at the absolute end of her resources, but she doesn't.  The little she has she goes to make for the prophet.  It turns out it is literally all she has and once she has made it she intends to die with her son.  What little the widow has she gives freely to sustain the work of the Lord.  Her sacrifice and service are total - she gives everything.  But her faithfulness is rewarded and God through Elijah multiplies what little she has. 

What can we learn from the widow of Zarephath?

Sometimes Jesus calls very ordinary people to do extraordinary things.  

Sometimes we feel we can do little or nothing in the service of God.  How could God use us?  But God often uses 'ordinary people'.  Think of Hagar, David, Gideon, Ruth, Mary and the disciples.  They weren't people of great talents, great resources or great power.  Yet God used them.  Sometimes God does raise up great people but generally he calls very ordinary people to carry out his purposes, and sometimes ordinary people can do amazing things. 

The Widow of Zarephaph sustained Elijah with the last of her food. Ruth stuck by her mother in law and became the mother of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David. Look at the geology in Matthew 1 and see how God uses some of the most unlikely people in the lineage of Jesus.  

This was always Dr Thomas Guthrie's view. When he planted St John's Parish Church in 1840 he organised his congregation so that everyone had a job to do and his great motto was 'something for everyone to do and everyone engaged on something'.  As Guthrie said: 'If the world is ever conquered for our Lord, it is not by ministers, nor by office-bearers, nor by the great, and noble and mighty, but by every member of Christ's body being a working member; doing his work; filling his own sphere; holding his own post; and saying to Jesus, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?"

A few weeks ago I walked in to a home where I met a woman in a challenging situation. She was about to have a baby and already had 3 sons under 7.  She had no money, little food and she was very short on hope. Her sons spoke little English.  Within a few days, the charity I work for, Safe Families for Children Scotland, had introduced volunteers who hosted her children while staff took her to hospital to have her baby.  When she returned home the local church was waiting with a bunch of flowers, some bags of food and for the next 4 weeks they organised a rota system to deliver a hot meal every night to the family. It was nothing short of Christian hospitality in action.  There was no fanfare or social media, just ordinary people showing extraordinary love.  

Abraham van Dijck - The Widow of Zarephath and Her Son
The Widow of Zarephath and her Son by Abraham van Dijck

God often calls people who have few resources to give what they have.

The widow of Zarephath was the last person most of us would have chosen to ask for assistance.  She was the poorest of the poor.  She had next to nothing.  Isn't it amazing how God often asks those of us who don't have much to give what we have?  Think of the widow in Mark 12 who put two copper coins in the offering.  God uses her as the great example of true Christianity as opposed to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who 'devour widows houses and for a pretence make long prayers.'  The woman who gave what little she had is given as a shining example of what faith looks like as opposed to the religious power brokers who had everything.

Maybe we think we don't have much, but God call us to give what little we have.  All of us have time, love, talents and most of us have a home and a car.  What if we used these things to God's glory?  What if we invited somebody who is lonely for lunch?  What if we visited somebody who is isolated?  What if we volunteered with Safe Families for Children and took a child overnight to give an exhausted family a break?  What if we hosted a fellowship in our home?  God isn't calling us to make excuses, he is calling us to give what little we have in His service.

Maybe you are frightened about giving away the little you have.  What did Elijah say to the widow? 'Do not fear'.  Elijah gave her a promise that though her own resources would soon be exhausted, God's resources are infinite.  God calls us to prioritise the needy.  In Bible terms this is the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor.  Why?  Well because this group have nothing to offer us in return. The evidence of God's undeserved grace in our lives is that we show grace to those who have nothing to give us in return.  This was the opposite of the Scribes and the Pharisees who made great show of their religious service. As C.H, Spurgeon says 'Compassion is a great gospel duty, and it must be hearty and practical. When we see a man in distress, we must not pass him by as the Priest and the Levite did, for thus we shall show that our religion is only skin deep, and has never affected our hearts. We must pity, go near and befriend.' 

God multiplies our offering when we give sacrificially

God can take our meagre talents and multiply them for His glory.  Think of the wee boy in John 6 when Jesus fed the 5000.  The disciples could only see the problem.  It would cost 8 months salary to feed everyone. But what about Jesus?  He was moved with compassion on the multitude. Jesus took two loaves and 5 barley loaves and fed thousands. Jesus multiplied an offering that was given in service and sacrifice.  He took the ordinary, multiplied it and made it extraordinary.

What if God could take our time, our home, our car and our love and use it to help a person or family in need?  What if Christians could act together to share the good news, love the poor and build the kingdom of God? This is what Chalmers and Guthrie believed and why they had such an impact on Scotland.  As Guthrie said: 'Separate the atoms that form a hammer, and in that state of minute division they would fall on a stone with no more effect than snowflakes.  Wield them into a solid mass, and swung around by the quarryman's brawny arm, they descend on the rock like a thunderbolt.' 

We have seen this so often in history.  When Christians work together they can have a huge impact on society.  The power of littles can come together and achieve so much more than we can on our own.  We must partner with others who are passionate for the gospel of Jesus, who stand on the authority of Scripture and who have a heart for the poor and marginalised.  As Guthrie says in 'The City its Sins and Sorrows': 'Let each select their own manageable field of Christian work.  Let us thus embrace the whole city, and cover its nakedness, although, with different denominations at work, it should be robed, like Joseph in a coat of many colours.'  

The Widow of Zarephath shows us what can be done with very little.  God can, and does, use the ordinary and can multiply our scant resources for His glory.  We need to obey His call to love the poor and marginalised and give what little we can: 'Fear not little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.' Luke 12 v 32, 33.

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The Prophet Elijah with the widow of Zarephath and her Son by Abraham van Dijck

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Philanthropy grows best in the Soil of Christianity

Philanthropy is not a casual product; it is not a mere outcome of a zeitgeist, or fashion of the age; its roots are deep in the soil of Christianity; it cannot pick up a living either from Paganism, or Agnosticism, or Secularism, or any other system cut off from the influence of the love of Christ.

This is one of the first paragraphs in William Garden Blaikie’s Leaders in Modern Philanthropy published in 1884.  What follows is a barnstorming tour of all the great Christian philanthropists from John Howard, William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry, Andrew Reed, Thomas Chalmers, Thomas Guthrie, David Livingstone, William Burns, John Patterson, Agnes Salt and many others.  The claim that some make that Dr Thomas Guthrie was some kind of lone voice in 19th century Scotland is simply not supported by facts.  Guthrie built on the work of Sheriff Watson in Aberdeen and John Pounds in England.  His work was taken up by many particularly Lord Shaftesbury in England.  He was part of a wider movement that rediscovered evangelical theology and roused a sleeping church to the Biblical mandate of fighting for justice and showing mercy to the marginalised.  Their work sprang from their theology.

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Rev W.G. Blackie
Despite the UK’s departure from its Christian heritage, much of our society remains rooted in the Bible.  The idea that we are all equal in the sight of the law, the idea of education for all, the concept of compassion for the poor are inextricably linked to a Biblical view of humanity.  If you don’t think this is important look closely at other society’s and see the radical difference.  The foundational Christian belief that man is made in the image of God has radical implications for the way we treat our fellow man, particularly those who need special protection and care.  Christianity teaches that everyone has dignity and worth.  It also teaches that anyone can be redeemed from their fallen/sinful state.  Man’s fundamental problem is not poverty, housing or power, it is sin (Matthew 15 v 15-20).  The addict, the wife beater, the thief can all be redeemed and transformed by the grace of God.  Christianity is about grace, hope and most of all love.  It is religion of redemption and second chances.

But much more than personal transformation, Christianity places on the believer ‘a strong dynamic impulse to diffuse the love which had fallen so warmly on themselves’ (Blaikie).  Our Saviour, ‘the friend of publicans and sinners’ is our ultimate example.  Jesus taught repeatedly about the need to love the poor in parables such as the Good Samaritan.  His teaching in Matthew 25 on the sheep and the goats couldn’t be clearer.  He defined true greatness: ‘the servant of all being the greatest of all.’  Remember that Jesus was speaking at a time when the order of the Roman empire masked a barbarous culture. Gladiatorial sports slaughtered tens of thousands for nothing but the amusement of the baying mob.  Slavery was commonplace and women were often used as sexual play things.  Yes, there were occasional spurts of compassion when an amphitheatre collapsed but there was no systematic relief of the poor.  It was a hierarchical society where groups and classes were systematically oppressed and kept down.  A bit like modern Britain.

It was as the New Testament church grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire that Christianity’s counter cultural message of love for the poor began to change societies.  As Blaikie says: ‘In the course of time, barbarous sports disappeared; slavery was abolished or greatly modified; laws that bore hard on the weaker sex were amended; the care of the poor became one of the great lessons of the Church.’  This is not to say that the church did not frequently go wrong.  Often the methods of showing love became exaggerated and distorted.  The alms giving in the mediaeval church became more about the abuse of power than equipping the poor to become self-reliant.   The reformation was a great return to Biblical Christianity and while it was a time of great conflict it also saw a return to Biblical philanthropy and care for the poor.  It encouraged education and saw the start of schools, colleges and universities.  The Bible was not only given to the common man but he was also taught how to read it.  This why William Tyndale became a hunted terrorist.  His English New Testament was a threat because it challenged the power of a corrupt church.

So far so good.  Even the most cynical atheist would surely acknowledge that Christian philanthropy has done great good.  But let’s be honest, there have been many inspiring philanthropists who haven’t had an ounce of love for God.  It is wonderful to read of philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie building libraries, donating ornate organs and building palaces of peace.  My family home in Sutherland has many monuments to the generosity of Carnegie.  We celebrate every effort that is made to relieve the poor and change society for the better whether in Christs name or not.  Nobody can deny that many charities have sprung up with little or no Christian inspiration.  But history shows us that all too often the greatest social reformers have been compelled by a zeal for God that leads to an enduring love for his neighbour.  They inspire followers who, if not always sharing in their theology, agree with their goals and are willing to follow their example.  Often secular philanthropists (such as Carnegie) are blessed with great fortunes and influence but it takes an exceptional love to persevere in championing the poor without wealth or power.  It is one thing for an inspiring political leader to rise up but unless it is underpinned with the theology of Christian compassion, how long will it last?

Dr Thomas Guthrie
Men like Thomas Guthrie and William Wilberforce inspired a movement rooted firmly in Micah 6 v 8.  They called the church and nation to love justice, show mercy and walk humbly with the God of the Bible.  They wrote, they spoke, they preached, they persuaded and they campaigned for change to the way the poor were treated.  The work went on long after they were dead.  Their work changed whole communities, changed laws and changed the direction of our nation.  When Guthrie died in 1873 not only was education about to be offered to all, but thanks to Christian social reformers children were finally being offered protection and care instead of exploitation.  Men like Guthrie and Wilberforce were hated and opposed because they challenged the powerful vested interests in the alcohol and slave industry respectively.  But through all the challenges, they had an unquenchable hope in the redeeming gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.  A hope that the most visionary and noble secularist can’t offer.  This is why secularism soon turns to pessimism.  As Blaikie says;

Secularism may try to keep up its spirits, it may imagine a happy future, it may revel in a dream of a golden age.  But as it builds its castle in the air, its neighbour, Pessimism, will make short and rude work of the flimsy edifice.  Say what you will, and do what you may, says Pessimism, the ship is drifting inevitably on the rocks.  Your dream that one day selfishness will be overcome, are the phantoms of a misguided imagination; your notion that abundance of light is all that is needed to cure the evils of society, is like the fancy of keeping back the Atlantic with a mop.  If you really understood the problem, you would see that the moral disorder of the world is infinitely too deep for any human remedy to remove it; and, since we know of no other, there is nothing for us but to flounder on from one blunder to another, and from one crime to another, till mankind works out its own extinction; or, happy catastrophe! The globe on which we dwell is shattered by collision with some other planet, or drawn into the furnace of the sin.

It is the Christian gospel that has been the great agent of change in human history.  Has the church at times been corrupt?  Absolutely.  Has it at times disregarded the poor and even abused them.  Unfortunately, it has.  But what has been the fruit of the revival of true Christianity?  It has always been love, particularly for the poor.  The spirit of self-seeking is supplanted by the spirit of service and love.  Vice is replaced by virtue.  When men love God in sincerity, they will love their neighbour, particularly the poor and the outcast.  The church at its best lives by that early ‘mission statement’ in James 1 v 27 ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.’  As Thomas Guthrie said about the kind of Christianity that brings transformation to communities;

We want a religion that, not dressed for Sundays and walking on stilts, descends into common and everyday life; is friendly, not selfish; courteous, not boorish; generous, not miserly; sanctified, not sour; that loves justice more than gain; and fears God more than man; to quote another's words - "a religion that keeps husbands from being spiteful, or wives fretful; that keeps mothers patient, and children pleasant; that bears heavily not only on the 'exceeding sinfulness of sin,' but on the exceeding rascality of lying and stealing; that banishes small measures from counters, sand from sugar, and water from milk-cans - the faith, in short, whose root is in Christ, and whose fruit is works.

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William Wilberforce

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The Eclipse of the Fear of God by Rev J.J.Murray

It is now over sixty years since Professor John Murray, in his 1955 Peyton Lectures, later published in Principles of Conduct (IVP, London, 1957), spoke of the 'eclipse of the fear of God'. It was such he said that 'we have become reluctant to distinguish the earnest and consistent believer as God-fearing'. If that was characteristic of the situation then, how much more so is it true of the present time? Professor Murray was a great admirer of Hugh Martin, the 19th century Scottish divine, who observes in his classic work, The Shadow of Calvary (1875, Banner reprint 1983): 'I have no personal religion save as I fear God sincerely and supremely', claiming that  'Fear is the first principle of all piety.' Perhaps it is time for us to examine again what is the mark of the true people of God.

1 It is the fear of God that is exercised by angels and unfallen man

Professor Murray says of the fear of God: 'It is the reflex in our consciousness of the transcendent majesty and holiness of God. It belongs to all created rational beings and does not take its origin from sin.'  He gives as an example in the adoration of the angelic host in Isaiah's vision (Isa 6.1-8). The seraphim are overwhelmed with awe and reverence before the manifestation of God's transcendent holiness. Unlike the prophet Isaiah, however, there is no shame because of sin. It is true that a fear of incurring the displeasure of the Almighty is a motive in the ministry of angels. It is also a fact that our first parents had the true fear of God before the Fall, for they were created in the image of God (Gen 1.27, 2.9-11). The fear of God was supremely manifested in the perfect humanity of Jesus. His whole life was governed by the fear of the Lord, and it was that fear that controlled his obedience even unto death (Heb 5.7). It was said of Him in prophecy: 'And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord' (Isa 11.2-3).

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Professor John Murray  (14 October 1898 – 8 May 1975), Westminster Theological Seminary

2 It is the fear of God that will make us flee to Jesus Christ

The God-consciousness produced in the fallen human heart can only, in the first instance, lead us to be afraid of God and His punitive judgments. We can see this in the reaction of the prophet Isaiah, compared to that of the seraphim. The sinner had to cry: 'Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts' (Isa 6.5). After the Fall, we find that 'Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden'. The impulse was to hide from the 'face' of God, which they had previously beheld. We are told in the Book of Revelation that there is a day coming when the mighty ones of the earth will call on the mountains and rocks to fall on them to hide them from 'the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb' (Rev 6.15-17). In contrast with this when the redeemed are gathered home 'they shall see his face'. (Rev 22.4).

In the case of Adam his newly acquired dread of the presence of God was the reaction of his consciousness to the rupture which sin had effected in the relationship. Murray asks: 'Is it proper to be afraid of God? And answers: 'The only proper answer is that it is the essence of impeity not to be afraid of God when there is reason to be afraid'.  Wherever this consciousness is awakened in a sinner at any time he is constrained to cry out, What must I do? How can I stand before a holy God? How can God's anger be quenched?  From the time that God intervened to give the first Gospel promise of 'the Seed of the Woman' (Gen 3.15), the only acceptable way for sinners to approach God was through a God-appointed sacrifice. We see it in Abel's offering being accepted by God and therefore his person, while Cain was rejected  (Gen 4.3-5). A propitiation has been graciously provided and when received by faith there is reconciliation and restored fellowship with God. 'There is forgiveness with thee that thou mayest be feared' (Psalm 130.4)

3 It is the fear of God that will make us seek purity of life

Scripture leaves us in no doubt that the beginning of  knowledge and of wisdom comes from the fear of God. (Prov 1.7, Prov 9.10, Psa 111.10). In that true knowledge of God we are delivered from the fear of terror but retain the fear of reverence and obedience. The Psalmist could say: 'My flesh trembleth for fear of thee'  (Ps 119.120). Many professing Christians today think that such fear belongs to Old Testament times and that the New Testament rises above that which was represented   before the coming of Christ. Nothing could be further from the truth. To quote Murray again: 'The church walks in the fear of the Lord because the Spirit of Christ indwells, fills, directs and rests upon the church and the Spirit of Christ is the Spirit of the fear of the Lord'. (Principles of Conduct, p 230).

The saint of God is not free from sin. He knows that his sin is displeasing to God and is sensitive to the demands of holiness. He takes heed to the words of Paul: 'Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.' (Phil 2.12-13). He is ready to pass the time of his sojourning here in fear. (I Pet 1.17). The highest reaches of sanctification are realised only in the fear of God (2 Cor 7.1).  Says John Calvin, 'The fear of God is the root and origin of all righteousness'. 'The fear of the Lord is clean enduring for ever'  (Psa 19.9). The most practical of mundane duties derive their inspiration and impetus from the fear of God, as we find in Ephesians 5.21 and 6.5, Colossians 3.22 and 1 Peter 2.18.

4 It is the fear of God that will help us overcome other fears

In the early stages of the Christian life there is often a battle to overcome slavish fear and nurture filial fear. John Bunyan points to the devil as the author of servile fear. The word servile comes from the Latin servus which means  'slave', while filial is from filius, meaning 'son'.  We are to have the loving fear of an adopted son to His Father. (Rom 8.15). 'The filial fear of God is most prevalent when the heart is impressed with a lively sense of the love of God manifested in Christ'  (A Treatise on the Fear of God, Bunyan Works, vol 1,  p 483). 'Perfect love casts out fear ', that is, the fear of terror (1 John 4.18). 'The fear of the Lord was a lovely grace in the perfect humanity of Jesus. Let it be the test of our "predestination to be conformed to his image".' (Sinclair Ferguson).

It will also helps us overcome the fear of man. 'We fear men so much because we fear God so little,'  said William Gurnall. 'The fear of man bringeth a snare' (Prov 29.25). There are so many encouragements given us to overcome that fear. God called on Joshua to  'Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed; for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest' (Josh1.9).  'Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God (Isa 41.10). Alex Motyer says: 'The command to abjure fear is based on the divine presence ..and divine personal commitment.' Jesus assures his followers: 'Fear not, little flock: for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.' (Luke 12.32). Hugh Martin exhorts:  'Beware of ungodly fears. The fear of man bringeth a snare.   Full half of the lies that are uttered in the earth are dictated by ungodly fear; and full half of the deeds of unrighteousness are prompted by some ungodly fear. Men will not fear God, and therefore they must frequently be at the mercy of ungodly fear'. (Shadow of Calvary, 219).

'Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man' (Eccl 12.13).

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Christ is King

This is a guest blog from Catriona Murray the excellent blogger of Post Tenebras Lux.

The Wee Frees have a reputation for schism. Put two Wee Frees in a room and they will splinter into three new denominations. We’ve heard all the wisecracks and, as you might expect, we’re not laughing. No, not because we are dour, joyless Calvinists, but because it is not a completely fair representation.  True, there have been unedifying, pointless spats among the brethren which do little to show the world a good example of Christians dwelling in unity. We might all do well to think about that. There is little point in being a light set on a hill if we’re going to flicker on and off, sending as much shadow over the countryside as we do light.

However, the Disruption of 1843 has to be viewed in an entirely different context. Like all great historical events, it has much to teach us and enjoys a resurgence in relevance every now and then. For the members of the Free Church, it should be a touchstone anyway – where have we come from, what are we about, what are we? The Disruption was not really schism at all: it was a protest against the Kirk’s continued departure from the Establishment Principle. In creating a new denomination, the Evangelicals who walked out of the Kirk were actually doing the only thing they could in order to maintain that Principle, which states that both the church and state are under God’s jurisdiction and must have mutual respect.

Creating a new national church was probably the only thing they could have done. Thomas Chalmers was quite clear about the motive:  

‘We quit a vitiated Establishment but would rejoice in returning to a pure one. We are advocates for a national recognition of religion . . .’

So, responsible Wee Frees have to give some consideration to this foundational principle. It is getting increasingly difficult in a country which seems to grow more secular with each passing day. Even in Lewis, still labelled by some as ‘the last stronghold of the pure gospel’, the right of the church – or even individual Christians – to have a voice in the affairs of state is constantly challenged by a self-styled ‘silent majority’ of secularists. The fact that they are far from silent and not remotely in the majority need not interfere with a good line. Many of those who were opposed to their campaign simply said, ‘it’s not what they’re wanting, it’s the way they’re going about getting it’.

Negative campaigning does not go down well in a society like ours. I am the veteran of many parliamentary campaigns in the Western Isles and saw the Labour Party fall victim to that mistake repeatedly. No one wants to hear what you’re against – tell them instead what you are for.

Although I am a member of the SNP, I find it hard to reconcile some of what the party advocates at a national level with my faith. I think the party has taken the country down unbiblical routes and I have struggled with this in terms of my support. There are some Christians I know who cannot stand to hear the SNP mentioned. This is understandable, but I think that it’s also worth noting that a lot of liberalisation of policy was inevitable under a government of any hue. After all, which party has taken a stand against the steady erosion of traditional values?

Another objection to the SNP that I have heard from many Christians is that an independent Scotland would be a wholly secular state. That might very well be the case, but it is not much of an argument against independence - -after all, we are already living in a secular Britain. Oh yes, we are. There may be a vicar’s daughter in number 10, but that hasn’t stopped the political arena from being utterly hostile to Christianity. Tim Farron has been hounded and harassed for his views on sin (by a media pack that thinks sin is a myth on behalf of an audience which largely agrees) to the point where he can no longer continue as leader of his party.

There are countries in the world where Christians are persecuted and killed for their faith; this is not yet one of them. However, let’s not fool ourselves that there is freedom of speech either, or freedom of conscience: certainly not for Christians. If a bakery refuses to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, they are labelled ‘bigots’, despite the fact that they are being asked to go against their beliefs. Where is the freedom in that, or the parity?

Wee Frees like myself, by virtue of living in Scotland, are called upon to make frequent trips to the ballot box, so we’d better get a grip on our political consciences and reconcile them to our Christianity. We can do no better than head back to our roots, and our first Moderator. Although he was a political economist, Thomas Chalmers did not see government as the seat of all wisdom on how a country should be run. For the moral compass, he believed that the direction should come from the people themselves, and from their church.

Chalmers’ church had Christ as its head; He rules there still and no election can unseat Him. If we take our concerns to Him, praying for those we elect and praying for wisdom before voting, then who is to say that we will not yet see a halt called to the march of secularism in our land? Decline is not inevitable as long as revival is possible – and revival is possible as long as Christ is King. 

The Disruption painting.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Keeping Ourselves in the Love of God by Rev J.J Murray

The idea that professing Christians may not be true Christians is something not easily acknowledged in the present climate of the church. One finds it even more difficult to believe that ministers, with acknowledged gifts and abilities, whose teaching may have been blessed to many, could after all be devoid of true grace themselves. The fact that error and apostasy appeared so early on in the history of the New Testament church was to be a solemn warning to the church in later ages. We find that in a very short time after Pentecost error was creeping in, for example, to the church in Corinth and to the churches of the Galatians. Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus are full of warnings of the readiness of some to apostatise from the truth. The Epistles of John and the Epistle of Jude warn Christians of the danger of falling away. The threat of apostasy is highlighted in the letters to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation chapter 2 & 3. How frequent the promise there is made “to him who overcometh”.
Satan is behind apostasy
If that was true of the church in the age of the apostles, what will become of us, if we cease to be watchful and not use the means of keeping ourselves from falling away? The enemy of our souls is ever active in this respect. His malice is made clear by John Owen in his treatise on ‘The Nature and Causes of Apostasy from the Gospel’: “Satan is ever at work attempting to lead Christians into apostasy. He blinds their minds, inflames their lusts, pours out his temptations, involves them in false and corrupt reasonings, transforms himself into an angel of light, and uses signs and lying wonders, all to support his delusions. Satan never tires; he never goes on holiday.” Dr D M Lloyd-Jones said: “I am certain that one of the main causes of the condition of the church today is that the devil is being forgotten.”
Jude, in his General Epistle, gives us solemn warnings about apostasy but goes on to apply the preservative. At the outset of the Epistle he tells us that he was about to write on “the common salvation” (v3), when something came to his attention which required urgent action. His focus was drawn to threats that caused him to exhort his hearers “to earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered to the saints”. He was aware of Satan using men as instruments of this apostasy. “There are certain men crept in unawares”. It was like someone slipping poison into a glass. Certain men were perverting the grace of God and turning it into sensuality. He goes on to speak of their doom, which is as certain as what happened to Israel in the wilderness, to the fallen angels and to Sodom and Gomorrah (vv5-7).
Protection from apostasy
Following all the warnings Jude addresses his readers with the remedy (vv20-21). “But ye, beloved”. There must be a distinct difference as far as true believers are concerned. We are to go in the opposite direction from the apostates. There is one central remedy set before us: “Keep yourselves in the love of God”. If we were to follow some modern translations of verses 20-21 we would be considering four imperatives – build, pray, keep and look. But the original points to only one imperative – keep, and then to three participles – building, praying and looking. There is the what we are to do, and then the how we are to do it. 
I. The what we are to do
“Keep yourselves in the love of God”. How is this possible? Two things are implied:
1) It is because God has set His love on us that we are Christians. There is no salvation outside that consideration. We are the objects of the benevolent love of God to hell-deserving sinners. The apostle John said: “We have known and believed the love God hath to us” (1 John 4:16). Hold on to that. Keep yourselves in “the faith that worketh by love”.
2) It is because God’s love for us has become His love in us. “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given to us” (Rom. 5:5). In His love to us He imparts to us His own nature. We are made “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). That nature is love. The commandments are the imprint of his nature and therefore we keep his commandments. Love becomes the moving power or principle within us. “God is love, and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:16). There is a reciprocal love in the relationship. Jesus said: “As the Father hath loved me so have I loved you, continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15:9-10) The triune God comes to love us with a love of complacency. 
II. The how we are to do
Three things are required:
1) “Building up yourselves on your most holy faith”. We are to build on the only true foundation and as living stones we are being fashioned into the temple of the church, which is Christ’s body. Instruction in the truth and spiritual illumination are the means for preserving our souls. “Gospel truth is the only root from which gospel holiness grows.” (John Owen)
2) “Praying in the Holy Ghost”. There is saying prayers, as Saul the Pharisee did frequently, but only when he was wrought upon by the Holy Spirit could it be said, “Behold he prayeth” (Acts 9:11). Prayer is the vital breath for maintaining the spiritual life. 
3) “Looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life”. The Lord Jesus Christ has given eternal life to His own (John 17:2). It is “the life proper to the age to come” and it has entered our souls in this present age. “Ours is a religion,” said J G Vos, “whose centre of gravity lies beyond the grave in the world to come.” That is where our focus must be.
Keeping short accounts
The Puritans used to say: “Keep short accounts with God and men.” The truth is that there is no such position as standing still in the Christian life. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:12-13) If we are not going forward we are going back and that is where the seeds of apostasy are liable to be sown in the soul. The neglect of warnings leads to a false sense of security. We need to be constantly reminded that only “he that endureth to the end shall be saved” (Matt. 10:22). It is by faith that we will overcome. But “the faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance.” (John Murray) According to Hebrews 10:37-39, if one perseveres in faith he will gain his life; if he shrinks back he will prove himself reprobate. In the words of R L Dabney, “the saint is a penitent until he reaches heaven”. And Philip Henry was surely right when he said, “I will take my repentance to the gates of heaven.”

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Shoes for the Road

The name of Dr Alexander Stewart is sadly unknown to most Free Church people today.  He was born in Glen Glass on 21st May 1870.  After studying in Aberdeen he taught in a school at Garbhalt. It was during this period that he was converted after being given a copy of Halyburtons 'Great Concern of Salvation' which had been given to him by Dr Donald Munro.  Originally a Free Presbyterian, Dr Stewart joined the Free Church in 1905.  Although initially ministering at Fountainbridge Free Church, Edinburgh, after the congregation merged with St Columba's, Johnston Terrace, Stewart ministered to the united congregation until his death in 1937.  Perhaps Dr Stewart is best known for his book on Elisha 'Prophet of Grace' but he also wrote 'The History and Principles of the Free Church, 1843-1910, and 'Jeremiah, the Man and His Message'.  He become Editor of The Monthly Record in 1917 and held this position until his death.  His articles and willingness to tackle 'Current Issues' were welcomed in an age when the world was seeking to come to terms the trauma of the Great War.  Shortly after his death many of his Record articles were republished in a wonderful book entitled 'Shoes for the Road'.  I already had a copy but picked up another one recently in one of my favourite places on earth: Leekies Bookshop in Inverness.  I can't recommend the book highly enough and I would love to see it republished.  Sadly Stewart's theology is fast disappearing in the modern Free Church and we desperately need to see a recovery of his warm, practical, Biblical and reformed theology.

Below is a summary of the first article.  

Thy shoes shall be iron and brass; and as thy days, so shall thy strength be.  
Deuteronomy 33 v 25

The blessing by Moses given to Asher is one that contains a promise for all followers of Jesus Christ. Ashers inheritance was a stretch of rocky coastline from Carmel to Sidon. It was a region where travelling was a challenge.  Unless one was well equipped for the terrain, any traveller would soon have torn and bleeding feet.  As Dr Stewart says: 'A journey under such conditions strained to the full his physical endurance, but especially it tested the quality of his footwear.  His shoes must be strong as well as his heart; otherwise they would serve him but ill on such a road.'

Firstly we see that the believer's equipment for the journey of life will be suited to the conditions in which his lot is cast.  He will have shoes to match the road. If the lines have fallen to him in difficult places he will receive from the Lord's hand an outfit which will be adapted to the demands of his circumstances. We are living in uncertain days.  Internationally and nationally we are living at a time of unprecedented change.  Within our own church we don't have to look far for division, declension and discouragement.  People seem to be blind to the judgement of God.  As with the days of Micah the Lord has a contention with His people (ch 6 v 2, 3) but we seem to be unwilling to humble ourselves.

If indeed 'our face is set to reach Jerusalem,' we may expect to meet with hardships in the way; nor would it be good for us if the fact were otherwise.  If the road were too easy, we would miss some of the most salutary lessons of the Christian life. The primrose path is no doubt the most pleasant to the flesh, but is not the most profitable for the soul.  We must look, therefore, for something in our lot which will correspond to the portion of Asher - for rough places over which we must press with weary feet and failing breath, for steep ascents which we must surmount "with toil of heart and knees and hands."  There are tasks to be preformed that sap our strength with their heaviness or wear out our spirit with their monotony.  There are sorrows to be endured that wring our heart with pain, and make our day dark with night.  Life is a ceaseless conflict, and long holding out.  The road winds uphill all the way, and it is no ordinary perseverance that will enable us to endure unto the end.

But the Lord bestows on His children equipment which is adapted to the needs of their pilgrimage. For the rough and toilsome road He provides shoes that are iron and brass.  The gracious facts of the Gospel message, its unfailing promises, its strong consolations, its mighty hopes - these constitute a dynamic which enables him to triumph over the difficulties of his pilgrimage.  Hudson Taylor once wrote a moving letter from beside the couch where his beloved daughter lay dying, in China.  "it was no vain nor unintelligent act," he said, "when, knowing the land, its people and climate, I laid my wife and children, with myself, on the alter of his service."  The road was rough, but his shoes were iron and brass, and he did not faint.

In the second clause of the verse - as they days, so shall thy strength be - the promise seems to be merely repeated in different words, but there is a fresh shad of meaning.  To begin with, there is the assurance of strength according to the character of our days, that is, of grace proportioned to the varying demands of life. Some of the believer's days are bright and happy.  The sky is clear and the sun is warm; the air is fragrant with the scent of flowers and the woods are vocal with the singing of words.  But there are other days that are cold and cheerless, days of angry blasts and killing frosts, when the sun never breaks through the clouds, and the earth seems to be held in the grip of death.

Now it seems easy enough to live through the day of sunshine, but it should not be forgotten that prosperity brings its own special temptations.  There is a real danger that success may dull the edge of conscience, and lead to self-sufficiency and spiritual pride.  It requires a great deal of the grace of God to carry a full cup with a steady hand.  It is in the cloudy and dark day, however, that the need of strength more evidently appears, and it is then that the Lord most clearly proves Himself to be a very present help.  We all know people who see to go through trauma after trauma.  They continue with courage and cheerfulness.  When you ask them the cause of this joy they will likely answer that the Lord gives them a back according to their burden.  We can all look back at past difficulties and wondered how we survived yet each new day brought its own supply of strength for its own pain and its own burden.

This surely suggests to us the wisdom of taking the days as they come, and refusing to borrow trouble for the future.  As Matthew Henry says "Let us not pull that upon ourselves all at once which providence has wisely ordered to be borne in parcels,"  Often the dread of evils which never come is more distressing that all the troubles we actually experience.  It has been well said that "anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its troubles, but it robs to-day of its strength."

But the words we are considering further contain a promise of strength that will be continued to the end of life,  It is a strength according to our "days" - the use of the plural is significant.  The word embraces the number of our days as well as their quality.  In other words the Lord gives the assurance that He will sustain His people to the end.  This is the crowning assurance of the Gospel, for it put a seal on the permanence on all the other blessings of salvation.  Let us take hold of this gracious promise for our won comfort and encouragement as we face the future.  We cannot read the secrets, but if we avail ourselves of the equipment with which the Lord provides us for the journey, we shall not faint in the way.