Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Voice of God

This was an article published by my father the Rev John J Murray.

There are ultimately only two voices in the world – the voice of truth and the voice of the lie. We can trace the origin of the great divide back to the Garden of Eden. God is the God of truth and  communicated Himself through His Word. The Word created all things, including man in the divine image. Man lived by the Word that proceeds from God. (Deut 8.4). The voice of God was heard in His command to man (Gen 2.16). The voice of the lie was introduced by Satan: 'Yeah, hath God said?' and 'Ye shall not surely die.' (Gen 3.1,4). It was the serpent's word against God's, and our first parents believed the lie of Satan.  The divine image was lost and when the Voice came to them after the Fall they hid themselves, for their foolish acceptance of the lie was exposed. (Gen 3.8).

And so began the age long battle between the truth and the lie. God made known his truth throughout the period of the Old Testament. The Word, who spoke through the prophets (Heb 1.1), became incarnate. 'The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us' (John 1.14). The incarnate Son of God was tested in His confrontation with Satan, the originator of the lie: 'he is a liar and the father of it' (John 8.44). This battle took place not in a garden but in a wilderness. (Matt 4.1-11). The lie was spoken three times and was countered each time by the written Word and especially by the truth that 'man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God'.  What was true for Christ in his human nature is true for the life of everyone who is united to Christ.

1 The voice of God must be heard in our Christian life

Scripture is the living Word of the living God. We are reminded by John Calvin that 'the Scriptures obtain full authority among believers only when men regard them as having sprung from heaven, as if there the living words of God were heard'  (Institutes I, vii, 1). The Word of God radiates with the glory of God..  Abraham Kuyper shows what happens in the the experience of the Christian: 'The veil is gradually pushed aside. The eye turns to the divine light that radiates from the Scripture, and now our inner ego sees the imposing superiority. We see it as one born blind, who being healed, see the beauty of colours, or as one deaf, whose hearing being restored, catches the melodies from the world of sounds and with his whole soul delights in them'. (Quoted in The Mouth of God by Sinclair Ferguson, Banner, 2014, p 52).

The Christian has the complete and final revelation of God in the Bible. This is what conveys the knowledge of God to us and also  what conforms us to the image of God. (2 Copr 3.18). It is what counters the lie of Satan  in our expereincee. Scripture is 'the Spirit's sword'  (Eph 6.17),  a weapon put into the hand of the Christian. We have the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. Sincalir Ferguson writes:  'The Spirit uses the Bible to retake what has been enemy occupied territory  in our lives, and then to sow the seeds of new fruits in our character. Through it he cuts down offending characteristics in  his people and and puts to the sword any remaining remnants of opposition to God's kingdom' (From the Mouth of God, p 153).

2 The voice of God must be heard in our churches

The New Testament Epistles were addressed mainly to churches. The infallible message was conveyed to them through the chosen apostles. The words came directly from God. Further words were addressed to the Seven Churches of Asia in Revelation, chapters 2-3, with an application for all time: 'He that hath an ear let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches”. Are we hearing that voice in the Church today? There are factors that appear to mute it.

a) We are losing the Biblical concept of the ministry. The minister is a man called and anointed by God, with an authoritative message. He is 'God's trumpeter'. His primary responsibility is faithfulness to God's Word.  Many denominations are obsessed with gender balance while in others churches, we are seeing a proliferation of ministries -  associate ministers, mission directors, church plant officers, community workers, youth organiser etc. Where is the New Testament order in all this?  A common view today is that you need special training and techniques to speak to different age groups, especially the young. Sermons tend to be topical and the connecting point with the audience could well be a movie, a pop song or a sportsman. The man proclaiming 'Thus saith the Lord' seems to be disappearing.

b) There is too much time given to trying to defend the inspiration and authority of the Bible. Do we need to answer every critic that expresses a view about Scripture? There is too much emphasis on the Word being defended instead of letting it loose. Spurgeon said that we might as well think of defending a roaring lion. 'The Bible', he said, 'has passed through the fire of persecution, literary criticism, philosophical doubt, scientific discovery and has lost nothing.' John Calvin put it like this: 'Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence off its own truth as white and black things do of their colour, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste'. (Institutes I, vii, 2).

c) We have almost lost sight of the concept of truth carrying with it confrontation. When the Church is backsliden and worldly and plagued with error, the man of God is called to expose the falsehood. Satan is bent on silencing such voices. At this time there is an urgent need 'to root out, and to pull down and to destroy' (Jer. 1.10).  Where are the ministries today that are grappling with real ills of the Church?. How can the voice of God be heard when error goes unchallenged and evil is condoned? In regular ministry pastors who do not preach for conviction of sin are fighting against the Holy Spirit, who has come to convict the world of sin (John 16.8-9)). We can talk about and pray for revival, but what about the ongoing disobedience to the Word of God?

3 The voice of God must be heard in our nation

If there is one thing that Satan hates it is the Word of God, because it is the revelation of the Truth.  In propagating the lie, his strategy is to cast doubt upon the Scriptures. Through the subtelity of Satan working inside the  Church, created to be  'the pillar and ground of the truth',  our country has lost its hold of the Bible. (see I H Murray, 'How Scotland Lost Its Hold of the Bible,' Banner of Truth, Aug-Sept 2015). In evidence of divine judgment  there is the prospect of the withdrawal of that blessing. which has been despised. A similar thing happened  to Israel in the days of Amos:  'Behold the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord and shall not find it' (Amos 8.11-12).

In such an event the vacuum does not remain unfilled.  The cults press in eagerly to fill it as we see from the  references in verse 14 of chapter 8 to Samaria, Dan and Beersheba.  The truth of God is our only fence against error. We  are warned of what happens when the fence comes down (Isa 5.5; Psalm 80.12-13) The people who would not hear the Word of God are left to taste the poor fare of man-made religion. We see the aimless helplessness of man without the revealed truth of God to hold him steady and still - 'they shall wander from sea to sea'. Man lives by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. If this food is withdrawn,  there is no other way of satisfaction or security. 'In that day shall the fair virgins and young men faint for thirst' (Amos 8.13) In the famine of the Word of God Amos saw the young as being the sufferers. They are fainting for spiritual food but it was the earlier generation that deprived them of the possibility of finding it. What a thought!

What are we doing with the inspired, infallible, and all-sufficient Word of God?

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Thomas Chalmers and the Recovery of the Parish

This is an excellent overview of Chalmers by Dr George Grant.  It is on the blog of my good friend and brother in Christ Michael Ives who regularly writes on the blog 'West Port Experiment'.

All this effort was not dedicated simply to perpetuating an idea, for Chalmers had a vision of Scotland in which all her people from those of highest to those of lowest rank would know and love the Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps the dearest example of the outworking of this vision is seen in the West Port experiment in Edinburgh, “a fourth part of the whole population being pauper and another fourth street beggars, thieves and prostitutes.” The population amounted to upwards of 400 families of whom 300 had no connection with the Church. Of 411 children of school age, 290 were growing up without any education. The plan of Chalmers was to divide the whole territory into twenty districts each containing about twenty families. To each district a discipler was appointed whose duty was to visit each family once a week. A school was provided. By the end of 1845, 250 scholars had attended the school. A library, a savings bank, a wash-house and an industrial school had been provided, and there was a congregation served by a missionary-minister. Chalmers often attended the services there and would take part as a worshipper alongside the people of the district.

You can read the whole article here.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Chalmers and Guthrie on the 'Charity of Kindness'

What is charity?  Is it just the widespread and indiscriminate distribution of money? How effective has this been over the last 50-60 years in our own country?  Is there a connection between poverty and morality?  Well as we saw in a previous article 'Dr Guthrie and the Blind Organist', Guthrie believed that the effect of the gospel which should create self denial, frugality and discipline could have a significant effect on a poor household.  Guthrie believed that there could be exceptions to this rule but generally speaking he held to the principle of Psalm 36 v 25: 'All my life I have not seen the righteous left forsaken, or begging for food.'  As he says: ‘I have made extensive enquiries; and feel perfect confidence in asserting that foresight and frugality would place our people, save in a few exceptional cases, beyond the reach of want or the need of charity.  It is the want of these that makes Poor Laws necessary – if they are necessary.’

Like all great social reformers Guthrie challenged sin as much as encouraging virtue.  He was like William Wilberforce who fought on the one hand against slavery but on the other fought for a reformation of manners.  We have a slightly idealised view of the Victorian era.  The reality was that as Eric Metaxas says in his biography of Wilberforce, Victorian society was particularly 'brutal, decadent, violent and vulgar.'  Like Wilberforce, Guthrie fought on various fronts to see a better society.  The simple provision of mercy was never enough for Guthrie, he sought a complete reformation of society at a moral and spiritual level.  It was a natural progression for Dr Guthrie to go on to become a fighter for temperance because he saw the huge damage that alcohol did among the working classes.  It was a development of his earlier views while still at Arbirlot (1830-37) where he established a savings bank.  As he says in his Memoirs: [this bank] ‘was a great success; training up the young to those habits of foresight, self-denial, and prudence, which are handmaids to virtue, and, though not religion, are nearly allied to it.’  Guthrie maintained that while we should fight the injustice of poverty at every turn, as he did, poverty can be compounded by addiction.

In his Second Plea for Ragged Schools Guthrie addresses himself to those who have, as yet, given nothing to the cause of Ragged Schools.  He quotes the verse in Proverbs 19 v 17: ‘He that lendeth to the poor, lendeth to the Lord, and he will repay.’  He then says: ‘The money which is lavished on sturdy beggars on the wasteful slaves of vice, on the reckless and improvident, you have no right to expect payment of.  These are not the poor.  On the contrary, they plunder the poor, and prey on poverty; and hardening men’s hearts by their frauds, inprovidence, crimes, and detected impostures, against the claims of real poverty, they deserve not charity, by chastisement.’  He continues: ‘It is a scandal and a shame that such devouring locusts are permitted to infest our city, and swarm in its streets.  The vices of a system which the police strangely tolerate, and our charity unwisely maintains, are visible in the blotched and brazened features of those thriving solicitors.  The very breath with which they whine for charity smells of the dram shop.’   To me this is the problem we have today with a faceless and bureaucratic welfare system.  Far from helping many people it traps them in a cycle of poverty where they simply exist rather than being given the help they need to realise their full potential.  While is seems harsh to our 21st Century sensitivities to hear Guthrie saying that a particular group are 'not the poor', he would have been the first to help those addicted to alcohol if they genuinely sought help.  Far from writing them off, Guthrie was seeking to bring them to their senses by not indulging their addiction.

Rev Thomas Chalmers
It was Thomas Chalmers who proved with the revived 'Parochial' or 'Territorial' system that voluntary charity could almost always achieve greater results than state welfare.  This was because it was local, more personal, better tailored to people’s needs and more flexible to changes. When Thomas Chalmers was appointed to St John’s Parish, Glasgow in 1819 he agreed along with the Town Council that all new cases of destitution would be met out of the church funds.  Thomas Chalmers divided the Parish into 25 areas and appointed an elder and deacon to minister to both the spiritual and temporal needs of each area.  The instructions were few but clear:

‘When one applies for admittance through the deacon upon our funds, the first thing to be inquired into is, if there be any kind of work that he can yet do so as either to keep him altogether off, or as to make a partial allowance serve for his necessities; the second, what his relatives are willing to do for him; third whether he is a hearer in any dissenting place of worship, and whether its session will contribute to his relief.’  

Along with the introduction of Sunday Schools and widespread education it is little wonder that the rate of Poor Relief was drastically reduced in the Parish of St John’s. As Rev William Hannah says:

‘The drunken were told to give up their drunkenness, and that until they did so their case would not even be considered; the idle were told to set instantly to work, and if they complained that work could not be gotten, by kindly applications to employers, they were helped to obtain it; a vast number of primary applications melted into nothing under the pressure of a searching investigation.’  

After three years of this experiment, and despite St John’s accepting all the poor who had been on the sessional role of all three parishes that made up St John’s, the whole cost of ‘pauperism’ reduced from £1400 per year to £280.  As Chalmers says in his works: ‘our proposal was not met with an incredulity which was all but universal.’

Dr Guthrie and Rev Chalmers didn’t believe in ‘casual charity’ but in charity that offered hope and transformation.  This is why they both believed so passionately in the parochial or territorial system.  This is why Guthrie so passionately furthered the cause of Ragged Schools.  His aim was not just to relieve the suffering of ragged children but to offer them a new life.  

Psalm 41 commands us to ‘wisely consider the case of the poor’ not simply to franchise our responsibilities to the state.  Poverty is not just caused by a lack of money so our response can never be simplistic.  Poverty involves much more than financial poverty - it involves marginalisation, isolation, stigmatisation and being disenfranchised from others in society.  Chalmers and Guthrie show us that poverty relief must be personal, robust, bespoke, generous, enduring and always with an eye on long term transformation.  As Chalmers said in the General Assembly of 1822: ‘a safe and easy navigation has been ascertained from the charity of law to the charity of kindness; and, therefore, be it now reviled, or be it disregarded as it may, we have no doubt upon our spirits, whether we look to the depraving pauperism or to the burdened agriculture of our land, that the days are soon coming when men, looking for a way of escape from these sore evils, will be glad to our own enterprise, and be fain to follow it.’

Given the rampant poverty that we have today, might this be a moment when we look to experiments like St John's and perhaps think of a better way than the indiscriminate distribution of money? Benefits can be suspended almost on a whim and people are left utterly destitute.  Wouldn't a more personal, compassionate system, delivered in partnership with faith based, Third Sector Charities make for a better system?  Wouldn't it be better to be honest about the challenges people have (such as addiction) and offer them real help rather than ignoring it for years?  Shouldn't we provide the charity of kindness rather than the charity of law?

Dr Guthrie and the Blind Organist

When Dr Guthrie came to Edinburgh in 1837, he was appalled by the sights he saw in the Cowgate.  Day after day he would visit squalled tenements where he would find horrific poverty and little interest in the gospel.  Even those with some income often squandered what they had in the ‘dram houses’ or tippling shops’ which Guthrie did so much to shut down.  As he said on one occasion: ‘Nobody can know the misery I suffered amid those scenes of human wretchedness, woe, want and sin.’  It was out of these experiences that Guthrie would emerge as the ‘Apostle of the Ragged School Movement’ and the ‘Apostle of Temperance’.  So what were Guthrie’s views on poverty?  How did he think poverty could be alleviated or even cured?  How does this compare with the rather narrow modern day debate which is almost exclusively financial?

In his ‘Sketches of the Cowgate’ which were reprinted in ‘Out of Harness’ Guthrie tells the story of a house he visited which was like a traveller lighting on an oasis in desert sands.  Unlike the houses he usually visited that were filthy, this house was clean and bright: ‘The door opened on an apartment lighted by windows whole and clean, neither patched with paper, nor stuffed with rags, nor crusted with dirt like bottles of old wine; a floor white with washing, and sprinkled with yellow sand, stretched to the fireplace, where the flames reflected from shining brasses, danced merrily in the grate over a well-swept hearth-stone.’  Guthrie, as always, uses very vivid language to tell the tale.  He was seeking to contrast what normally greeted him when a door was opened in the Cowgate.  The couple were members of his own church and he was delighted to find such a well presented home.

As Guthrie writes about this visit 25 years later (probably for the Sunday Magazine), he remembers how convinced he was that it was a God fearing home: ‘It was a Bethel; God was in the place; and though, like the patriarch, I was in a sort of wilderness, this pleasant sight was a reality – no vision, like the ladder and angels of his dream.’  The house that Guthrie had entered was that of the ‘blind organist’.  Every day this man sat at the top of the Mound grinding a barrel organ.  His face was horrendously scarred by small-pox and he was blind, no small disadvantages in Victorian Scotland.  If there was any house where dirt might have been excused and the signs of poverty expected it would have been in this house.  Yet as Guthrie says: ‘it was remarkable by their absence.’ What was the difference between him and his neighbours?  Well Guthrie gives us the comparison:

·         They never went to church; he did.
·         They had no respect for the Sabbath; he kept it holy to the Lord.
·         They had no religion; he was a man of devout habits.
·         They indulged their vices; he practised the virtues of Christianity

As Guthrie says: ‘So even in the world, his religion was of more advantage to him than their eyes were to them.  It made him careful, and frugal, and temperate.’  As Guthrie left the home he said he desired to chalk on the wall of that house for his neighbours to see: ‘read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.’
Surely the blind organist proves to us that ‘Godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come’ (1 Timothy 4 v 8).  Of course there are exceptions to any rule but generally speaking those who live a godly life can say with the Psalmist: ‘I have been young and now am old, yet I have never saw the righteous forsaken, or his seed begging bread’ (Psalm 37 v 25).  To make this a rule without exception would be unwise.  We are certainly not claiming that those who fear God will not experience poverty.  This would go against many Biblical examples including Christ himself.  As Guthrie says of the exceptions to this rule: ‘All good people are not wise.  There may be devotion without discretion; saint-ship, but little common sense; and an examination of those cases where piety is associated with poverty and does not succeed in this world, will often discover the peculiarities of the circumstances.’  What we are seeking to argue is that if there are limited resources, godliness, as in the case of the blind organist, can certainly make these resources go much further.  A house where there is alcohol and drug addiction, gambling and poor budgeting is a place where poverty will undoubtedly be exacerbated.

Guthrie certainly believed that, despite the exceptions to the rule, the house where God was worshiped, would more often than not be a house where though there might be poverty, there was enough to live on.  There may be several reasons for this but surely the main one is that Christianity teaches a man self-denial.  As Guthrie says: ‘this virtue lies at the foundation of success in every business and pursuit…’  He continues: ‘It teaches him to say, No! – to sacrifice his passions to his interests; and abstain from those indulgences which, wasting time, squandering money, impairing health, injuring character, lead to the results that, though often attributed to misfortune, are usually due to misconduct.’  Guthrie wasn’t naïve to the injustice that many workers suffered despite working their fingers to the bone: ‘Alas! That many of our working people should doom themselves to toil on till they sink into the grave; or till, amid privations and infirmities that gather about their grey heads like clouds around a setting sun, they have to accept the bitter bread of charity, and at an age when transplanting suits them as ill as it suits a hoary tree, are torn up by the roots and removed to the dreary walls of a Poor House, - to be nursed, when dying, by hirelings, and thrust, when dead, into a pauper’s grave.’  While showing mercy throughout his ministry Guthrie fought injustice at every turn, as we to are commanded to do.  He was certainly not blind to the exploitation that was rampant in Victorian Scotland, but he believed that a difficult situation could be made much worse if meagre wages were squandered on drink.

The second aspect that makes poverty less likely in a Christian is that he is willing to work.  Idleness and sloth are condemned throughout scripture.  As 2 Thesselonians 3 v 10 reminds us ‘If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.’  Now of course this is not saying that if there is no work available it is wrong to accept help and charity, it is saying that if work is available but somebody choses rather to do nothing, our system should not encourage this.  One of the key aspects of the Ragged Schools was that the children were taught a trade so they could go on to work and earn a wage.  Guthrie sought to break generational poverty by giving young people a trade so they could be delivered from the cycle of poverty and charity. As he says in a speech to the Evangelical Alliance in 1867: ‘From a hundred prisoners, there may be 99 who come into prison by drink.  Now, give Bible and porridge, and the bottle will be put away.  But we give them still more than the Bible and soup – bread for the soul and body.  We try to make them men and women.  They are trained to industrial occupations; and formed to several professions in order to become good handicrafts; often they are sent to the colonies.’  In other words, the Ragged Schools offered these young men and women a new life as well as the simple basics they lacked.  

The Blind Organist reminds us that while we may come across people with many disadvantages, self denial, hard work and ingenuity can go a long way in transforming a situation. This is in no way to underestimate the devastating effects of poverty.  Those experiencing poverty and marginalisation appreciate financial help but most of all they need acceptance and community which the church is able to offer in abundance.  Even more than that they need to transforming power of the the gospel that can set them free from the sin that traps so many in a cycle of deprivation and destruction.

In our next article we'll see how both Thomas Guthrie and Thomas Chalmers worked to eradicate poverty in the Parish System sometimes referred to as the 'Parochial System.' 

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Dr Guthrie - the Preacher

There is a famous story about Dr Thomas Guthrie when he was visiting the studio of an artist.  An unfinished picture lay on an easel and Guthrie suggested one or two adjustments that might improve the painting.  The artist responded: ‘Dr Guthrie, remember you are a preacher and not a painter.’  With his usual rapier wit Guthrie responded: ‘Beg your pardon, my good friend, I am a painter; only I paint in words, while you use brush and colours.’ 

While Guthrie’s enduring legacy is his work as a social reformer, his highest calling was always preaching.  His colleague, Rev Dr Hanna, said of him: ‘No readier speaker ever stepped on a platform.’  Whatever Guthrie may have lacked in fine theology he made up for in passion and imagery.  One anonymous writer said: ‘His oratory wanted none of the polish that distinguished Chalmers’ wild whirlwind bursts, or Hall’s grandly ascending periods, but it had qualities entirely of its own.  More, perhaps, than any other preacher of his time, he had the power or knack of fixing truths on the memory.  He sent them home as if they had been discharged from a battery, and fixed them there by a process peculiar to himself.’

Like many ministers Thomas Guthrie matured into a great preacher over time.  Unlike other students, Guthrie had taken extra elocution lessons while studying divinity and realised that the manner as well as the matter was important in preaching: ‘the manner is to the matter as the powder is to the ball.  I had heard very indifferent discourses made forcible by a vigorous, and able ones reduced to feebleness by a poor, pith less delivery.’ He was inspired by great orators of the past and mentions Demosthenes, Cicero and Whitfield in his Autobiography as those who inspired him in his desire to be the very best communicator of sacred truth. 

Guthrie had to wait five years for a call to his first charge in Arbirlot in 1830.  During his ‘wilderness years’ of travelling in France and working in his father’s bank he battled with doubts about his calling.  Even once he was settled into his first charge he saw little response from the largely church-going parish of Arbirlot.  As one writer says of Guthrie’s early frustration: ‘He had thundered in their ears the terrors of Mount Sinai; he had sounded the Gospel trumpet with a blast loud enough to rouse the dead; he had implored, threatened, and almost scolded them: but nothing seemed to permanently arrest their attention – they went to sleep under his most fervent and heart stirring appeals.’  One day, almost by accident rather than design, the young Guthrie told an anecdote in his sermon.  The effect was electric and when he came home he told his wife that he had discovered how to keep his congregation awake.  From then on, he wove into his sermons the imagery of nature and history.  As Guthrie says in one of his many letters: ‘A thing is easily remembered which is striking, and retained which is striking; and what does not impress your own mind in these ways, and therefore is committed with difficulty, you may be sure won’t tell on the minds of your hearers.  An illustration or an example drawn from nature, a Bible story or any history, will, like a nail, often hang a thing with would otherwise fall to the ground.  Put such into your passage and you will certainly mend it.’

Guthrie’s pattern of preparation was mainly to study in the early morning.  After breakfast he would retire to the vestry where he could be heard rehearsing his sermon.  He believed in ‘committing’ his sermon to memory and was scathing of ‘readers’ (those who rigidly read from a script).  Like all great preachers, Guthrie spent many hours in preparation and believed ‘that God does not give excellence to men but as the reward of labour.’  Even once his sermons were finished he would revise them: ‘After my discourse was written, I spent hours in correcting it; latterly always for that purpose, keeping a blank page on my manuscript opposite a written one, cutting out dry bits, giving point to dull ones, making clear any obscurity, and narrative parts more graphic, throwing more pathos into appeals, and copying God in His works by adding the ornamental to the useful.’

Despite a deep grasp of truth as can be seen in his published sermons, Guthrie believed in simplicity in his sermons: ‘I used the simplest, plainest terms, avoiding anything vulgar, but always, where possible, employing the Saxon tongue – the mother tongue of my hearers.  I studied the style of the addresses with the ancient and inspired prophets delivered to the people of Israel, and saw how, differing from the dry inquisitions or a naked statement of truths, they abound in metaphors, figures, and illustrations.’  As with his character, Guthrie blended a perfect mix of truth and love, passion and solemnity. As he says in a letter to Rev Laurie of Tulliallan: ‘The easier your manner, without losing the character of seriousness and solemnity, so much the better.  Vigour and birr, without roaring and bellowing, are ever to be aimed at.’ 

Interestingly and perhaps rather controversially, Guthrie was not a fan of ministers, particularly new ministers, preaching 3-4 times per week and felt that this was an impossible burden to place on men with large congregations.  Rather amusingly Guthrie quotes in his Autobiography Robert Hall who was once asked how many sermons a preacher could deliver in a week.  Hall replied: ‘If he is a deep thinker and great condenser, he may get up one; if he is an ordinary man two; but if he is an ass, sir, he will produce half a dozen!’  Guthrie dispensed with two services in his first charge at Arbirlot and replaced the evening service with a catechism class.  Far from detracting from the centrality of preaching, Guthrie used this class to make sure his hearers had understood what was preached in the morning.  Given that it was mainly young people aged 15-25 Guthrie tried, as much as possible to make things as simple as possible: ‘the sermon or lecture, delivered in the forenoon, was gone over head by head, introduction and peroration, the various topics being set forth by illustrations drawn from nature, the world, history, etc., of a kind that greatly interested the people such as would not always have suited the dignity and gravity of the pulpit.’

The Rev George Hay recounts a story of hearing Guthrie pleading with sinners.  His vivid description of a shipwreck and the launching of a lifeboat to save those who were perishing was so vivid that a sea Captain in the front seat of the gallery was convinced he was in physical danger and had to be comforted by his mother.  Dr Guthrie leaves a wonderful legacy of passionate gospel preaching.  He laboured to communicate deep gospel truths in a way that was relevant to the society he lived in.  How we desperately need such passionate preaching in Scotland today!

Friday, 1 July 2016

Amazing Grace - Book Review

Amazing Grace, William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery
Eric Metaxas, 2008, Authentic Media

I love books and I particularly love biographies.  I find that when I read a biography history comes alive.  As Thomas Chalmers once said ‘all history is biography’.  History is woven in to the lives of people and their story give us a glimpse into history.

There can be few lives more remarkable than William Wilberforce and Eric Metaxas has done the world a great service in writing such an excellent biography of this great social reformer.  Wilberforce, I believe, is a man we should study closely at this juncture in our own history.  Why?  Well firstly because he lived at time of extreme social upheaval as we are experiencing.  As Metaxas says ‘Wilberforce can be pictured as a kind of hinge in the middle of history: he pulled the world around the corner, and we can’t even look back to see where we’ve come from.’  Secondly, Victorian society as Metaxas says: ‘was particularly brutal, decadent, violent, and vulgar.’  Slavery was just one of many shocking social ills including child prostitution and labour.  We are seeing a similar descent into coarseness and decadence in our own nation.  But lastly, and perhaps surprisingly for many Christians, much of the the Victorian church was a mere façade of true religion which in turn had a huge impact on its social conscience.  As Metaxas notes: ‘…the outward trappings of religion remained, but robust Christianity, with noble impulses, to care for the suffering and the less fortunate, was gone.’  A little bit like the United Kingdom over the last 60 years, Metaxas says of Victorian Christianity: ‘Religion would be defanged and declawed quietly, not killed in front of mobs.  If, before, the British faith had been like a great and noble lion, it would now become something more like a lapdog that never roared nor dared to bite, that could be fed bits of cheese and petted when one was in the mood to do so.’  So much of Christianity in Britain today is little more than a lapdog that is petted by people as and when they want.  This in turn has led to a retreat from our compassion for the poor and marginalised.

Amazing Grace is a well written account of Wilberforce’s journey from what we might call ‘historical faith’ or ‘nominal Christianity’ to a genuine experience of God.  In twenty-three chapters and three hundred pages Metaxas takes us through the huge ups and downs of Wilberforce’s remarkable life.  Were it not for a decision by young Williams mother, recently widowed and gravely ill, to send him to relatives, he may never have come into contact with true Christianity.  Sent from Hull to his aunt and uncles in Wimbledon at the tender age of eight, he came into contact with a form of Christianity that was very different from the ‘thin gruel and weak tea of High Anglicanism.’  His aunt and uncle were friends with George Whitfield who was used under God as the instrument of the Great Awakening that shook so much of the world out of its spiritual stupor.  More importantly, the young and impressionable Wilberforce met John Newton (‘the old African blasphemer’) who was to have a powerful effect on Wilberforce’s life.  Newton was a frequent visitor to Wimbledon for ‘parlour preaching’ as it was known, and Wilberforce was no stranger to Olney where he visited both Newton and spent many hours with the great hymn writer William Cowper.

Entering Parliament at the tender age of 21 in 1780, and as a friend of William Pitt, Wilberforce was set for a glittering political career.  It is remarkable to think that Wilberforce entered Parliament with such historical figures such as Edmund Burke, Lord North and Charles Fox.  It was a trip to the continent that God used to transform the rising political star.  During the winter of 1874 he took a trip with his former tutor Isaac Milner to France and Italy.  During the trip Wilberforce read The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Philip Doddridge.  It started a process in his life that led to a spiritual re-birth.  At that time many described the rise in Methodism as ‘madness’, but after Wilberforce’s family saw the change in his character his mother famously said ‘If this is madness, I hope he will bite us all.’ 

While Wilberforce tried to find his way with his new found faith, he considered withdrawing from public life.  At this time John Newton gave Wilberforce some famous advice: ‘It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of his church and for the good of the nation.’  Pitt similarly advised in a letter to Wilberforce: ‘Surely the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple and lead not to meditation only, but to action.’  Around this time Wilberforce became convinced that he had been given a twofold mission from the Lord: ‘God almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the Salve Trade and the reformation of manners.’  The rest of his life was given over to these great causes.

We owe a huge debt to Wilberforce.  He was used under God to abolish the iniquitous slave trade and civilise a nation that was in many ways barbaric and inhuman in the way it treated many out with the ruling elite.   As part of the Great Awakening and the rise of Methodism he awakened a corrupt church from its erroneous theology.  The Church of England at the time had huge investments in the West Indian Plantations but saw no contradiction between their theology and their actions.  As Metaxas says ‘It’s hard to avoid the harsh conclusion that the Church of England at the time was little more than a pseudo-Christian purveyor of government-sponsored, institutionalised hypocrisy.’  Worse than hypocrisy was the actual belief that the poor should be left in their God ordained position: ‘Many thought God had ordained the poor’s situation, that it was part of the natural order, and that they should therefore be kept where they were, in their misery.  To help them was tantamount to shaking one’s fist at God.’ Such perverse theology is perhaps never expressed today but is implicit in the lack of activity in some many churches.  Wilberforce’s energy for social reform at home and abroad was simply breath taking.  At one point Wilberforce was linked with 69 separate groups involved with social reform. 

The American artist and inventor Samuel Morse said that Wilberforce’s: ‘whole soul is bent on doing good to his fellow men.  Not a moment of his time is lost.  He is always planning some benevolent scheme, or other, and not only planning but executing…Oh, that men as Mr Wilberforce were more common in this world.’  We can learn a huge amount from Wilberforce and I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

What is 'Good Community?'

I was asked to speak at the Cinnamon Network Conference on 16th June 2016 on 'What does Good Community look like?'

The Cinnamon Network is an exciting group of social action projects seeking to bring transformation to local communities.  You can find more information about them here.

I found it a slightly daunting task but this is what I said;

When was the last time you experienced ‘good community?’

When was the last time you really, deeply connected with other people?

I asked my team in Safe Families for Children what community meant to them.  These are some of the responses I got;

·         Welcoming
·         Somewhere I can be myself
·         Somewhere I can serve
·         Somewhere I can feel part of
·         A place where I am known and loved
·         A place where I am rooted
·         A place where I can play my part
·         Somewhere I will be missed if I’m not there
·         A place where I feel safe
·         A place of acceptance

I asked my wife over dinner last Tuesday when the last time she experienced community.

For her it was earlier that morning at the Churches Mother and Toddlers Group 'Little Jewels'.  She connects with the other mums in deeper way, they have a shared interest and passion for kids, they share the struggles of motherhood together and they have been on a shared journey.

‘Community’ is difficult to define.

It is often experienced more than it is defined. 

We can love our various communities but that doesn’t mean our community can’t cause us pain or be very dysfunctional.

It is, of course, possible to be very lonely when we are in a community and surrounded by people.
·         We can be lonely in a family
·         We can be isolated in a church
·         We can be ‘out of community’ in a Christian charity that is all about community.

Community can often thrive in the most unlikely places.  I’m always amazed at the sense of community in my local prison when I go in to take the service once a month.

The Source of Good Community 

Christian’s believe that the source of good community is a God who is already in community himself. 

When God said ‘let us make man’ in Genesis 2 he was clearly revealing himself as a social rather than a solitary being.  As Tim Chester says in Total Church; ‘Divine personhood is defined in relational terms.’

The Trinity is defined by perfect love – shown powerfully by Jesus in his incarnation, ministry and sacrificial death.

If the source of life (God) is in community surely good community is not individualistic – it is relational.

As Tim Chester says; ‘Into our pervasively individualistic world-view, we speak the gospel message of reconciliation, unity and identity as the people of God.  This is perhaps the most significant ‘culture gap’ which the church has to bridge.’

The church is a unique community – not because we are superior – it’s just that there is nothing else quite like it.  It is a community of love and grace like no other.  Unlike many other communities it doesn't exist for itself or its members but the glory of God and to make disciples.  The local church should be the hope of the world in its local community.

The New Testament word for community is koinonia.

This word is often translated fellowship but it means so much more; ‘common’, ‘sharing’ and ‘participation’.

God’s model for community is the church.

The very evidence of God’s love is meant to be our love for each other as I John makes very clear.

The ultimate community on earth is meant to be Christian’s living in koinonia:

·         having a shared purpose
·         a common goal
·         esteeming others better than themselves
·         serving one another
·         living sacrificially
·         and all done in a spirit if humility.

What and incredible challenge!

So what is community and what does ‘good community’ look like?

1.  Good community starts with gifts and assets

People in good community are more than the sum of their problems.

God has made us to be more than our difficulties – he has made us to be in relationship with himself and in community with others.

God has given everyone gifts – he wants us to live life in all its fullness reconciled to him in the Lord Jesus Christ.

But we love to define people by the mistakes they've made don’t we?

·         Offenders
·         Lone parents
·         Troubled teenagers
·         Junkie's
·         Alcoholics
·         Disturbed
·         Homeless

Cormac Russell very helpfully outlines 4 unintended consequences of the top down deficiency model used by so many government agencies;

a)    It defines people we are trying to help by their deficiencies and problems
b)    Money intended to go to people who need help goes to the people paid to give the help
c)    Active citizenship retreats in the face of ever increasing professionalism and technology – only experts can help – the professionalization of compassion
d)    Entire neighbourhoods are defined by their deficiencies and start to believe that some outside professional will come and save them with the funding and resources.

Institutions always reach their end with regard to solving problems – eventually we have to ask the experts – the members of the community.

The good community or the ‘abundant community’ is a place where people are not defined by their problems.

The Abundant Community is well summed up in the African word ‘Ubuntu’ which can be translated in different ways.  One writer has defined it as;
‘I am what I am because of who we all are’.

Another African leader has said;

‘A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.’

Years of research tell us that for community to happen we need to encourage active citizenship. 

Faceless bureaucracies, however well intentioned, don’t empower and support communities to change engrained, cyclical narratives of failure.

The assets that need to be mobilised for communities to be empowered are;

·         The skills of local residents
·         The power of local social networks
·         The resources of local public, private and third sector institutions all working together
·         The physical and economic resources of local communities are harnessed
·         We listen to the stories of our shared lives

The problem with care givers is that we start calling people clients and service users and as Cormac Russell says – when we do this we take some of their soul away – we dehumanise people by labelling them. 

Sometimes we label whole communities, whole cultures, whole continents.  This is particularly true of housing schemes.  People see them as broken and dangerous.   

What if we start with people’s gifts?  What if we respond by deepening relationships?

What if we move from what’s wrong to what’s strong?

A few years ago Bethany Christian Trust started Caring for Ex-Offenders in partnership with Alpha Scotland. 

The national reoffending rate is around 60% - but when CFEO connect men and women with community – that number drops to around 15%.  In around 2 years CFEO has linked around 80 men and women coming out of prison with trained mentors.  Not social workers or psychiatrists, but people passionate about community.

Could it be that rather than doing something to them, these men and women respond positively because they are connected to community and are treated like human beings?

Safe Families for Children was launched in Scotland in October 2014 to prevent children from suffering neglect and abuse, to stabilise families at a time of crisis and to prevent children from entering the care system.  In our first year we have trained 140 local church volunteers, helped 33 families, 73 children and have offered 58 nights hosting.  A simple example of neighbour helping neighbour.  When people are in crisis they need community, compassion and support.  Safe Families in Illinois, America is now the first point of contact for referrals when families are in crisis.  After starting in 2003, Safe Families in America is now working in 80 cities and 30 states.  Isn't that amazing?  It started in England in 2013 and has already recruited 2500 volunteers.  We need a similar movement in Scotland. 

When Dr Thomas Guthrie started the Ragged School Movement here in Edinburgh in 1847 he spoke about the 'almost infinite power of Christian kindness' when dealing with starving, emaciated and homeless street children.  He became 'the Apostle of the Ragged School Movement' and went on to rescue 1000's of street children across Scotland.  You can read more about Guthrie's amazing work here

2.  Good community is all about hospitality

If we don’t welcome new people into our community – it just becomes a private members club.  This is so often what the church looks like.

But as somebody has said 'true hospitality is reciprocal, and not an act of charity.’

This is why so many institutions fail – the care given is one way.  It is paternalism rather than compassion.

In Luke 15 we read that Jesus was accused of ‘receiving sinners and eating with them.’  

The Tax Collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.  Tax Collectors were the paedophiles of their day.  They were completely ostracised as traitors.  It was said that they were so despised that even the beggars would reject their charity.  They were the lowest of the low and yet Christ welcomed them.

He goes on to tell 3 Parables about how he views sinners.  They all speak of the love of God – how he doesn’t just welcome clean and tidy sinners who have sorted themselves out – but filthy messed up sinners who stink of the pigsty.  

God doesn't just loves sinners who come to God as penitent, but God actually seeks out sinners in all their lostness.  He doesn't wait for sinners to find Him, he seeks them as we see in the parable of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin.

Doesn’t this tell us a lot about the kind of community Christ wanted?

A radical community of inclusion where those on the very margins are welcomed.  We are to go out and seek those on the margins and welcome them into our community.  

This is a huge challenge for us as a church – we need to welcome into our churches people who we wouldn’t naturally want to associate.  People from prison, people who are from a very different income bracket, people from different countries seeking asylum.  

The 'good community' is a welcoming community – a community of love and grace.  The community encouraged in Isaiah 58 v 7.  Our religious practices mean very little to God unless we are moved with compassion for the poor, the oppressed, the naked and the hungry.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son shows us that Christ wants us to be part of communities where people can get a second chance – where they are accepted for who they are – not where they have to jump through all of our cultural and theological hoops before they are accepted into the ‘inner circle’.

3. Good community is about the power of association

A few years ago ‘Inspiring Leith’ started a Supper Club.  Families in Leith come together every Tuesday night in a local church hall.  Everyone brings their own food and the kids play together in one of the halls.

Last year a Trust that owned lots of houses in Leith decided to sell them off and evict lots of people who had stayed in Leith for many years.  Suddenly the Supper Club became a hive of activity and after a very successful campaign, ultimately the Trust decided not to sell off the houses.  A great example of 'active citizenship.'

If people are to connect in community they need associations, clubs, activities and places to meet.  What Howard Shultz of Starbucks calls the ‘Third Space’ – the place other than family and work where people connect.  That place used to be the church but sadly in so many communities that is no longer the case.

In many poor communities there is nowhere to associate other than the pub or the bookies.  Is it any wonder that so many young people end up hanging around the streets?  Often people are unaware of what exists in their community and this is where Community Builders or Community Connectors can be so useful.

One of my great heroes died this week.  Bob Holman was the very essence of a 'Community Builder'.  He resigned as professor of social administration at Bath University and moved in to housing schemes in Bath and then Glasgow.  Bob was one of the most gracious and humble man I have ever met.  He loved people, he loved his community and his legacy through FARE is incalculable.  You can read his full legacy here.

This is where a church that is community focused can be so useful.  Why are so many of our churches empty for 80-90% of the week?  

Why can’t we open them up to help people connect with each other and who knows ultimately with the gospel of transforming grace.


In 2008, the New Economics Foundations was commissioned by the UK Government's Foresight Project to review the inter-disciplinary work of over 400 scientists from across the world. The aim was to identify a set of evidence-based actions to improve well-being, which individuals would be encouraged to build into their daily lives:

  • With the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work, school or in your local community.
  • Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them.
  • Building these connections will support and enrich you every day. 
Be Active
·         Go for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Dance.
·         Exercising makes you feel good. Most importantly, discover a physical activity you enjoy; one that suits your level of mobility and fitness.

Take Notice
·         Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are on a train, eating lunch or talking to friends.
·         Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you.

Keep Learning
·         Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix a bike. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your favourite food.
·         Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving. Learning new things will make you more confident, as well as being fun to do.

·         Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look out, as well as in.
·         Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and will create connections with the people around you.

It’s interesting that connecting in community is at the very top of the list for well-being. If we want to help people community needs to be fairly high on our agenda.

Good community should be natural for Christians.  We follow a relational God and we trust in a Saviour who welcomed the most unlikely candidates into his community.

The Bible records a remarkable community in I Sam 22.

Midway through Saul’s reign as King God raised up David and surrounded him with an unlikely community; ‘All those in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their leader.  About four hundred men were with him’.

This rabble, with the chemistry of gifted leadership, commitment and experience, these battle hardened few became a formidable force.

Never underestimate the power of community.  When all the well-adjusted people were following Saul, God was doing something amazing in the Cave of Adullam.  

Let's pray that in our fractured and alienated society more and more people will experience the power of community through the local church.  Let's build 'the abundant community' - that gospel centred community which welcomes the outsider and releases the captives from the chains of sin.  Let's model good community on our church by the way we relate to others and by the way we conduct our relationships.