Sunday, 11 September 2016

The Life of Joseph (1) - A Devastated Dreamer

I've recently started the life of Joseph in my local prison.  I thought I would summarise the studies in blog posts.  

Why should we study the life of Joseph?

Well firstly because it is a great story.  Think of some of the great themes: jealousy, rage, attempted murder, betrayal, injustice, false accusations, prison, promotion, power, wealth, deceit and reconciliation. These issues characterise our relationships and cause so many problems in our society.  Joseph's life could easily be the theme of a Hollywood blockbuster. Secondly, studying the life of Joseph helps us to know more about God in the way he deals with Joseph.  We see God's faithfulness, his goodness and his sovereignty.  It also shows us how God keeps his promises even when it looks like he has forgotten us. The Israelite's thought they would be wiped out by famine but God was at work through Joseph.  But lastly Joseph is like Jesus, but different.
    • Both were beloved by their father Gen 37 v 3 and Mark 1 v 11
    • Both were sent to their brothers but rejected and sold for pieces of silver Gen 37 v 28 and Matt 26 v 15
    • Both suffered persecution and temptation Gen 37 v 18-36, 39 v 7-20 and Matt 4 v 1-11. 
    • Both were suffering servants who eventually became saviours.
    • Joseph and Jesus were both eventually vindicated and exalted Gen 37 v 5-11, 41 v 37-45 and Philippians 2 v 9-10
Who was Joseph?

  • Joseph came from a great covenant legacy.  His great grandfather was Abraham, his grandfather was Isaac and his father was Jacob.  As is so often the case we see history repeating itself in Genesis 37. Jacob, Josephs father had deceived his father and brother and he is now deceived by his sons who tell him that Joseph has been killed.  Actually the brothers had tried to kill him but instead sold him in to slavery. 
  • A nomadic lifestyle.  The story of Joseph took place somewhere around 1880-1680 BC.  Along with many tribes, Joseph's family would have lived a nomadic lifestyle.  It is unlikely that Joseph would have seen a house before he was taken to Egypt as a slave.
  • He came from a dysfunctional family.  Why was there such hatred between Joseph and his brothers? It couldn't have helped that the brothers had different mums: Leah (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Isacher and Zebulan), Rachel (Joseph and Benjamin), Bilhah (Dan and Naphtali) and Zilpah's sons (Gad and Asher).  If we think some families today are complex just remember Joseph.  
  • As well as complexity we also see favouritism. We see in Genesis 37 v 3 that Joseph was the favourite son and was given a special brightly coloured coat.  He wasn't the oldest or firstborn son, but his mother was Rachel who died giving birth to his brother Benjamin.  So Joseph had to deal with trauma and grief at a young age. He also embraced the mantel of the favoured son with some degree of pride.  We read in Genesis 37 about two dreams he had that involved his brothers bowing down to him. Unsurprisingly, the simmering resentment was stoked into outright hatred at this arrogance.
  • An unfulfilled promise.  While its easy to be harsh on Joseph I tend to feel that he may have been slightly naive.  He was undoubtedly arrogant but ultimately he would have been excited about having these dreams. Joseph must have known that telling the second dream would have infuriated his brothers yet he was clearly convinced that it was prophetic.  Joseph's dreams are the cornerstone of the next 13 chapters of Genesis as God slowly unfolds his hidden purposes so that Joseph's dreams are fulfilled in a remarkable way.

A Conspiracy to Murder

Joseph's father sends him down to Shechem to see if his brothers were well as they shepherded the flock.  They saw him coming and, far from home, they conspired to kill him. We are not told in the text but it seems clear that the brothers had been fermenting their hatred for some time.  People don't just suddenly decide to murder somebody, not least a brother.  Before the brothers murder Joseph the oldest brother Reuben steps in and pleads with them to throw Joseph down a well meaning to rescue him later.  Reuben had his own issues and back in Genesis 35 had slept with his fathers mistress Bilhah (this must have made for interesting conversation with Dan and Naphtali not to mention his father). Perhaps this noble act would enable him to gain favour with his father or perhaps he genuinely sought to do the right thing.

Human Traffic

As the brothers break for lunch while Joseph languishes in a well, suddenly a human caravan of traders pass by on their way to Egypt. Later the brothers confess that while they ate, their wee brother was pleading with them for his life (Gen 42 v 21).  It is hard to enter into the heartlessness of the brothers at this stage and yet God was in control. Judah suggests that they may as well profit from their brother and get some money for him.  He is sold for 20 shekels and marched down to Egypt.  It is likely that Joseph would have been stripped naked and shackled. His rejection and humiliation was complete.  Alone, he was facing an uncertain future.  It appears that Reuben wasn't around when Joseph was sold and was overcome with grief at what his brother had done.  He knew how his father would react and that he would be held accountable as the first born son.

The Cover Up Begins

The heartlessness of the brothers seems to know no bounds.  Having ignored the pitiless cry of their wee brother, having sold him like an object, they now deceive their father with a concocted story of their brother being ripped to pieces by a wild animal.  It seems almost unbelievable that the brothers went along with the story while their father was inconsolable with grief.  Genesis says tells us 'all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him'. The perpetrators of this terrible crime pretended to comfort their Dad!  We see that one sin leads to another. Jealousy leads to hatred, hatred leads to murder, murder leads to greed and the whole situation is intertwined with deceit. The whole story is a lesson to us to never play with sin.  Its consequences are devastating. 

History Repeats Itself

While Jacob was the victim of a terrible crime, we see history repeating itself.  Just as Jacob had deceived his father and brother in Geneses 27, so he too was now being deceived: ‘Jacob had seen the disasters wrought by parental favouritism in his own life and Esau’s and yet, fool that he was, he openly made much of Joseph.’ Joyce G. Baldwin, The Bible Speaks Today.  We see deception going full circle.  As Galatians 6 v 7-10 says: 'Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, he shall also reap.'  Sin has a price.  While Christ can forgive us, we often have to live with the consequences of our sin in this life.

Seeing Jesus in the Life of Joseph

As we look at Joseph over the next few months, always remember that Joseph is pointing us to a perfect Saviour. In what ways is Jesus like Joseph?  

    • Who conspired to get rid of Joseph and Jesus?
      • Geneses 37
      • Luke 19 v 47
    • Who betrayed Joseph and Jesus?
      • Genesis 37
      • Luke 22 v 4-5
    • What was ripped from Joseph and Jesus?
      • Genesis 37
      • John 19 v 23 – 24

Can you see yourself in the life of Joseph?

How has your family affected you?  Can you relate to Joseph's family?

Can you think of ways in which you have 'reaped what you have sown?'

Why do you think God gives us stories like Joseph in the Bible?

Prayer - Lord, thank you for the story of Joseph.  Thank you that it is real and raw just like so much of life.  Thank you that you are at work when sin is at its worst and ugliest.  We praise you that were sin abounds your grace super abounds.  Thank you that your love goes deeper and further than my sin and you can redeem proud arrogant sinners like Joseph and like me.  Please open my eyes by your grace to see my sin and to see your amazing love, in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Lord speak to me through this story and use me to glorify you today and every day.  In Jesus name, amen

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Dr Guthrie the Pastor

After waiting for a call for 5 years, Dr Guthrie started his ministry in a rural charge in Arbirlot, Angus from 1830-37.  Almost the entire parish of 1000 people attended church and the nearest ‘Ale House’ was in Brechin.  Despite his inevitable visibility in a small village, Guthrie took extra steps to make sure he came into weekly contact with his people through a savings bank and library both set up in the manse.  Far from compromising his ministry with ‘secular’ activity, the library and bank were very much part of Guthrie’s vision for the ministry.  It helped him deepen relationships and enabled him to have a godly influence in a small community.  As Guthrie says: These and other extra labours which I undertook showed the people that I was seeking to live for them, not for myself – that I came not to lord it over God’s heritage, not to be their master, but their minister, in the original sense of the word. 

Moving to the Old Greyfriars Parish Church, Edinburgh in 1837, Guthrie believed strongly in living amongst the people of his parish.  In a letter to a friend who was a politician, prior to his settlement in Edinburgh he said: Now, I should like a clergyman never to step out of his own door but he steps in among his population.  Guthrie remained true to his word and both of the houses he lived in at Argyll Square, Brown Square and Lauriston Lane were minutes from the heart of the Cowgate.

By the time Guthrie came to Edinburgh he was already convinced of Thomas Chalmers vision for church planting and for the parochial system laid out in his Christian and Civic Economy of Large Towns. This included having a church open to people without distinction of class or wealth (pew rents were standard practice at that time), properly equipped schools, elders, deacons and district visitors to aid the minister in systematic visitation of the parish and relief of the poor.  The reality of this vision was a huge challenge for Guthrie and as he says of his new parish in comparison to his old one: I can compare it to nothing else than the change from the green fields and woods and the light of nature to venturing into the darkness and blackness of a coal-pit!  It was always his intention to plant a church in his Edinburgh parish and in 1840 St John’s in Victoria Street was opened.

So what was Guthrie’s pattern as a pastor?  Well, mornings were reserved for study and preparation.  He says: For some years after coming to Edinburgh I rose summer and winter, at five o’clock.  By six, I had got through my dressing and private devotions, had kindled my fire, had prepared and enjoyed a cup of coffee, and was set down at my desk; having, till nine o’clock when we breakfasted, three unbroken hours before me.  This allowed the rest of the day to be given over to systematic visitation of his parish.  He took meticulous notes of all his visits and followed up genuine cases of hardship with practical help.  Despite the huge demands on Dr Guthrie, both from his parish and his wider responsibilities in the Free Church, he always kept evenings free for his families: I resolved, on coming to Edinburgh, to give my evenings to my family; to spend them, not in my study, as many ministers did, but in the parlour among my children.

As Guthrie details in his Autobiography he had daily discouragements as a pastor but as Oliphant Smeaton says of him: He never faltered.  He took as his motto ‘Jehovah-nissi – The Lord my Banner,’ and every disappointment and failure only caused him to redouble his efforts and his prayers.’  

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 (thriftiness, carefulness) 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 na├»ve 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!