Sunday, December 28, 2014

2015 Policy Review

Isaiah 7

Ahaz came of age in a time of uncertainty, rumours and threats. His little Kingdom, like a cork on the sea, seemed to be at the mercy of forces far beyond his control. Over the horizon lay the mega-power of Assyria – the military monster poised to have nations like Judah for breakfast. Around him were the other small powers, all in a flap and desperately trying to figure out ways to escape Assyria’s clutches. Two of them, Israel and Aram, had teamed up in the face of their shared enemy.

For Judah this was a galling development – Israel, part of God’s covenant people, Judah’s own flesh and blood, was now in league with idolaters in order to save its skin. Ahaz now faced the consequences as Israel and Aram turned on him – Israel’s policy of anti-Assyrian co-belligerence had a sting in the tail! Judah was panic-stricken by these developments (v2).  But in the midst of the crisis God speaks. Isaiah is told to take his son and meet Ahaz as he inspects the siege facilities (v3).

The message is simple: the threats faced are not to be feared – not that Israel and Aram were imaginary or couldn't have the power to harm – but they were not the final word. They were not the masters of Judah’s fate. The ‘Sovereign Lord’ is speaking now (v7) – that is, the Lord who controls everything: politics, the weather, the outcomes of battles, even the very heartbeat of kings.

So… Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. (v4).

Be careful – the temptation is to meet threat with threat, scheming with scheming, unholy alliance with unholy alliance – to match human might and ability with dependence on your own. In other words, Ahaz, your hope is not in being stronger, smarter or quicker than your adversaries – but in the Sovereign Lord. 

In 1940 Britain teetered before the greatest threat to its ongoing way of life it had ever faced. The military monster of Nazi Germany had eaten up the European continent and looked set to invade a massively out-gunned Britain. Churchill, on becoming Prime Minister that May, gave one of his most famous speeches to the House of Commons. In it he said: You ask, what is our policy?  It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us…You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory; victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be.' It was a call to arms and a declaration of Britain’s refusal to falter despite the seemingly impossible odds.  
For Ahaz and Judah – God’s call was not to arms but to Faith. 
If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all. (v9)

If Ahaz were to address the nation that day – he should make it clear that his policy, in the hour of crisis, was ‘Faith’. Faith on all fronts, faith with every ounce of strength and every breath that God gave him. Sadly however, for many, including Ahaz, faith just seems too ethereal to hang their hopes on. The nuts and bolts of hardware, the promises of others, cash in hand, good marketing - all seem much more useful and substantial. But the Word of God is unambiguous: If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.

In a world where everything in our lives can be swept away in a moment, where there is nothing in that can be guaranteed – hear the word of the Lord - the only sure policy is ‘Faith’. That is, faith in God - who cannot be overcome, who cannot be thwarted. Faith in God - who can be trusted, who knows and cares about you. Faith in the God who is good.

Grounds for Faith
So good, that He gives us grounds for faith – the provision of a sign to bolster weak faith and to give people confidence to ‘stand firm’ in it.  Ahaz is offered a sign (v10) – a token of God’s reliability if He is trusted. Astonishingly Ahaz refuses – his mock piety a cover for faithlessness (v12). Ahaz will do his own thing, thanks very much! It was a decision that could only lead to ruin (v17), he became the fulfilment of Isaiah’s warning – by not standing firm in faith he very simply would not stand at all.

In his abounding grace God nevertheless gave the sign – the sign of a virgin who would bear a son called Immanuel (v14). It was a promise that in the centuries ahead would be a lifeline to Judah and Israel – the promise that deliverance would come, that God would rescue His people, and a Kingdom of peace and justice would be established upon the earth. It was the sign made good at Bethlehem – the sign that the God and Father of Jesus Christ is trustworthy, faithful and to be believed.

2015
Where will you look for help, protection and deliverance as you face your fears in the coming year - whether social, financial, medical, vocational, spiritual…? What will be your policy for 2015? Make it faith – faith on all fronts and in all circumstances. Because only faith will lead to ultimate victory - the defeat of sin and death - and the glory yet to be revealed in us. 

This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. (1 John 5:4)

Ask the God and Father of Jesus Christ to give you the strength not to falter in faith however great the odds against you might seem. Faith is the ultimate practical policy because only those who stand in faith will stand at all.

Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. (1 John 5:5) 

Monday, December 08, 2014

Rev Richard Coles: Don't leave us this way!

The Rev. Richard Coles is, according to The Guardian, ‘Britain’s top media vicar’. Known for his appearances on QI, Have I Got News For You and Radio 4, he’s been all over the airwaves in recent weeks publicising his ‘out in time for Christmas’ book – Fathomless Riches. What makes him particularly interesting is that, along with Jimmy Somerville, he was formerly part of the Communards – whose 1986 release ‘Don’t leave me this way’ was the biggest selling UK single of that year. Richard Coles’ life story is one literally full of ‘sex, drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and his book by all accounts is a no-holds barred telling of all three. A story which, of course, makes his current vocation as a Church of England vicar all the more intriguing.

Coles comes across as decent and personable. He is articulate, expresses himself humbly and has ‘seen life’ in a way that makes his current pleasantness all the more admirable. He is, however, impeccably liberal in his theology – his move into ministry driven it seems by a search for purpose and moderation rather than any deep repentance or radical conversion. Indeed, you suspect, it is precisely his subversion of many traditional Christian teachings that makes him such a darling of the media. His is the voice of Christianity as the BBC would like it to be; it is the teaching of the Bible if it had been written by Harriet Harman.

So what exactly is the Gospel of Richard Coles and indeed all those other Christian clergy thought passable enough for Radio 2’s Thought for the Day? A good example of it was his short contribution to an edition of This Week (4/12/14) which began with an observation that our society is too preoccupied with material things and consequently other important but non-financial aspects of life are often not valued enough. The finish was, as befits a songwriter, beautifully poetic – ‘This is my Autumn Statement: at the year’s end and in gathering darkness let’s look beyond Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the fading digital radiance of a discounted 50 inch TV, to a wholly unimaginable light breaking in an wholly unexpected place’.

Sadly the subsequent studio discussion offered no explanation about that light or that place – instead we got Coles arguing for enshrining in Law the UK’s overseas Aid budget at 0.7% of GDP, while Michael Portillo pointed out the increasing irrelevance of the Church of England in the nation. Richard, of course, was charming and affable throughout all this – but therein lies the Gospel of today’s media-endorsed clergy. It is the Gospel of ‘let’s all just be a wee bit nicer to each other’. Now nothing wrong with encouraging folks to up their game in being patient, civil and thoughtful – but the Gospel it is not! A fruit of the Gospel yes, but the message that got Jesus crucified and the apostles persecuted – really?

Nevertheless, endlessly repeated on ‘God Slots’, the newspaper columns written by Ministers at weekends, and the invited religious input on ‘the topic of the day’ - is the Gospel of ‘God is nice, He thinks you’re really nice, so let’s all be a bit nicer, Amen’. Thus establishment Christianity has become little more than Comic Relief without the jokes.

VIRGIN RECORDS
Coles’ parish is ‘St Mary the Virgin’ (in the Diocese of Peterborough) so we might hope that he would realise more than most that the ‘wholly unimaginable light… in a wholly unexpected place’ is much more radical, edgy and indeed confrontational than a better citizenship programme. For the Virgin Birth, at the centre of that event, was not a gentle nudge to greater philanthropy but a crashing indictment of humanity’s utter helplessness and its need of total rescue.  The Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ was a declaration by God that no amount of human endeavour, however well intentioned, can come close to dealing with our fundamental problems.

Sadly though the ‘Virgin Birth’ is an aspect of that ‘unimaginable light breaking in’ that Coles seems to find genuinely unimaginable[1]. After all, how primitive, na├»ve and consequently embarrassing to believe such old fables – far better to understand it as a later embellishment giving a pious veneer to a more earthly reality. But the Virgin Birth cannot be put away without putting the stark truths of the Gospel away – because in it is revealed the reason why Christianity exists.

The Virgin Birth is a sign of our utter helplessness
In the centuries preceding the birth of Christ and in the centuries since, the story of
humanity has been an endless cycle of conflict, suffering and failure. The 20th century began with huge optimism that the future would be one of progress towards greater harmony and happiness throughout the world. Instead of which it was the bloodiest and costliest century of war and killing ever experienced. The 21st century has begun with 9/11, conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine, not to mention the ever present ravages of disease and poverty. Today’s children will not do better than their parents – they too will ultimately fall foul of the same incurable human weakness, greed and pride as every generation before them.

The Virgin Birth announced that there is no hope inside our humanity – our only hope is outside intervention. Thus in Bethlehem a new humanity was born – not of the old flesh but conceived of God’s Holy Spirit. No increase in the Overseas Aid budget, no charity single, no legislation, no social taskforce, no political settlement – can ever put right the catastrophe of the human heart. The Virgin Birth puts paid to any illusions of human self-help or improvement.

The Virgin Birth is a sign that we too need a supernatural new beginning
The message is clear – and should be self-evident – that old humanity, our humanity, is a dead-end. That, of course, is not a message people like to hear, indeed it is a message that Rulers fear, because it confounds our pride and displaces every political claim to be our saviour. The Virgin Birth, however, cuts open history with the introduction of a new humanity – born not of ‘natural descent, nor of human decision, or a husband’s will’ – but born of God.

The Virgin Birth was nothing less than the demolition of our delusional self-sufficiency. Being a bit nicer or even a lot nicer will not suffice – what is required is nothing less than being born again. It’s as total as that! In Bethlehem’s manger, given at a cost to be paid 33 years later, was our second and only chance to live the life we were created for.

To make the Gospel of Jesus Christ little more than a call for moderation and bit more effort is simply to perpetuate the tragedy of lost, floundering and dying men and women.

Praise God, that in the gathering darkness, He did not leave us that way.


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[1] Of the Anglicans I’ve spoken to during the course of my tenure at New Humanist – the Rev Richard Coles, Francis Spufford, Linda Woodhead, Richard Holloway – I have yet to find one who doesn't accept evolution and the Big Bang, who seems really to believe the virgin birth or the Assumption, or who puts great stock in miracles or angels. 
https://newhumanist.org.uk/articles/2912/editorial-woman-trouble

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Take the high road into ministry

Written for FIEC website

Scotland has a great history of theological education – and it looks to have a good future too. Andy Hunter reflects on that heritage and shares one initiative that will help prepare more men and women for ministry.

Take the high road into ministry primary imageArticle Tags Pathways


Did you know that for almost 250 years Scotland had four universities while England only had two?
Did you know that central to John Knox’s vision of a Reformed Scotland was the establishment of a school in every parish? Knox was passionate about education because it was the means for every citizen to read the Bible for themselves and to be a nation of thinkers.

In the following centuries Scotland flourished – punching above its weight in its contributions to invention, science, engineering, literature and in the media. It led Winston Churchill to comment,
“Of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.”
This premium given to education was also seen in Scotland’s theological training institutions, starting of course in those ancient universities. Added to these over time were a range of Bible and ministry training colleges that prepared men and women for service all over the world. It was an investment in Gospel education and training that was foundational to raising up generations of able pastors, evangelists, missionaries, church workers and teachers.
Such provision of good Christian education and training remains vital if Scottish churches are to once again rise to the challenge of reaching the nation for Christ. Fortunately, despite the overall decline in church numbers and thus the base for colleges to draw on, there are still a range of strong evangelical training providers north of the border. These range from degree level providers to church apprenticeship schemes. Indeed there has perhaps never been such a variety of courses and options to fit the different needs and circumstances of potential trainees.

Which way?

However, for an individual contemplating more vocational forms of Christian ministry, and conscious of the importance of preparing themselves with relevant and quality training, the array of options can be confusing. This is especially true as many people are now looking to move into such ministry later in life, often with family responsibilities and having already had some partial training in various forms. For all ages there are financial considerations and the need to identify the training that will best prepare them for the particular type of ministry they feel called to.
Before any of that is, of course, the very basic consideration of whether vocational ministry is the right path for someone to go down in the first place.

Pathways

Thus it was with all these thoughts in mind that FIEC brought together a group of Scottish church leaders and trainers earlier this year. Mindful of the huge help that FIEC’s The Hub Conference has proved to be for people in recent years, the hope was that something similar could be held in Scotland. That is, a conference for anyone (supported by their local church) who is in training or thinking about getting training for vocational Christian ministry. A conference that would cover teaching on the nature of Christian ministry, its practicalities, the character required of Christian workers, as well as outlining the opportunities and challenges for the gospel today. In addition it would connect potential trainees with trainers, and give a chance for individuals to discuss their situation with some experienced leaders.
Pathways
The result of this is Pathways – a conference organised by a partnership team involving FIEC, Cornhill Scotland, Charlotte Chapel, Chalmers Church, Tilsley College and Deeside Christian Fellowship. The conference itself will include other training providers along with teaching and input from a range of church leaders from across Scotland.
The hope is that Pathways will be a catalyst in raising up a new generation of gospel workers for Scotland and beyond; men and women educated, trained and equipped to serve Christ effectively and powerfully in our time. Scotland’s heritage has shown the immense gospel fruit of investing in such foundations. Pray that Pathways might have a key part in reviving that blessing.
Pathways is being held at the Erskine Bridge Hotel, Glasgow, Friday 30th January to Sunday 1st February 2015. Go to www.pathwaysconference.org for full details and to book.
Andy Hunter photo
Andy Hunter - FIEC Scotland Director
Before joining FIEC in November 2013, Andy worked for Greenview Church in Glasgow for nine years, prior to which he trained at Oak Hill College in London. He is married to Jessica and they have three children.