Monday, 20 January 2014

Thomas Guthrie on 'True Religion'

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

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

Monday, 13 January 2014

The Loss of a Child

Death in children is as unnatural as it is traumatic.  My own family's scars when we lost my sister in 1980 have left a mark on all of us that only eternity will heal.  It is impossible to celebrate Christmas and New Year without thinking back to those traumatic days in December 1980.  Lynda died of a brain tumour at the tender age of 13.  She was a bright, confident teenager full of hopes and dreams for the future.  As an 8 year old, death wasn't something that had visited our house and the thought that it could happen to my sister was unimaginable.  Many of the emotions defy words and perhaps rightly, remain within the family.

I couldn't (and still can't) really enter into my parents grief and as the father of 5 boys I just can't imagine how overwhelming the loss of a child must be.  As I think back over 35 years I rushed home from school and into the arms of my weeping father, it is only now that I am a parent, I can, in some small way, understand the unnatural trauma of being separated from a child this side of eternity.  A few years ago I had dinner with somebody whose promising son was murdered in Liverpool nearly a decade ago.  Listening to his story was heart wrenching, and yet at the same time inspiring.  His grief journey was unique and incredibly humbling.  It certainly makes me hug my own boys a little tighter every night.  None of us know what the future might hold.

Thomas Guthrie and his wife also experienced death.  'Little Johnnie' died in 1855 at the tender age of 20 months.  Apparently Thomas Chalmers visited Guthrie around 1845 and said 'I have been a family man now, sir, for forty years, and we have never had a breach.'  Guthrie could almost have said the same were it not for his youngest child.  As late as August 6th 1855 there seemed to be some small hope for Johnnie with Guthrie writing; 'With the exception of an occasional cough, he lies with his little emaciated hands peacefully laid on his breast.  May this sharp trial be sanctified to us all; and if he be taken away, may our thoughts often turn, and our desires be more closely fixed, on that heaven, to which, first and youngest of our family, he leads the way' (letter to his son James in 1855). 

Only three days later Johnnie had died.  Guthrie again writes to his son James; 'Our dear child is in glory.  This morning they came to tell me he was worse, and I had better not come in, for there were slight convulsions.  However, I went to the cradle; and, dear lamb, it was but some gentle gasping, the last feeble billows breaking on life's shore, before they subsided into everlasting rest.  We have felt it deeply - not bitterly, no certainly not; but it wrung my heart some minutes ago to lock the door of his lonely room' (Letter to James Guthrie, 9th August 1855).  Before the year was over Guthrie has also lost his youngest sister Clementina.

So what comfort is there in the midst of overwhelming grief?  I am certainly no expert and can only admire those who have experienced such a loss with such full assurance in the goodness and providence of God. 

Firstly, we can say that we have a Saviour who knows what it was to mourn and experience loss.  He wept over the death of Lazarus and he is a merciful and faithful high priest able to comfort us (Hebrews 2 v 18).  We can take our grief, and our tears to him.  The verse on my own sisters grave is a comfort to us all; the wonderful words of Isaiah 40 v 11 'he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom.'  Sometimes in the greatest loss, we can also experience the greatest love from the Saviour.

Secondly, God is the one who can bring great good and fruit out of the most intense loss and grief.  My fathers little booklet about my sister 'Behind a Frowning Providence' has been a comfort to thousands around the world.  We take comfort that however we may feel 'all things work together for the best unto them that love God' (Romans 8 v 28, Geneva Bible).  We don't say that glibly but looking back over 30 years, we can see that God has brought good from a place of great pain.  Often those of us who have been battered and bruised are better able to help other in the same situation.  We need to remember with William Cowper 'Behind a frowning providence, God hides a smiling face.'

Thirdly, as with many others Guthrie believed that there will be many children in heaven.  As he says; 'Heaven is greatly made up of little children - sweet buds that have never blown, or which death has plucked from a mothers breast, just when they were expanding, flower like, from the sheath, and opening their engaging beauties in the budding time and spring of life. "Of such is the kingdom of heaven." How soothing these words by the cradle of a dying infant? Perhaps God does with his heavenly... garden as we do with our own. He may chiefly stock it from nurseries, and select for transplanting what is yet in its young and tender age - flowers before they have bloomed, and trees ere they begin to bear.'  Thomas Guthrie, The Gospel in Ezekiel.

Fourthly and finally, all death is a reminder to us off the fragility of life.  Death amongst children in our own country is very rare but none of us know what is ahead.  Death is a stark reminder of our own mortality and our need to seek Christ.  My own sisters death was the ultimate means of my own conversion and many can testify to a similar experience.  Death shows us in a very stark way how short and fragile life is.  What is life without God?  This is what Thomas Chalmers says; 'Strip human life of its connection with a higher scene of existence and it is the illusion of an instant, an unmeaning farce, a series of visions and projects, and convulsive efforts, which terminate in nothing.'  We are eternal beings and death reminds us that our lives are short and fragile.

When writing to Lord Southesk about the death of little Johnnie Guthrie says; 'Saved through Jesus, may we and ours meet in heaven; and from the place of many graves, be united in the house of many mansions.'  This world is a place of many graves but heaven will be a place of eternal life.  I'm certainly looking forward to reuniting with many who have gone before me and one day seeing our family being brought together again.  In the meantime let's remember that God is in control.  As Dr Guthrie once wrote;  'We seem sometimes to forget, when we cower down before the tempest, and look before us with a fearful eye on the mighty billows that are rolling on. We seem to forget what the sailor boy said ‘my fathers at the helm’  Letter from Thomas Guthrie to his mother September 1839.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Everything to live for

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

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