Sunday, 16 April 2017

Shoes for the Road

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

Below is a summary of the first article.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Fake Affections

'Still it should not be forgotten, lest any deceive themselves, that to talk about religion, ministers and sermons, missions and missionaries, religious schemes and books, revivalists and revivals, is not religion.  Some have been the most fluent talkers about things who felt them least.  Shallow rivers are commonly noisy rivers; and the drum is loud because it is hollow.  Fluency and feeling don't always go together.  On the contrary, some men are most sparing of speech when their feelings are most deeply engaged.'  Dr Thomas Guthrie

How do we respond when people who we admire and look up to in the Christian faith fall very publicly? How do we explain it when it transpires that people have been leading a double life: pretending to be one thing in public but something else altogether in private?  People use all sorts of cliches; 'we all have feet of clay', 'the best of men are men at best', 'who are we to judge?', 'but by the grace of God'.  Of course they are all true. All of our hearts are deceitfully wicked, we are all guilty of hypocrisy. There are examples in the Bible of gross backsliding and saints leading a double life for a period of time.  But for most of us who love the Lord, we have a sense of our own weakness, we are conscious of how dependent we need to be on the Lord.  Yes we fall into sin but the true follower of Christ is unhappy in their sin and we seek to confess our sins and restore our relationship with the Lord. We hate duplicity and seek to follow a life of integrity.  We would love to be holier and more like Christ. But what of those who cultivate a secret life over years or even decades? Those who appear to be pillars in the church?  How can we explain their great zeal that turns out to be empty rhetoric?  

I was reading this morning from Jonathan Edwards about the difference between great 'religious affections' (love, zeal for the things of God) and affections which are gracious and saving: 'It is no evidence that religious affections are of a spiritual nature and gracious nature because they are great.' Affections can be 'faux' - false or fake.  Paul addresses this in Galatians where he talks in chapter 4 v 15 'Where is then the blessedness ye spake of?  for I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me.'  There was no questioning their zeal but it was misplaced.  He says a few verses earlier: 'I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.'  The Galatians had great affections and zeal but had another gospel altogether (Galatians 1 v 7).

We see this so often with the Children of Israel.  Remember how they were greatly exercised after crossing the Red Sea? They were full of praise for God and how he had delivered them but it was soon forgotten and the grumbling started.  It was the same at Mount Sinai.  Again they saw marvellous manifestations of God's power and holiness.  It all seemed so promising.  The people agreed to the book of the covenant and said in Exodus 24 v 7 'All that the Lord hath said we will do, and be obedient.'  We are told that 70 elders went up with Moses and Aaron and 'saw God' v 10.  It was not long before they were dancing before a golden calf.

We also see it in the life of Jesus.  Those who saw him perform great miracles and cried Hosanna! were so quick to scream with the mob crucify Him!  Those who screamed for his cruel death were the ones who he had fed, healed, taught and loved. As Edwards says: 'It is very manifest by the holy scripture, our sure and infallible rule to judge of things in this nature, that there are religious affections which are very high, that are not spiritual and saving.' We see this with Judas.  He was so indignant when Mary anointed the feet of Jesus in John 12.  Judas spoke up like a noble social reformer asking why the perfume hadn't been sold and give to the poor?  Everyone must have looked on Judas with such admiration but little did they know what was in his heart. We have every reason to believe that Judas was a good preacher and there are likely people in heaven today because they heard the gospel through Judas.

It is not great affections that are a mark of grace, neither frenetic activity, but genuine love for God. The great question for all of us is 'are we in Christ?'  A lifetime of Christian service, a long Christian heritage, a great reputation, the adoration of men and great orthodoxy will all count for nothing unless we are in union with Jesus Christ.  If we are in Christ (the vine) we will bear good fruit.  As Paul asks in Galatians 5 v 16 are we 'walking in the Spirit or fulfilling the lusts of the flesh?'  Are we seeing the fruits of the Spirit in our life?  Do we see love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, self control in our lives in some measure?  These are sobering questions for all of us.  For those of us in the Christian life for many years we often feel our sin worse than when we first believed. But we know that without God's grace we have nothing. We are lost for time and eternity.  We can deceive men but God sees and God knows.  As Dr Guthrie says: 'It is not, therefore, what we profess, but practise; it is not what a man says with his tongue, or signs with his hand, but what he does with his heart, that settles his religion in the sight of God, and on that great day of judgement shall settle his fate.'

Friday, 14 April 2017

Radical Hospitality

Back in February I met, for the first time, Catriona Murray from North Tolsta.  It is always good to meet another Murray (there is rarely a gap in conversation) but I was delighted to meet Catriona because I had read her testimony in the Stornoway Free Church Newsletter a few days earlier.  I asked if I could re-publish her testimony on my blog and in only 8 weeks it has been read by 1200 people around the world.  You can read it by clicking here.  Since then Catriona has become a prolific blogger and we have agreed to occasionally write for each other.  We share an interest in the 'radical roots' of the Free Church and we both hope to blog on this subject in the future.  This is her latest excellent contribution - enjoy!

'Radical' is probably not the first word most people would choose to describe the Free Church of Scotland. That, however, is probably because of a double misunderstanding: a failure to grasp what 'radical' means; and a failure to comprehend what the Free Church is.

Last summer, Stornoway Free Church did something which some probably saw as radical. I mean, it's all relative, but I'm fairly sure that Sy FC is not known for its 'out-there' approach to life. However, like a lot of dear old things that are written off as set in their ways, it surprised everyone - twice over.

First of all, it opened its doors to visitors - tourists and islanders alike were invited to simply come in and look around. Still a relatively new member, I volunteered to be a 'greeter'. No actual weeping was involved, though I did do some gnashing of teeth beforehand. After all, what would we talk about to visitors? I feverishly imagined myself, for want of anything better to say, pointing out the years of varnish build-up on the pews, or offering such gems as, 'if we had an organ, it would probably be in that corner'. Oh, me of little faith. That's not how it was at all. It turned out, as I should have realised, that a warm welcome and sharing our love of Christ was enough. Of course it was.

Secondly, on the busiest Sunday of the Stornoway calendar - Hebridean Celtic Festival weekend - the church hall was open, offering free Sunday breakfast. People stumbled, bleary-eyed and stiff, out of their tents and caravans, into a drizzly, grey morning. Their day was cheered considerably by an invitation to come and eat with the Stornoway congregation, in the warmth and comfort of the MA Macleod Memorial Hall. The thing is, as quite a few people told me, they didn't expect this sort of thing from the Free Church. Surely, instead of sharing bacon rolls and coffee with them, the minister ought to have been living up to the Calvinist stereotype and denouncing their music and dancing from the pulpit? 'When I heard that a church was doing breakfast today, I assumed it was Martin's Memorial', one local told me, alluding to our more down with the kids C of S neighbour. And, I have to admit, I would probably have made the same assumption, had I been in their wellies.

Being radical in this way isn't just about quashing the tired old image of nay-saying Wee Frees, though. In fact, it's not remotely about that - seeing the surprised delight on people's faces is just an added bonus - but it is about fulfilling what Christ requires of us. Something which is radical is simply that which has roots, and the Free Church was founded on that highest principle of all: refusal to submit to any headship except that of the Lord Jesus Christ. His words in the Gospel of Matthew affirm that what Stornoway Free Church did last summer was nothing less than obedience to Christ's example:

'For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.'

The only reward that Christians seek in doing as their Lord bids is the increase of His kingdom and glory. Sometimes, they have to be content with obedience and trust the rest to Him, that He will bless the effort made - but sometimes, they have the encouragement of seeing fruit for their labours. 

In a curious sequence of events, I have met two different visitors who took breakfast with us on that Sunday last July. Both were affected by the simple, Christian love demonstrated, and by the worship in which they shared afterwards. And both are now in a relationship with Christ that is changing their lives.

In 1846, three years after the establishment of the Free Church, it was the first agency to respond to famine in the Highlands. The collection of funds called for by Rev. Thomas Chalmers was one of the single largest collections ever made by a Scottish church, for any purpose. There is, of course, still literal hunger in our midst, which must be met. Spiritual hunger too stalks our land. If we are prepared, the two can be sated, for 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God'. Our duty, our radical calling, is surely to bring the stranger in to sit at our table, and offer him both.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Living a Grace Paced Life

I'm looking forward to reading David Murray's new book 'Reset: Living a Grace Paced Life in a Burnout Culture.'  He has created a Facebook page with interviews and clips if you want a preview and there are other resources available here. I've benefited hugely from David's ministry, writing and blogging over the years. Like David (although he has made big changes), I suffer from a frenetic work ethic.  I take a huge amount of my identity from my work and struggle to relax.  I tend to be involved in lots of different things and can't understand why other people can't do the same.  If I'm being honest (and this is difficult to admit) I can feel that a huge amount depends on me, which of course is very arrogant.  I can be quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) scathing about others who don't have the same drive and pace as a I do.  

I was chatting to a close friend recently about his minister and church life.  He told me that the minister does everything at break neck speed and questions anyone in the church who isn't willing to be on every rota and give 100% all the time.  The strain has an effect on family life and not surprisingly the ministry is facing some big challenges.  This frenetic activity can often hide deeper problems where success and growth become more important than integrity and spiritual fruit.  As my friend described his minister I had a pang of guilt that I have some similar traits.

It is easy to live in a burnout culture in Christian service.  I have been guilty of it for years.  Working long hours, out every evening, preaching most weekends, blogging, writing, speaking and firefighting crisis can become part of our identity.  It is hard to admit, but sometimes we act as if everything depends on us.

Last weekend I went to a place where things are much slower and centred very much on God: the family home in Sutherland. We have been going there as a family since I was a baby.  It was once a busy Highland Croft but it is now overgrown and silent except for the migrating birds flying over the Dornoch Firth.  It has been the family home for well over 100 years.  My uncle Willie stays there on his own and the house has hardly changed in 50 years. There is no TV, no broadband (despite my best efforts to set it up when I was there) and facilities are basic and rustic.  On the plus side there are lots of books.

It is a while since I have stayed with my uncle, but certain things struck me very powerfully while I was there.  Firstly, my uncle is very content. He spends his life listening to sermons, reading books (very old books) and attending church up in Brora.  Far from being bitter or resentful, Willie is incredibly thankful - a gratitude that comes out time and time again in his wonderfully intimate prayers.  God is at the centre of his life and worship permeates every day. Despite his own musical limitations, he insists that we sing a Psalm at every worship - such is his love for the praise of God.  When he prays, he is not putting on an act, or finding flowery Biblical language, he actually knows and loves God.  Even at 81, he still gets down on his knees during worship and approaches God with the utmost reverence. He quotes Scripture liberally and sincerely particularly the metrical Psalms that he has sung all his life. When I was up last weekend he said: 'one of my greatest regrets in life was never memorising the 119th Psalm.'  As always after a visit, I have started memorising scripture again.

Secondly, Willie knows what it is to fear God.  The fear of God is something that is never spoken about in the modern church - we think it will put people off.  Psalm 19 v 9 tells us that 'Unspotted is the fear of God, and doth endure for ever.' There is something clean and pure about fearing God. We are told that it is the beginning of wisdom.  Far from being a slavish fear, true fear of God is a loving respect for God.  When it is rightly understood, and lived out, it is something that is incredibly attractive.  It makes us walk gently in this world, it gives us a right view of sin, it gives us a high view of scripture, and it keeps us in a spirit of repentance.  More than anything, the fear of God gives us a deep, deep humility.  The modern church has become infected with the cult of personality.  Energetic and visionary leaders are held up as almost messianic figures who will turn the tide of decline in Scotland.  Others who patiently and faithfully minister away in relative obscurity are overlooked as old fashioned and stuck in the past. I'm always amazed at how reluctant my uncle is to offer a view on anything despite his years of reading.  He has a deep humility which prevents him from pronouncing on contentious subjects and church politics.  

Thirdly, everything at Lonemore is slow.  There is no rush, no deadlines.  It is one day at a time.  I genuinely loose track of time when I am staying with Willie.  Few plans are fixed ahead of time.  The phone is often unplugged in case it disturbs worship.  If ever anyone lived a grace paced life, it is my uncle.  He worships with people of a like mind.  The service on Sunday morning in Brora was full of reverence.  Just before the service started a lady shuffled along and sat beside me. It was none other than the mother of David Murray.  Maureen and Alan Murray are perhaps one of the best examples of a couple who live a grace paced life.  No doubt David was able to take some inspiration from his parents when writing his latest book. The preacher, the Rev John Morrison, handled the Bible with the utmost care and spoke passionately about the need for the 'wisdom which is from above' in James 3 v 17-18.  He preached without notes and as always was full of encouragement when I spoke to him afterwards.  I don't think he has changed in 30 years.

After lunch I headed over to Bonar Bridge to peach in the Gair Hall.  My Grandfather, Alex Murray, who was an elder in Dornoch used to preach in Bonar before his death in 1970.  It was encouraging to see the hall fairly full for the evening service with a few new faces out from when I last preached 4 years ago.  Whatever else is true of Lairg and Bonar Bridge Free Church, the Gair Hall must have one of the nicest view of any church in Scotland.  Supper at the Lairg Manse was hearty and busy. Freshly laid eggs, poached on toast were enjoyed in conversation with 5 lively kids.  It was great, as always to hear of the encouragements and challenges of a rural ministry and I went to bed filled with admiration for Mary and John Forbes.  On any given Sunday, John preaches in Lairg, Bonar Bridge, Lochinver and Bonar Bridge in the evening.  If they were giving out awards for gimmicks and novelty, John would be at the back of the queue.  Instead he exercises a quiet, faithful and consistent ministry in a place that long ago lost its rich spiritual heritage. We hope and pray that he will know encouragement in the days ahead.

I'm so thankful for my uncle and the help I have received over the years from visiting Lonemore.  My little tour of Sutherland en route to Ullapool, reminded me of a different way of life.  It is a slower, deeper, more thoughtful, and deeply God centred lifestyle.  It was a rebuke to my frenetic, undisciplined and at times spiritually shallow existence.  I need to remember that rest is not weakness.  If God rested on the seventh day maybe we need to do likewise.  I need to stop living on the edge of my physical, emotional and spiritual resources.  I need to learn how to say no to invitations and commitments.  

So what can I/we do?  This infographic is very helpful.  It reminds us that making time for spiritual disciplines, Christian community, godly counsel, family and cutting down time at work can all help to avoid burnout and help us live a more grace paced life.  Rather than having a packed week perhaps we need to create space where we are intentionally relaxing and recharging.  We need to invest in relationships, family and most of all we need to spend time with God.  We need to spend more time waiting on God and less time trying to save the world.  We all need to have a 'reset' sometimes.  I think my one is long overdue.