Too little too late

January 8, 2015

The official confirmation for the Church of Scotland that the majority of their presbyteries have backed legislation which will allow the appointment of ministers in a same-sex relationship comes as no surprise. The legislation also makes clear that being in a same-sex relationship is no bar to becoming a candidate for the ministry. While the presbytery head-count of 54.6% to 45.4% may seem rather close, the final affirmation required by the 2015 General Assembly will be far more decisive. Assemblies tend to be more liberal than the church membership at large. We can also expect moves that will allow same-sex weddings in parish churches.

While radicals in the Kirk will be celebrating, what of the evangelicals? I was never one of those who predicted a mass exodus of congregations. Of those who left the Church of Scotland, only a handful have done so en mass. Most such congregations have split. By and large, there have been handfuls of members leaving on their own, disillusioned by the lack of fortitude shown by their minister. Anyone who imagines that a minister leaving the Church of Scotland is taking the easy option needs to think again. As well as losing their home and a job from which they could not be sacked (unless for some gross misdemeanour), there is a massive reduction in salary no matter what other denomination they go to. Those who have demitted their charges have acted with great faith and courage. Those who remain complain that we have left them to continue the fight. Our reply is, What fight? There was no fight to speak of. Rather there was only compromise.

And yet, what if there had been a fight? What if evangelicals had been better organised, more willing to raise the stakes if the radicals got their way? The closeness of the headcount at presbytery level suggests that Albert Bogle’s compromise might not have been necessary. If the Biblical principle for sexual union as being exclusively between one man and one woman had been as well argued throughout presbyteries and congregations as it was on the floor of the Assembly in 2014 there might have been a ground-swell against the radicals. We will never know.

Andrew McGowan has formed the Covenant Fellowship which allows church members to register their dis-satisfaction at the Kirk’s trajectory. Sadly this is fifty years too late. The fact that acting principal clerk George Whyte has welcomed the formation of this new group speaks volumes. They can angrily jump up and down like Rumpelstiltskin but they have surrendered their trump card—that they will never leave the Kirk; and that’s all 121 George Street cares about.

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TALKING GOD #2

December 20, 2010

DOES GOD EXIST?

Question: How do we even know that there is a God? 

Probably the most important question in human philosophy is: Does God exist?  It’s an important question because the answer will affect the whole of human life.  Is mankind the supreme being; or is there a Being superior even to us who is to be loved and obeyed, and indeed, worshipped? 

Throughout history human beings have grappled with this question and tried to find the answer through logic.  Let me put to you three so-called proofs for the existence of God. 

One approach basically says that the very fact that we can conceive of a God must mean that a God exists.  A more sophisticated way of putting it would be this: our idea of God is that of a being which is greater than anything else.  Even atheists, when they deny the existence of God, are denying the existence of a supreme being beyond which nothing greater can be conceived.

Well, says this argument, how can you have the idea of something beyond which nothing greater can exist, if the reality behind that idea doesn’t actually exist?   Indeed, the very fact that such a reality doesn’t exist would mean that it isn’t greater than everything else.  After all, anything that doesn’t exist can’t be greater than anything that actually does exist. 

Do you find this argument persuasive? 

It’s shot full of holes.  Just because we can imagine something doesn’t mean that it has to exist.  We can imagine fairies and unicorns and mermaids. 

Yet—might there be something more to it than at first sight.  We might not believe there are fairies at the bottom of the garden; but as Christians we do believe in the spirit-world.  Unicorns and mermaids have a basis in fact, in that they are inaccurate descriptions of real animals—the rhinoceros, and the porpoise. 

We have to acknowledge that belief in God or in several gods is universal.  Every tribe, every culture, has or has had a concept of the divine.  Why?  Where has the idea come from? 

Another argument is based on cause and effect.  We know that everything has a cause.  Nothing happens without something causing it to happen.  So how did the universe happen?  Why is there anything and not nothing? There must be a First Mover.    There must be an Eternal Something. 

Perhaps the universe itself is self-existent, self-creating: the universe has always been there.  The problem with this theory is that the universe doesn’t act as if it is self-existent.  The universe is cooling down, like an oven that has been turned off.  It doesn’t keep itself going.  It is, in fact, decaying, like an apple or banana left in your fruit bowl.  The universe looks as if it has had a beginning; but instead of maintaining itself, it is clearly heading towards an end.  So who started it?

A more modern version of this argument is the one called Intelligent Design, which Dr. Alistair Donald spoke to us about during our Mission.  The irrefutable fact is that the universe seems to be designed.  Everything about our planet appears to be designed to support life—the Goldilocks Effect. 

It is just the right size; it rotates at just the right speed; its distance from the sun is spot on; it tilts at just the right angle; the land-water ratio is just perfect.  Too much heat, too much cold and there can’t be life.  We need light, but not too much ultra-violet.  We live just beneath an air screen shielding us from millions of extra-terrestrial missiles every day.  We live just 10 miles above a rock screen that shields us from the ferocious heat at the earth’s core.

Who created all these screens and shields that make life on earth possible? 

The choice is that either the universe developed all these features by chance, or that it was designed.  Either the universe has been planned or it’s an accident. 

And may I suggest that chance really is not an explanation; rather it’s the refusal to give an explanation.  When scientists explain things they operate on the assumption that this is a regular universe where everything occurs as a result of the orderly procession of cause and effect.

Yet, if they are evolutionists explaining the origins of the universe, they abandon the principle of sufficient reason and assume that the cause of everything is an unthinkable causelessness, chance or fate. 

A third attempt to prove the existence of God by logic relates to our sense of right and wrong.  Where do we get our sense of morality from?  Is it just from society?  But if that is the case, why is it that some of the greatest moralists in history have been those who have challenged their society, criticising the moral failings of their contemporaries? 

If there is no ultimate arbiter of good and bad, right and wrong, then morality becomes subjective.  Who is to say that within a given context slavery is wrong, or racism, or genocide?  Might is right. 

There must be a God to whom we are accountable; who, because we are accountable to him, has given us this universal sense of what is right and what is wrong.

None of these so-called proofs are a clincher.  If they were then there would be no atheists.  Some theologians dismiss them out of hand as completely useless.  I think that’s a bit hard.  Perhaps we can call them pointers rather than proofs.  They suggest the existence of God.  But I would never rely on them totally. 

From its opening sentence the Bible presupposes the existence of God. 

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  (Gen.1:1)

For us the existence of God is the great presupposition of theology…that there is a self-existent, self-conscious, personal Being which is the origin of all things, and which transcends the entire creation, but is at the same time immanent in every part of it…The Christian accepts the truth of the existence of God by faith.  But this faith is not blind faith but a faith that is based on evidence, and the evidence is found primarily in Scripture as the inspired Word of God and secondarily in God’s revelation in nature. (Louis Berkof)

The Bible tells us that we should be able to work out the existence of God from nature.  Ps.19:1-2 The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.  Day after day they pour forth speech, night after night they display knowledge.

Acts 14:17 Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.  (Paul to the people of Lystra) 

Calvin: men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him. 

Ties in with Intelligent Design.  Everything that exists gives evidence of God’s existence.  More than this, the Bible also tells us that every human being has a deep, inner sense that God exists.  This is not to say that we have within us a full understanding of God’s nature.  But it does explain why peoples all over the world have a sense of the divine.  Thus, if we deny the existence of God it is because we are actively and deliberately suppressing something we know to be true. 

Rom.1:18-20 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness since what may be known about God is plain to them because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.   

Paul is saying there that from creation we should be able to conclude that there is a God, one whom no-one can be greater (eternal power and divine nature).   The fact that human beings have worshipped that which is created—the sun, the stars, animals, themselves—demonstrates how perverted our notions of the divine are—worshipping things which are inferior to ourselves.  But there is within the human soul the need to worship something. 

It’s only when we turn to the Bible that our ideas of God are clarified.  Calvin illustrates this beautifully: Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God.  (Institutes I.vi.1)

Creation can tells us that God exists.  It can tell us that he is the creator, that he is imaginative, that he is powerful and majestic.  We can even discern God’s love and grace from creation.  But not always.  We might equally conclude that God is cruel and capricious. 

Only from scripture do we learn that God is holy.  Only from scripture do we learn that we are sinners in need of a Saviour; and that God loves us so much that he sent such a Saviour into the world.  If we are going to know God we need the Bible. 

Let me make just say one more thing about how we know God.  The contemporary theologian, Douglas Kelly, makes the extremely important point that whatever truth we need to know about God, indeed, anything about our faith, can only be learned within the community of the church. 

Scripture teaches throughout that God, who is truth, makes himself known to mankind by means of both Word and personal communion within a covenant context.  God speaks his Word to his image-bearers, not in a vacuum, but within a personal relationship.  And this personal relationship in which God’s speaking occurs is always in the bounds of a covenant community.   (Systematic Theology p.16,17)

We learn together.  And when, as the church, we talk about learning together, we don’t just limit ourselves to those who are physically present.  We listen to the saints who have gone before us.  We listen to our brothers and sisters throughout the world.  To exclude their voices would nothing but the utmost arrogance. 

As the hymn puts it

We need each other’s view’s to see the limits of our mind

That God in fact turns out to be far more than we’ve defined

 TRANSCENDENCE AND IMMANENCE 

I want to draw this first talk to an end by introducing you to two important concepts which are foundational in any discussion about God.  The first says that God is transcendent; the second says that God is immanent.  The reason why it is important for us to grasp these concepts is that in many other religions these concepts are held to be contradictory.  God cannot be both transcendent and immanent.  The Bible, however, teaches that the True God is both.

To say that God is transcendent means that God is distinct and separate from the created order.  God is not part and parcel of creation.  Thus God is unique.  There is God; and there is creation. 

This means that the New Age idea of God being everything and everything being God is quite wrong.  It’s one thing to say that we see God in everything, meaning that we see God’s handiwork in creation.  It’s quite another thing to refer to nature as divine.  The technical term for that is “pantheism”—everything is God, everything is an extension of God.  Listen out for this philosophy in some of the song of Disney movies like “The Lion King” and “Pocahontas”. 

God is transcendent—he is over and above, he is distinct from creation.

To say that God is immanent means that is present within his creation. Deists are those who believe that God exists and that he is transcendent; but that he has nothing to do with his creation.  It’s as if the creation is a wind-up toy car.  God has wound the key, and then let the toy car go wherever it goes.  He has nothing more to do with it.  If there are bumps and crashes along the way that’s nothing to do with him.  But that’s not Biblical. 

The Bible tells us that God is intimately involved in creation.  One of the names of Jesus emphasises this: Immanuel, God with us. There’s a wonderful verse in Isaiah that marries the transcendence and the immanence of God.  Isa.57:15: For this is what the high and loft One says—he who lives for ever, whose name is holy; I live in a high and holy place [transcendence] but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the contrite [immanence]. 

That’s a good place to finish—the True and Living God, is the Talking God; the God who though he is above and beyond us, the high and lofty One, is the God who Immanuel; beyond us, yes; but also beside us and within us.

Weekend in Broughty Ferry

October 26, 2009

It’s been a long time since I have benefitted from turning the clocks back personally, but this morning, at 7am, I was able to walk the dogs in day-light.  I haven’t been able to do that for a couple of weeks and had been forced away from our usual out-towards- the-county route for lack of street lighting.  The dogs also seem to have enjoyed the freedom of being let off the lead.

I note in the press that some are calling for Scotland to have its own time zone (“tundra time” it’s being called) since our neighbours in the south don’t get the same benefit from the change in time.  It would be mad for Scottish clocks be showing a different time from the rest of the country.  But could we not just run our day an hour behind everyone else?  Could our schools and offices not start at 10am instead of 9am, and go until 4pm instead of 3pm?  Our bodies adjust to the reality of a time-change; instead of changing the hour why not change the structure of the day? 

I had a really good weekend at Broughty Ferry.  This was the weekend of the Dundee Presbytery Preaching Conference, primarily for Readers.  I was speaking on Preaching the Cross and Preaching the Empty Tomb.  I was very impressed by the attendance (about 30) and by their enthusiasm, listening to five talks between 9am and 4pm. 

It was particularly good to see some folks I hadn’t seen for a while.  One was Craig Kirkwood.  We were on CU exec together back when we were at Strathclyde.  He was Book Sec when I was International Sec.  Craig went on to be President. 

Another familiar face was Harry McLennan.  Harry is Session Clerk at Portmoak Church where I did my first attachment as a student for the ministry, under Robin Stewart.  Harry’s daughter and son-in-law are the Ferguson’s in Japan who do the Church planter’s blog.  You’ll see the Ferguson File to the right of my blog. 

I’m not putting the talks on the blog since they are far too long.  I’ll just say one thing.   A point I made in both talks is that as preachers we must never forget that the crucifixion and the resurrection were both historical events.  If Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” alerted the Church to anything it’s that modern people have no idea just how horrific a death crucifixion was.  2000 years of church history have sanitised the cross for us. 

So I was arguing that it’s important to take our listeners to Calvary.  Let them hear the nails being hammered through the wrists; let them feel the six-inch thorns piercing the brow; let them taste the blood trickling down the cheeks and into the mouth; let them smell the foul mixture of faeces, urine and vomit.  Remind them that something real happened. 

The same goes for the empty tomb.  The Bible presents the resurrection as a fact, not a parable, still less a myth.  We need to scurry with the women through the quiet Jerusalem streets; we need to see the stone rolled away.  Let us peer over Peter’s shoulders as he stares at the neatly folded grave-clothes.  Similarly, let us walk a step or two behind the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, so that we can overhear what that stranger is saying to them. 

Take us there, not in an attempt to pad out a colourless story, but to help our listeners realize that something really happened on that first day of the week, that first Easter morn.

On behalf of One Kirk

September 10, 2009

Yesterday, while I was cooking dinner (pasta carbonara) I received a phone call from a member of the One Kirk steering group.  He was upset about my statement on yesterday’s blog about “the Scott Rennie camp” speaking to another denomination.  He categorically denied any knowledge of this.  I am happy to acknowledge that this married man with children knew nothing of the discussions referred to.  However, I stand by what I said.  I only mentioned these discussions because it’s always the evangelicals who are accused of threatening to leave, when in fact others are doing the same.  Before the Assembly there was a post on the Affirmation Scotland site stating quite openly that Scott Rennie was actively contemplating ministry in the USA should the decision go against him.  That’s quite understandable; as are discussions with another British denomination.  But this has never been reported in the press.

Holiday Club is over for another year.  Thank you to every who has been praying for us.  It’s been a great week with as many kids coming as we could cope with.  I’ve been doing holiday clubs for years and I have to say this has been one of the best.  It takes over your life and you go around singing the theme song and doing the actions involuntary.  There were 10 scary minutes on Tuesday when the lap-top refused to read the DVD.  We think there was a tiny scratch on the disc and it the lap-top was being a bit fussy.  This was one of those moments when the manse being next to the church was a life-saved because I was able to get our, less fussy, lap-top, and our magnificent technical team managed to transfer everything in the nick of time.  I wonder if magic lanterns caused so much trouble.  It’s a wonderful privilege being able to bring the gospel to so many kids.  Our prayer now is that the seed that was sown will take root in their young lives. 

One of the important dividends of holiday club is that team members get to know each other better.  It brings together people who wouldn’t normally socialise and who only see each other at church on a Sunday. 

Last night we had our Thanksgiving Service.  Our usual practice is to have three of the team say something about how they feel about the week.  All of them spoke with great warmth and enthusiasm. 

One of the things we need to learn to do better is involving people, not just for one week a year, but continually.   I often say that no one should be doing two jobs until everyone is doing one, but of course it doesn’t work out like that.  There is nothing quite like doing the Lord’s work to help us grow in our faith.  Sitting in church and listening to sermons is never enough.  The point of preaching is to equip the saints for works of service (Eph.4:12).  The Church, as well as each individual, has a responsibility to make that a reality.

Showstoppers Holiday Club

August 3, 2009

Today is the start of our annual Holiday Club at Kirkmuirhill, something we have been doing for over 30 years.  We’re doing “Showstoppers”, material produced by SU, and in my opinion it’s one of the best in recent years.  Based in theatre-land, it takes the plan of salvation, from creation to redemption, via David and Daniel.  The theme song is by far the catchiest we’ve had for a long time.   The video is well produced, well acted and easy to follow—we can’t say that every year. 

As important as good material is the most important thing is a good team.  Kirkmuirhill Church excels at this, having built up an enviable body of experience over three decades.  There is a an organising committee which starts in January.  The amount of work they do is phenomenal.  Nothing is omitted, down to the last detail of scissors and coloured pens for every team. 

One change this year is that we are only holding the club in the mornings, 10am – 1pm.  In the past we had afternoon sessions too.  This was a very big commitment from team members, especially those with families of their own.  Doing it all in one concentrated session has solved that problem.   In effect, we only lose half-an-hour. 

One of the many joys of Holiday Club is seeing home-grown helpers coming through.  We have an excellent group of teenage helpers who just get better and better every year.  If they keep going as they are it bodes well for the future.  We have an evening session for them, with games and a time for sharing the gospel message. 

Please pray for us all—for patience and kindness and a winsomeness for the Lord.  It’s a great privilege to be able to share the gospel with so many children, many of whom have little or no contact with the church otherwise.

New members

June 21, 2009

Today we had one of those “all singing all dancing” type services that tend come at the end of the school year.  To begin with we had a report from the Mission and Evangelism Task Group, feeding back the information which has now been collated from the community survey we did in January.  The survey was very worthwhile from several points of view.  Primarily it has given us some very practical ideas about what kind of outreach might be most worthwhile.  From a pre-evangelism perspective we are thinking about parenting courses.  Also, we feel a need for more social events. 

Next, one of our boys from the BB was awarded his Queen’s Badge which is no small feat.  Given that the survey highlighted the [perceived] lack of youth activities in the village, we believe that what we offer through the BB and GB is very valuable.  About 100 children and youth are involved. 

The highlight of the service was admitting to membership three people by profession of faith and two who are transferring from other congregations.  The fascinating thing is that the five of them come from very different backgrounds, yet share certain things in common.  Three were women; two were men. One of the men is in his late teens who has been part of this church family all his life.  One has suffered chronic depression; another is recovering from an addiction.  Three of them have connections with Africa. 

They all did the Christianity Explored course; and all of them found it immensely helpful.  All of them gave a short speech (“a word of testimony”) as to how God had led them to this place of joining the church today.  This is such an encouragement to the rest of the congregation. 

I now make it a policy that anyone transferring from another church should do the CE course.  It’s amazing how people who have been church members for years still find it such a revelation.  It gets them off to a good start within the church family, giving them a small of group they come to know really well.  And it irons out any misunderstandings about the basics of the faith. 

When people ask me how things are going in the church I tend to reply: Nationally, depressing; but locally very encouraging.  You can see why.