Last night, while ironing, I watched a programme about the Home Office.  It’s the first in a series about the three great offices of state—the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Treasury.  Kim was filling in her job application on-line, and I had just come in from the Prayer Meeting.  I saw there was ironing to be done, and decided to tackle it. 

I hate just ironing.  I have to be watching or listening to something at the same time.  So I booted up the lap-top and went, first, to the Reformed Forum, an on-line chat show, hosted by Camden Bucey.  If you don’t know it you should look it up.   It’s only because of this show that I know what are the current hot topics in the Reformed world!  They usually also review any new publications which may be of interest to their listeners.  How these guys get the time to read so much I don’t know.  Probably they aren’t notching up a couple of funerals per week. 

Last night I listened to an introduction to Karl Barth’s theology.  Having studied theology at a Scottish university I’m not entirely ignorant of what Barth is about, but the discussion was useful in that there were questions asked which had arisen in my mind too, and were answered.  For example, how do Barthians escape the charge of being universalists?  Answer, they may try to wriggle out of it, but not convincingly. 

Anyway, after that discussion, there were still plenty of clothes to attend to, so I turned to BBC I-Player.  I’m the kind of person I-Player was invented to serve.  For me, it stands along side the Answering Machine as among the greatest inventions ever.  It was getting late, and there was absolutely nothing on TV that I wanted to see.  The programme about the great offices of state was just the right subject and the right length of time. 

The programme was interesting in itself.  But the reason I’m writing about it is because of something Jack Straw said.  Jack Straw was New Labour’s first Home Secretary, and apart from Gordon Brown, is the only member of Tony Blair’s original Cabinet never to have been out of office.  I wonder why.  During the course of the interview he used the word or phrase “Insh-allah”. 

I’d never heard someone who is not a Moslem use that phrase before.  I believe it means “God willing”.  Mr. Straw used it in a context in which others would have said “touch wood”.  He meant “if we’re lucky”.  Here’s what I’m thinking.  Mr. Straw is not a Moslem; I think he is an atheist.  This being so, why did he use that phrase?  He is MP for Bolton, with many Moslems as constituents and I understand he has worked hard at building a good relationship with them.  Has he merely picked up the phrase?  Is he using it casually?  If so, do Moslems mind? 

Or, has he developed the habit of using the phrase in order to show familiarity with the it?  It’s a way of demonstrating solidarity with his constituents; he has adopted some of their language.  Again, what do Moslems think of that; for if this is the case, it could be considered a rather cynical ploy.  Do devout Moslems hear him bandy about a phrase that actually contains meaning for them, and do they cringe, as real Christians cringe when we hear the Lord’s name used in vain?  I’m just wondering.


Preaching Leviticus

September 23, 2009

A few weeks ago I began a series of sermons from Leviticus.  As someone said, “That takes a lot of guts.”  And another confessed he thought it would be “offal.”

I’d been thinking about it for a while; but it’s only because we now have an Assistant that I’ve felt I have the time to ponder the text of what is one of the least accessible books of the Bible.  I just don’t think I’d have had the time to do that if I were still preaching twice a week.

Why preach Leviticus?  I suppose one answer could be, Just because it’s there.  It is, after all, as much part of Holy Scripture as any of the other 65 books.  Paul’s observation in 2Tim. 3:16 that all Scripture is God-breathed applies as much to Leviticus as it does to Genesis or the Psalms.  And if our Lord explained to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus what was said about him in all the Scriptures beginning with Moses, Leviticus must have been included.(Lk.24:27)

Derek Tidball in his very helpful little commentary in the Crossway Bible Guides series gives some answers.  Leviticus helps us to understand that God is holy yet merciful.  It teaches us the meaning of sacrifice and of being living sacrifices.  It encourages us to give the best to God in worship.  It instructs us in the qualities leaders in the church should have.  It leads us to Christ who makes atonement for our sin.  It sets out for us principles of family, sexual and social behaviour.  It teaches us to celebrate the faithfulness of God as our Creator and Saviour.  It helps us to understand the true meaning of liberty.  It show us that our faith has implications for our views on politics and economics.  And it teaches us the importance of obeying God’s commands.

For me there is another reason.  In recent years Leviticus has become the most reviled, mocked, derided book in the Bible.  Only recently a student taking a course in Religious Studies told me this story: The lecturer began by asking if there were any Christians in the class.  Several raised their hands.  To hoots of laughter from the rest of the class he attacked them: Then why are you wearing clothes made from more than one fabric?  A reference to a Levitical ban.  We’ve all read the so-called letter asking for an explanation as to how one goes about stoning one’s rebellious son and whether or not one should boycott the local fishmonger for selling prawns. 

In short, there has been a deliberate and sustained attack on the Levitical code.  And why?  Because it states that a man lying with a man is abhorrent.  The argument goes—it is inconsistent to still believe homosexual practice is abhorrent if one enjoys a prawn cocktail. 

What is particularly sad is that such attacks have come from ministers of the Gospel, ministers of Word and Sacrament, who, of all people, should have studied scripture and be at the forefront of defending it. 

So, for the sake of my congregation, who like so many others, want to believe that all Scripture is God-breathed, but find Leviticus incomprehensible, I felt duty bound to have a go at expounding it.  I’ve preached three sermons so far which I’ll post in the next three days [note—there is nothing in them about the CURRENT DEBATE].  I hope you find them helpful and if you have any constructive comments don’t hesitate to make them.  I’m not doing line by line, chapter by chapter; but rather picking out key themes and moments from the book.

So far, for me, the most important lesson has been that God hasn’t changed his mind.  He still requires a sacrifice to be made for the forgiveness of sins, and we still require a priest to present it on our behalf.  Leviticus has much to teach us about our God, our Saviour and ourselves.

Dear Ron,

Let’s start with the positive.  I am glad that you don’t detest evangelicals or our theology.  I didn’t know you used to be a conservative evangelical, and I am sorry that you are no longer one.  One thing I could never deny is that you are an effective communicator.  I am glad that you respect our position and I certainly acknowledge that in the past you have publicly pointed out the lack of an evangelical Moderator.  Our last “great hope” was Bill Wallace, who had been convenor of both Social Responsibility and Ministries in his time.  His nomination was deliberately scuppered by the last-minute appearance of Sheila Kesting on the list—our first female minister Mod.  And Ron, thank you for defending our right to free speech.  It’s good to know that the spirit of Voltaire lives on. 

Having said that, you must understand why I came to the conclusion that you detest evangelical theology.  I ask readers of this blog: had Ron given you that impression?  Especially during the recent debate which dare not speak its name (for the next couple of years at least).  You were unashamedly vitriolic in your defence of Rev. Rennie.  I don’t recall you helping your non-Kirk readers to weigh up the pros and cons, to see that both sides had legitimate reasons for their belief.  Far from it.  You undertook a veritable campaign of mockery against the conservative side.

And this is where I believe you are most culpable.  As the only Kirk minister who writes regularly for the secular press (as far as I am aware) you had a duty (as I see it) to help the outside world understand the debate.  Instead, you unashamedly joined the chorus of those accusing my friends and me of being homophobic flat-earthers.

Particularly disappointing was the way you handled scripture.  You publicly broadcast the notion that evangelicals base their theology of sexuality on a few obscure verses in Leviticus, an obscure Old Testament book.  You gleefully pointed the finger and asked us why we wear clothes of mixed fibres and why don’t we stone rebellious teenagers as the Mosaic law demands. 

To buy into that kind of disingenuous interpretation of scripture is reprehensible in a Minister of Word and Sacrament.  You added fuel to the secular belief that evangelicals are hypocrites who are mindlessly welded to an ancient and irrelevant text. 

Leviticus, when studied carefully and reverently, turns out to be one of the most beautiful books in the Bible.  If it is obscure to you then shame on you.  The New Testament teaches us (the book of Hebrews for example) that these Old Testament sacrifices and laws are all pointing forward to Christ.  By studying them we can learn more about the wonder of the atonement.  And as for these laws about mixed fibres etc, they are tied in to notions of holiness, of appropriateness.  All of which, again, are fulfilled for us in Christ.

And as for homosexuality, you know fine well that we base our whole teaching on sexuality on the creation narrative.  Leviticus, far from being our base authority, is itself a working out of creation norms; which are then continued in the New Testament.

As for our Lord Jesus who never once uttered a word on homosexuality, since when did the argument from silence become so persuasive?  It’s more reasonable to assume that our Lord accepted the Old Testament teaching about homosexuality.  He had nothing to add. 

Finally, will you ever be able to resist the temptation to make personal wipes?  Ron, it was beneath you to insult Louis Kinsey.  Go to his church; see for yourself what an asset he is to the Kirk.  As for myself getting a bit over-excited, I seem to remember that the early Evangelicals were referred to as Enthusiasts.  Yes, I am enthusiastic about the gospel, about our Lord Jesus, and about his Church.  So from time to time I probably will get excited.

Misplaced compassion

August 24, 2009

During the evening of  Wednesday 21st December 1988 I was wrapping Christmas presents.  I lived in Kinross at the time, a small market town.  It was my first year as a trainee solicitor.  I was living in cute cottage that belonged to my boss.  Outside was wintery, but inside was warm and snug.  I was listening to the radio, a Radio 4 discussion of some sort.

And then there was an interruption.  News of a plane crash over the border town of Locherbie. 

The next day was our office Christmas dinner.  As we were driven in the minibus to our restaurant the talk was of the crash and the seeming randomness of it.  If an obscure town like Locherbie could be hit, so could Kinross. 

And then the news came that it hadn’t been an accidental crash but a deliberate bombing.  For over 10 years the hunt for the Locherbie bombers appeared and then disappeared from our minds until January 2001 when there was finally a conviction.  The trial, of course, was not straight-forward.  I knew a prison guard who was stationed at Camp Zeist for a while.  It was all rather surreal.  Even after the conviction there was the appeal.  Locherbie just wouldn’t go away.

Now Megrahi has been released, on compassionate grounds.  I must admit that initially I thought releasing him on these grounds was the right thing to do.  The Church of Scotland has taken this position.  But on further, deeper reflection I’m not so sure it is right.

It seems to me that the role of the individual and the role of the State have been confused.  As a Christian I believe that I am called to forgive those who have harmed me.  The State, however, has as different role.  The duty of the state is to ensure that those who threaten and disrupt the lives of others and of society are punished in a way which is proportionate to their crime. The Apostle Paul in Romans chapter 13 states that the secular governing authorities have been “established by God” and that the “one in authority” is “an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer”. What I believe has happened in this current situation is that what should belong only to the subjective realm of personal responsibility is being inappropriately brought to bear on the objective judicial responsibility of the state.

Kenny MacAskill, our Justice Minister, acknowledged the pain of the loved ones of the victims.  Does he not see the importance for them of receiving justice and that for most of them the release of Megrahi is only going to increase their pain? Has compassion for Megrahi been considered more important than compassion for the victims loved ones? Certainly those who believe in Megrahis innocence will not be adversely affected by his release but what about those who do not?  Inasmuch as it is appropriate for compassion to be exercised by the justice system should compassion for the victims families not demand that whatever help otherwise Megrahi is given to cope with his illness he serve his full sentence or as much of it as his life span will allow?

I do believe in compassion.  Megrahi was shown a great deal of compassion by the Scottish people.  He was held in very comfortable conditions.  His family lived nearby and were able to visit him.  Compassion did not demand releasing him to return to a hero’s welcome in Libya. 

[I’m grateful to Rev.Dr. Cameron Macpherson for helping me think through this difficult issue biblically].

Summer news

August 6, 2009

Some of you have been asking me if there is anything happening on the “gay ordination” front.  I’ve been keeping a low profile.  In fact, I got a call from a journalist yesterday but didn’t get back to him.  Please, guys, its “no comment” from me.  The days of me being the only evangelical willing to talk to the press are over; there are plenty of others to choose from. 

Here’s the link to the latest piece.  It isn’t new news–but, hey, it’s August, and a newspaper has to fill space.

We were on holiday last week.  I got time to jot down some reflections which I’m going to post over the next few days. 

We began in Inverness to spend some time with Kim’s family.  Rather than spread ourselves out among them we booked two nights in a Travelodge, and that worked out just fine.  Every time I visit Inverness (every couple of years) it seems to have grown.  Inverness lay dormant for years, beautifully quaint, welcoming of loved ones, suspicious of strangers.  In short, Highland.  I was about to compare her to a teenager who has had a sudden growth spurt, but that wouldn’t be right.  This is an ancient place.  She’s more like a rare, exotic plant that only bursts into life every century, and this is her moment. 

It is surrounded by business parks and retail centres; the city centre is bustling with shoppers and tourists.  And it’s clean.  Of course, the modern world brings its problems—the traffic was horrendous.   But perhaps for the first time—and I’ve been coming up here regularly for twenty years—I felt I could live here.  One simple indicator that Inverness is no longer remote: the price of petrol was just the same as it is in the central belt!

It can also boast some of the most dynamic, thoughtful ministries in the country.  From an evangelical view in this one city there is Duncan MacPherson at Hilton doing very imaginative emerging church stuff; Andrew McGowan in the city centre also planning to use the position and strength of the East Church creatively; Alistair Malcolm at the Inches situated in a retail park; Peter Humphris in a new housing development at Kinmylies. 

At the other end of the theological spectrum there is Peter Nimmo in the Old Parish, who has organised some interesting speakers over the summer months according to the notice board; and smack-bang in the middle, Peter Donald at Crown, adjacent to the college.  And those are just the parish churches.  Talk about spoiled for choice. 

While Kim took the kids to see “Ice Age 3” I made my usual pilgrimage to Leeky’s second hand book shop.  I’ve been coming here regularly for the best part of two decades so I was under no illusion that I might find something to buy.  In the age of Amazon and charity shops Leakey’s defiantly refuses to part with a book for anything less than what the most desperate collector might be willing to pay.  I did mention this once, years ago, but to no avail.  So I went only to look.

For those of you who don’t know Leakey’s it is housed in an old Free Church, on Church Street, next to the still active Old Parish.  Atmospherically it is the antiquarian book-lover’s dream—dry and musty.  Books are divided into the usual sections, but within their sections there is no rhyme or reason why the books are placed the way they are (mind you, it is not as muddled as Voltaire and Roussau in Glasgow’s Otago Street).  I found myself reuniting two volumes of the same series which had been cruelly separated (Hoskyns on John’s Gospel–£17 for both volumes). 

There are very few modern paper-backs in the Theology section.  Maybe the locals get in quickly.  What I saw was mostly pre-war.  First to catch my eye was a seven volume set of Richard Sibbes’ complete works (Victorian edition) £125.  It was nice just to handle it.  It was also interesting to look at the Hoskyns volumes.  You must understand that Hoskyns wrote in the 1920s and is always cited by the best modern commentators on John.  I’d like to have them but, honestly, they’d only be for show.  It would be the same with other commentators like Taylor on Mark and Temple on John (several copies of both on the shelves). 

There were some theological works by old-style liberals, which even modern liberals don’t read any more.  Someone I’d never heard of before was a Scot, John Oman, who was hailed on the dust-jacket as one of the world’s leading theologians.  When theology is based on one’s own understanding of the world, and not scripture, it’s not surprising that one quickly becomes dated and irrelevant. 

Then there were the missionary adventure stories, the stuff of Sunday School Prize-givings in the days of the empire, stacks of them.  Who buys these?  I would if they were only 50p. 

Again, why clutter your shelves with books with titles such as “Facing the modern crisis”, “The challenge to the church today” from the 1960s and earlier?  (Just the titles of such books teach us that there is nothing new under the sun.)

It’s not that I want books for nothing (actually all donations gratefully received); but it does pain me to see certain books on the shelves, unread, neglected.  If I see a title that intrigues me I’m willing to risk a couple of quid on it; but no more than that.  I’m certainly not willing to fork out £17 for two well-thumbed, heavily marked commentaries, even if they are by Sir John Hoskyns. 

Leakey’s one saving grace is the coffee shop up stairs.  Delicious coffee served with a smile!

Krishna encounta

July 31, 2009

I was heading down Buchanan Street recently when I was stopped by a woman who was obviously a Krisha devotee.  Normally, I wouldn’t stop.  But I was on holiday so was in no rush.  She asked me for money; I refused, but asked her how she became involved with ISKCON. 

It turns out that she is Hungarian, grew up during the Communist years, but always had a spiritual hunger.  When Communism fell and religious freedom was allowed, she was taken to a Krishna meeting by some friends.  She fell in love with the whole idea, and subsequently became a nun. 

A couple of weeks previously I had been preaching from Isa.44, where the prophet lampoons those who make idols.  Isaiah is pointing out how ridiculous it is to place your trust in a lump of wood, half of which goes in the fire, the rest of which you carve into an idol to which you cry out “Save me.”  I was saying that whenever we put our trust in anything other than the True and Living God we are in effect worshipping our own man-made idols and depriving God of the honour and trust he alone is due.

So I was curious to find out what this modern idol-worshipper had to say.  I told her what the Bible says about idol worship, that since God is invisible, any image is a lie, and reduces God.  She was having none of it, and had been well taught in her theology.

She said that the idol is not the god; but it is something special, for the spirit of the god resides in the idol.  Hence they call the idol a “deity”.  The idol allows her to express her love for her god in tangible ways—giving food to it, decorating it.  This is how her god wants to be worshipped.  She gave instances of how when temples have burned down the deity, miraculously, was unharmed.  To Moslems and Christians her religion makes concessions, that if idol-worship proves a snare, preventing us from progressing from the deity to the god itself, then we are better without the image. 

Isaiah’s arguments didn’t work on this nun.  She had an answer for each point I made against idol-worship. 

In the end it boils down to this: the Bible is God’s Word.  Through the Bible God tells us not just that he is to be worshipped but how he is to be worshipped; hence the detailed instructions about building the tabernacle.  One very clear instruction is that the Living God absolutely forbids the making of images of him.  That is what is revealed to us. 

There are all sorts of good arguments why we should ignore this commandment.  We are visual creatures and a visible god would be so helpful.  It would give us something to focus on, something to look at when we are praying.  We are all different, and therefore we could express our different ideas about god with our different images—all of which would, in their own way, be true, though none, on its own, the complete truth.

The bottom line, however, is this: the God who reveals himself through the Bible does not want to be worshipped this way and we need to accommodate ourselves to that commandment.