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Exiled Preacher

Displaced fragments: theology, ministry, interviews and reviews

Updated: 2018-02-14T22:55:51.044+00:00


Blogging in the Name of the Lord: Jim Sayers


GD: Hello Jim Sayers, and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.JDS: I live in Abingdon with my wife Helen and our son Josh (who is now 2” taller than me at 6’4”). Laura is a relay worker in Glasgow and Meg is studying costume construction in London. Helen is a teaching assistant and I have been Communications Director for Grace Baptist Mission for nearly 9 years, following 16 years in pastoral ministry. GD: You blog at What made you start blogging?JDS: Hard to remember exactly. When I had a sabbatical in 2007 I had run a short, rather bland travel blog so my flock knew what their pastor was doing on sabbatical – churches I has visited, books I’d finally finished. That came off the web when I left for GBM in 09. I watched a few friends start their own blogs, but was busy doing an M.Th with Edinburgh Theological Seminary on the biblical theology of nationhood. Coming to the end of the writing process, I found we were in the middle of a minor referendum, so I decided to blog some of the key ideas about nationhood. This caused lift-off with about 500 hits the night before the Brexit vote – a feat not repeated since! Since then I’ve tried to make the blog live up to its billing, by looking at a wider range of issues related to mission, nations, culture and worship. When my work takes me to another country, it helps to write about the culture I visit. Then there are cultural moments to reflect on, books to review that fit the theme, and the occasional ‘seven things I’d like to….’ kind of posts that spill out too easily. I think it’s better to post thoughtfully and well on what you know well, rather than expose everything you think in some regular daily diatribe.  GD: Which blogs do you enjoy reading and why?JDS: I love Eddie Arthur’s – short, pithy and well read – the place to start in world mission blogging. Chris Green’s MinistryNuts and Bolts is always good value on the skills of pastoral ministry. Stephen Kneale’s Building Jerusalem is consistently good. John Steven’s DissentingOpinions is provocative, and as a minor law graduate I love the posts that draw on his legal background. (John does seem to get an FIEC connection out of everything from Rolf Harris to eternal subordination!) No one blogs better than David Robertson’s The Wee Flea, which because I studied with the Free Church years ago is specially good for connecting with the Scottish scene. And of course there is an exiled preacher from Wales who likes his rugby! GD: You're too kind. What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for reflection on theological and ministry matters?JDS: It is good to be able to get your thoughts into something shorter than a sermon or the chapter of a book. I learnt to write by reading the editorials of Prof. Donald Macleod in the Free Church Monthly Record – so pithy, with short, punchy sentences full of passion and wit. He used his commas sparingly. He preferred the full stop. He connected theology with politics to great effect. When I was a pastor in Kesgrave, I had a column in the local community magazine where I had a 750 word limit to write an apologetics piece. I thrived on it. You learn the discipline of thinking your way into your audience’s mind, and working out what they will make of your obsessions and convictions. So blogging is a good discipline for we preachers who are wont to go on a bit. Its weakness is vanity – the expectation that the world’s public need to read my meagre offerings. After 2 hours graft at my imagined brilliance, the stats page tells me that six people bothered to read it. The blogosphere is big these days, so don’t imagine you can gain a wide audience. Keep a sense of perspective.  GD: Do you use other forms of social media, and why/what for?JDS: I was on Twitter first, which is a great place for keeping up with ministry friends. I went on Facebook last August just to keep up with a few friends. I’ve decided that Twitter is like th[...]

Free Speech


Freedom of speech is of fundamental importance in a democratic society. There can be no true liberty where citizens are not free to speak their minds. As the film Darkest Hour bears eloquent testimony, the thing that drove Churchill as wartime Prime Minister was his determination to safeguard the freedom of the British people. That is what roused him to stand up to Nazi tyranny at all costs, while others were flirting with appeasement. One of the first freedoms to fall when tyranny takes hold is free speech. Tyrants don’t welcome public criticism. They are threatened by the free exchange of ideas that may call into question their state-sanctioned dogmas. Free speech is under threat today because people think they have the right not to hear things with which they disagree, or may find offensive. We are in danger of falling prey to the tyranny of fashionable opinion. University students demand ‘safe spaces’ where their opinions won’t be challenged. They require ‘trigger warnings’ should their lecturers touch on controversial subjects. Look at what happened just recently when Jacob Rees-Mogg was invited to speak at the University of the West of England in Bristol. Whether or not we agree with his views, surely he had a right to express them without being shouted down, or pushed around. Winston Churchill once commented, “Everyone is in favour of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.”Freedom of religion goes hand in hand with freedom of speech. No one has the right to impose their beliefs on others. Faith must not be used as a pretext for inciting hatred or violence. But the freedom to practice and proclaim one’s faith in the public square must be upheld. Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman is to be commended for standing up to Islamic extremism in English schools, but she struck a worrying note when she equated "the most conservative voices in a particular faith" [Christianity included] with "ideologies that close minds or narrow opportunity". It is possible to be a theologically conservative Christian and hold socially conservative views, while believing that schoolchildren should study a broad and enriching curriculum that will lead to opportunity for all. There is a danger that Ms. Spielman's 'muscular liberalism' could prove almost as close-mindedly intolerant  and opportunity narrowing as the extremism against which she has rightly taken a stand. I mean, are not, 'individual liberty' and 'mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs' meant to be Fundamental British Values? Maybe 'different faiths' has been redefined as 'different liberal versions of faith'. If so, religious freedom is under threat, and with it, freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is allied to the search for truth. Having our views challenged helps us come to a better understanding of things. According to the Christian faith human beings are truth-seekers because we are made in the image of the God of truth. We may seek him and find him because God has made himself known to us in Jesus Christ. As Jesus said, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”[...]

Darkest Hour


"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."May 1940 did indeed seem like the darkest hour for good old Blighty. Hitler's divisions were smashing their way though Europe. The British Expeditionary Force had been pushed back to the sea. The USA was in 'America First' isolationist mood. Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was in a weak position, having failed to garner the the support that was needed from all sides of the House of Commons. There was one thing for it. Britain's political leaders were edging towards negotiating peace terms with the Führer. The only man Clement Attlee's Labour Party would unite behind in that time of crisis was Winston Churchill. He was disliked and distrusted by his fellow Tories. His record as a war time politician was chequered to say the least. His brainchild, the Dardanelles campaign was one of the great British military disasters of WWI.  But he was the man for the Darkest Hour. Churchill's first speech to the Commons set the tone. There would be no more talk of appeasement,You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. 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, for without victory there is no survival.The Tory grandees were appalled. But Churchill was right. Appeasement would mean surrender and surrender would mean submitting Great Britain and her Empire to Nazi tyranny. The film is a study in leadership though speech. By his words Churchill intended to rouse the British people to show a courage that that did not yet know they possessed. The episode showing Churchill on the District Line chatting to commuters was fictional, but it stood for the way in which the war leader was inspired by the indomitably of his fellow Brits, just as much has he inspired them to fight to the end.  A prosthetically enhanced Gary Oldman brilliantly captures the many facets of Churchill's personality. He could charm, he could bully, he was a great wit, he was dogged by depression. Oldman's Churchill adopts the tone of a suppliant when begging Rooesvelt for  American military aid. In the Commons he was master of all he surveyed. Lilly James plays Elizabeth Layton, the Prime Minister's long-suffering secretary. He reduces the poor woman to tears on their first encounter, earning Winston a rebuke from his formidable wife, Clementine, a fine turn by Kistin Scott Thomas. The focus on Layton's work with Churchill shows the tremendous effort he put into his speeches. Clemmie was ever a source of strength for her husband and a provided him with a  refuge from the tensions of leading the country in the desperate days of spring 1940.The film may use a little bit of dramatic licence here and there. It is a drama after all and not a documentary. Churchill by Roy Jenkins is a good place to start for a more factually accurate account. Come early summer, Churchill's political position was still uncertain. Tory grandees such as Lord Halifax and others wanted rid of him. They were still bent on pursuing a policy of appeasement. Churchill's speech on 4 June 1940 put paid to that,Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields[...]

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper


Vintage, 2017, 577pp"Never meet your heroes" says the old adage. The Martin Luther we 'meet' through the pages of Lyndal Roper's biography is not the heroic figure of popular Protestant folklore. At least, while he was capable of great heroism, Dr. Luther could also be something of a villain. At the heart of the Reformer's teaching was the idea that the believer is at one and the same time 'justified and yet a sinner'. Luther  was certainly both right with God and terribly wrong in many ways. As are we all.His was not a 'theology of glory' based on human effort to merit God's favour, but a 'theology of the cross' that looked to God alone in Christ for salvation. This was Luther's decisive breakthrough. He came to understand that the 'righteousness of God' by which the 'just shall live by faith' (Romans 1:16-17) is not the righteousness that God is, or demands of us, but the gift of saving righteousness received by faith in Christ. This shaped Luther's reading of the Bible and informed his critique of the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. If we are justified by faith, we have no need of popes, the priestly sacrifice of the Mass, indulgences, and so on.  Germans seem to have a knack of coming up with a single phrase that says what it would take several words to express in another language. Schadenfreude is one - a malicious glee in the suffering of others. Luther's 'say a lot of stuff in one word' thing was, Anfechtungen. It could mean a sense of terror the sinner experiences in the presence of a holy God, or the trials the believer suffers in this life. The devil may be the immediate cause of many Anfechtungen, but behind the devil is God putting his servants to the test. Let's just say Luther was not an early advocate of prosperity theology. Lyndal Roper sets Luther life against the backdrop of his times. She provides a richly detailed picture of the commercial, religious, academic, political and cultural aspects Luther's Germany. There's a wealth of information here. Roper draws on the Freudian Oedipus complex theory as key to understanding Luther's personality. According to the Greek tragic tale, poor old Oedipus unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. On discovering his monstrous error he then poked his own eyes out. Roper detects Oedipal tendencies in Luther's rejection of his father's plan that he should become a lawyer, when he jacked in his legal training to become a monk. But I wonder whether that course of action had more to do with Luther's sense of himself as a sinner before a just God. It was the thunderstorm event that drew out of him the vow, 'Help me St Anne and I will become a monk'. It was only when Luther discovered justification by faith that he understood that the just God is also a gracious Father. In the film Darkest Hour, Clemmie encourages Winston to 'just be yourself' when he accepted the role of Prime Minister. Churchill responded, 'Which self shall I be today?' For he was a multi-faceted man. Something similar could be said of Luther. You could almost say there were three of him. The God-terrified monk, the bold 'Here I stand' Reformer of the Diet of Worms, and the somewhat grouchy and paranoid Luther of  his mature years. We sympathise with Luther I, admire Luther II, but find Luther III a bit more difficult to like. Luther III is a complex figure. He could be imperious in asserting his leadership of the German Reformation and a temporiser, slowing the pace of reform to keep the Elector of Saxony on side. He could be welcoming and magnanimous, a warm friend, and excluding and vengeful, an implacable enemy. Luther in turns coddled and bullied Philip Melanchthon. They remained 'best friends for ever'. He fell out catastrophically with Andreas Karlstadt, goaded him into making his private criticisms public, and then treated him as the worst of foes. I would have liked to have seen more attention given to Lu[...]



It's a tell. When a Western opens with a homestead mom teaching her sweet children about adjectives, you know something bad is about to happen. It does, in the form of a Comanche raiding party. Only the wife and mother Rosalie, played by Rosamund Pike survives. Brutal. That's hostiles for you. No wonder US Cavalry Captain Joseph P. Blocker (Christian Bale doing gruff) hates them. Indians are like ants he says, no matter how many you lock up or kill, they just keep coming. No wonder he isn't too pleased at being made to conduct his old enemy, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and family back to Montana so the Chief can die in peace. Turns out that Blocker has done some pretty savage things in the past. As has his old comrade in arms, Master Sergeant Thomas Metz. Both were involved in the genocidal Indian wars. Gave as good (or bad) as they got. Around the campfire on an early stage of the journey a soldier sings Guide me O thou great Jehovah, making the trek to Yellow Hawk's homeland a kind of pilgrimage; a journey of faith.The embittered Blocker and his party encounter the grief-stricken Rosalie. The battle hardened Captain treats her with great dignity and respect. Same with Yellow Hawk's family. As they brave repeated Comanche attacks, a grudging respect develops between Blocker and Yellow Hawk. The film doesn't demonise the Cavalryman or romanticise the Indian Chief. Both were capable of barbarity and bravery, depravity and decency. The problem isn't race, but broken humanity. Fresh from officer training, Lieutenant Rudy Kidder talks about seeing his first action with PTSD-addled Metz. The Master Sergeant assures him that after a while you cease to feel anything when taking a life. 'That's what I'm worried about.' Kidder responds. But in reality Metz is crippled by guilt. At one point he offers Yellow Hawk some tobacco as a peace offering and asks to be forgiven for what he did to Native Americans. Metz longs for mercy, but despairs of finding it. At one point Rosalie sees Blocker reading a Bible and asks whether he believes in the Lord. The Captain says he does and indicates trust that Providence is watching over them. The traumatised widow confesses that were it not for her faith she couldn't have coped with what happened at the homestead. But there a no easy answers and Rosalie admits she'll never get used to 'the Lord's rough ways'.Blocker finds redemption in fulfilling his mission. Yellow Hawk is laid to rest in Montana, but the pilgrimage is costly. Hostiles holds up a mirror to the grime and grandeur of humanity. It's a sometimes harsh reminder that, 'All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God' (Romans 3:23). While Blocker is exposed as a racist at the start of the film, it's a profoundly anti-racist movie. The closing scene hints at the possibility of love and racial harmony in a hostile world. The film is beautifully shot and well acted. We managed to catch it in Bristol on the way home from dropping our son off at Nottingham for Uni after the Christmas break. Wasn't showing more locally. Given man's race-fueled inhumanity to man, mercy and forgiveness are hard to find, but poor old Metz need not have given up hope, 0 all-embracing Mercy,0 ever-open Door,What should we do without TheeWhen heart and eye run o'er?When all things seem against us,To drive us to despair,We know one gate is open,One ear will hear our prayer.[Oswald Allen, 1861][...]

Blogging in the name of the Lord: Adrian Reynolds #2


GD: Hello Adrian Reynolds, and welcome to back Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself. AR: I’m married to Celia (27 years) with three daughters, two of whom are married. Been in full time ministry 18 years after a career in business. I love books, cycling and music. GD: You contribute to the FIEC blog: and have run a number of blogs in the past. What made you start blogging?AR: Originally it was a way of keeping in touch regularly with church members who needed daily help. I find collecting and organising my thoughts helpful and so it serves others - I hope - as well as being useful for myself. GD: Which blogs do you enjoy reading and why?AR: I think my favourite by some distance is The Babylon Bee which hits the mark almost every time. I have 30 or so blogs in my reader but I’m more likely to click through on a few trusted curators. GD: What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for reflection on theological and ministry matters?AR: It’s a pretty well-rehearsed question. The medium doesn’t really engender a nuanced debate. Nor do I find it useful for ‘thinking aloud’: I belong to a couple of closed groups for that. But it does help to stimulate my mind. GD: Do you use other forms of social media, and why/what for?AR: I tweet and use Facebook but only for work purposes not family/home. It’s a very efficient way of achieving low level maintenance on friendships and connections. GD: What are some of the advantages for independent churches of belonging to a group such as the Fellowshipof Independent Evangelical Churches? AR: I think it’s primarily sharing a national vision. We are pretty good as Independents thinking about our locality and even world mission but weaker when it comes to the national scene. Our strength as Independents is working together to achieve this. GD: How does the FIEC seek to engage with the wider Christian world, while holding a strong line on ecumenism? AR: The FIEC staff are engaged on all different levels with a number of people. It’s key because the gospel need is so great and it’s too urgent to put all our resources in one place. We do much of this through Affinity but also through personal friendships that we intentionally cultivate. GD: What does being training director the FIEC involve?AR: In broad terms it’s helping churches think about training (in its broadest sense) and representing churches to training providers to make sure we get the inputs we need. I guess this is being a catalyst on the one hand and being a representative on the other. GD: How can smaller churches benefit from the FIEC’s training initiatives? AR: Indirectly smaller churches are often pastored by those who have come through some of our larger churches. More directly we have a Training Fund which has given more than £1.2m in training grants and much of this has gone to smaller places or hard to reach places. GD: Tell us how you felt called to pastoral ministry:AR: See my previous set of questions! [See here for a 'forgotten' previous interview]. Nothing has changed. God graciously placed a burden on both my wife and I almost simultaneously. GD: Where did you train for the ministry and what did you find especially helpful about your training?AR: It was a mix of formal and informal. Most useful and formative was sitting at the feet of my Gamaliel for several years (a retired pastor called Eric Lane). Formally I did the Cornhill Training Course and a Cert.Th. by distance. Plus I read a lot. GD: Who has had the greatest influence on your theological development?AR: Almost certainly Eric. He gave me a desire to always be questioning and willing to change my position if it was warranted. He was still doing this in his eighties. GD: You have written a short book entitled, Progress: Lifelong growth for gospel workers.Why do pastors sometimes stagnate and what key things should they be doing to hel[...]

Blogging in the Name of the Lord: Stephen Kneale


GD: Hello Stephen Kneale, and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.SK: Hello! My friends call me Steve (some very close friends and family run with Stevie) I prefer being called Steve but hate it in conjunction with my surname, hence Stephen Kneale. Err... anyway that’s my name (hope you’ve made room for this). I was born in Oxford, began my schooling in Birkenhead, finished my secondary education in W. Berks, did my undergrad degree in History & Politics 10 years ago at Liverpool, where I also met my wife Rachel. From there, I took a Religious Studies & Philosophy PGCE  and had a very brief career as a secondary school teacher in Newbury. After a hefty bout of depression, I left teaching and completed an MA in Theology (I had intended to do it with the Artist formerly known as WEST, but their distance programme wasn’t suitable for me at the time). At this point, we were in Shrewsbury due to my wife’s work. From there, we followed my wife’s work again to Manchester where I became a self-employed researcher serving the recruitment sector and serving with a church in Moss Side. From there, I was called to be the pastor at Oldham Bethel Church around 3 ½ years ago. Since then, you asked me to do this a few hours ago, marking the zenith of both my theological development and overall growth as a person.GD: It doesn't get munch better than this. You blog at What made you start blogging?SK: My blog began as a primarily political blog with a bit of theological comment thrown in. It has morphed somewhat since then, moving from Blogger to Wordpress and undergoing a couple of rebrands before landing on the form it takes today.I began for a variety of reasons. I spent the early part of my university years shouting at people for not being political enough and, in a brief flirtation, knocking around with the SWP. Blogging seemed like a more efficient way to shout at a wider range of people. It became apparent that some of the radical SWP views didn’t quite square with the radical Socialism with a Christian bent I tended toward. As I began writing, much of the material was drawn from whatever I was studying or reading infused with a theological twist and a soupcon of my own thoughts. It soon became less a tool to shout my rightness at people and more a means of formulating my own views on a given subject and starting a discussion. As it morphed into more theological and social comment, I found it helpful in forming my own views or pushing against things that struck me as sub-optimal in the Christian world, as I perceived them. It has also proved to be a making our little corner of the UK, and our unique challenges, a little wider known.GD: Which blogs do you enjoy reading and why?SK: You can hardly be reformed and not read Tim Challies blog. Funnily enough, I have valued his a la carte feature as much as anything as it has led me to several blogs I would never have read otherwise.David Robertson at The Wee Flea is always good value. He is so insightful and absolutely excellent on the pressing social issues of the day. Then I have valued several smaller blogs of folk working in similar areas to us. Duncan Forbes at Council EstateChristianity has much to say as does Dave Williams at Mez McConnell is normally churning out something interesting at the 20Schemes blog too.GD: What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for reflection on theological and ministry matters?SK: At its best, blogging can bring real clarity to an issue. More usually, it is helpful in starting a discussion and process of thinking. Occasionally, it descends into arguments because one cannot say in everything 1000 words (particular if someone has a particular something in mind that you chose not to say!)I have found blogging valuable in offering a quick response, or a basic ou[...]



Want to know more about the Christian faith? We may have just the thing for you. We are holding All Age Services on the first Sunday of each month. They are especially for people who want to explore what following Jesus might mean for them. The meetings will include prayer, the singing of hymns and a simple message exploring an aspect of Christian teaching from the Bible. Our aim is to make these services as accessible as possible for children and adults alike. You won’t need to be a regular church goer to get something out of them. Light refreshments will be served following the meeting.

It has been said that the Christian faith is a pool in which elephants can swim and children can paddle. Adopting an attitude of faith seeking understanding, some of the greatest minds in history have failed to plumb the depths of what God says about himself in the Bible. Our finite human minds cannot fully comprehend the infinite God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet the essential message of Christianity is simple and straightforward.

It’s all about Jesus and us. Jesus is the one through whom we were made who became one of us. He died on the cross for our sins and rose again from the dead to bring us back to God. The church exists to tell people about Jesus and to equip those who believe in him to follow the Lord in their daily lives.

The next All Age ‘Explore’ Service will be on 7 January, 10.30am at Providence Baptist Chapel. We hope it will be a great way to start the New Year. None of us knows what 2018 is going to bring, but God does and he is able to help and guide us as we entrust our lives to him. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for peace and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11). 

2018 Reading List


I had John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of Defeat by Crawford Gribben for Christmas. I've been looking forward to this ever since it came out in 2016, but was waiting for the considerably cheaper paperback edition. Michael Horton's The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way is my current 'big read'. I'm about half way through and am enjoying Horton's treatment of major Christian doctrines. He interacts well with contemporary concerns and employs a theodramatic approach. I bought Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline of Evangelical Ethics by Oliver O'Donovan at an Affinity Theological Studies Conference some years ago, but haven't yet got round to reading it. I must dust it off this year. I'm a school governor and like to try and keep abreast of what's happening in the world of education. Much Promise: Successful Schools in England by Barnaby Lenon  offers a survey of the evidence on what makes for successful teachers, pupils, governors, etc.  Last summer I read Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, a thought-provoking dystopian novel. I plan to pack, The Buried Giant for this year's summer hols. Nigel Biggar has been at the centre of an academic spat over the ethics of the British Empire, which has piqued my interest in his Between Kin and Cosmopolis: An Ethic of the Nation. There will probably be more, but this is enough for starters.[...]

Star Wars: The Last Jedi


Just saw this. We watched Paddington 2 the other week. Missed Paddington 1 because we thought it was just for kids. But so many grown-ups raved about it that we succumbed. Watched the first film on telly and then headed to the cinema for the follow-up. Really enjoyed both. Hugh Grant was a superior villain in the sequel, which made for a better film. Very funny. 

I guess adults watching kids films based on childhood TV characters is all about nostalgia. The Star Wars reboot is an attempt to tug on that same sentiment. The 'story so far' bit told by the bold yellow lettering that slowly recedes into the distance transported me back to when I watched the original films back in the 1970's. In a galaxy far, far away. Well, the Odeon, Newport. Or was it the ABC? Can't remember. Was a time long ago.

I enjoyed The Force Awakens and thought this one was pretty good too, building momentum towards the inevitable clash between Jedi-girl Riley and Darth Vader #2, Ren in the next episode. It's visually pretty sunning. The fight sequences are nicely realised. Riley, Ren and Finn are developing as characters, but don't seem to have the same charisma as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Darth Vader.

What the Rebel Alliance really needs to defeat the evil First Order is not a lightsaber-wielding Jedi, but Paddington bear. Think of what he did to that bunch of prison inmates. Even the hard bitten cook. Had him making cup cakes. If only Paddington could get Ren to sit down and share a marmalade sandwich, he would soon be lured from the Dark Side. Failing that, a hard stare should do it. 

More seriously, the theme of self-sacrificing love in The Last Jedi hints at the true way dark forces have been defeated, 1 John 3:8. 

Christmas Special: David Sky vs Martin Luther


'Here I stand! Here I stand!' I had a Playmobil Martin Luther for my birthday in August. He's kind of cute with his little feather and tiny German Bible. But Luther been playing havoc with delicate balance of my study's ecosystem. He and David Sky don't get on for starters. My pet monkey was removed from being chair of governors at his daughter's primary school. The other board members got fed up with being zapped by Robo-Clerk. That and the school being rated totally and utterly inadequate by Ofsted. Robo-Clerk had a battery failure on the day the inspectors visited and it was evident that Sky didn't actually know anything about the school. He thought Pupil Premium was a superior kind of tea for kids. 'Just guessing.' he said. 'But what about the gaps?'  the inspectors persisted. 'Gaps? We prefer to call them perforations in the trade.' Sky explained, helpfully.The school is going to have to join a MAT. One that doesn't allow monkeys to act as chair of governors, and where Robo-Clerks are banned. A story on the debacle featured in one of the National Governance Association's Friday newsletters. Top item. The monkey was so chuffed.Anyway, Sky now has some time on his hands and likes to hang around my study. Just like the old days. Apart from the presence of Martin Luther. 'Here I stand! Here I stand!' he keeps exclaiming and then goes around standing on stuff. Even David Sky's head. 'What do you think I am, the diet of Worms?' the monkey complains. Then Luther tickles Sky with his feather, which he really hates. Cue big row.It's getting a bit much, really.What's especially awkward is that I'm currently reading Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lindal Roper. It's a bit 'warts and all' and little Luther has been reading it. Makes him really mad, 'But I was right! I was right! Here I stand! Here I stand! Karlstadt was my enemy. He took the bent coin. He took it! And I do not have an Oedipus complex!' Sky chips in, 'Oh give over. Calvin was a better Reformer than you. Everyone knows that. Much more biblical. Why were you so mean to poor Karlstadt? And who's Oedipus Complex exactly, when he's at home?'You can imagine what it's like with those two arguing. Once Sky offered Luther a nice cup of tea as a peace offering. 'Nein. Get me Wittenberg beer.' was the reply. Cue another big row. 'Bad case of 'Founder's Syndrome', you, mate.' opined Sky. 'I looked it up on Wikipedia. Suits you  to a T': Founder's syndrome (also founderitis) is a popular term for a difficulty faced by organizations where one or more founders maintain disproportionate power and influence following the effective initial establishment of the project, leading to a wide range of problems for the organization.The passion and charisma of the founder(s), sources of the initial creativity and productivity of the organization, become limiting or destructive factors.'Ring any bells, Marty?' 'Look', Luther shot back, 'I'm the most popular Playmobil figure in the world. Over 1 million of me sold. I was the first Reformer. 95  Theses. Diet of Worms. Here I stand! Here stand!''95 Theses, eh?' replied Sky. I read somewhere that rather nailing them to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church with an actual hammer and nails, you used glue. Glue. Afraid of hurting your poor little thumb? Blu Tack, was it? Pritt Stick, perhaps?  Like a little kid. Anyway, you're only a toy, not the real Martin Luther. And don't go all Buzz Lightyear, thinking you're real. You're not, OK?''Has serious academic Lyndal Roper written a biog of you, monkey boy?' asked Luther. 'Have they made a film of your life with Mike Reeves doing the voice-over in his best interesting voice for children? And if I'm not real, you're not.'Sky: 'If I'm not real, w[...]

After Darkness Light


December is the darkest month. 21 December is the shortest day of the year, with only 7 hours, 49 minutes and 44 seconds of daylight. But it is also the brightest month of the year when High Streets and houses are lit up with a dazzling array of Christmas lights. 
The association of darkness and light is appropriate for the message of Christmas that Christians celebrate at this time of year. Of Jesus it is written “the light shines in the darkness”. 
It is true that the world can sometimes seem a dark place, what with conflicts, natural disasters and personal tragedies. We hope that there will be light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel can sometimes seem very long and very dark. 
In his account of the Christmas Story Luke tells of shepherds watching over their flocks by night. Suddenly an angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord around them. Some Christmas lights! Not even the grandest High Street illuminations could beat that. 
The angel had been sent with news that would light up the shepherds’ lives, ‘Today in the City of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Christ, the Lord.’ The shepherds hurried to see the sight. That very night they saw a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a lowly manger. That baby was none other than Jesus, the light of the world. He came to, 
shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace. 
Jesus took on the darkness of sin and death by dying on the Cross for our sins.  He rose again from the dead, the ultimate triumph of light over darkness. The Lord Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ Are you following the light of the world?

Westminster Conference 2017 Report


Stephen ClarkWhen I was at the London Seminary many moons ago, students used to refer to the Westminster Conference as Back to the Future because attending was a bit like travelling back in time. Without the aid of a DeLorean. We were young and foolish then and didn't perhaps appreciate the value of what might be learned from the past. We tend to think that how we see things now is 'it', while years ago peoples' views were historically and culturally conditioned. The fact is, we're just as culturally situated today as people were years ago, but just in different ways that we don't always appreciate. Also, we can get into thinking that how we understand things now is inevitably better and more enlightened than in the past. 'This is the 21st century, you know'. You'd have hoped that in some ways, having benefited from the breakthroughs of yesteryear, that we would have more light than our forefathers. At least that is how it ought to be. But if we see further it is only because we stand on the shoulders of theological giants such as Tertullian, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Bavinck, and so on. It needs to be said that progress in understanding and isn't always a case of 'onwards and upwards'. Important gains can be lost, vital insights forgotten that then need to be re-appropriated. If we lack an awareness of the Great Tradition of church history, the danger is that we will read the Bible simply in the light of our own personal limits of knowledge and experience. We can then be blinkered to some of the things that God is showing us in Holy Scripture because they fail to resonate with where we are. That can especially be the case in the realm of spiritual experience and communion with God. We only see in the Bible the what we have thus far experienced ourselves, rather than allowing Holy Scripture be the measure of our experience of God. That fact is that Reformed Evangelicalism in the UK isn't exactly in the throes of a mighty revival at the moment. We may view expressions of our forefathers like, the 'felt presence of God', or 'full assurance of faith', or a 'plentiful outpouring of the Spirit' as rather quaint, or weirdly mystical. But perhaps they knew something in their communion with God that is more rare today. That is what made them better able to expound upon what it means to experience the 'joy unspeakable and full of glory' of which the Bible speaks. In his paper on 'The Holy Spirit and the Human Heart' Stephen Clark drew upon the wisdom of the past to show that in the Reformed tradition the Holy Spirit is said to work 'in, by and with the Word' in regenerating and sanctifying the heart. As a sovereign, divine Person, the Spirit is not so bound to the Word that Scripture read and preached always has the same unvarying effect upon its hearers. The Spirit's work may be more or less intensified and dramatic in its effects. It is therefore both legitimate and necessary to pray for more of his empowering presence. I spoke on Thomas Goodwin's work, A Child of Light Walking in Darkness: Knowing, Losing and Recovering a Felt Sense of the Presence of God. John Owen urged his readers to pursue a deeper experience of God, “If there are no such things, the gospel is not true; if there are, if we press not after them, we are despisers of the gospel. Surely he hath not the Spirit who would not have more of him, all of him that is promised by Christ.” Goodwin would have us, "Sue this promise out" that "Holy Ghost [may] come and fill up your hearts with joy unspeakable and glorious, to seal you up to the day of redemption." Andrew Young gave a paper on 'Calvin - Worship and Preaching', setting before us the Reformer's high view of the worship of th[...]

Westminster Conference 2017


I'll be off to the Westminster Conference bright and early tomorrow morning. Early anyway.

I'm due to give a paper on A Child of Light Walking in Darkness: The Felt Presence of God. The Child of Light... bit in the title refers to a work by the Puritan Thomas Goodwin. It's essentially a series of sermons on Isaiah 50:10, with some extra 'box set' material thrown in for good measure.

My brief is to reflect on what Goodwin has to say on knowing, losing and then recovering a felt sense of God's presence and favour. Also interacting with the views of Goodwin's old pal, John Owen.

Getting hold of Owen's stuff is easy enough. Banner of Truth published his 16 Volume Works decades ago and they are still in print today. I purchased my set when a student at the London Seminary (1988-90).

Goodwin ain't so easy to obtain. Banner has only published Volume 8 of his Works. Odd titles are available as e-books, but not A Child of Light Walking in Darkness. Only realised that after I'd agreed to speak at the conference. Something of a problem. 

Handily, my old church history lecturer at the seminary, Robert Oliver lives nearby.  He is also a member of our local Ministers' Fraternal. Robert kindly lent me Volume 3 of Goodwin's Works, which includes A Child of Light...

Goodwin's piece isn't too long. Owen on Psalm 130 takes up most of Volume 6 of his Works. Took a while to wade through. But, as ever with Owen, was worth the effort. 

I was a bit unwell towards the end of September and into October, which slowed me down when it came to writing up the paper, but I got there in the end. 

I'm looking forward to hearing the other speakers (see here for the programme) and also to meeting up with some old friends at the conference. 

Seven Leaders: Preachers and Pastors by Iain H. Murray


Banner of Truth Trust, 2017, 279pp The author wrote this book out of the conviction that lessons of abiding importance may be learned from godly and able preachers and pastors across the ages. It will be of interest to men aspiring to pastoral ministry, or who are just setting out in that work. Here they will find role models to follow whose example will both challenge and encourage them. More seasoned pastors will also find help here. If we are not careful it is easy to drift into going through the motions of ministry, rather than our work being the overflow of deep communion with God. These pages will provide a necessary corrective. Those not called to preach or pastor will none the less find their souls stirred by Murray’s accounts of seven exceptional Ministers of the Gospel.Attention is given to seven men: John Elias, Andrew A. Bonar, Archie Brown, Kenneth A MacRae, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, W. J. Grier and John MacArthur. Murray does not so much give us potted biographies of these varied characters, as attempt to show what made them tick. These are very different men, called to serve the Lord at different times and in different situations. Some had more academic training than others. All were wonderfully used by the Lord to accomplish great things for him. While certainly not like peas in a pod, these ‘Magnificent Seven’ Ministers had a number of things in common that helps account for their usefulness. They were all strongly Calvinistic in their doctrinal emphasis, some at times when the Reformed faith seemed to be going out of fashion. They maintained their stand for the sovereign grace of God because they were convinced that the great truths commonly labelled ‘Calvinism’ were in fact nothing less than biblical Christianity.The importance of prayer and communion with God in ministry is highlighted in the chapter on Andrew A. Bonar. The thoughtful reader will be humbled, challenged and made to yearn for a deeper walk with God through Bonar’s example. A missing note in some Evangelical circles today is the need for the empowering presence of the Spirit in preaching. The preachers described here were men of the Word, yet they also longed and prayed for the Spirit’s work upon their preaching and in the lives of their hearers. He alone is able to give the Word preached its life-transforming effectiveness.  All were evangelistic preachers, in that they intentionally addressed their messages to the unconverted, aiming at their salvation. In addition, Murray shows that these gifted preachers worked hard to make their content-rich sermons as clear, logical and easy to follow as possible. Helpful instances are given as to how they did just that, especially in the chapters on Lloyd-Jones and MacRae. Martin Luther once wrote, “It is not by reading, writing, or speculation that one becomes a theologian. Nay, rather, it is living, dying, and being damned that makes one a theologian.” The same may be said of pastors and Murray describes how the Lord made these men tender hearted shepherds of the flock by bringing suffering and trials into their lives, This is especially brought out in the chapter on C. H. Spurgeon’s friend and contemporary, Archie Brown. Some chapters are stronger than others. Elias, Bonar, Brown and Lloyd-Jones are highlights. I'd barely heard of MacRae, but enjoyed Murray's pen portrait of the Isle of Lewis pastor. I found the one on W.J Grier a little hard going. The MacArthur chapter was good on preaching and Scripture. The book as a whole is a standing reminder of one vital fact, “what a preacher is as a Christian is of greater consequence than his natural gifts. In the words of M[...]

Too young to die? by Andrew Stone


Day One Publications, 2017, 125pp I can't really attempt to review this book, as it's difficult to be objective about the story of a family who are dear friends of ours and members of Providence Baptist Church, which I pastor. But I'm more than happy to recommend it. The book is based on emails Andrew Stone sent to friends and family give updates on his daughter, Hannah's health situation. She was delayed in going to study history at Bangor University, as acute kidney failure necessitated a transplant. Early in the second year of her studies Hannah was diagnosed as having a lymphoma tumor at the back of her nose. Chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy seemed not to have been effective in removing the tumor. The family were told to prepare for the worst. But God had other ideas.  It was a privilege to have been asked to contribute a brief foreword to the book. Reading it brought so many memories flooding back. Some of them painful, some of them joyful. The Lord has not promised to insulate his people from times of suffering and trial in this life. Knowing that in theory is one thing, experiencing the reality of intense suffering is another. This book gives us a glimpse of faith in the crucible of affliction, as the Stone family learned to trust in their God and Father in unimaginably difficult circumstances. Andrew’s emails reproduced here were written to keep family and friends informed of Hannah’s latest news in order to stimulate prayer and thanksgiving to God. As you will see, they are heartrendingly honest, full of gratitude to God, and above all expressive of the reality of the Christian hope in the face of suffering and death. Seeking to give pastoral support to the Stone family during the period of Hannah’s illness and recovery, I often found myself asking the question posed by Paul in connection with his ministry, “who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16). The apostle supplies the answer in following chapter, “our sufficiency is from God” (2 Corinthians 3:5). As these pages testify, Andrew, Susan and Hannah certainly proved that to be true in their own experience. All who trust in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ will find the same. This is an ideal book for believers facing times of suffering and trial. It is also a powerful and moving testimony to the grace of God to place into the hands of non-Christians.  May it be widely used by the Lord for his glory. [...]

The Value of a Soul


O teach me what it meaneth:  That Cross uplifted high,With One, the Man of Sorrows,  Condemned to bleed and die.O teach me what it cost Thee  To make a sinner whole;And teach me, Saviour, teach me  The value of a soul(Lucy Anne Bennett (1850-1927)Upon that cross of Jesus  Mine eye at times can seeThe very dying form of One,  Who suffered there for me;And from my smitten heart, with tears,  Two wonders I confess,The wonders of His glorious love,  And my own worthlessness.(Elizabeth Cecilia Clephane  (1830-1869)Two Victorian era hymnwriters. Two quite different valuations of the human soul. Lucy Anne Bennett wants Jesus to teach her the 'value of a soul'. While Elizabeth Cecilia Clephane confesses 'my own worthlessness'. Is that the 'value of a soul', worthless? Stephen Hawking has said as much. More or less, "The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies. We are so insignificant that I can't believe the whole universe exists for our benefit." But he's a self-confessed atheist for whom human beings are mere physical entities. Souls and their value don't come into it. We're "chemical scum". Period. But hang on a minute. While it is not the case that the whole universe exists for our benefit, the 'anthropic principle' is widely recognised. The universe is fine tuned for human life and is understandable, at least to some extent, to the human mind. That in itself tells us something about the unique status of mankind. Maybe we're not so scummy after all. The Christians faith has a high estimation of human beings. We are made in the image of God, who created us as 'living souls'. With that in mind Marilynne Robinson writes, "humankind is the true and appropriate object of [God's] love". She speaks of, "our ontological worthiness to be in a relationship with God" and says, "To properly value this pledge of fervent love, the Incarnation, we must try and see the world as deserving of it" (The Givenness of Things, p. 155, 272 & 201). Jesus asked, "what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Matthew 16:26). His words place a high value on human life. When placed in the balance, a single soul outweighs the whole world. To lose one's soul to gain the all the riches of the world is an eternally bad deal. We can go beyond that when we factor in the gospel. It is not the comparative value of the world that defines the worth of a soul, but that "the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20). In his classic work on the atonement, The Cross of Christ, John Stott devotes a chapter to Self -understanding and self-giving in the light of the Cross. In it the writer notes Dr. Hoekema's criticism of the words of Clephane's hymn cited at the top of this post,No, no, Dr. Hoekema objects. We cannot sing that. 'And my own unworthiness' would express the truth, but not 'my own worthlessness. Is it 'worthless' be a child of God, a member of Christ and an heir of heaven? So then, a vital part of our self-affirmation, which in reality is an affirmation of the grace of God our Creator and Redeemer, is what we have become in Christ. 'The ultimate basis of our positive self-image must be God's acceptance of us in Christ'. (The Cross of Christ, John Stott, IVP, 1986 p. 283-284).Stott's emphasis is subtly different to that of Robinson. While she speaks of the 'o[...]

The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson


Virago, 2015, 322pp Another holiday read. Over the last few years I have made my way though Robinson's Gilead trilogy; Gilead, Home and Lila. I have been entranced by the fictional world she has created, full of finely drawn, characterful characters. The novels are slow burners rather than racy page turners. They offer a thoughtful and compassionate account of the human condition. We are broken and flawed, yet we may hope for mercy and redemption. Robinson's fictional output is an extended meditation on the meaning of grace. Imagine what it would be like to have Marilynne Robinson expand on some of the theological themes pondered in her novels. You, know where old pastor friends, John Ames and William Boughton discuss predestination, or try and make sense of suffering and evil in God's world. We need imagine no more. For here, without the intermediary of her fictional characters, Robinson attempts to do just that.In a conversation with Barak Obama, a transcript of which appears at the end of the book, the author gives a matter of fact explanation for publishing these essays, "I give lectures at a fair rate, and when I have given enough of them to make a book, I make a book" (p. 289). Fair enough.It's obvious from her novels that the writer is deeply familiar with the thought of John Calvin. Here she avers, "I am a Calvinist...I really am a Calvinist" (p. 116). She loves Calvin's humanistic appreciation of the dignity of human beings and his admiration for man's dazzling achievements, 'the manifold agility of the soul, which enables it to take a survey of heaven and earth; to join the past and present; to retain the memory of things heard long ago; to conceive whatever it chooses by the help of imagination; its ingenuity also in the invention of such admirable arts'" (p. 26). Robinson deprecates reductionist accounts of human consciousness on the part of some Neuroscientists, for whom the "self" is an illusion created by electrons in the brain. As she points out, however, "If Shakespeare had undergone and MRI there is no reason to believe there would be any more evidence of extraordinary brilliance in him than there would be evidence of a self or soul" (p. 11). The old humanists were on the right track, who "took the works of the human mind - literature, music, philosophy, art, and languages - as proof of what the mind is and might be" (p, 11).This should not be taken to mean that Robinson is anti-science. Far from it. She returns again and again to the counter-intuitive world of quantum physics, where the normal rules that govern the physical universe seem to break down into randomness. Robinson sees this as in line with Jonathan Edwards's conception of, 'the arbitrary constitution of the Creator'. What she calls "the givenness of things" (p.84). Things are as they are because that is what they were given to be by God.  Science is the product of the human impulse to understand our world. And understand it we can, at least to some degree, which is a remarkable thing in itself. "Einstein said the the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible" (p. 154). That the human mind can comprehend the universe is testimony to the fact that God has created it and made us in his image that we may see his wisdom displayed in his mighty works. One of the impressive things about these essays is their range. Robinson is a true polymath. Chapters are devoted to the Reformation, the theme of Grace in the plays of Shakespeare, the idea of Servanthood in Protestant thought. There are essays on Metaph[...]

"Fetch down some knowledge from the clouds": the pedagogy of Isaac Watts


Isaac Watts 1674-1748Writing up a review of The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson I was reminded of what she had to say on Isaac Watts's contribution to pedagogy. In her chapter on the Reformation, she reflects on the educational impulse of Protestantism, "The bookishness of the Reformation might be said to have generalized itself to become an expectation of legibility in the whole of Creation." This bookish attitude was not at all elitist.  William Tyndale famously wished that a ploughboy might be as adept at reading Scripture as a priest. Robinson explains, "This sense that revelation, scriptural and natural, was essentially available to everyone, pervades Reformation thought" (p. 23).In line with this impulse Robinson points out that the Congregational Minister and hymnwriter Isaac Watts also authored a groundbreaking and influential work on pedagogy entitled, The Improvement of the Mind: A Supplement to the Art of Logic. Watts wanted education to be enjoyable as well as informative for children, drawing on their natural curiosity about the world. Robinson includes a quote from The Improvement of the Mind to illustrate his approach (p. 23-24), Fetch down some knowledge from the clouds, the stars, the sun, the moon, and the revolutions of all the planets. Dig and draw up some valuable meditations from the depths of the earth, and search them through the vast oceans of water. Extract some intellectual improvements from the minerals and metals, from the wonders of nature among the vegetables and herbs, trees and flowers. Learn some lessons from the birds, and the beasts, and the meanest insect. Read the wisdom of God, and his admirable contrivance in them all. Read his almighty power, his rich and various goodness, in all the works of his hands.As a Dissenter Watts was not permitted to study at Oxford or Cambridge. University was only for the communicant members of the Church of England. Nonconformists devised an alternative system of education, the Dissenting Academies. They were set up to to train men for pastoral ministry and provide a the sons of Nonconformist families with a standard of higher education to rival anything Oxbridge had to offer. Young Isaac's earliest education was at the hands of his father, also named Isaac. At six years of age Watts was sent to a Free School at Winkle Street, Southampton. He then headed to London to study at the Nonconformist Academy at Stoke Newington Green. His biographer comments, "Watts was in an educational tradition that has enriched the life of this country. The Dissenting Academies played an important role in the development of modern education." (Isaac Watts Remembered by David Fountain, 1978, Gospel Standard Baptist Trust, p. 76).Isaac Watts penned several works on pedagogy including a number of catechisms, a Discourse on the Education of Children, and The Improvement of the Mind Parts I & II. He championed learning in the medium of English alongside Latin, the traditional language of scholarship. The forward looking educationalist suggested the use of card games to teach grammar, astronomy and other subjects. But there were limits. The Congregationalist Minister was strongly opposed to students attending balls, gaming houses and the theatre. The ways of the world could be picked up more safely by reading the Spectator. In an age when strict, if not harsh, educational discipline was the norm (enough to make Michaela seem soft), Watts urged teachers to endeavour to win the hearts and minds of th[...]

God created all men equal


 “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal”, so says the American Declaration of Independence. Race riots in Charlottesville, USA have led to those words being quoted to call out the evil of white supremacy. President Trump’s seeming hesitancy in confronting racism has led to his judgement being called into question by leading lights in his own Republican party. The truth that the framers of the Declaration of Independence held to be ‘self-evident’ is based on the teaching of the Bible, “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:27). That is why people of whatever nation, race, or creed, whether they be male or female are to be treated with equal dignity and respect. Equality does not mean uniformity, but whatever differences there are between people, the fundamental principle of equality remains. An old song by my boyhood heroes, The Jam bears witness to this principle. In Man in the Corner Shopthey sang,Go to church do the people from the areaAll shapes and classes sit and pray togetherFor here they are all oneFor God created all men equalThe church is not confined to one nation, race or social class. Jesus sent his followers to make disciples of all peoples. The songs of heaven would make any racist decidedly uncomfortable. The saints in glory sing to Jesus,You are worthy For you were slain,And have redeemed us to God by your bloodOut of every tribe and tongue and people and nation(Revelation 5:9)The Bible teaches that all people are equal in three important ways: 1. All people are created equal. 2. All people are equally in need of salvation. 3. All people are equally welcome to receive Jesus as Saviour and Lord. * For Trinity parish magazine[...]



Saw this last Saturday. The film shows the Dunkirk evacuation from the perspectives of land 'The Mole', Sea and Air. Out of the hundreds of thousands involved, Nolan focuses attention on a handful of Tommies, a couple of RAF pilots and the escapades aboard a small civilian boat piloted by Mr Dawson, played by Mark Rylance. While the epic scale of the rescue is brought home we are not allowed to forget the personal heroism of the individuals involved. 

The film is visually stunning, loud, and immersive. The aerial balletics of  the dogfights between RAF Spitfires and their Luftwaffe opponents are especially gripping. The main roles are well acted, including the chap from One Direction, who plays a bit of a baddie. Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance give standout performances, adding emotional weight to the film. 

Talk about tension. So many rescue boats are bombed from the air or torpedoed that you begin to wonder whether anyone got home. Thankfully over 300,000 did. Those who returned to Blighty worried they would be labelled cowards, but Churchill's well judged, 'We will fight them on the beaches' speech set the tone. 

The providential rescue of the British Expeditionary Force was an important factor in the allies' eventual victory over Nazi Germany. No Dunkirk, no D-Day.

Dunkirk is a powerful reminder that rescue involves sacrifice. That was also true of 'The' event that shaped our world. 

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro


Faber and Faber, 2006 edition, 282pp This is the second of two books I read while on holiday in France. The first was The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson. More of that in another review post. Suffice to say that one of the main themes of Robinson's collection of essays is what it means to be human. In the first essay on Humanism, the author disagrees with the view of some Neuroscientists who conclude that the human "self" does not exist. What we think of as "self" is merely the product of electronic impulses generated by that computerised piece of meat, the human brain. Robinson prefers the account given by "the brilliant young humanist scholar, John his praise of 'the manifold agility of the soul, which enables it to take a survey of heaven and earth; to join the past and present; to retain the memory of things heard long ago; to conceive whatever it chooses by the help of imagination; its ingenuity also in the invention of such admirable arts'". (p. 26). The question of what it is to be human also haunts Ishiguro's novel. The story is narrated by Kathy H, a thirty one year old carer. The novel unfolds as Kathy reflects on 'the memory of things long ago' in an attempt to make sense of her current situation. Her life story begins in Hailsham, a special boarding school. While there Kathy made friends with fellow boarders, Tommy and Ruth. The story is limited by her perspective on things as Kathy reminisces about the past until her story merges with the present. Other than that, no explanation is given of how the dystopia Ishiguro has created came about. Slowly the reader begins to grasp that all is not right with Kathy's world. It becomes apparent that Hailsham children were 'donors', a class of people created by cloning as living spare parts. Their destiny was to grow into adulthood and then have their vital organs removed one by one until they died, or 'completed'. Before donating they could serve as carers, hence Kathy's position. Hailsham students could never understand why the art they made was removed from the school and placed in a gallery. A rumor spread that exhibits in the gallery were there to prove that two Hailsham students had fallen in love once they reached adulthood. Genuine couples could be granted some extra time together before donating. Ruth, Tommy and Kathy certainly believed this to be true. Later in life Kathy hears that Hailsham had closed down. However, Together with Tommy she manages to track down Miss Emily and Madame from the school. They are desperate to find out whether the rumuor about the gallery was true. It turns out that what made Hailsham special was that the school pioneered a more humane way of treating 'donor' children, believing them to be fully paid up members of the human race, rather than living spare parts. The art in the gallery was not there to give in an insight into lovers' souls, but to 'prove you had souls at all' (p. 255). Calvin would have approved of that as an indication of genuine humanity, but not of the need for it in the case of Kathy et al.Kathy and her friends are depicted as truly and fully human, not soulless automatons. They form close friendships, they fall in and out of love, they are kind and they are cruel, they create art and literature, they long for a sense of meaning and purpose in life, they want to know where they came from and where they are going. Ishiguro's tenderly drawn characters are flawed, sometimes frustrating, yet lovable hum[...]

Inventing ourselves: some comments on gender self-identification proposals


The Minister for Women and Equalities, Justine Greening has announced a government proposal on altering the legal requirements involved in a person changing their gender identity. The current legislation includes a number of safeguards before a person is allowed to legally change their gender identity, including a clinical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and the requirement that a person has lived in line with their chosen gender identity for two years. Under these proposals those safeguards will be scrapped, allowing people to self-identify their gender. The intention is to ‘de-medicalise’ the process. But gender dysphoria is a psychological condition that requires expert diagnosis and treatment.  Should a person wish to go ahead with hormone treatment and gender reassignment surgery, that would be a medical procedure. The process cannot therefore be ‘de-medicalised’. The current safeguards should be retained as an absolute minimum. A person cannot simply assert that they are a man or a woman, contrary to their birth gender, and expect society to recognise that as a fact. Birth certificates should not be retrospectively altered to change a person’s birth gender, or so they can identify themselves as ‘X’ opposed to male or female. In terms of genetics and reproductive functions, human beings are born either male or female. That is a scientific fact that cannot be altered. People who feel ‘trapped in the wrong body’ should be treated with kindness and respect, but the best way of dealing with their gender identity issues is to help them come to terms with the person they are by birth (see here). The tiny percentage of people born with an intersex condition is not strictly relevant to this discussion. The matter concerns those who were born male or female, who wish to identify with the opposite sex as a matter of choice. As a Christian I believe that human beings are made in the image of God as male and female. It is part of God’s good creation that men and women are equal and yet different. The differences between men and women should be celebrated as part of the natural diversity of the human race. No attempt should be made to deny or overcome these differences. Giving a man female hormone treatment and subjecting their bodies to surgery in order to give them a feminised appearance does not alter their genetic maleness or bestow upon them female reproductive functions. Similarly with women who seek to identify as male. Biological facts are not malleable and cannot be changed at will, or even by medical procedures. The ‘Trans Movement’, whose agenda the government seems to be championing seems to have a very restricted understanding of what constitutes male or female gender identity. Gender stereotyping needs to be challenged rather than reinforced. A boy who enjoys cooking and dancing is a boy who enjoys those pursuits, not a girl in the ‘wrong body’. A girl who prefers playing football to dressing up as a princess in bright pink is a sporty girl, not a child who is ‘gender fluid’. It is a great disservice to vulnerable children to suggest that they may be suffering from gender identity problems that may be resolved by boys seeking to become girls or visa versa.   The number of children who have been referred to gender identity clinics has grown exponentially in recent years. This is due in part to a culture where children are encouraged to question whether they are in fact boys or girls[...]

Holiday reading


Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus by J. Mack Stiles


Crossway, 126pp Evangelism. It's about programmes, right? Special meetings, Christianity Explored, Life Explored. Centrally organised by the church. Partly, yes. Those things have value. But Mack Stiles' book is not about getting churches to buy the latest off the shelf programme. Results guaranteed. Rather, he wants to encourage what he calls a 'culture of evangelism'.But first of all Stiles needs to define what he means by evangelism. Which he does:"Evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade."The author then unpacks what that means, beginning with the gospel, the evangel we are meant to be ising.You don't need to run a church programme to evangelise, or bring in an expert Evangelist. Evangelism so defined is a discipleship discipline for every believer. Just as much as prayer, Bible reading and faithful Christian living. A culture of evangelism means every church member will be looking to 'teach the gospel with the aim to persuade' as part of their daily lives. They will take it upon themselves to reach the unreached, build meaningful relationships non-Christians, offer to study the Bible with people who want to know more about the Christian faith, bring friends along to church where they will hear the gospel preached, and so on. Where a culture of  evangelism isn't embedded in the life of a church, people will tend to think that it's the responsibility of the organised church to do evangelism for them. An example is given of well meaning believers stuffing shoe boxes full of essential things a disadvantaged group of people. And then expecting a pastor with links to that community to dish them out. Why didn't they go beyond stuffing shoe boxes and make the effort to engage personally with the needy community? Someone else's job. I certainly agree with Stiles on the importance of creating a culture of every member evangelism. But church-organised programmes can sometimes help to prime the pump. We have a 'Door to Door' Evangelist working with the churches I serve. Members accompany him to visit people in our community. As a spin off from that a church member has organised coffee mornings where men get together for a chat at a local cafe. A mixture of Christians and non-Christians. That was his initiative, not the result of a directive from the church leadership. Similarly, there have been a number of opportunities for developing relationships with parents who attend our Parent and Toddler Group and other church-run activities.It's not a matter of either/or. In fact, I picked up my freebie copy of this book at a Grace Baptist Partnership day conference on 'Evangelism and the Local Church', aimed at supporting a week of mission in the South West of England. The task of the 'organised church' is to equip the 'organic church' to live as everyday disciples of Jesus. An everyday disciple will also be an everyday evangelist. Organised activities can serve as a powerful catalyst for spontaneous, organic outreach by church members. But centrally organised activities can't be the be all and end all. The 'organic church' can and must go to places the 'organised church' simply cannot reach.From the book it seems as though J. Mack Stiles is one of those 'speak to anybody about Jesus, anytime' extroverts. Not all of us are in that category. But the writer provides some practical hints and tips on Actually Sharing Our Faith that even th[...]