Scottish Referendum: the Good News, the Hope and the Fear

From the Vicarage

As I write, the Scottish vote on independence will be held tomorrow. The polls today show the gap between yes and no stands at 4%, which is too close to call. By the time you read this, the votes will be known and the future path of our nation or nations set before us.

Listening to the debates, which have become increasingly bitter and acrimonious, like all divorces, I have asked myself a few questions. First, what good news is there? Second, what hope is on offer? Third, what fears are there?

The pro-independence good news story is “Scots are good at organising themselves, we should celebrate and recognise our ability.” And their message of hope is “Scotland will be more prosperous, fair and just without the rest of the UK”. The fears of the pro-dependence group are largely “we won’t have control of our own destiny, unless we are independent.”

The pro-union, better together, good news story is “This union has been one of the most successful in the history of the world.” The message of hope is “We’ll continue to be successful together.” And the fears of the pro-union group are largely “we believe the cost of divorce and the uncertainty of the situation will lead to economic disaster, as foreign investors pull out, the pound is devalued, people stop investing and we end up arguing as two countries over the remaining assets.”

What has been absent from these stories is any good news, hope and fear which would create real unity.

There is a different good news story, a better hope and a greater fear which truly unites peoples of many nations. I was reminded about this on this morning’s thought for the day. A former moderator of the Church of Scotland told the story of Jesus’ disciples, who came from very different backgrounds. Matthew had been a Jewish tax collector who collaborated with the Roman empire. Simon the zealot had been an anti-Roman urban terrorist, who was determined to see the destruction of the Roman empire. And yet, once Jesus had united them with his good news, his hope and his fear, the two former enemies became united in the mission to the nations of the world.

The good news is better than nationalistic pride or living on the success of the past. The good news is that Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, came into the world to save and reconcile sinners, by his death of the cross, and so unite enemies in love. The hope of this good news is better than success or prosperity, it is the hope of a kingdom of united nations, under one king, which spreads peace and his reign forever. The fears of the citizens of Christ’s kingdom are not of self-centred economic destiny, but are fears for the good of anyone who does not belong to Christ when he returns one day as judge. And so the kingdom of Christ always seeks to add members from different nations by preaching the good news, the hope and the fears of Christ’s kingdom.

God bless

Neil

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I’m thinking of leaving.

“I’m thinking of leaving you.”

“You can’t, we’ve been together for so long.”

“No I mean it.  I am thinking I might be better off without you.  You never think of me.  You’re always thinking of yourself or of other countries, like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and you seem to love America more than me.”

SILENCE

“I mean it, I am thinking of leaving you.”

…Months later.

“I’m going to make my mind up now.  This is make or break.”

“No, please don’t go.  We’ve had so many good years together.”

“No, I think I’ll go now.”

“I’m warning you, don’t go.”

“Why not?  Why shouldn’t I leave?”

“I won’t let you have the money.”

“In that case, I won’t pay my share of the debt.”

“And who will have custody of the companies we created together?  RBS, HBOS, Standard Life, Stagecoach…our babies?”

“I want them, they’re mine.”

“No their not, they’re ours.”

“I don’t want to argue about it.  Let’s just have an amicable separation.”

“But this is important, we’d better think of the cost of separation.  It will be expensive and will probably end up in us falling out over the money and custody of the kids.”

“No, I can’t stay, I’ve had enough.  I can’t even remember why I formed a union with you in the first place.”

“Do you know what, neither can I.  Why are we united…?”

{SILENCE}

 

 

 To answer the last question, you might like to read Scottish Independence, What’s it all about?

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7 false reasons to believe you are called to a pastoral office.

My heart for thy causeThis morning I began reading Brian Borgman’s “My Heart for Thy Cause” which is a study of Albert N. Martin’s theology of preaching. I have no real idea who Albert N. Martin is, but you can find his bio on the Banner of Truth website.

This morning I read the opening chapter, “The call”, which lists seven false reasons for assuming a call to the pastoral office. It makes for uncomfortable but helpful reading. I believe that all seven false reasons probably exist in the heart of every preacher/pastor and, therefore, that problems occur when one of these false reasons comes to dominate over the real reason for pastoral ministry, which is to make Christ known and to present everyone perfect in Christ (Colossians 1:28).  Here are shortened versions of the seven false reasons:

1. The pressure of a wrongly instructed conscience.
Some preachers motivate their hearers into pastoral ministry through guilt. “Are you  too selfish or fearful of stepping into ministry?” Guilt is a poor reason to believe you are called.

2. The pressure of unwise ad someone unsanctified ambition in others.
The pushy parent or the persuasive pastor who wants his ministry to be seen as fruitful by measuring how many young people step up to full time ministry. The ambition of others is a poor reason to believe you are called.

3. An unbalanced and unbiblical concept of spirituality.
Some people confuse gifting and office with the grace of God, the fruit of the spirit and personal godliness. All believers are equal before God on account of Christ and are called to holiness, but not all are gifted for preaching and pastoral ministry. It is a poor reason to think that only truly spiritual Christians work full time in pastoral ministry and so believe you are called.

4. An inaccurate assessment of oneself and one’s gifts.
A proud or ignorant lack of self awareness is usually accompanied by an unwillingness to listen to wise counsel. Like the man who sees himself in a hall of mirrors, a distorted view of self, uninformed by others, is a poor reason to believe you are called.

5. An unmet psychological need for personal identity.
The sadness of a man who seeks self-identity in ministerial office cannot be overstated. Identity must be derived from the doctrines of creation, redemption and adoption (among others) and not from office or standing in the church. An unmet sense of identity is a poor reason to believe you are called.

6. An inaccurate and inadequate view of the breadth of the biblical qualifications for and the responsibilities of the pastoral office.
An outgoing, loquacious extrovert is either told by those around him that he would make a good pastor or the pulpit holds an attraction for him as an outlet for his fertile mind and mouth. He may be a people person and quite a talker, but lacks any understanding of the qualifications and responsibilities attached to the pulpit. A mismatch between your proficiency in language and a biblical understanding of the breadth of gifts required of the pastor is a poor reason to believe you are called.

7. An unmortified lust for authority, attention, influence and monetary gain.
This is the most blatant and unbiblical reason for desiring the pastoral office. The exercise of power, self glory and money are appalling reasons to believe you are called.

I said at the start of this post that all seven are probably present in the heart of most pastors at some point before the beginning of training for ministry and whilst in post.  I find two of the above particularly exposing the false reasons which rise up in my mind. Being aware of these false reasons helps me to keep them in check. “Am I really living for the glory of Christ and the good of others, or has some other reason taken primary place in my mind?” They are also useful to help shape questions for anyone who claims to have been called to pastoral office. The chapter ends with these sobering words: “It would greatly benefit the body of Christ if churches were more conversant with these errors and false reasons.

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Scottish Independence. What’s it all about?

Scottish Independence. What’s it all about?

I am a Scot living “south of the border” as folk in Scotland say. In 16 days from today, the people living in Scotland will decide whether or not to end a 307 year union between the nations of Scotland and England. The polls today show that 48% will say “no” and 42% will say “yes” with 11% undecided. It’s a close call, either way.

Money, power and personal ambition?

The question which perplexes lots of people is; why would the Scots want independence? Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling focused in their TV debate on economics and government policy. People living in Scotland are being asked to decide whether they will be financially better-off united with England, Wales and Northern Ireland or by going it alone. This is an impossible question to answer. It’s like betting on how much rain will fall in September 2036. No one can really predict whether or not Scotland will be richer or poorer after a divorce.

Scots are also being asked to give more power to Scottish politicians so that they can choose between spending money on nuclear defense or on helping the poor, for example.  The question here seems to be, “how far should power be devolved?”  Will regions, towns and even families want power to choose how to spend their money?

And then there’s Alex Salmond. His personal ambition to be the president of a new republic, or king of a new nation, needs to be considered.  What really motivates him?

And so money and power, and quite possibly personal ambition, are highly motivational factors in this debate. But this is not what’s really driving the move for independence.

I will argue that the most powerful motivator is a question of identity.

Identity. Who are we? Scottish, English, British or something else? The power of identity to unite or divide.

Growing up in rural Scotland was wonderful for all sorts of reasons and I was given a strong sense of being Scottish. A strong Scottish identity is developed, in part, by being defined as “not English”.  And so, for a large part of the Scottish population, it’s said that “the Scots don’t like the English.” Amanda, my English wife, moved to Inverness in her twenties and was surprised by the number of Norwegians with Scottish accents were in the pub when Norway played England at football.

Another part of growing up in Scotland is being told great stories of battles between the Scots and the English. William Wallace (Braveheart), Robert the Bruce and the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 is a favourite, when Scotland secured independence from England. There was the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 at the hands of Elizabeth I. And Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, who led the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 but was beaten by the “English” at Colluden in 1746. All these stories are told with, dare I say it, a nationalistic passion.

This passion was strengthened by poor journalistic practice by the BBC. London-based news reports often overlooked Scotland as I was growing up. Britain was referred to as England or the British as English, which annoyed us in Scotland and served to increase our sense of being Scottish, not English.

A good reading of history is important if we are going to understand this question of identity. 400 years ago, England and Scotland wanted to be united, though of course not everyone wanted the union, and the desire to be united was created by a sense of identity which was greater than being simply “Scottish” or “English”. History shows where this greater identity came from.

Before James VI of Scotland became James I of England (whilst remaining James VI of Scotland – he was king of two nations at once not a united kingdom) there was a complex movement in Europe called the Reformation, which started in Germany in 1517.  Within the space of 100 years this movement had spread to affect the ruling classes in Switzerland, Holland, Scotland, England and the Scandinavian countries. In England, the movement affected the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. During this time, the Church of England was born and became separated from Rome. At the same time, the teaching of the Reformation had a massive impact on Scotland. And so, as the two nations grew in a new sense of identity, which was being Christian and Protestant, the choice to be united was made possible, in part, by this new shared sense of identity.

So, the people of England and Scotland, by and large, shared the identity of being “not Roman Catholic”. This does not mean that the new sense of Christian Protestant identity made matters easy, or that the labels are really that helpful.  As the union tried to make life work, problems were substantial, but the will and desire to unite enabled problems to be overcome.  Charles I attempted to make the Church of Scotland the same as the Church of England. Scottish theologian Samuel Rutherford wrote a big book called Lex Rex, which argued for democratic church rule, not the rule of bishops under the king. Then there was the Civil War, the establishment of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, the restoration of the monarchy and eventually the union of the two parliaments in 1706, which made Scotland and England two countries under one government. Great Britain was born.

At this time, 1706, there were all the same problems with money, power and personal ambition which exist today, only they were much smaller problems then, because everything was smaller and less complicated 300 years ago. The economy and populations were much much smaller.  And so, the making of the union was very difficult but divorcing the union will be far more difficult, complex and hugely expensive. Like all divorces, everyone will be hurt, it will cost a fortune, take years and only the lawyers will make a profit.

And so arguments about money, power and personal ambition have not really changed but one thing has changed. Under the influence of the Reformation, two nations could say “we are different but the same.” Jesus Christ gave us a shared identity as human beings, made and loved by God, fallen from grace and redeemed by Christ. This shared identity gave Scotland and England the will to be united. This unity was still displayed powerfully only 61 years ago, in 1953, at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey. The Moderator of the Church of Scotland gave the Queen a bible and saying “Our gracious Queen: to keep your Majesty ever mindful of the law and the Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes, we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is Wisdom; This is the royal Law; These are the lively Oracles of God.”

The far greater human identity, shared through faith in Christ, overcame the lesser identity of being Scottish and English but this greater identity is fading fast in our nation’s life. Britain is now a largely secular nation. One of the symptoms of losing our God-given identity is that we are left to grapple for another uniting sense of identity. Something bigger than individualism. Something that creates community and belonging. The question facing the Scots is this: does your desire to feel more Scottish make you willing to pay high the price of divorce? Or we might ask another question: do you think you might be missing something about what it means to be truly human and so united with other human beings, even if they are English?

(This article first appeared in Holy Trinity Parish Magazine in September 2014 – From the Vicarage.)

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From the Vicarage July 2014

IMG_3577There are lots of fashionable or popular teachings of Jesus Christ in our culture and community. These are sayings which everyone agrees are good, even if we don’t manage to do them perfectly. Love your neighbour. Do unto others as you would have them do to you. Do not judge. You can probably think of more.

There are also unfashionable or unpopular teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus explains clearly that we will be judged for how well we have loved our neighbour, or whether we have treated others as we have treated ourselves. And if we have judged others, Jesus says he will judge us. Jesus said “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” Matthew 7:1

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:44-46)

Jesus speaks clearly and plainly about where you and I might spend eternity. We all know what to expect on that day. I want to give you seven reasons why this teaching is good and why we should be confident as we speak to people about judgement to come.

1. Knowledge of judgement puts us all in the same boat. We could ask, who do you know who does not deserve God’s judgement? The answer is no one.
2. Knowledge of judgement draws people to Christ as Saviour. Some people today have a tatoo which says “Only God can Judge me.” We all need another line which says “Only Christ can Save me.” John 3:36 “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” What we really need is not a tatoo but belief in Christ as our Saviour.
3. Knowledge of judgement satisfies our internal sense of the need for justice. When we know that evil people will be judged, it brings us peace. Psalm 36:12 “See how the evildoers lie fallen– thrown down, not able to rise!”
4. Knowledge of judgement restrains evil. Everyone who knows that judgement is coming thinks twice about doing something naughty. We don’t need CCTV cameras when a society knows that God sees everything and God is our judge. Jeremiah 12:3 Yet you know me, O LORD; you see me and test my thoughts about you.”
5. Knowledge of judgement stops us retaliating or fighting back, as God tells us to leave judgement to him. Romans 12:19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
6. Knowledge of judgement gives power and authority to the meek. Jesus said, the meek shall inherit the earth. Wild and ruthless governments are tamed by the gospel. The armies of America and Britain have been shown to be powerless in Iraq but the gospel of the Lord is his power. This is why Paul was frequently imprisoned and why many Christians are persecuted. However, once the gospel spreads to the hearts and minds of government officials then they rule their people with meekness.
7. Knowledge of judgement motivates our mission and evangelism. If we truly love our neighbour and want to see meek governments, then evangelism is the obvious thing to do. If you know someone is in danger and do not warn them, then in what way do you love them? If you know that those who have been humbled by Christ make good leaders of the nations but don’t tell them that Christ is king and judge, then how do you expect the peace of the Lord to rule?

Psalm 2:10-12 Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

As we speak plainly about God’s judgement it might be unpopular but I hope now that you can see that it is good teaching. I hope by reading this letter that your fear of the Lord is increased, your love for the Lord Jesus swells in your heart like a balloon about to pop, and your confidence in Christ grows so that you can speak about the goodness of God’s judgement, which is lovingly turned from us by Christ on the cross.

With love

Neil

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Stuart Townend for Pogues fans

So here’s Shane McGowan and the Pogues singing “If I should from grace with God…where no angel will receive me” which I guess is a song about drinking yourself into oblivion (I saw The Pogues live in the Glasgow Barrowlands in 1988 or there abouts) and Stuart Townend with his song “Vagabonds”. I just love the Traditional Irish melodies, with slight punk overtones in both. Townend imagines all the vagabonds who are invited to the heavenly feast (by turning from sin to faith in Christ) in contrast to McGowan’s nihilistic hopelessness. Compare, contrast and enjoy.

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From the vicarage June 2014

IMG_5002Psalm 2 begins with a question.

Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One.

This simple question wonderfully describes the ways of the world. In the news this week there have been great examples of nations conspiring and peoples plotting in vain. The European elections have turned the tables on the European project. European voters are clearly not happy with the way Europe is being run, with massive and growing public debt, rising youth unemployment, the breakdown of communities caused by the free movement of people across Europe. Europe isn’t working.

Then the World Economic Forum has met this week and has pondered why the 85 richest people on earth own as much as the poorest 50% of the worlds population (US$ 1.7 trillion). Capitalism is working and not working, at the same time. Goods and services are being produce and offered but money making ventures have favoured some and not others. So the nations wring their hands and plot in vain.

And yet, Psalm 2 ends with the answer to our problems. This answer does not make all the problems go away, we still need to work through situations. But the beginning of getting things right is found in our attitude to the LORD and his Anointed One.

Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Our heart attitudes are set right when our relationship with the LORD is right. Psalm 2 reveals four heart attitudes which result from knowing the LORD. These are fear, rejoicing, trembling and true intimacy. They don’t seem the most likely four. How are we to fear, rejoice, tremble and enjoy intimacy all at once? That doesn’t seem possible!

Yet it is possible to have mixed emotions. I can celebrate a great golf shot and be sad that no one else saw it, at the same time. I can stand on the top of a cliff, looking out to sea, silently amazed by the view whilst suffering a jelly-legged fear of falling off the cliff. And so, I can fear God and rejoice in him, at the same time. I should tremble at God and have true intimacy with God.

These four attitudes of the heart are the right response to Jesus as he died on the cross for my sins. I should, all at once, fear the Lord’s justice and judgement for my sin and greed. I should rejoice that he loves me enough to die for me. I should tremble at his feet, knowing that he is the Lord of all and so I should do as he commands. And yet, I can enjoy true intimacy with him, as my loving friend and Saviour.

Once the Lord Jesus takes his right place in our minds, our hearts are sure to follow. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. Leaders of the nations must then fear, rejoice, tremble and enjoy true fellowship and so put HIS plans into action, as they work through situations in life. By doing this, they will no longer plot in vain.

How will this be? Well we can’t expect the rulers of the nations to make Jesus their focus if we don’t make him ours. As more and more people are coming into a right relationship with with the Lord, then this will show in the way we choose our rulers and what we do with our money.

Have you taken refuge in the Lord? If you have, then you are blessed. Now, let’s pray for our mission as a church, that the LORD will prosper our work in this community and the rulers of the nations will follow him too.

With love, Neil

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