I am currently on holiday and taking a break from writing. I am due to preach at St Andrews Anglican Church in Roseville Sydney – where John Dickson is the senior minister. Usually when I come to the end of a holiday I start thinking about the situation at home, in church and country. I try to take the long term view. So it was interesting to read this article I wrote for the Free Church, 12 years ago. A time when a Labour government in Scotland and the UK was a reality, not just a fancy…. It’s interesting how much has changed, and how much remains relevant. The same story, just with different actors….but only One scriptwriter in charge! Enjoy….
Prophets, Prostitutes and Politicians
“How are you?” is the usual question. “Fine,” is the usual answer. Meaningless conversation no.1! I once asked Joe Novenson, minister of Lookout Mountain PCA this question. His answer ? “FINE – Frustrated, Insecure, Neurotic and Exhausted!” How am I? Both encouraged and FINE. On the one hand I have recently enjoyed an encouraging sense of the presence of God – on the other there has also been an increasing awareness of the needs of our society. I am not sure which came first. Is it this sense of need, frustration and helplessness that has driven me to my knees? Or is it the sense of God which makes me see the really helpless and hopeless state of our society? And any way what is all this ‘touchy feely’ stuff about feeling?! Does it matter? Yes! Emphatically!
Feel the Pain
A Christian without a felt Christ is lifeless and dead – like a marriage without any feeling. And anyone who can be aware of the need and pain all around us and not feel it, has become desensitised in a way which denies their basic humanity. No, feelings are not everything – but they are important. So what is causing the pain, frustration and sense of hopelessness in yours truly nowadays? I have thought about this for weeks and tried to take into account such factors as personal tiredness, bad hair days or eating too much cheese at night – but in all honesty my sense of hopelessness is not caused by personal circumstances. Of course there are the usual worries and strains of being a Free Church minister, living in Dundee and having three children. But – and I am sorry to disappoint all those internal angst seekers – I am very happy with my life. Each day I count my blessings and thank the Lord for my family, my health, His church and the opportunity to live and serve in this beautiful city. But along with that thankfulness there lives these conflicting emotions of pain, anger, sorrow and frustration. Why?
Weep for the City
Let me list some of the things that are going on. Take a glance at some of the stories that hit me in just one day. A Dundee based support group has logged 100 cases of children from Tayside being sexually exploited in the past 12 months. Some children, including pre-teens, have been sold to strangers for sex, by their parents. Children from all over the world are being sold for sex on the internet and then rated out of 10 by paedophiles. A mother who looked at her daughter’s diary was stunned to find out that the 15 year old had had an abortion. The diary entry for Tuesday the 13th stated poignantly “I had my termination (killed my baby)”. The family is distraught – as is the girl, who now says she would have had the child if her parents had known. Because, amazingly, the parents were not told about it. The girl had a 15 minute appointment with a GP before going to hospital – the first time for a scan and the second for an abortion. It is quite incredible – as I parent I am deemed to be responsible for my own 15 year old daughter to the extent that if she does not attend school, I am the one who will be fined. The school nurse is not allowed to examine my six year olds hair for head lice (because of the Child Protection Act) without my permission. But my child can have her own baby killed without my knowing anything!
A young immigrant from Morocco who came to London to improve his English and better his career prospects, was savagely beaten and now lies in severely brain damaged in hospital. The prognosis is that he will never recover. His attacker was caught and given a five year sentence!
An Anglican bishop, Rev. Dr Peter Foster, the Bishop of Chester was told that Chester police were considering a prosecution against him and that an article he had written was being passed to the Crown Prosecution service. What was his crime? He wrote this – “Some people who are primarily homosexual can reorientate themselves. I would encourage them to consider that as an option, but I would not set myself up as a medical specialist on the subject – that’s in the area of psychiatric health. We want to help them but I don’t offer it as a panacea. I am about giving honour to marriage.” Although the police decided not to prosecute the Chief Constable Peter Fahy gave the bishop a public row stating that “all public leaders in Cheshire need to give clear leadership on the issue of diversity”.
Meanwhile my six year old brought me home a glossy leaflet from the Scottish Executive. It informed me that it was illegal to punish children by shaking, hitting on the head and using a belt, wooden spoon or other implement. The law does not bother me too much but what did bother me was the irrational newspeak that came with the leaflet – which encouraged us not to smack at all. In their wisdom the Executive tell us that “discipline should not be about instilling obedience or inflicting physical punishment”. Young toddlers are too small to understand why they are being smacked ‘so that’s not the answer’. Furthermore smacking sets children the wrong example, can make children angry and resentful and damages their confidence and self-esteem.
What amazed me about this leaflet was its inconsistency. First of all I am sure that the teachers at the school actually want the children to obey them when they tell them to do something. Furthermore the leaflet, after telling us that punishment is bad, then instructs us that suitable punishments are grounding, withdrawing TV and pocket money. Yeah right – that won’t cause any resentment and will be accepted by the children as a necessary non punishment!
An indication of the confusion and conspicuous consumption of our society was demonstrated when a vet launched a new slimmers club. Not for human beings you understand – but rather for obese pets – a kind of Catkins diet! And this in the same week that we have received continual warnings about the level of obesity amongst humans in Britain. Meanwhile one billion people in the world do not have enough to eat.
As for the poor animals – it turns out that they are increasingly being treated as substitute children. Apparently our yuppies cannot be bothered with the hassle and responsibility of raising children and so they invest their shallow emotions and some of their money on raising pets whom they name and treat as surrogate children. Enough.
Thank the Lord for Politicians!
It is clear that we live in a shallow, confused and increasingly distorted society. Thankfully the Lord has given us politicians. Yes you read it right. We are to be thankful that the Lord has given us politicians – authorities that have been established by him (Romans ch. 13 v. 1) to enable us to ‘live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness’. (1 Timothy ch.2 v. 2). As Christians we must avoid the cynicism, couldn’t care less attitude and anarchy which is so prevalent amongst ‘ordinary’ people. And we do look to our politicians as leaders in our society and servants of God. So how are they doing?
Let me say that there are many things to be thankful for. The current Labour government has delivered a great deal in terms of providing funding for education, hospitals and they have generally run the economy very well. However there is clearly an underlying malaise – a lack of honesty, a culture of spin and an inability to recognise anything other than the superficial causes of some of our major problems. There is an increasing tendency for the ‘Left’ to major on liberal social policies (such as gay marriage or civil partnerships) rather than deal with some of the major economic and social injustices within our society. There is a lack of courage, a lack of genuine debate and questioning.
But what about the Conservative opposition? Surely at least one could expect them to hold more biblical standards on what people wrongly call ‘moral’ issues (wrongly because they really mean sexual, and morality is a lot more than just sexual). Not a chance. Just as it is almost impossible to find any major difference between the Tories and New Labour over economic policy, so it is impossible to find any major difference over social issues. On the same day that all the incidents above occurred, Michael Howard (Conservative leader in case you missed it) declared that he supported ‘civil partnerships’ (a euphemism for gay marriage – as it only applies to homosexuals) because “Families are changing. Not all conform to the traditional pattern.” He declared that supporting civil partnerships was “to recognise and respect the fact that many people want to live their lives in different ways.” Like most politicians he completely misses the point. Of course many people want to live their lives in different ways – there are those who would want to marry five women/men, those who would like to marry their pet, and those who want to marry a 12 year old. Would Mr Howard ‘recognise and respect’ their desire to live different lives?!
The weakness and inability of our politicians to lead and to take on some of the deeper issues was clearly demonstrated when Jack McConnell (our First Minister) sought to get to grips with the increasing problem of Scotland’s depopulation. Rightly recognising the problem he set out a plan whereby he wants to encourage people from overseas to come to Scotland and, in the case of international students, to be allowed to stay in Scotland . Insofar as it goes this is an excellent move and should be warmly welcomed – whatever the racist reservations of the BNP and their ilk. Apparently we need at least 8,000 per year. What Mr McConnell did not do, and neither the Tories nor the SNP have dealt with this issue – is deal with the main reasons for depopulation. The birth-rate is falling because in our individualistic and materialistic society children have been regarded as, at best an optional extra, and at worst a nuisance who stop us enjoying ourselves through the pursuit of wealth.
And of course the 8,000 a year we need could easily be achieved if we stopped killing our potential citizens. In 2001 alone, 12052 Scottish babies were killed in the womb – 12,000 of whom were killed because they were deemed inconvenient! Not one politician had the courage to mention this obvious fact.
Where are the Prophets?
If one set of servants of God are not fulfilling their God appointed duty – what about the others? The church of Jesus Christ and especially those who profess to be leaders within it? Where have all the prophets gone? In the week that I read about all the above events I happened to be preaching on Hosea ch.4. It was an epiphany! Talk about the bible being relevant! “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying, murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.” The latter referring to the Canaanite practice of sacrificing children to the god Baal – just as we sacrifice our children to the god Mammon. And who is to blame? It is the priests and the prophets.
“the prophets stumble with you. So will I destroy our mother – my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children. The more the priests increased, they more they sinned against me; they exchanged their Glory for something disgraceful. They feed on the sins of my people and relish their wickedness. And it will be: Like people, like priests. I will punish both of them for their ways and repay them for their deeds.”
I do not blame the politicians nor the people. I understand fully why they are confused. The main problem is with the priests and pastors. We are the ones who have become the prostitutes – giving up the love of God for a mish mash of self-centred egotistical pseudo philosophy and religion.
The Church of Scotland
I recently attended a meeting of the Scottish Conservatives Christian Fellowship. What interested me was the reaction of the politicians to the religious leaders present. It was rightly pointed out that they could not know what the church thought because the church did not speak clearly or with one voice. The example of the Church of Scotland and homosexuality was given. On the one hand the Board of Social Responsibility upholds clearly the Bibles and the Churches teaching that homosexual marriage is wrong – on the other, the Moderator, speaks in defence of it. The Churches spokesman regards this as excellent – an example of the broadmindedness and tolerance of the Church. To the politicians it makes the church utterly irrelevant, with nothing distinctive to say. Who can listen to an uncertain sound?
The Free Church
Now of course there are many within the Free Church (and other ‘conservative’ churches) who will utter ‘Amen’ to the above. But before we go spotting the splinters in others eyes we need to get the great big beam out of our own. All is not well with the conservative evangelicals in Scotland – especially with the ‘Reformed’. There are Presbyterian ministers who are prepared to accept the ludicrous argument of a ‘woman’s right to choose’ in support of abortion. Those who are prepared to accept the term ‘evangelical’ as a party label but sacrifice little to proclaim the gospel. There are those for whom the key issues facing the church today are modern versions of the Bible, women praying and head coverings. And we cannot forget the blasphemy of one group of Christians taking another to court because they want money and buildings. And they have the nerve to boast of themselves as faithful, godly and holy!
Within the Free Church I think there is a deep malaise. I thought about this at presbytery this week. Having come from a situation where there is pastoral work to be done amongst the grieving, visiting the terminally ill, answering the questions of life to curious university students, seeking to pray with those who are confused and hurting, trying to build a body of Christ’s people in the midst of a dark and mixed up world; I looked forward to going to presbytery. It should have been an oasis of encouragement, mutual edification, visionary ideas and stimulating discussion. It actually began like that – with an excellent discussion on the role of a possible evangelist within the presbytery. But then it went downhill. And, sadly, like too many presbyteries, it turned out to be a deep disappointment – a waste of time and an utter irrelevance to the ongoing work. Actually let me take that back. It would have been better if it was an utter irrelevance. Instead it struck me that the lack of vision, the pettiness and the obstinate refusal to face up to the reality of the situation that we face is very relevant. It is precisely because of these things that the church will die.
It is not just Presbytery – but rather throughout the whole church. What can one say about a church where office bearers think it is somehow being faithful to walk out of a service because the Lords prayer is said or a paraphrase is sung? Would that such concern, passion and principle were shown for the unborn, the lost and the poor! We are very good at straining at gnats and swallowing camels. The people are being destroyed for lack of knowledge and we are playing at churches – thinking that our personal tastes and positions of power are somehow worth fighting for.
Women in the Church
Take for example the issue of the role of women in the church. It is important that we uphold what the Bible says. It is a matter of scriptural faithfulness that we maintain the Bibles stance that the eldership is for men. However we also need to deal with the misogyny that exists within the Church and to work out in practice what it means to have no male or female in Christ. The question of how we relate to one another as men and women is of far more importance than whether we have women elders or not. People on both sides of this argument need to realise that.
Of course my words will upset some. And being the Free Church, they will be passed around and given the spin that somehow I am turning and blaming the rest of the Free Church – as though if we were all like St Peter’s then things would be fine. No. No. No. Hosea ch. 4 was preached to my congregation. It is very relevant to us. It was a hard sermon to preach. We are not as we should be. Of course there are things to encourage – as there are in the wider church but overall there is a lack of depth, a lack of knowledge of God and a lack of passion and commitment which is profoundly disturbing. Far more disturbing than the state of the society. And this is not frustration with my own congregation – but rather concern. Hosea ch. 4 was preached first to myself. As I looked into the mirror of Gods word I did not like what I saw.
Strangely as I have worked all this through I have been encouraged. Not by myself, nor by the Free Church or the wider Church in Scotland. I do know that there are things to encourage but overall I would suggest that Hosea is very true of us today. No, I have been very encouraged by the Word. Why did God send such a tough message through his prophet? Because he loved them. Because he wants to woo them back. Because he cares.
In a sense the message of Hosea is Hosea looking and seeing the spiritual prostitution of Gods people, the state of the world and himself and asking, ‘Is that it?’. And God’s answer? ‘No’. There is more than this. More than our own weak attempts and self-righteousness. More than the pettiness, irreverence and lovelessness of the church. More than the materialism and spiritual confusion of our society. The ‘More’ is Jesus Christ. He is the centre of our being. Our fixed point to which everything else relates. If we remain faithful to him, if we accept in reality as well as in theory that Christ is the head of the Church and the head of our homes and the head of the nations, then we will see more of the glory of God.
“Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence. Let us acknowledge the Lord; let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth.” (Hosea ch. 6 v.1-3).
David Robertson – Dundee – 2004
- Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose….!