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Beauty for Ashes – The June Record Editorial

Beauty for Ashes

The June Record Editorial

Screenshot 2019-05-30 at 16.35.36 The people of Issachar were blessed to have 200 leaders who ‘understood the times and knew what Israel should do’ (1 Chronicles 12:32). When we look at the wider situation in the government and church, we sometimes wonder if there are two who could fit that description!

When we try to understand the times, we are tempted to give up. Many of us think that if we adopt the ostrich approach and bury our heads in the sands of our own busyness or entertainment, that will do. Others see some of what is going on and are sorely tempted to despair. We understand something of what is going on, but we despair of being able to do anything about it. We rage against the machine, rant on social media and heave heavy sighs at the way the world is going. Neither approach should be adopted by the Christian.

Nor should we adopt the Disneyland fantasy view of the world – in the words of Louis Armstrong, ‘I see fields of green, skies of blue…and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.’ Things are good and are going to get better. Equally, we cannot join with those who are filled with an existential angst that the world is going to Hell on a handcart, that we’re all doomed, that we only have twelve years left to save the planet and that there is no point in having children because they won’t live to see their children. Our society is such a bizarre mix of apathy, blindness, unrealistic hopes and unyielding despair.

The truth is that the world is in a far worse state than we could ever imagine. If we saw even one-millionth of what the Omniscient God sees, we would collapse in horror. And that is true for the Church as well – some of us are aware of problems, but usually only when they rear their ugly head above the surface. The vast majority of us go on oblivious – until the snake bites.

However, there is an equal and opposite danger to the blindness, to those who say ‘peace, peace, when there is no peace’. The danger is that when we begin to see some of what the ugliness the Lord sees, we react in a wrong way. We despair…we become sinfully angry…we constantly come across as ‘Angry of Aberdeen’ because we are. If wishful thinking and willful blindness is not the answer, neither is anger and angst.

Lessons from M’Cheyne  

Perhaps we can learn from the past as we look to the future? When Robert Murray M’Cheyne came to Dundee in 1836 the city was a dark and miserable place; church attendance was low and immorality was high. St Peter’s was what we would now call a church plant – with a building to seat 1,000 people. Every year on the anniversary of his ordination M’Cheyne preached on Isaiah 61:1-3.

 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,

                        Because the LORD has anointed me

                        to proclaim good news to the poor.

            He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

                        to proclaim freedom for the captives

                        and release from darkness for the prisoners,

            to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor

                        and the day of vengeance of our God,

            to comfort all who mourn,

                        and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

            to bestow on them a crown of beauty

                        instead of ashes,

            the oil of joy

                        instead of mourning,

            and a garment of praise

                        instead of a spirit of despair.

            They will be called oaks of righteousness,

                        a planting of the LORD

                        for the display of his splendor.

Beauty for Ashes

We live in a world of great human ugliness – the broken, dysfunctional families; the lust for power and money wreaking emotional and spiritual havoc; the slaughter of the innocents through abortion; the deconstruction of humanity through diabolical doctrines. But we don’t just shout at or about the darkness. We proclaim the light. Leonard Cohen sings of the crack where the light gets in…

I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
A thundercloud
And they’re going to hear from me

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in

-Leonard Cohen, ‘Anthem’

Our society is cracking in so many places…that’s where the light gets in. I will never forget speaking to a woman from one of the large Dundee housing schemes who came to speak to me after a talk. ‘My partner died, I have a tumour, I don’t have a job, I live in this dump and my teenage daughters are wild…what hope is there?’ I was deeply moved by her plight and responded in the only way I knew how: ‘I can’t offer you money, I can’t offer you a perfect marriage, or a new house, or health or a job. You have had such an ugly time with so many ugly things happening to you. But the one thing I can offer you is this – I know someone who turns ashes into beauty. Someone who can take the ugly things of this world and make them beautiful. His name is Jesus.’ She looked at me with tears flowing and said, ‘If only, if only that were true.’ It is. That is our good news. Not Christian ‘values’, or political programmes, or church re-organisation, or whatever other shibboleth the church/secular gurus offer us. We don’t have much to give. But we have everything to give. Because we have Jesus and his beauty that transforms ugliness.

I see the beauty of the Lord in so many people. I had wondered about naming names as Paul does in Romans 16, though I suspect they would be embarrassed; but let me tell you a couple of examples of what I mean. I think of a woman up in Brora, whose home was open at all times, for the stranger to come in. She was not a wealthy woman, and had family of her own, but her house was a haven in the midst of the community. Or the elderly couple in St Peter’s, a retired minister and his wife – whose beauty is as apparent as their frailty. Or the Dutch couple whose joie de vivre and delight in all of the Lord’s gifts is a constant example to me of the joy of the Lord being our strength.

The Oil of Joy for Mourning

I love Scotland and the Scottish people – especially that dry Scottish sense of humour. What other nation in the world would have one of its major football teams singing about ‘sorrow’ when they have just won the Scottish Cup. Hibernian’s anthem is the Proclaimers’ ‘Sunshine on Leith’:

 My heart was broken, my heart was broken
Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow
My heart was broken, my heart was broken

You saw it,
You claimed it
You touched it,
You saved it

My tears are drying, my tears are drying
Thank you, Thank you, Thank you, Thank you
My tears are drying, my tears are drying

Your beauty and kindness
Made tears clear my blindness
While I’m worth my room on this earth
I will be with you

While the Chief puts Sunshine On Leith
I’ll thank him for his work
And your birth and my birth.

Christians mourn. We are not the ‘shiny happy people’ of the happy clappy caricature. Nor are we the ‘doom and gloom’ caricature of the Scottish Calvinist, so beloved of the media. We weep. But not as those who have no hope.

The Spirit of Praise for the Garment of Heaviness

Many of the people around us, many of us, are heavy burdened. We are not carrying the weight of glory, but the overwhelming burden of our and other people’s sins. There is a fog of depression and a burden of cares. And again we have the solution in Christ… Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7). ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:28). We need to bear one another’s burdens within the Church and so fulfil the law of Christ…and then we will see how we bear witness to a better community and life. I recall a young man saying to me, ‘I hate everything you preach, but I love everything you have in the Church…can’t we have it without Christ!’

Screenshot 2019-05-30 at 16.37.42In Dundee, as well as the Discovery ship, we have the V&A museum – which is meant to be the saviour of this city. It is a spectacular building which is certainly drawing the tourists. But it has had very mixed reviews. Mostly because of the content. The building is great, but there is not a lot inside. I wonder if that is reflective not only of our culture, but of so many of our churches. Beautiful buildings but a content that lacks depth. We need the Lord to do a deep work within us so that people will discover the beauty of Jesus and so that our churches would not just be museums. But are we ready for the cost involved in that? Are we prepared to take up our cross and follow Jesus? Dostoyevsky made this astute observation: ‘Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth’ (Crime and Punishment). Great sadness…but oh, what joy! The oil of joy, the Spirit of praise, beauty for ashes.

Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us. Shine, Jesus, shine.

The Editor

Screenshot 2019-05-30 at 16.37.02

Church Ablaze – The Pre-Assembly Record Editorial for May



1 comment

  1. David, I used Sunshine on Leith for an Easter service with the local primary in Merkinch, Inverness, and used it as Mary’s song to the Risen Lord. We put the words on the screens in church, and how uplifting it was, after the first verse, to hear 400 children and 100 parents join in and fill the sanctuary with this beautiful song.
    Funnily enough, a few parents said ‘if church was like that each week we would come along’, maybe it is just about relating to the culture and telling the story of Christ upon the framework of what people know 🙂 good article.

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