Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Christ Centred Spiritual Songs Part One: Be Thou My Vision

Be Thou My Vision is probably one of the most popular hymns and one of my personal favourites. The original words are believed to be written by Dallan Forgaill in the eighth century; later translated from ancient Irish to English by Mary E. Byrne in  1905, and later still, compiled into verse by Eleanor H. Hull in 1912.

For me, the hymn is a challenge to keep Christ central and to remember that He is everything. He is our vision, our wisdom, our safety, our strength and our reward: "It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God--that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption." (1Cor 1:30)

It is also a hymn which cuts through the superficial activities which often accompany our Christianity. It cuts to the heart and creates an opportunity for us to test our heart's desires, motives and ambitions: "Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise/Thou mine Inheritance, now and always/Thou and Thou only, first in my heart/High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art."

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Enabling Contemporary and Charismatic Churches to reconnect with Psalm Singing

One of the things that drew me into the charismatic scene was the vibrant praise and worship. However, I've also always had a love for hymns, especially redemption and Wesleyan hymns. In the last few years prior to transitioning into a more traditional context, I was increasingly aware of the impoverishment that the churches were experiencing due to the lack of hymns that were being sung in churches.
However, this led me to fresh discovery, it is not only hymns that have been neglected, the bible's one and only divinely inspired hymn book has also been buried by many churches.
As I flicked through my book of Psalms, the realisation dawned upon me that I was holding in my hands the ancient hymn book of the church. 150 scriptural songs, which had sustained the saints and been sung by saints from the time of David onwards. And here I was without the foggiest clue how to sing any of them!
With a bit of research, I found out that most of the psalms in the Scottish Psalter are in common meter-- and fortunately there were a handful of hymns I knew which were also common meter  -- fantastic -- and so for the next few weeks -- much to my wife's dismay-- it was the psalms to the  tune of Amazing Grace, There is a Fountain and Auld Lang Sine!

Regarding the lack of Psalm singing in contemporary churches -- N.T Wright says:
"The enormously popular "worship songs," some of which use phrases from the Psalms here and there but most of which do not, have largely displaced, for thousands of regular and enthusiastic worshipers, the steady rhythm and deep soul-searching of the Psalms themselves. This, I believe, is a great impoverishment.

By all means, write new songs. Each generation must do that. But to neglect the church's original hymnbook is, to put it bluntly, crazy. There are many ways of singing and praying the Psalms; there are styles to suit all tastes. That, indeed, is part of their enduring charm. I hope that one of the effects of this little book will be to stimulate and encourage those who lead worship in many different settings to think and pray about how to reintegrate the church's ancient prayer book into the regular and ordinary life of their fellowships."

Amen to that -- we need the old and new!

Upon discovering the richness of the psalms, I realised that it was not enough to  only reintegrate them into my own devotional life, but I also needed to explore ways in which to help the church reconnect with the psalms. The following is one example of how I incorporated psalm singing, with reflection, into a house group/bible study. While this is not the only way it can be done, it is one way. I particularly found the reflective questions to be helpful, this was largely due to the fact that psalm singing is such a foreign concept in many modern churches that people need to be given the opportunity think through the struggles and difficulties involved with psalm singing.
 Extract from Bible Study Notes

Psalm 94 From Scottish Metrical Psalms 1650 Meter: 8,6,8,6

11   Man's thoughts to be but vanity
       the Lord doth well discern.
12   Bless'd is the man thou chast'nest, Lord,
       and mak'st thy law to learn:
13   That thou may'st give him rest from days
       of sad adversity,
     Until the pit be digg'd for those
       that work iniquity.
14   For sure the Lord will not cast off
       those that his people be,
     Neither his own inheritance
       quit and forsake will he:
15   But judgment unto righteousness
       shall yet return again;
     And all shall follow after it
       that are right-hearted men.

16   Who will rise up for me against
       those that do wickedly?
     Who will stand up for me `gainst those
       that work iniquity?
17   Unless the Lord had been my help
       when I was sore opprest,
     Almost my soul had in the house
       of silence been at rest.
18   When I had uttered this word,
       (my foot doth slip away,)
     Thy mercy held me up, O Lord,
       thy goodness did me stay.
19   Amidst the multitude of thoughts
       which in my heart do fight,
     My soul, lest it be overcharg'd,
       thy comforts do delight.

Read this portion of Psalm 94 in a modern bible translation, and then sing the verses together.
Group Reflections
  1.  How would you describe this experience of psalm singing?
  1. As you were singing the verses, what words struck you the most?
  2. How would you compare the experience of singing a psalm with the experience of singing our usual choruses/contemporary songs?
  • What are the main differences?
  • Is it more difficult?
  • Are there truths that we are faced with in the psalms that we are not faced with in modern songs?
  • What place do feelings have in both modern songs and the psalms?

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Isle of Skye Ministry Schedule for March

March is a busy month for ministry -- I'm preaching three weekends out of four in three different denominations.

It is a real privilege to be able to participate with others in the reality that is the unity of the body of Christ. And while teaching-full time and preaching in my spare time brings a degree of freedom from a ministry perspective, it is not without its challenges (e.g. limitations on how many sermons I can prepare).

Please remember these churches in your prayers, please pray also for my ministry to the churches on the following dates-- pray that the Word will be fresh, encouraging and empowering. Pray that God will be glorified, the saints edified and for the lost to be found.

Staffin and Kilmuir Church of Scotland: 2nd March

Skye Associated Presbyterian Church: Friday 14th March Preparatory Service (Communion Weekend)

Glendale (and Waternish) Free Church of Scotland: 23rd March

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Chinese Church

The Chinese Church (7/2/2014)
Christianity in China is growing at phenomenal rates; this is even more incredible when the wider social context is taken into consideration.
Over the past few decades something remarkable has started to take place throughout the length and breadth of China: the emergence of a viable New Testament Christianity. Few secular sources report the unfolding of this dramatic event, which has the potential to change the entire social and moral structure of the nation if it continues unabated.[1]
Historical Background
China was certainly not a Christian nation and many Western missionaries focused their energies in the attempt to see China converted. Hudson Taylor is one of the more well-known missionaries who worked in China. Although many people laboured hard, the work was slow and the fruit was very little. Hudson Taylor soon realised that the Western missionaries could not continue in a front line role. Taylor felt that the Western missionaries had to let go of their control and allow the Chinese converts to reach their own people. The Chinese people were considered to be traitors who had become slaves to their western masters by their own people if they turned to Christianity. Hudson Taylor felt that the appearance and structure of Christianity had to radically change if the Chinese were to accept it since the church was full of western trappings that put up physical, social and spiritual barriers between the Chinese Christians and their own people.
In 1949 the emergence of communism soon led to the persecution of Christians, missionaries and Pastors. Christians were imprisoned, tortured or killed. Western missionaries were forced to leave the country or else face imprisonment. Church buildings were confiscated and converted into factories or warehouses. Bibles and hymn books were burned, the majority of leaders were imprisoned and many believers denied their faith in Christ in order to escape persecution. The Chinese Christians were left only with their faith in Jesus Christ. The missionaries who returned home had a sense of defeat and failure and felt that Christianity in China was dead.
However with communism weakening in later years, the evidence shows that Christianity spread and grew at a tremendous rates Instead of Communism wiping out Christianity, many believe it actually paved the way and removed the previous cultural barriers that had hindered the acceptance of the gospel:
  • “Before 1949 there was little infrastructure in China and linguistic, cultural and geographical barriers greatly hindered the advance of the gospel.”[3] The Communist government changed this: 
  • The Cultural Revolution removed much of China’s idolatry, temples and idols were smashed creating a spiritual void in the hearts of the people. 
  • The attempts of the government to remove God and the supernatural resulted in mass conversions when people experienced the reality of God and miracles. 
  • Train lines, roads and airports were constructed giving evangelists access to previously inaccessible areas.
  • Mandarin was adopted as the official language of China; formerly there had been thousands of dialects that had made communication of the gospel more difficult.
  • Large scale literacy projects were undertaken enabling multitudes of God’s people to read Gods word for the first time."[4] 
Paul Hattaway suggests that these and other factors relating to the Communist regime have led the Chinese believers to an increased awareness of the sovereignty of God. He suggests that the Chinese people’s experience of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is what helped them maintain their faith in the midst of opposition.
Despite living in the midst of a system dedicated to destroying them, Christians have learned to have no fear- not because they enjoy persecution and torture, but because they have met God and have been deeply transformed."[5] 
How did the Chinese Christians protect their faith in the midst of this opposition? The emergence of illegal house churches was certainly one of the key means of maintaining a Christian witness throughout this time. The state church was very much under the atheistic control of the government and many essential bible truths such as the Second coming of Jesus Christ were not allowed to be taught. The Chinese Christians who refused to compromise their faith strengthened and encouraged each other through secret meetings. 
Difficult social conditions meant that the Chinese believers were thrown completely on God to meet their needs and this could be the explanation for the tremendous power of God experienced among the Chinese believers. Again although evangelism was forbidden those who remained faithful to Christ’s command to preach the gospel were equipped with similar power to the early believers in Acts not only have they experienced similar power but they have also seen similar results. Recent stats show that members of the house church network are some 58 million and the net growth rate of each church group is between 12.5 and 17.5 % per year. The estimation is that there are approximately 30,000 Chinese people becoming Christians every day. Although this seems a lot it is seen in perspective when examined in light of the birth rate which is around 55,000 each day.
[1] Paul Hattaway, Back to Jerusalem, (Uk, Piquant, 2003). 1.
[2] Hattaway, Jerusalem, 8.
[3] Hattaway, Jerusalem,15.
[4] Hattaway, Jerusalem, 5.
[5] Hattaway, Jerusalem, 16.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Mission Orientated Partnerships: Further Reflections on the Future of Rural (Highland) Christianity

Following up from my post on reflections of the future of rural Christianity, in light of many of the responses to this post, I thought I'd spend some more time on the subject.

There was a fair bit of positive feedback from Free Church ministers and members, particularly those who are familiar with the local situation. There was also some criticism from a missiologist who leads workshops on mission and 'fresh expression' approaches to Christianity. However, given the fact that he criticised the post for 1) not mentioning the church of Scotland (which it did), 2) criticised my perspective on the Highland situation because of 'successful' and 'incarnational' churches/ministries like Tommy MacNeil's church in Lewis and John Urquhart's ministry to Gaelic speaking  students, it is clear that he hadn't really read the blog properly and that he did not really understand the wider picture of highland Christianity.

The following response (on Facebook), on the other hand, from a Free Church minister in the Skye and Lochalsh area is particularly helpful in establishing a picture of just how serious the situation is in this area (and there are similar problems in other parts of the Highlands).


"I was wondering if perhaps you'd take a moment to remember, (i.e. pray for) the church in Skye and Lochalsh. Across the Free, CofS and APC denominations (who use more or less the same "pool" of supply preachers) we need to cover:
Pastoral Vacancies:
- Kyle Church of Scotland (2 services?)
- Strath and Sleat Church of Scotland (3 simultaneous morning services, plus a 4th preacher to serve an evening service)
- Snizort Church of Scotland (morning and evening services)
- Kilmuir Church of Scotland (morning and evening services)
- Durinish Free Church (2 morning and an evening service)
Pastoral absence (due to illness):
- Portree Free Church (morning and evening services)
- Dunvegan Church of Scotland (2 morning services?)
- Sleat & Strath Free Church (morning and evening services, plus 3rd afternoon service once per month)
Smaller congregations (ineligible for settled ministry, but needing supply):
- Raasay Free Church (at least 1 service)
- Glenelg & Inverinate Free Church (1 service)
- Bracadale Free Church (at least 1 service)
Additional services (where congregations have settled ministry, but unable to cover all meetings):
- Trotternish Free Church (1 service, possibly Gaelic)
- An Sgeul Mor (or Gaelic services in south Skye generally) (1 evening service, soon to be weekly?)
- Skye APC (1 service weekly, but more if minister is covering duties in Harris)

This means, any given Sunday, across Skye and Lochalsh, we "need" about 16 (17 some weeks) supply preachers, in addition to the 4 serving (healthy) ministers in post (who are each preaching 2 or 3 services each week). (I've not counted FP and FCC vacancies and needs, as these generally - though not always - rely on a different pool of men to cover supply.)

But still, 16 lay preachers every week!

This is partly why what John Caldwell was saying yesterday in the blog post I linked, really matters. This is an unsustainable situation. As I wrestle to get supply for some of these places, I get the impression we're close to breaking point."

Being one of the aforementioned supply preachers who covers three of the denominations (CofS, Free Church and APC), I am in complete agreement with the above post, it is 'unsustainable' and no wonder those involved are 'close to breaking point.'

Back to the missiologist, one of his concerns, was that my endorsement of the Garioch model -- was an argument to import a 'one size fits all' model  into the highlands. This was certainly not my intended point, infact, I did highlight that the Garioch model would have to be adapted in order to fit with a presbyterian culture (Garioch Church is Baptist). However, that aside, the promotion of the Garioch model was intended as a suggestion of a possible way forward, not the only way forward.

Back to the Free Church minister, the stats he provided certainly demonstrate that the present situation is 1) a terrible waste of resources, 2) a reproach on the name of Christ, 3) A warning about the effects of placing sectarianism above unity, 4) Proof that division is detrimental to mission.

I'm not the first person to be concerned about or write about the present scenario (in fact I'm quite late to the party). The following is a statement which was drawn up by the Scottish Reformed Churches Forum:
"At a meeting of the Scottish Reformed Churches Forum on 26 March 2013, the three churches in attendance (Free Church of Scotland, Free Church (Continuing), and the Associated Presbyterian Churches) agreed to present the following statement for the approval of their respective church courts.
Recognising that our several ecclesiastical bodies are authentic manifestations of the church of Jesus

Christ, with a shared commitment to the teaching of the catholic and universal church as expressed in

The Westminster Confession of Faith

We commit ourselves to renewed endeavour to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We lament the fractured state of the Reformed church and our sinful
involvement in her divisions. What we have broken, we cannot repair, but seeking to return to the Lord that he may heal us, we pledge to pray for all our churches and make the following commitments as steps towards restoration.

Local Unity

First, where there is duplication of ministries and multiplication of congregations, we will encourage

expressions of local unity.

a. When vacant charges or distance make it difficult to provide pastoral care for members of our

churches, we will urge ministers and interim-moderators to seek the assistance of their colleagues

in any of our churches.

b. If two or more congregations in one place become vacant and plan to call minsters, or if two

separate congregations are too small to support and call ministers, we will encourage local office

bearers to meet and discuss the possibility of worshiping together under a single ministry,

whether or not that would lead to immediate union as a congregation in one of our churches.

National Unity

Second, conscious of our obligation to establish churches where there are none, and by our oneness to

bear witness to Christ’s oneness with the Father, we will encourage expressions of national unity.

a. When we consider planting churches, we will strive to act as one body. This will mean sharing

information about plans, seeking to avoid establishing new congregations in close proximity to

another of our congregations, and exploring how members of our churches might cooperate to

establish new Reformed congregations in needy areas.

b. As a public expression of hope for a more united Reformed church, we will set a date

sometime in 2014 for a united meeting of our churches. This will allow our people to worship

together, listen to preaching related to the subject of Christian unity, and to get to know one

another better.

To bring these commitments into effect, we hope that the representatives of each church on the Scottish

Reformed Churches Forum will work through the relevant channels in our churches."

Having worked in a Community, Learning and Development context for many years before entering the teaching profession, I have to say, even from a practical perspective, there is a lot of sense in this document which has been released by the SFRC.

Duplication of services, lack of resources, visible disunity are three key factors which are hindering the progress of the mission of the church in the Highlands. Denominationalism may be able to survive in the city centres, it cannot survive in small rural communities.  Back to the SFRC document, so far, to my knowledge, nothing has actually happened as a result (this is certainly true Skye and Lochalsh). There can be a multitude of reasons for this, but one of the primary reasons why we struggle with the concept of networking and partnering with others is that we have become so accustomed to denominational thinking. In denominationally divided rural communities it seems the most natural course of action is to plough on into oblivion. Perhaps being 'close to breaking point' is not enough-- perhaps it will take the withering and cutting off of the branch before the situation will change.

However, rather than end on a negative note, the potential for change is a present reality. Separation and isolation may seem like good options at the time, but only decades later do we see the trajectory. The trajectory is here, and it is unsustainable. Perhaps circumstances can become the catalyst for change.