Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Learning from others

Yesterday I began reading Randall Zachman's John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor and Theologian. I read the first chapter called 'The Life and Work of John Calvin'. My first response was that it was a strange title for a chapter because not even a large volume could contain all that could be said. Nevertheless I found it a helpful chapter containing an interesting summary of Calvin's life.

One detail that the author stressed was Calvin's determination to learn from other scholars and leaders, and not only with regard to what they said and wrote. In addition to noting defects in their opinions Calvin also observed some good and weak points in their characters and resolved to imitate the good and avoid the bad as he functioned as a teacher of the church.

Without claiming any importance, I wondered what good and bad points others see in me. Also I am going to observe the good features I see in others and imitate them when I can, and will hope also to avoid copying unhelpful attitudes that others may show. Learning does come by listening to others, but it also comes by watching them as well.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Spirit-Empowered Preaching

Today a brochure came through the mail advertising the next Aberystwyth Conference (run by the Evangelical Movement of Wales in August). My wife and I went to last year's event and thoroughly enjoyed it. The speaker was my friend Arturo Azurdia III and he gave four excellent addresses on the theme of A Clarion Call to a Worldly Christianity. Art has written Spirit Empowered Preaching, one of the best books available on preaching.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Two Priorities for 2009

Below is an article from this week's Scalpay Free Church Newsletter

2009 contains several important anniversaries and I will comment briefly on two of them.

Firstly, 500 years ago saw the birth of John Calvin, one of the most significant characters in the history of the world. His influence has been great in the development of economic practice and political theories, especially in the content of what is meant by democratic freedom. Whether societies in the western world will acknowledge in 2009 his contribution in these areas remains to be seen. Of course, his influence was far greater within the Christian church of which he was a leading Reformer at the time of the Reformation. There is no doubt that God raised up Calvin for this important role and equipped him with the particular gifts that enabled him to fulfil his calling. There is not space here to detail his contribution to the church – it includes his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion (a book explaining Protestant doctrine), commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, various other writings on aspects of worship, and the roots of modern-day Presbyterianism. Calvin was a spiritual giant for whom millions have been grateful to God.

Secondly, 150 years ago saw the last worldwide revival. What took place in 1859 in North America and Britain is described in many books which detail the rise, growth and decline of an amazing spiritual movement that saw thousands, if not millions, of sinners brought into the kingdom of God. Yet while we should be thankful for that wonderful movement of the Spirit, it should sober us to realise that there has not been a similar one since then. Of course, there have been many spiritual awakenings in different places, but there has not been a comparable revival, at least in the Western world, for 150 years. (There may have been a similar movement in China during the communist period.)

Is there a combined application of the anniversaries of the birth of Calvin and the 1859 revival? Yes, there is. Each of them highlights what is urgently needed in the Christian church in the West. We need God-given and God-gifted leaders such as Calvin to direct the church through the morass that marks our sinful society and we need God-given revival that will so recover the church and elevate it once again to heights of spiritual experience that will transform our society. It should be our aim in 2009 to pray that God will raise up such leaders and give such a revival.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Donald M’Queen

Donald M’Queen was for seventy years catechist in Bracadale and Duirinish in Skye. A short book about M’Queen was written by his minister (James Ross) and published in 1891, perhaps surprisingly, by London-based company, Thomas Nelson. The author’s method is not to give a chronological account of M’Queen; instead he focuses on several traits that were prominent in the catechist. In fact, we learn more about Ross’ outlook than we do of M’Queen. We can also read about M’Queen in Roderick MacCowan’s Men of Skye in which a chapter is given to his life, and this chapter gives more biographical details as well as several anecdotes.

M’Queen died on 13th November 1885, when he was one hundred years of age. His father had been a farmer and an innkeeper in Skye and had been able to give his son a good education (including attending a school in Inverness), which enabled him in later years to read current literature and also contribute effectively to church courts. After his schooldays, he returned to Skye and was a tutor in the families of wealthy persons.

In his twenties, he heard James Farquharson, the Haldane preacher, who was instrumental under the hand of God in bringing many in Skye into the kingdom of Christ. M’Queen also was converted through this preacher (his wife also became a Christian through Farquharson, although the account does not indicate if she was married at the time). In 1815, M’Queen moved to the parish of Bracadale when the minister there (Mr. Shaw) appointed him as the first English teacher on the island of Soay. For about twenty-nine years he was employed by the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge as a teacher in several districts of the parish, and after the Disruption in 1843 he became a catechist for the Free Church. As a catechist he served for fourteen years in Duirinish before returning to Bracadale where he served until his death.

Shaw had come to Bracadale in 1814. When he began his ministry there, Skye was not in a healthy spiritual state. The gospel was not preached in many of its pulpits. Instead the people heard a form of legalism that indicated a person’s good works were sufficient for entrance to heaven. For the eight years that he had in Bracadale before his death in 1823, Shaw had a willing helper in M’Queen in bringing the gospel to sinners.

The ignorance of the way of salvation that prevailed in the community meant that M’Queen had to explain clearly the meaning of sin so that his listeners would understand and feel the plague of their own hearts. Of course, he realised that such conviction is the result of the work of the Spirit. Further he preached as one who knew the sinfulness of his own heart, and that is usually the kind of preacher that the Spirit uses to bring genuine conversions.

On one occasion, a lady asked him what Bunyan meant by the Slough of Despond? His reply was, ‘Whatever Bunyan meant by that, I wish I saw you in it; I wish I saw you in the Slough of Despond.’ What M’Queen meant was that such an experience was a good way of getting rid of notions of self-righteousness and turning to Christ alone for mercy. His biographer cites with approval this statement by John Owen: ‘A poor ungodly sinner going to God with the guilt of all his sins upon him, to receive forgiveness at His hand, doth bring more glory unto Him than the obedience of an angel.’

A notable convert of M’Queen’s was John Maclean, a man who was one hundred years old. M’Queen called at his home and found him confined to bed and blind. Although he was in a bad way physically, he was worse off spiritually. M’Queen discovered that the man’s hopes for eternity were based on his own good works. However, through the words of M’Queen, the man was savingly changed and was given seven more years in which he witnessed to the grace he had received from God.

One of the striking features of M’Queen’s character as a catechist was his patience. He persisted in preaching publicly and counselling personally those who showed no interest in the gospel. His dealings with the wayward were marked by wisdom and his policy was never to discuss the sins of one person with another person -- instead he spoke to each individually about his or her sins. Often he had to exercise patience with those who misunderstood his messages; his response was to let them speak so that he would discover their misconceptions and correct them from the Bible. His patience was also revealed in his persistence in prayer for the gospel to be blessed; ‘if the answer was not given presently, he was kept in an elevated frame of mind waiting patiently for it.’ His colleagues recognised that his patient personality made him an ideal person for healing disputes between people; he ‘excelled in finding ways and means of restoring peace and in inducing those at variance to become reconciled.’ Patience was also seen in the way he responded to troubles: he regarded each ordeal ‘as a fatherly chastisement, designed for his good, and intended to increase his faith’. He knew that he needed daily grace to bear these trials patiently and he sought and obtained it. Personal failures in exercising patience caused him to mourn, which is a reminder that devout believers are strongly affected by such sins.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Knowing God and knowing myself

This morning I was looking at my library shelves in my study with my usual sense of guilt and despair at realising once again that I have read only a fraction of the volumes on them. In particular my eye rested on the large number of books by and about Calvin that rest on the top shelf. Their location does not indicate I regard him as the best (which I do); merely it is the shelf which can take most books. So I have decided to spend 2009 aiming to read as many of these Calvin titles as I can. I have worked out that if I read one book a week, I'll read them all in 2009 (if you think about these two clauses, they do not say how many Calvin titles I have). I'm also going to re-read his Institutes (in the Beveridge edition).

In his various forewords to his Institutes, Calvin states that he provided in his work an easy introduction for pastors to master in order to be better equipped to study the Bible. I'm sure most authors think their works are easy to understand! However, Calvin's point that we understand a Biblical passage through accurate theology is a far better approach than coming to a passage without it and having to rediscover doctrines every time.

I began to read the first chapter of the Institutes and was soon puzzled; in fact, by the first word in Beveridge, 'our'. Whom does Calvin mean by this pronoun? Is it all people or is it professing Christians? I read on and noted that those whom he describes as 'our' are those who have come to a true knowledge of themselves (they are sinners) and possess a true fear of God. So Calvin must be referring to professing Christians. I suppose that if I had recalled that Calvin followed the arrangement of the Apostles Creed while composing his Institutes, then I would not have had to spend time wondering about his use of the little word 'our'.

While it is possible to work up from our poverty and lack of spiritual blessings to God's rich resources, Calvin says that the best preparation for discovering who we are is first of all to consider who God is. Realising his perfection removes from us any thoughts of our own goodness and capabilities that we may have imagined we had.

This realisation leads to Calvin's emphasis which is that such an awareness (of his perfection and our imperfection) by a Christian always results in experiencing a healthy fear (almost terror) of such a God. Calvin is saying that true thoughts of God must lead to a sense of the great differences there are between him and his creatures. Isaiah 6 every day.

I'm sure that I realised these details before when I read the work previously. But it was good to be reminded of them. Despite learning lots of theology, I am still ignorant in contrast to God; despite experiencing many features of his grace, I am still prone to think far too much of myself and not highly enough of God, of who he is and about what he has promised to do. Isaiah's response, exemplified as well by Job and many others in the Bible, is the appropriate one. Knowledge of God and knowledge of myself enables meaningful adoration of God and humble confession of sin and its effects.