Two weeks before the conference, I finally got around to returning my booking form. A combination of weariness at the end of a year of ministry and the thought of the long journey from South to North Wales had made me uncertain about whether to go or not. Thank you to Steffan Job for his gentle, yet persistent, e mails for it turned out to be a conference to savour.
This year the main speaker was Paul Mallard and he took us through Revelation 4-7 over three sessions. These messages were insightful as an example of preaching from the book of Revelation as well as fascinating in the explanations that were given. Yet, the most memorable part was how invigorating it was to sit under the preaching of the gospel. It was so refreshing and encouraging to hear more about Jesus!
The rest of the conference was a combination of lessons from history, the present and from around the world. These ranged from matters of pastoral care through to insights into evangelical and not so evangelical ecumenism. Of particular encouragement was the missionary session. As we were taken through the experiences of the Slavic churches through a season of persecution, a time of outpouring and now a time of apathy towards the gospel, I couldn’t help but be moved in amazement at the sovereignty and power of God as well as humbled by the faith and commitment of God’s people.
Add to this the times of fellowship with other pastors and this turned out to be a worthwhile conference. Next year I will be returning my booking form a bit more speedily.
As the author acknowledges in the opening paragraphs of this book, the title, ‘The Joy of Fearing God’ might be considered by some to be a strange one. Fear to us conjures up many negative connotations, so how can it be associated with that far more positive word, joy?
This book takes us on a journey. First, we explore what it means to fear God. It is not merely shaking our knees at the thought of God; it is something far grander and bigger. The next step, which forms the centre of the book, is to take in something of the greatness of God. I found many helpful things in Bridges approach in this book, but for me this was by far the most beneficial. The broad sweep of God’s power, holiness, majesty and grace was enlightening, breath-taking and at times simply mind blowing.
The final part of the book focuses on the practical matter of how we might live in the experience of the joy of fearing God. Here the author draws on many years of experience in Christian living to give a grouping of chapters that are bound to both challenge and encourage anyone who is seeking to grow in the knowledge and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
If you are looking for a book that will make you think more deeply about God, will move you in the light of his majesty and will help you to grow closer to him, then this is a book worth reading.
We are drawn to our computer screens; and while I applaud, welcome and make use of all the electronic resources available to help with sermon preparation, there is only the click of a mouse between using the equipment as a devotional aid and using it as an electronic mailbox, between redeeming time and wasting it.
Iain D Campbell
On Saturday evening I read Iain Campbell's latest book, 'Pray, Plan, Prepare, Preach' in the DayOne 'Ministering the Master's Way' series. I found some helpful things and reminders throughout the book, but the most poignant was the warning quoted above. In life the line between something being beneficial on the one hand, and unhelpful on the other is ofter very thin. This is certainly true when it comes to our computers and other electronic gadgetry.
Currently I find myself between phone providers waiting for my phone to be unlocked. The result, I have no internet access beyond the half of our house covered by wifi. It's great, I love the freedom from the enticing desire to check e mail wherever I go. What will I do when this service returns? My prayer is that God would give me self control so that the gadgets that I use would be helpful and beneficial, not instruments that enslave.
One thing that has struck me of late is the danger of becoming comfortable as a Christian and as a church. There is always that temptation when we achieve a goal to kick back and relax with that feeling that we've arrived. It is something that looks very different to the all out desire and continuous passion for more of Christ that permeates the pages of the Bible.
For us as a church and me as the pastor the danger at the moment comes in this disguise. The last few months have been a time when we have known something of the blessings of God. There is a unity in the church and a sense of his presence with us when we meet together. People are coming, the building is full, God is speaking through the preaching and the worship is genuinely enthusiastic. Nobody wants to miss a Sunday. Good things, yes, yet the tempatation is to look at the situation and think something like this; "This is great, I could live with this for the next few years. Thank you God for giving me all of this. I'm happy and content with this. Now it's time to kick back and enjoy it." The problem, I've slipped into 'comfortable' mode.
However, this situation is not the only one where we face this tempatation to become comfortable with the place where God has brought us without an appetite for more of Jesus. What about those times when in the struggle God has brought us closer to him. The struggle goes and with it a hunger for more of Jesus. We settle down where we are or slip back to where we were. How about when our turn comes around to hand on a specific responsibility in the church, or even to retire from an office or position. Is it not easy to say, "I've done my bit, it's time now for me to sit back and relax."
I've found the attitude and example of Paul as he writes to the church in Phillipi to be a challenge to my heart. In his letter he shares his heart with the church. His great desire is to know Christ, no matter what that entails (Philippians 3:10-11) and he actively pursues God's purposes for him in his life (3:12-14). These passionate words are a challenge to my soul and they take on even more gravity when I remember who is writing them. This is the same man who had a vision where he was caught up to the third heaven and saw indescribable things (2 Corinthians 12:1-4). He's the same man who travelled around most of the Roman world preaching the gospel of Jesus, seeing people saved, planting churches, performing miracles in the power of God, being delivered by God from difficult situations. If anyone knew Jesus and if anyone had 'done their bit' you would probably say this man was it. Yet, after all that, the desire is still there to press on and take hold of everything that God has for him in Jesus Christ.
Does it matter? Yes, on so many different levels, but perhaps most significantly because there is no such thing as standing still with Jesus. Think of a Space Shuttle launch. The thrusters ignite and the shuttle and engines shoot off into the sky. While the thrusters are lit everything is fine, but what would happen if they stopped working 1000m above the ground. The shuttle would slow to a stop and then start falling to the ground. The same is true as you follow Jesus. If your desire is not for him driving you upwards, it will be for something else pulling you downwards. Beware the danger of becoming comfortable.
I was praying this morning, reflecting on Psalm 8:3 and looking up into the sky. I was struck afresh with how big it all was and my heart was moved with awe at the greatness of God. It is so easy for me to see myself as the biggest thing in the universe, yet with one considered look upwards and perspective is restored.
As I looked I wondered when it was that I last felt that sense of real awe at the creator God and humility in knowing my own smallness. How often do we lift ourselves out of the rush of the immediate pressures of life to reflect and contemplate the greatness of God which is so clearly evident around us? Or, perhaps more pertinently, how often do we turn from our digitised viewfinder and take things in directly with our God given 3d vision.
Technology can do many things extremely well. With Google streetview I can walk through a foreign town without going there. With HDTV I can watch a nature program with stunning scenery and close up detail. However, it doesn't convey the grandeur of things in the same way as actually being there. Everest through my 32 inch tv is always going to be smaller than me. Seeing Niagara Falls on my PC screen does not drive home the point of God's majesty nearly as powerfully as standing 5 meters away from the rushing and roaring water of that montrous waterfall. The night sky on an iphone makes nowhere near the impact as staring upwards at the canopy of the heavens.
In the book of Psalms, we often find the writer viewing the creation and using what he sees to fuel his praise of God. As he looks upwards to the heavens and around him in the world, he is conscious of the majesty of God and the humility he should know in the presence of such a God. These are encouragements to get out, open our eyes and use our minds and be moved with awe for our God.
What a weekend! We've just celebrated our 77th anniversary as a church, yet that's not what made it special. The building was full at each meeting, though that's not what made it memorable. The singing was heartfelt and the songs packed with gospel truth, but even that wasn't what made it so thrilling. What was it? We had preaching, true preaching, that drew us near to God. Preaching that pointed us to Jesus and impressed the glory of his grace upon our hearts.
Having sat under the preaching ministry of Stuart Olyott over the weekend I wanted to read his latest publication, 'Preaching that gets through' (published by Banner of Truth) this morning. The text of the booklet is based upon the 'Martyn Lloyd-Jones Memorial Lecture' which he delivered in September 2010. It's not long, only 34 pages, but length and weight should not be confused. This book is insightful, stimulating and contains truth that should either change your preaching or refresh in you the convictions you have long held.
I finished burdened with four telling and piercing questions of me as a preacher and the sermons I preach:
I have four categories of book in my study. There are those in my 'to read' pile, those I've read, those I don't plan to read and those I would like to read, but have never got around to it. Over this Summer, for the first time I can remember, I finished my 'to read' pile and I've started reading those in the latter category. One of these is The Confessions of St Augustine, translated by Maria Boulding.
When I pick up an 'old' book I never know quite what to expect. There is a place in my mind that is convinced it will be heavy, turgid and unreadable. I guess I could be accused of what C.S. Lewis called 'chronological snobbery'. Yet, again and again I find myself having to re-evaluate my opinions. More often than not these books are lively, gripping, soul searching and mind stretching in a way that the majority of books today don't even come close to emulating. I've found Augustine's book one of these.
I think what has struck me most as I've read through it is that it doesn't feel like a book written over 1700 years ago. The human heart has not changed. Recently I heard an interview with some people who took part in the recent riots and looting excapades in London. They spoke very clearly of having no remorse, but rather a pleasure and joy in what they had done. Notice the similarity in Augustine's reflections:
The malice was loathsome, and I loved it. I was in love with my own ruin, in love with decay: not with the thing for which I was falling into decay but with decay itself, for I was depraved in soul, and I leapt down from your strong support into destruction, hungering not for some advantage to be gained by the foul deed, but for the foulness of it.
The Confessions of St Augustine, p 68.
Part of my reading diet over the last few weeks has been the first volume of a set of selected works by Martin Luther. I have to say I've found them surprisingly stimulating, engaging and gripping to read. Every now and again I come across a sentence that is genius and I simply have to write down. Here is one of them:
It is not many books that make men learned, nor even reading. But it is a good book frequently read, no matter how small it is.
I've been reading some Luther today and I had forgotten just how clear, to the point and profound he is. Here are a couple of his propositions in his Heidelberg Disputation:
He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.
The law says, " do this," and it is never done. Grace says, "believe in this," and everything is already done.
In the last post I wrote about the way my pride responds to the grace of God in justification. That is not the only truth of the gospel that my pride struggles with. The more I live knowing Jesus and his word, the more my pride reacts against sanctification as well.
First, what do I mean by sanctification? I am meaning the process of change that takes place in the life of a Christian where they become more and more like Jesus. By sanctification I am talking about a growth in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control that takes place in the life of every believer and will be completed when we are with Christ (1 Jn 3:2).
Sanctification is another of those great truths of the gospel. It speaks of putting off the old sinful nature, that which so frustrates and hurts, and putting on a new Christ-like nature. It proclaims the truth that God is not only interested in dealing with the guilt of my sin, but also the presence of my sin and that one day I will no longer live with this endless struggle and with the endless destruction of a sinful heart.
Put this way I ask myself, "what is there to hate here?" Well, the thing my pride doesn't like is the constant reminder throughout the Bible that I need God for this change to take place. My pride loves commands such as, 'work out your salvation in fear and trembling' (Phil 2:12). "Great", it says, "I can take this, I can do this and then tell God how well I'm getting on." However, it doesn't like the next bit, 'for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose' (Phil 2:13). Just when I was about to take the glory the Bible robs me of it all.
We need to be careful not to misunderstand these verses. The presence of vs 13 is not an excuse not to take up the challenge of vs 12. Sanctification is not a divine 'zap while you sleep' process. What vs 13 does is remind us that we can take up the challenge of God's word with expectancy, even with all the evidence of failure behind us and the constant massive struggle within our own hearts, because God is at work in our hearts. Similarly, it is a reminder that as we look back at the change that has taken place in our lives the credit is not ours for the power was not ours. That's the bit my pride recoils from.
Just as my pride is desperate to claim some of the credit for a right standing before God, my pride wants to claim credit for the change in my life. I want to be able to say to God, "well okay, you saved me, but look at what I've done since. Just look at the work I've put in. Just look at what I've done for you." But I can't and that hurts my pride. It wants to talk about the fruits of Paul, not the fruits of the Spirit.
My pride doesn't want to be reminded that without Jesus I am nothing, and without Jesus I can do nothing that would bring honour to his name. I am weak, but I am thankful that he is strong and there is no limit to his power that is at work in me. I cannot rejoice in what I have done, but I can rejoice in what he has done in me and through me.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us Eph 3:20