Monthly Archives: November 2012

Songs with a Story

Every year, one of my churches has a ‘Songs of Praise’ service at the end of November. Church members are invited to select their favourite hymns and then somehow or other I try to link them all together in some kind of order, with words of Scripture, prayer and a message for the evening interspersed between them.  Some hymns come up time and time again. Some are old, some are new. Some I’ve never heard of! However, what has struck me every year so far is how many hymns have a powerful story behind them.

One of my favourite newer songs is ‘Blessed be Your Name’ by Matt Redman. The emphasis on the sovereignty of God – to give and to take away – is not something you find in many hymns. The words reminds us that we are to worship, to bless the Name of the Lord, in the ‘land that is plentiful’ and in ‘the desert place’. This great song was written in light of the tragedy of 9/11, Matt and Beth Redman’s own life experience (including repeated miscarriage), and scriptures from the book of Job.

A traditional hymn with a powerful testimony behind it is ‘It is well with my soul.’  Horatio Spafford, a Chicago lawyer and  friend of D.L.Moody, wrote this hymn after almost unimaginable personal loss. Horatio’s son died aged 4 from scarlet fever; a year later his entire real estate portfolio was wiped out by the great Chicago fire; and two years later his remaining children died after the French steamer ‘Ville de Havre’ sank in the Atlantic, claiming the lives of 226 people. When Spafford travelled to England a few days later to meet his wife, who miraculously survived, he asked the Captain to tell him when they reached the point where the ship had sunk. After they reached that point, Horatio then returned to his cabin and penned the lyrics of his great hymn. The words which Spafford wrote that day come from 2 Kings 4:26. They echo the response of the Shunammite woman to the sudden death of her only child. Though we are told “her soul is vexed within her”, she still maintains that ‘It is well.” And Spafford’s song reveals a man whose trust in the Lord is as unwavering as hers was:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

These are only two examples, but there are many others: ‘Take my life and let it be’ (covered in a previous post here), ‘Amazing grace’ (reflecting Newton’s past as a slave trader), and ‘All hail the power of Jesus’ name’ (reflecting E.P. Scott’s experience as a missionary in India). For more stories behind the songs, see here (mostly new songs) and here (mostly traditional hymns). This book, The Complete Book of Hymns,  may also be of interest.

Do songs need a powerful story behind them? No, of course not. Good solid lucid Biblical theology is key. However, I do believe the stories can help us in our worship. If we recognise the faith and story behind a hymn it can challenge us or spur us on to imitate that faith. ‘Blessed be Your Name’ strikes a chord with many because we all struggle with tragedy in life, and struggle even more to see God’s hand at work in it. ‘It is well with my soul’ challenges us because, when we know the story behind it, we cannot escape from wondering how we would respond in such tragic circumstances. We can be inspired in faith and witness by the saints who have gone before. To God be the glory!


Breaking the Idols of Your Heart; How to Navigate the Temptations of Life

I don’t know how you feel about the Ecclesiastes but when I hear my Bible Study group is to spend a term exploring the book my heart sinks. I mean apart from the ‘there is a time for everything’ passage and of course the ‘remember your Creator in the days of your youth’ bit, the rest of it seems a little dark and depressing. I saw the book of Ecclesiastes is essentially nihilistic, denying life’s value, meaning and purpose.

Then I picked up this book by Tremper Longman III and Dan Allender, it appeared to have a really helpful angle on studying, understanding and applying the book of Ecclesiastes to the Christian’s life of discipleship. Now in college I was made to read Tremper’s ‘Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation’ which was worthy if at points a little dull. So I wasn’t expecting ‘Breaking the Idols of Your Heart’ to be quite so engaging, easy to read, and enjoyable as I found it.

It seems that the starting point for their exploration of Ecclesiastes is the idea that the Teacher’s study of this life can serve to disturb our spiritual complacency, shake us from our idolatrous trust in the things ‘under the sun’ and point us towards what is truly worth living for. In seven chapters, the authors’ examine in a fresh way our desire to find meaning in control, relationships, work and money, pleasure, wisdom, even spirituality and immortality.  

Each chapter follows the same pattern. Opening with Dan’s narrative rooting the study of Ecclesiastes in the lives of Noah, Joan, Jack, Marcia, Jessie and Mimi, a fictional church house group, going on to Tremper’s wrestling with the Teacher’s seemingly paradoxical statements about life’s meaning, and ending with a few questions for self-examination.

It is a topical rather than linear study of the book of Ecclesiastes, but I think it would be appropriate for private devotional or small group study (though you would have to pad the questions out a little). I think sometimes the fictional narrative is fits too comfortably with the study as a whole. This raises questions for me about what we do when our lives don’t strike a chord with our beliefs and understanding of Scripture. But on the whole I found this book engaging and uplifting, it helped me to understand Ecclesiastes place within the wider narrative of the Bible. So I happily commend it to you. 

Timothy 6:1-2: Has Christ set us free?

In Galatians 5:1 after comparing the descendents of the authentic Jewish line of Abraham and his wife Sarah and the somewhat dubious line of Abraham and the slave girl Hagar, Paul declares that it was ‘for freedom that Christ has set us free’.  In Romans, Paul makes it clear on more than one occassion that in Christ there is no distinction  between slave and free.  So how are we to work with these verse from Timothy?

Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honour, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed.

Has Paul changed his mind?  Is he so ahead of his time that context is everything, and Timothy in Ephesus requires a different interpretation of the gospel of Christ to that which would be suitable for the Galatians or the Romans?


As the message of freedom in Christ came to the towns and cities across the Roman empire, you can envisage a slave population being called to rebellion, subordination, and uprising.  These words from Paul would be a hard message for Timothy to preach to the slaves in his congregation.  But the message is a balanced one, Paul is under no illusion that slavery is anything but a heavy ‘yoke’ and this challenge to regard their masters as worthy of all honour, is in keeping with the challenging gospel that Paul upholds to be crucified with Christ.

What is clear though is that freedom in Christ from sin (as in Galatians and Romans) does not give an automatic imperative to demand freedom from all authority in our lives.  When you become a Christian, generally, you are to still honour your mother and father.  When you become a Christian, generally, you are to still respect the leaders and politicians in the land.  When young people become Christians, generally, they are to still respect the authority of their teachers, when old folk become Christians, generally, they are to still respect the authority of the elders and ministers of the church.  And so Paul says, when slaves become Christians, generally, you are to still respect your masters (even if they are believers too, v.2).  Now that doesn’t mean that these relationships involving authority are never abused or are exactly the plan that God had for the flourishing of life in all its fullness.  What it does mean though is that Christ is not a ticket to escape the society, culture, role and position you have in society, but instead the Gospel is the liberating news that in Christ, and through his grace, as God’s redeemed, he promises to be with you in our society, culture, helping to shape our positions, giving us strength for his work, and guiding our roles.  For some that will be standing against injustice, and seeking the end of slavery, for others it will be respecting their masters and influencing others.  For some it will be to use the authority they have with great care and diligence, as God himself does.

Slave or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile, whoever you are, through Christ’s saving grace, you are called to live for God’s glory in this world, by his strength.

Christ has set us free.


The God who keeps Israel: Psalm 121

Regular readers here will already know my penchant for singing Psalms in public worship. I hope that’s made a few of you think as to how to incorporate them into your services. My practice is to have at least one Psalm in every act of worship. This takes place in a section of the service where we listen to God’s Word read, we then sing God’s Word in a Psalm and then God’s Word is preached from the pulpit. My aim is to let the Word of God sink into the ears and hearts of God’s people. And there are very few better ways to get people to remember things than to sing them.

As I’ve gone on in my ministry a few Psalms have become firm favourites. Psalm 121 is one of those. You can find it at number 726 in Rejoice and Sing. It’s sung to the tune Dundee (French) which, in my opinion, fits the words beautifully.

I to the hills will lift mine eyes;
From whence doth come mine aid?
My safety cometh from the Lord,
who heaven and earth hath made.

Thy foot he’ll not let slide, nor will
he slumber that thee keeps.
Behold, he that keeps Israel,
he slumbers not nor sleeps.

The Lord thee keeps; the Lord thy shade
on thy right side doth stay.
The moon by night thee shall not smite
Nor yet the sun by day.

The Lord shall keep thy soul; he shall
preserve thee from all ill;
henceforth thy going out and in
God keep forever will.

We live in a time of great uncertainty for the church in this country. The old denominations (like ours) are dying. Government seems to be going out of its way to annoy people of Christian conviction for no good reason. The rock of Biblical authority has been chipped away at by those without and within the church. What might the future hold for my daughter as we seek to bring her up in the faith?

These things are nothing new. Every generation of the church will have had faithful people crying out for help and guidance from God. Thankfully, God has given us this Psalm to remind us of where our eyes should be looking and where our hope should rest.

This Psalm reminds us that God is a faithful God who has great power – he created all things! He is also a God who is always there – he’ll never be asleep on the job! When it comes to the safety and security of God’s people we can trust the covenant promises of God despite outward appearances.

I commend the singing of this Psalm to you. Try it without accompaniment like these folks:

Book Review: ‘The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit’ (Michael Reeves)

ImageMichael Reeves is the UCCF’s Head of Theology and his latest book ‘The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit’ does exactly what it says on the cover. It gives us the theology we need to enjoy the triune God.

In the introduction, Reeves writes,

‘God is love’: those words could hardly be more bouncy. They seem lively, lovely, and as warming as a crackling fire. But ‘God is a Trinity’? No, hardly the same effect: that just sounds cold and stodgy. All quite understandable, but the aim of this book is to stop the madness. Yes, the Trinity can be presented as a fusty and irrelevant dogma, but the truth is that God is love because God is a Trinity.

It’s not surprising the church has struggled (and continues to struggle…) with heresy when people don’t understand who God is as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and what that means for us. The Trinity is a key part of what makes Christianity distinctive from other faiths. It’s not surprising people think all religions are the same, or ‘we all worship the same God’ when we don’t fully appreciate who God is in Biblical Christian thought and theology.

Reeves runs through the history of the doctrine of the Trinity, and explains (in very easy-to-understand language) what Athanasius, Sibbes, Augustine, Luther, Tyndale, Calvin, Owen and Chalmers have contributed to it. Reeves’ writing is meaty and thoroughly Biblical, but not without humour to lighten the tone and keep you engaged. More importantly, you sense Reeves’ passionate desire for us to discover who God is and to enjoy Him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to every Christian and will be using it myself as the inspiration for a sermon or two on the Trinity!

1 Timothy 5:17-25 – Payment and discipline of elders

It is difficult to talk and write about this subject because as a teaching elder to talk about the importance of honouring and supporting our teaching elders may appear conceited. I find that many ministers feel embarrassed and compromised when talking about the honour given to the role and the financial support offered to enable them to carry it out.

In Philippians 2:4 we are told that we should ‘look not to our own interests but to the interests of others’, but I do believe that it is in the interests of the Church to have a well-trained, well-supported and respected group of teaching elders. It is important because the Scripture teaches this in a number of places:

‘And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the labourer deserves his wages.’ Luke 10:7a

‘In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.’ 1 Corinthians 9:14

‘One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches.’ Galatians 6:6

It is also important because our support for local preachers and ministers indicates the value we place upon the teaching of God’s Word. I believe church history has shown that set apart, trained and dedicated teaching elders have strengthened the church (safe guarding it from error and furthering the cause of the gospel).

Note that those who ‘rule well’ are worthy of double honour. It is not simply a matter of wearing the symbols of such an office, but it is rather a matter of carrying out the duties of a teaching elder with diligence (particularly when it comes to the preaching of God’s Word). Elders are not above the discipline of the church, but complaints against elders must be substantiated by the evidence seen by at least two witnesses.

If an elder sins morally against the teaching of the church then they are to be disciplined publicly so that people see and respond by coming under the authority of God’s teaching. If the sin is a criminal matter then ‘let every person be subject to the governing authorities’ (Romans 13:1). If it is a matter of a civil disagreement between believers then you should try to reconcile it within the community of faith (1 Corinthians 6). In cases where an accusation is made it is vital that believers do not prejudge the situation but wait to hear the evidence, but when the evidence is heard show no favouritism to well-loved leaders.

I believe it is helpful to hear the warning in verse 22 we should not be hasty in the laying on of hands. I thank God for our elders who are dedicated to the service of the church but we must be careful not to set people apart simply because they offer to do the task (eldership is about more than willingness). It is about humility (character), commitment to the teaching of the church (integrity), and diligence in service and prayer (reputation).

All of Paul’s teaching in this section on the choosing, supporting and disciplining teaching elders is subject to the truth that some sins are obvious and judged in the present, and some sins are hidden but will be revealed and judged in the end. Just as some good deeds are obvious but all will be made known by Christ Jesus who knows all and sees all.

Per Crucem ad Lucem

This is an adapted post from my personal blog:


Through the cross to light. That’s the title of a little biography by A.M. Hunter about a Scottish congregationalist called P.T. Forsyth, a minister and theologian at the turn of the last century. My interest in Forsyth came about after my return from Madagascar. That trip had clarified the importance of a vital trust in Christ, the beauty of Reformed worship and the great responsibility laid on me as a future minister of the Gospel. I also came to see that it was not upon the heads of ministers to run social services or to turn churches into community outreach centres but to proclaim the saving work of God in his Son Jesus Christ. I’d finished the journey from liberal to conservative.

I now saw that human sin was a terrible reality that needed to be taken seriously. I saw that God was sovereign and holy. I believed the cross was God’s solution to this problem. I saw that our Reformed forebears consistently taught this and should be studied and listened to. But this meant I felt out of place in a denomination where these truths were not central and many evangelicals were far from the Reformed practices I held dear.

I began searching the Internet for information about this Gospel I had to preach but much of it came from America. Was there a British theologian who could speak to the situation this country and my denomination found itself in? And then I stumbled on this quote:

“There was a time when I was interested in the first degree with purely scientific criticism. Bred among the academic scholarship of the classics and philosophy, I carried these habits  to the Bible … [but] it also pleased God by the revelation of His  holiness and grace, which the great theologians taught me to find in  the Bible, to bring home to me my sin in a way that submerged all the school questions in weight, urgency and poignancy. I was turned  from a Christian to a believer, from lover of love to an object of  grace.”

Here it was. Someone who had taken the same path that I had. From the liberal academy to an object of grace. This was Forsyth writing in 1907 in the book “Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind”. I bought the book. I devoured it. I broke a lifetime’s practice and underlined passages in biro. Here was a theologian from my own denominational heritage talking of sin, grace, the holiness of God and the cross as being absolutely essential.

This book also reminds the preacher that he is not to read the newspapers and adapt his messages accordingly. The preacher is a herald, an ambassador with a message from a holy God to a sinful people. That message will always be relevant whereas the man that follows the press will be pulled from pillar to post.

Forsyth was a great reader of his times. Many of the things he warned about have come to fruition. 100 years on, his writings are still vital. Start reading – it’s worth it.

1 Timothy 5:1-16: ‘Honour’

Earlier in 1 Timothy, Paul addressed individual groups of Christians (and  Timothy himself) about how the Gospel should shape their lives and ministries. Now in chapter 5, Paul returns to this task, focussing on widows, elders and masters.

The theme of “Honour” connects them all in verses 9 (“Honour widows”), 17 (“Let the elders who rule be considered worthy of double honour”) and 6:1 (“Let all who are under a yoke as slaves regard their own masters as worthy of all honour…”), and the call increases from “Honour”, to “double honour”, and then to “all honour”.

Providing for widows was an important role for the church from its earliest days (see Acts 6). The concern here is to identify which widows should be provided for by the church. The key indicators are not having a family (v.4), godliness (v.5 and v.10), being over 60 (v.9), having been the wife of one husband (i.e. faithful in marriage) (v.9), and devoted to good work (i.e. who put faith into practice) (v.10) . The passage also draws out our need to provide for our families, especially parents (v.4). This builds on the command to honour our parents (Ex. 20:12), and if we fail to act upon it, Paul says that we are worse than unbelievers (v.8). “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20).

What does this mean for us today? With social security and pensions, is Paul’s teaching still relevant? I would argue a resounding ‘yes’! We may not need to support our parents financially (although we might do in coming years as the pensions crisis comes to a head), but this is not all of what it means to ‘Honour’ our mother and father and look after widows. Honour (Greek ‘timao’) is about valuing people and God. Just as we must honour (‘timao’) the Son in order to honour the Father (John 5:23), we must honour parents, widows, elders and masters. Do we truly value our parents?

Honour goes beyond financial considerations to encompass respect, esteem, reverence, and holding in high regard those who have brought us up.  It’s a message we must persist in remembering, and one that may mean different things to us at different stages of our lives. As children and teenagers, it might be about respecting our parents’ advice, boundaries and care for us. As young adults, it might be a consideration when we think about where we might live and how we keep in touch when we start to chart our own life paths. When we have families of our own, it might mean not taking our parents for granted and just using them as free babysitters, but honouring, giving thanks and celebrating them for who they are. As older adults, it might impact us when we think about how we best care for infirm or elderly parents.

Our faith must affect how we live, and like charity, it starts at home.

Music: The Sanctus

In his book, God the Holy Father (c.1897), the great Scottish Congregationalist P.T. Forsyth wrote,

holiness is the root of love, fatherhood, sacrifice, and redemption… The Church of today has gained greatly in its sense of the love of God. There are still greater things waiting when she has moved on as far again, to that holiness whose outward movement is love, which love is but the passion to impart. You can go behind love to holiness, but behind holiness you cannot go.

Surely, what was true of the church of P.T. Forsyth’s day is even more evident in our day of ‘love songs to Jesus’. Don’t get me wrong, I have some sympathy with the provocative and intimate language of love in worship (some of Charles Wesley’s hymns were accused of being too sensual for congregational worship), but there is always a balance to be struck between the intimate and immanent and the mighty and transcendent.

The hymn we will consider now is definitely one that helps to redress the balance and remind those who come to worship that they stand before a holy God. It was written by the Rev. Reginald Heber, an Anglican clergyman and missionary Bishop to Calcutta, in 1826. Sadly, he died quite suddenly, later that year, at the age of 42.

Rev. Reginald Heber entered ministry in Oxford on 24th May 1807. At that time he wrote to his friend John Thornton, ‘Pray for me, my dear friend, that I may have my eyes open to the truth … and if it please God that I persevere in his ministry I may undertake the charge with a quiet mind and a good conscience’. His biographer Arthur Montefiore notes that ‘Heber was a star whose lustre was as steady as it was clear’.

After marrying Amelia Shipley on 9th April 1809, Rev. Heber moved to Hodnet where he devoted himself to the pastoral work of the church and became a strong supporter of overseas missions. In 1814, he refused an appointment as Canon at Durham Cathedral preferring to commit himself to the quiet parish ministry, to his poetry and letters. However, in 1823 Rev. Reginald Heber was persuaded to take up the appointment of Bishop of Calcutta.

Reginald Heber’s two best known hymns are ‘Brightest and best of the sons of the morning’ and this one, ‘Holy, holy, holy!’ The poet laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson called it ‘the world’s greatest hymn’.  It takes its inspiration from Isaiah 6:1-5, where the prophet sees Christ seated on the throne and the hem of his robe filling the temple, then Isaiah cries out: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

Today, we sing it in wonder at our thrice holy God who is both merciful and mighty, who in His power and love purifies us so that we can enter His glory. It is a wonderful hymn that addresses God with the grandeur He deserves:

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Who was, and is, and evermore shall be.

Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide Thee,
Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see;
Only Thou art holy; there is none beside Thee,
Perfect in pow’r, in love, and purity.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All Thy works shall praise Thy Name, in earth, and sky, and sea;
Holy, holy, holy; merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!

1 Timothy 4:11-16

The four authors of this group blog are all under-40 which in the context of the URC is a rare thing. One of the things that I’ve had to deal with in my ministry is the constant reference to my relative youth. It doesn’t matter how many times I reference the fact that I’m now around the age that Jesus was when he was crucified, or when John Calvin had written the first edition of the Institutes, or when George Whitefield was preaching to thousands, I’m still seen by some as a young lad.

I think Timothy must have experienced something of this. The qualifications for elders given in chapter three seem to indicate that being an older man is one of the pre-requisites for eldership. How can the church know if a man can manage his household, if he doesn’t have a household? And the church needs to have seen his life and example for some years to make the judgement as to whether he is qualified to lead God’s church. The very word “Elder” suggests someone who has a few grey hairs.

Yet, there were clearly exceptions, and Timothy is one. Paul tells him to “let no one despise your youth” (v.12). But how was he to do that?

One of the ways might have been to show his professional aptitude. He could have created a few new programmes for the church and organised them in a fantastic new way. He could have made a big fuss to the outside world to show how hip and trendy he was. But the advice that Paul gives is similar to what we hear time and time again in the New Testament. Keep your head down, carry on the essentials, persevere in the faith.

Timothy is to “set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (v.12). Rather than listen to the gripes about his age he is to continue walking in a godly manner. Everything that Timothy does must be conducted in love, faith and purity – not so easy to do when facing opposition.

He must also devote himself to “the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching” (v.13). This goes against the grain today as it did back in Timothy’s day. Christian worship is simple worship. There should be no fancy gimmicks. No focus on the praise band/organ/bagpipes. No stupid sketches, mime or liturgical dance. No staring at a stone until a candle burns to the end. No.

Have a minister read the scriptures, and then get him to preach on them.

There’s plenty of places to get the other stuff but nowhere where you’ll hear God’s Word unless ministers are doing their real job.

And Timothy is to persevere in the faith. He is to pay close attention to himself, ensuring that he is continuing to put his trust in Christ and no other. And we pray that we here at ReformationURC and other ministers wherever they are found, are not despised because of their youth but would be found faithful in the things which have been entrusted to us. The salvation of ourselves and others depends on it.