Author Archives: Paul Robinson

From the Squalor of a borrowed stable

As I read through the beginning of the four gospels I’m constantly thrown forward thirty years to Easter.  Matthew in his gospel reminds us that the name Jesus, means ‘Save people from their sins’ and that Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us”.  Mark misses the whole birth thing out, but instead begins with John the Baptist who is asking people to repent of their sins.  Luke weaves together Mary and Joseph’s story with that of Elizabeth and Zechariah, which in my mind reaches its climax as Zechariah sings aloud that a time is coming when sins will be forgiven and by the tender mercy of God a new dawn will break upon us.  And John in his grand opening reminds us on several occassions that Christ is full of grace.

All of which has made me ponder over what we sing about in our churches at Christmas.  Yes we’ve held nativities, and carol services, and Christmas socials, and playing in a brass band I know my way round many a Christmas carol at this time of the year.  And yet very few of them actually take seriously the connection that all the gospel writers made between Christmas and Easter.  They focus on cattle lowing, or our Lord’s conception (if that is what is meant by lo he abhors not the virgins womb), or the shepherds in their fields, even king herod’s terrorism.  Few carols present Jesus as anything other than a baby in a manger.  If they’re bold enough you may get some mention that he is the son of God, but few talk of the fact that this baby came to earth to save people from their sins by dying on the cross as an atoning sacrifice given by the mercy and grace of God.  If the gospel writers can get that across as the opening gambit in their proclamation of the Good News of Christ Jesus, is too much to ask for in a carol?

One carol (or perhaps its just a song) that, in my mind, balances the Christ of Christmas being the Christ of Easter is Stuart Townend’s ‘From the squalor of the borrowed stable’.  He begins like many of our carols, in Bethlehem that first Christmas:

From the squalor of a borrowed stable,
By the spirit and a virgin’s faith;
To the anguish and the shame of scandal
Came the Saviour of the human race!
But the skies were filled, with the praise of heav’n,
Shepherds listen as the angels tell
Of the Gift of God, come down to man
At the dawning of Immanuel.

Even here, Townend isn’t ashamed or frightened to recognise the baby in the stable  will suffer great anguish and the shame of scandal.  Following a second verse focussing on the amazing grace that the King of heaven is now the friend of sinners, walking our road, and feeling our pain, he goes on to a third verse:

Through the kisses of a friend’s betrayal,
He was lifted on a cruel cross;
He was punished for a world’s transgressions,
He was suffering to save the lost
He fights for breath, He fights for me
Loosing sinners from the claims of hell;
And with a shout, our souls are free –
Death defeated by Immanuel!

No wonder the final verse declares that Christ, the baby in the manger, is now standing in the place of honour taking his rightful place as the glorious King over all awaiting the Bride of Christ: the Church, to run into her lover’s arms, giving glory to Emmanuel!  I’ll leave you to be blessed by this music:


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 Pastor as Scholar & The Scholar as Pastor

Of the last five years, I spent four in theological college and latest one in pastoral ministry.  Whilst at college I enjoyed the engagement with scholarly material.  Translating and grappling over textual issues and interpretations, reading commentary upon commentary, and using my findings to shed light on doctrine, pastoral conversations, and perhaps most prominently in preaching.  Since beginning pastoral ministry, I have done less in depth study, partly because there are no essay deadlines looming, and partly because church management has a canny habit of taking over time used for study and reading.  However I still feel that there is to be a balance between scholar and pastor in each Christian ministry.  Why? Because we’re helping people to grow in faith of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was the pastor and scholar extra-ordinaire.  At the moment of Peter’s great revelation of that fact in John 6, “You have the words of eternal life.”, he quickly follows by “We have come to BELIEVE and KNOW that you are the Holy One of God.”  Believing is to some extent encouraged by the role of a pastor sharing their heart, and knowing, encouraged by the role of scholar sharing wisdom.

Given the fact I see my calling to Christian ministry in this way, I was delighted to discover The Pastor as Scholar & The Scholar as Pastor.  This short book began life as a conversation between John Piper and Don Carson back in 2009, and such was the usefulness of that conversation, they worked together to publish this book.  It is a very methodical read with each author taking up roughly half of the 110 pages.  First Piper, the Pastor as Scholar,  examines his route to being one of America’s leading pastors, and like my confession at the start of his post he starts by saying, ‘….don’t hold your breath waiting for me to say something about making room for academic scholarship in the busy life of a pastor.’  What he does do is explain what makes him ‘tick’ in Christian ministry – a pastor’s heart through which he has tried ‘to preach the whole counsel of God from his written Word, with a passion for Jesus and a love for {his} people.  {He has} tried to structure things so that the people are cared for in their needs and so that they learn to care for each other and reach out to the lost.’  What being a scholarly pastor for him is ‘that the greatest object of knowledge is God and that he has revealed himself authoritatively in a book; and that I should work with all my might and all my heart and all my soul and all my mind to know and enjoy him and to make him known for the joy of others. Surely this is the goal of every pastor.’

To actually reflect the thesis of the book, while Piper writes from the heart, Carson, the Scholar and Pastor, writes a rigorous introduction that covers questioning the terms of the title, and, amongst other things, sharing a little of his journey to scholarship.  The second part of his section, deals with frank observations and pitfalls for those in pastoral ministry whose heart, perhaps like mine, is driven by scholarly working.  He talks of the warnings of becoming a mere knowledge supplier to the troops on the front line, the dangers of working for plaudits, and the danger of forgetting the people.  He talks of how scholars need to recognise different gifts and above all remaining focussed on the gospel in the world.

Strangely I found both sections of the book insightful, challenging, and something of a reflection of what I hope and pray this ministry I’m called to may offer for God’s Kingdom.  Perhaps that response reflects the conclusion of the book, that ministry involves both a pastor’s heart and a scholar’s mind – it’s just important to recognise which way round your ministry ticks.  The book concludes with this paragraph:

So in charging pastors to be more serious about the life of the mind, and in challenging scholars to be more engaged with the life of the church, we conclude with this prayer, that all our thoughtful shepherding and all our pastoral scholarship may be to the great end of having the gospel message about Jesus dwell richly (Col. 3.16) both in us and in our people; that knowing Jesus would be the great end of all our pastoring and our scholarship; that we ourselves, in all our preaching, writing, and counselling, would continue to see ourselves as the great beneficiaries of his great grace; that into eternity we would be followers of Jesus more and more shaped, saturated, and transformed by his person and work.  To Jesus, the great pastor-scholar, be the glory. Amen

Wednesday Books: Matthew & Mission

I first came across Martin Goldsmith at Spring Harvest about eight years ago.  Having heard him give a series of talks that week, when I was next in a Christian bookshop, I was surprised and delighted to see this little (~200 pages) commentary on Matthew’s gospel.

With a Jewish heritage, thoroughly Gentile conversion to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and extensive, faithful and successful Christian missionary work in Indonesia, Goldsmith’s grasp of Matthew’s gospel speaking into a Jewish context not only sheds light and I believe truth, but also instils excitement that Good News of Jesus Christ can penetrate to the depths of the human heart.

So whether it be searching for light amongst the genealogy with which Matthew begins his gospel, hearing afresh Jesus’ message of the sermon on the mount, the call to mission, the response Jesus demands, the confrontations Jesus faces in Jerusalem, teaching about the end times, or his death and resurrection, Goldsmith shows how startling, glorious, gracious and revolutionary the gospel was for a Jewish population in the first century, and how that message is the one message of hope for the people of today’s world.

For example, Goldsmith’s commentary of Matthew’s account of Palm Sunday, in just two pages, covers much ground.  First he shows how this event fulfils the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9-10.  The Jewish Messiah is parading into the middle of the Jewish capital, and venturing to place the quote Matthew gives from Zechariah in context, Goldsmith shows that this foal mounted king has universal significance in proclaiming peace to all nations.  Goldsmith then highlights how thoroughly Jewish it was for the crowds to turn to Psalm 118, to declare him the royal Son of David, but shows the dichotomy that the same Jesus would be crucified for being the King of the Jews.  Psalm 118 is also full of assurance of the Lord granting success and Goldsmith adds, ‘it is a sad reality not only in the life of Jesus, but throughout history, meekness and humility do not draw the crowds like power and success’.  Psalm 118 also pictures the festal procession not only entering Jerusalem, but heading straight to the temple, which is of course what Jesus does, drawing crowds of people.  Goldsmith shows that Matthew’s emphasis on the crowds seeing the fulfilment of Psalm 118, leads to them being drawn into meet the Saviour of the world, but a Saviour who, when he gets to the temple, cleanses instead of performing some religious cermony, is rejected, causes a stir, but restores the relationship of worshipping people with God.  A fore-taste of that which is to come, and a picture for the church’s mission in the world, although just twelve, drawing crowds, to see the Saviour cleanse and restore lives through his grace and mercy.

Goldsmith’s commentary will not be the only one you will need to study Matthew’s gospel carefully, but I would recommend it as an important part of a pastor’s, bible study leader’s, or preacher’s library.  And when you can get a second-hand copy on Amazon for 1p……

1 Timothy 3:14-16

I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.  Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed amongst the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.

1 Tim. 3:14-16 (ESV)

Having taken us through the spiritual and practical c.v.’s required for those who are to serve the church as overseers (3:1-7) and deacons (3:8-13), Paul concludes this section talking about the nature of the church.  He’s hoping, longing even, to visit Timothy in Ephesus, but is likely to be delayed, and so the whole purpose of this letter is to describe how people are to behave in the church, whether minister like Timothy, elder, deacon, or member.  Collectively though, the behaviour of the people in the church are to reflect the three images Paul gives.

Firstly the church is the household of God.  The community of believers are a family.  They’re not just a collection of people, spectators at a football match, crowds queuing for some concert or museum, even a list of pastoral issues to chat through and aid.  The church is to be modelled on family.  We, in the church are to know people, not just stand next to them in worship.  We are to love one another, not tell them they;re sat in the wrong seat.  We are to respect everyone, long for the young to grow and develop in their faith, learn from the wisdom and experience of those who are older, work hard for each other, support each other in the work.  God doesn’t call individuals to himself and leave them by themselves, to fend for themselves, to grow by themselves, he places Christians in families, to support and love, encourage, and comfort each other.

Secondly the church is the church of the living God.  It is the best news that God is alive.  He’s not the dead and buried in a tomb, he’s not bogged down in endless religious ceremonies and regulations.  God is alive.  Today.  We are to be the church of the living God.  Where is this living God?  God declared to Joshua that the living God would be among the people of Israel, that he would be with them wherever they went (Joshua 1), and Paul elsewhere describes how with sanctification in the Holy Spirit, we ourselves become temples of the living God (2 Cor 6:16).  God dwells in us, when we meet together: in our worship, in the breaking of bread and sharing of wine, in the Word as it read and preached, in the family of God.

Thirdly the church is a pillar and buttress of the truth.  Buttresses support walls from the onslaught of wind and pressure.  They make sure a wall will not fall down due to sideways pressure.  The church is a buttress of the truth, making sure that the truth is not twisted or changed to humanity’s own needs, or infected with false doctrine, or even watered down so that the truth is simply as bland as no truth.  The church is a buttress of the truth and it is also a pillar.  A pillar supports the roof, literally holds it aloft.  The church is to hold the truth high, so that all may see and know the truth.  What is the great truth that the church is to buttress and loft high for all to see: that Jesus Christ was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, and taken up in glory (v.16)

The church of today faces the challenge that Timothy’s church did in Ephesus.  Can we be the household of God and the church of the living God and a pillar and buttress of the truth?  For it is easy for one or more of these to be lost from a local church or denomination.  A church that is simply the household of God, will be wonderful at looking out for each other, holding social events and welcoming everyone.  A church that is simply the church of the living God will only be concerned about meeting together to experience the holiness of God in its midst.  A church that is simply a pillar and buttress of the truth will be so concerned with knowledge and understanding that it fails to enlighten the spiritual life.  No, today’s church really must be the household of God, the church of the living God and a pillar and buttress of the truth.  Then it will be a church that is focussed on glorifying Christ in all its activity, and a church whose members will form a thriving community of people who are faithfully knowledgeable in the gospel and alive in the Spirit.





Business for the glory of God

Wayne Grudem if probably best known for his Systematic Theology – a great reference work of some 1,300 pages.  However this book, both in subject and size contrasts with that work.  Here is a short book of some 100 pages exploring God’s view of today’s business world and our responsibility within it.  That said the ability that Grudem has to bring a Biblical perspective to discussions to search for God’s truth is present in abundance in both books.

Business for the glory of God starts with the premise that the Bible upholds business as being morally good.  That’s quite a bold statement in today’s world, particularly in today’s Christian world.  Yet, having read this book, and worked within the financial sector in the UK, I, like Grudem, believe it to be true.  How?  Because Grudem, with Biblical insight and logic, shows that ‘many aspects of business activity are morally good in themselves, and that in themselves they bring glory to God- though they also have great potential for misuse and wrongdoing.’ (p.12)

The areas of business activity which Grudem considers are ownership, productivity, employment, commercial transactions, profit, money, inequality of possessions, competition and borrowing and lending.  In each of these areas he argues that in themselves these things can glorify God – for example, owning possessions can be a morally good thing, for those things can be used for the glory of God.  Yet in each chapter he also shows how the world of abuses business activity to glorify individuals instead.  So to continue the example, Grudem argues that owning possessions is, instead of something that glorifies God, something that divides, drives oppression of others, turns people away from the gospel, advance our own pride, greed or wealth.

If you work in business and are trying to balance God’s calling to work in that environment with the morality of the companies you own or work for, then this book will help you see how you can honour God in your work, giving him glory.  Equally if you look from the outside on the business world, and are critical of the system in which we live and work, and look to criticise or even protest against it, then this book will help you to support those working in business, and might guide you to see God’s glory in places you didn’t expect.

But what if Christians could change their attitudes toward business, and what if Christians could begin to change the attitudes of the world toward business?

If attitudes toward business change in the ways I have described, then who could resist being a God-pleasing subduer of the earth who uses materials from God’s good creation and works with the God-given gift of money to earn morally good profits, and shows love to his neighbors by giving them jobs and producing material goods that overcome world poverty, goods that enable people to glorify God for his goodness, that sustain just and fair differences in possessions and that encourage morally good and beneficial competition?  What a great career that would be!  What a great activity for governments to favor and encourage! What a solution to world poverty! What a great way to give glory to God!


Reformation Books: The Intolerance of Tolerance

Sometimes the title of a book really grabs you.  Don Carson’s The Intolerance of Tolerance does exactly that – summarising in just a few words the state of
today’s culture and church.  And in my opinion the book lives up to the title.

Carson’s main thesis is that there are two definitions of tolerance interplaying in today’s world.  There’s an old tolerance which accepts different views, and looks to engage those different views in conversation, argument and defence.  Then there’s a new tolerance that claims that no one view is exclusively true and that strong opinions are nothing more than preferences.  With these definitions in mind, and a host of examples from the legal and social world, Carson unpacks what happens when these tolerances interact with truth claims.  The old tolerance would say that either one of the differing opinions must be true, or through the conversation, argument and unpacking the truth is worked out and reasoned.  The new tolerance questions the existence of truth claims all together, and actually capitulates itself into intolerance when truth claims are under scrutiny.

One example of this intolerance of tolerance that Carson gives near the beginning of the book is that of the Co-operative Bank asking the Christian organisation, Christian Voice to close its accounts because its views were incompatible with the Co-op’s ethos.  Carson quotes the statement from the bank:

“It has come to the bank’s attention that Christian Voice is engaged in discriminatory pronouncements based on the grounds of sexual orientation….This public stance is incompatible with the position of the Co-operative Bank, which publicly supports diversity and dignity in all its forms for our staff, customers and stakeholders.”

Carson goes on to show just how incredulous this statement is: obviously supporting diversity in all its forms does not stretch to those who claim to hold a truth about sexual orientation which is seen as discriminatory.  In countless other examples most of which comes from legal cases in the states, Carson shows the implausibility and the contradictory nature of the new tolerance not least to mention the damage that is being done to society under the auspices of tolerance.

Having set this introduction Carson gives a historical overview of tolerance from the early church through to the 21st century, before considering how he feels traditional orthodox credal Christianity is on the receiving end of being told that its truth claims are not just unwelcome in the world, but are actively discriminated against by a culture driven by the new tolerance.  The areas which cause most controversy, and are given an airing by Carson are abortion, sexual orientation, adoption or IVF by unmarried couples, evangelism and even the public declaration of faith.  Carson goes on to show that despite the new tolerance which should incorporate all positions, actually in denying the existence of truth claims or so-called discriminatory actions, does nothing about the pervasiveness of evil in the world.  In the penultimate chapter he address the new tolerance’s effect on democracy and state, which has a strong American influence, but is nonetheless interesting from a British perspective.  In the final chapter Carson gives ten pointers forward for Christians who wish to remain within the sphere of the old tolerance but find themselves living in a world of the intolerant new tolerance.

Sometimes a book misses the mark of where culture and the world is.  Not this one.  In many aspects, some would say for its benefit, the URC, has whole-heartedly embraced the new tolerance: from advertising campaigns that radically welcome everyone, to open policies for churches to decide whether to hold civil partnerships, to a collective theology that is shifting from offering truth to the nations to suggesting we just hold different opinions together and don’t discriminate against anyone.  Carson shows the downfall of this stance.  I love the URC, genuinely, and feel called by God to offer myself for His work in this church.  If that church wants to heed the warning to reform, to re-examine what it is doing in light of scripture and its authority under God, then it would be hard to find a better place to start, other than scripture itself, than with Carson’s The Intolerance of Tolerance.  This book was written for us. Now.

1 Timothy 2:11-15

Thanks to my fellow bloggers, I have the delight of sharing my thoughts on perhaps the most difficult and controversial words in Paul’s first letter to Timothy:

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

When we hear words in scripture such as these, which seem counter-cultural in our society (women should be quiet and not exercise authority over men) or seemingly challenge doctrine clearly described in other parts of scripture (women will be saved through childbearing, as opposed to through faith), we have a spectrum of options available to us.  At one end of the spectrum we can suggest that Paul was writing in a culture so different to our own that these words are simply not relevant today and should be ignored.  At the other end of the spectrum, we can take every word of this passage as eternally true and therefore as literally relevant today as it was in Paul’s day.  The first leaves us in the dangerous position of picking and choosing which bits of scripture WE want to listen to, and the latter can lead to an isolated and seemingly ancient faith that speaks little in today’s world.  Most people would find their interpretation of these words somewhere between, which is what I suggest here.

In the previous passage Paul has talked about how men should pray ‘lifting up holy hands without anger or argument’ (v.8) and that women should ‘dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works [in] reverence for God.’ (v.10).  It seems to me in these verses there are eternal truths and cultural references.  The eternal truth in v.8 is that men should pray without anger or argument – prayer is not the place to settle scores with one another, but the cultural reference is that they should hold their hands aloft while they do it.  The eternal truth in v.10 is that women (for the sake of everyone!) should dress for worship modestly and decently, and clothe themselves in good works out of reverence for God, whilst the cultural reference is that they do that by not braiding their hair, wearing gold, pearls or expensive clothes.  And so I propose the same breakdown of cultural and eternal truths in the verses we are considering in this post.  The complimentary nature of the two sexes God uses to reflect his image is often described in the Bible in terms of authority and submission (in the same manner as the complimentary nature of the trinitarian God-head is described in terms of authority and submission).  Men and Women are different – complimentary, but different, and in any relationship, marriage, friends, colleagues, churches, that complimentary can be seen.  But in our personal relationships, male and female, made in the image of God, reflect the submission/authority relationship of the trinitarian God-head.  Me and my wife balance it like this – I’m in charge, but my wife is always right.  I have the position of authority in our relationship, but the authority only exists to support and build up what my wife believes is right.  This is the eternal truth of this passage – both male and female made in the image of God with complimentary roles in relationships.  The cultural reference here is that women should do that by being quiet, not teaching, or as other translations puts it, being silent.  Today, as in the case of dressing without braided hair, or having to lift your hands in prayer, the relationship between male and female and its complimentary nature does not have to be exercised through silent women.

This leads us to understand that v.13-14 describe the downfall of the whole of humanity – Adam for not taking responsibility and leading his wife in love, and Eve for being tempted.  This is no finger pointing at one gender of humanity.  Interestingly this could be carried through to the final difficult sentence in this passage in which most translations give the sense that the act of childbirth saves a woman.  However, these translations miss that in the Greek text, ‘childbirth’ (τεκνογονίας) is actually preceded by the article (τῆς τεκνογονίας), and thus could be translated ‘Yet she will be saved through THE birth of a child’, which may lead us to see salvation through faith in Christ after all.  Perhaps it is in that birth – that of Jesus born of Mary – that we see this passage come alive in understanding.  Mary, in quiet submission, but certainly not in silence; with humble heart, but certainly not in timidity or lack of steely courage and determination, gave birth to a child who would offer salvation to the whole of humanity through His death on the cross.  Interestingly of course, the final call to faith, love, holiness, with modesty, is given in the plural – male and female together – saved through Christ – called to be humble in heart and courageous for God.

These thoughts are a work in progress, and by no means are complete.  I thank John Stott, whose commentary on 1 Timothy & Titus in the Bible Speaks Today series has been invaluable in thinking through these verses.


Is a tune a matter of taste?

In recent posts the writers of this Friday slot on hymns and songs have focussed on the words, in fact we started this series off by considering how having words of good theology is of utmost importance in choosing and selecting hymns for worship.  There are other, not insignificant, but more practical matters to consider though.  One of those questions to consider is which tune we use.  This post will take, for example, Isaac Watts’ great hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.

When I survey the wondrous Cross,
on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
save in the death of Christ my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down;
did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?

His dying crimson, like a robe,
spreads o’er his body on the tree;
then am I dead to all the globe,
and all the globe is dead to me.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

The words to this hymn are so incredible that Charles Wesley is reported to have said that he would give up all the hymns he had written to have written this one!  With such amazing words, how significant is the tune?

Excuse an organist’s introduction….  If you look in most traditional hymnbooks you will see Watts’ hymn is set to a tune with the metre: LM (long metre, or 88 88).  This means that these wonderful words are written in verses of four lines composing of eight syllables each.  In the URC hymnbook, there are 53 LM tunes that could be used to sing Watts’ hymn.  They vary from Old Hundredth (usually the tune for “All people that on earth do dwell”) to Duke Street (usually the tune for “Christ is alive let Christians sing”).  Whilst it is often entertaining to try singing the words to a tune not so familiar, it makes you wonder why we sing the hymns to the tunes we are familiar with, and, what does a tune add to the praise of our wonderful God, beyond simply the words we use.

In most UK churches, the ‘set tune’ (i.e. the one that is usually printed alongside to the words) for When I Survey is the tune Rockingham.

It becomes apparent that actually in the case of When I Survey, the tune needs to be adaptable to the words.  So the tune needs to enhance the confidence we have in the theology of verses 1 and 2.  The same music then needs to bring us to the foot of the cross where are our emotions are hit in verses 3 and 4, when we are asked to See from his head, his hands his feet, sorrow and love flowed mingled down.  That same music then needs to lift us as we make a response in the final verse with our soul, life and all.  That’s tricky.  And is achieved to some extent in the tune Rockingham.  However it is very difficult to bring the reflection needed in verses 3 and 4 in this tune.  When leading a congregation from the piano or organ I often leave them to sing verse three unaccompanied, otherwise, I sense people make the commitment of the final verse without really having grasped the enormity of being taken to see Jesus on the cross first.  Maybe a better organist/pianist or a different arrangement would be able to achieve this!

If you’re reading this from the USA, you may well not know what on earth I’m talking about, because as I understand it, the set tune for When I Survey in America is usually ‘Hamburg’.

Another option is to use what most churches seem to call the ‘new tune’, O Waley, Waley.

Both these tunes are great for the need in verse 3 to be drawn to that point of utter dependence on Christ and his sacrifice.  However for me, it is hard to sing the words in the final verse, ‘Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small, love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.’ to a tune that draws me back to reflection, I want to be making a bold declaration at that point to the congregation around me and before the throne of God that I will give my all.

A further option is given by the natives of the land in which I know minister, Wales.  In the proud singing tradition there is here, the traditional Welsh tune to When I Survey is Morte Christe.

For me, I must say this tune ticks all the boxes: solid foundation in verses 1 and 2, reflection for verse 3 and 4 and a rousing and bold declaration in the final verse.  But there’s a problem.  No-one uses this tune in churches.  Why? Because the vocal range needed to sing this tune is usually beyond the capabilities of the modern congregation and not many churches have a male voice choir to rely on each Sunday!

So what are we to do?

Well here in Rhyl we have used all three of the UK preferred tunes to effect in different settings.  In a congregational setting, for collective hymn singing, we use Rockingham.  Partly because it is what people are expecting, and partly because in my opinion it covers most areas.  After the sermons here we often have a time of prayer and reflection, and I have used the O Waley, Waley tune, as in placing it there, I’m asking people to reflect on the Word of God, and come to response, and so the emphasis is on reflecting.  We have heard a recording of When I Survey set to Morte Christe at the end of a Bible Study.

It is important that the tune is right, so that the words sing straight into our hearts.  As we deliberate and choose hymns and tunes each week, let us praise God for the faithful servants like Isaac Watts who wrote these amazing words but also for Edward Miller (Rockingham), Lowel Mason (Hamburg), Emrys Jones (Morte Christe), (and potentially even the pagans who wrote O Waly, Waly) who each looked to bring Watts words of truth and response alive for us in music.



PS Apologies for the length of this post and including four youtube links – I hope it has been useful for you!

Out of the saltshaker and into the world: Evangelism as a way of life

Since evangelism by knocking on strangers’ doors became something that feels uncomfortable in society, the church has been searching for what should replace it as the evangelistic ‘method’.  The void has given many Christians the opportunity to back away from the dreaded ‘E’ word altogether, or else hide behind the smoke screen of “I’ll let my actions do the talking.”  The other response to this void in methodology is to carry on regardless, letting evangelistic conversations be filled with either cheesy Christian sound bites that give no depth, or alternatively lifetime long arguments about evolution, creation or of course whether we can be sure that God actually exists at all.  It is into this void, that Rebecca Manley Pippert, with years of experience working with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and UCCF, asserts that evangelism is a sheer joy, and instead of it being something you ‘wouldn’t even do to your dog’, she paints a picture of the delight it is to bring a non-believer into a relationship with God through the grace of Christ on the cross.

Don’t be fooled by her title, as much as Pippert asserts evangelism is a way of life, this is no “I’ll let my actions do the talking” smoke screen.  She offers a well constructed approach to evangelism that simply begins with the lifestyle choices Christians make.  Rooting ourselves in Jesus who was the most human of us all, but is also the Lord of all, she goes onto show how we as his disciples and evangelistic messengers should be radically identified with the world through love, and radically different from the world through holiness.  In these earlier chapters of the book, through careful study of Biblical texts Pippert shows that sharing the good news must grow out of a life following Christ.  Then, after a chapter considering conversational skills, she makes an analogy between evangelism and the three stages of cultivating the soil, planting the seed, and reaping the harvest.  The chapters covering these areas are filled with honest, helpful and insightful examples from her own experience, and as many practical hints as theological depth.  It is in this part of the book that you see that Pippert is not just suggesting we invite folk to join a club or society, or even a social activist group, but we are inviting them to hear the good news that Christ has died for them, and should expect folk to respond.

The final section of the book, the most updated section in this, the second edition, is filled with some reflections and hints for evangelistic work in the so-called post-modern era.  Pippert is aware enough to see that some will share their faith through reason and logic, and others through relating their own stories and testimony.  These two strands are brought together by considering the strength and power of the Spirit in evangelistic work.

The final two chapters speak quite intuitively to the United Reformed Church’s current situation.  I couldn’t help but feel that in her chapter ‘The witness of community’ a useful and thoroughly biblical approach to Radical Welcome is aired (which should of course just be ‘Welcome’), and the final chapter is a call to action – ‘Without a vision the people will perish’.

If the book has one down-side, whilst Pippert is experienced in her work either side of the Atlantic, most of her examples come from the American side.  However, the benefits, encouragement and practical ideas, based upon solid foundations, far out-weigh these minor cultural differences.  The appendices are also very useful with suggestions of evangelistic books and aids, some outlines of the gospel that are easy to share, and a very thorough and useful study guide.

Anyone who wants to be encouraged in evangelism, or wishes to encourage others, or even wants to lead a church in developing its evangelism needs to read and use this book.  Every elder and minister should have a copy.