The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

The invisible congregation

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Yesterday evening, I sent out a brief and innocent tweet: “Preaching to an invisible congregation is more exhausting than I thought.” I was surprised by the tide of earnest response that it garnered from tired pastor-preachers.

Why should that be? What can we—pastors and preachers, and congregations—do about it? Answering that question will tell us a lot about our theology of preaching and our theology of the church, for better or for worse.

We must first take account of the limitations of pre-recorded or even livestreamed preaching. Perhaps the best way to communicate this is to give a précis of what I said at the beginning of our video recordings yesterday. It went something like this:

We are grateful to all who are joining us (from our own congregation and others) but we need to issue a necessary reminder.

While some means are better than others, because they have more dimensions of communication, recorded videos, livestreams, and the like are not a substitution for the gathering of the church, but reflect an interruption of it.

Genuine biblical preaching is a living man among living men before the living God: it involves a supernatural reality along appointed channels—both preacher and congregation subject to the immediate operations of the Holy Spirit and both communicating with each another under his influence.

In the absence of a congregation, those dimensions of real preaching are stripped away; the livestream or recording further diminishes that reality because of the extra distancing involved.

We are not, therefore, trying to accomplish what cannot be done. We are not setting out to replicate, by electronic means, the vital spiritual reality of the gathered people of God in the presence of our God under the Word of God.

These efforts are not a replacement for the gathered church but a supplement for the scattered church.

The situation we face keeps us spiritually hungry; this temporary and limited provision stops us spiritually starving.

These scraps will, with the blessing of God, keep you going, but they should also make us long for the restoration of the weekly feast and the laying of the eternal banquet.

That gives something of the backdrop to the challenges we face. Without denying the care of our Heavenly Father, or the goodness of the Good Shepherd, or the might and mercy of the Holy Spirit, the simple fact is that this situation robs us of the normal means and channels by which this act of preaching is normally conducted. That dynamic preaching triangle—in which the Holy Spirit is operating along three planes, involving God and the preacher, God and the congregation, and the preacher and the congregation, each operating upon each other with or under the Spirit’s superintendence—is missing one of its corners.

For the congregation, the mentality of ‘going to worship’ is reduced. Under these lock-down and shut-in circumstances, we are being encouraged to maintain a routine for home-working, to get into the groove of labour despite being not in the normal place of labour. In a similar fashion, getting up, getting ready, and getting out for worship, going to a particular place for that particular activity, helps to put us in mind of what we are about.

Add to that the fact that the congregation is now typically in a different and potentially distracting environment. One of the advantages of Dissenting chapel architecture is its deliberately clean minimalism, removing many of the elements which might otherwise take our hearts off the preaching and hearing of the Word of God. Now, the inventive or unfocused mind will find and have a hundred ways still to do that … the animal outside the window … the number of panels in the ceiling or wall … the play of the sunlight … the preacher’s verbal tic … the agitation of the family with the young children … the reflection of light from a watch face. Been there, done all that! But, the fact remains that many church buildings are uncluttered spaces designed to focus the attention on the preaching. Our homes are not the same. There are all the things that we are accustomed to do, all the things that we would not have to worry or think about if at home. We lack the gracious pressure of a whole congregation helping to establish a reverent and attentive atmosphere. We can get up and brew up, we can pause the preacher, we can relax in our comfortable chair and drift away. There is also the novelty factor, especially for those who have children. The fact that it isn’t ‘church’ can make it harder for our children to adapt.

And then, the preacher himself is not there to engage with them, to pick up on the ebbs and flows of a congregation and its listening. This is no longer a mutually responsive environment. Perhaps they are tuning in to someone else who is not even their pastor and usual preacher, so he is not even preaching with them in mind. The reality of this particular under-shepherd feeding this particular flock which he knows and for which he is, under God, responsible, is gone.

The preacher is, perhaps, aware of much of this. It may be that he has some very similar challenges for himself, for many were attempting broadcasts from a study or living room or kitchen. He is not in his typical environment for preaching. Perhaps he is sitting when usually he is standing, behind a desk when usually behind a pulpit. Distractions which are usually absent (barring those of the congregation!) are now painfully present.

Or perhaps he is preaching from a church building, and he has only before him rows of empty seats (perhaps a few family members), or just a camera (perhaps not even an operator). (Our recording involves a quick jog to press a button and back to the pulpit.) Now he is missing all the cues which, under God, normally stir his soul. The regular rhythms of gathered worship which so often generate spiritual momentum are absent. Worse, there are no people, no faces, no responses. And he is, or should be, conscious that—whether livestreamed or recorded—he has to overcome, under God, some of the congregation’s disadvantages, wherever they may be and under whatever circumstances they might be listening. And so he begins to preach … except it’s barely preaching. His normal thinking and feeling are all undermined by the absence of that natural and spiritual give-and-take which characterises real public ministry. He never was a mere automaton, spouting religious words. He struggles to concentrate, to maintain intensity, he has no external cues for the ebb and flow of the sermon, no external prompts for getting, keeping, or recovering the attention of a body of people. He is not so much leading the flock to the green pastures as pinging vitamin pellets at them with a catapult. Perhaps he is not sure where to look—at the camera, at the seats, out the windows. He does not want merely to read, but he struggles to do more than speak. Everything feels flat, and there is a possibility that he will over-compensate, and try to do what—under the circumstances—is nigh-on impossible to be done, and end up not with a flat mess but with a hot one.

And, then, perhaps worst of all for him, he may have an opportunity down the line to watch or hear a recording of himself, which—as most preachers know—leaves us ready to crawl into a deep dark hole of mourning and regret (or maybe just a real deep, dark hole), taking perpetual vows never to preach again, let alone in front of a camera, for his own sake, and the sake of all whom he loves and whose sanity he cherishes.

And that leaves us with the last point of that dynamic triangle: God. This is a good place to be left! If it were not for our Lord’s blessing upon regular ministry, it would be at least as bad as that usually, if not worse. It is he who, by his Spirit, establishes all those connections and makes them lively with heavenly forcefulness. The usual means he has appointed are no longer in place. The usual channels of blessing are dry or blocked. But, as a well-established Confession of Faith puts it, “God in his ordinary providence makes use of means, but he is free to work without, above, and against them as he pleases.” Praise God that it is so! What we are doing is just not church, and it is not quite preaching, but that does not stop the Lord blessing the usual means under unusual circumstances, using unusual means to usual ends, or even using unusual means to unusual ends. After all, there are many saints in many churches who are genuinely unable to attend regular services, and the Lord in his mercy makes what would normally be limited means sufficient not just to survive but even to thrive. Why should be not be able to do the same, even under these circumstances, for all of us?

With all that in mind, let me offer some practical suggestions. Members of congregations might plan to meet at a regular time (if livestreaming, this may be already in place). Whether individually, or as a family, prepare to be in a certain place at the appointed time, with everything set up and, if possible, tested. Do not go full slob: wash and dress as you would for church. Minimise distractions where possible—no food or drink, silence your phones, do not be preparing a meal or worrying about other responsibilities. Pray before you press play. Focus on the preaching of God’s Word. You may not be worshipping with the church, but you are and still can be worshipping God. Some technologies allow for commenting and interacting. Perhaps it is worth leaving that alone, and focusing on the listening? Pray afterward, alone or with others, for a blessing on what you have heard. Use what technology is available to interact with others afterward: pick up the preaching with family or friends, maybe send the preacher a message of encouragement to remind him that someone human was engaged and engaging. Be thankful to God for the wonderful means that are available for you to obtain something. And do pray for your pastor. He is trying to feed your soul from a distance. He is like a shepherd looking out over distant fields, seeing his sheep from afar, chained up and only able to lob something good in their general direction.

Pastors, too, should perhaps seek to maintain, as much as possible, their usual routines, even if their sermons are necessarily adapted to the present crisis and its particular circumstances. It is no bad thing to wash and dress as if you were ‘going to church.’ If you can, sing and pray, even if alone, so that your soul is stimulated and enlivened by those spiritual exercises. Whether at home or in a church building, it may help not so much to imagine as to visualise the congregation. Remember the faces to which and the lives into which you are normally preaching. In the same way as you normally preach to the people who are or who you wish be be in front of you, and not the people who might listen later, on this occasion speak as if to the people who are normally in front of you, regardless of who might hear it otherwise.Do not so much speak to a camera as through it. You may need to speak more briefly and pointedly, both to help you stay engaged and focused, and to help those hearing or watching to do the same. And then, when you have finished, do what you usually do—go to God with all your failings and feebleness, and ask him to bless what will lie dry and dusty on the surface of the soul without his gracious ploughing to carry it home and his refreshing mercies to cause it to spring up into life. Expect to be drained, perhaps in different ways or in different aspects of your humanity to the usual. Make sure you rest, and think about your labours, and learn how better to communicate truth under these circumstances, for as long as they may last. How thankful we should be that, though we may be physically far from the flock of Christ, we can still bear them up in our hearts, knowing that the Good Shepherd has promised that he will be with them always, even to the end of the age!

When all is said and done, do not expect it to be real church and do not expect it to be real preaching. Even with the blessing of the triune God, it cannot and will not be that. And so, let preacher and hearer alike be stirred up to eager anticipation for the day when we can once again see each other face to face, so that your joy may be full (2Jn 12), and when we—together in the presence of God—hear the word of life once more.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 23 March 2020 at 16:34

Planning like immortals

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How are you planning under these present circumstances? Some, it seems clear, are not planning at all. If this life is all, and if there is nothing else to worry about, if—in short—the dead do not rise, then, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” (1Cor 15:32). It is hard not to see that attitude in the thoughtlessness of many, even if the words themselves are missing. They have barely considered the implications of mortality.

Others, more cautious, are making more careful preparations. Have you noticed, though, what you assume in making your plans? If you are anything like me, you instinctively assume that you will be fine. That you will not have to self-isolate. That you will not fall sick. That you will not be hospitalised. That you will not die. We plan like immortals.

In fact, most of us always have. We have said, in effect, what the people of James’ day said: “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit” (Jas 4:13). We have lived our lives as if our tomorrows were assured. To some extent, we still do, despite the disease sweeping the globe. Most of us, I imagine, are still planning on the assumption that we will be fine. Perhaps the old and the weak might struggle; perhaps the foolish and the feeble might be swept away. We, on the other, will batten down the hatches, and we shall emerge when the storm is past. It goes for the selfish stockpiling and panic purchasing that is blighting our communities with ugliness and distress. The assumption of all that selfishness and greediness is that I will be alive and well to enjoy the fruits of my investments.

And what was the warning that James issued in his day? Yes, you have made your plans to go here and there, to do this and that, but “you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (Jas 4:14). We plan like immortals, but we are feeble and frail. We plan like immortals, but we are the dust of the earth. We plan like immortals, but we cannot guarantee a moment of our lives under the best of circumstances. In this present season, we certainly cannot presume upon the future.

What is the alternative? It is not wrong to make preparations for tomorrow, and this situation should not freeze us with fear or debilitate us with despair. But we ought ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that” (Jas 4:15). It was always true, but it ought to press upon us now, that our times are in God’s hands. We should make our plans in conscious dependence on him. When I remember this, it makes a difference to the way I plan. I still prepare a sermon, but I am conscious that I may not be alive and well to deliver it. I no longer presume that I will stand to preach, but I urge others to be ready, and to be ready to be unable, too. And, when I have planned, I ask that the Lord might preserve me, if it be his will, to do what I have planned.

I still make my plans to care for my family and God’s flock, but I take pains to make sure that—as much as lies in me—I am prepared both for the best and for the worst, not least by committing all to the hands of God. We have drawn up our timetables for schooling at home, we have thought about how to care for our neighbours, we have made some preparations for various aspects of encouraging and comforting and evangelising ministries. We want to be ready for what lies ahead. But, after all my best planning and preparing, I still need to sit back and say, with all humility, “If the Lord wills, I shall live and do this or that.”

For some, this may be a shift in our whole outlook, and a most necessary one in these days. To presume that all will go well with you is to “boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil” (Jas 4:16). It is to plan like an immortal. And I am not.

The repeated imagery of the Scriptures for the life of man is that of something fundamentally fragile and frail: “As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more” (Ps 103:15–16). It is not morbid for me to remember this in these days; it is wise. It will keep me humble.

So, God helping me, I will plan like a mortal. So should you. When it comes to the matters of this life, we should make our plans wisely and carefully and selflessly, and write above every moment, “If the Lord wills.” And there is a yet more careful preparation that we all need. If I am to plan like a mortal, I need to prepare for my death. For this will come, one way or another, and the dead do rise, either to the resurrection of life or to the resurrection of condemnation (Jn 5.29). There is only one proper and adequate preparation that I can make, and that is to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, who only is able to deliver, not merely from sickness, but from sin and death and hell, and to grant eternal life, a true and happy immortality. Let us not, then, live boastfully and arrogantly. Let us not now plan like immortals. Let us remember that we are dust, and let us prepare by faith to live righteously and to die confidently, trusting in the Lord, in whose hands is life everlasting.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 20 March 2020 at 12:15

A way to pray

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Although it seems a long time ago, it was less than a week back that I suggested a day to pray: Sunday 22 March 2020. Since then, much has changed, and church members are now largely distanced if not entirely isolated from each other, at least physically. If you were and still are hoping to embrace this opportunity, let me suggest—under these particular circumstances—a way to pray.

praying-hands-2

With some possible and slim exceptions, this will not be the gathered church at prayer. That does not stop us praying, because—while it may be particularly sweet and profitable to gather for prayer—we are not hindered by being in or out of any particular place, nor by being few or even one. That said, and acknowledging again that we are not heard because of our many words, nor because of many voices, there are particular encouragements in knowing that others are gathering together at the throne of grace to express, with one heart and one voice, the hopes and desires of our souls.

If you are a preacher, and wish to stir the hearts of the saints, might I suggest a sermon that is intended, under God, to direct us toward God with zealous faith. If you are a hearer or a reader, listen to something or read something that will, under God, have the same effect. I know that I have often preached on prayer, so I am confident that the saints I serve can easily find something along those lines, and I trust that the same will be true for you with your pastors. Likewise, there is such a wealth of excellent printed material on prayer that I hesitate to make any specific recommendations, but let it rather be briefer and warmer than longer and cooler.

Then, while it would be good to spend much of the day with an eye and heart heavenward, I also recommend setting aside particular times and finding a particular place, alone or with others, where you can give yourself to prayer. My intention is to be praying at the hours of our morning and evening worship (because I currently anticipate being at our church building at that time, I will incorporate it in the labours of the moment). If it helps, for me that will be about the hours of 11am and 6pm (GMT).

Find somewhere you can minimise unnecessary distractions; gather as a family if you can, or if you have friends willing and able to do so. If alone, it may be helpful to pray aloud, simply as a help to maintaining your focus and keeping your heart from wandering. If you are not accustomed to protracted seasons of private or communal prayer, then it will be better to pray briefly and often, occasionally and fervently, rather than to meander and struggle and feel as if you are making no progress. Expect prayer under these circumstances to be as much of a battle as it usually is, or more so.

If you choose to add fasting to your praying, then I would recommend reading this little piece by Samuel Miller, valuable particularly for its brevity and clarity and spirituality. It may help to know how to make the most of such an investment.

And how should we pray in substance? I am wary of over-regulating this, not least because there will be not only far more general petitions than I could begin to suggest, but also countless local, specific needs that will need to be brought before the Lord. However, if you are looking for a starting point, here are some suggestions, arranged around five points of adoration, humiliation, confession, appreciation and supplication.

Adoration

  • To the God who dwells in heaven and who does whatever he pleases (Ps 115:3).
  • To the Lord who kills and makes alive, who brings down to the grave and brings up (1Sam 2:6).
  • To the Lord who has, in mercy, not dealt with us as we deserve (Ps 103:10; Jon 4:11; Ezr 9:13).
  • To a God who is ready to hear the cry of his saints, and who is able to bring good out of evil (Ps 50.15; Gen 50.20).
  • To a God willing able to save all who call upon him, delivering from sin, death and hell (Ps 86:5; 145:8; Rom 10:8-13).

Humiliation

  • Because we are feeble and frail creatures who have forgotten our weakness (Ps 103:14-16).
  • Because it has taken such a season as this to bring us to God in this way.
  • Because we have imagined ourselves self-sufficient when we are utterly God-dependent.
  • Because we have placed too much trust and found too much satisfaction in the passing things of this passing world.
  • Because we are now utterly exposed in our need, and have no other recourse but to God.

Confession

  • That we deserve far worse than we receive, being sinful in nature and sinners in deed.
  • That we belong to cultures and societies who deserve the fiercest judgments, and that often our sins and our failings as God’s people are reflective of those around us.
  • That we have too often relied upon the arm of flesh rather than the Lord our God, and will be tempted to do so again.
  • That we struggle with sinful doubts and fears concerning the government and goodness of God.
  • That we have not been faithful as we should have been in warning and urging our neighbours as we should have done concerning their perilous condition outside of Christ.

Appreciation

  • That God, our God, remains in absolute control of all these events, and that we are safe in him, and can urge others to run to him to be safe.
  • That God has granted so many gifted people who are doing so much to hold back, treat, or cure this disease, and for the means we have at our disposal to survive and even thrive, spiritually and physically, during this season.
  • That, in large measure, our children are being spared death, and that so many people seem likely to recover.
  • For the common grace behind the courtesy and kindness which still characterise parts of our culture.
  • For the distinct opportunities we have been given to point men beyond what can be seen to what is unseen, and beyond what is temporary to what is eternal.

Supplication

  • That the Lord would be pleased to hallow his name, advance his kingdom, and secure his glory by all these events, and in mercy turn back the judgments he is sending on the nations of the world.
  • That he would grant grace to his saints to this end during this season, and that this experience would recalibrate our priorities not just for this season, but for all our days.
  • That we would be delivered from a spirit of fear, and rather know a spirit “of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2Tim 1:7), being characterised by genuine faith, manifesting a calm confidence in the God of our salvation.
  • That any time in which we are laid aside, whether well or ill, would be of lasting profit to our souls, rather than a season of decline and drift.
  • That believers who may, in addition to being in isolation, be genuinely isolated, might also be kept in good heart by the Lord, not least through his people’s love, and that Christians in difficult family situations, especially with unconverted family members, might bear a gracious and effective testimony during these days.
  • That Satan might be kept from sowing seeds of spiritual distance, discord and division among church members over any period of extended absence from one another, and keep our love for God and for one another bright and strong.
  • That the Lord would be pleased to spare the lives of his people, or to supply all needed grace that we might die well, and to spare those outside his kingdom who otherwise would be ushered into hell.
  • That he would give particular wisdom to the civil authorities and all those under their direction, concerning all the measures for control and eventual prevention and cure of this disease.
  • That our country might be spared panic and disorder during this time.
  • That this would be, in particular, a means of convicting, convincing and converting many who would otherwise have had no regard to their undying souls.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 19 March 2020 at 08:37

Luther walks the line

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I know the world and his wife have already shared this, but I so appreciate the calm confidence of Luther here, as—amidst the bubonic plague—he walks the happy path of faith, far from either folly or fear:

I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbour needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See! This is such a God-fearing faith; it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.

The whole letter is here, with the quote at the bottom of page six.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 19 March 2020 at 07:45

Posted in General

Sing in faith with Ryland

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john-ryland-jrThe Baptist pastor and teacher, John Ryland, wrote the following hymn in 1777. I have updated the language slightly, and suggested a couple of tunes (one more assertive, one more meditative). I draw your attention to the line which I have as, “Mortal dangers round me fly.” Ryland’s original? “Plagues and deaths around me fly.” Sometimes an update loses a little something, so feel free to revert to Ryland at that point. May these timeless truths prove a help and an encouragement to God’s people during these days!

St. Bees / Aberafon 7 7. 7 7

Sovereign Ruler of the skies!
Ever gracious, ever wise!
All my times are in your hand,
All events at your command.

His decree, who formed the earth,
Fixed my first and second birth;
Parents, native place, and time—
All appointed were by him.

He that formed me in the womb,
Guides my footsteps to the tomb;
All my times shall ever be
Ordered by his wise decree.

Times of sickness, times of health;
Times of poverty and wealth;
Times of trial and of grief;
Times of triumph and relief.

Times the tempter’s power to prove;
Times to taste a Saviour’s love:
All must come, and last, and end,
As shall please my heavenly Friend.

Mortal dangers round me fly;
Till he bids, I cannot die:
Not a single arrow hits
Till the God of love permits.

O Most Gracious, Wise, and Just,
In your hands my life I trust:
Have I something dearer still?
I resign it to your will.

May I always own your hand,
Still to the surrender stand;
Know that you are God alone,
I and mine are all your own.

You at all times I will bless;
Having you, I all possess;
What in truth a loss can be
Since you will not part from me?

John Ryland

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 18 March 2020 at 07:36

Social distancing and gathered worship

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What now? What next?

As expected, everything is shifting quickly. What I wrote just a few days ago may still be helpful in principle, but the practice is now challenging. In the UK, the government has given vigorous advice not to attend social gatherings (still only counsel, though strong counsel). I understand that in other parts of the world religious gatherings have been forbidden (by clear command). I expect, too, that everything will shift again quickly, and keep shifting, and we shall have to keep thinking out and applying our principles.

Please bear in mind that I am not suggesting here how we are to interpret these events, nor how we are to preach to them. That, perhaps, is for another time. This is about our attitude to meeting together under the present constraints.

It is important to remember, before we consider anything else, that government counsels and commands under these circumstances are not religious persecution as such. They may not be welcome, and we may be instinctively and strongly averse to them, but we should not put them, at this time and under these circumstances, in the wrong category. The governments of the world are, by and large, doing what they ought to be doing as ‘good’ governors, seeking to take care of those entrusted to their oversight. While I appreciate that almost no secular government has any real sense of what real Christianity involves, and that they lump all ‘faith communities’ and ‘religious gatherings’ together, I do not think we should instinctively resent these strictures.

Taking into account what I said before about respecting the counsels and commands of the civil authorities, I wonder if it actually makes things less complicated if we almost strip that issue out of our consideration.

What if we boil it down to this? “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mk 12:29–31). Both of these will intertwine in this discussion.

Keep in mind, too, some of what we said before about principles of Christian liberty, and what it means to extend to others a proper freedom to act in accordance with an instructed conscience. This is difficult, because a member might not necessarily believe that the elders have chosen the wisest course, but should still be willing to embrace that course (provided that there is no question of the elders recommending something sinful, which may be a discussion that is required). None of us have the liberty to lord it over the consciences of others, and we must not allow our liberty to shackle others. You do not have the liberty simply to ignore your elders or trample upon the souls (and bodies!) of others, any more than you have the liberty to raise your fist against a government seeking to do its job well in a nightmarish environment. In this, “do not let your good be spoken of as evil” (Rom 14:16).

The key points in the UK are as follows:

  • everyone in the UK is now being advised to avoid “non-essential” contact with others and “unnecessary” travel.
  • people are also being asked to work from home “where they possibly can”, and avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and social venues (in a question in the House of Commons, this was explicitly applied to gatherings of the church.
  • people are now being advised to stay at home for 14 days if they, or anyone in their household, has either a high temperature or a “new and continuous cough”.
  • people in at-risk groups will be asked within days to be “largely shielded from social contact” for 12 weeks.
  • the UK is to scale up coronavirus testing in the coming weeks.
  • from tomorrow, mass gatherings will no longer be provided with emergency workers.

Notice this is still only governmental advice. It is currently counsel not command. How, then, ought churches to respond to this? (I recognise that in other countries, this is already a done deal, and that counsel has become command.)

First, what does it mean to love God?

As I suggested before, believers should commit to doing all we can to obey God’s commands and embrace the privileges of the saints. We must plan and prepare to make the most of every opportunity for this, now and under any future circumstances. To love God means to desire him and to delight in him, and that is nowhere more fully expressed than in the gathered worship of the church. There we hear his voice; there he lifts up the light of his countenance upon us, and gives us peace. That means a predisposition to gather together to worship him. The first four commandments require us to place God first, to put our trust in and worship him alone, to honour his name above all things, and to serve him with our time and energy on six days of the week, and to gather with his people on the day appointed for his worship, when not providentially hindered from doing so (I think it is worth pointing out both elements of that, not least because we have to contend with the government imposing certain restrictions not just on the one day but on all the days, and we might at least consider whether or not we are being consistent).

But, we are not a social gathering in the casual sense of the phrase. There is a vital spiritual dynamic at work which God’s people cannot afford casually to neglect. For these reasons, I do not think that we should quickly assume that absolute cancellations are the only way forward. At the same time, we are a gathering in which we will have quite prolonged and close contact, under normal circumstances. That will carry us to our concern for neighbours below. Even then, we should remember that many of us are likely to get this disease, or have already got it, and may be able to meet again afterward before too long, if we recover. We should remember the witness we bear to those around us by how we live, and what our priorities are.

Love to God does require a proper respect to the government that he has appointed, within the terms of the fifth commandment (which has application to the way in which we both exercise and respond to God-given authority). Among the things which we should do on the Lord’s day is to pray for our government.

Furthermore, love to God requires us to preserve his reputation, as it is carried by the church, both positively and negatively. We do, perhaps, need to take account of the fact that religious services of some kind proved a catalyst for major outbreaks in both New York State and South Korea. We must therefore avoid giving the impression that we are creating or exacerbating (even deliberately) an otherwise avoidable problem.

Loving God also means honouring his ability to bless us outside or beyond the ordinary means that we typically use for our spiritual wellbeing. Would we deny that God has, for example, been pleased to sustain the spiritual health of men and women who have been, perhaps for years, cut off from the normal means of grace? Can he not do the same under these unusual circumstances?

Second, what does it mean to love our neighbour?

It means, first, that we ought not to risk our own lives or the lives of others unjustly or carelessly. Whatever faith in God means, it does not mean the kind of bravado that flaunts itself. Whatever we do, we ought to take all reasonable precautions to protect and preserve health and life (in accordance with the sixth commandment). Anyone who does exercise their liberty in meeting should not make the gathering itself, or our behaviour at it, an act of bravado rather than of faith. Temple-jumping is not faith but folly – it is testing the Lord your God (cf. Mt 4.7). So, for example, if you choose to gather, you should observe not just the niceties of social distancing on the smaller scale, but take stringent and even aggressive measures to avoid any risk to health and life.

With this in mind, if you are at risk or a risk, you should act out of love to others, and absent yourself for whatever period is wise. If you are obliged to exercise your liberty in not meeting (with good reason), then you should do all you can to make the most of the Lord’s day, taking advantage of every means to enter into the spirit and purpose of the day. (Indeed, you should consider the best use of any other discretionary time forced upon you.) All those who are manifesting any signs of this sickness, or are within those periods of necessary wariness, should not attend; neither should those who fall within the ‘at risk’ or ‘high risk’ categories. If we can maximise the distance between those who appear to be a risk and those who are at risk, we can act with a clearer conscience.

We also need to think about the positive effect on our neighbours of continuing to worship God. Perhaps, for some, this will be the first time they have ever truly considered their mortality, and they need to know the God who saves. Perhaps the fact that we value God above all things, and place his worship so high on our list of priorities that, even in such a time as this, whether corporately or individually, we will organised our lives around its centrality, will be a blessing to them. Let them hear our hymns of praise sounding from our homes during the week and out of the church on the Lord’s day, even if only from a few voices; let them know that we are praying for them and for others; share with them opportunities to hear the Word of God immediately or remotely!

Elders, in making these decisions, must take into account that different congregations have different compositions. A congregation composed mainly of elderly saints might need to make some more radical decisions than one composed mainly of younger folks. If there are an unusual number of sick people scattered among the congregation, that will have an impact. If there are a number of spiritually immature people (whether a risk, at risk, or just a risk-taker!) who mistake folly for faith, pastoral instruction, admonition and rebuke might be necessary. If there are people of over-sensitive conscience, their consciences might need to be instructed.

It means that we need to use all the means at our disposal to feed the souls of God’s flock and to call sinners to repent and believe. Whether that means personal visits (within safe parameters, including standing six feet down the path!), regular calls, employing available technology to provide audio and video livestreams or recordings, or whatever it may be, we must not neglect to care for one another, body and soul. We need to press home upon men and women the fearful judgements of an offended God, and plead with them to turn from their sins, before a worse thing comes upon them. We need to explain that such horrors as these are the birth pangs of the great and terrible day of the Lord. The greatest love we can show to God and to neighbour is to preach the truth of his wrath against sin and his mercy toward sinners, of the salvation to be found in Christ for all who repent and believe, of the horrors of a looming hell and the glories of a promised heaven.

So, what will that look like for the church I serve? We have already stripped down to the bare minimum in terms of meetings and gatherings, a skeleton of Lord’s day morning and evening services of worship, and a Wednesday night prayer meeting. At this point in time, and unless and until the government’s advice changes again, I am anticipating that we shall do all we can to maintain that pattern, urging those who are a risk and at risk to take care of themselves and others by staying away, and enabling others to gather if they deem it wise and proper. We shall open the doors, probably a little earlier than usual. We shall encourage people to enter as individuals or tight family units, and sit accordingly, following stringent principles for social distancing, sitting apart from each other within the building. For the prayer meeting, we shall pray simply, successively, straightforwardly, and then leave quickly. On the Lord’s day, we shall do what we can to embrace all the normal scriptural elements of worship, but we shall probably do so in a more minimal fashion than usual, without feeling that anything is missing. We shall broadcast or record (both, if possible) our praying to the Lord and our preaching of his truth, so that God’s people can, in measure, enter in. While we appreciate the many good resources out there, I am God’s undershepherd in this place, and this is his flock under my care, and—God helping and sparing me—I am going to preach to the people I know and love until I cannot. When we have finished worshipping, we shall dismiss as individuals and families, giving people time to wash their hands and clear the building one after the other. And then we shall do it again when the next occasion comes.

And if we are actively forbidden for a time, for what appear to be good reasons, from meeting even like this? Then we shall consider meeting in the open air, well spaced out. And if that, too, falls under the ban? Then I shall probably go, perhaps with my family, or alone, to the church, and I shall preach my heart out to the saints and the sinners whom I love, even if they are not present, and I will use all the technology at my disposal to ensure that they hear it. And if I am obliged to self-isolate or to stay at home, or fall sick, then I shall either ask someone else, or tell everyone else to stay away, and then go and preach, or I shall find some way to preach at or from my home, so that the saints will be fed and the sinners warned. And if the Lord calls me home, I trust that someone else will take my place, and keep preaching his saving truth. All of this, if the Lord wills.

[A clarification drawn from a note to the church I serve: “Bear in mind that, as a scattered body, we are not trying to replicate what it means to be with God’s people gathered for worship; we are trying to minimise the impacts of our being scattered.’]

In doing this, I trust all of us who are involved, and who cannot be involved, shall be glad to remember that social distance from the saints is not necessarily spiritual distance from God. We shall remember that we may be absent in body but present in spirit, or that others are entering in from afar.

And, I hope, it will impress upon us who have become too accustomed to our privileges and too presumptuous concerning our blessings, that there is nothing on this side of heaven more like the heaven to come than the saints of God gathered in his presence on his day to worship his Name. May days in which spiritual scraps may become the food of our souls teach us to crave the banquets with which once we toyed! May enforced absences teach us the blessing and beauty of the church as she gathers before her God! May it stir up in us, and in many more, an appetite for God and for his Word which shall never leave us, as long as we are left in this world.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 17 March 2020 at 21:26

Christian compassion

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Many readers might have seen the excellent ‘viral help’ leaflets circulating online, offering assistance to people who may be seriously disadvantaged by isolation or other effects of the virus. I also saw an excellent church leaflet by a friend in Northern Ireland which covered much the same territory. I wanted something fairly cheap and adaptable, something believers in various places could use.

I have therefore circulated the sheets below to the members of the church I serve, and I am posting them here in case they prove useful to others.

Here is the basic set up, an A6 card (with link to A6 pdf below) with space for personal and church details and offers of particular help, including copies of the Scriptures and contact with a local pastor. The versions I have created include our full church details and some relevant Bible texts on the back of each card, ready for double-sided printing.

Coronavirus help frontCoronavirus help front

Here is the full front sheet (with link to A4 pdf below), set up to print and cut ready for distribution. Again, the complete version has a second sheet with those church details lined up for double-sided printing.

Coronavirus help sheet frontCoronavirus help sheet front

Feel free to take these, use or adapt them as you see fit, and may the Lord use the trials of these days to open many ears and hearts to the good news of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 16 March 2020 at 22:50

Posted in General

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