The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Archive for the ‘Ecclesiology’ Category

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

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

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

The church and the plague

with 4 comments

“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honour to whom honour” (Rom 13:1–7).

“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Lk 20:25).

“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:24–25).

“Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss” (1Thes 5:26).

“But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge’” (Acts 4:19).

“You shall not murder” (Ex 20:13).

“But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise” (Lk 6:27–31).

And then the government said, “Thou shalt not gather, no, not for religious worship, not even on the Lord’s day.”

So what do we do? How do we proceed? Are we capitulating to anti-Christian authorities if we fail to gather together on the Lord’s day? Or are we honouring the authorities which God has put in place over us? Where and how do we obey the civil authorities, and how does that connect with our duties to the Lord our God? I have some kind of innate resistance to the idea of civil government regulating the worship of God. I trust that I have developed, over time, a principled commitment to being among God’s people on the Lord’s day, and making the most of those opportunities. However, I am most concerned to work out how to honour the Lord in all of this.

In this regard, I have read some amusing comments suggesting that, because—as is well known—all Europeans are basically socialists, therefore they will obey their governments without question, demonstrating mindless submission to their near-totalitarian authorities, whereas free Americans, of course, will resist their government the moment the big boys start throwing their weight around. Not quite following the logic there, but it seems a somewhat simplistic reading of the situation.

So, we are to be subject to the governing authorities, appointed by God. If we do what is good, we shall have nothing to fear from them. We are to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. All this would include recognising the measure of oversight and national direction a competent and well-disposed civil government might be able to provide, and at least honouring the government’s intentions to preserve the health and life of its citizenry, maintain the economy, and so on. So, for example, if the government assures us that it has stockpiles of toilet paper, we don’t need to go on binge-buying toilet paper on the working assumption (working suspicion?) that they are trying to deprive us of toilet paper and hoard it for departments and officials of the state. If the government, for the preservation of life, urges or requires that we avoid public gatherings, including religious worship, we have—at the very least—an obligation to take that into account. In doing so, it is proper to take into account the difference between counsel and command: the government might advise us to do something which we choose to do or not to do, or to do in a certain way. In such an instance, we have a little more freedom of manoeuvre.

But what if the government forbids what God commands or commands what God forbids? Does it make a difference if it is temporary and a matter of outwardly good governance? God has commanded us to meet as a gathered church, has appointed the first day of the week as the proper day on which that should take place, and has made sweet promises in connections with those gatherings. Our love for God would surely carry us toward a dedicated commitment to gathering with his people in his presence for his praise. If we are healthy saints, we will have both a sense of our proper obligation and a proper appetite for the worship of God together. And, when we gather, there usually ought to be proper expressions of affectionate fraternity among us—whatever may be the equivalent of the holy kiss. Indeed, we might argue that such times as these are times when the gathering of the saints becomes more significant, not less so, as we come together to cast ourselves upon God, and receive the spiritual sustenance our souls need to keep faith keen, hope bright, and love strong amidst these challenges.

Now, what of the sixth commandment? We are told not to murder, and that commandment requires (to employ the language of The Shorter Catechism) us to use all lawful endeavours to preserve our own life, and the life of others, while forbidding the taking away of our own life, or the life of our neighbour unjustly, or whatsoever tends toward that end. Earlier this year I was struck down, for what may be the first time in my life, with proper flu. I was in bed for about a week, careful about exposing others to any potential infection for several days after that, especially when resuming my public pastoral duties, and particularly careful about not visiting more vulnerable members of the congregation for a further period of time. Under normal circumstances, I would probably encourage people with a high level of sickness to take particular precautions about spreading their illnesses. While I do not encourage people to cry off the worship of God for petty reasons, if someone is sick (especially infectiously sick), then—for their own sake and that of others—they should probably ‘self-isolate’, to use the current jargon. In that sense, we are simply applying the regular principle to an irregular situation. If someone is either unwilling or unable to make a wise decision for themselves, perhaps some diaconal counsel would be appropriate, even to the point of advising them to return home for their own wellbeing, and that of others.

Then there are those principles of love to our neighbour which are the very essence of our obligations to our fellow men, and which lie behind the sixth and other more ‘horizontal’ commandments. In encouraging God’s people last Sunday to think through this, I emphasised that much of what is required is simply the extensive and intensive application of Christian courtesy as well as particular wisdom. This might include properly washing your hands, especially if handling food others will eat; not shaking hands, embracing, or whatever your equivalent of a holy kiss might be, if the other party is not comfortable with it, or obliged to refrain from it for their own sake or yours; not being offended by someone who wants to take more precautions than you; taking particular care around the particularly vulnerable, whether the elderly or those whose immune system is already compromised or whose health is poor; taking unusual pains with cleaning the church building, especially those spots or rooms where the transfer of a virus might be more likely. How would love to our immediate neighbour work out if the government were to forbid gatherings for religious worship, or gatherings over a certain size? In the latter case, some smaller churches might be fine, while others would be over the threshold. What about love to the souls of men? How do we regard their eternal wellbeing? Incidentally, loving courtesy and care should extend to our ministry to those within the congregation who might need particular assistance, should they be necessarily self-isolating, and so isolated, or in need of particular care. Are we ready, if need be, to risk our own well-being for the sake of our brothers and sisters? What of those who are outside the kingdom, and may go to face the judgement unwarned and uninstructed if we do not warn and instruct them? That is a question that all Christians, especially the pastors of a flock, need to answer in principle now, before a crisis presses it upon us. What if other congregations have pastors laid aside by sickness, or by sensible precautions against sickness? Are we ready to travel to minister the Word of God? Are churches ready to adapt their meeting times and circumstances in order to accommodate every proper opportunity to hear the truth which saves?

And what of celebrating the Lord’s supper? That might present a particular challenge. It may depend on whether or not you believe that the Lord positively requires that you come to his table every Lord’s day. If you belong to a church or group of churches which celebrate less regularly, or much less regularly, it might not make much difference. What about the use of wine as against grape juice? Would the presence or absence of alcohol help? What about the use of a common cup? What about breaking or cutting the bread into smaller pieces ahead of time, if you use a single loaf? Does any of that make much difference if plates or cups are being passed hand-to-hand? This will likely say something about our theology of the Lord’s table. If it is nothing more than a memorial, perhaps we might more readily dispense of it. If we approach it as something talismanic, perhaps nothing will stop us taking it (unless the perceived danger renders our superstitions void for the time being). If we consider it a genuine means of grace, we will doubtless acknowledge that we need and desire it now, of all times, but other considerations may influence how or when or how often we celebrate it. Of course, given that it is not an ordinance for families, mates, or small groups, but for when “when you come together as a church” (1Cor 11:18), it may be that—leaving aside the context of division within the congregation—you acknowledge that, under these circumstances, the church is not truly gathering (and I am not suggesting that you cannot come to the table unless every member is present). Perhaps you can simply wait until the hopefully brief storm is over.

Let us try to work out some principles and some practices. I would suggest that we should be eagerly disposed to gather for the worship of God. Our primary commitment and expectation should be that, whenever and wherever possible, we gather with God’s people for worship on the Lord’s day. Let that be your working assumption. Let all your planning and preparing be carried out with the aim of enabling God’s people to come together to worship him and enjoy fellowship with each other as regularly and easily and as safely as possible.

If such gatherings were to become ill-advised, actively unwise, or even temporarily illegal, how might we then respond? There are a number of possibilities. First of all, I would expect that anyone actually or probably sick with coronavirus or any other such disease would be taking care of themselves and others by embracing such an illness as a genuine providential hindrance to gathering. I hope that goes without saying. So what of others? Perhaps a church could gather outside, with families in self-isolating units, with the requisite or recommended space between them. It might be a wonderful opportunity for evangelising, especially if there were properties nearby from which people could hear the good news. I think of the centre of our neighbourhood, with a square space surrounded by benches. One bench per family unit? Others standing or sitting in the spaces between? The opportunity to listen from the surrounding homes? It may be that the church building is big enough or the congregation small enough for such a gathering to take place within the building, with people sitting apart from each other, and proper care taken about the possibility of infection from mutual touching of surfaces like door handles. Under any such circumstances, proper measures for minimising risk would be essential (including parents taking pains to make sure that their children are looked after in this respect, like the young lads last Sunday who insisted to me that they didn’t like hot water and so were not going to wash their hands properly). Perhaps hand sanitisers (if they are still available) could be put at entrance points, with regular written or spoken reminders of good practice.

We might need to do a little ecclesiastical triage. Perhaps we could begin by stripping back some of the added extras to the essential rhythms of church life. For example, the church I serve has a number of additional meetings during the week, over the course of a month, or as one-offs, which we might need to review. While part of me says it is all the more important to preach the gospel under these circumstances, it is not necessarily a good idea to try to gather a crowd of strangers into one room at such times as these. So, we might focus on the morning and evening gatherings of the Lord’s day, and perhaps also meetings for prayer, which become more pressingly needful.

If other options are more limited, technology might be a particular help. For example, could the preacher go to the church building with his family, if healthy, and any others willing and able to attend? He could preach so that it could either be live-streamed to those who are not able to gather, or even recorded and/or streamed if no-one else can attend? We know, I hope, that there are spiritual dynamics associated with the gathering of God’s people to hear God’s word that cannot be replicated or transmitted by digital communication of the event, but such options at least keep in the loop those obliged to be absent, and might provide a temporary alternative (perhaps some instruction as to the pros and cons of such an arrangement might helpfully be given). Some churches already do this as a help to people already unable to attend, and this simply extends that provision on a temporary basis. It certainly has an impact on celebrating the Lord’s supper, as outlined above. Presuming I am available (and making plans if I am not), I currently intend to be at the church building on the Lord’s day, perhaps ahead of the usual hour if live-streaming proves a challenge with our limited resources, and making sure that audio and video recordings of the ministry were available for people to tune in at the regular times in order to give them some sense of normality and some necessarily reduced but still profitable dimension of church life. If things became more difficult, perhaps an elder could provide some kind of broadcast or recording from home, ministering to God’s people so that they could at least feed from the Word of God. If such technology lies beyond the church, there may be other faithful congregations providing a service that the saints could employ and enjoy, though every step of distance from the regular life of the covenanted congregation may well diminish something of the blessings that we derive, though the Lord knows how to shepherd his people in all seasons. Take into account, too, that in some cultures and contexts, such technological shortcuts may simply not be available. For some congregations, there may be older saints without the apparatus or awareness to use such means, and they might be the very ones who need most care of body and soul.

And what if the civil authorities were temporarily to ban all gatherings, including for religious worship? What then? I think I would be content, for the time being, to employ some of the means above to maximise the opportunities to preach the gospel to as many people as I could, within and without the walls of church buildings, and by as many legitimate means as I could find or devise. I am not persuaded that extravagant displays of civil disobedience, under these circumstances, are warranted or wise. And if, down the line, such government intervention became coercion or persecution, then I would feel perfectly at liberty to resist with a polite and humble disobedience any attempt to prevent the exercise of my God-given privilege to gather with the saints to worship him, despite my previous acknowledgement of the government’s counsels or commands in another context.

And liberty is important. It is worth taking into account the principle of Christian liberty. Not everyone will make all the same judgements at all the same points at all the same places. Some of our hypochondriac brethren may well already be living in a sealed unit with a lifetime supply of tinned goods and toilet paper, and have decided that the gathering of the saints is simply too dangerous for them and their families. I might not agree, but—as long as this is not taken to foolish extremes—I am unlikely to rebuke them for non-attendance under the circumstances, though I might counsel a little more robustness, in dependence on God. We do not honour God by blind panic, though we should by a loving caution. On the other hand, some who boast in God’s sovereignty might choose to display their confidence with a sort of bravado or abandon, turning convictions about providence into a sort of carefree or miserable fatalism. I might encourage them to use the means God has provided for their wellbeing, and that of others, and need to rebuke them if they are risking the sixth commandment. There may be many times when we simply give people the option and the opportunity, and leave them to judge in accordance with the light that they have, remembering that we are, in a real sense, a voluntary gathering. Liberty is also corporate. Some churches will take a different line to the one which you might take; they are free to do so, under God, so long as they do not violate clear principles of scriptural conduct.

Bear in mind, too, that current indications suggest that this will be a temporary measure. If the figures we know are to be believed, such restrictions might only last for a few weeks, perhaps a month or a little more. If the restrictions were maintained for longer with good reason, then we might need to consider again how we respond. If they were maintained without good reason, then we might more readily return to our more default positions.

In all this we do need to remember that there is a God in heaven, who does whatever he pleases, in accordance with his goodness, mercy, wisdom, and love. Bear in mind that you could take all precautions, and still fall sick, or even fall asleep in Jesus. You might take no precautions, and remain well. Believing in the sovereignty of God should not make us careless of the use of the means that God has appointed to accomplish certain ends. Even Hezekiah, promised a recovery from his deadly sickness, applied the poultice of figs which the Lord appointed the means to the ends of his recovery (Is 38:21). Neither mindless panic nor thoughtless bravado will honour the Lord. Stability and even serenity belong to those who trust in the Lord.

So, commit to doing all you can to obey God’s commands and embrace the privileges of the saints. Plan and prepare to make the most of every opportunity for this, now and under any future circumstances. As and when the wisdom either or the elders (in the ecclesiastic sphere) or the government (in the civil sphere) dictates, you may need, temporarily, to make the kinds of adjustments outlined above, seeking in all this to “honour all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king” (1Pt 2:17).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 12 March 2020 at 09:19

The deal

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“I’m just not being fed,” s/he said. “This is not a very friendly church. No one really speaks to me. I am not the only one who feels this way. There are lots of people who are struggling. I’m just not sure that this is the right place for me. Why can’t we be more like Broadstreet Evangelical? I really think that I would be better off there.”

“I am very sorry to hear that,” said the pastor. “Might I suggest a deal? I recommend that you go to Broadstreet Evangelical for six months, but on the following conditions:

  • You must not arrive more than two minutes before any service begins. If possible, slip in just afterwards. You should leave as soon as it is over, or – ideally – just before it is properly finished.
  • Please do not attend more than one service a week, certainly not more than once on any given day. When you are able, miss occasional days altogether.
  • Please minimise all contact with others who attend the church. Avoid face-to-face communication at all costs, but – if possible – filter out any notes, cards, texts, emails, or any other such interaction. Cut right down on meaningful conversation.
  • You should not go to anyone’s home, nor invite anyone to yours.
  • Under no circumstances must you engage with the elders. Don’t call them or answer the phone if they call. If you can, wait until they are looking the other way or engaged with someone else before you leave. If necessary, find an alternative exit. Make all conversation as perfunctory as possible. Do not come to them for counsel, consult with them in difficulty, seek them out when distressed, or listen to their advice.
  • Cultivate a healthy sense of resentment (passive-aggressive behaviour is fine) toward anyone who might even begin to suggest that you could make some sort of contribution to the life of the church. Maintain the stance that your occasional presence is quite sacrifice enough.
  • If you must engage with others, seek out the least spiritually healthy in the church. As soon as possible, steer the conversation round to the faults of the church, her members, and her elders.
  • Maintain a healthy circle of worldly friends. Spend as much time with them as possible, going to all the places they attend, engaging in all the chatter they pursue, indulging in all the activities they embrace. Keep up a lively social media engagement with such.
  • Put the advice of friends, family, doctors, self-help books, and anything else really, above and before the advice of any spiritually mature Christian.
  • Should anyone seek to reach out to you to minister to you, cultivate unreliability: assure them of your best intentions, but evade, postpone, or cancel all such interaction with varying degrees of notice. Train them to expect you to seem vaguely positive but never actually available.
  • Sleep through some sermons.
  • Don’t read. Just don’t.
  • Don’t push yourself. You’re worth it!
  • Minimise private devotion, especially private prayer. Make sure that you are at least as busy with other significant demands as you have been for the last couple of years. Don’t read any ‘tricky bits’ from the Bible, and don’t overdose on the obvious stuff.
  • Take long holidays, and give yourself plenty of time on your return to ‘get back into the swing of things.’
  • Never volunteer. Avoid being nominated.
  • Under no circumstances make meaningful eye contact.
  • Look out for others now at Broadstreet who left this congregation for the same reasons as you are giving. If they are speaking, you might want to listen.
  • Also, if anyone at Broadstreet tries to pin you down, I would recommend an occasional visit to Gaping Lane Community Church. By all means be subtle, but make clear that if Broadstreet is becoming a little narrow, the open-minded congregation over at Gaping Lane might be the place for you.

“There’s some other stuff,” said the pastor, “but that should do for starters. It should not take a great deal of investment – no new skills to learn, no additional duties to embrace. Perhaps if you would be willing to give it a go for six months, and then come back and let me know how your soul has prospered and your walk with the Lord has developed? Then we can chat again. Deal?”

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 25 January 2018 at 17:21

The appeal

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Image result for image offering boxIf you have not heard it yet, you have probably not been online for a few weeks. If you have heard it once, you have probably heard it many times. For many organisations, institutions and associations, it is the time of year for the appeal. You know how it goes – something like this:

“The end of the year is fast approaching. The beginning of the next one is going to arrive a second later. For us, it is also the end of the financial year. And this is all the good we have done or tried to do, and this is all the good we plan or intend to accomplish. And yet … money is tight. With just a few pounds or dollars from many of you, or a good bundle of them from even a few of you, Ministry X can keep moving forward and can accomplish so much more in the coming months. Might I suggest a concrete sum or a specific goal to give you a sense of definition and accomplishment? Thank you! So, please, consider whether or not this is a cause to which you can donate. And, by the way, this is your last chance … for now!”

Before you respond to such appeals, I would also like to draw attention to an institution very much in need of your financial support. It is a longstanding institution in which you should have a personal investment on multiple levels, if you do not already do so. It generally stands in need of support, and does untold good, with the capacity for yet more good than can be imagined. It ought to have the first claim on your money.

I hope you know that I am speaking of the local church. This, my friends, is the one institution with direct divine sanction. It is the the one missionary organisation with a heavenly mandate. It is the one establishment with a celestial constitution. Its work is defined by divine fiat. It is the one body with a guarantee of perpetual existence and unending profitable service. And it is the one organisation which has the legitimate and primary claim on our financial contributions to the kingdom of God.

Please do not misunderstand me. There are many institutions and organisations which are doing fine work. Many of them are doing work that lies outside the remit of the church, and they deserve your time, attention and support. Some of them do not have the capacity or desire to clamour for your probably hard-earned cash. Some of them are known to thousands, some to few. Some of them are eminently worthy, others debatably so. You should consider supporting them financially, if you are able. I also understand that there are some avenues of service that are difficult to define in terms of the role of the church either as the direct instigator or overseer.

But that is not the point. The point is that the first call on your financial investment ought to be the church to which you belong for the work which the church is called to do. Beyond that, I would suggest that the second call ought to be the local church to which you belong for the work which that church is called to do. If you trust the elders and the deacons (one presumes that you do, if you belong to the church), and if they have a sincere and wise desire for kingdom investment (and I hope that they do), and if you have a little more that you wish to do (and most of us do), why not give a little more to that church of which you are a part? Most church officers and the congregations they serve already know where and how and why they might invest any further funds made available.

It is clear from the Scriptures that Christians should support the work of the Lord by systematic and proportionate giving made through the local church (Mal 3.8-10; 1Cor 16.1-2; 2Cor 8 and 9). Whether or not you take tithing as helpful principle, it is certainly indicative of the attitude of God’s people concerning giving to God’s kingdom. And what of gifts and offerings made according to one’s ability and willingness of heart (Gen 14.18-20; 2Cor 8.1-5; Ex 36.2-7)? Has there been no blessing from God, perhaps directly through the church and its ministry, for which a thank offering might not form part of an appropriate response?

And what of other churches? Do you know of congregations that are seeking to support missionaries or plant churches or erect or purchase buildings? Are there churches that struggle to support their pastors? If you have given all that you might and all that you could to your own congregation, might you suggest to the deacons that this could be a worthwhile investment? If your church is already involved in such support, and you have more in your pocket, why not pass it along independently and anonymously?

If, after that, you have discretionary funds or wish to make further sacrifices, then by all means go ahead. Might I suggest that you save those shekels for work that lies outside the remit of the church, rather than investing it in something that is replicating or replacing that work without a divine mandate? And, unless and until you find such a need, then look nearer at hand and, I hope, nearer at heart. Christ loves his church. It was to a church that Paul wrote concerning the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich (2Cor 8.9). It is in and through the local church that the first response to this example ought to be made.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 30 December 2016 at 16:25

Posted in Ecclesiology

Tagged with , ,

“Grace Alone” – a Sicilian report

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People gathered from all over Sicily, Italy, and beyond for the opening of the new church premises of Chiesa Cristiana Evangelica “Sola Grazia” in Caltanissetta, in the heart of Sicily. The building itself is beautiful, though it remains – in some of its details – a work in progress. Every major part of the whole is intended to communicate something of the truth of the church and its biblical convictions.

You enter the building as you reach the seventh step – hints of a Sabbath rest. The visitor walks through four ‘Gospel’ pillars into an octagonal meeting room, reminding us that the Lord Jesus met with his people on the day of resurrection, and eight days afterward. You come in from the west, leaving the darkness behind you. On the eastern side of the church, the pulpit is the focal point, and there the light of God’s Word is shining. Behind the pulpit are two windows, suggesting the Old and the New Testaments. Opposite the pulpit are three windows in front of one window. The light shining through the one also beams through the three, giving at least an inkling of the God whom we worship. On each side of the main hall are a further twelve windows, a nod to the patriarchs and the apostles reminding us of the church of all the ages, and the great cloud of witnesses about the church militant. All the light coming in shines from above. Simple decor and wise use of space indicate that the light of nature has also taught the people one or two things.

The grand opening began on the evening of Friday 2nd December 2016. The particular focus of this night was the immediate community, a good number of whom were represented in the crowd who filled the building, along with several local dignitaries. The first act of the evening was to go back outside for the unveiling of the stone plaque bearing the church’s name and the five key Reformation solas. Underneath, a bronze plate records thanks to the God of all grace, and to his people – known to himself – whose generosity has contributed to the erection of the building. Pastor Reno Ulfo spoke simply as the green cloth dropped from the plaque, and we all filed back inside.

The strains of “Amazing Grace” in Italian filled the building before Pastor Leonardo de Chirico (Chiesa Evangelica Breccia di Roma) opened proceedings. He spoke briefly and pungently of the purpose of the church, addressing the local authorities plainly, and broadening his gospel applications to all those gathered. It was both instruction in and an example of the priorities of the people of God. The local mayor responded, followed by one of his predecessors. Both spoke as politicians, but I thought that in both a note of personal respect and some interest could be detected. Certainly, this opens up a door of opportunity for the church. The fact that the building has been constructed without draining local civil funds – unusual for this part of the world – is a testimony in itself. Already this is established as a congregation that gives more than it takes.

Professor Bolognesi of Padova then briefly outlined the theological implications of the architecture. Pastor Reno went on to identify several people and groups who had made particular contributions to the building project. After this, a video history of the church was shown. Minor technical problems, typical of life in new premises, somewhat curtailed that exercise. I don’t believe anyone was too bothered, though, as it ushered in refreshments. Light and sweet Sicilian snacks paved the way for the heavy stuff – rice balls and varieties of pizza providing enough carbohydrates for the most demanding athletes, and with enough leftovers to keep many small armies on their feet for a week or two. One is tempted to suggest that a good twelve baskets of hefty fragments could have been gathered.

Notable on this first evening and over the whole weekend – and highlighted in Pastor Reno’s thanksgiving – was the investment of the whole church, both local and beyond. The tireless and generous contributions of God’s people were evident even before attention was drawn to them. The fruits of the work were often more evident than the workers themselves, but it was clear how much had been given by so many, in terms of time, energy, and expertise. The living stones have not been neglected for the sake of the concrete blocks. Particularly moving was Pastor Ulfo’s brief tribute to his family. Few will appreciate that, for all the pastor’s sacrifices, those made by his wife and children can often be greater. In some measure, they sacrifice him as well as for him and for the Lord. Giovanna Ulfo and the children deserve credit for the work that Reno Ulfo does, and it was good to see that publicly recorded. We pray that the fruit of Reno’s gospel labours might shine as brightly in his family as it does anywhere else.

As the night wound down, we drifted back to our various rooms and guesthouses. The Saturday began fairly slowly. The overseas preachers gathered again: Pastor Alan Dunn (Grace Covenant Baptist Church, Flemington, New Jersey, who was travelling with his wife, Patricia), Pastor Gordon Cook (Grace Baptist Church, Canton, Michigan), and myself. We met with a number of the key men at Caltanissetta, including all those involved in various church planting endeavours. We also chatted with our translator, Damion Wallace, to prepare for the next couple of days’ work. After the usual generous hospitality, we went back to our lodgings and prepared for the evening.

As we gathered, we discovered that some of our preparations had been less helpful than others. Damion was losing his voice. Alan Dunn had adopted a non-traditional way of arresting an unpremeditated act of violent genuflection he had undertaken in Reno’s home, viz. bringing his forehead into vigorous contact with a very hard object. Butterfly stitches and plasters had somewhat repaired the damage. Add in Gordon Cook’s travails in travel, and our fighting capacity was sliding badly. We forged ahead.

The focus of the ministry that night turned to the broader church, represented among us by various believers from around the island and further afield. With that in mind, we began to address the solas of the Reformation. I began with sola Scriptura, followed by Gordon Cook on solus Christus and Leonardo de Chirico on sola fide, before Alan Dunn closed the evening dealing with sola gratia. All the ministry seemed warmly appreciated, and fellowship over further piles of food was very profitable. There was clearly much intelligent and heartfelt engagement with the truth, and several men and women spoke thoughtfully and earnestly about what they were hearing.

The Lord’s day started early, and added to our catalogue of outward woes. Reno’s voice started to get croaky, and I had a blithe journey with a man who was late even before he casually announced that he did not know the way to the church building.

Despite all this, we started at a reasonable time. I completed the series on the solas with a study of soli Deo gloria. A brother called Jose was stepping in to assist with the translation, and did a cracking job. This day we were speaking more to the local church, and so I tried to make this a particular emphasis. From there we moved straight into the formal dedication of the building to the worship of the true and living God, and Pastor Reno preached the Word of God, giving us a wonderful survey of the concept of God’s temple throughout the Scriptures. He ensured we got and kept our eyes fixed on God’s presence among his people, rather than mere buildings. God also strengthened Damion’s voice and restored him to his duties, further assisted by Jose and Giovanni Marino, one of the faithful and gifted deacons in Caltanissetta. Several brothers – local pastors – stood and pleaded earnestly with God for a blessing on the church and its work in the new premises. Gordon Cook represented the visitors in this season of intercession.

Lunch followed before we turned, for the balance of the day, to the doctrines of grace. I opened on the depravity of fallen man, and was able to finish before the effects of our latest abundant feeding were too well-advanced. Pastor Dunn followed with redemptive-historical studies on the election of God and the redemption that Christ accomplished. The weight of these sessions was, for me, relieved by a delightful older lady doubtless using headphones for the first time. This meant that she regularly bellowed at her husband at a volume which ensured that she could hear her own voice. She also cackled loudly at anything humorous about fifteen seconds after it was spoken, as the translation caught up.

Given Reno’s other duties and to preserve his voice, I had the unexpected opportunity to address the irresistible grace of the Spirit’s work in the heart. By this stage, the folks were flagging, and several had been obliged to leave, so I kept it to about thirty minutes. Pastor Cook finished the public ministry by highlighting the perseverance and preservation of the saints, admirably demonstrated on one level by the fact that most of them were still listening to us after three days of intense teaching and preaching. Gordon’s focus on the double grip of divine power and love from John 10 was a fitting end. As Pastor Ulfo said, “dulcis in fundo” – “the sweet stuff is at the bottom.”

There seems little doubt that God’s strength was made perfect in our weakness on this occasion. Weariness, illness and injury in us was outmatched by grace and goodness in him and in the patience and earnestness of those hearing.

Monday morning saw Reno and I have a brief opportunity to explain the gospel to a couple of people at my lodging house. Attempts at trilingual (English, Italian, French) evangelising leave me half-wishing that the gift of tongues remained extant. Would it not be wonderful if these brief contacts bore gospel fruit?

We drifted toward Catania for Pastor Cook’s last preaching engagement and my flight home. Along the way, we stopped at a city set on a hill, Calascibetta. Unfortunately, far from being an enlightened and enlightening place, it was wrapped in fog and sunk in spiritual darkness. A visit to the Roman Catholic church building confirmed the vacuity of the question driving one hundred conferences in the next year: Is the Reformation over? That so much genuine spiritual ugliness could be communicated in a place of undeniable architectural beauty answered that question, for these falsehoods if not for many more. Flagrant Mariolatry vied for the laurel of ungodliness with statues of the church ‘patron’, Peter, decked out in all the regalia and symbolic power of the pope. From the position of the building to the message of the decor to the arrogance of the priest (it became clear as we spoke that he was an old-school Catholic and personally godless), it all shouts a message of carnal dominion that Islam itself can only rival.

Walking back down the damp streets, we paused at the prison from which a man called Francesco Giovanni Porcaro was taken by the Spanish Inquisition to his death by burning. His crimes? Denying Christ in the sacrament, indulgences, and the pope, as well as propagating the doctrines of Luther and other errors, and continuing in the above with all obstinacy. It is good to know that the light once shone in this now-gloomy city. We should pray that it would prove true once more – post tenebras, lux! Reno’s promise that there would be open-air gospel preaching on this spot in the coming year was some consolation that the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ would again beam forth. But who knows what price this and coming generations must pay for such faithfulness?

Sobered, we entered Catania and found some food at Fud, a delightful restaurant where options included horse and donkey. I opted for a more than bearable and not too risky buffalo, joined by Reno. Patricia Dunn, afflicted throughout the weekend by the presence of all the men, and having worked like a Trojan alongside the friends at Sola Grazia, opted for a ladylike salad. Alan had something fittingly but reliably cheesy, and Gordon got himself outside of a sandwich that may have involved a fairly safe chicken.

Our conversation over lunch centred on the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the churches we love and serve. As ever, hard questions rarely produce easy answers. Still, they are better than empty questions carelessly shrugged off.

It was with joy and sorrow that we arrived at the airport. It had been sweet fellowship in Christ and his service, and there was more work for us all to do already looming. With mutually renewed promises of communication and prayer, information to exchange and promises to keep, I strolled through security. They drove off into the sunset, and I flew off into the darkness.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 12 December 2016 at 14:38

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