The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘COVID-19

When did you last weep?

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In this further guest post by my father, Austin Walker, he adds to a previous article some further reflections on the church’s response to the present crisis.

In my first article I outlined some of the biblical reasons why I believe we are facing the present crisis. I suggested that the true church of Christ should take the lead in seeking the face of God, confessing our sins and the sins of our nation, pleading with him for his great mercies’ sake. In so doing the church would be following the noble examples of men like Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. This second article is intended as a sequel. I would like to develop the response of the church further by considering in particular the examples of the Lord Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul.

If you have followed the details of the crisis on the internet over the past few months you will have read some tragic and harrowing accounts of those who have died as a result of Covid-19. Sometimes husbands and wives have died within days of each other. Members of the same family have died in similar circumstances. Occasionally younger people and even children have been cut down, though many have been spared. In some care homes across our nation many elderly people have died. Early on in the crisis we heard of nurses and doctors who were reduced to tears because their patients had died without any relatives being present at their bedside. The disease has not discriminated. We know of Christians who have died as well as those who adhere to different religions or none. In the UK some 35,000 are known have died as a result of Covid-19. Unnumbered tears of sorrow have been shed by the families, relatives and friends of those who have died. Such grief has been compounded by the restrictions on numbers attending funerals.

Of course many people die every day from a wide range of diseases or as a result of accidents or for some other reasons. Public attention is not normally drawn to these ‘ordinary’ statistics in the way that it has with regard to deaths associated with Covid-19. These are extraordinary days. While it is true that many more have survived the disease than have died , we cannot escape the distress and sorrow that accompanies the death of loved ones. There is no escaping the fact that this is a very real disease, often bringing long-term damage even when it does not fatal, that has brought intense grief in its wake.

Many people regard death simply as an inevitable and natural process. The Bible sees it with a different pair of eyes. The book of Job refers to death as the “king of terrors” (Jb 18.14). There are some unbelievers who say they are not afraid to die. That sounds bold, but it is folly born of unbelief. Death is not a natural process. Death is an unwelcome invader, an evil that brings to everyone pain, grief and sorrow. It entered into the world in which we live as a result of the sin of one man, Adam: “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom 5.12). Furthermore, we read that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6.23). Death brings us face to face with our Judge: “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Heb 10.27). Confronted by death we are powerless and exposed to God’s judgment.

Death is not only the inevitable outcome of sin but primarily divine punishment for sin. Beyond death there is God’s judgment of condemnation and hell unless we have been cleansed and forgiven for our sins. The Lord Jesus several times warned of being “cast out into outer darkness” where there will be such intense sorrow—“weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 8.12; 13.42; 22.13; 24.51; 25.30). Hell is real, the place of “everlasting punishment” (Mt 25.46), utterly devoid of any of God’s blessings which every human enjoys in this life.

The Bible has the answer to the dilemma caused by death and the reality of divine condemnation. There is a way of escaping judgment and the wrath of a just God. The gospel of Jesus Christ, who died and rose from the dead, is our only hope, as 1 Corinthians 15 makes plain. He died for our sins and—having been raised from the dead—is the first fruits of those who died believing in him. “Since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead” (1Cor 15.21). “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2Cor 5.21). “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’)” (Gal 3.13).

Our present concern is with our reaction to the deaths caused by the current pandemic which was identified in the previous article as a temporal judgment of God, justly deserved by our nation. Furthermore, it serves as a divine warning about the final judgment. If we understand our Bibles correctly there is a far deeper sorrow than death from Covid-19 or any other disease. Disease is one of the tragic consequences arising from the entrance of sin into the world. This pandemic brings us face to face with death which is the result of sin and ends in condemnation and everlasting punishment if we remain in unbelief.

The reality of death and all that is involved in death plunged our Lord Jesus Christ into tears. John 11.33-38 is a remarkable unveiling of the heart of the Lord Jesus Christ as he is confronted with the death of his friend Lazarus and the grief of Lazarus’ two sisters, Mary and Martha. Twice we read that Jesus groaned (verses 33 and 38), once that he was troubled (verse 33), and once that he wept (verse 35). Christ’s tears were not shed for Lazarus—he was about to raise him from the dead. The spirit of the Lord Jesus was reacting to the reality of death with a mixture of righteous anger and intense grief. Death was the object of his anger. He was also very aware of the one behind death, namely the devil, who has “the power of death” (Heb 2.14). Christ did not react with a cold and somewhat distant concern but rather, as B. B. Warfield once said, “with flaming wrath” against the foe. Yet at the same time his reaction showed that he had entered into our lot and identified himself with our deepest griefs and sorrows, taking to himself all the miseries associated with sin. The devastating evidence of a fallen world drew out of his heart both anger and compassion.

Similarly, in Luke’s Gospel, we read how he reacted as he drew near to Jerusalem before his death. “He saw the city and wept over it” (Lk 19.41). He wept over their ignorance, their spiritual blindness, and unbelief. They did not know “the things that make for your peace,” nor did they “know the time of their visitation” (Lk 19.42, 44). On a previous occasion he had cried out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” a cry pregnant with pathos and pity (Lk 13.34-35). He knew what would happen in the future when divine judgment fell on Jerusalem. The Romans came and destroyed both the temple and the city. He wept in compassionate pity in the light of their persistent wicked unbelief and the inevitable heavy judgment to come.

Surely, then, we who profess to be the true church of Jesus Christ should be imitating our Saviour by weeping over the present predicament of our nation in its unbelief and apparent determination to continue flouting the law of God? We live in the same fallen world that Christ entered. It is all too easy for us to react to what we continually see before our eyes by saying it is what our nation deserves. We can react with holy indignation and display little or no grief and shed no tears. The result will be a hardening of our hearts and the growth of a self-righteousness that will blossom into an ugly pride. On the other hand, we can descend into sentimentality by displaying only sympathy. The truth is we live in tension while we are here. On the one hand there must be righteous indignation, but it must be joined with grief, compassion and Christlike tears. He alone is the pattern for our response to this present crisis and if there is to be revival in the church this certainly ought to be one of the things that must characterise the church. Have we become so dulled and adopted such an ungodly apathy and indifference that our hearts no longer feel any real compassion and our eyes shed no tears.

The apostle Paul followed the example set by his Redeemer. He spoke of having “great sorrow and continual grief in my heart,” such that, were it possible, he was willing to be counted accursed by God and devoted to destruction, if only his Jewish brethren might be saved (Rom 9.2-3, 10.1). Such a spirit was proof of a deep, fervent, Christlike love, an anguish of heart that was not only deep but continual. The language he used in Romans 9.1 is striking: “I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit.” It not only displays the profound extent of his feelings, and his great love, but also tells us what motivated and constrained his response to Jewish unbelief. It would be reasonable to say that Paul knew what it was to weep Christlike tears over his Jewish brethren. It was patterned after the love of Christ, who was made a curse for us (Gal 3.13).

How then should we respond to the present crisis? With righteous indignation mingled with compassion and tears. Paul’s language in Romans 9.1-3 is the language of a Christian. If we harden our hearts and crush our response, we will cultivate a spirit that is unconcerned about those who are perishing. Such a spirit should leave us wondering if we are Christians at all. Neither should we despair in unbelief, concluding that our God will not show mercy, or—worse—should not show mercy. That is too much like Jonah.

Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Paul and Christ show us the way to respond to what we are seeing in our nation. When we set our face towards the Lord God to make our requests by prayer and supplications it is not to be with a tepid spirit that we plead his great mercies, but with a fervent and full heart beseeching him to hear, to forgive, to listen and to act. It is difficult to beseech God in that manner without our eyes shedding tears.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 21 May 2020 at 09:11

Conditional lives

with 3 comments

“All of this is conditional.”

So said our Prime Minister when setting out the proposals for the ending of the UK’s national lockdown. It seems like a sensible thing to say. Whether or not you like the idea of being a slave to ‘the science’, our widespread ignorance makes it at least reasonable to suggest that we can only proceed step by step, simply because we do not know what will happen when we take each step. Even a bolder and more definite plan, and even taking account of the more detailed advice that has been promised, it always has to be what is insistently called “a conditional plan.”

It is striking to see how angry and afraid people become because of this. It reminds me of a road trip to preach at a church in the Midlands many years ago. Setting out in good time, I discovered that a major motorway had been closed overnight and the re-opening had been delayed. In company with thousands of others, I queued. In company with hundreds of others, I got fed up queuing and tried to find a way around. When those hundreds of us ended up in other and worse queues, I returned to my original queue, which was still shorter. When the road opened, off we all went, most of us now late. To begin with, I had the pedal to the metal, wondering if I could still get there in time, occasionally dropping out of the fast lane to let someone past at a ridiculous rate of knots. And I noticed their faces and their driving styles. They appeared, typically, angry or scared. Their plans were in disarray. They had thought that they were in control, and now they needed to get back in control, to catch up lost time, to get a grip again on their lives. It seemed to me that they thought that they had been in charge of things, and, when things were taken out of their hands, they became deeply agitated. At some level, it was idolatry of the self. At that point, I slowed down, called ahead to say that I would be late, and drove—relatively safely and sanely—to the place where I was preaching. I arrived about thirty minutes into the service, stepping inside the door as a man was fervently pleading for the safe arrival of the preacher. His earnestness suggested that he would be the man who would have to step in if I did not arrive. His relief when he opened his eyes was palpable. I don’t know if anyone has ever been that glad to see me! But I had been taught again that I am not in control.

It is a lesson that has been pressed home again in the last few weeks. On one level, everything has fallen apart. So much that I had planned, for which I had prepared, and upon which I had presumed over the course of the coming months, now lies in ashes. The plans for the Lord’s day ministry that I had in mind, the evangelistic efforts locally, the connections and investments close at hand, all proved conditional. Next week I should have been at a conference in the UK and then one in the US. They were, it seems, eminently conditional. This week, my involvement in a European conference in the summer was tentatively cancelled, but that’s conditional on the next few weeks. Possibly rescheduling of these conferences for the future is … er … conditional upon factors outside of our control. We are looking at plans for post-lockdown church meetings. Much of it is conditional. At its most visceral, we have come again face to face with our own mortality, and with the mortality of those who are most dear to us. My life is conditional. Perhaps the fear has faded a bit, but all plans might have been ended by death. I have had to face again my utter weakness. I have been reminded—I have needed to be reminded—that I am not in control, and that God is. In fact, in that there is something quite refreshing.

You see, I spend a lot of time planning. I think efficiency is a marvellous thing. My days tend to be quite full, even if not always well-constructed and minutely-detailed. I like a bit of flex. The bigger picture tends to be, in my calendar, a rainbow-hued glory of seamless transition from place to place and task to task. In the last few weeks, I have spent at least as much time deleting and re-ordering as I have entering and scheduling.

And in that there can be a real sense of relief. The first few weeks of lockdown, everything just dropped. The schedule to which I was a self-indentured slave meant very little. There were times when I could have danced, others when I felt the responsibility for diligence with a newly-cleansed calendar. But it was not simply the absence of the demand that offered peace; for many, the fact that they were no longer in control seemed to induce fear or anger. What gave me peace was the reminder that while I am not in control, God is.

Everything I plan is always conditional. I just tend to forget that it is so. Every plan, made by every individual and institution, every prime minister, president and potentate, every governor and every government and every grunt, is conditional. The world’s plans have been brought to a standstill, or even to nothing, by a virus we can barely trace or track. We all tend to forget that it is so. James reminds us of this reality at the personal, visceral level:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas 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. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (Jas 4:13–16).

sun behind cloudsWe make our plans, and we forget that even tomorrow is not guaranteed. It is not wrong to make plans, but we ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” Anything else is to boast in arrogance, and all such boasting is evil. What I ought to remember is that the only words which never fall to the ground are God’s. Nothing fails of any of his plans and promises. In that true sense, nothing has fallen apart; nothing has ended prematurely; nothing has been rescheduled. Everything has worked out as the Lord God has intended. From my perspective, all has proved conditional. From the throne of heaven, all comes to pass as it was intended. God’s sovereign determinations and unconditional decrees have issued in unfailing outcomes.

If we become angry or afraid because of the conditional nature of our plans and purposes, it is because we have not reckoned with our humanity, our mortality, our feeble finitude. We are not in control. That is true in the great things of our existence, and it is true of all the minute details of our individual lives. That tends to make the self-determining heart afraid and angry, or drift into despair, or insist upon the emptiness and pointlessness of it all. But true faith faces this, and turns to God and puts all things in his hands, and hangs all our plans and purposes upon his merciful and loving designs, without fear or anger.

My times are in your hand;
My God, I wish them there;
My life, my friends, my soul I leave
Entirely to your care.

My times are in your hand;
Whatever may unfold;
Pleasing or painful, dark or bright,
All by your love controlled.

My times are in your hand;
Why should I doubt or fear?
My Father’s hand will never cause
His child a needless tear.

My times are in your hand,
Jesus, the crucified!
Those hands my cruel sins had pierced
Are now my guard and guide.

My times are in your hand,
I’ll trust abidingly;
And, after death, at your right hand
I shall forever be.

William Freeman Lloyd (with minor modernisations)

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 12 May 2020 at 12:31

Weary shepherds

with one comment

As I speak with my fellow-servants, one of the comments that many make is of their sense of weariness during this season. Several of them have mentioned this in different ways at different points in their experience. Let me suggest several ways in which they are feeling particular pressures.

To begin with, we have our usual work to do. Much of it is hidden. That is always true. In some senses, we have advantages. There are parts of lockdown life that feel fairly normal to many of us. If we are to be properly equipped for the work of ministry, we will be often alone, praying and studying. We are used to being, under God, our own masters, organising our own schedules and filling our days with productive investments. Our lives tend to alternate between periods of intense isolation and periods of intense engagement with others (either individuals, or smaller or larger groups). There is a lot of pouring in and a lot of pouring out, and not always much in between. So, unlike some other workers, we are, in principle, able to continue those more isolated aspects of our normal routines and labours without much interruption. Most of us are still doing what we normally do, in that respect.

We also face many of the pressures that others are facing under these circumstances. Perhaps we have young families. Despite being classed as key workers, most pastors with school-age children who are not home-schooling already are now home-schooling, and they are often doing so in their working environment. There is an invasion of time and space into the periods and places in which we are perhaps accustomed to hours of undistracted labour. Or, we are now not able to go out to the places in which we were free of the distractions of younger children. Perhaps older overseers without children at home, or those with more gregarious personalities, appreciated the stimulation of social contact with other family and friends, and are now deprived of that, and find the extended distance from others oppressive. We all lack the relief of being able to spend time with our fellow church members and other friends. We may find that the church budget is strangled, and our salaries are cut; that brings its own fears. We may find we cannot easily get the exercise we need. In a season when it seems like our natural tendencies are being amplified and intensified, we are dealing with our own sins and weaknesses, with our own fears and concerns. We are concerned lest, in this way, we should sin against God and his people. We are often repenting to our families of our edginess and irritability as we find ourselves stripped down by the pressures of the moment. We become agitated, and we need constantly to remember that we are not intended to carry the church by our own strength.

We have all the normal business of the church upon us. People have not stopped being people just because they are stuck at home! God’s people are all wrestling with the unusual pressures of this season, and some of them are in danger of cracking. All the challenging situations and individuals are still there, some of them already growing worse, others just stewing and waiting until the lid is pulled off the pot again. There is church administration that still needs to be done, despite the limitations of the moment. There are other labours in which your pastors may be involved which continue to demand their time.

We have all the additional business of the church upon us. Much of the work above is needing to be done in novel ways. Not all of us are technophiles and some of us are technophobes and neophobes. Some brothers have been exhausted having to come to terms with radically new ways of doing even a little of what they before have done. For pastors with smaller churches, many have had to figure all this out for themselves, or in concert with a few equally ill-prepared friends. See that poor quality video where your pastor is brushing his hair and checking his teeth and talking to himself? Yup, it looks really bad, but he’s really stressed because he’s got little idea what he’s actually doing, and then he’s got to put up with the embarrassment, perhaps, of watching himself back and seeing his incompetence and awkwardness being broadcast to anyone who cares to see. Those first couple of weeks, in particular, he may have been in a flat spin for days on end, trying to work out how he was going to do something like feed the sheep under these circumstances. Many pastors are older men, and what is normal and natural for a younger guy feels like a strange new world to some. Some slept for no more than a few hours each day for days on end as we tried to adapt to this. Some of us had haranguing phone-calls or accusatory emails from church members (or other interested members of the wider community, including other believers) who thought we were doing too much, not enough, or everything wrong.

Some of us, in company with many others, are losing friends and family members to Covid-19 and other diseases. Some of us are taking funerals of people we knew and did not know. Some of us are desperately sick ourselves, or have family members who are struggling. Some of us are stepping in to help brothers who are laid aside during this season.

We have upon our hearts the care of the church for which we have, under God, a responsibility. The people of God are constantly upon our hearts. It is hard for us to communicate to someone who does not know this the sense of it. We have sheep who were already isolated because of sicknesses or sorrows, who are now even more cut off. We have sheep who are now more isolated or isolating themselves, men and women who do not, old shepherd 1cannot, perhaps will not engage with others by the limited means now available to us. We tremble for them. We see some of the sheep with weaknesses and sicknesses that are now advancing in the absence of the regular use of the regular means of grace. We may be caring for the sick and dying at a distance. We may be trying to work out how to buy or use masks and gloves and going into high-risk environments to care for those on the verge of death, and then wondering whether or not we can safely go home to our families, if we have them. We have people who are panicking and others who are wilting. We have sheep that have not yet been gathered who we cannot reach and to whom we cannot speak and with whom we cannot plead face to face. We have people who are complaining and questioning, becoming bewildered or frustrated. We are dealing with a number of people who, caught up in their own troubles and sorrows, act as if they are the only people with whom the pastors (or others) need to be concerned. Problems that were only bubbling are now boiling over as the heat is turned up. Yes, we see grace shining, too. We see saints who are stepping up and reaching out. We see gifts being exposed and employed that we might never have imagined. And we have to fight to keep our eyes on the pinpricks of light in what can, on some days, feel like a very dark night. We know we should be praying more, but we are struggling to find another hour in the day to set aside for more concentrated intercession. We do not begrudge these extra demands, but we do not always know how to respond to them. We may have wider responsibilities, too, caring for or counselling other ministers or investing in other spheres and congregations. Congregations without their own preachers are calling upon settled pastors for additional sermons, some pre-recorded, some live.

So we are adding to everything else our efforts to reach out to God’s people under these circumstances and hold together a scattered flock. We are calling round the congregation week after week and finding that just doing that can sometimes take a couple of days. We are finding that many people like the idea of web-conferencing, but if you say yes to every suggestion that you get together online, you can end up with whole mornings, afternoons or evenings just swallowed up with not very much, day after day. We are concerned that this might prove a sifting time, when fringe attendees and non-committal members just drift further and further away. We are concerned for the fragmentation of the congregation. We wonder what we will have to learn and re-learn when, by degrees, we start returning to something that will become normal, and may not be like the normal we had before. We are conscious that the house of feasting and the house of mourning may only be a step away from each other for the church at the end of this.

And we are trying to feed the flock. What means do we have available? How do we use them? Should we record sermons? From our church buildings or from our living rooms? Should we do live teaching? At the regular hours? How does this effect people with little or no internet access, little or no digital equipment, little or no technical aptitude, particular challenges or limitations, including physical disabilities? How easy will people find it to listen, or pray, or sing, at home, alone or with others? Should we preach shorter sermons? Should we continue with our regular series or preach something suited to the moment? What is suited to the moment? Do we need to be reminded more of God’s sovereignty, or justice, or mercy, or power? Do we need words of comfort, or prompts to self-examination, or calls to repentance, or just a more regular diet? Do we need all of the above?

And the preaching itself is hard work. We are speaking in a vacuum. Some are ministering through a lens, speaking to an invisible congregation, concentrating without external prompts and helps, trying to be engaged and engaging. Others have multiple faces on a fairly small screen, straining to gauge the mood and the responses of those to whom we are speaking without half the normal immediate feedback of seeing faces and bodies in their normal spaces and moving in normal time. We have few encouragements in ourselves or from others that anything actually hits home. We feel like we are casting our bread upon the waters, and we have no notion of whether or not we will find it again at any point in the near future. We cannot gauge whether or not the sheep are being well-fed. Even our normal encouragers may have their avenues of communication choked off. The people who normally give little in person are perhaps not even present on camera, or are even flatter there than usual, or—we fear—may not be engaging at all. Perhaps there are new faces on the web-conference, and we are striving to make the gospel clear. We hope that people from our communities are listening or watching, and we want them to hear of Christ and be saved. We go home exhausted, feeling flat and washed out. And what will happen when things begin to ease? Will we first be allowed to meet in smaller groups? What then for the more vulnerable who will still be kept away? How will we feed a flock that is half-gathered and half-scattered? How will we round up the ones who have wandered? How will we bind up the broken, bruised and battered from this season? How will we keep some people from overwhelming others when we come back together, and keep others from being overwhelmed? How will we mend any breaches? How will we foster a renewed and deeper sense of our commitment to God and to one another? What will we have lost? What will we have gained?

Why, then, do I say this? This is not a whinging article, written out of an overwhelming sense of self-importance and self-pity. It is not a denigration of the efforts of other workers, nor a dismissal of their weariness. It is not a backhanded plea for appreciation and applause. It is not a less-than-subtle way of talking about myself or a particular friend or friends. It is a genuine reflection of various conversations. It is a reminder of the reality of pastoral labour and a hint toward understanding. It is intended to prompt some genuine awareness and a proper sympathy. It is meant to be a help to us to understand our elders, so that we can properly pray for them and otherwise support them.

Your pastor is not after a medal. He is not seeking a certificate of commendation. There is a reason why the typical metaphors of pastoral ministry are military, agricultural and athletic. He signed up for a job of real work, and most of his rewards are deferred. But even soldiers and farmers and wrestlers get bruised and wearied in the work. I write because at the end of this period of lockdown, you might have a very weary, nearly broken pastor. Most of his labours are unseen. That is part of the calling. The parts you see are the tip of the pastoral iceberg. We do not know yet what will be the effects of the ending of lockdown on our humanity. I have seen suggestions that there might be some parallel in the experience of released hostages. Some have suggested that a brief season of euphoria might be followed by a period of crushing aimlessness and even despair. And your pastors will, God helping them, be there for you then as well. So, now and in days to come, do remember their labours. Remember that the treasure is in earthen vessels, dull and cracked. As you consider what has happened, is happening, and will yet happen, do not forget to pray for them. As you are able, support them. Heed their counsels and receive their investments. Encourage their hearts.

And brothers, do not over-isolate yourselves. Do not give yourselves something like an Elijah complex. If you have fellow-elders, make sure that you are in close touch with one another, taking time to care for and pray with one another. Reach out to friends, to brothers-in-arms. Find a friend, a counsellor and companion, if you do not have one. If need be, reach out to a man you know and trust in order to get what you need, humanly speaking. If all else fails, reach out to a trustworthy man that you do not yet know. Talk these things over, pray these things over. And that is the great remedy, in some senses. Take yourself to the throne of grace. Bring all these cares and concerns before the Lord your God, before the Great Shepherd of the sheep, before your Good Shepherd, who loves you with an unbreakable and unshakeable love. He upholds the weary. Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. Take what burdens you to God, casting all your cares upon him, because he cares for you.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 9 May 2020 at 06:35

Should we be surprised?

with 6 comments

A few days ago my father and I were talking about the current crisis and its causes and consequences. He suggested some possible causes for the divine displeasure, and we began to add a few more. We talked about the hand of God in all this, and our failure to see it and to respond to it. He wrote up his developing thoughts, we batted it back and forth a few times, and this guest post by Austin Walker is the result.

The pandemic caused by a coronavirus has brought the world as we know it to a virtual standstill. The normal life of a few months ago is a fading memory. The hustle and bustle of town and city life, the hum of constant traffic, guiding your shopping trolley through crowded supermarket aisles, are—for the moment—things of the past. I live within sight of Gatwick Airport’s take-off and landing flight path. It has now been silent for weeks.

What are we to make of this pandemic? Should we be surprised? Is it possible to discover any reasons for it? The prophet Amos asks a pertinent question of his contemporaries: “If a trumpet is blown in a city, will not the people be afraid? If there is calamity in a city, will not the Lord have done it?” (Am 3:6). Hosea remonstrated with Israel, saying that the Lord had a complaint against them: “There is no truth or mercy or knowledge of God in the land. By swearing and lying, killing and stealing and committing adultery, they break all restraint, with bloodshed upon bloodshed” (Hos 2:1–2). There are some dangers in comparing the theocracy of Old Testament Israel with any nation today. However, the link in Scripture between calamities and human sinfulness and the judgment of God can scarcely be denied.

Christ warns his disciples about “the beginnings of sorrows” (Mt 24:8) which precede his coming to judge the world. Among those sorrows are wars and rumours of wars. He also spoke of “famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places” (Mt 24:7). At the time of writing, Covid-19 has accounted for over 32,000 deaths in the UK (the most in Europe) and an estimated 250,000 world-wide. It has plunged many families into distress and sorrow. In the mercy of God, our Prime Minister survived Covid-19. We were spared a political crisis in addition to the health crisis. For a few days, his life was in the balance and contingency plans were drawn up in case he became another casualty. We live in a time of extraordinary uncertainty. Many will be asking, “Why?”

But should we be surprised by what we are experiencing? Is it not the case that our nation has consistently put the word of God behind its back? What should surprise us is that God has been merciful and patient towards us because he has not judged us more severely and more quickly! There have been very few public voices suggesting that this crisis is, in fact, an expression of God’s mercy and patience calling us to wake up, to consider the way we are living and repent of our sins. The Bible tells us that such temporal judgments are a gracious warning from God and a precursor of Christ’s return to judge the world. Yet he is merciful. Speaking in the context of the judgment of the flood in Noah’s day, Peter reminds his readers, that “the Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2Pt 3:9).

Reflect for a moment on what has taken place in our nation in the seventy or so years since the Second World War. The years of post-war austerity were followed by the advent of the ‘permissive society’ in the 1960s. This was popularly associated with the discovery of sex, drugs, and rock and roll by the younger generation. There was no single event that marked the beginning of these changes, although many commentators at the time pointed to the 1960 trial of Penguin Books for publishing an unexpurgated version of the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Without doubt there was a marked change in social attitudes and behaviour from this time, which has continued to the present day.

Consider some of those changes. God’s name is repeatedly blasphemed in public, in television programmes, on the streets, and in offices and schools. Capital punishment was finally abolished in the UK in 1969. Hardly anyone talks about it anymore. The mass murder of thousands of unborn babies was sanctioned by law in 1967, and some are now campaigning for abortion up to birth. There are those who want to change the law promoting euthanasia and make assisted suicide permissible in law. Homosexuality is promoted on every side, together with same-sex ‘marriage’ and civil partnerships. Great confusion is being sown in people’s minds as our God-given identity as either male or female is rejected. The dignity of marriage and family life has been steadily eroded, and easy divorce is available should things not work out. No wonder thousands simply choose to live together! Sexual abuse and pornography thrive. The Lord’s day is desecrated and often filled with shopping trips, even labelled ‘Super Sunday’ with sporting activities on a large scale. Pluralism in religion is promoted so that Christianity is seen as just one option—and not a very popular or accepted option either. Free speech is constantly under threat. It would appear that materialism and secularisation have won the hearts of our nation.

Sadly, even among those who call themselves Christians, there have been examples of the sexual abuse of children, the sanctioning of same-sex ‘marriage,’ the promotion of a feminist agenda, and attacks on just about every doctrine taught in the Scriptures. The urge to modernise and to change has transformed ‘worship’ in many churches; having only one service on Sunday is commonplace.

The list makes frightening reading. The law of God summarised in the Ten Commandments is flouted daily in our land by all kinds of people. It would not take a great deal of effort to identify what has been described as a trampling in the dust of all of God’s commandments. Does God look on and smile complacently? What we have described is lawlessness, ungodliness and unrighteousness. Sin is lawlessness. The fact is, there is little or no knowledge of God in our land. Rather, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18). We should not be surprised at all. What we are experiencing today are the warning judgments of God after years of placing God’s laws behind our backs. Very few will be willing to listen to that conclusion.

Those who are leading us through this crisis seem to be totally unaware of what we have been describing. There is an assumption that we, as human beings, with all our vaunted wisdom, technology and medical understanding can ultimately handle this crisis, despite the fears and sorrows it brings, and the economic ruin that is playing out before our eyes.

We are thankful for all the NHS workers, some of whom have died caring for Covid-19 patients. We are thankful for those who have medical skills. We are thankful for those who, for example, are now striving hard to find a vaccine that will save many more thousands of lives. Our hearts go out in sympathy to those who have lost loved ones. Many are lonely and suffer in silence, shut off from others in their homes, quarantined, or in hospital. We continue to pray to the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort as the only certain help in this our time of need.

Is it not time to seek God’s face and ask him in his great mercy to relieve us of our afflictions? Is it not time to humble ourselves before the God of heaven and earth and confess our sins as a nation? Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah were great men of prayer. Each of them was caught up in the judgments of God and their consequences. Yet in those times of divine judgment they called on the Lord, confessing their nation’s sins against God, and found he was merciful, even though it was the very opposite of what they deserved.

The true church of Christ should lead the way. Those three Old Testament saints serve as a pattern for the prayers of God’s people in the present crisis. Some speak of the possibility of revival but it will surely not happen until these and many other sins are confessed before God. He will finally bring the whole world to judgment. The Lord Jesus tells us that “as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Mt 24:37–39). In his great love God sent his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, into this world. We deserve nothing less than condemnation. By his death on the cross in the place of sinners, Christ makes atonement for sin and turns aside the wrath of God we deserve. Repentance and the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed in his name alone: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16). To believe on Christ will mean being humbled, acknowledging and repenting of our sin and our pride, and putting our trust for salvation in him alone.

Will the true church of Christ set the tone? There is a great danger of falling into the way of thinking that characterises our nation. However, our response must be directed by the word of God and, in particular, by the godly example of men like Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Daniel pleaded God’s great mercies: “I set my face toward the Lord God to make request by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes. And I prayed to the Lord my God, and made confession … we do not present our supplications before you because of our righteous deeds, but because of your great mercies” (Dan 9:3–19). By reading the entire prayer we see how Daniel humbled himself before God. He cried out sincerely, “we have sinned, we have done wickedly” (Dan 9:15). The truth is that we are definitely not in control of our lives and do not have the power or the wisdom that too many think we possess. God loves a broken spirit and a contrite heart, a heart that heeds his word instead of despising it, and thus casts itself on a merciful God.

Daniel was not surprised by the judgments that fell on his nation. What was more surprising was the mercy that God showed towards those who humbled themselves and set their faces towards him, who made urgent heartfelt requests to him by prayers and supplications. Has God changed? Will he not show himself merciful again to our generation if we but seek his face? Would that surprise you?

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 7 May 2020 at 08:24

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

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

with 3 comments

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

Pandemics, panic and peace

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[On Wednesday 5th August 2009 I wrote a piece with the title above. It was based on a sermon preached during the swine flu epidemic. Having had my attention drawn to it again recently, I hope that the substance of the article, reproduced below, will stand the test of the years passed and the new pressures.]

In a climate of fear and uncertainty, of panic and ignorance, how should a Christian respond? God’s voice cuts through the white noise of conflicting cries for attention and tells us how to think clearly and prepare properly.

Think clearly.

Firstly, remember that the Lord God remains in control of all things (Eph 1.11; Heb 1.3; Ps 135.6). This may be general and basic, but it is still true and needful. God’s knowledge and power are absolute on the grandest and most minute scales. Isaiah 40 is true in every regard even when – like Jeremiah when ordered to buy a field in the face of the advancing armies of Chaldea (Jer 32.16-25) – we remain ignorant and confused. Even unbelievers who would never bless God when receiving mercies are quick to blame him when trouble comes (Rev 16.9, 21) – their fallen hearts still know that someone is in charge. God’s absolute control includes all disease and plague (Ps 39.10). He remains the sovereign, gracious, merciful and compassionate God of Jonah 4.10-11: nothing is an aberration from his plan, there are no surprises to him, and he makes no mistakes.

coronavirusSecondly, know that the Lord God has sovereignly determined the spread, effect and toll of this disease. Scriptures often show the Lord employing disease to accomplish his purposes. The common thread running through every instance is his absolute control over it (see Ex 6.6-7; 7.5; 9.16; Num 16.41-50; 25.1-9; Dt 28.21, 61; 2Sam 24.13-25). Whether among peoples or with regard to individuals (Jb 2.1-10), God sets the bounds always. His actings and permissions are absolute. His knowledge of and control over all aspects of life is total (Ps 139.15-16). All the days of our lives, and all their experiences, are appointed for us. Disease is God’s creature, and he holds the reins.

Thirdly, rejoice that the Lord God in mercy and goodness has provided means to promote and secure the health of his creatures. It is a demonstration of God’s fatherly care (Mt 5.44-45). It is an instance of common grace. God has put certain means of health within our hands to be gratefully received and trustingly employed. So, in Isaiah 38 we find Hezekiah granted fifteen extra years of life, but the divinely-appointed ends are accomplished by divinely-appointed means (v21). Had Hezekiah despised or ignored the means of securing his health, it would not have been restored to him. Christians sometimes demonstrate what is imagined to be a super-spirituality. In doing so, some neglect God’s means: “This is all in the providence of God!” True, but so are the physicians who have concocted medicines, and so is its availability to you, and so may be the fact that your life will be secured by the use of them. Others despise God’s means: “God can heal or preserve me without resorting to medicines!” Yes, he can, but he also often uses regular means for the accomplishing of his sovereign purposes, and you will be the sadder for despising them. Without overreaction to, obsession with, or idolisation of the means God provides, use them soberly, seriously, wisely, diligently and appropriately as the divinely-appointed route, in most instances, to the promotion and securing of health.

Fourthly, consider that the Lord God has particular regard for his people, and is able to preserve and protect them by any means he chooses. Our use of means is never a reliance on men, but must be joined with trust in God alone. It is God who provides and blesses those means, and apart from him the doctors can accomplish nothing in us (2Chr 16.12). God cares for his own (Ex 12.13; Ps 91.10). Our times are appointed by him (Ps 31.15). To the Lord belong escapes from death (Ps 68.19-20) whether those escapes are immediate and vivid or slow and unremarkable. This is no guarantee of health or healing to all or any of God’s children (2Cor 12.8-10; 2Tim 4.20). It may require the believing and responsible use of less usual means (Jas 5.14-15). It certainly is not a call to a foolish fanaticism that tests God by demanding his care for an irresponsible and unrighteous walk (Mt 4.6-7). It simply means that, in the believing, trusting, wise, careful and legitimate use of means for securing our health, we can go about our God’s appointed business without crippling fear. Our times are in his hands, our days appointed by him, and our end secure with him: our present and final confidence lies in the God of our salvation (Rom 14.8). In the Black Death that devastated Europe during the 1660s it was a noticeable fact that when many others fled London, many faithful preachers remained to serve the sick and dying, and some enjoyed a preservation of life and health inexplicable apart from God’s superintendence of them.

Finally, remember that the Lord God will glorify his name in this, whether or not we ever understand how. Who can trace his intricate designs and multiplied purposes? Who can counsel God as to the warnings, punishments, callings, testings and proving that this pandemic will accomplish? When we can answer God’s questions in Job 38-41 then we can challenge his wisdom in governing the world he has made. We do know this: that whether in life or death, mercy or judgment, sickness or health, gratitude or anger, God will be glorified. His power will be demonstrated (Ex 19.6); his love will be proved (Dt 4.37); his sovereignty will be manifest (1Chr 29.11); his people will be stirred up (Ps 78.34-25); his enemies will be cast down (Ex 11.6-8). His name will be made known. One way in which that will occur is through the gracious living and believing dying of his saints (Mt 5.16; Is 43.2-3, 21).

Think clearly, then, and – in the light of these things – prepare properly.

Prepare to live. Be ready to serve (Eph 2.10), especially those who may be lonely and needy in the face of sickness (see Ps 38.11). Whom others neglect, the Christian remembers. When others run from danger, the Christian runs to the endangered, not taking our life in our hands, but putting it in God’s hands. Like Christ, we are to go about doing good. It is an opportunity to demonstrate true discipleship (Gal 6.10). Be ready to preach. Let your deeds be matched and explained by words. Be unashamedly Christian as you care for others, and do not deny God even when you cannot explain all his ways. Many may be on the brink of eternity, many might listen now when otherwise they would have scorned: declare Christ as the only one who can secure life forever. Speak of Jesus as the one name under heaven, given among men, by which sinners like us can be saved. Be ready to pray. Begin now. Pray for God’s glory, man’s blessing, and your own faith of body and soul. Come to God for the grace and strength you will need to serve him in these days. Ask that he might be honoured in your life and in your death. Pray for the salvation of many. Be ready to shine: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt 5.16). Plan for, pray for, prepare for, and pursue God’s honour in all these things.

church bellPrepare to die. John Donne wrote, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Take these things as intimations of your own mortality. Heed them as a call to readiness. Your time may be at hand; your days are expiring: learn to number them, that you may gain a heart of wisdom (Ps 90.12). The wise man will turn to and walk with Jesus as the Christ of God when he considers these things. There is no other sure preparation for death (Ps 49.5-15). Sooner or later all will die and afterward face judgment (Heb 9.27). If not today, perhaps tomorrow; if not tomorrow, then soon. If not this disease, then something else will quickly snatch you away. Life is brief, and eternity beckons. That eternity will be spent by every one of us either in the hell where all sufferings here will appear light by comparison with those imposed there, or in the heaven where all sufferings here will be past, and no sorrow, pain nor tears can come, where Christ is its light, and where the exceeding weight of glory will far surpass whatever trials and tribulations the world has laid on us.

The gospel writers tell us of a woman who came sick and full of suffering to the Lord Jesus. She reached out a trembling hand and merely touched the hem of his garment. When Jesus turned and spoke with her, he assured her of this: “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction.” There is an affliction far worse than any disease, the affliction of sin. The one who touches the Lord Christ’s garment in faith shall indeed be made well. That is preparation both for life and for death.

Listen to a sermon on this topic here.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 16 March 2020 at 18:15

A call to pray

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We know that prayer is not heard because of our many words, nor because of many voices. We also know that God has commanded us to pray, and to pray together, and that he delights to hear the voices and hearts of his people united in prayer.

In the UK, it would be a pleasant shock to hear the government do what it has historically done in times of national crisis or emergency, and call the nation to pray. If it did today, I imagine it would be a call to people of all faiths and of none to call on whatever gods or lords they trust or imagine to do whatever it is they are supposed to do.

But, if we are the people of God, we know that there is one living and true God who reigns over the nations, sitting on his holy throne (Ps 47:8), who has spoken through his servants, saying:

Trust in Him at all times, you people;
Pour out your heart before Him;
God is a refuge for us. (Ps 62:8)

I hope that, under the circumstances in which we find ourselves, Christians have already given themselves to particular prayer for God to show his mercy and grace to his church and his world, as well as thankfulness for mercies and goodnesses thus far. We must pray for the Lord’s name to be hallowed in all this, and for his kingdom to come, as well as the provision of our daily bread, and the forgiveness of our sins, and our deliverance from temptation and evil.

I trust that it might also prove a means of honouring him particularly, not least before the eyes of the world, and receiving particular blessings from him, if we were to devote ourselves to a season of prayer and fasting for God’s blessing upon the churches of which we are a part, as well as other churches we know around the world, and the country to which we belong, as well as other countries facing their own crisis.

I will be suggesting to the church which I serve that we devote Sunday 22 March 2020 to prayer. I happen to be preaching from Luke 11 at present, so prayer is right before us. For the church to which I belong, this will probably mean that we will ensure more extended opportunities on that day for us to pray together as a church, while the regular gathered worship will allow us to prompt and encourage such prayer, as well as to express it in distinct ways. We will encourage people to fast as appropriate and as they are able, but will not bind the conscience. We will further urge the members here, individually and in families, to set aside time and energy on that day to plead with the God of heaven for the glory of his name and the blessings which we need.

This is not the only thing we must do, but it is something we must do, among and before all the other things. We must “trust in God, and keep our powder dry,” employing all the means at our disposal to secure the ends we desire, but crying out to the Lord of heaven and earth to bless those means, and for his distinct mercies to be displayed in these days.

Will you join us? Perhaps your friends, your circle of churches, or your denomination, has already made such a commitment. Wonderful! But, if not, or if there is no clash, perhaps you would consider setting aside Sunday 22 March for earnest and urgent prayer to our merciful and gracious Sovereign for his distinct and enduring favour.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 14 March 2020 at 09:48

Posted in prayer

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The church and the plague

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“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

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