I will not forget your word

For the last few Sunday evenings we’ve been studying the book of Judges. There have been many head-scratching moments as we’ve navigated questions concerning the historicity, morality and significance of the text. It has sent me back to the books. One helpful source has been John Goldingay’s Fuller Lectures on the Torah which, although not about Judges, handle some similar issues (it’s actually a podcast). While you may not completely agree with his perspective, one thing is clear, he really loves the Bible.

His enthusiasm is infectious. Combined with reading Pete Greig’s ‘How to Hear God’, it’s been a vital reminder of this most important vocation for pastor-teachers: we are here to teach the Bible. For me, this sometimes gets lost. Amongst the calls to mission, fresh expression, pastoral care, community development, and the impositions of presbytery planning, church management and financial reduction, the Bible is drowned out.

Don’t misunderstand me, I keep preaching and teaching. Church continues to be centred around sermons and studies. But my own delight in Scripture sometimes wanes. Perhaps the Bible feels feeble compared with the endless possibilities of ecclesial innovation or missional novelty. Perhaps it feels powerless in the light of church statistics and strategy.

And yet, without the Bible we have nothing but minimal, unreliable, shadows of ‘The Divine’. Without the Bible, we have no Gospel, no Christ Jesus and our churches are folksy gatherings for good advice and singalongs. Without the Bible there is no prophetic imagination, no purpose in evangelism, no foundation of pastoral hope. Mission becomes self promotion and discipleship an act of narcissism.

We do not worship God, Father, Son and Holy Bible. But without the Bible we cannot know Father, Son and Spirit. At New College, Professor David Wright said that while we shouldn’t idolise the Bible, we require a very high view of it. This was an important lesson when later classes dismembered the text, questioning its authenticity, provenance and occasion, yet seldom considered its ultimate source and meaning. But in the years since, more than any textual critical approach, ministry, itself, has often obscured the Bible. The Word has been overtaken by the pressures of charity management. Well-meaning, retired pastors may now interject a solution; don’t leave your study before lunchtime and then, only, to make multiple visits. This does not provide an achievable model for contemporary ministry, but the passion for the Bible is worth imitating.

All of this leads to the question, what if we have been excited about the Bible and have been preaching it faithfully for years with little response? There are many possible answers. Perhaps we should shake off the dust and move on? Perhaps we are planting in the wrong soil? Perhaps spiritual forces are hindering the message?

But one possible answer returns me to the starting point of this entire blog. The Bible, in the hands of the Spirit, is powerful, dynamic, mind-blowing and soul transforming. Are we obscuring it? Are we hiding it within the walls of the Kirk? Is our message connecting with those outside of the church? Is anyone else hearing the stories of the Bible? And are we enthusing and equipping the saints to handle God’s narrative gift to the World? Is it possible that our methods of sharing, teaching and proclaiming are generally ineffective or even counteractive?

And lastly, how can we as pastor-teachers re-awaken a delight in the Bible, both in ourselves and in others? How do we prioritise it and dwell in it? Some of the world’s most popular stories are derivatives of the Biblical narrative. How do we allow God’s story to form and reform our imagination so that our creative responses rival the latest streaming saga?

A little less Eeyore

Virgina Long – Unsplash

Today, while preparing to speak on Philippians, I realised that with all the angst about church decline and structural change, I have forgotten to rejoice in the Lord. In fact this blog has sometimes become a vortex of doom and despondency. So much that I’ve received both Facebook hugs and questions about my mental well-being (for the record, it’s not much worse than usual).

In reality, I’ve simply tried to voice what many people may be experiencing. But the line between attempted prophetic critique and simply moaning has perhaps been crossed. And so today, some rejoicing!

I rejoice that our Queen is now with her King. I’m grateful for Her Majesty’s faith and commitment to the Lord.

I rejoice in my family who have supported me consistently. I’m grateful for the hours of listening as I tried to body-swerve a call that I didn’t want to acknowledge. In particular, I rejoice in my wife and kids who put up with compassion fatigue, spoilt weekends and the general sense of failure that comes with church leadership.

I rejoice in the retired colleagues, some now in the Church Triumphant, that listened, encouraged and prayed. In particular, I’m grateful for their patience with a conflicted, ignorant, young candidate who believed he might just be God’s gift to the Kirk. That belief didn’t last long.

I rejoice in my probationary bishop and in the minister to whom I was an associate. I am grateful for their generous gift of time, prayer and trust. I am thankful for their lack of pulpit possessiveness and for their wealth of spirituality and wisdom.

I rejoice in my current and previous congregations who put up with me with grace and love. I am grateful for the many people that have opened up their lives and faith, who have prayed and shared with me. I am indebted to those who have listened to occasional meanderings and opacity and still said ‘nice sermon.’

I rejoice that I am surrounded by so many witnesses who continue to faithfully announce the good news of King Jesus with passion and hope. Much is made of the theological drift of the Kirk. But, almost every day, I interact with Kirk members and ministers that love Jesus, love God’s word and delight in the truth.

I rejoice that as a denomination we are still committed to the poor in Scotland. I’m glad that we continue to be mindful of the most marginalised. So many church plants focus on more glamorous city centres or wealthy, middle class suburbs but I’m happy to remain committed to the Gospel imperative to also remember urban estates and the rural periphery.

I rejoice in the benevolence I have experienced through friends, colleagues and parts of the central offices. From gifts and small grants to buy books to thousands of pounds towards buildings, I have been generously supported. That’s not to mention the resourcing of churches that couldn’t afford a minister and the hours of advice from central church professionals.

I rejoice in our current weakness. No doubt, there is a lot to critique in the Kirk. At gatherings, meetings and conferences many of us meet incredulity when we state our ecclesiastical provenance. And if not incredulity, it’s the pastoral head tilt of concern. And I understand why. But on these occasions, there is something to be said for the humility imposed upon my inner Pharisee. For when I am weak, he is strong.

I rejoice in the Lord. He will finish what he started, in this nation, in our denomination, in my life and yours.

It’s not going to be ok

I’ve heard suggestions that the Kirk will survive our current predicament because we’ve been through previous tough times.

It’s true that the Lord always remains faithful but all situations are not equal. In our current situation, suggesting that past success indicates a similarly positive outcome resembles encouraging someone in palliative care that they’ve always made it home from prior hospital visits.

The Church of King Jesus will never die. And faithful witnessing communities of Christians will always be present in Scotland. But that does not mean that the Kirk is going to survive the ecclesiastical Hunger Games that is presbytery planning (a colleague suggested the handful of CofS millennials may wish to think ‘Church Squid Games’).

Things are not going to be ok. They are going to continue being difficult and very uncomfortable. And again, we need to carefully consider the fallout and collateral damage.

In recent weeks a number of colleagues have demited, moved to pastoral work outside of the Kirk or have simply left. Some had years of ministry left before retirement. Others may simply have retired a little early or just wanted a change. But we should take heed, we are making a huge assumption that after Presbytery and Parish restructuring and after the forthcoming retirement exodus, there will be sufficient remaining ministers to serve our structures. And we should note that we are banking on unquestioning commitment from those who must be committed first to their King and his Kingdom over their denomination. Some may need to place family, sanity and calling before the latter.

There is much talk of non-stipendiary ministers and the empowering of the ‘laity’ but often denominations based on this model end up having to employ paid pastors. Similarly, asking for widespread ministry for free is unlikely to meet present ministry expectations or requirements. For example, how many special commissions and years of training will be required before bread and wine are more easily dispensed? Or perhaps a video epiclesis will be provided to each ‘lay’ led outpost?

To return to the point, of those current ministers that remain, how many will be in a position to cooperate? The problem of empowering Presbyteries to make the hard decisions locally, is that it may leave, widespread, damaged local relationships. Will anyone work happily with the colleagues that removed your ministry allocation or shut your beloved building.

There is no doubt that change is necessary in Kirk structures. But the impact of the specific change and its delivery in different parts of Scotland is going to be significant. And it’s likely to require either immense good will and commitment, or the imposition of further structural changes to achieve.

Similarly, we need to consider how well we are managing change. What are we putting in place to support churches and leaders in their proposed new responsibilities? Do we imagine that most will easily make the leap to overseeing multiple communities? And do we imagine that combining multiple declining congregations under over-stretched ministers and elders will conjure growth? Perhaps that will be covered when Hogwarts joins the list of training institutions! Liam J Fraser rightly recently highlighted the potential benefits of our present state of decline. But the benefits are not automatic; they will not be realised without intelligent planning and intentionality. Throw in the likely disarray of the coinciding formation of Mega-Presbyteries and it will certainly take the Lord’s voice to speak creative order into the impending chaos.

There is a bright future for Jesus’ Church in Scotland. And that may include the Church of Scotland. But we must avoid institutional somnambulation and comforting platitudes. It’s not simply going to be ok. It’s going to be difficult and painful. And it’s going to require great grace, commitment, vision, kindness and mutual support.