A meditation for Good Friday

“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” Romans 8:32

In this verse. Paul’s focus is on the love of God the Father, the Father who did not spare His Son, but who was ready to give him up for us.

This is a very important truth for us to learn, because sometimes our whole picture of God the Father is wrong with regards to our salvation. It’s as if, somehow, salvation were torn grudgingly from the hands of a reluctant deity. Sometimes it is represented as if Jesus were somehow on the cross pleading to get the Father involved in His people’s plight, imploring the Father to love His people, hoping to get Him involved in the redemption of His people.

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I have been outed

I have been experimenting with this blog for a couple of weeks, but when I went “live” last weekend, I didn’t think that many people would notice. After all, my primary goal was to create a way by which I might keep in touch with those people who are members of my own congregation. I haven’t actually set aside my regular pastoral responsibilities yet, but as our transatlantic friends say, I’m “missing you already”.

But the word is out. I am a blogger. And apparently some important people have noticed! Can you believe it, I have even made it on to “Talkback”, our local BBC Radio Ulster programme, to talk about blogging?

Lest some sane people out there think I have lost it entirely, let me quote my friend, Dr Carl Trueman who succeeded me as Academic Dean at Westminster Seminary, and who has been known to inhabit the world of cyberspace from time to time. Here are Carl’s apposite comments from the Reformation 21 blog:

Well, the virtual world is new but it is here to stay; and it will no doubt continue to shape human behavior and self-understanding. We cannot ignore it but neither should we simply allow it to dictate to us who we are and how we think. Thus, we must teach people by precept and example that real life is lived primarily in real time in real places by real bodies. Pale and pimply bloggers who spend most of their spare time onanistically opining about themselves and their issues and in befriending pals made up of pixels are not living life to the full; nor are those whose lives revolve around videogames; rather they are human amoebas, subsisting in a bizarre non-world which involves no risk to themselves, no giving of themselves to others, no true vulnerability, no commitment, no self-sacrifice, no real meaning or value. To borrow a phrase from Thoreau, the tragedy of such is that, when they come to die, they may well discover that they have never actually lived.
For myself, I rejoice that I grew up before the web and the videogame supplanted the real world of real friendships, real discussions, real lives. I did not spend my youth growing obese and developing Vitamin D deficiency in front of an illuminated screen, living my life through the medium of pixels. However she does it, the church should show this generation of text and web addicts where real friendship and community lie, not with some bunch of self-created avatars on Facebook but with the person next to them in the pew on Sunday, with the person next door, with the person they can see, hear, touch and, of course, to whom they can talk, and who is created not in webworld but by the mighty Creator. And never, ever allow your church to go virtual so that people think that logging on to a service or downloading a sermon is really being part of the body of Christ. Of course, I write, as I indicated last month, as a self-proclaimed miserable middle-aged git. My instinct, therefore, is that things like Facebook, along with low-rider jeans, dances that involve the `splits,’ and sentences such as `It was like you know like totally awesome and stuff,’ are probably best left to the under-25s. Use these web doohickeys if you must; just don’t mistake them for real life, or the relationships that only exist there for real friendships.

An answer to prayer

img_0055Since March 1st, our congregation has been supporting the awake! initiative promoted by our denomination’s Board of Mission in Ireland. It operates under the strapline “Prayer: Stirring Passion for Mission”. We have dedicated each Wednesday as a day of prayer with four prayer meetings beginning with the men’s prayer meeting at 7.30am.

Three weeks ago I was encouraging the children to pray for specific needs in our regular children’s talk in the Sunday morning service. Our text was James 4:2 “You do not have because you do not ask God.” We had one specific need to pray for: a new minibus.Our old minibus was on its last legs (if you know what I mean) and in order to continue our work of bringing children to the Kids’ Club and people to church and carrying on a range of activities for young and old, we needed to replace it.

Yesterday we were able to use our “new to us” minibus for the first time. In a remarkable way, God answered the prayers of our children and congregation and provided the money for the minibus in the space of just three weeks. Praise the Lord!

My predecessor in Carnmoney, the late Rev Jim Fullerton, used to tell the congregation that the problem wasn’t raising money; the problem was releasing money. Thank God the money was released and we can now plan a range of summer activities with much better resources available to us. Yes, God does answer prayer! Our problem is often exactly what James says it is: we do not have because we do not ask. And “when you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with the wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” It is as we stay oriented to the glory of God and are strirred with a passion for mission that God answers prayer.

The Lost History of Christianity

One of my favourite authors in recent years has been Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State University. During my time at Westminster Seminary, we were able to welcome this genial Welsh academic to the campus to talk about the expansion of world Christianity and the key features of Christianity in the global south and east, based on his research as published in The Next Christendom (2002) and The New Faces of Christianity (2006). His most recent offering, The Lost History of Christianity, tells an interesting and surprising story.

As the cover notes point out, most Christians think of Christianity as a Western faith which grew out of its origins in the Middle East towards Rome and into Europe, paving the way for the Enlightenment, science and modernity. Jenkins reveals that the largest and most influential churches of Christianity’s youth lay to the east of Rome, covered the world from North Africa to China, ruled the Middle East, and only expired after a thousand year reign after Constantine. The story he tells is not only how these churches were the dominant expression of Christianity for its first millenium, but how they became extinct.

Only very recently, in historical terms, Christians were quite as familiar a part of the Middle Eastern scene as Jews are in the modern United States, or indeed Muslims in contemporary western Europe. Middle Eastern Christians in 1900 actually represented a much larger part of the overall population (some 11 percent) than do American Jews today (2 percent) or European Muslims (4.5 percent). the removal or destruction of that community represented a historic transformation for the region, no less than for the Christian world. p141.

Jenkins describes how the decline of Christianity in the Near East occurred in two distinct phases. In the first phase of decline, during the Middle Ages, Christians lost their majority status within what became Muslim-majority nations. The Syriac sects suffered worst of all and the Copts least. But as minorities they proved to be very durable. In the second phase, which is barely a century old, Christians as organised communities are ceasing to exist altogether. In both phases, the largest single reason for decline was organised violence, whether in the form of massacre, expulsion or forced migration.

One of the most dramatic declines has taken place within Iraq. In 1970, Christians represented 5 or 6 percent of the population. The number is now around 1 percent and is shrinking fast. Christians in the 1980s reportedly made up 20 percent of Iraq’s teachers and many of its doctors and engineers. Two wars, one in the 1980s against Iran and one in 1990-91 against the U.S.-led coalition, devastated the country’s economy. Everyone who could leave easily did so, particularly the professional groups among whom Christians were well-represented. In the anarchy which followed the second invasion in 2003, Christians became the primary targets of mobs and militias, and were regularly kidnapped.

When Pope Benedict gave his controversial address in Regensburg in 2006, the “Lions of Islam” retaliated by beheading a Mosul priest, Paulos Iksander. Father Paulos belonged to the Syrian Orthodox Church, the denomination anciently known as Jacobites. In 2008, Islamists murdered Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, head of the Chaldean church in northern Iraq. Between 2003 and 2007, two-thirds of Iraq’s remaining Christians left the country.

Jenkins believes that the most vulnerable groups are those in Syria which has become the refuge for thousands of exiled Middle Eastern Christians. Yet a change of regime there could have a dreadful effect on minorities. If Egypt found itself under an Islamist regime, it would drive the remaining Copts to choose between mass migration and conversion.

Jenkins concludes:

Middle Eastern Christianity will not become extinct in the same way that animal or plant species vanish, with no representatives left to carry on the line and no hope of revival. Even in the worst-case scenario, a few families, a few old believers, will linger on for the decades to come. Millions of people from the region will also continue the tradition elsewhere. For practical purposes, however, Middle Eastern Christianity has, within living memory, all but disappeared as a living force. p172

The main point of the book is that Christians need to learn important lessons not only from the triumphs and expansion of the faith, but also by acknowledging the defeats and disasters.

Losing the ancient churches is one thing, but losing their memory and experience so utterly is a disaster scarcely less damaging…we need to recover those memories, to restore that history. p262

Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity (Oxford, Lion, 2008).

New Assistant

Alastair, Judith and baby Philippa

With moderatorial responsibilities getting near, the Presbytery of Armagh inducted a new assistant in our congregation on Wednesday 1 April. Alastair J. Dunlop is a graduate of St Andrews University and Regent College, Vancouver. He has served as assistant minister in First Presbyterian Church, Antrim, and then as assistant in Harryville, Ballymena during Dr John Finlay’s moderatorial year. At his induction service, my two chaplains, Rev Philip McConnell of Waringstown and Rev Nigel McCullough of Hill Street, Lurgan, took part, along with the Moderator and Clerk of the Armagh presbytery, Rev Donald Byers and Rev Colin Harris.

At the reception following the service, all kinds of connections were made, indicating what a small and closely related denomination we belong to. I was an assistant in Harryville in 1981, the year our eldest daughter, Sara, was born, and the great summer when England won the Ashes series against Australia. Will we ever forget the performances of Botham and Willis? The big question is: Can England do it again in 2009?

It was great to see all the friends from Harryville in Portadown, not least their minister, Dr John Finlay, whose father, Bert, was a much loved lay assistant in First Portadown during Dr Craig’s ministry, and whose son, John Junior, is the youngest elder on the First Portadown Session and serves alongside his uncle, Rea.

I have known Alastair all his life. His father , Alastair Senior, was Patricia’s minister in First Portglenone, and has been one of my best friends since those days. Alastair Junior was born in 1977, the same year that Patricia and I were married. Incredible as it may seem now, he was a sick baby, and his mother, Anne, left him for the first time when he was six months old in order to attend our wedding.

There is also the St Andrews University connection and that whole network of friends that includes our daughter, Sara, Alastair and Judith, Jonny and Laura McGreevy, Stuart and Julianne Noble, etc. Are you one of them? Am I just imagining it, but was that Ulster Christian mafia at St Andrews in the 1990s and early 2000s a particularly gifted generation? Or did they just inherit it all from the previous generation that never made it across the North Channel?

The connections theme was well and truly underscored by Dr Craig, our Minister Emeritus, in his remarks, as he recalled his friendship with Alastair’s great-grandfather, Hugh Dunlop, an elder in Wellington Street, Ballymena, and Alastair’s two grandfathers, Rev Dr James Dunlop of Oldpark,and Mr William J. Morgan, a Member of the old Stormont parliament and a cabinet minister in the government there. Dr Craig described Dr James Dunlop as providing the model of ministry that he had sought to follow in his 36 years in First Portadown.

What impressed me was not only the connections, but also how, in the providence of God, the baton of Christian ministry is passed from one generation to the next and the kingdom of God continues to advance. As Alastair assumes responsibilities in First Portadown, we pray that God will grant him a fruitful ministry.