Abortion: Horrified by the Unfairness?

20 10 2008

Abortion is one of the only moral issues within our society to which the terms horrific and unfair can be simultanaeously applied without fear of exaggeration. On last night’s Westminster Hour on Radio 4 Labour MP Emily Thornberry used precisely these terms in relation to a bill which is of deep concern to evangelical Christians (and a host of others) in Northern Ireland at present. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill being debated in Parliament in this incoming week threatens to extend the act of abortion to Northern Ireland, thus breaking 30 years of immunity from the on-demand infanticide of the Mainland. The fact that the majority of campaigning on the issue within Northern Ireland is being undertaken by those outside of the Province is a particularly hard pill to swallow, in a distastefully immoral movement.

What was fascinating about Thornberry’s comments were that they were made in a pro-choice context, rather than that of pro-life discourse. She stated that most voters are horrified that women in Northern Ireland cannot have an abortion in their own country, and that it is simply unfair that the 1500 women who travelled to England for the procedure in 2007 had to pay for it privately.

The outrage expressed in such a statement is a good barometer of where Britain is in moral terms. How horrific that the extermination of children is not a convenient option for women in Northern Ireland, and how unfair that they should have to pay for destroying life – shouldn’t that fall to taxpayer after all…

The assertions of the pro-choice lobby are repugnant at the best of times, but for me as a new father they are tinged with darkness. Our daughter was born on 21st August after nine months of hope, prayer and expectation. We followed her physical development from her 10 week scan onwards, marvelling at each grainy black and white glimpse we gained of her. Arm buds became arms, the rib cage could be seen, her head and face became more visible at each appointment, and the little splashing heartbeat eventually made its way to our ears via a doppler scan. She rests in our home tonight, a miracle of God’s grace and creative power, and we praise His name for her. I have learned to love what pro-choice advocates see as a conglomeration of cells which ought to be at the mercy of a mother’s whim and a doctor’s signature, and have witnessed the ingenuity of how life is formed at first hand.

No one can tell me that on-demand abortion is ever right – and this does not merely spring from an over inflated paternal instinct. Scripture speaks with consistency and authority on the sanctity of human life (Exodus 20) and the humanity of unborn life (Psalm 139; Jeremiah 1). Abortion is the scourge of our national conscience, a horror beyond words, murder of the most helpless and voiceless. If we are to be horrified at unfairness, let it be reserved for those whose cries will never break the guilty silence of nation adrift from God, from morality, and from ethical common sense. Not for those who cannot access services which ought not to be available within the UK at all.

Please pray against the Bill being extended to Northern Ireland this week, and for groups such as The Christian Institute who are seeking to bring a reasoned evangelical voice to a debate evacuated of moral fibre. Pray that the debate on Northern Ireland will not see the light of day in Parliament, so that thousands of children might see the light of day in the future. How we need God to move in our nation, to bring us back to Himself, and to the dignifying principles about humanity which His Word contains.


Wellbeing Holidays

17 10 2008

Mysticism is mainstream, we all know that, but there are times when it really comes home with force. When I was in my teens there used to be an obscure little corner in the Belfast branch of Waterstones known as ‘Mind, Body and Spirit’. This backroom part of the bookshop hosted some scattered fragments of fuzzy thinking, reserved entirely for those who could be readily identified by their flowing skirts, long bead necklaces and braided hair (and that was just the male shoppers). Now Waterstones has a startling edifice of New Age literature spanning a long wall, with everything from the seemingly banal (10 Steps to Taking Your Next Ten Steps) to the brazenly dark and occultish. This is at least something of barometer of how popular such publications have become in a country not known for its open-mindedness.

The acceptability of New Age thinking was driven home for me with even greater force during this week as I listened to ‘Travellers Tree’ on Radio 4, hosted by Katie Derham. The focus this week was on ‘wellbeing holidays’, an increasing trend amongst British travellers to not merely read pulp fiction in Benidorm, but to truly get away from it all and refresh their bodies, minds and spirits in evocative locations.

The programme was exuberant in its approach to this phenomenon, with lively reports from listeners who had gone to discover themselves in retreat locations in the company of similarly disconnected strangers who wanted to find something higher than themselves. Such reports were punctuated by commentary from a ‘wellbeing holiday’ veteran, and cheesy soundbites from pundits and experts (‘behind every Thomas Cook brochure the spirit of pilgrimage is bubbling away’ one presumably sane man suggested).

A number of things struck me as I listened to the broadcast:

1. The practical truth of Paul’s teaching in Romans. ‘Claiming to be wise, they became fools’ is written all across the experiences of those reporting for the programme. Britain is a nation which speaks scornfully of all things Christian and biblical. Believers are routinely written off as naive dinosaurs at best, and brainwashed psychopaths at worst, with the standards of Scripture finding scant regard in popular discourse. What has replaced the Divine logic of belief in Christ is not a cold, hard-nosed intellectualism which will brook no sense of the transcendent or Divine, but a soft, saggy mysticism which makes a mockery of the dignity of being human. People are willing to spend considerable amounts of money to go on a retreat where ‘mentors’ invite them to wander into the woods and find a special tree, or allow their special tree to find them. Others spend their holidays seeking to relive the experiences of hunter-gatherers for a weekend, presumably without the routine bloodshed and uncouth sexual politics which such a lifestyle would have necessarily entailed (or perhaps not, who knows?!). Ask these same people to consider the claims of Jesus Christ, who verifiably lived, sacrificially died and undeniably rose from the dead and the response will be categorically negative.

2. The tragedy of modern materialism. People are ravenous for a higher reality, and will go to great lengths in their efforts to find it. This includes investing copious amounts of cash on seeking to elevate their souls using New Age methods. Such experiences, we are told, have a cleansing and clarifying effect, lifting the mundanity of modern urban existence for a least a limited period. How heartbreaking such sentiments are, how dislocated our communities have become, and how lonely and hopeless is our culture! Imagine Norma from Accounts sitting at her desk on Friday afternoon dreaming about getting away from the people with whom she shares relationless proximity in the office, so that she might enjoy intimacy with complete strangers on an island at tremendous financial cost. What a challenge to evangelicals to engage such people with a message which brings true joy, and communities of Christian who offer true warmth, friendship and acceptance.

3. The insufficiency of secular approaches to spreading the Gospel. The one sentiment which ‘Travellers Tree’ voiced repeatedly was the hunger within the hearts of people to experience the transcendent. How pathetic that in seeking to reach such people Christians have made mistake of downplaying the spiritual nature of coming to Christ, in favour of a lifestyle based marketing ethic which places becoming a Christian in the same intellectual/emotional category as joining a gym. Evangelicals serve a God who is utterly holy, utterly different, and yet imminently near through His Word preached plainly. In a world of famished souls we have all too often been found guilty of offering juice and biscuits while Satan furnishes the tables of unsaved men and women with a seemingly meaty menu.

We are living in a mystical world, among people who have become all too open to all that is ephemeral and hazy. We have the Truth, a message which comes with the power of the Holy Spirit, granting life, forgiveness and adoption. How we need to make Him known to a world which is glutting itself on the poisoned rations of New Age philosophy.

The Fight of Faith by Iain H. Murray

11 10 2008

Of all the Christian authors whose works have blessed me, Iain H. Murray’s biographical writings come top of the list. Murray’s books are written in a beautifully unadorned prose, with a respectfulness of tone for their subject which is refreshing in a world of hero destroying literature. I also love the fact that Iain H. Murray has never attained Christian ‘celebrity’ status in spite of his considerable influence for the Kingdom of God – he is as humble in person as he is articulate in print.

The Fight of Faith is the second volume of Murray’s landmark biography of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I read the first volume (entitled The First Forty Years) in autumn 2002 when I had just commenced pastoral ministry in Armagh Baptist. To say that this volume was life changing would be something of an understatement. This volume introduced me to a theology and a manner of preaching which for me were hitherto largely untapped, and gave me a sense of perspective on how the minister ought to approach the teaching of the Word of God. All of Murray’s biographical works carry a didactic element which invites the reader to adjust their perspective and way of living in so far as his subject exemplifies godly living. The First Forty Years certainly achieved this for me, and I will be forever grateful.

The second volume has always daunted me a little in prospect. It stretches to in excess of 800 pages (by comparison with 412 pages in the first volume), and handles many of the more controversial issues which faced Lloyd-Jones during his ministry. I’ve dipped a toe in the book over the intervening years, but never felt able to commit to such a hefty biography. Such hesitation was not to my benefit, given the wonderful piece of Christian literature which Volume 2 represents.

The Fight of Faith opens with Lloyd-Jones ministering in London during the height of the Second World War as Assistant Minister to G. Campbell Morgan. It follows his work for the Lord through his installation to the full charge of Westminster Chapel, his widening influence through the student movement, the Westminster Fellowship, and transatlantic preaching ministry. Lloyd-Jones work in Westminster is presented as being singularly owned of God, with a sense of the power of His Holy Spirit in the warp and woof of the words spoken from the pulpit. Regardless of whether his ministry was exercised in his own pulpit, or across the country, the testimony of his hearers was universally of man used of God to communicate His truth.

In terms of Lloyd-Jones’ significance Murray does not merely emphasise his public ministry, but also the influence for good which he was to exercise over a generation. He was no pulpiteer, but a Pastor whose deep concern for the welfare of church members, fellow ministers, and those under conviction of sin were unquestionable. The work of the Westminster Fellowship and the extraordinary influence it had on the generation following Lloyd-Jones is portrayed in intimate detail, with his judicious work as chairman of many discussions fully illustrated with recorded exchanges. His work in helping to establish or encourage other agencies for God’s truth is also demonstrated, with his help to Geoffrey Williams and ‘The Evangelical Library’ as well as to Iain Murray and Jack Callum with the foundation of ‘The Banner of Truth’ showing his deep concern that historic Christianity be recovered worldwide.

A considerable section of The Fight of Faith is occupied with the controversies and difficulties that were faced by Lloyd-Jones, particularly in the 1960s. With the onset of ecumenism, Lloyd-Jones foresaw the problems which this movement would present to the evangelical world, and issued a clarion call for believers not to become involved in it. His radical stance with regard to those who were labouring in ‘mixed denominations’ led him in to some of his most lonely years. His advocacy of ministers removing themselves from those Churches which were involved in ecumenism was not welcomed, while his call for evangelicals to form a broader unity which transcended denominational lines was largely misunderstood. Murray traces the contour of this debate with candour and care, highlighting those times when Lloyd-Jones did not adequately explain his views, as well as those times when he spoke with an almost prophetic voice concerning the consequences of flirting with ecumenism or liberal theology.

Issues such as Lloyd-Jones’ views on pneumatology are well handled within the biography, with all of the references to the great preacher’s views on the topic carefully footnoted. While open to seeing a work of God by His Spirit, and not immediately dismissive of the fledgling Charismatic movement Lloyd-Jones was not a Pentecostalist. As the Charismatic gained momentum and found its expression through figures such as Du Plessis, Lloyd-Jones was quick to distance himself from it fully. This exposes many of the statements made within the Charismatic church that Lloyd-Jones was their advocate. Murray proves this to be far from the truth.

Lloyd-Jones’ work in the 1970s, following his retirement from Westminster Chapel in 1968, are particularly moving, with his encouragement of other ministers its most prominent feature. The closing section of the book, with its intimate portrayal of Lloyd-Jones preparing himself, his family, and the evangelical community for his death are moving in the extreme.

A regular charge laid at Murray’s door with regard to his writings about Lloyd-Jones is that they stray from biography into hagiography. Such statements can only be made by those who have not fully or carefully reads his works. Murray is routinely critical of certain stances, attitudes, and actions on the part of Lloyd-Jones, and is not slow to suggest ways in which he might have handled certain issues more capably. That Murray respects his subject, harbours great affection for Lloyd-Jones memory, and is grateful to God for His servant are incontestable – but these sentiments lend strength rather than weakness to his biographical writing.

I would not hesitate to call this two volume treatment of Lloyd-Jones my favourite book. It has taught me a lot, has humbled me before an unchanging God, and has challenged me afresh to uphold the sufficiency of God’s Word when taught in the power of God the Holy Spirit, to do the work of God in the world.

A Great Day in London

9 10 2008

Every October my brother and I make a bit of a pilgrimage to London for the day. The cause for our heading to England’s capital is the Evangelist’s Conference, organised by The Good Book Company, and hosted at All Souls Langham Place. Each year we have been impressed by the organisation and calibre of this conference, and have been left inspired by speakers such as Christopher Ash and Tim Keller.

We caught the 615am flight from Belfast to Stansted, and having caught the train to Liverpool Street, we grabbed a bite of breakfast in The Royal Exchange. This is a fascinating building, whose history can be found here. The food wasn’t as costly as the surroundings suggested and we felt well fueled for the morning ahead. One of the amazing features on the front of this great building was an inscription from Psalm 24. How many places of commerce built today would carry this text, even in the face of the humbling ‘credit crisis’ which is being faced right across the country?
We arrived in All Souls just in time for the beginning of the conference. Rico Tice spoke in his introduction of the sufficiency of God’s Word for God’s work, and then introduced the speaker, Ian Garrett of Jesmond Parish Church, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. The theme was ‘Outrageous Grace’ and the speaker took Romans as a model for evangelism. Without getting into a detailed critique of the message or the messenger we were quite disappointed in the content of what was shared.
Feeling underwhelmed by what we had heard in the early stages of the conference, we made a joint decision to head into London and follow up another couple of interests which we had hoped to enjoy in the afternoon after the morning sessions. Having grabbed some refreshments we caught the Tube to Baker Street and went to the Evangelical Library in Chiltern Street. This is a location which I have wanted to visit for some time, and my interest had been further kindled over the past few months while reading the second volume of Iain H. Murray’s biography of Martyn Lloyd-Jones (a review of which will appear here in the near future). The library is located on the top floor of a fairly old building, and the stairwell was populated by a mass of Australian painters who were engaged in what looked like an endless task of painting every square inch of wall. They were remarkably cheerful men who obligingly descended their ladders to let us pass. The library carried all of the dusty charm that I had hoped it would. Having deposited our bags and signed in on the visitors book we allowed more than an hour to slip by while we browsed the shelves of what seemed like an endless catalogue of Christian literature. Most moving of all were the volumes located in the reference sections, with titles dating back to the 17th century. We spent some time looking at a volume of farewell sermons preached by those caught up in the Great Ejection of 1662 – expository, personal, and steeped in pathos. As I walked through the library I thought of the humble beginnings of the library’s work, and the tremendous encouragement that it has proven to be to more than a generation of Gospel workers. I’m now pondering the workability of making use of the library while in Peru. Our overwhelming conviction on leaving the library was how great a spiritual heritage we possess within the Protestant tradition, and how untapped this largely is within modern evangelicalism.
Our journey through London then passed from the sublime to the ridiculous, as we made our way to the Sherlock Holmes Museum at (you guessed it) 221B Baker Street. Both my brother and I are huge fans of Conan Doyle’s fictional detective, and it was a really enjoyable experience to peruse the vast (and vastly overpriced) memorabilia for sale in the museum shop, followed by a tour of a faux Sherlock Holmes home.
Having enjoyed lunch we headed to Waterstones Picadilly and were astounded at the sheer range of books and quantity of stock. This was promptly followed by a quick Tube ride to Harrods, where we got some treats for our daughters. We then made a valiant attempt to find the Protestant Truth Society’s bookshop on Fleet Street (admittedly we even failed to find Fleet Street!), before making a death or glory run for our train (which we missed) and then for our flight (which we only just caught).

This was a special day, given the fact that this is the last time in a long time that my brother and I will make this pilgrimage. While the conference was a serious disappointment, everything else about the day was enriching and a blessing.