The newly retired Moderator of a fellow Scottish Presbyterian Church has an Internet blog, written in his capacity as a Parish Minister in his particular denomination.
He seems to spend virtually every post, criticising, condemning, and commentating negatively on the Kirk.
According to this narrow minded bigoted view, the Church of Scotland has become apostate, heretical, unbiblical – because of recent decisions made by our General Assembly and by words spoken by individual ministerial colleagues. He has actually gone as far as to suggest that the Kirk deserves to die – an appalling and unsavoury remark from a fellow Christian minister.
In the immortal words of Dad’s Army’s Private Fraser (John Lawrie – from just down the road in Dumfries), “We’re doomed. Doomed, I tell ye!”
Certainly, there is a lot happening within the Kirk that is causing strain and stress.
Take for example, the Assembly’s discussion and debate on the Overture regarding Ministers in Same Sex Marriage. Although that comparatively brief discussion was, on the whole, conducted in a civilised manner, before this, there has been so much bile, unpleasantness, and a downright lack of Christian charity.
Several ministers and some congregations have left the Kirk as a result.
Last Saturday, at the Assembly, 215 commissioners voted against the Overture. 339 voted “for”.
Division, disagreement, disruption
Over the years, numerically, we are in decline….. for many different reasons – such as members becoming older and sadly being no longer with us; of younger people who have no interest; of some long term members who – for whatever the reason – have just given up.
The way we were – St Mary’s Church, 1901
I was ordained in 1974. Then Kirk membership was about a million. 42 years on – it’s standing at around 370,000.
I remember sometime around 1990, a member of staff from the Church Offices came to address my then Presbytery – Lothian.
He talked about church decline by way of membership numbers, and mentioned that if the trend continued, Edinburgh (our neighbouring Presbytery) would have no members by 2029 – and would effectively disappear.
Friendly rivalry caused many of us there at that evening’s meeting to guffaw – though it was no laughing matter.
He paused for a moment, then said: “I don’t know why you’re laughing; YOUR Presbytery will disappear the year after – in 2030!”
But – let’s say this…..
- The Church still stands.
Despite knock backs, despite setbacks, despite the downward trajectory we seem to be on – we’re still here….. we always will be.
Do you remember the story of Christ arriving in Heaven, and being asked how many folk he’d left to carry on, and he answers “Twelve”
“Twelve!” comes the incredulous reply, “Is that all?”
And he answers, “It’s enough”.
Things may not get as few as that here, but think of how the Church is actually growing – in Africa, Russia, China…… that’s more than enough!
I read yesterday that in 1900, there were 8 million Christians in Africa. Now there are 335 million. And the growth rate continues to accelerate.
For Christianity the 20th century was numerically the most successful century since Christ was crucified. By 2010, there were 2.2 billion Christians in the world, 31% of its population.
- And we stand for something.
Societal patterns are changing, as are attitudes, and as is need.
What is Church? It’s a group or congregation. Very often interpreted as people coming together on – usually a Sunday – to sing hymns, listen to the Minister say prayers (as to actually praying themselves) and listening to a sermon for ten/fifteen minutes…. then going home for lunch.
That may be “being” Church…. but “doing” Church involves more, so much more.
Helping, feeding, caring for those in need should be the ‘why’ of what we, if we truly want to “do”, not the how or the what. Following Christ’s teaching demands that we share the essentials of life unconditionally.
This is integral not peripheral, the beginning and not a side-line or optional extra. Jesus’ unequivocally states that we encounter ultimate meaning when we treat others as we would wish to be treated, love others as we love ourselves and meet the needs of the vulnerable, excluded and marginalised.
This is the imperative which drives and shapes the Church and its existence as a servant community, taking us back to Christ’s theology as found in his Parable of the Kingdom in Matthew 25
- And the Church doesn’t stand still
If you cast your mind back to the short address I gave near the beginning of today’s service – about the dog and the rabbit……
Let me – as it were – turn it around a bit…… and remind you of that wonderful poem written by Francis Thomson – The Hound of Heaven…..
“I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears I hid from Him…”
Thomson’s story is punctuated by sorrow, failure and addiction. The squalor and self-medication of his age come through in every chapter of his life, ultimately ending in his death at age 48. But Thompson’s real legacy is not the opium that consumed his body, but the paw prints of a Hound he says relentlessly pursued his soul.
Thompson knew that Hound as the God Who draws sinners to Himself even as they flee from His voice, a dauntless Hunter of hearts.
In the 1930’s Stalin ordered a purge of all Bibles and all believers. In Stavropol, Russia, this order was carried out with vengeance. Thousands of Bibles were confiscated, and multitudes of believers were sent to the gulags-prison camps-where most died, unjustly condemned as “enemies of the state.”
An American missionary team were many years later to discover that there was a warehouse outside of town where these confiscated Bibles had been stored since Stalin’s day.
They got permission to remove them, helped by several Russians .
One helper was a young man-a skeptical, hostile agnostic who had come only for the day’s wages. As they were loading Bibles, one team member noticed that the young man had disappeared. Eventually they found him in a corner of the warehouse, weeping.
He had slipped away hoping to take a Bible for himself. What he did not know was that he was being pursued by the “Hound of Heaven.” What he found shook him to the core.
The inside page of the Bible he picked up had the handwritten signature of his own grandmother. It had been her personal Bible. Out of the thousands of Bibles still left in that warehouse, he stole the very one belonging to his grandmother-a woman, who throughout her entire life, was persecuted for her faith.
the “Hound of Heaven” who had tracked him down to that very warehouse with devastating effect.
Jesus is truly the ever-present, all-seeing “Hound of Heaven.” He can still track us down wherever we’re hiding!
He called that young Russian man and how many more like him will he seek and find!