The Lord is our pastor.
He’s the best. Wise and discerning, patient, forbearing and kind: firm, yet gentle: probing yet all the while so mindful of our frailties and flaws: and always intent on leading us forward, securing our growth, and fulfilling His purpose of grace in all of our lives.
His opening gambit in Scripture is as often as not His opening gambit too whenever we’ve reached some sort of cross-roads in our life. It’s a simple, but searching, question.
“Where are you?” (Gen.3.9).
It’s a question to which both the Leadership Team and the elders are presently applying their minds as very prayerfully under God we seek His way forward for us in these days. Where are we?
The question is always important – not least because a proper understanding of just where we are enables us to know how best we travel on from here. The joke about the local who, when asked by passing tourists what the best way to the capital would be, declared with great simplicity that “If that’s where I wanted to get to I wouldn’t be starting from here!” – that joke has more than an ounce of wisdom in its punch-line.
Where you are necessarily will determine, at least to some considerable extent, what your best next step forward will be. We can only establish where we go from here, when we know where ‘here’ actually is.
‘So where are you?’ asks the Lord. Not as an end in itself, but rather so that we may be the better placed to discern just how the contours of His future for us lie. It’s an important pastoral question, and, as I say, it’s one which the Leadership Team in particular, and the elders together more generally, have been pondering for a while.
The question’s always a good one, not least because there are various different perspectives from which an answer can be given: these different perspectives serve as a series of what might be called ‘trig-points’, from which we then are better placed to ‘map out’ the lie of the land going forward.
Any conclusions as such are at present still very premature, and the elders have already diarized Saturday 18th January for a half-day elders’ conference with a view to our better discerning the mind of the Lord on this: some 20-20 vision as we start the year 2020.
It’ll be helpful, I hope, for an ongoing conversation on this theme throughout the fellowship at this time, if I set out for you here at least the general drift of our thoughts thus far as we’ve sought to wait upon the Lord.
Where are we? There are, as I mentioned above, a number of different perspectives from which the question can be viewed.
And the first of these is an historical one. Where are we on the time-line of God’s dealings with this local congregation of His people? And is there any pattern in those dealings over time which help us put down markers for the next few steps ahead?
It’s an interesting exercise to track that path and see the sovereign providence of God through this most recent century.
Back in 1929, Gilcomston South Parish Church was given a tiny parish, with next to no residents actually living in the parish: combine that fact with a minister at the time who proved to be quite sickly, and then the turmoil of the war, and you see why in the immediate post-war years we were very well placed for the radical expository teaching ministry of Mr Still to be exercised here, and for the church to be and become, primarily and very distinctively, effectively a central and centripetal ‘preaching station’.
With the closure of Denburn Parish Church (where Hebron Evangelical Church are located today) the congregation’s ‘parish’ extended first to the north: and a similar parish expansion occurred to the south, with the closure of the old Langstane Kirk (where ‘Soul’ is now to be found). For the last 25 years or so, accordingly, and certainly in the period leading up to our becoming an independent congregation, the sense of a wider ‘parish responsibility’ was impressed upon our corporate mind and heart.
And reflecting on that across those years, we’re aware of a range of different ‘constituencies’ within our parish reach. There’s a constituency, first of all, of those who day by day are resident here in our vicinity. There are those who are our neighbours as they come in to their work, in offices and businesses and shops. There are those who travel in to our environs, with varying degrees of frequency, for fun and entertainment. And there are those who simply walk the streets – to browse, to beg, to scour the shops, to see the sights; or just because their life has been reduced to but a vague and aimless wandering, and the main street is as good a place as any for their weary limbs to roam.
We’ve been made more aware across these years, that is, of both the pastoral responsibility and the evangelistic opportunity which the Lord has firmly laid upon our life here as a fellowship – always alongside and complementary to, rather than in any sense a substitute for, the ‘preaching station’ ministry which is and was and will be very much the core of all that God has called us here to be.
Having recognized that, however, it’s been important as well, from still very much an historical standpoint, to see that we’ve been (and still to some extent are) in a time of significant transition.
There is, first, the ‘ecclesiastical’ transition from being part of a major denomination, with some clearly defined parish bounds, to becoming within the last 7 years essentially an independent church, for whom ‘the world is now our parish’. That is never an easy change to make; there are all sorts of hazardous cross-currents through which such churches have to navigate as they sail into the very different waters of a non-denominational life.
Then, too, there has been the transition in personnel from one long and significant preaching and pastoral ministry to a new one. All sorts of emotions inevitably come into play, and all sorts of adjustments invariably have to be made. The smoothest transitions take patience, and care, and time.
Perhaps the biggest transition of all, however, is a cultural one. There has been something of a seismic shift in the great tectonic plates of Scotland’s culture over all these last decades. And as a result the whole societal context in which our life as Christ’s church is now lived out has altered, almost beyond recognition. The cultural landscape is no longer remotely the same as once it was, and all the different facets of the way in which as Christians we engage with our society – all that has necessarily had to change.
Perhaps we are loath to believe it: perhaps we are slow to wake up to the change there has been and the challenges consequent on it. But we’re surely at best still very much playing simply ‘catch-up’.
Where are we? We’re still, from an historical perspective, – we’re still at least to some extent in transition.
But the historical perspective is only one among a number of ways of addressing the pastoral question God bids us address.
There’s a geographical perspective as well to the question – ‘where are you?’
That may be obvious: but we’re minded to conclude that it’s also under God significant. We didn’t have to end up here on Union Street when we left the Church of Scotland. We might have wished to do so: we might even have presumed to do so. But we certainly didn’t need to.
The fact that we have done so, with the ownership of this particular building at this particular place entrusted now to ourselves – that has had the hallmarks of the sovereign will and providence of God. It was something of a minor miracle that we had the opportunity to buy this old familiar building, particularly in the circumstances in which that purchase was secured: it was something of a minor miracle that the very substantial sums involved in the purchase price were met within a matter of a few short weeks: and the fact that on the day when that substantial purchase payment was transferred we had precisely the substantial sum required (with a tiny bit more as the generous ”baker’s dozen” grace of God) – that simply underlined, if we had any lingering doubts, that this indeed is where the Lord Himself now clearly means that we should be.
The last remaining church to front onto the main street of our city here in Aberdeen.
Location, location, location. The geographic answer to the question is as pertinent as any: and one we therefore have to take on board. The Lord has located us here. He has a role for His people to play, right here.
There may be all sorts of aspects to that, of course, given both where we are set and what our building affords. The centrality of the location. The constituencies around the location. The consistency in the location. But one way or another this perspective is an important one which must help inform our thinking.
There is also, though, always a spiritual perspective from which the Lord’s probing question must be answered. Where are we, in terms of our walk and our life with Him? Not so much in terms of individuals, as in terms of our communal life as a varied congregation of His people in this place.
For many a long decade there has been at the heart of our life together a very intentional, systematic expository teaching of the Word of God: that, under God, has always had in view both a thorough-going equipping of believers for the work of daily ministry wherever Christ has called them thus to serve, and also a clear and constant sending into all the world of each and every member of His church. Everything, of course, undergirded by a disciplined ministry of prayer.
All of that equips us for the very varied ministry of witness and of service which each of us will individually exercise. But might it not just be that in the providence of God, across these long decades, He’s been so very patiently preparing us to exercise together as His church a challenging new ministry of engaging both a culture and a context and constituencies with each of which we’re neither comfortable nor that confident? It happens! Our old, familiar friend, the prophet Jonah, could tell us all a thing or two along precisely such a line!
So as the Lord addresses the question, ‘Where are you?’ to us, we in turn have been asking the question that Jesus was always asking: ‘what do we see the Father doing?’ Because that alone defines what we must do.
We see the Lord seeming to prosper the ministry through our Community Groups. We see the Lord seeming to have His hand upon our children’s work. We see the Lord seeming to do His transforming work in the lives of those who come off the street with huge and wide-ranging need. We certainly see the Father at work in a range of significant ways: and what we see Him doing is the only sort of compass we can have in charting out His future course for us. We must not live in dreamland. We may not look at others and decide that that’s what we would like to be and do. “If that’s where I wanted to go to, I wouldn’t have started from here!”
Here is where we are. And that must always define for us where it is we are bidden to go by the Lord, and what it is that He would have us as His people here to do.
So where are you? asks the Lord of us.
And where are you in it all?
May there be a growing sense of God-inspired expectancy as we seek His face for the future.
Yours in the service of Christ our Lord,
Hamlet would be having a field day for his soliloquies now. To be or not to be. In the EU, that is. Noel Edmonds, too, I suppose, might just be considering a comeback with his Deal or No Deal show.
Brexit. Everyone now, so it seems, wants in on the act: however the thing’s to be viewed. A contemporary, five-act tragedy that would have done old Shakespeare proud? A real-life, early evening soap, with so many twists and turns to the script that no one is sure if the thing will ever end? Or just some elaborate political gameshow, a mad, mazy mix of Countdown, Pointless, and Tipping Point?
The jury’s out! Prorogued perhaps, who knows!
When it comes to Europe and Brexit, you’re either fired up, or fed up. Maybe both, I suppose. But what on earth are we meant to make of it all? As Christians, I mean.
Perhaps we do well to stand back just a bit from the whole complex saga and consider not so much the merits of the whole debate, but its result. For wherever you land in terms of the rights and the wrongs of this wretched hot potato, the politics have actually been but the canvas on which some far more profound and sobering truths about our land have now been painted out.
This is not the classic art of Rembrandt or Van Gogh. This is modern art, more Turner Prize than a Turner painting. Or strictly speaking post-modern art. Because try as you might to make any sense of it all, the whole thing seems often just a mass of contradictions and .. well, a mess.
A mess it may well be: but through it all the three great primary colours of our present day society are clearly seen. And it is to these, far more than to the details of the whole bizarre scenario – it is to these three ‘colours’ that attention must be paid.
Division, confusion, and aggression, are the ‘colours’ painted across our nation today in all their naked ugliness.
Division, first of all. We have become a starkly divided country. Europe and Brexit have only served to highlight and exacerbate what has been there for a while: the phenomenon of a growing fragmentation right across the whole broad panorama of our national life.
The flesh of our national life has become diseased, the skin of societal health is cracking up all over the place, and the cracks themselves have become now huge, great chasms, gaping and infected wounds of widespread discontent.
Europe and Brexit have only served to bring it all to the surface. A disease of the body politic whose first important symptom is an all-pervasive, right-across-the-board disintegration.
Remain or leave. In or out. Deal or no deal. Now or never. And that’s just Europe and Brexit!
The fault lines are found to be everywhere now. Independence or union. Private or public. The state or the individual. Traditionalist or revisionist. Bible or Babel. We’re a people now falling apart at the seams, the common ground on which we all once stood as hazardous now as the no man’s land between two strong, entrenched opinions of opposing views.
Divided, and more significantly perhaps, increasingly divisive too.
“Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined,” our Lord once said (Matt.12.25). The disease of division has become now epidemic with us here, a plague among our people, whose putrid stench is the harbinger of ruin.
Then, as well, there’s confusion. Some of what’s gone on within the Commons and the Lords has surely had the character of farce: the line between what’s pantomime and what we thought was parliament has sometimes been astonishingly blurred.
How did we ever arrive at the place where we are? And where exactly are we? And what on earth do we do to get out of this ‘catch 22’? No one knows. We’re in ‘uncharted waters’ we’re told.
But phrases such as that are just a euphemistic label to disguise the basic fact of that confusion which pervades not just our politics but almost every single sphere of national life.
Distinctions which gave clear and healthy definition to the fabric of society have bit by bit been blurred.
The 24-hour global-village clock, and the 7-day working week, have seen us lose the careful demarcation of our days which once we had, and seen instead the busy days just blend into each other without a single punctuation mark at all.
And the systematic, across-the-board dismantling of the ‘boundary lines’ in morals has resulted in a similar confusion. Equality has now become a vigorous insistence on a dumbed-down need for sameness. Freedom is interpreted as little more than anarchy, where you and you alone must now determine who you are and how you live. Even basic grammar is a victim of such wanton disregard for every former ‘boundary line’: and thus a single individual can insist on being described by the plural terms of ‘they’ and ‘them’, while saying in the self-same breath that this is but ‘my’ (singular) right. With a hundred and one different genders from which to choose, and the liberty to make up some more, no wonder that people are lost and confused as to who exactly they are.
We’re a people completely at sea, our landmarks all ripped up, revoked and removed. We don’t know where we’ve come from. We don’t know who we are. We don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know why we’re here.
And we certainly do not know how to get out of the mess that we’re in.
Politically. Environmentally. Relationally. Morally. And half the time our society now is so sufficiently confused that it can’t even see its confusion.
Is that too stark an analysis? Is that too bleak a picture? Well, yes, of course, I’m painting the thing in as striking a way as I can. For it’s there, this confusion, and it’s there as part of the picture we’re seeing painted out on the canvas of Europe and Brexit.
Division. And confusion.
And a worrying aggression as well. Have you not become aware of that? A creeping, insidious increase in the volume and the pitch with which in all sorts of ways in our land today we now choose to take our stand against each other.
The vitriol and the venom with which the drama of our parliamentary business has increasingly been acted out. The anger, the rage, the contempt that’s been there; and the rank, unbridled disrespect with which protagonists engage with one another and now play their parts before the watching cameras.
Parliament itself is surely but a window onto what our whole society’s become. We’re an angry nation, embittered in so many ways, and resorting, it seems, with remarkable ease, to expressing our views and demanding our rights with a mood that’s acerbic, explosive and hard. It feels as if we’re sitting on a tinder box, gripping grenades with the pins taken out.
Isn’t that what you see on the faces of those pouring out to protest on the streets in their thousands? Isn’t that what you hear in the voices of the many so eager and quick to ring in and have their say on the plethora of chat shows we now have? Isn’t that what you read in the tweets and the posts which are planted like so many mines and IEDs in the fields of social media? Isn’t that what you so often find in the books and articles penned today by those with a point to make?
Open, acrimonious hostility. Aggression.
To form, with the division and confusion, a terrifying triptych of our land today.
And that should set alarm bells loudly ringing. Because these are the three invariable symptoms of a people who have cast off all restraint, spurned God’s rule, dismissed God’s word, and scorned God’s Son – and arrogantly assumed that we can be the masters of the universe. Not a ‘progressive’ society at all, but the hallmarks of regression.
Remember how the Bible begins in its stunning, opening salvo. A very similar triptych again.
“Now the earth was formless, empty, and darkness was over the surface of the deep” (Gen.1.2).
Formlessness. Emptiness. Darkness.
It was that which the LORD addressed in His great creative power when He ruled by His word over it all. Darkness replaced by light. An abundance in place of the emptiness and void (a world that teemed with good things). And order, in place of the formlessness once there had been. And that was all good: very good.
But when in chapter 3 and beyond the rule of God was usurped and the word of God was dismissed, see how very quickly there’s a potent, gravitational pull back to that pre-creation triptych of a world apart from God.
Confusion kicks in. The old, chaotic formlessness, where all the great distinctions have been blurred. The distinction between the creature and Creator. The distinction between humanity and the rest of the animate creation. The distinction between the man and the woman. Questions. Chaos. Confusion. Am I my brother’s keeper? Who am I?
And division. That which had not been ‘not good’ was the fact that the man was alone. Fullness of life had been given to him in the walk he had with his God and in the love that he found in his wife. Relationship. But now the emptiness returns.
The man and the woman, the two made so wonderfully one, now torn apart, at loggerheads with each other, as the game of blame is mercilessly played: and torn apart from God their Maker as well, as they’re banished from the Garden. And as the whole sorry sage moves on, brother’s now set against brother in a rivalry and envy which was only ever going to end in tragedy and tears. Division. And its consequential emptiness.
And aggression. The dominion of … yes, of course, the dominion of darkness takes charge. The law of the jungle in place of the kingdom of God. Hatred, hostility, harm. Darkness spreads over the surface of the deep again. The darkness of fear. The darkness of force. The darkness of self on the throne – self-centred, self-seeking, self-indulgent. And the darkness of death as well.
Chaos, a void, and darkness. Confusion, division, aggression. The towers of our society have collapsed: we’re back at ground zero.
Europe and Brexit is only the canvas on which the plight of a people who’ve scorned God’s rule and God’s word has now been painted out. It’s not to the merits or demerits of Brexit itself that our eyes are wisely turned: but to that triptych of symptoms the issue’s shown up, indicative now of our need.
The only note of hope that we can find is the statement we find at the end of the primeval triptych – “.. and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” Nothing less than a mighty and merciful work of the Spirit of God through our land today can undo and reverse the rot that’s already set in.
Yours in, I hope, a concert of urgent prayer to our Lord,