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Archive for October, 2009

The right questions

I remember listening to a message by a prominent Reformed speaker.  He contended that while our confessions and catechisms (from flickr.com)were right and useful, yet we tend to freeze-dry them and rigidly force them into cultural contexts were they are not always immediately relevant.  He  suggested that we need to be sensitive to the questions that the culture is asking in which we minister.  Those questions may not be the same as those that have historically been asked.  That was the gist of what I recall. 

I don’t deny for a moment that each culture will come with its own set of questions, some of which we might consider ‘honest questions.’   As stewards of the mysteries of God, we should wisely parcel out God’s truth to them, given their own situation in life.  Further, I admit that the Reformed confessions and catechisms were birthed in a context distinct from our own.  Issues pressed on them in their day, and so there was a historical situation that conditioned the formation of these documents.  

But on the other hand, the confessions and catechisms enshrined more than the Christian thought of one or two generations.  They contain the collected reflection and judgment of the universal Church throughout the ages.  Much of the language in the Reformed symbols was simply borrowed from earlier documetns, especially the ecumenical creeds.  Further, they aimed to articulate that form of sound words – or what Irenaeus called ‘the rule of faith’ – embodied in the Scriptures.  That truth is timeless. 

But perhaps most to the point about questions.  The questions that the confessions addressed and their catechisms acutally asked were the ‘right questions.’  Not all questions we ask are right.  “Lord, wilt thou at this time again restore the kingdom to Israel?”  “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?”  And some are just downright nasty, or worse, blasphemous.  “Why doth he yet find fault? for who hath resisted his will?”  What did our forebears do in their catechisms?  They didn’t just give the right answers – they also told us the right questions to ask!  They didn’t just listen to their generation’s questions in each instance, though they certainly did that.  But they told them the right doors to knock on.  Reformed catechism is biblical pedagogy.  God has given us the deposit of truth, a timeless truth for each generation.  Our catechisms furnish us with the right questions.  True, they are not the only right questions that can be asked.  But they are right questions that are also the main ones.  Our culture may sometimes ask honest questions of the Bible.  But it is not the best judge of which questions are most relevant.  Relevance must be determined by God.  

Let’s give our culture answers.  If they are honest, let us answer them.  But the teacher knows what is best.  And so let’s give them right answers – but let’s give them the right questions too.

 

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It has been some time since I’ve read the classic John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides (1898).  A truly amazing story of God’s work through a humble, Scottish Presbyterian missionary among the cannibals of Australasia.

But I had altogether forgotten the book’s recounting of his preparatory work in the Glasgow City Mission.  He had been an active district visitor in the famous mission work founded by David Nasmith and patterned largely on Thomas Chalmers’ mission principles of locality and aggression.  In the next few installments, we’ll offer some selections from Paton’s chapter on his experience with the Glasgow City Mission.  It should give us some firsthand insight into what 19th century district visitation among the urban poor looked like.  (And, by the by, I personally abstain from his teetotalism.)

* * * * *

Before undertaking the Maryhill school, I had applied to be taken on as an agent in the Glasgow City Mission ; and the night before I had to leave Maryhill, I received a letter from Rev. Thomas Caie, the superintendent of the said Mission, saying that the directors had kept their eyes on me ever since my application, and requesting, as they understood I was leaving the school, that I would appear before them the next morning, and have my qualifications for becoming a Missionary examined into. Praising God, I went off at once, passed the examination successfully, and was appointed to spend two hours that afternoon and the following Monday in visitation with two of the directors, calling at every house in a low district of the town, and conversing with all the characters encountered there on their eternal welfare. I had also to preach a ” trial” discourse in a Mission meeting, where a deputation of directors would be present, the following evening being Sunday ; and on Wednesday evening, they met again to hear their reports and to accept or reject me. All this had come upon me so unexpectedly, that I almost anticipated failure; but looking up for help I went through with it, and on the fifth day after leaving the school they called me before a meeting of directors, and informed me that I had passed my trials most successfully, and that the reports were so favourable that they had unanimously resolved to receive me at once as one of their City Missionaries. It was further explained that one of their number, Matthew Fairley, Esq., an elder in Dr. Symington’s congregation, had guaranteed the half of my salary for two years, the other half to be met by the resources of the Mission voluntarily contributed,—the whole salary at that time amounting to £40 per annum. The district allocated to me was one especially needful and trying, that had never been occupied, in and around the Green Street of Calton, and I was enjcined to enter upon my duties at once. After receiving many good and kind counsels from these good and kind men, one of them in prayer very solemnly dedicated me and my work to the Lord; and several of them were appointed to introduce me to my district, taking a day each by turns, and to assist me in making arrangements for the on-carrying of the work. Deeply solemnized with the responsibilities of my new office, I left that meeting praising God for all His undeserved mercies, and seeing most clearly His gracious hand in all the way by which He had led me, and the trials by which He had prepared me for the sphere of service, Man proposes—God disposes.

Most of these directors were men of God, adapted and qualified for this special work, and very helpful in counsel as they went with me from day to day, introducing me to my district, and seeing the character and position of the people dwelling there. Looking back upon these Mission experiences, I have ever felt that they were, to me and many others, a good and profitable training of students for the office of the Ministry, preparing us to deal with men of every shade of thought and of character, and try to lead them to the knowledge and service of the Lord Jesus. I found the district a very degraded one. Many families said they had never been visited by any minister; and many were lapsed professors of religion who had attended no church for ten, sixteen, or twenty years, and said they had never been called upon by any minister, nor by any Christian visitor. In it were congregated many avowed infidels, Romanists, and drunkards,—living together, and associated for evil, but apparently without any effective counteracting influence. In many of its closes and courts sin and vice walked about openly—naked and not ashamed.

We were expected to spend four hours daily in visiting from house to house, holding small prayer meetings amongst those visited, calling them together also in evening meetings, and trying by all means to do whatever good was possible amongst them. The only place in the whole district available for a Sabbath evening Evangelistic Service was a hay-loft, under which a cow-feeder kept a large number of cows, and which was reached by an outside rickety wooden stair. After nearly a year’s hard work, I had only six or seven non-church-goers, who had been led to attend regularly there, besides about the same number who met on a week evening in the groundfloor of a house kindly granted for the purpose by a poor and industrious but ill-used Irishwoman. She supported her family by keeping a little shop, and selling coals. Her husband was a powerful man —a good worker, but a hard drinker, and, like too many others addicted to intemperance, he abused and beat her, and pawned and drank everything he could get hold of. She, amid many prayers and tears, bore everything patiently, and strove to bring up her only daughter in the fear of God. We exerted, by God’s blessing, a good influence upon him through our meetings. He became a total abstainer, gave up his evil ways, and attended church regularly with his wife. As his interest increased, he tried to bring others also to the meeting, and urged them to become abstainers. His wife became a centre of help and of good influence I all the district, as she kindly invited all and welcomed them to the meeting in her house, and my work grew every day more hopeful.

Seeing, however, that one year’s hard work showed sach small results, the directors proposed to remove me to another district, as in their estimation the nonchurch-goers in Green Street were unassailable by ordinary means. I pleaded for six months’ longer trial, as I had gained the confidence of many of the poor people there, and had an invincible faith that the good seed sown would soon bear blessed fruit.  To this the directors kindly agreed. At our next meeting I informed those present that, if we could not draw out more of the non-church-goers to attend the services, I should be removed to another part of the city. Each one there and then agreed to bring another to our next meeting. Both our meetings at once doubled their attendance. My interest in them and their interest in me now grew apace, and, for fear I might be taken away from them, they made another effort, and again doubled our attendance. Henceforth meeting and class were both too large for any house that was available for us in the whole of our district.  We instituted a Bible Class, a Singing Class, a Communicants’ Class, and a Total Abstinence Society; and, in addition to the usual meetings, we opened two prayer meetings specially for the Calton division of the Glasgow Police—one at a suitable hour for the men on day duty, and another for those on night duty. The men got up a Mutual Improvement Society and Singing Class also amongst themselves, weekly, on another evening. My work now occupied every evening in the week; and I had two meetings every Sabbath. By God’s blessing they all prospered, and gave evidence of such fruits as showed that the Lord was working there for good by our humble instrumentality.

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