Where the shoe pinches, there the martyr will be found

I have found online a quotation, which is widely attributed to Martin Luther but seems in fact to come from a 19th century novel about the reformation (which may be found in full here, although I have not tried). 

If I profess with loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except that little point which the world and the Devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.

This is well said, regardless of the fact that Luther did not say it.

The “little point which the world and the Devil are at that moment attacking” varies from time to time.  In antiquity it was the question of sacrificing to Caesar’s genius — “just a puff of incense”, the persecutor would cajole.  Many a temptation looks tiny from the outside.  “The first one’s free…” 

One you have sacrificed, or done whatever other thing you know to be wrong, of course, suddenly it’s different.  That was suddenly a big step.  No way back. Oh no.  Nor is  that just the trick of the persecutor.  That is how human psychology works.  It’s hard to find a way back, to bounce back.   That’s why the Chinese torturers in the Korean War tried to trick POW’s into signing some ‘confession’ or other, as part of the brainwashing process. 

The particular “little point” which the irrational world demands of the Christian is different today.  But the modus operandi is the same. They create some artificial demand, and then insist on it.  They pretend that it is really unimportant, but talk of nothing else except how bigoted Christians are for not complying, how unpatriotic, how hateful, how …. well, use your own adjective. 

Worth remembering, the next time one of the stooges jeeringly “asks” why Christians are obsessed with sex, or homosexuality, or whatever evil they are promoting. 

Not going to church (even though you want to)

A post on an important subject:

For the first time in our Christian lives we experienced the total despair of essentially giving up and not going anywhere for almost six or seven months. And I didn’t miss it. I didn’t miss the clueless worship, lack of Bible, historical ignorance, Great Commission absence or lack of community. If your church has no community, then staying home on Sunday isn’t much different from going on Sunday morning except for the lack of driving and going through the motions in a service that grates on you from beginning to end as people ignore you on the way in and the way out. I can’t justify not going – I know the commandment and I know I was not keeping it, but I didn’t see any way to keep it and stay sane.

This is very well put.  I myself had that experience 25 years ago, after a serious illness.  I have never been a regular church-goer since, although I remain a committed Christian.  Not because I do not want to be; but because I could not afford the drain of strength from non-church any longer.  I would gladly support a church  that supported me.  As it is, my giving goes to St Andrew the Great in Cambridge, where I received the only help that I have received in all that time since.

This experience must be commonplace.  Is there some way, I wonder, for all us Christians who can’t face the non-churches, yet remain faithful, to link up somehow?

More problems for UK Christians

During the 13 years of the Blair government, a considerable number of laws were passed whose effect was to interfere with Christians, their organisations, and their right to express their beliefs verbally, in print, or by preaching in public. 

This was quite intentional. I remember one cabinet minister boasting that the churches had better start hiring lawyers.  To understand the point of that remark, it is necessary to remember that only the rich can go to law in the UK, and that most people would be terrified to be dragged into court.  As Ezra Levant has pointed out, “the process is the punishment”.  Even if found “innocent”, the process of being dragged through the courts for months and years, at huge cost in fees, is a punishment itself.  The threat of it is often enough to cause people to comply with the demands, legal or not.

Since I am a Christian living in the UK, I am naturally somewhat concerned.  I don’t really want the police knocking at my door for what I say here.  I don’t think I am in any great danger, but then I don’t really post on contemporary issues.  But preachers have been accosted by gay activists acting as agent-provocateurs, demanding to know whether they agree that homosexuality is a sin, and then reported to the police when they give the biblical teaching and arrested.  A bishop has been “questioned” for failing to declare clearly enough that he rejects the bible in this area.  And so on.

The change of government has not stopped the process.  Today I learn from the September issue of Evangelicals Now that Premier Radio, the only Christian radio station in the UK, has been taking an interest in the issue of freedom of speech that is resulting from this.  Since 2008 they have been researching the question of Christian marginalisation, prompted by statements by high-profile Christians in the mass media.  The station is very mainstream and inoffensive, but has had consistent difficulties with the authorities. 

It is running a campaign — freedomofthecross.com — asking the public to share how they have seen the Christian faith marginalised.  … Premier Christian Radio was refused permission to broadcast an advert calling on Christians to report any experience of Christian marginalisation in the workplace.

It is ironic that even investigating the subject is apparently not permitted.  The station has applied for a judicial review; but since the judges were also purged by the last government, it may be doubted whether this will achieve much.

Let us pray that this intolerance and bigotry may cease, and peace prevail.

Lots of UK university theology departments to close?

A story from the Church Times here makes entertaining reading for those of us who were active Christians at college, and had to endure the incubus of university “theology” students — impious, drunken, debauched, vicious and perpetually determined to corrupt or insult Christians.  Apparently the secular establishment won’t pay the bills any more! 

UNIVERSITY theology departments are facing a turbulent autumn with rounds of staffing cuts and closures.

The Student Christian Movement (SCM) said that it was “very con­cerned” over the plans of some uni­versities to axe courses and shed staff. Redundancies are likely to occur in departments across the country, as the higher-education sector suffers from swingeing government spend­ing cuts. 

The “Student Christian Movement” is a tiny group of non-Christians, the dead remnant of pre-WW1 student work which abandoned its principles then, and withered in consequence.  Christian students at UK universities belong to the Christian Unions.

I suspect that most Christians will be pleased to read this.  After all, I can’t count the number of anti-Christian TV programmes, always introduced by a “theologian”, which were dedicated to showing how Christianity was rubbish.  Now those people will have to go and find an honest job.   Who says the recession is all bad?  It’s a great cleanser of nonsense.  As Auberon Waugh used to say, it’s sad but one can’t help laughing.  

We do need to remember, tho, that all this is not theology; it is bad theology.  It isn’t theology at all, in truth — but heresy dressed up in a spurious cloak of intellectual achievement, and funded solely for the purpose of bashing the Christians.  There is such a thing as real theology. 

But the trick of convincing people that believing in Christ is unintellectual is an ancient one, back to Celsus and Julian the Apostate.  At least the death of these horrible departments — and just why should we as taxpayers pay for fake faculties? — can only be a good thing.  I wish Oxford and Cambridge schools of Divinity were next.  They serve no public good that I can see.

Difficult decisions or discrimination at Oxford centre for Jewish studies

There is a curious news report in the Daily Telegraph today here, reprinted at VirtueOnline here.  There is also a Telegraph blog by Damian Thompson here.

Oxford University lecturer ‘discriminated against’ after converting to Christianity
A lecturer at Oxford University’s centre for Jewish studies claims colleagues discriminated against her after she converted to Christianity.

Dr Tali Argov says she was overlooked for promotion, stripped of her privileges and cold-shouldered at social gatherings.

She says staff wanted to vet her lectures to make sure that, as a Christian, she would not criticise Israel.

Eventually she claims she was made redundant from her post at the prestigious Oxford Centre for Hebrew & Jewish Studies, despite offering to take on new roles.

Dr Argov is claiming unfair dismissal and discrimination on grounds of religion or belief at Reading Employment tribunal.

I only know what the news report says.  Naturally I am opposed to discrimination against Christians, because I am one.  But I have mixed feelings about all this. 

My first response is to wonder why someone following a religion founded by a Jew cannot hold a post at a centre dedicated to Jewish studies.  Presumably the idea  is that anyone who becomes a Christian ceases to be a Jew, and that only Jews can hold posts at the centre.  This seems a little extreme, unless the centre is really dedicated to studying Judaism, rather like a theological college.  It would be quite understandable in the last case that staff should share a certain ethos.

On the other hand, I can’t help feeling that people should be able to employ who they want to.  In particular Jewish groups which support Israel are unpopular with the political establishment in the UK, and need to organise themselves to rebut a great deal of obstruction.  Shouldn’t they be able to ensure  that they’re all singing from the same songsheet?

And there is yet another aspect to this.  This is Britain.  English Christians are a mild lot, even the most evangelical of us.  We do not wear suicide belts.  Christianity has been part of the University of Oxford since its beginning (despite various expulsions and harassment in periods of moral decay).  Is having a CofE member in the centre really that radical?

In the pyramid of privileged groups that the establishment has erected in modern Britain, Christians are plankton.  They really do get targetted by the nastier sort of bureaucrat.  But Jewish groups, which have been more privileged, are sliding down the chain and starting to get the same treatment.  Most Christians are pro-Israel, for obvious reasons.  Is there no way that Christians and Jews can work together?

I have no answers.  I have a feeling that no-one will come out of this well.   And … I am quite sure that the full story is not in the newspaper article.  But well done to the Daily Telegraph for reporting this story.

Religious persecution in Britain today

I happened to see this item, which succintly highlights why Christians in the UK are in trouble.  The writer omits to mention the attempt by the last government to make any statement about homosexuality other than warmest approval liable to prosecution.  Attempts to introduce a free speech clause were repeatedly voted down.  A government minister gloated that the churches had better start hiring lawyers — in a country where no-one other than the privileged can afford to go to law.

Links to Mark Ashton’s sermons

Further to my other posts about Mark Ashton, Vicar of St. Andrew the Great in Cambridge, I’ve created a page which links to all the MP3 files of his sermons.  It’s here.  The files are on the church website, although I have taken a copy should they disappear.

UPDATE: This post at the Vicar’s Wife blog links to a collection of responses from around the web to Mark’s death.  It’s a more extensive list than I was able to find myself by Google searching.

UPDATE: Mark’s booklet, On my way to heaven: Facing death with Christ is available for purchase from 10ofThose online here.  I’ve just ordered a copy, to sit on my shelves for when I need it.  A fund has been established to help his widow, Fiona, here.

Still thinking about Mark Ashton

I still can’t really come to grips with the death of Mark Ashton, of St. Andrew the Great in Cambridge.  There’s quite a few of his sermons in MP3 form on the church website, and I have been downloading them. 

Somehow this is painful too; because it brings home to me that there won’t be any more; the set is complete, the collection final.  I’ve always been in the habit of treating one of his sermons as one in an endless stream, that I could go to hear whenever I wanted to, where I knew that God would speak. 

Now I can’t do that.  It’s Sunday tomorrow, and I could go.  But to what end?  Mark is gone, and with him has gone a world of spiritual wisdom and kindness. 

All that is left of that wonderful man is some bytes on a disk.  Maybe there is a hundred or so; each about 3Mb long; 300Mb or so in total.  That’s it.  He is now just a soon-fading memory in our minds, and some bytes.

It’s one thing for me to collect the words of the Fathers.  I never knew any of them.  But to do so for someone I knew?  How inadequate those few hundred megabytes are, in exchange for what has departed!

Mark Ashton, Vicar of St. Andrew the Great, has died

Mark Ashton, Vicar of St. Andrew the Great, Cambridge
Mark Ashton, Vicar of St. Andrew the Great, Cambridge

I bought a copy of Evangelicals Now today, and saw with delight a picture of Mark Ashton, Vicar of St. Andrew the Great in Cambridge at the top of an article.  This is a student church, and I have always thought of it as my ‘home’ church, although I cannot get there very often because I live a long way off. 

But looking closer, I saw with alarm that it was a piece about terminal cancer, addressed with his usual clarity.  (The whole article is here)  And at the end — even worse — was a short note that he had died on April 3rd! 

For me this is dreadful news.  I had had no idea that he was ill. In my memory he is still a man in vigorous good health.  Perhaps I might share some memories here.

When I first went to the Round Church (as it then was) in the early 80’s, Mark had just arrived and was assisting Mark Rushton, who had made the Round the great centre of Christianity in the UK that it was during the 60’s and 70’s.  In those days Mark had dark hair, I recall, and he grew grey as I sat under his ministry.  When Mark Rushton died soon afterwards, Mark became vicar, a post he held for the remainder of his life.  

The congregation outgrew the little church building, and moved to St. Andrew the Great some years later. He led the largest and most successful church in Cambridge, and was a powerful preacher heard with pleasure by his congregation, mainly composed of students and academics. I never heard him preach a bad sermon, nor one that did not lead the hearer to turn his mind to God. 

The congregation in turn became too large for that building.  Mark was always keen to do “church plants”, sending a clergyman plus a chunk of the congregation to renew a parish church in Cambridge that was on its last legs. I remember the first of these, when Christopher Ash was the clergyman, and it was a great success.  I recall a subsequent visit to preach by Christopher Ash, and Mark saying at the end of the sermon how much he loved those sermons, “… I could sit under his ministry all day.”  They were indeed excellent; but Mark’s were better.

He was primarily a preacher.  There are few such whom I would willingly ask an unbeliever to hear, but he was one.  I wish I  had asked various people to hear him, now that it is too late.  Too many preachers like baby-talk, and their efforts are an embarassment.  But his sermons were for adults, and adults who were educated and educated and intelligent to the standard of a Cambridge undergraduate.  Nor was the message watered-down; the full gospel was preached, and the non-Christian always had the opportunity to come to Christ.  In the last respect, indeed, God blessed his ministry.  There are many of his sermons on the church website in audio form — the only form in which they should be encountered.

He was not lacking in pastoral concern either.  I remember that he once invited me back to the vicarage after a sermon, together with a few others.  He can  hardly have known me, but it was typical of the man.  At the lunch he mentioned an incident in the previous week when he had found himself near a group of policemen harassing some people for no obvious reason.  Mark stopped to see what was happening, and a policeman came up to him and rudely demanded who he was and what he thought he was doing there.  Mark replied in his best preachers’ voice “I am the clergyman of this parish, and I am observing how you are treating my parishioners.”  The policeman went back to his colleagues without a further word, there was a brief conversation among them, and they all departed promptly.

Indeed it was a mark  of his pastoral care to notice the marginalised members, people like myself who could not attend often but would keep right on coming as they could.  I remember after a sermon how he invited people who needed to talk to someone about a pastoral issue to come and speak to him.  I was suffering at that time in the aftermath of an illness brought on in part by a church which demanded too much of me, was unable to offer commitment to anything, but I went to talk to him.  His pastoral advice and encouragment was invaluable to me.  He didn’t measure me by an attendance, but encouraged me to walk with God.  Without saying so, he also prayed for me for the remainder of that year — I could actually feel the effect on my prayer and bible-reading, and I could feel it when it stopped, at the new year when (naturally) he must have revised his prayer list.  From a man in church of a huge congregation this was kindness indeed.

He was also a very humble man.  I remember one week that he illustrated his sermon with some cartoons, including a comic devil.  I think he must have drawn them himself, although he did not say so, and they were excellent. But the following week he told the congregation that some people had objected  that a comic devil was misleading and tended to suggest that we should not take Satan seriously, and apologised sincerely and profusely for them.  I suspect that I was not the only person who wanted to kick whoever had criticised!

His preaching was powerful, and at one time I carried around cassettes of sermons from the Round to play in the car.  It is unfortunate that his written work was not so good.  He preached in 1996 a series of sermons on James, which were master-pieces.  They were also issued in booklet form, but the booklet is lifeless and dull, while the sermons were among the best I have ever heard.

He never received any preferment in the Church of England, not even a canonry during the thirty years that he laboured. The congregation must have been the largest financial contributor to the diocese, and the success of the church plants must have increased the numbers of communicants and donors to the diocese.  But that did not qualify him, it seems.  Indeed we might ask who did fill the stalls at the cathedral, if such a man was not considered suitable.  But I never heard Mark even mention the matter. 

I only corresponded with him once.  After an administrative change to a standing order, I queried the office as follows:

  Thank you for this.  I have completed it [a mandate] and returned as requested.

  May I ask a difficult but necessary question? 

  Giving goes to maintain the ministry of the Round, and the fabric of its buildings.  But this gay priests business leads one to ask, just who owns these buildings?  I’ve been watching events in the US where apostate bishops have been seizing the assets of parishes and evicting congregations.  Charles Raven had the same experience here.  My little contribution is intended for the Round, not to pay a gay bishop to close it down: and I expect the same is true of a lot of people.

  Can I ask what measures have been put in place to ensure that, in the event of this happening here, the diocese will not simply appropriate whatever is given to the Round?  I know we raised a lot of money to refurbish the building: but I wonder, if the StAG building belongs to the diocese, not to the congregation, why are we raising all this money for it, if we have no guarantee against eviction?  This question must be going to hit us in a few years, I would have thought.

  It is hard to justify giving money to the Church of England as an institution at the moment, and questions of responsible stewardship come into this.  I hesitated a lot before restarting this standing order. Has any thought been given to this?

All the best,
Roger Pearse

I was surprised but pleased to get a reply from Mark:

Dear Roger,

I’ve received your email of the 12th of November (which I will also forward to the church treasurer, in case he wishes to comment).

You are very generous to support us with a standing order and thank you very much indeed for that.

You are perfectly right to put your finger on that particular issue.  Of course, the overwhelming majority of our income goes on paying for the staff and current programmes of the church.  But the ownership of the  church property is a moot question  – vested in me while I am vicar, and the Church of England would find it very hard to get it away from me, unless they find me to be heretical or convicted of gross immorality.  But at the moment of succession there is great vulnerability, and I’m certainly not in a position totally to reassure you in your misgivings.

We do have a couple of charitable trusts, which, we believe, are safe, and which support gospel ministry, both here and in some other churches.  You can always route your giving to these, rather than to the Round Church at St Andrew the Great.

On a slightly more reassuring note, my own faith is not in the morality or faithfulness of the institution, nor even in our own power to resist it, but in the power of the gospel to continue to replicate itself in people’s lives.  It always seems to me that the best safe-guard we have against the sort of fears you express is faithful gospel ministry, leading to conversion and growing discipleship amongst a body of people who will be kept by the word and spirit of God from straying out of His paths.  It may at times seem a slim hope, but I believe it to be a Biblical one!

With very best wishes,
Mark 

The combination of a straight answer combined with a focus on God, not the world, was typical of the man.

I’ve just created the link to Mark’s article above, and  I read portions of it, and I admit that I am sitting here in tears.  Mark was one of the best of men, and I feel sensibly diminished.  My world has grown smaller with his passing.

The church website is here, with video of the service of remembrance here.  A great number of his sermons are online at the church website in .mp3 format. There is also a useful talk he gave in March – pretty much his last, his voice showing the sign of illness, in .mpg here.  See also a video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?hl=en-GB&v=H7Y_GJMnj_4.

De ligno vitae – The Tree of Life

There are a number of short poems which appear in the manuscripts and older editions of the works of Tertullian and Cyprian.  In truth their authorship is unknown, but they seem to belong to the end of the 4th century.

One of these is De ligno vitae, The tree of life.  I was considering commissioning a translation, but then I came across this lovely translation in Early Christian Latin Poets by Carolinne White in Google books.  The text itself is clearly a gem!

There is a place, we believe, at the centre of the world,
Called Golgotha by the Jews in their native tongue.
Here was planted a tree cut from a barren stump:
This tree, I remember hearing, produced wholesome fruits,
But it did not bear these fruits for those who had settled there:
It was foreigners who picked these lovely fruits.
This is what the tree looked like: it rose from a single stem
And then extended its arms into two branches
Just like the heavy yardarms on which billowing sails are stretched
Or like the yoke beneath which two oxen are put to the plough.
The shoot that sprung from the first ripe seed
Germinated in the earth and then, miraculously,
On the third day it produced a branch once more,
Terrifying to the earth and to those above, but rich in life-giving fruit.
But over the next forty days it increased in strength,
Growing into a huge tree which touched the heavens
With its topmost branches and then hid its saccred head on high.
In the meantime it produced twelve branches of enormous
Weight and stretched forth, spreading them over the whole world:
They were to bring nourishment and eternal life to all
The nations and to teach them that death can die.
And then after a further fifty days had passed
From its top the tree caused a draught of divine nectar
To flow into its branches, a breeze of the heavenly spirit.
All over the tree the leaves were dripping with sweet dew.
And look! Beneath the branches shady cover
There was a spring, with waters bright and clear
For there was nothing there to disturb the calm. Around it in the grass
A variety of flowers shone forth in bright colours.
Around this spring countless races and peoples gathered,
Of different stock, sex, age and rank,
Married and unmarried, widows, young married women,
Babies, children and men, both young and old.
When they saw the branches here bending down, under the weight
Of many sorts of fruit, they gleefully reached out with greedy hands
To touch the fruits dripping with heavenly nectar.
But they could not pick them with their eager hands
Until they had wiped off the dirt and filthy traces
Of their former life, washing their bodies in the holy spring.
And so they strolled around on the soft grass for some time
And looked up at the fruits hanging from the tall tree.
If they ate the shells that fell from those branches
And the sweet greenery dripping with plenty of nectar,
Then they were overcome with a desire to pick the real fruit.
And when their mouths first experienced the heavenly taste,
Their minds were transformed and their greedy impulses
Began to disappear; by the sweet taste they knew the man.
We have seen that an unusual taste or the poison of gall
Mixed with honey causes annoyance in many:
They rejected what tasted good because they were confused
And did not like what they had eagerly grabbed at,
Finally spitting out the taste of what they had for long drunk unwisely.
But it often happens that many, once their thoughts are set to rights,
Find their sick minds restored and achieve what they denied
Was possible and so obtain the fruits of their labours.
Many, too, having dared to touch the sacred waters,
Have suddenly departed, slipping back again
To roll around in the same mixture of mud and filth.
But others, faithfully carrying the truth within them, receive it
With their whole soul and store it deep in their hearts.
And so the seventh day sets those who can approach
The sacred spring beside the waters they longed for,
And they dip their bodies that have been fasting.
Only so do they rid themselves of the filth of their thoughts
And the stains of their former life, bringing back from death
Souls that are pure and shining, destined for heaven’s light.

I will look more at the volume.  It looks as if Dr. White has done something that should have been done a century ago, and addressed all these Latin poets who are largely neglected.