Monday, 2 March 2015

Gambling - what's wrong with it anyway?

Is gambling just a harmless pursuit? Are all forms of gambling equally harmless, or potentially harmful? Many would say that problems from gambling arise from its misuse rather than it being inherently harmful. Assuming for the moment that the National Lottery is a form of gambling, is it not the case that winning it can give families a release from financial struggle, from the dilemma of trying to make ends meet? Have not millions of pounds raised by the Lottery gone to help good causes, and does this not show the worth of gambling?

Moreover, it’s fun, so it’s claimed. You can have a good time gambling, especially if it’s part of your socialising pattern. It’s certainly popular, if the advertising slots in televised football matches and other sporting events is anything to go my. It’s by no means rare to find three or four separate promotions of some form of gambling or other packed into a single three-minute slot!

So, is it not rather boorish to try and fault it? What should be our attitude to gambling from a Christian perspective? In response to persuasive arguments in favour of gambling it’s important that Christians do not resort to merely stating biblical arguments. Of course, we must do that, but it’s not the first thing to do, because for one thing many people reject the Bible anyway. It’s better first of all to state some of the hard facts about gambling.

1.            Some relevant statistics for gambling in the UK.

(1) Published in June 2014 by the Gambling Commission (the Government agency “watchdog”), figures show that the British gambling industry generated a gross gambling yield (GGY) of £6.3 billion between April 2012 and March 2013, a rise of over £0.4 billion (7%) compared to the period April 2011 to March 2012. The industry saw growth in betting, bingo, casino, remote (betting, bingo and casino) and lotteries sectors.  Only the arcades sector experienced a decrease.
Incidentally, one of reasons for the Gambling Commission’s existence, is that it, “regulates gambling in the public interest alongside its co-regulators local licensing authorities. It does so by keeping crime out of gambling, by ensuring that gambling is conducted fairly and openly, and by protecting children and vulnerable people from being harmed or exploited by gambling?” That the Commission exists shows that there are obvious dangers associated with gambling, otherwise there would be no need for it. The same can be said of the many clinics, counselling courses, rehabs and groups dedicated to help those with an addiction to gambling.

(2) Figures provided by the NHS and other organisations such as, only add to concerns over gambling. These show that there are at least 300,000 “problem gamblers” (ie those with a gambling addiction) in the UK and there may be as many as 450,000. The vast majority of gambling addicts do not seek help for their addiction - only around 5 percent in fact. Only 1 percent receive treatment for their gambling problem, although it is treatable.
Moreover, gambling addiction and alcohol abuse are often linked. Many people addicted to gambling are also addicted to alcohol. Statistics show that rates of depression and attempted suicide among gambling addicts are around double the national average! Gambling addicts are also more likely to be jailed as a result of criminal activity (almost always theft and fraud to feed the habit), always hoping for that big win that will pay off the debts, while the debts accumulate!

2.            Some prominent features of gambling

(1) Gambling is very accessible. Increasingly gambling promotions are directed to the use of mobile phones or tablets for online gambling. Long gone are the days when you needed to head for the nearest casino or bookies, which might have been many miles away, if you wanted to play roulette or blackjack or place a bet on the horses. Now, however, you can gamble in private from the comfort of your chair or bed, making gambling for young people unsupervised by parents a real possibility.
(2) Gambling promotions make it very appealing. Many of the promotions offer a “free” bet or an amount to begin playing with, usually hyped up by showing excited players, winners indeed, in the advert! It’s glossy, entertaining, and “cool.” There is no angst on show, just enjoyment; no pain, just gain. The warnings are there, but only in small, unenhanced letters momentarily on screen, like the APR rates on short-term loans.

Many end up with a gambling addiction simply through going for that appealing “bait” to begin with! In recent years that “bait” has become even more attractive due to financial troubles associated with economic recession, unemployment, and social deprivation. Of course, not all gamblers, or gambling addicts, come from socially deprived circumstances.

(3) Gambling easily becomes addictive. That does not lead to most gamblers becoming addicted, but one who does is one too many. Gamblers often describe their excitement in looking for a big win as an “adrenaline rush”; some committed gamblers will tell you that there is no feeling like it! With the means to access it 24 hours a day it’s easy to see how people can get hooked! For some, the prospect of a win is so exhilarating that they will not give up until they win. It’s in the nature of gambling that getting into debt in the process is easily overcome by the prospect of that one big win which will wipe away all debts, so it matters little how much money is lost along the way.

(4) Gambling is never confined to the individual gambler. It is estimated that every addicted gambler adversely affects the lives of ten to twenty relatives, friends, work colleagues or neighbours. In particular, committed gambling disrupts family life. Money needed for food, clothes, rent or mortgage payments, is diverted to fund gambling habits. Extended credit is often readily available. The Bible condemns neglecting one’s family - “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). Robbing the home of income and precious time with families is as bad as letting a burglar enter the house to steal all that’s valuable!

3.            What does the Bible have to say about gambling?

Our approach is not to search for a verse in the Bible which categorically states “gambling is wrong”, although, of course, on many ethical matters (adultery for example) the Bible does make such categorical statements. Instead we look for the “big principles” that are designed for the proper development and protection of human life and relationships, even though not all who read this will accept the authority or relevance of the Bible. But for Christians it is the basis of our conclusions about individual and social morality. Here are three, closely connected to gambling.

(1) The destructiveness of greed. Gambling has close connections with greed and being discontented with one’s lot. That’s not at all to say that those in poverty should be satisfied with their lot and should just lie down and accept it quietly; of course not. But gambling is not the way to seek a way out of poverty, for this often makes many who try this route even poorer and often in further debt by exceeding overdraft limits and by resorting to high interest short-term loans.

Gambling belongs to a materialistic world-view. 1 Timothy 6:9-10, states, “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money (literally “mammon”) is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.” Paul was not advising Timothy that being rich was unacceptable for a Christian. God never condemns riches as such. What is denounced is the “love” of it. The word “mammon” as used in this verse is wider in meaning than “money.” It refers to all that makes up worldliness, so the love of mammon is essentially being in love with material things, having a “this-world” view of where our security and ultimate happiness lies. It’s all about the drive for material satisfaction, often involving jealousy, covetousness, and cheating - which is why the love of mammon is called “a root of all evil.”
More crucially “the love of mammon” leaves God out of plans for security and contentment. 

The Book of Proverbs, one of the “Wisdom Books” of the Old Testament, presents covetousness and greed as essentially foolish. This is matched in Luke 12:16-21, where the rich farmer planning for the future gave no consideration to God or to eternity. His “this-world” philosophy and approach to life saw him boasting in his financial prosperity, planning to build even bigger barns to hold his future increase. He was the kind for whom life was about making as much money as possible and then having many years in which to enjoy his investments. “Wise man”, many would say of him. God had another opinion - “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you.”

In one of his most famous parables (Matthew 13:1-9 and 18-23) Jesus referred to the influences which “choke” the word of God in our hearts - “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches.” Again, Jesus did not condemn riches or material things in themselves; just making them our priority and thus being deceived!

This is the spirit inherent in gambling, living for the next thrilling win, and if it does not happen, well it might next time, so the mind absorbs more of the spirit of discontentment with what one has, and descends further into the trap of thinking that “a man’s life consists in the abundance of the things he possesses.” Jesus, of course, said that it does not! To live for earthly riches is to commit one’s life to inevitable insecurity, disappointment and the greatest loss of all - the loss of one’s soul. As Jesus put it, “What shall it profit a man though he gain the whole world and lose his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” Not questions that the gambling industry would choose as a suitable maxim, yet they are, sadly, the epitaph of many a gambler! Taking risks in the face of eternity is the ultimate gamble! Gambling rides on the back of “chance”, and chance never guarantees contentment and security.

The stewardship of material possessions is crucial in the organisation of life itself. Our possessions and money are not self-produced; they are gifts from God. We are trustees who will be judged for the quality of our stewardship. This is a matter for governments as much as for individuals. Lottery tickets and online bets are the antithesis of trust in God. To adapt another saying of Christ’s, “You cannot serve God and gambling”!

(2) The exploitation of the poor.  One of the most sinister features of the gambling industry is its attitude to the poor. Rather than offering genuine hope and a way out of poverty, gambling preys on those who are most desperate. The Old Testament prophets proclaimed God’s judgment against those who exploited the poor, and yet these are the very people who are enticed to risk everything, which is all too often what they lose! Outlets for the purchase of Lottery tickets are an obvious feature in economically depressed areas.

It has become obvious over many years now that successive governments have all too readily promoted and encouraged forms of gambling, the National Lottery and super-casinos being the most obvious examples. Gambling taxes provide ready funds, so it’s easy to see why the promotion and increase of gambling is an attractive option to governments! This is one of the most insidious aspects of the gambling industry. Alongside the promotion of gambling, governments frequently say that tackling poverty is one of their primary objectives. Leaving aside the important issue of whether austerity measures create poverty, it is sheer hypocrisy to promise the poor relief while simultaneously sponsoring gambling! It’s like telling someone who has had their leg amputated, “we will of course give you a prosthesis, only we need to amputate the other leg first!”

(3) The undermining of the ethic of work. For many gamblers the hope of a massive win is closely connected with the dream of never having to work again. Instead, homes abroad, a nice yacht, and regular income from huge investments; that’s the life to dream of. As Del Boy (the main character in the TV sit-com Only Fools and Horses) often said, “this time next year we’ll be millionaires!” The title of the sit-com, however, omits the last word in the line of the song from which the title is taken - “work”! “Only fools and horses work”! It’s precisely the dream of never having to work again which drives Del Boy on with all his dodgy deals!

The Bible will not allow us to treat work unfavourably. It’s a God-honouring ethic and activity. At our creation, even in the Garden of Eden, God gave us the privilege of labour. Part of the legacy of our human rebellion against God is the distortion of our understanding of work - sin has converted it into drudgery. But God created it as a thing of beauty, intended for his glory and our good, as well as for the benefit of our environment.

Gambling, along with many other influences, distorts this. Work becomes something to escape from, a habitual drudgery, from which gambling gives relief and some hope of escape.

4.            And what of our Christian response?

Gambling is not a harmless hobby or recreation. For too many individuals and families it is a perpetual and increasing misery from which there seems to be no escape. But, how much do we in the Church highlight its dangers? Does it feature in our sermons? Are our people, young and old, familiar with what the Bible teaches about it? Are we actively supporting counselling and care for those with a gambling addiction? Part of what led to me writing this blog was the realisation that I had given the topic of gambling scant inclusion in my own preaching and pastoring ministry.

It is to us as Christians that the words of Proverbs 24 verses 11-12 are addressed. With regard to the gambling addict, as to the drug addict or alcoholic, or indeed anyone in need, these words leave us no refuge in the excuse that we didn’t know.

‘Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, "Behold, we did not know this”, does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?’

Monday, 14 July 2014

It's all over - reflections on the World Cup

So that's it. It's all over. Germany rules the world of football. Deservedly, most would say.

Some will be glad it's over - those who can now recover the remote control and watch their favourite programmes on catch-up TV or from recordings! Others, for whom football is nearly everything, will have withdrawal symptoms, for which the only adequate treatment, it seems, is to begin a course of counting the days to the next world cup four years hence. 

Many pundits and commentators say that this was the best world cup ever. It equalled the most goals scored in any previous world cup tournament; it had drama, unexpected results, exciting games, individual brilliance and great crowds. I didn't watch all that often, but the games I did watch were disappointing, not necessarily for the standard of football, but for a lack of ethical standards on the part of too many people, on and off the pitch. 

In sheer footballing terms it may have been the best world cup ever. But, for me at least, in moral terms it was far from that! Sure, there were players who made it obvious that they were Christians, attributing their success to God and accepting failure too as part of his plan for their lives. That was good to see. And there were many others who showed no Christian convictions but played the game as it should be played, fairly, honestly and respectfully. But there were too many others who consistently set out to cheat a way to success.

Cheating, attempts to con the referees by falling to ground for the least contact by an opposing player, and then hoping for a penalty or a free kick, and perhaps even a sending off, have all too obviously, and sadly, become part of the game. The "must win" pressure on players and coaches, the financial rewards for winning, or penalties for failure, have resulted in the degrading of "the beautiful game" into a contest in which winning is everything. The end justifies any means used to achieve it, even at the expense of honesty. 

And because this seems now to be an accepted aspect of how the game is played, coaches find it hard to condemn this behaviour in public, which is where it has to be denounced if it is to be seriously tackled and eradicated. There's too much at stake. Because the win is what counts above all else pretence is legitimised as an aspect of how victory is to be achieved. If all coaches were to agree that any player in their team who was found to have been guilty of blatant cheating (it's easy enough now to establish this with TV evidence) would not be chosen to play for the team, club or country, if they repeated the offence, the practice would very soon cease! But, if you have a Neymar or a Suarez in your team it's going to take guts to do this, and there isn't much of that moral quality around at the moment!

What is won by cheating is really won at the loss of something much more valuable than a world cup or the accolade of being the best team, player or coach on the planet. The Bible calls it truth. Honesty, integrity, justice and the consideration of other people's reputation are of far greater worth than plaudits for winning games. The loss of integrity cannot be made up for by everybody agreeing that this has to be the way the game is now played, which is really just a cowardly acceptance of the inevitability of it all. There is no substitute for truth. Take it off the field and put pretence on as its substitute and whatever skills may be shown, or results achieved, the overall loss of integrity amounts to a massive moral loss. Of course, this applies to every area of human life, at every level, not merely to the football pitch.

The cheat gains a bad reputation, loses the trust of fellow professionals and in addition to bringing shame on himself he dishonours his club or country, even if his team wins by his actions. "Wearing the shirt" involves a commitment to win. Nothing wrong with that. But it ought also to include how one plays the game and treats opponents as well as a commitment to win. Being proud to "play for the shirt" leaves no room for cheating. How can one feel proud of having worn the shirt if he has achieved victory by a deliberate act of cheating? 

For Christians, not just in football but in all walks of life, we need to come back daily to Jesus to remind ourselves of what integrity is all about and why it is so crucially important. Jesus is our source of integrity and its greatest example. He constantly faced accusations of cheating, dishonesty and lack of truthfulness. But that did not deflect him from living truthfully. He said, "For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth." Nobody ever faced as many temptations to cheat as he did. The devil offered him a path to victory and glory minus a cross. All he had to do was to fall down and worship him, the "father of untruths." But Jesus always refused and overcame, by the truth. Victory could not and would not be on any other terms.

The Bible makes it clear that Jesus achieved all this not by being shielded from the plight of human beings as needy of salvation but by a full participation in their plight. If I may use a footballing metaphor, in Jesus Christ God was not watching the game of human life from the stands or even from the sidelines; he came onto the pitch and got stuck into the game. When deliberately made the target of abuse and then fouled consistently by opponents who envied his skills but could not match them, he did not make signals to the coach to take him off and have a substitute replace him. No, he had come on for this very purpose that he would take all this punishment for those he came to save, even to the point of giving his life so that he would captain the winning side. No cheating. No pretended injuries. No attempts to con or get others into trouble. Just a perfect commitment to the truth!

As his lifeless body hung on the cross his opponents must have thought "It's all over." They thought they had won the game by cheating their way to his condemnation, drawing up false charges against him, condemning him and crucifying him. But God's view of it was very different, and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was God's emphatic statement against them - "You thought it was all over. It is now!" Death was defeated, sin overcome, truth upheld, God's law fulfilled, God satisfied, redemption accomplished and heaven secured!

For his followers no less is required than that they also be committed to the truth. In the Bible cheating is called "hypocrisy", a pretence, a mask of seeming truth over a false heart. Just like on the football pitch it brings dishonour upon the perpetrator and on the "team", the Church. "Whoever says 'I know him' but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (1 John 2:4). For Christians "playing for the shirt", wearing the "Captain's" colours, is an honour never to be taken for granted. His reputation is closely tied to the performance of the team. If they live falsely his integrity is questioned. 

A soldier in the army of the emperor Alexander the Great was brought to him having been found guilty of desertion. The emperor asked, "What is your name?" He replied, "Your Highness, my name is Alexander." The emperor then said, "Then my son, you have a choice. Either change your ways or change your name." As Christians we face this choice every day and it should not be a difficult one to make!

There will be much celebration over Germany's triumph. Rightly so. They deserved to win. They are the kings of the world of football and they have the trophy to prove it. If only as many celebrated the victory achieved by Jesus Christ, kneeling to him as the rightful King of the world and receiving the trophy of eternal life from his hands! 

Which team are you in?

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

The Stranger at Christmas

The town was used to strangers, even though it wasn't a big place. Some passed through while others stopped for a while looking for work. It had its share of homeless people, some of whom ended up begging on its street corners or in front of shops and at markets.

In its constitution, laid down by its founder and identical to all the other towns he had founded, it had a regulation specifying how its citizens ought to treat strangers - "when a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 19:33-34).

So, the residents of the town were not merely to do strangers no harm; they must also do them positive good, treat them indeed as they treated their own people. Ultimately this was a reflection of how God had treated them. The ideal is couched in the language and in recall of redemption - “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God." Having experienced the redeeming kindness of God they should have been the first to show kindness to the stranger.

Over 2000 years ago a Stranger entered the town. He was born in an outhouse near one of town's inns, the child of a poor couple. Against the expectation of most he grew up to be the most remarkable man who ever lived. His name was Jesus of Nazareth. The God who had stipulated that the stranger be loved and that no wrong be done to him had arrived incognito and found his stipulation regularly ignored. It was the same in every other town also, nowhere more obviously than in the capital. The ruling authorities ended up putting him on trial, pronouncing him guilty though he was faultless and condemning him to crucifixion outside the city walls. The apostle John summed it up succinctly - “He came to his own, yet his own people did not receive him (John 1:11).” 

On one occasion during his ministry (Luke 10:29-37) Jesus was asked a question after mentioning the need to love one's naighbour. A self-assured lawyer, flushed with a sense of self-justification, asked, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus answered by telling of a man who had been mugged by thieves and left badly injured. The first two people who came across him were a priest and a Levite. You would expect that they of all people would stop. Yet both passed by on the other side! Then along came a Samaritan, who would have been despised by the first two. You would think that he of all people would have decided not to get involved. Yet it was he who attended to him and then made provision for his future care. Significantly and powerfully Jesus then turned the lawyer’s question around and against him - “Now, which of these three do you think was neighbour to the man who fell among the thieves?”

Our attitude to the stranger, homelesss or otherwise, must not begin with “who is my neighbour?” but with “who must I be a neighbour to?” We do not have the liberty of choosing them; they are chosen for us by God in his providence. We always have people around us who are in need - a widow with young children, a pregnant teenager, an alcoholic, an unemployed family, to state but a few. Our first thoughts must not be “which of these is my neighbour?”, but “how can I be a neighbour to them?”

Some years ago as a Church Camp leader I dressed up as a homeless man, complete with tattered coat, tangled (false) beard and a black plastic bag containing a few items of clothing. It was an exercise in "find the leader" for the campers and I looked the part! I found a park bench near a supermarket and parked myself there. I was there for over two hours, some of the time lying as if dead on the bench. There were two paths into the supermarket on of which was close to the bench. Almost every shopper took the longer way round! They passed by on the other side. None of those who took the near path stopped, glancing only disapprovingly in my direction. I could have been injured or even dead, but no-one took any interest. I was a "stranger", persona non grata. Many saw me but none acted as a neighbour to me. (The campers did find me though!)

The experience confirmed the Bible's view of human nature! It also left me with a real appreciation for the work of Bethany Christian Trust and other similar agencies working with the homeless. They do not pass by on the other side! They deserve and need our support, prayerfully, financially and in other practical ways. Jesus said we would always have the poor with us. The first Church Council in Acts 15 made remembering the poor one their major resolutions. The poor are still with us and the resolution is still active. Let's take it up, but not only at Christmas.

People no longer see the Stranger around. He has long gone back to where he came from having completed the remarkable mission he was sent to accomplish. But the Stranger is coming back! Not to a particular town or country, but to the whole world and all shall see him. Not as a Stranger but as the Lord Jesus Christ. As the Sovereign Judge his judgment and verdict will take account of more than what we believed; it will include what we have, or have not, done, and particularly in connection with how we treat strangers!

‘Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

How we will spend eternity is closely connected with how we treat the stranger (and the Stranger!)

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Opt-in or Opt-out? Does it matter?

After a lengthy lay-off I've been prompted back into blogging mode by Secular Scotland. No, I've not joined the existing 500 of them, but yesterday the BBC asked me to give a response to the petition from Mark Gordon and Secular Scotland which was being considered by the Petitions Committee of the Scottish parliament. Reading the petition made a blogging response unavoidable!

The petition calls upon the Scottish government to amend the Scottish Education Act 1980 by making Religious Observance (RO) in public schools an "Opt-In" choice rather than an "Opt-Out" one as currently is the case. This would mean that instead of parents who do not wish their children to be involved in RO choosing to opt-out, parents who do wish their children to attend RO must specify their opt-in choice when offered to them by their school. In other words the present "default" position of being included unless you opt out would be changed to being excluded unless you opt in.

First of all, the petitioner claims that one of the main reason for bringing this petition is that the present system is not working and that in looking at numerous (he does not say how many) school handbooks he has discovered that they often (he does not state how often) make no mention of the right to opt out. Further research, he says, has revealed that only 20% of parents (he does not say how many he asked) say the school informed them of their right to opt out. This, he claims, makes the opt out system systematically defective.

Well, even if these figures are accurate (and there is no way for us to check them - but more on checking statistics later!) this is hardly a basis for turning the whole system on its head. It's not a problem with the substance of the system; it's a lack of communication. It ought to be fairly simple to fix this, even if it's as extensive as is claimed, with little expenditure or extra administrative burdens on schools. To change the default position, however, would impose a considerable, additional burden on schools, as is stated clearly in the response to the petition from the Association of Head Teachers and Deputies Scotland.

In addition, the change proposed would not guarantee any greater efficiency in informing parents of their rights, nor would it provide a better basis for parental understanding of the detailed content of RO as the petitioner claims. Indeed, with an increase in the required administration the likelihood is that the information would be even less efficiently communicated!

Second, the petitioner tells us that there is a need for change given that the decline in religious profession in Scotland has dropped from 65% expressing affiliation to Christianity in 2001, to 57% in 2008. This, we are told, is mainly due to falling allegiance to the Church of Scotland (down from 42% to 35%), and most of the school chaplains happen to be Church of Scotland ministers. The petitioner then complains that children who do not opt out of RO are worshipping under the aegis of a Church whose tenets are followed by only one third of the population. He then asks, "are we to assume that in future years Scottish children will have a religious viewpoint imposed on them that is representative of a tiny minority of the population?"

What are we to make of this? Well, for a start, if any parent objects to their children "worshipping under the aegis of a Church whose tenets are followed by only one third of the population", they have the option of withdrawing them! And, although I was never any good at maths, I make it that 57% affiliation to Christianity is still a majority! The petition states that Secular Scotland has "over 500 members". That's 0.01% of Scotland's population! It doesn't take much effort to conclude that wherever the drift away from Christianity has headed it's not been to Secular Scotland!  Let me then turn his question around in a way that exposes the audacity and aim of the secularist thinking behind this petition - "Are we to assume that in future years Scottish children will have a religious viewpoint of historic significance denied them through the influence of a tiny minority of the population?"

Oh, and while we're on the matter of statistics, I took note of the fact that 1,516 signatures had been appended to the petition online. On examination I counted 436 of these (that's 29%) who stated other than "Scotland" as their country (of residence I presume). The places mentioned included England, USA, Belarus, Wales, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Romania, France Spain and United Kingdom (I know Scotland is still part of it but if living in Scotland why not specify "Scotland" like the 1080 who did?). Now some of these good people may well be Scots, but I doubt if they all send their kids to Scottish schools, so why should their names be included in support of proposed changes in SCOTTISH schools! Because 1,516, while not an impressive number, looks 29% better than 1080 perhaps?

Third, the petition quotes from the February 2005 Guidance Circular (8), in which the Scottish Executive endorsed the findings of the Religious Observance Review Group, set up after an HMIE report. The report stated, "Where the school, whether denominational or non-denominational, is continuous with a faith community, that community's faith in the 'focus of worship', may be assumed and worship may be considered to be appropriate as part of the formal activity of the school. Where, as in most non-denominational schools, there is a diversity of beliefs and practices, the review group believed that the appropriate context for an organised act of worship is within the informal curriculum as part of the range of activities offered for example by religions, groups, chaplains and other religious leaders.”

The petitioner concludes from this, that "Given the demographic described above, schools in Scotland cannot now be reasonably said to be continuous with faith communities since no significant faith community exists....Since schools are no longer continuous with faith communities, the current basis for RO provision needs to be urgently reformed."

This is an unwarranted conclusion. Even in rural Lewis schools, nowadays, diversity of beliefs and practices exists. Does that mean that "no significant faith community exists"? Of course not! I belong to a faith community, the Christian one. My friends in the next village may be practising Muslims, Baha'is, or Buddhists (yes, they're all here!). Does such diversity in beliefs and practice mean that none of our groups is "significant"? And who is to define "significant" anyway? How about we just allow Secular Scotland to do that, because, going by this petition, they work out what it means on the basis of numbers affiliated. Oh dear, what a shame! On that basis I've just calculated that they are not "significant", so we have no option but to apply their own conclusions against themselves - ie they have no right to impose their views on the rest of us!

Fourth, the petition complains that secularists are really hard done by. The religious lot have more resources than any secularist who attempts to challenge the present order (although we are not told how this is the case). And the religious opponents of secularists are "well mobilised, informed and canny." Well, I'm pleased that Secular Scotland give us some praise! At least one third of that description may even apply to Secular Scotland themselves! Ms Veronica Wikman, of Edinburgh City Council, the petition tells us, raised an online petition calling for the removal of RO altogether. But "the religious mobilised numbers, in a counter petition, well in excess of Ms Wikman's". What an unjust system we live in when religious people are allowed to have so many more names for a counter-petition! And I thought we lived in a democracy!

Is Secular Scotland's reasoning not able to cope with the possibility that Ms Wikman's failure to stimulate support for her petition may have had something to do with most people not being in favour of it, so didn't want to sign it? Why complain about so few supporting her and so many supporting a counter-petition? It's what you should expect, when you compare 0.01% with 57%!

Fifth, the petition concludes by claiming that "The data shows that this country can no longer be reasonably considered a Christian country and to continue to do so flies in the face of Scotland's position as a leading proponent of equality and diversity. Privileged default access by churches to a nation's children without a parent's express permission is deeply unfair and illogical and may represent strong potential for legal challenge either nationally or in Europe at the ECHR."

Okay, we maybe are not a Christian country any more, if we ever were one. But Secular Scotland has produced clear evidence that we are not a secularist country either! Raising the issue of equality and diversity coupled with the spectre of possible litigation is a predictable but ineffective argument. I have no problem with equality, if that means according equal liberty to all beliefs and to those who say they have none at all. Nor do I have objections to diversity, which adds richness to any culture. Retaining the current default for RO will not increase inequality nor reduce diversity. But there is a good whiff of totalitarianism about the idea that the secularist 0.01% of Scotland's people can set the terms governing religious observance in Scottish schools when 57% of its people are affiliated to Christianity.

And that's really what all this is about - secularism will not rest until every last vestige of Christianity is excised from our national consciousness and practice. Peter Hitchens in the concluding words of his splendid book "The Rage Against God" claims persuasively that societies in history which sought to eradicate God from the lives of their people, in the name of reason, science and liberty, succeeded only too well in showing that,

“good societies need God to survive…and when you have murdered Him, starved Him, silenced Him, denied Him to the children and erased his festivals and his memory, you have a gap which cannot indefinitely be filled by any human, nor anything made by human hands. Must we discover this all over again? I fear so. A new and intolerant utopianism seeks to drive out the remaining traces of Christianity from the laws and constitutions of Europe and North America….The overthrow of Christian education is a real possibility in our generation. The removal of Christianity from public ceremonies is almost complete. Expressions of Christian opinion or prayer in public premises can be punished in Britain under new codes which enjoin a post-Christian code of ‘equality and diversity’ on all public servants. Secularists are equating the teaching of religion with child abuse and laying the foundations for it to be restricted by law....The Rage against God is loose, and is preparing to strip the remaining altars when it is strong enough to do so" (The Rage Against God, Peter Hitchens, Contiuum International Publishing Group, 2010, page 158).

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

ICRC 2013 - Day 6 Tuesday 3rd September

For our morning devotions today Rev Richard Holst took us through 1 Thessalonians 1:1-12, emphasising the self-giving nature of Paul's ministry and applying this to our gospel ministries. Ministry is self-giving, which means it is also self-denying.

Rev Peter Azuana
The first presentation of the day was by Rev Peter G Azuana, from the Universal Reformed Christian Church (NKST), in Nigeria. Their application for membership was incomplete so the conference encouraged the Churches sponsoring them to help complete the application in time for the next conference in 2017. Rev Azuana gave details of the NKST and their work which aims to be holistic and extaended to all nationalities. They have 557 pastors, 353 congregations, a university, a seminary, a Bible College, 53 secondary schools, 500 primary schools, nine hospitals with clinics, schools for nursing, midwifery, medicine and technology. In addition they also have orphanages. I must confess that I felt very small, inactive and humbled by such a report! How thrilling to hear about such a wide range of activities all related to gospel work! Their women's ministry is distinctive, with Bible studies and evangelising prominent in their activities.The NKST's university is distinctly Christian but is seen by the government as a rival and they do not support the Church. Rev Azuana asked for prayer in regard to the university especially.

Next up was the report of the Missions Committee of the ICRC. This was presented by Rev Raymond Sikkema. A booklet with details of mission work engaged in by the member Churches was distributed to the conference and Mr Mark Bube took us, in his own engaging style, through much of the detail. The Missions Committee had met with representatives of the World Reformed Fellowship and the committee hoped that
Mr Mark Bube and Rev Raymond Sikkema
the conference would mandate them to send some of their number to the WRF Missions meeting.

After dealing with a report from the Advisory Committee on Finance and another Advisory Committee report on incomplete applications Rev Rowland Ward presented a second report by the Advisory Committee on the Review Committee's report. A number of questions were received and comments made and the discussion was then left to be continued at a later session.

After another very good lunch provided by the refectory the conference heard reports from the worskshops which had discussed the paper by Dr Jin Ho Jun. Dr Jun then gave his responses to questions raised from the floor. After this the discussion of the Review Committee's report continued resulting in a number of the recommendations being accepted. Any recommendations to do with the ICRC Constitution, rather than the Regulations, must first be sent to the members Churches for their Assemblies or Synods to consider so that their responses can then be taken up at the next conference.

The afternoon session was concluded with a presentation by Rev Jos Colijn, Kampen University giving information about a new project commissioned by the Synod of the Reformed Churches in Netherlands. In this they proposed to offer a research Master of Theology with the aim of developing students in their studies of Reformed Theology to a level of academic excellence. They were hoping to identify future Church leaders and invite them to work together as a learning community. The task will be to train trainers and to form an international community of Reformed theologians who will take what they learn at Kampen and apply it in their home contexts.

In the course of the day we, the Free Church representatives, held meetings with delegates from the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North East India and later with the Presbyterian Free Church Central India. The representatives of the RPCNEI were Rev L Kiemlo Pulamte and Rev Ros Infimate. We discussed matters which were common to us as Churches but also received from them information about their denomination and the work they are engaged in. The RPCNEI began in 1979 with 5 families and now
have 104 congregations, with 14,000 members and 45 pastors. Due to the shortage of pastors they need to care for 4-5 congregations each. They have congregations in 5 Indian states and also in Myanmar and have 38 missionaries working in various locations in neighbouring states to Manipur where their headquarters is situated. They have a home for children and a programme of vocational training for young people so that they may be able afterwards to earn a livelihood. They have support from the Reformed Churches in Netherlands (Liberated) and network with various groups in the Reformed Christian Fellowship.It was good to meet with these brothers in the Lord and we hope to be able to remain in close contact to see if there can be any scope for a closer relationship between the two Churches.

The relationship of the Free Church to the Presbyterian Free Church Central India is a special one. This Church was established through Free Church missionaries and today, although the Free Church has no missionaries in Central India seeing the PFCCE has been self-sufficient for many years, we regard them with a special affection. Rev Shyam Babu and Rev Samit Kumar Mishra conveyed to us the love of their Church and outlined a number of issues which they wished to bring back to the Ecumenical Relations Committee, including their Diploma in Theology programme and Lakhnadon school which faces financial challenges at
Rev Shyam Babu and Rev Samit Kumar Mishra
present. They also spoke about the challenges currently faced from Islam and from the authorities, and also how their aim as a Church is to raise spiritual leaders from local communities who will preach the gospel to their own people. Shyam and Samit are heading to Scotland after the conference to give talks at various locations in the Free Church, but unfortunately their already full programme means that we will not have the pleasure and benefit of hearing them in Lewis. We asked them to take our love and prayers back to their congregations in Central India.

After dinner much of the evening was taken up with the report of the Advisory Committee on the application from the Christian Reformed Churches in Australia. The report was given by Rev Jack Sawyer, of the OPC.
Rev Jack Sawyer
The Committee's report raised sensitive issues and a lot of time was spent discussing various options relating to procedure as well as some points raised in the Committee's report. At 9.15pm the conference accepted a motion to refer the report back to the Advisory Committee for them to report back next day. This was wise considering the importance of decisions about whether or not to receive a Church into membership of the ICRC. These decisions should not be taken with tired minds and it was best to reflect and pray over the matter for the next day's business. It was appropriate that we sang "Praise, my soul, the King of heaven" at he conclusion of the evening. All decisions are under his sovereign appointment and he is always deserving of our praise.

Monday, 2 September 2013

ICRC 2013 - Day 5 Monday 2nd September

Today at conference we began with worship at which Rev Richard Holst gave an exposition of 1 Thessalonians chapter 2. After this a presentation was given by Rev Geoff van Schie of the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia which is making application for membership of the ICRC at this conference. Geoff's ministry is varied and depends much on support from others financially but he is thankful to report many instances of God's blessing on his ministry.
Rev Geoff van Schie
This was followed by a discussion of the report of the Review Committee which was recommending changes to certain aspects of the ICRC Regulations. No final decision was arrived at as the document requires further consideration the amendments proposed by the Advisory Committee which looked at the Report. This was followed by the second “workshops” session where issues raised by the second paper given by Rev James Visscher on Friday, “The Nature of Preaching”, were discussed. Our group concentrated for most of this session on the matter of “appeal” in preaching. We dealt with how preaching ought always to have an "appeal" element both to those who are confessing Christians and to the unsaved.

During the lunch break we had a very pleasant and profitable informal meeting with Rev Heon Soo Kim and Rev Byoung Kil Chung of the (Korea) who had both visited Lewis on their way to the conference. Although the Free Church has a fraternal relationship with them as members already of the ICRC we explored the possibility of taking this further so as to develop closer relations where there could be mutual assistance and edification in gospel ministry. This is one of the good and important aspects of the conference that time is available for delegations to meet so that the relations we share in the gospel are applied as much as possible to the extending of God's kingdom.

Then it was time after lunch to hold a plenary session at which a brief report was given by each of the four workshops after which Rev Visscher gave his response to the points raised.

The conference then considered another presentation, this time from the Reformed Churches in Korea given by Rev DongSup Song. This denomination is young, with four ministers and around 200 members, founded in 2005, and is now seeking admission to the ICRC. This application will be reported on later in the conference by the Advisory Committee set up to examine it.

Rev Patrick Jok and Rev Daniel Kithongo
The Committee examining the application from the African Evangelical Presbyterian Church, given by Rev Daniel Kithongo last Thursday, reported. The Committee was recommending that the application be received. The conference unanimously accepted the AEPC into membership and Rev Kithongo was then welcomed as now a sitting delegate of the Conference. The Chairman led the conference in prayer.

Before the coffee break another report was received, this time from the Committee examining the application from the Sudanese Reformed Churches. Again the Committee was recommending that the conference receive the application favourably and admit the SRC into membership. This was agreed to unanimously by the conference and Rev Patrick Jok was then welcomed as a sitting delegate of the conference. The Chairman again led the conference in prayer.

It is such a heartening experience to be part of a conference admitting these relatively new churches into membership of the ICRC. When we are so used to dealing with declining numbers in our churches and are free from poverty and persecution how humbling and challenging it is to see growth in churches set amongst poverty and persecution, with an obvious commitment to maintain Reformed theology, preaching and church order. It's a cause of much thankfulness for the growth but of much prayer that our decline would be turned around by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Coffee (and tea) time
Dr Ho Jin Jun
The evening session began with worship, led by Rev Pila Nkuka, Reformed Church of Indonesia NTT, who spoke from Colossians chapter 2. This was followed by the delivery of the third and final paper of the conference "Preaching in Illiterate Cultures" given by Dr Ho Jin Jun, Cambodia Presbyterian Theological Institute. It's hard for us to imagine what it must be like to preach the gospel in a context of illiteracy where many of the hearers cannot read a text or write. Africa has a 40% literacy rate and Asia 20%. Dr Ho's paper dealt with the illiteracy situation in Asia mostly and gave details of the practices used in preaching in that situation.

There was just time for another presentation from a church already in membership of the ICRC but which had not yet managed to give such a presentation to conference. This was the Reformed Churches of Brazil, located in north east Brazil and the presentation was given by Rev Luiz Fernando. The RCB developed from missionary work carried out by Canadian and Dutch missionaries in the 1970's, one of whom was the Corresponding Secretary to the Conference, Rev Cornelius Van Spronson.
Rev Luiz Fernando

Saturday, 31 August 2013

ICRC 2013 - Day 3 Saturday 31st August

Beautiful sunny day and very warm today in this lovely spot. Our bus left at 9.45am for our trip to the "Big Pit" Coal mine (so called because of the width of its shaft, 5.5 metres at its widest point, the biggest in the area when it was completed), near Caerphilly. The other bus took a second group to Cardiff and Cardiff Castle.
From the hill overlooking the Big Pit mine
The Big Pit mine was really interesting. Actually going down the pit shaft and being shown the various parts of the pit made the whole experience very authentic. We were given a safety helmet and a belt with a power pack for the light which attaches to the helmet. All possessions with a dry battery, phones, cameras, watches etc had to be left in safe keeping before going down the shaft in the cage for safety reasons. A slight spark from a battery connection could trigger an explosion. Now, in descending the 50 metre vertical shaft it helps if you don't mind close fellowship because 20 people in a smallish cage does make for a pressing experience!
Even the model horses looked real!
Once down we were then taken along the mine by an ex-miner who showed and explained various aspects of how the mine worked, the tools and equipment used, the horse stables and equipment, the signalling methods etc. In early times whole families worked for mine owners for little return and the children would operate doors at certain points along the length of the mine in total darkness. We were asked to switch off our helmet lights and when the guide switched his off he asked us to hold our hands in front of our face. We could not see anything! I was reminded of those verse in Exodus chapter 10, which describe the plague of darkness - "Then the LORD said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness to be felt." So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was pitch darkness in all the land of Egypt three days. They did not see one another, nor did anyone rise from his place for three days, but all the people of Israel had light where they lived."

We were then told about a disaster which occurred in 1913 and being down in a mine while being told made it all the more solemn as took in the details. The Senghenydd Colliery Disaster, also known as the Senghenydd Explosion, occurred in Senghenydd, near Caerphilly, killing 439 miners. It is the worst mining accident in the United Kingdom, and one of the most serious globally in terms of loss of life. The demand for Welsh steam coal before World War I was enormous. Among other uses it fuelled the Royal Navy's huge fleet of steam battleships, dreadnoughts and cruisers, and was also used by foreign Navies allied to Britain and the British Empire. The explosion was probably started by methane gas being ignited, possibly by electric sparking from equipment such as electric bell signalling gear.

The initial explosion disturbed coal dust present on the floor, raising a cloud that then also ignited. The shock wave ahead of the explosion raised yet more coal dust, so that the explosion was effectively self-fuelling. Those miners not killed immediately by the fire and explosion would have died quickly from afterdamp, the noxious gases formed by combustion. These include lethal quantities of carbon monoxide, which kills very quickly, the victims being suffocated by lack of oxygen. This disaster led to new and safer methods of signalling, detection methods for methane gas and eventually to the Davy Lamp, still used to detect methane gas.

There are a number of exhibition buildings on the site containing all kinds of exhibits and the coffee shop was a welcome sight after emerging from the dark, damp and cold mine shaft!

Given the conditions in which miners had to work, the sharing of danger and disaster, a short visit down the Big Pit mine made it easy to see why mining communities had such strong bonds between families and individuals, some of which remain today. It also helps to explain why miners' unions looked after their members with such a fierce loyalty and went to such lengths to protect them and their jobs.

The Picket Caravan
No account of our Big Pit visit would be complete without a photo of the picket caravan, used no doubt during the miners' strike in the era of the Thatcher government. It could tell many a tale of scuffles, shouts of "scabs", police charges, Scargill speeches, endless cups of tea and coffee. It's appearance now as an exhibit is a somewhat sad statement of how the mining industry has all but disappeared leaving lives, relationships and communities changed forever. In its heyday Big Pit employed 1300 workers. Now there are none apart from those guiding visitors into its shafts.

Following this we proceeded to Caerphilly castle, the largest castle in Wales. It was begun in 1268 by Gilbert de Clare, known as "Gilbert the Red", possibly due to his red hair. The castle proved a very handy refuge for Edward II in 1326 as he fled from his wife Isabella and her companion, Roger Mortimer! It is surrounded by a series of moats and small islands and has a drawbridge. The south-east tower of the castle leans at a greater angle than the famous Tower of Pisa! It's difficult to do justice to this in a photo but it is really scary to look at!

The figure bottom left seen holding it up is not a hunky Welsh hero but a wooden substitute! The sheer bulk of these castle walls is amazing. Imagine how it must have been for those armies trying to storm these walls or attempt to penetrate them with medieval war engines! I saw no sign of the fabled Green Lady who is said to haunt the site! There were, however, a few pale men around, as by this time a number of us were feeling the need of replenishment at Cooper's Carvery where we were booked to have our evening meal.

We were joined there by the other bus which had returned from their trip to Cardiff and Cardiff Castle. The roast beef was good and roast turkey and ham were also available. A recent visitor to the Garrabost manse commented, however, that the Yorkshire Puddings "did not match up" and added "I was comparing them with Donna's!" Well, that's a good note on which to finish and a wee reminder to me of why I should be thankful!