Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Where are the Whitefield Celebrations?

Yesterday, as the 16th December ticked past and we all raced towards another Christmas, we in the UK missed George Whitefield's 300th birthday!
How was this allowed to happen? Our American cousins were full of celebrations yesterday, honouring Whitefield through articles, blogs and books. Indeed, owning him as their very own hero of their very own brand of reformed Christianity. This is not a bad shout, but he is ours, and we have forgotten him!

Although Whitefield courageously crossed the Atlantic many times to serve in the colonies, the main impact and fruit of his unparalleled preaching ministry was here in the UK.  My personal view is that George Fox another neglected Englishman from an earlier generation, and the contemporary of Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, had more of a shaping effect on both American Christianity and constitution. However, there is no doubt that Whitefield's magnificent preaching gift foundationally influenced the States.

In an era of dead English religion and a nation far from God, the young Whitefield took first the UK by storm. Joined soon by other greats like the Wesleys, but unmatched in his zeal and authority with the gospel to the point that the nation was changed. We refer back to his time now as the Great Awakening simply because an entire generation of unreached English, Scots, Welsh and Irish were transformed by the gospel through the preaching of George Whitefield and his peers. 

Lists of stats about the number of sermons given, the persecution faced, the open air preaching, the hours spent on horseback, on boats, in prayer.....all of this would give some insight to Whitefield's legacy. And yet it was his deep compassion for the lost, and his ability to reach them through his preaching gift that tells the story best. If I could select one story alone to celebrate 300 years since Whitefield, and to stir our generation, it would be his early encounter with the poor Miners at Kingwood, Bristol on February 25th 1839. Whitefield aged just 25.

This underclass of the newly emerging working class poor were outside of society, far from the gospel, unwelcome in established churches. Going to them, against advice, to preach. Observers noted that they could see the effects of the message visibly displayed on the Miner's faces. Streaks appearing down their blackened faces as they listened with tears of repentance to this wonderful open air preacher.

Whitefield himself notes from that day in his journal: 'At four in the afternoon I hastened to Kingswood. At a moderate computation there were about 10,000 people to hear me. The trees and hedges were full. All was hush when I began; The sun shone bright and God enabled me to preach for an hour with great power, and so loudly that all, I was told, could hear me.....The fire is kindled in the country: and I know that all the devils in hell shall not be able to quench it.

Happy Birthday George Whitefield, and may your story amongst the British be a provocation and impetus for new fires to be kindled of such power and transformation once again!

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Through Advent with Cranmer

Regular readers of this blog will have heard me wax lyrical about one of my heroes, Thomas Cranmer on numerous occasions. His 1549 and then 1552 revision of the Prayer Book would have changed English social history for ever had Edward VI only lived a few more years. As it was, Edward's untimely death meant the end of a reformed Prayer book, and soon after, an end for Cranmer, burned alive at the stake under Queen Mary.

We reformed modernists have turned our back on the old church calender with it's connection to the land, the seasons and the peoples of another age. However, the nuances of Cranmer's measured language, and his systematic teaching of theology to those who knew nothing of the gospel or the grand narrative of God's dealings with men, has yet to be surpassed in any generation. Quite simply, Cranmer discipled the entire English tribe with his short daily prayers and scripture readings. His biblical ideas gradually becoming established and embedded in a nation that lay under the darkness of catholicism.

More than this, for the average Priest and Peasant, both likely to be illiterate, Cranmer's methodical teaching through Psalm, song, collects and prayers brought the big story of the bible to life for those who had only every heard the Latin rites. Teaching both preachers and the congregation, in their own language simultaneously was Cranmer's great achievement.

Having an opportunity to enjoy Evensong at Canterbury Cathedral this week, I was reminded again what a hero of both the Christian faith and the English language Cranmer was. His much noted compromises and recantations under the two monster Monarchs Henry VIII and Mary, cause many to consider Cranmer in a less than heroic light. However, his reforming zeal under Edward and the ultimate manner of his martyrdom should leave no room for doubters.  

The 1552 Prayer Book has many times since been updated (not for the better), but the structure and flow remains morning and evening in every prayer book service. Evensong today will continue it's way through the Psalms, 59-61, readings from Isaiah, Matthew, the ever present Apostle's Creed, and this Collect which highlights both the high view of the scriptures and this advent season:
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Still

Advent has begun. Advent meaning arrival, coming, dawning. We use the word for things inconsequential, heralding the advent of the latest tablet computer or mobile phone. But the Advent with a capital A which we remember again this December is something, someone altogether more noteworthy. This Advent was heralded not by press releases, but by actual heralds - Angels and stars!

If Advent is all about the arrival of the Saviour, then our response is to make room. To create space in this Advent in order to ponder, reflect, prioritise, worship. The old carol writer Phillips Brooks, in 'O little Town of Bethlehem', put it this way.
'How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given,
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still
The dear Christ enters in.'

It's impossible to know what emphasis Brooks intended for that vital little word in the fourth line, 'still'. I've always liked to think that, even with the comma and the drawing in of breath in the rhythm of the carol, that a certain stillness, a pause of reflection is required for the Advent to be truly recognised in our hearts.

In all the busyness and business of another Christmas, Advent seemingly outflanked and outnumbered between the twin bullies of Black Friday and Boxing Day.....still. Be still, allow Him to come, to make his very real presence known.

Author Robert Boyd Munger wrote the wonderful slim book, 'My Heart, Christ's Home'. The first Advent was launched in a stable, a relief to all of us who haven't cleared up every room of the house before He comes knocking at the door. My heart, your heart, Christ's home?

Make room, Jesus wants to come to us.  His Advent, His appearing, silently, imparting His gift to our hearts, our homes, His home amongst us, welcomed by meek souls like ours. Still.