HOw Long?

HOw Long?

Last week I mentioned my friend Dr John Dempster and his weekly article.

Here is this weeks article. In the interests of copyright clarity I am including the introduction to the previous article.

A friend on mine, by the name of Dr John Dempster, lives in Inverness, Scotland. He writes a weekly piece called Christian Viewpoint for a group of local secular newspapers. He also very kindly sends me a copy.

I asked his permission to share some of these and he replied saying that as long as it states First Published in the Highland News Group of Newspapers then I have permission

Remember these are written for a group of secular newspapers. Pray that they will bless the readers who may have no other Christian input in their lives.

The man stood before a largely hostile audience, the offending books stacked on a table in front of him. He was challenged – was he prepared to retract what he had written in these volumes? Despite being fully aware that his words could lead to his execution, he told the listeners ‘My conscience is taken captive by God’s word. I cannot and will not recant anything. For to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us.’ It’s said that he added ‘On this I take my stand. I can do no other,’ before concluding ‘God help me. Amen.’

This scene from a BBC4 dramatised documentary about the life of Martin Luther whose campaign to reform the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century ultimately led to the birth of Protestantism was one of the things which struck me forcibly this week. Luther ‘came out’ as a reformer on 31st October 1517 when he nailed to the door of a church in Wittenberg a document highlighting what he saw as abuses which needed addressed. His famous speech to the Diet of Worms – which did not in fact lead to a death sentence - followed four years later.

Something else which seemed significant this week was a line from one of King David’s prayers in the Bible, written when he was depressed and discouraged. ‘I am sick at heart. How long, oh Lord, until you restore me?’ It occurred to me that many of us find ourselves saying to God ‘How long?’ How long till I sense your reality again? How long till you answer my prayer? How long until goodness and light is seen to triumph? How long, Lord?

The particular issue prompting Martin Luther’s vocal protests against corruption in the Church was the selling of ‘indulgences’ by which you could protect against spending time in purgatory after death by paying a fee. Luther’s reading of the Bible had convinced him that sins were forgiven by God’s grace alone, and not by any payment or act of penance. It was this view – that as God’s word the Bible had supreme authority, that God forgives us freely through sheer grace, and that men and women can approach him directly without the need of a priest’s intervention – which Luther was defending at Worms.

The scene from the film gripped my imagination because one of the historians taking part told us that Luther symbolised the movement towards a society where individuals made decisions for themselves guided by their consciences. There are times in history, the expert said, when one person represents something much bigger than themselves, and this was one of those occasions. I believe that what Luther symbolised most powerfully in his speech at Worms was not simply a movement of social change, but the fact that God was at work challenging and refining his Church.

A final thing which I found meaningful this week was a quote from an 18th century American Church leader who said that the task of each generation is to discover what direction God is moving in, and then move in that direction themselves. We say ‘How long will it be until God acts?’ Sometimes a better question is ‘What is God doing?’ What is God doing in our Scottish nation, in our communities and churches, in our families and marriages and personal lives? What is God doing today, in this meeting I’m attending at work, in this conversation with a neighbour?

Having discerned what God is doing, the next question is ‘How can I join in?’ When we faithfully fulfil the role God has for us in this way then, as Luther did, we become not just a symbol of Someone much bigger than ourselves, Someone who is on the move, but one of the means by which he touches our world with challenging love.

Martin Luther is one of the heroes of Christian history. But he was not perfect. In earlier life he was open and welcoming to the Jewish people, but in some later writings we find a distasteful and disturbing anti-semitism which, even taking account his 16th century cultural background appals us. He wrote words which we may safely say did not come from the spirit of God and in these words he was a symbol and representative not of God, but of the forces of darkness.

Just as some Bible characters said ‘How long?’ to God, God himself occasionally said ‘How long?’ to his people. How long till you’re willing to change? How long till you’re ready to be a symbol of my presence, helping move forward my plans in the world? How long till you nail your Christian convictions to your life’s front door and say ‘On this I take my stand.’?

John A. H. Dempster
First Published in the Highland News Group of Newspapers
‘indulgences’ were a tragic way of abusing emotionally distressed people and taking financial advantage of them- a true abomination in God's eyes.