A word to young pastors….
There are certain pastoral issues that will hit you like a train. You'll get a phone call and you will have to respond immediately. To be honest, for most pastoral emergencies you'll have at least a little chance to catch your breath (and work out what you believe), but I think the one issue that there is no time to do that is the sudden death of an infant or young child. The phone call comes and we need to respond immediately. It's a tricky issue too, far from being straightforward.
If someone phones saying they're getting divorced, you've generally got time to think, pray, study, consider before you see them. But the phone call announcing there has been an car accident or some medical emergency and a little one is dead allows no such time. So, here's my plea. Know what you believe biblically about this subject. Know how you need to respond pastorally. And even if you only have to use it once in your ministry, it will not be time wasted.
I've been teaching this subject on one of Cornhill+ study days this week and it's reinforced in my own mind the importance of the topic. The best summary, I think, is in Eric Lane's book Special Children. Naff cover. Really naff cover. But superb contents. Five squids well spent.
A real break
I started my holiday last week with really good intentions. I deleted my work email account from my phone – no chance of picking up work messages, I thought! But people send texts, Facebook messages, home emails (though I try to keep the two accounts separate). So it may not have been a great success. Except….
…except that I found myself on holiday without a mobile signal. Mrs R didn't have one either (different network). We were not exactly in the middle of nowhere (here, if you're interested): in fact, only a mile or two from a city centre. But no signal. No emails. No texts. No Facebook. No WiFi. No Viber. No nuttin'.
What a blissful holiday! Not planned, but providentally just what was needed. And next time, I'm going to find ways to actually recreate the same conditions. Can I encourage you to do the same…? And just to make you feel jealous (in a Romans 9-11 sense, jealously that leads to you also taking a holiday), here's a holiday snap to share – me cycling around Cambs and Northants villages. This is Fotheringhay, birthplace of Richard III and deathplace of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Two great books on God’s providence
I don't think we talk enough today about God's providence. So here are two books that are excellent on the subject – and, remarkably, one is not Christian.
Christian book first. Surely the go-to book is the one by my favourite Puritan John Flavel. The mystery of providence is in his collected works, on kindle for 99; (here), as a Puritan paperback from Banner, in simplified form from Grace Publications (as God willing) or online for free through google books. It has to be read, like all Puritan works, carefully and thoughtfully with a Bible in hand (the Puritans can digress very easily and not always helpfully), but it remains a classic.
And now suffer me to expostulate a little with thy soul. Reader, hast thou been duly sensible of thy obligation to providence for this inestimable favour [salvation]? O what he hath done for thee! There are divers kinds of mercies conveyed to men by the hand of providence; but none like this; in all the treasury of its benefits none is found like this…. How dear and sweet should the remembrance of it be to thy soul! Methinks it should astonish and melt you every time you reflect upon it. Such mercies should never grow stale or look like common things to you.
The second book is a history book I've been reading: Michael Wood's excellent The Story of England. It basically tells the story of England through the history of one village, Kibworth in Leicestershire. As it happens, Kibworth is close to where we hold our residential conferences and I often cycle through it. It has a remarkable protestant history – being a centre of Wycliffe influenced teaching, instrumental in the Reformation and the Civil War. It also played a key role in the history of non conformity, with a dissenting academy overseen by Philip Doddridge, no less.
What is interesting about this book is seeing God's hand at work. Indeed, Michael Wood says that the reason that the Reformation was so easily adopted in places like Kibworth, despite it being a top down change, was the work of Lollards in the area 150 years before. He develops this theme quite extensively, and it's easy for a Christian to read such a book with a deep rejoicing at God's sovereign hand. It is, without knowing it, a book about God's providence.
We've just a very few places left on our Summer Wives' conference which runs from 8 July through to 11 July. The conference is for those whose husbands are in the first few years of ministry. We'd particularly love to see a few more Free Church wives, so if that's you (or your wife) do consider coming along. This year our planning team is 50:50 Anglican and Free Church and it will be great to have input from regulars as well as Ursula Stevens and Mrs R herself. Do think about coming, but you'll have to book soon for the last remaining places.
What to think when a ministry is discredited
Bad things happen in churches. Sin rears its ugly head at all levels, including – sadly – leadership. And we should be saddened and shocked, but not surprised that this is the case. At a time when the UK news has been filled with stories of all kinds, the jailing of one minister has – rightly – still made the headlines. What are we to make of such a man's ministry? It's a key question – not just for this particular case, but for others. My wife sat under the ministry of one particularly high profile "fall from grace" for four years. There are plenty of others. And we remember being blessed, taught, built up, stirred, converted even under the ministry of such men. We saw churches flourish under their ministry. We saw baptisms, growth, planting, men trained for ministry. Are we to write all these off?
I don't believe so. Whilst never condoning sin in all its ugliness and barbarity, we must also acknowledge that God, in his sovereign ruling, can work through such people beyond themselves. Indeed, this is the story of ministry in its entirety. No minister is perfect – and though we pray against the kind of evil we have heard about this last week and lament it when it happens – we must acknowledge that there is deep sin in us all. The very fact that our sin has stayed in our hearts and not overflowed into action is a measure of God's grace. But we must never think that the ministry success we enjoy (such as we do) is in any way down to our own doing.
So, it is possible to look back on the ministry of someone who has since been discredited and give thanks that God was at work, despite everything. We can rejoice that people were saved. We can delight that churches grew. We can give thanks to God the Father for the way his Spirit delivered people from the reign of darkness and brought them into the kingdom of the Son. And we can do that whilst feeling deep remorse and sadness that one of our own succumbed to sin and for the pain and anguish caused to others. The two are not incompatible. Indeed, at some level, that is the story of every ministry.
And it should make us plead with God for our own hearts. We all need to put to death the deeds of the flesh. And this is a sobering reminder that there is work, dear brother, to be done in you and me.
How to encourage a friend
Speaking to and spending time with many ministers, there are some recurring messages. One of these is very simple, but can have a profound effect on ministries. Ministers are lonely. They feel isolated. Perhaps you can identify with this. You are slogging your guts out working in one of the few Bible believing, Bible preaching churches in your area. Those other ministers around you in similar churches (whether Anglican or Free Church) think you're a bit of a right wing nutter. The reality is that you can be friendly towards them (and indeed, you are), but they are not really partners in gospel work. You don't get encouragement from them to keep going. You don't find them identifying with the struggles you have. You can't phone them up because you're wrestling with a particularly knotty text.
So, the two options are we remain friendless, or we work at cultivating friendships. It's no surprise that we advocate the latter. This is something that is easier in some places than others. Easier in the city, for example, than in the country. Easier in a larger church with a staff team than a smaller church where you're the sole practitioner. Easier if you've already got a network (e.g. from college) than if you've being serving away on your own for years.
It's why our residential conferences are not just places to learn. We deliberately make them places to hang out too. Not everyone wants that. Some people with huge capacity want teaching session after teaching session. But we don't put on our conferences for that small minority (though we hope they may get something out of them). We build in down time to make, build and cultivate friendships.
And it's a great way to use the EMA. Perhaps you're a regular? Who is the local guy who's friendless who needs an invitation? Is there someone locally who needs you to say to him, "Come along with me." Or, even if you're not a regular, why not use this year, where there's plenty of space, to make a friend, take a friend? You could be doing yourself, him and the cause of the gospel the power of good.
The road to the Barbican
The venue for this year's EMA, the Barbican conference centre, is easy to find. Honest. Just follow the directions on our website. If you've booked, these will be emailed to you shortly. It takes about 5 mins from Moorgate (see below) or Barbican. 10 mins from Bank or Liverpool Street.
EMA featured books #6
Paternoster have done us a huge favour by collecting together a new Packer anthology focused on the Bible. It will be one of featured books at the EMA. The volume contains a collection of essays, interviews, articles and excerpts all about the word of God and engaging with it. It's a gold mine. I found myself underlining on nearly every page. It's classic Packer, readable, yet deep; honest yet perceptive. There are some really good chapters on preaching in particular, including re-asserting a classic evangelical view of preaching as something which mediates not only God's authority but also his presence: something we all believe but perhaps we need to be more explicit about?
Here, as a taster, are Packer's convictions that he believe every preacher must share. Each, of course, warrants further comment from Packer, but these are the kind of insights which makes reading him so rewarding.
- Scripture is revelation
- God is glorious
- People are lost
- Christ is unchanging
- Persuasion is needed
- Satan is active
- God's Spirit is sovereign
Amen and amen!
Just four weeks to go…
Today it's four weeks to go until the Evangelical Ministry Assembly. At this stage we're normally full – indeed if were still at our old venue, we would be closed for new applications about now. But we're at a new venue precisely so we can accommodate more people and we'd love to see you. Even if you've not been for a while, why not set aside some of the EMA days (Monday 24 June to Wednesday 26 June) to come and join us? And why not bring someone along? Whom could you encourage in ministry – perhaps a beleagured local friend who needs the solidarity of your fellowship and help? Perhaps a new local minister that you could invite along as a way of getting to know him?
If you're outside of London we've got some free accommodation options where local church members have very graciously offered rooms for nothing. Please do contact the office if you would like to make the most of one of these and save on train fares. We look forward to seeing you. You cam book here.
Got a proposal through today for the EMA. I was sent a marketing email telling me that I could spruce up my event with DrumCafe who would put a drum on every seat.
Give everyone a drum and watch the room unite and transform into a spectacular drumming orchestra
Tempting, I know. Mr Lucas would, of course, lead the group.