Enjoyed an evening at the opera (*) last week with Mrs R. I say 'enjoyed' but it all actually ended in disappointment. It was fine, lovely even, almost until the very last minute. We went to see Mozart's Don Giovanni which is the tale of a serial cad, the Don, who spends his whole time seducing (and even murdering to help his cause). No shame or regret even though he leaves a trail of battered women behind him. As the opera builds to a climax this trail gets longer and longer. FInally, his murder victim (the father of one of his conquests) appears and drags him down to hell. The cast reappear on stage rejoicing in his judgement and warning the audience not to think they can get away with such immorality.
It was good up to this point. But then, right at the end, the curtain dropped away to reveal hell itself where we saw Don Giovanni grinning from ear to ear with holding a woman in his arms. Hell had been rewritten for the 21st century as the place where evil doers get to keep on doing the things they love, rather than suffering the consequence of their rebellion against God. The audience cheered. Good old Don, good on him. Bravo!
I don't think either Mozart or the librettist (da Ponte) were particularly moral, but they lived in times when people believed actions had consequences. Today we have the caricature of hell being a place where we can spend an eternity doing all the wrong things (which, let's face it, are the fun things after all) we've spent a lifetime doing; that's not so bad. It makes preaching on hell hard work. There is a whole lot to undo, even if people get the idea of eternity in the first place.
Strangely, this was also the subject of the very first EMA I attended – 1994, I think, over in Westminster Central Hall. I was working in the city, but had been taken along by my pastor as he tried to encourage me into ministry (it failed). Bruce Milne expounded this very topic, later it became an excellent book, the BST guide to heaven and hell.
* for those worried about this pretentious hobby, this is (almost) my only one.
Book review: The hardest sermons you’ll ever have to preach
I've not long finished reading this excellent book. It's a collection of sermons (twenty five of them), together with some short explanatory introductions preached on a variety of occasions. Most are funerals (death of a child, miscarriage, sudden death, murder) etc, situations that one hopes never to have to deal with and when one does, is almost always underprepared. These funeral sermons make up the bulk of the chapters. Then there are some extras like national tragedy, celebrity death and so on. It's a moving book because each sermon (even though the names are sometimes changed) are all grounded in real situations, many of which are individual tragedies. It's also a hard book to read – imagine downloading 25 funeral sermons and sitting through them all.
But it's ultimately worth it for the thinking process behind individual sermons and the way that the pastors choose texts and expound them. I think it's a book worth having, even if you only turn it to once or twice in a pastoral lifetime. But it does have flaws. Few of the sermons are truly expository. I think that's a shame. I can understand how funeral sermons, in particular, call for a very special kind of preaching; but I cannot see why we are so loathe to drop a method we believe in so fervently for every other kind of preaching. Preach on a text by all means, but do the same work, even if you use different language. My best funeral sermons, humanly speaking, have been those where I have stuck to the text.
My second problem with the book is that it seems to take for granted, for the most part, the salvation of those who die in childbirth or those with learning difficulties. I realise that this is a relatively orthodox position within evangelicalism, but not everyone holds it (including me). It makes funeral preaching in some circumstances very difficult; but I'm uncomfortable with the implied inclusivism that the position necessitates. Perhaps a book like this is not the place to address the issue, but I would have liked to see some of the chapters represent a different position.
Still, all said and done, it's worth the cover price.
Spring Younger Ministers Conference
This year's Spring Younger Ministers Conference takes place from Tuesday 8th May to Friday 11th May. We've got David Cook and Evangelist/Historian John Dickson coming (both from Australia). It's almost full, so if you're planning on coming (or know someone who is) please do book soon to avoid disappointment. There are about 8 or 9 places left. See you there. Book here. If you've not been before, the conferences are a great way to meet with others and keep fresh in the task of Christian ministry. And the sun normally shines….
Cornhill, then what?
People often ask us whether PT Cornhill serves as an adequate training for pastor/teachers. The simple answer we've always given is "no" – here's a little bit more flesh on the bones as to why that is. Each year we host an afternoon with four college principals to explore the value of further theological education. You can hear their talks here with an introduction by Christopher Ash. There are of course plenty of other ways to further training than formal theological college, but it's a good place to start the thinking.
However, we also ought to say that we still believe that Cornhill offers something unique that theological colleges do not offer – focused speaking practice and skills. Because of the focus, we are able to give lots of time and care to nurturing and working on already existing speaking gifts. Ask any former Cornhiller, even ones who have gone onto college, and they will almost to a man (or woman) say the same – the course is superb, unique and does something that college simply cannot do. So, we don't think in terms of either/or but both/and.
Preachers and Preaching by Lloyd-Jones
Having quoted a bit from Lloyd-Jones' Preaching and Preachers a couple of weeks ago I noticed that Zondervan have reissued it in the US, packaged as a 40th anniversary edition (honestly, I had no idea). This one comes with some introductory essays from the likes of Bryan Chappell, Mark Dever, Kevin DeYoung, Lig Duncan, Tim Keller and John Piper. Don't know how/when it will be available this side of the water, but Amazon normally ship in US books if enough people ask.
It is rather dated in places, as books like this tend to be. Perhaps that is why Hodder have not reprinted it in the UK? Nevertheless, there are still treasures to be mined and I hope it is widely available over here one way or another. Along with Langham's edit/repackaging of Stott's I believe in preaching, that means that these two important texts are both available again and useful for a whole new generation of preachers.
So, what did you do this weekend?
Typical Monday morning conversation in the PT office:
Me: So, Crystal, what did you do this weekend?
Crystal: (our office administrator and my PA): Went to Cannes
Me: Cannes, France?
Crystal: Backing singer at a Emily Sande gig
This is a not untypical conversation as our Crystal does all sorts of gigs (Jamelia, Take That etc). We love it – we hip lot! And not surprisingly, the bug is catching. Christopher has just turned down a role as second percussionist on the reformed Beach Boys tour and Robin fights hard to fit in the Flying Pickets reunion curry.
More seriously, we are all busy at weekends. Some of us preach. Some of us take on other roles in local churches. But it is key to our being and service that we are all members of local churches (helpfully, very different ones), all serving and delighting to serve in the various ways we are able. And so we fight hard against being a para-church organisation and what that has traditionally meant. We try to be, as far as it is possible, an in-church organisation: members of and serving local churches by encouraging and euipping BIble preachers.
Why I’m proud to be a library user
There are many excellent reasons to be a proud card-carrying library user in the UK (free). I can go my local library, sip espresso and read The Economist, for example. Oh, and I can also borrow books. But one of my favourites is that most UK libraries (free to belong, did I mention that already?) also offer online access to a wealth of resources useful for the preacher. Here are some I use:
- Oxford Art Online: all kinds of things arty and info about paintings etc
- OED: yep, all 20 volumes
- Oxford Dictionaries: everything else, medical, names, politics, theatre, language – anything you could ever think of
- Oxford Writer's Helps: gets me through sticky grammar moments
- Biographical dictionaries including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and Who's Who
In fact, click here to see exactly what I can access. So, the picture is of me proudly holding my library card. You have one too, right? Oh, and in case I forgot to mention – it's free.
Wrong date on training flyer
For those who were at the South East Gospel Partnership day on Saturday and received a flyer about training, you may have spotted that it's got the wrong date on it. The ILPG London preachers day is not Sat 17th March, but
Saturday 3rd March.
Please pass it on!
Slaves not servants, and a free Study Bible
Only managed a bit of the SEGP day with Phillip Jensen on Saturday, looking forward to catching up with some of the audio. But session 1 was a passionate defence of the language of slavery as being entirely appropriate (if we understand it correctly) to translate the Greek doulos. Interestingly, one English translation does bravely take this step. e.g. 2 Cor 4.5 (which was Phillip's main text for the talk).
- For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. (NIV)
- For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. (ESV but with footnote)
- For we are not proclaiming ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves because of Jesus.(HCSB)
It's one of the reasons I like the Holman Christian Standard Bible. And whilst it's too quirky to use as a church translation (shame!) it's not afraid to translate in such a way! Good on them!
Phillip has been doing the rounds and you can listen to the same talks online from the South Central day here.
Together with our friends at 10ofthose.com I've got a HCSB Study Bible in leather free (RRP £52) to give away to the first person who emails in: firstname.lastname@example.org. More details of the study Bible here but suffice it to say that it's edited by Andreas Kostenberger, Walt Kaiser and Craig Blomberg. Only for UK readers, I'm afraid.
When caricatures don’t help
Christians don't always agree about everything and even within orthodox evangelical Christianity there are differing opinions on some things which must surely come within the realm of disputable matters. What interests me today is the way that Christians disagree about such issues. We need to be able to discuss them, debate them, talk about them and come to a biblical conclusion if we can. But we often do not help ourselves in the way we talk about one another and the doctrines we believe in, denominations to which we belong or approaches we hold dear. In fact, more often than not, we set up rather gross caricatures that are all too easy to knock down and pull apart when, in truth, the caricature rarely fits.
Let me try to explain what I mean taking a very 18th-19th century Baptist disagreement – particular atonement (and it has since rumbled on, see here). For those who don't know (!) this is doctrine answers the question: who did Christ died for, the world or the elect? It is perhaps pertinent to use this example as, within evangelical Christianity there is still a range of views. (I should nail my colours to the mast at this point and say I believe in it, but I'm not using this post to defend it, that is not the point). The caricatures in this case worked something like this:
- those who believed in limited atonement said that those who didn't would end up as universalists, for that is the only trajectory if one believes that Christ died for all
- those who dismissed limited atonement said that those who didn't would end up as introspective, non evangelising Christians
Now, of course, there were (sadly) some from both camps for whom this was true. The General Baptists became a large bulk of what we now know as Unitarians. The hyper-Calvinists arose from those who believed in the doctrine. In one sense, both camps were right to point out the dangers. But the gross caricatures were only true for some at the extremes and assessing a doctrine by the effect it has on some at the limits is never wise pastorally. It creates unnecessary bad feeling; it makes debate difficult; it offends; it hardly gracious.
There are lots of issues for which the same kind of gross caricature applies today. It's true denominationally: "all independents think nothing of other churches" or "all Anglicans would rather have fellowship with Anglo-Catholics". It's true doctrinally, the same arguments above still apply, but it also applies to other doctrines. It's true culturally: "if you have drums you'll just be whipping up the crowds" or "hymn singing will never attract young people" and so on and so on.
Let's be wary of setting up straw men that do little service to robust discussion about the things over which we, as evangelicals, disagree.