A measure of grief
I’m watching my mother-in-law die. This time next week, in all probability, her earthly time will be over. Her kidneys have completely shut down, and it’s only a matter of days that the body can sustain itself in those circumstances. We have begun grieving already. Grief is a strange thing for Christians, bringing – as it does – a real mixture of emotions. As we reflect, we’re not quite sure what holy grief looks and feels like.
We know, for instance, that Christian death is bitter-sweet. We know that it is right to feel the aberration that death is and the weight of sin in the world that makes it so. We know that it is right to feel the loss of someone God has given us for a time. We also know the glorious hope of eternity that Christ has won for us.
I can’t help thinking that in amongst all these emotions, we are also tempted to feel sinful emotions. Self-pity is one of the ugliest sins and it takes opportunities such as this to lay claim on our hearts. It can lead to self-centredness. We’re so busy feeling sorry for ourselves, that we forget to seek the good of others who may also be grieving. And so it goes.
I’m convinced that the pastoral answer to grief is to know certain truths before the moment comes. I think we’re pretty bad at ministering in this way. As a result, pastoral help can often seem trite or full of platitudes. It’s almost impossible, for example, to encourage a grieving husband with the temporary nature of marriage ended by death – though I’m convinced this is an important truth in the grieving process. If a grieving person’s only hope is “We’ll meet again” they will struggle to grieve and recover and our ministry will do little for them.
It reminds me of something I once heard Don Carson say at a ministers meeting: ultimately, he said, we’re about preparing people for death. I’m sure he’d want to nuance that if he had more time – but there’s solid truth there. Too much of our pastoral work is preparing people for this life only, and as such, we fail to adequately help people to grieve well.
God loves your family unit. But it’s not a church
One of the less helpful things I hear young guys (especially) saying, is that their family unit (often with young kids) is a mini church. I think this comes from a genuine desire to lead families well, but I think it’s somewhat sub-biblical. For sure, there are things about a family unit which are similar to a church: we are to teach our kids for example; there are also word connections, most notably in the way that the word ‘family’ is sometimes used to describe groups of believers, such as 1 Peter 2.17. But drawing the parallels too closely is dangerous. For one thing, the passages that suggest this might the case cannot stand the weight. [It is also, by the way, part of Catholic teaching, ecclesica domestica].
For example, it is true that the marriage relationship is a picture of Christ and the church and the husband and wife are to relate to one another as Christ and the church do (Eph. 5). But that relationship, though mirrored on Christ and the church, is not the same in every area. For one thing, if that picture were extended to the family unit, it would make the husband the Messiah and the wife (not the family) the church.
Why is thinking unhelpful? For one, it idolises marriage. Marriage is one of the relationships Christ gives the church (and that’s the right language from 1 Cor. 7). Singleness is the other. Claiming families as mini-churches can elevate the family too much and demonise singleness.
It also perpetuates headship myths. I need to explain what I mean by that: I am a firm complementarian, but we need to acknowledge that there are aberrations of this position: misogynism, over-developed cultural stereotypes, etc. Making the family (a key building block) into a church (another key, but different building block) can encourage these deviations.
But most importantly, we diminish the church. The church is the church. It is the gathering of God’s people from every tribe, tongue and nation. It is the gathering of families and singles, marrieds and widows. It is the gathering together under the word of God to serve God and one another. A family can never be that, nor should it try to be. A family is different: glorious, still, lovely, beautiful, delightful, precious.
In fact, God loves your family unit. But it is not church.
And yet another marriage book
I am fully resigned to the happy fact that I will never be a great leader, because I have no plans to write a marriage book. It seems to be, increasingly, a prerequisite for leadership. And, plop, on the doormat here comes yet another – this time Francis and Lisa Chan’s You and me forever. It’s not long, running to 187 pages and is generously spaced, so it’s not going to take you long to read. It’s an easy read too, being very chatty (sometimes annoyingly so, just get to the point already!).
Here’s the thing about marriage books. I find that very few are the complete deal. Each has its strengths and each tends to tackle one particular aspect. Partly this is because each is trying to have a USP (a unique selling point in marketing terms) which differentiates it from the crowd. So, it seems to me, that they are becoming increasingly niche. What I really want is a marriage book compendium. Such a volume would:
- take the biblical philosophical grounding from Christopher Ash’s Married for God
- take the sermonic temporary picture from Eph 5 pastorally worked out in John Piper’s This momentary marriage
- take the practical tips and workbook from Brian Edwards’ No Longer Two
- take the chapter on friendship (but not much else) from Mark Driscoll’s Real Marriage
- take the reality check from Paul Tripp’s What did you expect?
- take the commitment theme from Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage
- take the section on pulling weeds from Alistair Begg’s Lasting Love
- et al.
The Chans’ book is strong on how the secret to happy marriage is to focus first on our vertical relationship with God; especially as a means to avoiding idolatry of marriage itself. Well said. And there’s a pretty good chapter on parenting. But couples can’t be expected to read all these books! So here’s my suggestion instead.
What really counts in church life is not a load of books, but real, living relationships. Young couples need older couples to meet with, pray with, and from whom they can seek advice. Older couples need peers who can challenge and encourage. Books can help of course – and they are a tremendous resource. But nothing beats living books. And that is why church life, where couples invest in couples, is so important.
The Proclamation Bible
I’m not a great fan of Study Bibles for all kinds of reasons. Some are better than others – but even the good ones are limited by the theological position of those writing the notes which is not always what you want it to be. Better – I think – to have a Bible where a few notes give you a steer in each book and then leave you to do the studying yourself. Introducing The Proclamation Bible!
The Proclamation Bible is not a PT resource. It’s been produced by Hodder inspired by the work and approach that PT has championed over the years, but it’s not something we’ve done – even though many of the staff have been involved in it. Lee Gatiss has edited this great edition of the NIV. It comes in a wide margin format, allowing you to add in your own notes. There are a number of introductory essays on forming a sermon, how the Bible fits together, all that sort of thing. Then each Bible book has an introductory short essay pointing you in the right direction. And that’s it.
Not much you might say. But there’s value in the brevity. For here is a Bible edition that does what we like. It gets you started, running in the right direction, and then allows you to do the studying. What is better than that?
There’s a hardback version and a leather version. And, from sometime soon, an Allan Bible version. As you may know, Allan make the most beautifully crafted Bibles and we’re delighted that there’ll be a Proclamation Bible version soon. Best of all, every purchase contributes a little towards our work.
For now, we’ve got a leather Proclamation Bible to give away for free. Email us (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the subject “Proclamation Bible” and first out of the hat will win a nicely new leather edition worth £42.99.
The PT team are out on the road again this year running local day training with gospel partnerships. These are suitable for anybody involved in a ministry of the word in the local church and a great boost for local church training.
On Sat 31 January, we’re in Bath with the SW Gospel Partnership. Jonathan Griffiths will be leading a day on Hebrews, a much neglected but important NT book. Those who come can expect to be helped understanding the book for themselves, and also in how to teach it to others. It’s ideal for occasional preachers (and even regular ones!), youth workers, Sunday School teachers and women’s workers.
On Sat 9 May, Cornhill Scotland are running a similar day in Glasgow. Why not book the date now? More information here.
We’re voting this year
I’m not for a minute suggesting that you should tell your people how to vote (in fact, I’ve got a pretty strong idea that it’s illegal for a minister of religion to do so). However, in this election year, I do think it’s good for us as help our people think Christianly about politics and voting. Some will not be convinced about the need to vote and that it has anything to do with following Jesus. Others will reduce the election down to a few test issues. Others still will not have any idea how to apply the Bible to really quite important matters like education or foreign affairs.
I’m not saying that you need to plan a sermon series. I’m hoping that if you preach the Bible expositionally and faithfully, people should have some grasp of these things. But it might be no bad thing to do some extra teaching on these issues to cut through the volume and nonsense. We’re going to be doing that at ours one Sunday evening leading up to the General Election. Sometimes, it’s good to do this – to help people apply the Bible to specific situations that don’t always get tackled in Sunday sermons where the application is, necessarily, more general. It’s no less a ministry of the word. And, it goes without saying, it should be backed up by regular prayer.
And if you’re worried about being asked who you are going to vote for, you could always take a leaf out of our senior pastor’s book who always replies “Whig.” Good answer.
It’s not too early to book for our Spring ministers’ conferences. Next year, due to some expansion at Hothorpe, we’ll have a bit of extra space. This year, both conferences are limited to around 90. Our Senior Ministers’ Conference runs from Mon 27 April through to Thursday 30 April. Then after a short break we’re back in Leicestershire for the Younger Ministers’ Conference from Tuesday 5 May through Friday 8 May (incorporating the General Election!). Last time around the General Election took place in the Seniors, and we old guys had trouble hacking the all nighter. The youngsters will be better placed!
This year we’re focusing on preaching gospels. Easy, you think? Hmm. Not so sure, myself. The gospels are about Jesus, which might surprise those who heard some of our preaching. We’ve got Peter Adam to help us out, alongside an experienced team of other preachers. For the Week 1 senior guys we’re also joined by David Robertson from St Peter’s Dundee who will take a track on apologetics. Robertston for a whole week! Just imagine. In Week 2, we’ve asked Paul Mallard along to help us understand how to minister to people who are suffering. This is a key topic. We youngsters need to understand pastorally how we preach to those who find life a real burden. That’s a key topic.
So, here’s what to do. Book the dates in your diary. It always fills up and as the time gets nearer, it’s always harder to carve out the time. Email or message your mates and make sure they’ve done likewise. Then book up online.
We look forward to seeing you this year, even if it’s been a few years since you’ve been with us. You’ll find the programme stretching but with plenty of time to relax with friends. We purposefully make sure there is time for both equipping and encouraging as well as the few days together being restful and recuperative. Unless you’re staying up all night with David Dimbleby.
Happy New Year
So here it is. 2015. I always enjoy reading the January Evangelicals Now for its list of notable anniversaries. We try and plan at least a few events in our church around some of these notable dates: it’s helpful for people to have a sense of Christian history and how we have got to where we are. Here are some to pick out:
Mary Slessor died 13 Jan 1915. We’ve lots of Nigerian connections in our church so this could be a significant anniversary for us – however, I prefer celebrating births rather than deaths, so we’ll have to see…
William Chalmers Burns born 1 April 1815. He was one of the first and most inspirational China missionaries.
Margaret Clarkson, hymnwriter, born 8 June 1915. I love her hymns. Some are well known, many more deserve to be. Look them up.
Jan Hus died 6 July 1415. I know, I know, it’s a death (see above), but martyrdom is slightly different. One of my heroes, and a shining light before the Reformation. Well worth telling people about.
Richard Baxter, pastor, born 12 November 1615. He had a few strange theological beliefs, but was a fine pastor and (trivia alert) is the most prolific Christian author we know from any age.
There are also some notable events celebrating anniversaries, not least the passing of the Five Mile Act (1665) – not one of our Parliament’s most glorious moments, especially sitting on the non-conformist side of the fence as I do.
That’s it for Christmas
We need a rest from posting every day and – frankly – you need a rest from reading every day! So, this is it until after Christmas. It is a joy and privilege to serve you by equipping and encouraging you in the work of expository preaching and we are praying that your ministry will be graciously used by God over this Christmas time. In fact, here is our prayer for ourselves and for you in more detail (from the Valley of Vision, buy the book!).
Let not my ministry be approved only by men,
or merely win the esteem and affections
But do the work of grace in their hearts,
call in thy elect,
seal and edify the regenerate ones,
and command eternal blessings on their souls.
Save me from self-opinion and self-seeking;
Water the hearts of those who hear thy Word,
that seed sown in weakness may be raised
Cause me and those that hear me
to behold thee here in the light of special faith,
and hereafter in the blaze of endless glory;
Make my every sermon a means of grace to myself,
and help me to experience the power
of thy dying love,
for thy blood is balm,
thy presence bliss,
thy smile heaven,
thy cross the place where truth
and mercy meet.
Look upon the doubts and discouragements
of my ministry
and keep me from self-importance;
I beg pardon for my many sins, omissions,
as a man, as a minister;
Command thy blessing on my weak,
and on the message of salvation given;
Stay with thy people,
and may thy presence be their portion
when I preach to others let not my words
be merely elegant and masterly,
my reasoning polished and refined,
my performance powerless and tasteless,
but may I exalt thee and humble sinners.
O Lord of power and grace,
all hearts are in thy hands,
all events at thy disposal,
Set the seal of thy almighty will
upon my ministry.
A Christmas Carol. A Christian Carol?
I’ve just finished reading through Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (pretty short, just 66 pages in my Best Ghost Stories). It’s classic Dickens – and even if you don’t go in for his long and flowery sentences, it’s an easy read, funny too. I was reminded that one of the closest TV adaptation to the original is actually (and I say this without a hint of irony), The MuppetsChristmas Carol where much of the dialogue is lifted straight from the text and names are only slightly changed: Mr Fozziwigg (Fozzi Bear) is actually Fezziwigg in the text.
Muppets aside, it’s a great redemption story. Or is it? It certainly seems to be a remarkable change of heart. But this time around I read it more critically. Is it really a Christian story, a true Christmas Carol, as it purports to be? There is certainly a change. Ebenezer Scrooge goes from being a tight-fisted miser (Bah! Humbug!) to a generous philanthropist. But what has changed him? It’s clear from the story that he’s changed by the frightening insight into what has happened to his dead partner, Jacob Marley. His chains and padlocks represent his failings (especially, though not only in generosity) which will be heaped sevenfold on Scrooge because he is nothing like as kind as Marley. A frightening thought indeed.
Frightening enough, indeed to spur Scrooge on to change. As do the future visions of his death and what people will say about him. He lives in dread of not being remembered, or only for the wrong reasons. His change is thus entirely self-motivated. He wants, in essence, to work his way out of hell. The book paints a picture of a man who is completely successful in this endeavour. As such, I think this ripping yarn is actually anti-gospel. Change is good, of course. True change includes conviction and a desire to live differently. But where this change comes from selfish motives rather than an encounter with the God of Christmas come down, it is ultimately doomed. “I desire to change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life” is Scrooge’s new mantra.
There is grace however: first in Scrooge’s assistant Bob Cratchitt who insists on a Christmas Day toast “To Scrooge, the founder of the feast” (in Scrooge’s vision) and in Scrooge’s nephew Fred who insists on offering friendship and warmth to his uncle despite the lack of any return.
However, ultimately, despite Scrooge’s Christ-less promise to “honour Christmas in my heart”, we need to know that there is One, like the Spirit of Christmas present, who invites us to “come in and know me better, man” and himself provides the means to do so. Therein is the change and the Christmas Carol we all need to hear.