Climbing the hills
We had a great holiday away by the shores of Lake Annecy in the French Alps – highly recommended for its stunning scenery and warm water. We were at the foot of La Semnoz, a 5,500 ft mountain used as an HC (beyond-categorisation) climb in the Tour de France. It is 20 km long with an average gradient of about 8% but some 22% ramps.
Why not, I thought? After all, as my keen cyclist neighbour David pointed out to me, all you’ve got to do is get in a low gear and churn away. He is, I should point out, a slim, lithe solicitor, untroubled by the cares of ministry.
I didn’t make it. There are lots of reasons for that:
- I ran out of water
- I was on my own, it’s better to do these climbs with somebody else
- I have a lot of baggage to get up a mountain and basic physics tells you that requires more energy
Excuses I know. Bottom line is that I wasn’t fit enough or able enough. It was just too hard. I felt a bit cross with myself (especially when passed by someone wearing flip flops), but more than that a little stupid to think I could do it anyway. I’m a sprinter, not a climber! It’s the same with ministry – and often mine, if I’m honest.
Ministry hills do come. They’re thankfully not all like La Semnoz. When they do come, they are not best faced alone, nor unprepared. Sure – some of us are climbers, we can get in the bottom gear and just churn away. But many (myself included) are not. Steep hills finish us off if we are not careful. I’ve learnt the hard way to make sure there are mechanisms and protections in place to ensure I don’t go off hill climbing on my own. It’s unwise, at best, deadly, at worst.
And next year, we’re going on holiday to the Netherlands.
What to make of Elihu?
One of the most perplexing things about the book of Job (and there are many) is what to make of Elihu, the “fourth” friend. His speeches are long and involved and it is therefore important, in the sweep of the whole book, to have some grasp of what he is doing here.
I’ve found Christopher’s new commentary on Job superb when it comes to this question (and many others). You might say, I would say this. But his new volume has been one of the most helpful devotional and pastoral things I have read in recent years. It really is. And he’s helpful on this point too.
He points out that most modern commentators take a critical view of Elihu:
Most recent commentators have been more inclined to respect [these chapters] place as integral to the book but have regarded Elihu’s role as essentially negative, perhaps a clown or a jester to provide comic relief after the intensity of chapters 29-31 or whose protestations are undermined by the author of the book.
Slightly hesitatingly (as he is going against the majority), Christopher takes the opposite view. There are a number of reasons, he argues, to take Elihu seriously:
- he is the only “friend” who is granted a backstory, a genealogy (Job 32:2)
- He is given four speeches to the others’ three
- No one is able to answer, he is not interrupted
- His speeches come at a critical position in the book and naturally prepare for the Lord’s speeches, there is an almost seamless transition
the natural reading of the text is that we should believe Elihu’s claims and take his words at their face value, as true prophecy from God.
And finally, another book what I read
Amongst some biographies I read was that of Sir Edward Pellew, naval captain in the time of the Napoleonic Wars, made famous today because he features heavily in the fictional Hornblower series. In fact, many of the Hornblower and Aubrey stories (if you know them at all) are based on his true life exploits. Pellew was not without his faults, chief amongst them was promoting his own relatives above their ability (a not uncommon fault in Nelson’s Navy).
I won’t bore you with naval history if you’re not interested, don’t worry. I loved it, but was left feeling a little cheated. Here’s why. Pellew was a great captain. But he was also, there are hints, a man of faith. Towards the end of his career, his official portrait contains “symbols of his career and his faith” says the author. No more is said.
After the Battle of Algiers (one of the Navy’s finest victories against incredible odds), Lord Exmouth (as he was by then) hosted an impromptu prayer meeting in his cabin for anyone who wanted to attend. At 2am. Hardly the sign of someone nominally Christian.
These two veiled references are the only ones made to a Christian faith that, I guess, might or might not have been. But I wanted to know more. It’s as though it was a subject that was hardly worthy of merit. A curio left over from a previous generation, perhaps?
We should not be surprised to see Christianity so marginalised. Increasingly we are not just a minority but a small minority. That brings with it great challenges but it’s good to remember that for most of history for most of the world, so has it ever been.
Some books what I read (2)
I also enjoyed Churchill and the Secret Service by David Stafford. Using recently released material, Stafford surveys the role and relationship Churchill had with the intelligence services, in particular. There is considerable focus on how Churchill used intelligence to bolster his own ideas. He particularly liked the raw data which he was want to interpret in his own way, not trusting those from within the services (sometimes rightly) to interpret it well. It follows Churchill from the Boer War through WWI, Churchill’s wilderness years (when he still had access to intelligence sources), through WWII and on into his last premiership.
It’s fascinating reading. Stafford is no Churchill acolyte. The leader is presented fairly I think – not always in a good light in the specifics, but overwhelmingly the leader Britain needed at various junctures.
It did get me thinking about how politicians today use data. I did some statistics training and I know how numbers can be manipulated. I also know that if I had a pound for every time there’s a statistical report on the effects of a glass of red wine a day, I would be able to afford a glass of red wine a day.
It’s easy to make things say what they do not. And that includes the Scriptures. It’s easy to promote a church vision by telling people that without a vision the people will perish when we know full well that’s not what the proverb means, and so on. Often our people are in no position to argue. We are, after all, the ones trained.
Twisting Scripture to suit our own ends is a terrible practice. We do it – on occasion – consciously. But sometimes we do it subconsciously to bolster a particular view. It’s too easy, in other words, to read into Scripture something we expect to see there, when it is not really there at all. If we need to show integrity in our relationships with others, we certainly need to show it in relation to the text.
Some books what I read (1)
Summer is my reading time. Not Christian books, particularly. I load up the kindle (cheaper and lighter than loading the suitcase) with some novels, biographies and histories and off on holiday I go. Mrs R says I rarely emerge from behind a book on holiday. I don’t think that’s quite true, but I do enjoy switching off by reading. And even though I don’t take Christian books away (I spend all year reading them!) I do try and reflect in a Christian way on what I’m reading. Here are three of the highlights amongst some of more trashy novels!
First, I really enjoyed Mud, Blood and Poppycock by Gordon Corrigan. It’s the second time I’ve read this book and it was every bit as good. It’s a series of relatively short chapters debunking various WWI myths – one example will suffice, the idea that troops spent months on end in sodden trenches. The average number of days in the front trench for any regiment was just under 4 days. Some call this kind of history revisionist, but as it happens, Corrigan shows how the original understanding of the war was like this – revised only in the 1930s following Basil Liddell Hart’s history of the war.
As we were stopping off at the Somme on the way home, it was fascinating – not least that battle which understood from an Anglocentric point of view made little sense, but when seen in the light of what was happening at Verdun – though immensely costly – made perfect military sense. Interestingly, this was also the view of the Somme museum at Thiepval.
I liked the book, because I like history and I like military history. But it did get me thinking of how events and people (especially Haig) can be misrepresented so easily. I guess we as evangelical Christians are often on the wrong end of such misrepresentations and find it frustrating when the media, for example, portray us unfairly.
There is not much, perhaps, that we can do about that. We need to be prepared for it. But we must be careful not to do the same to those we stand against. It is very easy to misrepresent others. Christian integrity and truthfulness demands that we do not.
Learning to lament
Lamentation is “one of the chief duties of the Christian in declining times. Christians are to weep over the sins of the church, the transgressions of the nation, and the fearfulness of the judgment to come.” I read these words by Philip Graham Ryken in his Preaching the Word commentary on Jeremiah, commenting on the words, “Teach one another a lament” (Jer.9:20).
I was struck and humbled by this challenge. It makes me think again about why we preach the Psalms. So many of the Psalms are laments, not only for individuals but also for the dire state of the people of God and the misery of a world under God’s curse. I do not by nature know how to lament in a godly way, and I take it that these Psalms are one of the main ways in which God can teach me to do so. In our preaching of the Psalms of lament, let us deliberately and explicitly tell our congregations that our purpose is that we may be equipped to know how to lament the way God wants us to lament.
Setting up the sermon
It is always refreshing and interesting to visit other churches, and we have had that privilege during the summer break. In a church we visited recently, I was particularly struck (and encouraged) by the way that the person leading the service and the preacher himself prepared us for the sermon. Before the preacher got up, the service leader took a moment to say something about the nature of a sermon and what we should expect to happen during the sermon. He told us that the living God would soon address us through the preaching of his word. So often we hear from the sermon leader that the preacher is going to ‘explain the passage to us’, as though the sermon were merely a reading comprehension exercise. But to be reminded that we were about to hear the living God speak to us – that prepared us for something much more significant to take place. The effect was not simply to capture our attention, but somehow to change the atmosphere in the room. This may overstate it, but it seemed that there was an atmosphere of reverential expectancy in the congregation once we had been reminded what was about to take place. Personally speaking, I found that I was not only engaged on a new level, but sobered as well as I considered the reality of hearing from the living God.
We were further helped when the preacher stood up and prayed, asking God through the sermon to do the kinds of things he has committed himself to doing through his word in 2 Timothy 3:16 (‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…’ ESV). After such an introduction and such a prayer, we as a congregation were well prepared to meet with the living God through his word.
It struck me that it would be good for all of us who lead services and who preach to give careful thought to how we introduce the preaching of God’s word – both in our comments and in our prayers – so that the people before us might understand the nature of what they are about to hear and might hold right expectations for it. This, of course, will be shaped by our own theology of preaching. But assuming that we hold high expectations for what God will do as his word is proclaimed, let’s consider how we can best prepare the people in our congregation to hear God’s word preached.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #16 and last
Chapter 16. ‘Demonstration of the Spirit and of Power’
This is the most controversial chapter of the book, in which MLJ’s wider theology of the Spirit (which we won’t get into!) is applied to preaching. Here’s a summary:
Unction/anointing from the Spirit is the most important thing in preaching, in which the Spirit comes on the preacher ‘in a special manner’, allowing his work to be a channel of the Spirit’s work. He stresses that it is an anointing of what the preacher has prepared, not an excuse to be lazy in preparation.
He seeks to substantiate it from the NT:
– those places in Acts which speak of the Spirit’s presence in those who are proclaiming Christ
– those places where Paul speaks of the Spirit and power accompanying his preaching (especially 1 Cor 2 and 1 Thess 1).
He states: if it were all ‘left to us’ as preachers, we would be hopelessly miserable.
Then come historical examples, especially from times of revival when certain preachers were used powerfully, often for limited periods. This, says MLJ, is what the preacher should seek all the time.
The preacher knows it’s happening when he feels like a joyful onlooker of his own powerful sermon.
The people know it’s happening and want more of it.
First, some critique. The biblical texts he quotes are really not illustrating the same thing as the stories of revival he gives. Those texts talk about what was commonly expected and experienced, whereas time of revival, as he acknowledges, aren’t meant to be permanent. The chapter makes me suspect that MLJ’s love of stories of revival shaped his understanding of the NT rather too much.
However, once we filter out that particular viewpoint, there is much good here that ought to make preachers fling themselves on the Lord. How will any mind be opened to Christ or any will moved towards him by my words alone? They never can be. Praise God that, whether I experience it or not, and however my temperament leads me to express my experiences in preaching, the Spirit remains true now to the preaching of the word he once breathed out.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #15
Chapter 15. The Pitfalls and the Romance
An odd mixture of topics in this chapter. The ‘pitfalls’ are two:
- Preaching the same sermon in different contexts. MLJ is happy with that as long as it remains fresh to the preacher, and he doesn’t preach the same sermon twice in the same place!
- Using other people’s sermons. Golden rule: acknowledge it, or you’re a thief.
Then comes the ‘romance’. He’s got these things in mind:
- When you’re stepping up to deliver a fresh sermon to your own people, longing to deliver the message to them, there’s no feeling in the world so thrilling and rewarding!
- The excitement on a Saturday night when you know that you have been especially ‘gripped and moved’ yourself in your preparation, and that could be an indication that the people will be too.
- The preacher never knows exactly what will happen. Sometimes the planned first point becomes the whole sermon as you preach it.
- You never know who’s listening. It could be the turning-point of someone’s whole life.
- How often people say afterwards, ‘That sermon could have been written just for me!’, although you knew nothing of their circumstances beforehand.
A caveat to start with. The preacher who regularly prepares too sketchily and hopes that the Spirit will make up the difference in the pulpit will not be helped by hearing about the ‘romance’ of being prompted to change the sermon as you’re preaching. However, of course, those who feel that they might be drummed out of whatever fraternity they are in if they ever admitted to doing such a thing probably need to hear that it is not beyond the scope of the Spirit’s activity.
More positively: those few pages on ‘romance’ have made me feel more excited than I did twenty minutes ago about my next sermon, and for that I am grateful. I would not have used the word ‘romance’ to describe these feelings, but that’s probably just due to differences in temperament and not having myself grown up on any Celtic fringe. Finding MLJ using that word woke me up to some glories that we can become stale towards, and that is more than good.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #14
Chapter 14. Calling for Decisions
MLJ devotes a whole chapter to the question of the ‘altar call’, he says, because it was a controversial one when he was writing (the late 1960s). Although that controversy may have died down, there are some instructive things for us here.
The chapter consists of him setting out his many reasons for being opposed to having a regular major appeals at the end of a sermon or meeting. These seem to me to be the key ones:
- Sinners don’t ‘decide’ for Christ; that’s a poor word to use. Rather, they ‘fly’ to him. The whole process of the ‘altar call’ produces and expresses mostly superficial conviction of sin.
- Genuine regeneration will simply show itself over time. It doesn’t need the added ‘show’ of walking to the front, or whatever.
- The will should not be appealed to directly, but always through the mind and affections, hence the appeal must be in the Truth and in the message, not in some separate ‘event’.
What struck me is that a deep conviction that the Holy Spirit is at work in and through preaching, without the need for human histrionics, gives the pastor a calm patience as he goes about his ministry. Someone may appear to be touched by a particular message. What will prove that to be genuine regeneration rather than superficial emotion is usually the test of time; if someone has been truly converted, says MLJ, they’ll usually want to come and tell you. In fact, his main recommendation to the preacher in this regard is that he assure people that they are welcome to come and speak to him if they wish. Of course a pastor can’t take this as an excuse never to hurry off to see someone who seems to be in a spiritual crisis, but it does free us up from acting as if conversions depend on our immediate follow-up to every soul that seems to have been moved.