Three important history books
Having spent two conferences with Dr John Dickson, we've been encouraged to think rightly about history. We'll post the audio and video soon, but in the meantime, here are his top three history/background books:
- The Oxford Classical Dictionary, this is expensive, shop around
- The Dictionary of NT background, bit cheaper!!
- The Encyclopedia of the historical Jesus, another pricey volume, but apparently, as they say, worth it.
There's a longer list of twenty, but this seems a good place to start. Personally, as a history lover but history dunce, I have also found the NIV Archeological Study Bible edited by Walt Kaiser to be really useful. And slightly cheaper too….
A useful funeral tip (2)
How many of us have had to endure this 'nice' little poem at funerals:
Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room.
Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was.
I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.
Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it.
Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was.
There is absolute and unbroken continuity.
What is this death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner.
All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!
A useful funeral tip
This week and next I'm chairing workshops at our ministers' conferences on preaching at and leading funerals.We've had some interesting tips. Here's one from Tony Cannon who ministers in leafy Surrey: often times the closest relatives are too upset to take in what you're saying so if you're the kind of preacher who uses a manuscript (and even if you're not) why not give the family a nicely presented copy of your semon in an envelope, perhaps with a hand written note or invitation to the church and a copy of the order of service if you have one. Who knows? They may read it later. And they may take it in. They will certainly appreciat that you are not just a professional but someone who's interested in them. Great idea. Nice touch, Tony.
Wisdom from the world?
Interesting to read an interview in the press at the weekend with Philip Collins. He was the (very young) speech writer used by Tony Blair who, it is said, made a large contribution to Blair's public speaking effectiveness. The Times included a cut out and keep (!) guide to "how to write a speech in six easy steps":
- Get to know your audience. 'You'd be amazed how often people forget about their audience before they speak'
- What expectations do you have? 'Failed speakers never quite know what they are trying to achieve'
- What's your topic? 'You have to know what you want to say' 'This is the most important thing you have to get right'
- Mind your language. 'Most speech writing is rewriting. Don't be precious about your words. It's the argument that matters, not the precise wording'
- Writing for an individual. He means, make yourself authentic.
- Delivering the speech. 'It's incredible how many people hear the speech for the first time as they are delivering it.'
Interesting. When I first read it, I thought to myself, there's wisdom in the world. We just need to sift it out. And sure, there's wisdom here for preachers. Some of it direct. Some of it indirect. Try it. You can apply these lessons in some way or shape to good preaching. I think there's worth in that.
As I reflected on it, of course, I realised that the reason there is 'wisdom in the world' when it comes to speech writing (and speaking) is that for many, many years the best (and only) public speakers were preachers. So by all means learn something from Philip Collins. But as you do, remember that he himself has learnt, some way down the line, from the great preachers.
When a few words of faith are not enough
Watching the FA cup final on Saturday (US readers, that's a sports game called association football that is the world's favourite game, but I understand if you've not heard ot it), I was delighted to see Fabrice Muamba in the crowd. He was also interviewed in this weekend's press. It's truly remarkable. The man should be dead. His heart stopped on the pitch for 78 minutes. Twice doctors threw in the towel on resuscitation. Yet here he is. He's forgetful. He'll never play again, I suspect. But he's alive. Like I said, I'm truly thankful.
His situation raises some interesting questions, not least the Christian veneer with which everything has been coated – headline in The Times, for example: "If God is with me, who can be against me? There is nothing to fear" Quite an amazing statement for the national press. His recovery, we read, is down to prayer. Sounds good, huh? Romans 8:28 and intercession all wrapped up together.
But the interview made me uncomfortable. Here is a man who lives with his girlfriend, with whom they have a child. He, according to the interview anyway, swears like a trooper. These are hardly the normal marks of a believer. Who am I to say? Well, quite. But isn't it interesting how quick the Christian population are to pick up on a few words of faith in order to be able to claim someone as our own?
I don't want to draw lessons about Fabrice. I am truly, truly glad he's alive and (if he has not already) I hope that he will soon come to a real and living faith in Christ. Rather, it makes me think of the local church. How quick we are to latch on to the words of someone in church and immediately claim them as a convert. I can think of several cases in my own ministry where that has proved to be patently unjustified. We are, of course, desperate for people to be saved. So a word here or a gesture there – well, of course, it gets our pulses racing. But perhaps we also need to be honest and say, a few words of 'faith' are not enough.
The problem is that we stop evangelising such people. They're 'in' aren't they! Job done. And then, something happens, time passes, and suddenly you realise they're gone and lost. Hebrews 6 is sobering here.
I sat through Mark Dever talking about the danger of unconverted members in our churches when I was in the US recently. At the time, I was thinking to myself, perhaps this is a particularly American problem. Now, I'm thinking again…. Our church life needs to move people along constantly in their walk with Christ. I hesitate to say 'journey' because it just sounds so, well, emerging. Nevertheless, a few words of faith are often not enough and we have to help people to start well, race well, and finish well – finish with real, lasting and effective faith.
Youthwork and legalism
This is a really useful article by Cameron Cole over at TGC on why youth work tends towards legalism. Read it if you're a youth worker or minister with youth work in your church, It's important.
Preachers loving history, with a few exceptions!
At this year's senior ministers' conference and being greatly challenged by John Dickson's sessions on history, evangelism and exegesis. Helpful stuff for preachers which will be online in next few weeks. When John told Dick what he was speaking on, Dick said, "how fresh." John wasn't sure whether to take this as a compliment or not! But here's a summary from day one:
History, argued John is critical. Why?
- Because Christianity is definitionally historical. Unlike many other religions it is fundamentally about events that happened in history
- We're always doing history whether we like it or not. When we read the Bible and understand Greek words, for example, we're basing this on history
But, said John, history has limitations too:
- History is random. We have less than 1% of NT documents and archeology. For example, no personal correspondence from Tiberius who ruled the world but we have a complaint from a junior tax collector about being beaten up at the gym from the same period.
- History is incapable of demonstrating some things that are essential to our faith, e.g. that Christ died for sins
- It is sometimes difficult to avoid bad history, e.g. 'there is more evidence for Jesus than Julius Caesar' which is simply not true.
- History can tempt the preacher to show off
- History can distance people from the text of Scripture. It can become like a secret knowledge.
- History is not an objective discipline. Some historians have stretched history to disprove the Bible and we can sometimes be guilty of the opposite.
But tonight, John is just getting going on why history is friendly to the preacher… so it's not all bad news.
Call me: we all have a blind spot
At least one, in fact.
I was reminded of this reading obituaries of Chuck Colson, who died last week. He was a great Christian, in many ways. His conversion was astounding and the work of prison ministry exceptional. His autobiography, Born Again, was one of the first Christian books I ever read (because a Christian friend had given my father a copy – he never read it). But he had an obvious (to me) blind spot: I could never understand his attachment to and promotion of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. (Along with, may I say, another hero of mine, JI Packer).
I still see clear water between the two groups. That's not to say I've not met godly Catholics. But it seems to me that they are so in spite of the system, rather than because of it. This clear water is an issue that Michael Horton tackles in the latest issue of Modern Reformation:
In five hundred years, what has changed?… There are indeed remnants of truly Orthodox with genuinely biblical faith and practice in the Roman Catholic Church, but as a total structure the flaws go right to the foundation. In terms of authority, Rome teaches that Scripture and tradition are two. That's why the Magisterium – the teaching office of the church – can invent sacraments, forms of worship and even dogmas that it acknowledges aren't in the Bible.
He goes on to show how the Church fights strongly against the imputation of Christ's righteousness while teaching that Mary's righteousness can be imputed! It's not a blind spot that I am at all comfortable with – even though, I realise, it may make me sound rather like an old-fashioned Protestant. But the fact is, I've got something to protest against. So be it.
That's hardly my point for writing though. You may, or may not, agree with me on this. But what else? I'm sure we've all got a blind spot. I'm personally very, very good at spotting other people's. Call me if you need help. But when it comes to my own……
The Gospel as Center
This is a US book. You can tell that from the misspelt (UK readers)/correctly spelt (US readers) title. But there is just about where any US/UK divide happens. Some books are so rooted in their immediate context that they just don't work over the pond. There are US titles which are addressing peculiarly US issues, and UK titles similarly hampered. This is not one of them. So, the book is The Gospel as Center, the subtitle is "renewing our faith and reforming our ministry practices" and what you have, under the careful editorship of Carson and Keller, is a concise set of essays on the important and defining elements of The Gospel Coalition's beliefs.
So – don't be shocked – on one level this is an entirely uncontroversial, safe book. You know where it's coming from before it begins and you can have a pretty good guess at each of the conclusions reached. Such is our constituency. Ordinarily, this safeness might have made it rather dull and useless. But that's simply not the case. Instead, there are a collection of useful essays from the pens of quite different writers. Some are more useful than others, of course – but the dual-authored chapter on baptism and the Lord's Supper by Thabiti Anyabwile (a baptist) and Lig Duncan (a presbyterian) is worth, as they say, the admission price alone. It really helped me think clearly about how and why we celebrate these sacraments in church life.
Here are the chapters:
- Gospel Centered Ministry – Carson & Keller
- Can we know the truth – Richard D Phillips
- The Gospel and Scripture – Mike Bullmore
- Creation – Andrew Davis
- Sin and the fall – Reddit Andrews III
- The Plan – Colin Smith (hoorah for the Brits!)
- What is the gospel? – Bryan Chapell
- Christ's Redemption – Sandy Wilson
- Justification – Philip Ryken
- The Holy Spirit – Kevin DeYoung
- The Kingdom of God – Stephen Um
- The Church – God's new people – Tim Savage
- Baptism and the Lord's Supper – Thabiti Anybwile and Lig Duncan
- The Restoration of all things – Sam Storms
If you're going to read it on your own then it's a book for reinforcement – and there's nothing wrong with that. If you're going to read it with others (e.g. a leadership team – and that's where there's real value), then it's a book for learning and growing. Both are worthy causes.
It's a nice hardback, 300pp. Come along to the EMA and there'll be a very nice price, signficantly under list of £14.
The root idea of marriage
I've hesitated to wade in with my size 9s on the whole marriage thing, not because I don't have strong views (oh, I do) but because I don't particularly want to preach to the choir. But here's a thought – do we need to recover the root idea of marriage? When we're arguing for marriage in the marketplace, we tend not to use theological arguments. I sort of understand that. We need to interact with people at a level they will understand and a dialogue they will engage with. It puts us at an immediate disadvantage because so many of the theological arguments are too complex for a sound-bite media world. So, praise God for those, like the Christian Institute, who make a cogent case for traditional marriage on our behalf.
But, at the very least, when we're talking amongst ourselves, we must make sure we use the full force of theological argument. I was thinking about this because I listened to the Bishop of Buckingham's response to some of The Times correspondence, making a case for gay marriage. This is what he said, word for word:
…a partnership between two people who covenant a faithful relationship to one another based on the love they have for one another and seek it as a sacramental blessing – in other words that they receive the love of God partly through the love that binds them together as a couple in a partnership – this is the root idea of marriage.
Really? First of all, I'm not exactly sure what he is saying. It's just a bit too wishy-washy for me. But, more fundamentally, that is not the root idea of marriage.
The ultimate thing we can say about marriage is that it exists for God's glory. That is, it exists to display God….Marriage is patterned after Christ's covenant relationship to his redeemed people, the church. And therefore the highest meaning and the most ultimate purpose of marriage is to put the covenant relationship of Christ and his church on display. That is why marriage exists. If you are married, that is why you are married. If you hope to be, that should be your dream. John Piper, This Momentary Marriage, p25.
This gets to the root of marriage and explains, from first principles, why sexual immorality of any kind is wrong. Of course, there are commands a-plenty, but if sexual union is at the heart of marriage and reflecting the mystery that is Christ and the church, then accepting sex outside of marriage implies you can be the bride of Christ without being married to him (pluralism). Masturbation (solo sex) is saying "I don't need Christ." Sleeping with a prostitute (1 Cor 6.15) is saying that there is salvation outside of Christ. Ditto gay sex and marriage. Let's make sure, then, that we keep the root idea before us.