Beautiful Christ in the ups and downs of ministry
Last week was a bit of a struggle in the PT office. We had moments of great joy, especially in planning for and thinking about the future, but also in seeing students grow and develop. We had moments of utter despair, particularly with government regulations, but other disappointments and sadnesses too. It's easy to be blown about by all these various trials and struggles; journeying to the top of the mountain, then falling down to the valley before the next peak of excitement hits.
I guess anybody in Christian ministry will feel this burden. It is Christian ministry. One moment the pastor is replying to criticisms about his last sermon and the next he gets an email in his box saying what a help the last message was. One moment his study is occupied by a struggling couple, the next he is reading the Bible with a future leader. One day he feels dry and weary in his walk with Christ; the next he finds prayer comes naturally and joyfully.
We're meant to feel some of this tension. We're not automaton Stepford pastors. We have to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. Those ups and downs shape our ministry, focus our ministry and connect it to those God has given us. But we don't find our worth or value or joy in those moments. I've learn that last week.
We gather the staff to read briefly and pray each Monday and last Monday Robin shared a Flavel sermon he had read and found greatly helpful. Regular readers will know I'm a great Flavel fan (come on, a Puritan you can read and understand!!!). Here's a link to the sermon: Christ Altogether Lovely. (If you have the works, it's not in there, though there are plenty of other Flavel nuggets.) It's been a helpful corrective. Here's a taster:
Is Jesus Christ altogether lovely? Then I beseech you set your souls upon this lovely Jesus. I am sure such an object as has been here represented, would compel love from the coldest breast and hardest heart. Away with those empty nothings, away with this vain deceitful world, which deserves not the thousandth part of the love you give it. Let all stand aside and give way to Christ. O if only you knew his worth and excellency, what he is in himself, what he has done for you, and deserved from you, you would need no arguments of mine to persuade you to love him!
Esteem nothing lovely except as it is enjoyed in Christ, or used for the sake of Christ. Love nothing for itself, love nothing separate from Jesus Christ. In two things we all sin in love of created things. We sin in the excess of our affections, loving them above the proper value of mere created things. We also sin in the inordinacy of our affections, that is to say we give our love for created things a priority it should never have.
Let us all be humbled for the corruption of our hearts that are so eager in their affections for vanities and trifles and so hard to be persuaded to the love of Christ, who is altogether lovely.
Prophetic preaching and why it is NEVER boring
Our short strapline ("When God's word is faithfully preached, God's voice is clearly heard") causes some to stumble. We know that. And it's always going to be the case that such short statements raise more questions than they answer. In various ways (not least in Christopher's excellent The Priority of Preaching) we try to answer those questions.
However, here's another way to think more broadly about what preaching is and why it is so important. Carl Trueman's hour long lecture at the recent Clarus conference is excellent. It's certainly challenging – not least the explanation about why preaching is NEVER boring (not real preaching anyhow). There's some good stuff here, including why preaching is not just "explaining the Bible" (though I'd want to say it's not less than that).
Two thirds of the way through Carl quotes from the Westminster Larger Catechism:
Question 155: How is the Word made effectual to salvation?
Answer: The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.
The Reformers understood that preaching was the principal means by which God makes himself savingly present in the church.
The mp3 is worth the time. Carl is speaking at our Autumn Minister's Conference (7-10 November 2011) for which booking opens in July.
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Why Tim Chester wrote You can change
If you've been following these blogs you'll know that we had Tim Chester at last week's younger ministers conference. We've not yet posted the video and audio, they're worth waiting for – especially two cracking sermons, one from Tim and one from William Taylor (our other main speaker). In the meantime, in order to whet your appetite, here's Tim telling us why he wrote You can change. Both You can change and Captured by a better vision (essentially You can change applied to pornography) are excellent pastoral and personal books. And, as you will see from the short 40 second clip, it's all about Tim….. Do make use of these excellent resources.
Rich beyond measure
The folk up at High Church Hilton (Aberdeen) have written a book which they have used evangelistically and which I've enjoyed reading over the weekend. Entitled Rich: The reality of encountering Jesus it's a short (120pp) introduction to the message of Luke's gospel. I really enjoyed it. It's accessible, well-written (no surprise with David Gibson's hand upon it – BTW he also wrote one of the most insightful papers I have read about how evangelicalism can get lost). It's a book for those who are seriously thinking about Christianity but I found it warmed my heart with the gospel all over again. As with any evangelistic book, I urge you to read it first. Don't just buy such books willy-nilly and give them out. Know what they say! Point people towards particularly helpful chapters for them: "here's a book you might like to look at, but if you only read one chapter, read chapter 3…." is a great way to give away a book. It shows you've read it and you think it is good for the person you're giving it to.
High Church (which is an historic name rather than a comment about their services….) have also produced a course to go with the book which they've used in their parish. I sometimes feel a bit coursed out. The granddaddy of them all is Christianity Explored, of course. It's just been relaunched and I look forward to seeing the finished article. But I'm increasingly convinced that what we probably need is a variety of different ways to engage people with the gospel – some simpler, some more involved; some longer, some shorter and so on. I'm sure the guys at High Church Hilton would be happy to hear from you if, having read the book, you would like to explore that a little more.
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How do we pastor one another?
Taken from Tim Chester's second session at last week's Younger Ministers Conference. How do we pastor one another:
- We pastor one another every day. This is certainly the biblical pattern and the way that Jesus conducts much of his ministry. This is why dishwashers (says Tim, not Adrian!!) are evil because they rob us of pastoral moments. They obviously don't have much washing up in Tim's house, because we can put the dishwasher on and still have washing up (and therefore pastoral moments). Sorry, off the point there. Make the most of everyday moments for teaching, encouraging and comforting one another.
- We pastor one another in community. The God given context for pastoral care is the church community – not the therapists session or even the pastor's study. Change is a community project. Hebrews 3.12-13.
- We pastor one another over a lifetime. Change takes a lifetime and so pastoral care takes a lifetime soon. Even if we can bring some understanding to a situation, changing hearts is a sometimes slow process. If we don't realise this we will soon become frustrated in pastoral ministry.
- We pastor one another with grace. Which means we cannot pastor one another if we are not pastoring ourselves – see Matthew 7.3-5. We need to pastor one another out of a strong sense of grace both to the one we are speaking to and to ourselves. Self righteous pastors are bad pastors. They can leave others crushed.
- We pastor one another with the good news. We don't say "you should not…". Instead we say, "you need not, because God is….."
Really helpful stuff. We'll have the video and audio up soon.
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Preacher, walk closely with Christ!
I taught two seminars last week on the importance of maintaining a close communion with our living God through his Son and in the power of his Spirit. It was based on a rather enigmatic sentence in 1 Timothy:
Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this [literally, them, not sure why ESV has singularised this word] for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
So, two seminars on personal devotions or (and I hate the term) quiet times. For if a pastor is not cultivating a close walk with Christ with prayer and study of the word, then how on earth can he save himself and his hearers.
We honestly identified all the problems we have with maintaining close walk – laziness, distractions, blandness, boredom, small children, computers, tiredness, busyness – it was a useful exercise to be honest about the dry seasons we find ourselves in.
Ultimately of course there is only one answer to this. Our only hope is for a deep hunger and thirst for righteousness, which means a deep hunger and thirst for Christ and a desire to be close to him and, as the hymn says, lost in wonder, love and praise. If you don't have it, you need to (a) know that you need it and (b) cry out to God for it. No other solution.
But grace comes in ordinary things too. Just as the porn addict needs a filter on his computer as he prays for a changed heart, so a preacher can do some practical things as he cries out to God for a deep hunger and thirst. Here are 10 things that work for me. Perhaps there is some godly wisdom there?
- Read the Bible for your own soul first. Even it eats into prep time don't think that studying to preach is enough to feed your own soul.
- Read and pray with a pen in your hand – both to capture thoughts and jot down distractions to be dealt with later. I write myself a prayer every day based on what I have read.
- Use Bible helps judiciously. You're a pastor for goodness sake – don't get caught into the "I can only read the Bible with a commentary" trap
- Nothing beats an early morning. I learnt this reading chapter 20 of Book 3 of the Institutes which is some of the warmest stuff I have ever read on prayer. Google it.
- Pray for your people deliberately and by name. Better to pray for one or two well than 5 in a bland way. Don't focus on felt needs, pray in what you are reading for your people. Pray that what you are learning they will learn and tell them about it next time you see them.
- Tear up your prayer diary every few months. I find routine is a life-killer, so I have to tear up my routine and refresh it regularly.
- Singing to yourself is not a sign of madness. I sit in the morning with an open hymn book and take one a day (which, by the way, opens my eyes to some beautiful and lovely words from the past)
- Develop prayer as an attitude not a diary slot. We all know it. Practice it. A few minutes here and there. A cry when you reach a really knotty part of Scripture you're struggling to prepare.
- Don't be afraid to use helps in dry times. I find Valley of Vision a real help when I struggle to pray (I use the leather version, not much more, nicely laid out and it doens't fall apart with use)
- Cry out with honesty for your lack of thirst. Admit your sin. Repent of it. Use the psalms to align yourself with Christ once again.
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Pride is our greatest enemy
A second year Cornhill student recently asked me a very good question: ‘what sins are our Cornhill year group particularly in danger of?’ This Sunday I am preaching on the shortest book of the Old Testament at Emmanuel Church Wimbledon. To save you checking your Bible indexes, the shortest book of the Old Testament is Obadiah. Without wanting to preach my sermon here, it has struck me in my preparation that the book shows us just how much God hates and will humble the proud. Edom, against whom much of the book is directed, is condemned for ‘the pride of your heart’ (Obadiah 1.3), a pride which came from her trusting in her wealth (Obadiah 1.6), her friends (Obadiah 1.7), her wisdom (Obadiah 1.8), and her warriors (Obadiah 1.9). And yet none of those things saved her when, a century after Obadiah’s vision, God brought down proud Edom through an Arab invasion just as He had promised.
And so the answer to the Cornhiller’s question is, I think pride. Pride is a danger for all Christians, and as CS Lewis famously said, ‘pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.’ But it is a particular danger for those of us at Cornhill who are working hard to understand and preach the Bible. My biggest fear is that we produce people who can preach the Bible – but are proud about it. For as John Flavel once wrote: ‘They that know God will be humble and they that know themselves cannot be proud.’ As we start this summer term at Cornhill (what for the 2nd years will be their final term), please join me in praying that we at Cornhill would know that pride is our greatest enemy, and humility our greatest friend.
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You can change. No really. Even porn problems.
It's a beautiful morning in Leicestershire and we're sitting under the ministry of Tim Chester, author of You can change. He's talking about…change. Here are some highlights:
- do/don't doesn't work – Colossians 20-23. Rules lack any value, but we need to recognise that legalism is appealing. It makes change something we can claim the credit for. One of the primary reasons we don't live more holy lives is because we desire to be known as holy people. Legalists don't wear horns.
- 1 Thess 5.23. Change is God's work. Other therapies may help. But only God can bring lasting change because only God can change our hearts.
Tim explains how we should be encouraged that the Father is involved in our lives; the Son has broken the power of sin and the Spirit is working to make us more like Christ. "The combined efforts of the Trinity are at work to make us holy. Be encouraged!"
Tim has just outlined four "liberating truths"
- God is great – so we don't have to be in control
- God is glorious – so we don't have to fear others
- God is good – so we don't have to look elsewhere
- God is gracious – so we don't have to prove ourselves
Tim is then applying this directly to the issue of pornography.
- While porn promises refuge, the gospel says: God is great, he is sovereign over our lives.
- While porn promises respect, the gospel says: God is glorious, he is the one whose opinion matters
- While porn promises reward, the gospel says: God is good, he is our ultimate and lasting joy.
- While porn promises revenge, the gospel says: God is gracious, he gives us more than we deserve.
And for those really struggling in this area, Tim presents five practical stages:
- abhorrence of porn: a hatred of porn itself (not just the shame it brings) and a longing for change
- adoration of God: a desire for God arising from a confidence that he offers more than porn
- assurance of grace: an assurance that you are loved by God and right with God through faith in the work of Jesus
- avoidance of temptation: a commitment to do all in your power to avoid temptation, starting with controls on your computer
- accountability to others: a community of Christians who are holding you accountable and supporting you in your struggle
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Jesus’ manifesto and our plumb line
We're away at the Younger Ministers Conference with a really good group of guys, eager to grow and learn and keep going in gospel ministry. This evening we've kicked off with William Taylor outlining Jesus' manifesto in Luke's gospel. It's good stuff. We started off in chapter 4:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."
William is explaining how this is Jesus' manifesto and in the chapters that follow that we see this manifesto being worked out in Jesus' ministry. Jesus' actions, especially his desire to preach and proclaim is always in line with his manifesto and we could do a lot worse than preaching through these early chapters of Luke to make sure they are our manifesto too – or, to put it another way, this chapters can be our plumb line for ministry.
If you're interested, we've tackled this section in three parts:
- the priority of Jesus' word – he came on earth to be a preacher and teacher and this must be our priority too. Luke 4.43, "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well, for I was sent for this purpose."
- the power of Jesus' word – Luke 5.4-8, "at your word I will let down the nets" – Jesus is the one who can command the fish to come (and heal and cast out and cleanse and call etc)
- the purpose of Jesus' word – to summon poor sinners into Jesus' service. Even Peter responds to a theophany the same way most people do in the Old Testament: "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man O Lord." But Jesus speaks a gospel word to him: "Do not be afraid."
So, here is our plumb line. How does your ministry measure up?
PT Cornhill – apply now and/or pray now
Here's the new full length promo video for PT Cornhill. Perhaps you have people in your church who would benefit from the course? Even if not, please do pray for this important part of our work and Christopher Ash (the Director of PT Cornhill) and his team.