For the record, I’m no train spotter. At least, I don’t think so. (Can it creep up on you?) There are things I do love about railways. I enjoy travelling on them. I used to prefer driving but these days I prefer to work, read and relax all three of which I find increasingly difficult if I’m driving! I also – and perhaps this is the confession of someone who used to work in logistics, amongst other things – appreciate the way they work. I have a functional admiration, in other words. But bogies, 5 car trains and all that stuff leaves me unmoved. Sorry. For me, the mallard is a duck. Period.
All of which is an introduction to say that it is therefore surprising that I’ve just finished reading a very good book indeed. It’s The Railways: Nation, Network and People, by Simon Bradley and was one of my Christmas presents. It’s taken me over four months to read because I’ve had to do some weight training just to lift it and it’s the kind of book you can only read in small doses.
I got it on the basis of a recommendation in the Saturday paper, as I recall. And the endorsement was justified because it tells the fascinating social history of Britain through the railways since the early 19th Century. Pastors should be interested in this topic, because the social developments of the last two hundred years have shaped church enormously.
For example, the removal of classes in British trains (or, rather a reduction) and then re-introduction reveals something about the social make up of Britain where social class has certainly changed over the last two hundred years, but not (despite what we might think) disappeared. There are comments about privatisation: not who owns the railways, but how people travel – individual compartments etc. It is a curious fact that as construction has removed private compartments we have sought other ways to introduce privacy (in modern terms through the ubiquitous headphones).
I found much to learn as a pastor. For example, picking up that last point, the human nature may be sociable but it always fights against community at one level. Pastors who ignore this battle in the hearts of our people are just naïve.
I’m not necessarily saying you should read this particular book. But we need to understand something of the human nature in order to be able to faithfully minister to others. Maybe not this book for you – no. But something, Mr Preacher, something….
To fly to serve
No, not an advert for a BA campaign (although the more I travel, the more I appreciate the understated professionalism of BA). Rather, this is the title of my new book produced in conjunction with the FIEC. They have commissioned a series of short books to help those starting out in ministry.
Mrs R and I have written one on ministry and marriage (available in the autumn) and I have written another on giving a bible talk. There are lots of good books on the mechanics of preaching and teaching and how we understand the text. I wanted to write a different kind of help guide – something that would assist preachers just starting out (or needing a refresher) in terms of how to put together a sermon or talk.
Without good exegesis a sermon is never going to be a sermon. But it still needs to be delivered and it’s important that we maintain a balance. A good sermon is based on solid, faithful exegesis, appropriately applied. But it is also well constructed and this is what this short book is all about. It will only take you an hour or two to read and I’m praying it will be helpful for those occasional preachers or those just starting out in your congregations.
Perseverance of the servants
Ministers of the gospel sometimes get confused. They assume that perseverance of the saints is the same as perseverance of the servants. In a week when another high profile pastor has been removed from office (not for sexual sin, this time, but self-promotion at the expense of others) we must not fall into the sin of thinking we are invincible.
My assurance as a saint is precious to me. Indeed, it is my only hope; I’m fully aware of that. The fact that God keeps me is a humbling whenever I’m tempted to think I’m doing well and an encouragement when I feel weak. For the record, such assurance should never be presumed upon. It does not absolve me from working out my salvation with fear and trembling.
God promises me no such assurance in ministry. I cannot – in other words – assume that just because he has called me into ministry he will therefore keep me in ministry. Indeed, whilst my salvation is based on my union with Christ (an unassailable fact) my ministry is more dependent on my communion with him (not, I hope you realise, the same thing). Paul is clear with his young protégé Timothy. It is in pursuing this communion that our ministry will be effective in our own lives and in the lives of others.
All of which is to say that we must not, MUST NOT, presume on the kindness of God in preserving our ministry. Presumption is a seldom mentioned sin, but sin it is. And we must fight it. That’s why we think this year’s EMA is one of the most important we’ve planned. It is, in the grace and goodness, our life’s work to persevere in ministry. Book now, if you can join us.
Praying the Bible by Don Whitney
Regular readers will know that I’m a keen advocate of using the Bible to pray. In fact, I can be a bit repetitive when it comes to the subject. So, bottom line, any book on praying the Bible is welcome. And – to be clear – I like Don’s book, Praying the Bible, when considered in the round. It’s practical, it’s short, it’s readable, it takes you step by step through his thinking and helps you pray, with particular focus on praying the psalms. But for my money, this book’s constituent elements are not always what they might be. I’m hestitant to say this – especially because it is endorsed by so many well known names. And if this is the only book you have on praying the Bible, go for it. But there are some weaknesses. Let me explain.
First, it’s expensive. It is 96 well spaced pages, casebound (hardback to you and me). That’s not much book for £9.99. I wanted it to be £1. And I think it could be.
Second, it’s short. This is both a strength. And a weakness. I understand the need to be short to make what is essentially one point. Ironically, however, it would have benefitted from some clarification, namely…
Third, the emphasis on praying the psalms needs qualification. Don is right to say that when praying the Bible our primary activity is not Bible intake (i.e. understanding a text) but prayer. That’s a useful point to make. But there are lots of things in Old Covenant psalms that do need some interpretation. Prosperity for one.
To be fair to Don, he helps with this by saying he’s using the language of the psalms rather than the thoughts behind the psalms themselves. He uses Psalm 23 as his example. He says that “restoring my soul” is not about evangelism and he would not preach that way. But it’s OK in his scheme to read that verse and then pray “restore the soul of my mate” who is not a believer.
Now, I’m sorry, but I don’t think that is praying the Bible. It is certainly using the language of the Bible. Fair enough. But the real power is surely in praying what the Bible intends, not just what words it uses. Don qualifies this somewhat. “I have enough confidence in the Word and the Spirit of God to believe that if people will pray in this way, in the long run their prayers will be far more biblical than if they just make up their own prayers.”
I happen to agree with that. But there is surely a better way even that this, which is to take the aim of Scripture and pray that in, using the Bible words if possible. That’s the richer seam for me. All of which is to say this is a good book. It just could have been better. In fact, it could have been more like one or other of Rachel Jones’ books, which are cheaper and – ultimately – superior. Go to it.
Hypocrites and Pagans
I meet up with a fellow pastor every couple of weeks and we’ve been having a very challenging time reading through the Sermon on the Mount. We’ve got to know one another well and so there’s a level of honesty and accountability that we all need. Yesterday we got together and read Matthew 6.5-8 – not the Lord’s prayer itself but the section just before. There Jesus tackles two praying sins – hypocrisy and paganism. It quickly became clear that we suffer from both.
Hypocrisy is to do with the motive in our praying. I don’t think I’ve ever stood on a street corner to prayer, nor is Jesus’ hyperbole clearly meant to restrict all public praying. Rather it is getting at the heart of motive and challenging the hypocrites who “love to be seen by others.” We did some thinking and came up with quite a few examples – for instance, what about the quick “arrow” prayer so that we can text someone we know saying “I’ve just been praying for you…” Isn’t that the same thing? Ouch. Not that the praying is wrong, of course, but it is robbed of value when it is done for the wrong motive.
Paganism is emptying prayer of its meaning. Jesus calls this babbling. Some want to make this some kind of anti-charasmatic rant. Rather, Jesus is challenging the prayer of many words which lack any content. (There’s nothing wrong with praying all night – Jesus himself did it.) Once again, this is a cutting application. I can pray on auto-pilot, and to be honest, often find myself doing it. It’s characterised by the kind of praying which takes a list and says “please bless so and so, etc” repeating the same thing for each person. It’s empty. Ouch again.
On this basis, much of my prayer could easily be categorised as both hypoctirical and pagan. Those are hardly two descriptions I would choose myself, but they’re two my Master chose and which challenge me at the deepest level. Thankfully, there is a model. But for now, I must not move too quickly on to it, for I need to reflect and think, confess and plead. I neither want to be a hypocrite nor a pagan. God help me.
I’ve enjoyed getting stuck into Obadiah (my next short book study project for 2016) with a view to teaching it at Cornhill in June. Jonathan Gibson, in The Proclamation Bible, is characteristically helpful:
“For the expositor, the pitfall of preaching moralistically (e.g. against pride) is avoided by connecting Obadiah with key biblical trajectories that find their fulfilment in the gospel of Jesus Christ. As with Jacob-Judah, God’s Chosen One (Jesus) is insulted, attacked and deceived by those closest to him, but in the end he is rescued, restored and vindicated, being given possession and rule. (Note that King Herod was an Edomite.) Application may be drawn out to those who are now united to Jesus, with the assurance that ‘whoever curses you I will curse’ (Gen 12:3, 2 Thess. 1:5-10). Christians can also be encouraged that, despite opposition, the Lord’s kingdom will advance and take over the world. For the international community, hope lies in blessing God’s Chosen One and his people; just retribution awaits those who do not.”
Important news for trustees
Many of the churches we serve (and indeed, some of the para-church organisations we make use of) are registered charities. As such, recent events at some Christian and secular charities should make us sit up and take notice. This recent article in Evangelicals Now is essential reading for any charity trustee. I commend it strongly to you. I’m guessing that in the milieu of church life some of these issues are far removed from your personal radar, but if we are thinking wisely and clearly about our ministries, that should not be the case.
Incidentially, this is one of the great values of a Christian newspaper. Not only does it help with Christian news (of course!) it can also add value in some of these other important areas that most of us would not have any expertise to grasp, nor know where to start even if we were able to identity issues. We’ve just done a recruitment exercise in church for EN, getting an additional 30 new subscribers. Well worth doing yourself, I would imagine!
God is my rock. Isn’t he?
We had a really good Cornhill+ study day with Garry Williams the other week and I’ve been meaning to post something that I found partiucularly helpful. He’s always good value – and he was very helpful on the constant need to let Scripture interpret Scripture.
He took as an example the biblical imagery of “God as a rock.” Imagine, he said, that a slip of paper had fallen from the sky simply saying “God is my rock” (Psalm 28). As a standalone statement it is open to extreme misinterpretation. We might deduce God has no life in him, for example, or that he gets in the way of things and so on.
Of course, we don’t do this because we understand that metaphors or statements about God tells us some things and not others. The richness of imagery is intended to create a complete set of self-interpreting set of images which need to be – at one level – taken in the round. One can only be understood in the light of all of the rest.
This has two implications for preaching. First, we have to know the Scriptures ourselves. We cannnot hope to interpret wisely and well unless we know the Scriptures to interpret the Scriptures. There is perhaps something here to convict us for Bible knowledge amongst Christians (and therefore, probably, among preachers) is in serious decline.
Second, perhaps this is more of what it means to preach the whole counsel of God: not primarily that we must tackle all the Bible in a systematic way not repeating anything until we have finally got around to Obadiah. Rather, we preach the Bible passage in front of us interpreted by the whole counsel of God.
And on that basis, God is my rock.
EMA: first call
It’s time to start planning to come to the EMA this year. Over the last few years, we’ve tried to focus on topics that we think are essential for evangelical preachers. We’ve dealt with the work of the Spirit, engagement, the heart, Christian identity. This year’s topic is probably the least glamorous of them all but the most important: perseverance.
Too many preachers think they will simply keep going. The reality is very different. The dropout rate from ministry is as high as it has ever been. We set ourselves (and churches set us) unrealistic targets and working expectations. We get caught up in the worldly way of thinking about career. We indulge in a spot of Messiah-complex and convince ourselves we are out to save our world/nation/city/locality (delete as applicable) single-handedly.
What is going to stop you from falling away? Unless you have your head in the sand, you need to realise that this is a real and tangible risk – a statistical reality. We’ve planned this year’s programme to address precisely this issue.
And it’s teaching that everyone needs to hear. Those nearing the finish line need help to make it over: one final push. Those in the middle years need help to lift their heads and keep the pace. Those near the start need a dose of reality and an understanding that only in setting realistic patterns will they endure the next 50 years.
And of course all of this is done by fixing our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith. So, above all, it is a conference about looking to Jesus. And that is certainly something we all need. Book now.
I’ve had the delight this week of preaching at my daughter’s wedding. Song of Songs, thanks for asking. It’s not an easy preaching gig, a wedding, though it is, of course, a delight. Part of the complexity comes from trying to do lots of things at the same time.
First, I’m wanting to bring a specific word to the couple in question. Second, I want to encourage other believers, whether married or not (if married, perhaps about their own marriages, if not, then about how they can support and pray for married couples). Third, I want to speak a word to unbelievers. And all of this in about a third of the time I would normally preach for and with a need to provide more “breathing space” than a regular sermon.
As I say, a tough gig, made more difficult by the fact that there are a lot of distractions. Most people are thinking about the happy couple and you’re just a blip on the landscape until the reception. It’s one of the reasons that I pass onto grooms some advice I first heard from the man Johnny Prime up at Enfield. He tells grooms that the talk their guests will really listen to is his, not the preachers. And so, although the preacher prepares assuming people will listen, it’s the groom’s speech where the gospel work can really be done.
I love this advice and use it liberally myself. But of course we still preach all out. And my 20 minute sermon (“at most,” says Mrs R) needs to do all I’ve described above whilst still being – at heart – a rigorous exposition. That means that prep time is about the same as for a longer more complex passage. It means more illustrations than usual. It means drawing sharp and clear lines of application, even more so than normal. It is a sermon on steroids in other words.