A tale of two books
I’ve just finished reading two fiction books I saw reviewed positively in the weekend papers. The first is The Good Girl by Fiona Neill, a rather sordid tale about a headteacher who discovers her teenage daughter has made a sex tape and it is going around her school. Hardly proper reading for a Christian, you might think and, at one level, I’m inclined to agree. However, though the tale is sordid, the book is not explicit and it is well written. That is still not to say that it is suitable reading material for Christians, except that I think we have absolutely no idea how the world thinks about sex and how, especially, teenagers, are sexualised. I find reading books like this the least objectionable way to discover some of those truths – and, at one level, discover them we must if we are to connect with a broken world which desperately needs to hear the healing and redeeming news of Jesus.
Here’s what I learnt.
First, I think most of us have absolutely no idea the extent to which the school and teenage environment is saturated with sex. Part of the plot line is about a teenager who is addicted to porn, and if the press at the weekend is right, this is hardly rare. That addiction is hugely damaging in so many ways and we are naïve if we think these issues are not in the church. We must also hold out a gospel which both brings forgiveness of sin and healing to broken lives.
Second, people sometimes do bad things for good reasons. This is a plot spoiler – but it becomes clear as the book progresses that the sex tape is not all it seems to be (or you assume it to be). In Christians terms, it is still a wrong thing, but in ways that are too complex to explain, it was done with good motives. Incredible for us to grasp. We can be very black and white about sin. But the Bible is not (read Numbers 15). Even for God’s people there are intentional and unintentional sins. They are still sins note – I am not going soft on sin. But as we reach out to a world, we must realise that some people get themselves into a mess with God and with each other through good motives. It makes understanding those who walk through our doors even more important.
Third, there is a growing therapy culture which is all about blame shifting. In the book, the family in question is pretty messed up. No one is squeaky clean. And the insights and asides we get about therapists are all about passing the buck. If someone other than the sinner can be blamed then that is always a good result. This also qualifies my previous point. Something bad done for a good reason is just about OK in the book. Not so with God. And ultimately, sin is only dealt with when we’re prepared to point the finger at ourselves.
Fourthly, the internet is a game changer. When I was at school, porn was something a couple of bad boys sneaked into the hall balcony at lunchtime in the form of a magazine. Now, it’s completely privatised, more graphic, more extreme. Things that get onto the internet stay for life. In the book the teenage girl recognises this and says everytime she meets someone new, for the rest of her life, she will always be wondering, “have they seen the video.” Yet, sin is unchanged by all of this. The God who forgives sin in the 1950s is the same God who forgives today. Sin has deeper and uglier consequences perhaps (though it has always been deep and ugly), but the gospel is unchanged and absolutely able to deal with all sin.
It’s a book of course, so only fiction. But the author seems to know her stuff and I have no reason to doubt the picture, even if it is an extreme. The most depressing thing about this book is that it is absolutely and utterly Christless. There are no Christians in it, no church, no Bible, nothing. And that is why it ultimately left me feeling depressed, even though it was a made up story. Our world without the gospel is desperate and it’s why what you do and what I do really, really counts.
The second book was quite different. The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain is translated from the French and is gentle, lovely and undemanding. It’s predictable and touching – just what I needed after Good Girl. It’s still explicitly Christ-less, but it’s redemptive and simple. In modern terms it’s completely un-taxing and really un-thought-provoking. Common grace at its best. And sometimes it’s really good to read books like that. I loved it.
David Gooding resources
Vaughan was preaching on Acts at last week’s ministers conferences and in a very brief aside said: “Anything you can get hold of by David Gooding is always worthwhile.” I agree. Go and check out tenofthose’s Gooding selection. Highly useful and high quality content. I would classify these as pastor level rather than, say, Bible study leader level. But that caveat aside, I’m with Vaughan on this. Some very under-rated resources that are worth searching out.
** Update: there is nothing like holding a physical book in your hands, but there is also nothing like getting something for free. So check out these free resources from David Gooding and John Lennox here.
Where do you get your news from?
If a preacher is to have some grasp of the world (and he must, mustn’t he, to be effective) there is an interesting question: where do you get your news from? This was a question that was asked of David Robertson from St Peter’s Dundee at our recent Senior Ministers Conference. His reply was illuminating: he said that newspapers report less news and more comment so he doesn’t go there. News feeds on the web, even news sites like BBC use complex algorithms to show you the stories they think you want to read (or like similar stories based on previous history). So, you don’t get a balanced view there. Therefore, says David, he reads The Economist for news. Interesting thought.
I personally think David is a bit too bleak about print news, but I take the point – there is a lot less news than there used to be and a lot more comment and styling tips (which some preachers do need to read!). But I don’t think the broadsheets have quite sunk to the depths he thinks. Nevertheless, the warning about the internet algorithms is very timely. Increasingly we will find tailored content (and some sites do this a lot – Facebook, Amazon and so on). Best, therefore, to think about the internet as a useful repository rather than an objective source. I’m sure you do this already, but it’s good to be thinking straight because the convenience of the internet can often make us blind to its limitations.
Cornhill fest, kind of
I looked around on Sunday morning at church and was encouraged to see the influence of the Cornhill training course here in our medium size part of non-conformity. There’s me, of course. But a few others. Our Youth and Community Pastor is also an alumnus. Then our Assistant Pastor is just finishing up Cornhill, plus we’ve another young man who has just applied. Then we have a teacher who helps out with one of youth groups, also ex-Cornhill. Our guest preacher was not a Cornhiller, but his co-pastor (whom he left behind preaching) is. Two other visitors completed the job lot: one whose father is an overseas pastor trained through a Cornhill bursary and another ex-Cornhiller who is a inner city pastor in Speke. Quite a crowd.
And none of them in chinos. That’s the thing about Cornhill. Sure, there’s a caricature which sees everyone who trains with us as churning out sermons that are all the same, but actually we work very hard to teach principles and apply them to people’s preaching rather than turning out clones. In fact, if you’d heard the preaching at our gaff on Sunday you would know that it is the case.
And it’s why I still believe that the Cornhill training course is an excellent preparation for ministry, whatever your background. We won’t squeeze your personality out. That goes right against our theology of preaching. But we will help you try to preach the Bible faithfully, engagingly, appropriately, in an applied, relevant way whilst still keeping you, you.
It’s just around now that people start seriously thinking about September and it’s not too late to apply. Nor is it too late for your church to think about whom to send. We’ll maybe see you this autumn….?
News about Christopher Ash
As many of you will know, Christopher Ash will be stepping down this summer as Director of the PT Cornhill Training Course and as a member of the PT staff after 11 years. We are delighted that, alongside having more time for writing, Christopher will continue for the time being to do some teaching on the course. His wife Carolyn will also continue her work on the course and her leadership of our wives’ conferences. Please join us in praying for them both as they relocate to Cambridge and for the PT Trustees as they seek to find a new Director to lead the work that has been so ably established by David Jackman and then Christopher over the last 25 years. The focus will remain the same: seeking to serve local churches in the UK and beyond by training a new generation of preachers and teachers of his word.
The hard road
When I left the world of business to become a minister, most people I knew thought I had taken an easy route. I’m still sure some of those close to me think that I work one day a week, dreaming up a few blessed thoughts in the shower on Sunday morning. You know, of course, that it is nothing of the kind. Ministry is hard. There are sins we didn’t even know we struggled with which come to the fore; there is almost constant attack from the evil one; and there is the knowledge that enemies of the gospel are waiting and watching for you to slip up. And that is without the people! Just read 2 Timothy!
In our small groups, we’ve been reading whole Bible books together. Last time around we read 2 Timothy and, to be honest, I was not really sure how it was going to go. For most ordinary church members the whole book (apart from a few purple passages) seems a little remote. Yet, right at the end of the reading, one of our elderly members said to the group: ‘it’s hard work being a minister, isn’t it?’ Yes! That is what 2 Timothy shows!
No one ever promised anything else. Here is Spurgeon on the struggle of ministry:
“All the way to heaven, we shall only get there by the skin of our teeth. We shall not go to heaven sailing along with sails swelling to the breeze, like sea birds with their fair white wings, but we shall proceed full often with sails rent to ribbons, with masts creaking, and the ship’s pumps at work day by both night and day. We shall reach the city at the shutting of the gate, but not an hour before.”
That is the reality of ministry which you may be only too painfully aware of.
But the glorious corollorary is this: ministering to Christ’s people is the most privileged, precious, wonderful, amazing, varied, delightful task I know or have ever known.
Hard, yes. Gritty, yes. Glorious. Yes, yes, yes. ‘If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness.’
The depth of faith
It’s been great to hear from Habakkuk this week with Peter Adam. At the moment, we’re deep into 2.4: ‘the righteous person will live by his faithfulness” – a translation, incidentally, that Mr Adam likes as faith can be the expression of a moment, whereas faithfulness is the continuation of faith.
Translations, aside, he’s been challenging us to think about what it means to live by faithfulness. Often, he says, we reduce this down to salvation. We might even reduce it down to a particular moment: ‘yes, I trusted Christ on 28 July 1981’ (which is when I did, by the way).
However, the righteous man or woman lives by faithfulness – the daily life of faith. How odd we often have faith in the God of salvation but not, for example, the God of creation or the God who sustains the world or the God who is head of his church. The true life of faith does not just trust God for our own journey to heaven but for all that he promises.
There is depth to faith which we often ignore. Pastorally we are so concerned that people get to heaven that we neglect to nurture faith in them in every area of life. And what is true pastorally is certainly true personally. The man of God, Mr Preacher, must cultivate in himself, with the Spirit’s help, a life of faith that impacts on every area of life and produces fruit in keeping with repentance.
Are you living by your faithfulness?
Learn to search
The real value of the enormous amount of information we now have at our fingertips is knowing how to search for it. And it’s in the intricacies of a search string that there is real power. To be honest, there are a whole load of features in my Bible software, as just one example, that I simply don’t use, nor do I want to. I need to do the hard work of exegesis myself rather than pressing a button and some algorithm coming up with all the answers. But my Bible software (which could, for you, be offline, online or simply how you use Google) is more than a repository. It allows me to search for genuinely useful things alongside dancing kittens.
So, for example, knowing how to search a Greek text for apo+dative is a really useful tool. It would take ages manually and most online and offline Bible tools will help you to do this. But it takes some time to learn that entering “g:apo WITHIN 4 WORDS @nd” is the way to get the answer. But it is (in Logos at least) and once you know that it ensures the software serves you, as a tool, rather than the other way around. The same can be said of Google searches or BBC News searches. The key to these tools is always to learn how to search. And then keep practising.
The inspiration of Scripture and us
Have you ever wondered why the Spirit inspires as he does? ‘But there is a place where someone has testified…’ (Hebrews 2.6). Why doesn’t the Spirit quietly (or even loudly) prompt the author of Hebrews, ‘Psalm 8.’ Wouldn’t that have been helpful? Wouldn’t that have avoided the need for footnotes? Possibly. But, Peter Adam has suggested this week, isn’t it also a wonderful insight into the way God works in the world more generally, including the way he inspires Scripture.
He is not a divine puppeteer. Not when it comes to Scripture, nor in any of his dealings with the world. He is, and always is, sovereign. But his sovereignty is not compromised by human responsibility and accountability. Indeed, it shows him to be relational and intimate with his people. For the puppet master who controls and dictates in a world where we have no part to play does not and cannot relate to us as Father. No. That is impossible.
But a sovereign God who works through us and in us in ways which are – ultimately – beyond understanding, establishes relationship and personal communication. And thus it is with Scripture. For if Scripture was God speaking directly, who could read it or hold it or stand before it or bear to listen. But, rather, Scripture is written down by human authors as they are carried along. And so there is divine accommodation and God’s voice can be heard, understood and obeyed.
Praise the Lord!
I kid you not. Peter Adam (pretty senior and conservative) has just done a rap on Habakkuk. Truly. No, really. When the video is uploaded, it’s worth its weight in gold. But not as good as the teaching from the book.
I preached my very first sermon on Habakkuk. The whole of it. Literally. I had moved to a church and university where the Bible was actually preached and I loved it. So, when the church asked me to preach, I over-reached significantly. I still have my notes which I keep for humility. It means that Habakkuk is close to my heart and reasonably well-known but even so I’ve found this week’s highlights wonderfully alive.
Take chapter 3. Out of Habakkuk’s desperate prayer of ‘How long?’ comes the beautiful song for Israel to sing that Habakkuk wrote, inspired by the Spirit. And at the head of this song is a wonderful response to what we see in the world. ‘Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.’
If it is true that praying ‘How long, Lord’ is a good prayer for Christians to be praying – at all times – then it also follows that Hab. 3.2 is a song we should always be singing. For our longing needs to be expressed in terms of what we long that God might do. Ultimately, this means longing for the mercy of Christ: a mercy our world does not even realise it needs. But as we reflect on the judgements God has wrought in the past and as we call on him to bring justice today, we must pray this prayer asking him to remember mercy.
It’s rather easy for us as Christians to ask God to bring justice. That is a good prayer, but – in one sense – it is a terrible prayer. If God came today in wrath, we can hardly even begin to imagine what that might mean. So, all we as Christians can pray is ‘in wrath, remember mercy.’