In praise of McCheyne et al
The eagle eyed among you may have noticed I’m reading 1 Kings at the moment. That’s not just because we’re preaching through it in church, but because 1 Kings is one of the books of the moment in the McCheyne reading plan. These Bible-in-a-year plans get some bad press. And some of the criticisms made of them have some weight: for instance, you get so obsessed reading through the Bible, four chapters a day, that you never do any really serious study.
I happen to think that if Bible-in-a-year was your only method, you would end up having a pretty shallow faith. Where is meditation?
Nevertheless, they have an important place and I don’t want them written off too quickly – hence why I’m back with old Robert this year. For a preacher, there is no substitute, you see, for all round Bible knowledge. It doesn’t make a great preacher, but a lack of good Bible knowledge sure makes it hard to be one. When I visit other countries and cultures, I’m always convicted by the deep Scripture knowledge that exists. We have long neglected this discipline and it surely needs to be rekindled. If McCheyne can help, then I’m all in favour of Bible-in-a-year.
The detail of Old Testament narrative is fascinating. We all know Solomon was wise, for instance, but how wise? “Greater than all the people of the East.” Oh yeah. “Greater than all the wisdom of Egypt” Sure (1 Kings 4.30). “Wiser than anyone else…” – that just about sums it up. But wait, there’s a little more. “…including Ethan the Ezrahite”. What, even him? Yep. Oh, that wise!
Reading this through the other day, I couldn’t help but smile. And think. Why on earth did the powerful, all-knowing, all-wise Spirit, preserve this detail? Presumably he knew that Ethan would be long forgotten in the mists of time. As a comparison for us, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t add anything to “wiser than anyone else.” The point is already well made. Why do we need to know that someone is wiser than someone we don’t know?
You may have your own theories, but it seems to me that this detail reinforces the “real-ness” of the text. A made-up account might be bald and uncoloured. “He was wisest of all.” But this story is not made-up and it is deliberately coloured to make it real. We don’t know anything about Ethan and we don’t need to. His name is not there to invite us to make comparisons, but to nurture authenticity.
It’s always worth asking these questions in Old Testament narrative. We tend to take long passages, because we want to preach whole stories. That’s right and proper, but the danger is we miss the detail which brings colour to the text. If you were preaching 1 Kings 4, the temptation would be to sanitise the text. You might even do it in an engaging way. “Yep, wise dude, that Solomon. Top of the wisdom tree.”
But that seems to me to be doing an injustice to the text. You’ve flattened the colour and detail that God the Spirit has inspired. I’m not saying ignoring Ethan will make for an unfaithful sermon. Not at all. Nor am I saying that bringing him in is particularly easy. But if you believe in the inspiration of Scripture, I think you’ve got to at least have a go.
Understand the times
Mr Preacher, you’re a leader in the church. You may not be a formal leader (though you probably are), but the moment you’re in the pulpit, you’re a man with authority. I hope you understand that. This highly privileged responsibility brings with it an onerous responsibility – in fact, many such responsibilities. This week, I was struck by how the tone and analysis you give on the day’s events sets the tone and understanding for the whole congregation.
Most preachers reference news in some way. It’s a worthy thing, admirable even as we try to relate the timeless truth of God’s word to the situations in which we live. But there is a great danger in doing so: it is misunderstanding the times. I’m especially cautious of the kind of application of misunderstanding that whips people up. I don’t use such techniques in my preaching appeal (see 2 Cor 4.2). Nor should I in my illustrations,
Here’s a for instance. This week, the national and Christian press reported that a crematorium in Burnley was removing its cross from the main building so as not to offend non Christians (see here for story). In fact, that’s a very perjorative headline. More of the story in just a moment. But for now, can you see how a preacher could easily take the headline without any effort to understand the story and use it to illustrate, for example, the world in which we live. Go on Mr Preacher! Stir ’em up!
Well, of course, that’s not the whole story. The whole story, it seems, is that the cross is already removable and is routinely taken down for humanist ceremonies and whenever asked (I as a non conformist might do just that!). But so many people ask for it to be removed that now the crematorium will have it down by default and put it up when asked.The cross is to “be put in a cupboard”. Hmm. Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s a story there and a point to be made. It’s not that the story is neutral. It’s just not the headline people want to make it. And if you are not leading your people in understanding the times, you’re not leading your people at all.
Pastoral praying: trying something different
I don’t know about you, but I’m always battling to keep prayer times fresh. Pastoral praying, in particular, can quickly become stale. This is because it – by definition – works in a systematic way. If you’re going to pray for your people (and you must), then there’s no substitute for working through a list. That’s the only way you’ll pray for all those the Lord has placed for a time into your care. And, I would argue, it’s the kind of pastoral praying that will best inform your preaching. You don’t want to be just preaching to the sick and infirm, which you might subconsciously do if you are only praying for them. No, you want to be praying for those doing well as much as those struggling.
But this week, just for a week, I’ve tried something different. I’ve suspended my prayer list for a week and taken just five individuals and couples and tried to pray deeply just for them every single day. Not a kind of “and please bless Bob” prayer (which is what so much vacuous pastoral praying gets reduced to), but the heartfelt prayers of a loving pastor who wants to see his people flourish.
It’s not a sustainable pattern, because there are 200 others in the church who are left out. But as a short stint, it’s been good for me to really work through the implications of the gospel for them in my praying and it’s (as these things always do) rekindled my pastor’s heart. Why not give it a go?
No amazing conversion?
Perhaps your conversion is amazing. I know every conversion is miraculous – but perhaps, I mean, you were a terror before you became a Christian. Drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll. Some of us have stories like that. But the truth is many of us have conversion stories that are less spectacular (‘I can’t remember a time when I was not a believer’). I was converted aged 12 and I can’t really remember much of my life before that, apart from a few isolated incidents, including one very memorable run down the right wing for the school football team.
How do you treasure your conversion and continue to marvel at its miracle if that is the case? If you have a life of sin to look back on and see dealt with perhaps it is easier, at one level, to say ‘that is what I was, but by the grace of God…’ For those of us with less spectacular turnarounds, I think we treasure our miracle of grace less, or at least, there’s a real risk that we do.
The answer, of course, is to see our transformation in Bible terms, which means not just in terms of actions, but in terms of categories. I was dead. I was an enemy of God. My heart was utterly black. Before God I was deceitful above all things. A real appreciation of what we were in these categories does not require us to have to say ‘and I murdered someone’ (I exaggerate to make the point). If we really understood our hearts in Bible terms, we would never cease to be grateful for our own amazing, miraculous, grace-filled rescue and never cease to be preaching and praying tirelessly for the salvation of souls. In today’s ‘good’ world, it may just be a help not to have had such a miraculous conversion, because it forces us to see things as God sees them.
The fragility of the English Reformation: a lesson for today
I’ve just finished reading Philippa Gregory’s latest Tudor novel retelling the story of Katheryn Parr, The Taming of the Queen. I’ve not particularly got into any of her books in the past, finding them a little contrived. And, sure enough, this one had a few flaws. For one thing, I think she is keen to rewrite historical women to make them more 21st Century, as though Germaine Greer was herself in the court of the king. This is not just Gregory’s flaw: it’s common enough in historical fiction.
Amazingly, you don’t really need to do this with Queen Katheryn. She was an extraordinary figure anyway, producing a translation of the psalms and, after Henry’s death, an amazing book detailing her Protestant convictions (Lamentations of a sinner). Who knows what might have been had she lived beyond labour (she remarried shortly after Henry’s death). All this is true and her Protestant convictions well documented. However, Gregory has her as co-author of the Prayer Book alongside Cramner, something for which, as far as I am aware (and I would be happily corrected) there is not a jot of evidence (interestingly, in her author’s note, whilst she admits to licence in some areas, she does not do so in this one).
Gregory makes Katheryn stronger still by having her give a young and doting Elizabeth advice on how she must be a king for her nation, were she ever to become Queen. Neat, huh? I find it a little tiresome, I’m afraid.
But, overall, the book is excellent and captures the fragility of the Reformation in England. Henry is presented as a flawed monster, playing people off against one another to his own end rather than serving the cause of any faith. Unlike Gregory’s take on the Prayer Book, this is all well documented.
It’s good to be reminded that our heritage is not solid. The Protestant Reformation was very fragile, very fragile indeed. It could have faltered at many stages, and very often nearly did. It was – humanly speaking – highly dependent on the vagaries of individuals and rulers, often those with no care for biblical truth. And yet, here we are. God has been sovereignly good and we have benefitted from his merciful and gracious providence to bring us to this place.
And, we should remind ourselves, he continues to be just the same, yesterday, today and forever.
Doing preaching well
I don’t normally link to other blogs, especially ones that you’re probably reading anyway. What’s the point? He likes me and I like him and I like that he likes me (continue ad nauseam). Nevertheless, occasionally stuff comes up that is gold dust for preachers. Here’s one such link. This is Don Carson on doing theology and reading the Bible well. I’ve had a conversation with Don about this stuff before – how good Bible readers need to use biblical theology, systematic theology, historical theology and pastoral theology – each in its own place – none given too much space, and none given too little. His points about reading the Bible well are well made and especially useful for all preachers and teachers. Read and digest. And think about whether your study work looks right, as a consequence. And, if you’re interested, Don is speaking at next year’s EMA.
Mrs R and I were taken to an extraordinarily moving play in the West End last week, The Christians by Lucas Hnath (you can read a review with him from the New York Times here). It is an essentially simple play – a large church US evangelical pastor announces to his congregation that they (the church) and he, in particular, no longer believe in hell. The Associate Pastor disagrees and is forced out. One by one congregation members seep away until his liberalism empties his church. Finally, in the most moving part, his wife tells him that she is not with him and cannot stay because she has felt betrayed (he has never told her of his doubts or thinking).
I thought it was well acted and well written – not, it seems, by an evangelical, but by someone who gets evangelicals and –shock horror! – portrays them accurately and well.
The challenges work at a number of levels. First, of course, it is a sad assessment of liberalism and how it empties churches. Perhaps we don’t need such a philosophical assessment, but I found it useful nonetheless, especially as just 5 minutes before writing these words, I listened to Radio 4 Thought for the Day with a Bishop (Tom Butler) who announced to the listening world that he didn’t believe in hell. Rather uncomfortable parallel – but we need to be sure where such liberalism will lead us.
Second, there’s something very profound to say about pastoral integrity. This man clearly had not believed what he had preached for some time, but until the church building debt had been paid off, he chose to remain silent. I’m not suggesting that you, Mr Preacher, struggle with the same lack of integrity, but it is always a challenge. Some soul searching required.
Third, the whole question of the pastor’s relationship with his wife intrigues me. I wonder what some of the wives of those outspoken liberals really believe, for example. But more importantly, for those of us who are married, we need to make sure we treasure and value our wives aright. That doesn’t mean making them co-pastor, even if they wanted that. But the fact is we are given a helpmeet who knows us better than probably anyone else in this world. Every pastor who is married should testify to the strength, comfort, help and challenge that his wife is. Without compromising complementary understanding he should often, like Abraham, listen to his wife.
Providence: a beautiful doctrine
There is little positive to say about the terrible tragedy that unfolded in Saudi Arabia with the stampede at the Hajj festival. It is always a sadness to see people killed so needlessly. And the black deception that Islam brings only serves to make this human tragedy more spiritually devastating. It will have eternal significance.
Perhaps, one thing that saddened me most about the whole thing was the interview with the senior cleric who said of the disaster, it’s just ‘destiny and fate’. How tragic to think of God in this way. Thankfully that’s not the God of the Bible, perfectly revealed in the glorious Son, Jesus. He is sovereign, of course, but his sovereignty is not distant and capricious.
No, we’re certainly not fatalists – an ugly doctrine. Rather we believe in providence, a beautiful doctrine: little taught and much misunderstood. Not a sparrow falls unless he wills it. He works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will and that sovereign will is good for those who love him, those he has called, ultimately promising us transformation into the likeness of his Son.
As I say, a startlingly beautiful doctrine. Christians (and preachers) would do well to reflect and meditate on it. Can I recommend William Cowper’s beautiful words?
God moves in a mysterious way,
his wonders to perform;
he plants his footsteps in the sea
and rides upon the storm.
2. Deep in unfathomable mines
of never-failing skill
he treasures up his bright designs
and works his sovereign will.
3. You fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds you so much dread
are big with mercy, and shall break
in blessings on your head.
4. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
but trust him for his grace;
behind a frowning providence
he hides a smiling face.
5. His purposes will ripen fast,
unfolding every hour;
the bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the flower.
6. Blind unbelief is sure to err
and scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter
and he will make it plain.
Diversity and Equality and the Fall
There’s a profound thing going on in Genesis 1.27. When God makes mankind, male and female he creates a kind of divine paradox with both equality (both made equally in the image of God) and diversity (male and female he created them). The Fall, at one level, corrupts this paradox. As the wife desires her husband she craves equality over diversity. As the husband rules over his wife he craves diversity at the expense of equality. It’s no wonder that in our broken world, people try to address this Curse (even if they don’t know it’s called that). At one level, many of the wrong views we see in terms of the roles of men and women are a descending spiral of correction – the more men rule or dominate women in sin, the more a woman wants to stress equality to undo the effects.
The Bible Christian, it seems to me, has to work hard to recreate what God has made good. This is a tricky job. In times past, Christians have (wrongly) taken an easier route of misogyny or feminism as correctives. As is often the way, the godly and biblical path is harder and more challenging, but – by definition – more beautiful. It’s worth time, effort, pain and stretch to see God’s pattern and work, under him, for its restoration.