When is a chiasm not a chiasm?
When it’s not, of course. OT preachers get obsessed with chiasms. Chiasms are common Hebrew poetic structures which, in very simple terms, put the heart of a passage at the centre – literally – with a corresponding pattern on either side – ABCBA kind of thing. I’m one of those preachers who finds some chiasms helpful (Malachi structure, I’ll save that for another day), but is wary of finding a chiasm under every rock, so to speak.
Some OT preachers seem obsessed with chiasms. And sometimes, this obsession, can lead you away from what you’re trying to see. Take Lamentations. It’s a mostly bleak book with one or two glimmers of hope. But to force it into a chiasm neither does justice to the text, nor retains the focus of the book. It makes the book, as John Mackay puts it, too optimistic. You can actually end up softening the blow by misinterpreting the structure.
All of which is to say that working out the structure of a text or passage, however short, is an important part of any preparation.
My summer reading list is probably unlike every other Christians for the simple reason that I don’t take any Christian books away with me. Well, I take a Bible of course, but no books on ministry, preaching, leadership, etc. None. Zilch. Zip. The reason is reasonably simple. I read a lot of books. AS, I guess, do many people in ministry. I do so with an eye on my own heart, with an ear for those who might benefit too, and trying to assess biblically and critically so that I can discern what is good and useful. The end point for such reading is often a recommendation or a review. I find it very hard, therefore to read and not think I’m in work mode. I simply can’t do it. So, for my own sanity Christian books stay home on vacation and I have a chance to catch up with all that normal stuff.
And what a catch up! There were a few trashy novels, true. Some had been read before. I’m too embarrassed to tell you which ones. There were some modern novels (The Lie, by CL Taylor, don’t bother, whereas The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker, amazingly not an English book I found gripping). I revisited Charlotte Gray (so much better and deeper than movie) having read the non fiction She landed by moonlight – perhaps the most extraordinary tale I’ve ever read. We were on holiday in Normandy so I had to do Pegasus Bridge (just where we were staying) and D Day plus the other side of things in D Day through German eyes. I muddled by way through Vol 1 of Winston Churchill’s biography, though have to confess the thought of another 7 volumes fills me with some dread.
However, my breath was taken away by my favourite read of the holiday – Gary Imlach’s My father and other working class football heroes. I thought this was a really insightful look into the football of the 1950s and 1960s – not quite the glamour years that some like to make them, certainly not for the players. True, there was not the money grabbing commercialism there is now (at least not from the players). But imagine being on a kind of minimum wage and waking up one morning to find that your club has transferred you (without any input from you) to a team halfway across the country and two leagues down the table! That’s how it was, and reading this book is both insightful and profoundly moving as Imlach (ITV’s Tour de France host) explores his father’s career (he was a Scottish international) and discovers lots that he never knew. If you like football, you’ll enjoy this.
Another ministry casualty
Another summer. Another ministry casualty. Plus ça change….
So, you know the story and I’m not one for rehashing other peoples’ failures, nor speculating on what went wrong – in general we know far too little about such situations and would do well to leave the specifics alone. Nevertheless, there is a sober warning for everyone whom God has called into ministry. It is to take care lest we too fall. Our temptations and struggles will be different from those who have failed to finish. But we are naïve if we think that somehow we are immune from the Devil’s charms and the allure of sin.
It is so often sexual sin – but we must not consider that if we can fight that battle, we are off the hook. In fact, there are a whole raft of what Jerry Bridges calls respectable sins that ensnare us more subtly – dare I say, more dangerously.
Let’s turn it around – wherever you are in the ministry race (starting out, middle ground, near the line), what are you doing to make sure you will make the distance? It’s never too soon to start thinking, praying, planning, pleading.
Who sings Lamentations?
Who sings it? Duh. Jesus sings it of course. Here is my working hypothesis. The corporate nature of Israel’s destruction, captured uniquely in the destruction of the temple does not point to the church primarily or individual Christians, but to Christ, the true Israel and the Temple which would itself be destroyed.
Jesus sings Lamentations. This is Gethsemane lament. This is cross-song. This is the sentiment of the nation which seems finished, whose enemies gloat, where things seem so desperate there is no way out, but for whom the faithfulness of God is the hope that keeps the faith alive. He may be forsaken on the cross, afflicted and smitten, destroyed, but he will be rebuilt in three days.
Yep. Jesus sings Lamentations. Of course, we sing it too – but in him. This is our song because it is his song first. As much as we resonate with the afflictions of the Laments, it is in the scope and shape of passages such as Colossians 1.24 and filling up the afflictions of Christ.
Well, you may say, you get to the same applications in the end. Not true, I say. For an application which goes something like “their experience is our experience” is NOT the same as “their experience is our experience because it was Christ’s experience first”. That is a whole different sermon and one, I would argue, which is sharper, more Christ-centred, more likely to draw appropriate lines.
And I’m glad. I’m glad that, ultimately, Jesus sings Lamentations so that I don’t have to.
Who sings Lamentations?
My autumn study project is Lamentations. Hardly common preaching ground. But if we believe our own doctrine of Scripture, it ought to be as appropriate to preach Lamentations as others portions of the Bible. Anyway, between you and me, I quite like these unknown territories. It means my little knowledge can go a long way!
Anyways, here’s my main struggle with the text: how is it to be interpreted Christologically? In other words, how is Lamentations Christian scripture. As far as I can see, the commentators take two approaches. First, some see it in its historical context alone. As such, it’s the book that laments the destruction of Jerusalem yet sees a glimmer of hope in the promise of the covenant. That makes it Christian because it reflects the failure of the Old Covenant from a human perspective, but anticipates the new in Christ.
I don’t want to disagree with that at some level. Indeed, this historical take is surely the foundation of any Christian understanding. But it seems somewhat flat: what I mean is that there is really only one thing you can say about Lamentations: isn’t it great that Jesus has come! Well, yes. But there’s surely more colour, detail and significance about the text than that.
The second approach is to jump straight to Christians or (per Calvin) the church. The church sometimes feels bowed low and almost destroyed, but there is hope because God is the covenant keeping God! Or, as individuals, we sometimes feel right up against it, full of grief, but we must not despair. Both of these are worthy Christian sentiments, I guess, but I’m not persuaded….
I think someone else sings Lamentations. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out who.
Marriage and ministry
Well, I said, preaching doesn’t happen in a vacuum and for many of us, though not all, the context in which we serve is as both husbands and ministers. You don’t need me to tell you that brings with it its own set of challenges. That’s why three couples here – first David & Heather Jackman, now Wallace and Lindsay Benn and Mrs R and I – have started running short 24 hour stopovers for married couples in ministry.
We’ve already held one in Yorkshire and this half term we have two – one in Leicestershire and one in Wiltshire, the latter at the oldest hotel in the UK! They’re deliberately short and will not answer every question, but we want to use them to get you thinking, praying and doing. Mrs R and I are in our 25th year this year, and even now we hardly feel qualified to take such a day. But we’re driven by the importance of the subject and the desperate wish to see both marriages and ministries flourish. We see too many couples whose marriages have become a sham and where ministries have suffered (or, indeed, vice versa).
After some market research we planned them for half term holidays. You may think that’s a bit obtuse – but people told us that it was easier to arrange child care out of term time than in it. Plans are already in place for baby sitters and grandparents and it’s easy to sort that when the kids don’t have to be fitted into a daily regime.
So, we’d love to see you in October. Wallace and Lindsay have just a few spaces left in the Midlands. We’ve got a few more at Malmsbury. Either way, here’s an investment well worth making.
Job opportunity at PT
I am searching for a new PA. I know, it’s your dream job, but you’re busy preaching. But it may be someone else’s in your congregation if you’re near or in London? It’s actually a maternity cover for a year for the job of my PA and Office Administrator. Do you know anyone who may be suitable? Why not share this post with them: I’d be very grateful. In the first instance, you could ask them to send a CV to firstname.lastname@example.org. Mrs R thanks you greatly (I’m happier at home if more sane at work).
One of the ways we can persevere is by getting continual help. Personally I find this one of the hardest things to do. To get help in any area of life seems to be some kind of admission that I’m not the man (or pastor, or preacher) that I ought to be. But such a desire to grow is central to the Christian faith and central to ministry. And that’s why we persevere with our preaching conferences. If anyone ever says to me, “Oh, I’m past that” or “I don’t need that anymore” then I worry. Not that somehow PT’s ministry might suffer, I’m not that introspective. We’re one amongst a number.
But if that is the attitude of a pastor, then heaven help his congregation. Especially, may I say, when it comes to preaching and prayer. I can’t really help you with the latter, but we can certainly help one another with the former. The best preachers I know are not lazy nor content. They are the ones that keep striving and working. They are the ones that lay themselves open to challenge and growth in the right context.
And our preaching conferences are a good context. All of which leads me to say, why not make it along to our Autumn preaching conference. It’s not just about preaching, by the way. Preaching happens in a context – both in church life and in the personal life of the preacher, and we address both of these.
But preaching is a discipline too. We’ve managed to persuade Richard Pratt to come and he will be teaching on Joshua. Indeed, our whole focus will be on OT narrative and I will do some teaching on that using Ezra as a springboard. These are really important topics, and Richard is fine preacher and expert. Make use of him! We’ll be asking him – as part of what he does – to especially address how the preacher deals with that vexed question of divine warfare and destruction. Increasingly that’s becoming an apologetic question we need to have careful answers to.
See you there. You can book here.
Welcome back. Different this time?
I hope you’ve had a good break. Even if you didn’t get away, church in the summer is always different. Not less busy, of course, because there are often camps and holiday clubs to fill the time. But different. And, they say, a change is as good as a rest. I find summer working allows me to do some catching up with things that don’t always get the attention they need – for me that means book editing and writing. And – to be honest – it’s the summer when I make all my resolutions. Next year I am going to be more organised for…. (fill in the blanks).
But it’s also good to take stock spiritually and I’m really grateful to have had some breathing space to have been able to do that. The busy-ness of pastoral work often means that this is low on the agenda. We tend to think that our daily work of prayer and the ministry of the word will somehow keep us fresh and alive without any need for deeper heart work. As long as we can keep ticking over and keep the motor running, then we’ll be able to establish a base line which will sustain us for another 12 months of ministry.
But that way of thinking is dangerous. It’s dangerous for our own souls, and dangerous for those to whom we minister (1 Tim 4.16). For the most part ministry is not a four lane highway with no bends or curves or uphills – the kind of road you can drive on autopilot. No, unless your church experience is very different from mine (really?), then ministry is a windy country lane which needs constant vigilance for both yourself and your hearer.
Look back over the last twelve months. Did you just scrape by? Be honest with yourself. How come you made it through? Was it that you really were alive and kicking? Or was it that you were simply not discovered? Were you truly radiating the gospel or did you just manage to keep the mask on? These are sobering questions, and now – as things ramp up again – is the time to read, pray, commit and do what the Apostle commands. “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
Time for a break..
We all need a break every now and then; and now is the time for that. We shouldn’t be writing blogs on our holiday and you shouldn’t be reading them on yours! So on that note, see you in September.