Thursday, November 19, 2015

Building Better Boards: An Opportunity for Education

Published by Wild Search

This report seeks to assess the state of school governance today and makes proposals that are intended to enable governors to respond to the challenges presented by a rapidly changing educational landscape. Governance used to be the Cinderella of schooling, receiving little attention from government ministers and policy wonks. That has now changed. The much discussed Trojan Horse affair has shown up the damage than can be done when governance goes awry. The move towards academisation, and with it the diminishing power of Local Education Authorities has placed an increasing burden on governors to monitor the performance of their school or group of schools in the case of Multi Academy Trusts. The preface by Lord Nash highlights the excellent work of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Education Governance and Leadership. He recognises the importance of governance as an agent for  change in a school-led system. It is instructive that head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw chose to devote the second of his monthly 'commentaries' to the subject of governance for 21st century schools

By 'school-led system' Nash means schools working together under the auspices of an Academy Chain or Multi-Academy Trust. The jury is out on whether academies perform better than maintained schools, especially when it comes to raising standards for disadvantaged students. But with David Cameron wanting all schools to have the 'opportunity' to become an academy by the end of the current parliament, it looks as though the drive towards academisation remains a key plank in the government's education policy.

But if governors are going to help fill the vacuum left by the decline of LEAs they are going to have to sharpen up their act. The report emphasises the need for governors to be appointed on the basis of their skills and for existing governors to engage in high quality training and professional development. The authors are rather sniffy about Parent Governors. They would like to see a shift from the stakeholder model towards skills-based governance, as if it's a case of either the one or the other. I disagree. It is rather patronising to suggest that Parent Governors don't necessarily have the skills needed to govern. At our school Parent Governors are a highly skilled bunch, but they are also passionate about seeing the school attended by their children continuing to make rapid progress. A concern about Parent Governors only being interested in the welfare and progress of their own darling children can be resolved by effective induction and training so that they understand the strategic nature of the role. The answer to the tendency for governor meetings to be sidetracked by parents raising issues to do with their children is good chairing, not getting rid of Parent Governors altogether.

The core functions of governance are: 1. Setting the Vision, Ethos and Strategy of the school. 2. Holding the Headteacher to account for the educational progress of the school. 3. Ensuring value for money. In all those areas parents have a role to play, as well as school leaders, staff,  members of the local community and governors appointed simply on account of their skills. In any case, when Parent Governor vacancies become available it is good practice for the role advertisement to include a description of the desired set of skills that a parent might bring to the table to complement the existing team. Do we really want a situation where Governing Boards are almost exclusively comprised of accountants, lawyers and high-powered business men and women? With all due respect to the good people of those professions, that would represent a considerable narrowing of the range of interests and backgrounds represented at board level. But whatever the composition of our boards we need to ensure that governors are trained and empowered to contribute to the strategic leadership of their schools and to hold senior leaders to account. In her recent address to the NGA conference Emma Knights issued a rallying call to governors that we would do well to heed. 

Attention is given to the challenges of governance in  Multi-Academy Trusts, especially in the light of the Education and Adoption Bill 2015-16. The bill will legislate to make it harder for maintained schools judged 'Inadequate' or 'coasting' by Ofsted to resist being forced to join an Academy Chain or MAT. However, recent Ofsted reports arising from the inspection of Chains and MATs suggest a mixed picture when it comes to these 'school-led systems' being able to turn around failing schools. Often the problem with poorly performing schools is not their maintained status, but ineffective leadership and weak governance. Forcing a struggling school to join a group that may share those characteristics isn't going to help anyone (see here and here). Far better for a successful local school to offer school-to-school support at leadership and governance level to an underperforming neighbour. But where is the funding to facilitate that kind of thing? If MATs are the way to go, let them at least be area-wide set-ups that are the product of a shared vision, ethos and strategy, not 'marriages of convenience' with several schools in one part of the country and a few dotted elsewhere, having little in common save a bit of branding. 

The aspect of this report that garnered media interest was the proposal that governors, notably Chairs should be remunerated for their work. Sir Michael Wilshaw concurs with this view in his 'commentary' . However, while reasonable expenses should be paid so that no one is left out of pocket for their efforts, I'm not sure that I would want governors to be paid. That does not make us dilettante amateurs, but 'unpaid professionals', who seek to serve as governors in local schools for the common good of the communities in which we live. Even when it comes to Chairs, it is difficult to see how either they would be offered little more than an insulting pittance for their work, or be paid so much as to change the nature of the role in a detrimental way. Chairs might be reluctant to do anything that might deprive them of 'a nice little earner' and fail to upset apple carts that sometimes need upsetting. Effective chairing might be better secured by in-post chairs taking advantage of high quality training such as the Chairs of Governors' Leadership Development Programme. Thoughtful succession planning is also vital for ensuring continuity of good leadership at the helm of the GB.  

One area that did not receive sufficient reflection here was the professionalisation of clerking. If more is going to be expected of governors and they are to remain unpaid for their services, then governing boards are going to need the support of highly effective clerks. The role of the clerk is to offer the board procedural and legal advice and guidance, organise and prepare for meetings, take minutes and so on. Too often clerks are regarded as semi-professionals who routinely work well over their contracted hours. They are not always subject to regular performance management to help ensure their continued professional development. This needs to change. Effective clerking is essential for efficient, sharply focused and properly functioning school governance.  

I don't want to sound too negative about this report, though. That fact that governance is being given attention in a document like this is welcome in itself. There are some good things here, such as arguing the case for governors to engage in rigorous self-evaluation. The emphasis on skills and training is welcome. The pieces on The Importance of Communications and Promoting the Role of Governors are helpful enough. The findings of Building Better Boards should stimulate discussion among governors as to how we may best respond to the challenges that we face in the current educational climate. Boards would do well to review their practices in the light of the report's recommendations. While not all of the proposals found here may command agreement, they at least deserve serious thought and consideration. 

I am grateful to the publisher for supplying a free review copy. 

Monday, November 02, 2015

November: A Month to Remember

The recent film Inside Out is all about how memory helps to shape our identity. It focuses on Riley, an 11-year old girl and her struggle to adjust to life when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Her feelings are controlled by five characters representing her emotions; Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger. As we've come to expect of Pixar. the film is a visually stunning spectacle, especially as we join Joy and Sadness on a trip around Riley's brain as they seek to recover her personality-forming core memories. I won't spoil the plot for you by summarising it here. If you left it too late to catch the film in the cinema, get the DVD or something. You’ll enjoy it. Watching it put me in mind of Augustine’s classic treatment of the theme of memory in his Confessions. But that’s probably just me.

The month of November evokes memories. There’s Bonfire Night, which recalls Guy Fawkes’ foiled attempt to blow up parliament. The old ditty calls us to ‘Remember, remember the 5th of November/Gunpowder, treason and plot.’ And then there’s Remembrance Sunday on 8th November and Remembrance Day on the 11th, commemorating the end of the First World War. On those days the whole nation pauses to remember those who gave their lives for this country. Their sacrifice should not be forgotten.

Some of our memories are sad and others happy. In the film Inside Out, Joy keeps trying to cheer Riley up, as she's feeling out of sorts in her new environment. At all costs she wants to stop Sadness touching the girl's core memories. But it is only when Riley is allowed to feel sad that she realises how much she is loved and pulls back from doing something stupid. We wouldn't choose sad times in our lives. But they are often occasions when family and friends have rallied round and surprised us with the warmth of their love and care.

Memory is an important aspect of the Christian faith. Jesus knew that he was about to lay down his life  so that those who believe in him may be forgiven and be put right with God. He told his followers to eat a simple meal of bread and wine in remembrance of him. The bread was a symbol of his body and the wine of his blood. Nigh on 2,000 years later Christians continue to remember Jesus in that way. The Lord wanted his people never to forget how much he loved them. He said, ‘Greater love has no one than this, than this: to lay down his life for his friends.’ That’s something worth remembering all year round.

* For News & Views & Trinity parish magazines. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Jonathan Edwards for the Church edited by William M. Schweitzer

Jonathan Edwards for the Church: The ministry and the means of Grace,
Edited by: William M. Schweitzer, EP Books, 2015, 309pp. 

Jonathan Edwards has long been recognised as a towering intellectual genius. His works have attracted attention in the worlds of philosophy and academic theology. But Edwards was above all else a pastor and preacher of the gospel. Most of his time and energies were devoted to church-based ministry. This multi-author book endeavours to redress the balance by focusing on what Edwards had to say on the ministry and the means of grace,

Lessons are drawn from the preacher’s life and teaching and attempts are made to apply what may be learned to our situation today. The book will be of special interest to pastors, who will find Edwards’ vision of pastoral ministry both an inspiration and a challenge. Edwards was a pastor-theologian, a diligent student of the Word who devoted himself to the exploration and defence of the great doctrines of the Bible. But his sermons were not intended to be lectures that simply informed the minds of his hearers, but messages that reached their hearts and transformed their lives as the truth of the gospel was proclaimed and understood.

Edwards experienced several seasons of revival under his ministry in Northampton. His knowledge of the Word and the human heart helped him to discern what was genuinely of the Spirit and what was merely of the flesh during those revival periods. His balanced approach exemplified in his key work, The Religious Affections, helped him guard his people from unbelieving scepticism and hot-headed fanaticism.

Chapters are devoted to various aspects of Edwards’ ministry and thought including the means of grace, persevering in faithful ministry, the power of the word and Christ as the scope of Scripture. The essay on Edwards’ vision of God’s excellences is outstanding. Some of the chapters could have done with a little more editorial attention. The preacher’s dismissal from his Northampton pastorate is discussed at length in chapter 4, but chapter 5 begins by going over the same ground.

Occasionally one can hear the sound of axes grinding. It is claimed that unlike some contemporary Evangelicals, Edwards had little time for contextualising his message to address his cultural situation. (Are you listening, Tim Keller?) But he was a keen student of Enlightenment thought and adapted his language accordingly. Describing conversion as giving a ‘sense of new things’ is a case in point. That said, his ministry could have done with a little more contextualisation when it came to preaching to Native American Indians in Stockbridge, where he made no attempt to learn their language, preferring to use a translator. 

An appendix includes a sermon on revival by William Macleod. It is stirring enough, but the preacher has a dig at Christians for using the internet and Facebook. I'm not sure that Edwards would have agreed with his strictures. He was no techno-Luddite and it may even be claimed that the preacher was far sighted enough to predict the internet. He prognosticated, "There will be so many contrivances and inventions to facilitate and expedite their necessary secular business that they shall have more time for more noble exercise, and that they will have better contrivances for assisting one another through the whole earth by more expedite, easy, and safe communication between distant regions than now." (See here). Admittedly, the preacher didn't anticipate people informing the world that they had just made a cup of tea via Facebook, but I think we have reasons to believe that he would have blogged and perhaps even tweeted. Edwards' Miscellanies would make for perfectly formed blog posts. 

Criticisms aside, the writers have done a good job in setting forth Edwards’ vision of a Spirit empowered, Christ centred, and God glorifying ministry. A vision that needs to be recovered in our churches today.

* An edited version of this review will appear in Evangelical Times

Friday, October 02, 2015

On finishing reading 'Reformed Dogmatics' by Herman Bavinck

Working my way through Bavinck's mighty four volume Reformed Dogmatics (Volumes 1-4, Baker Academic) has been my big long term reading project. The other day I finished the final volume. Looking back through the blog I notice that the set was delivered in May 2008 (see here). Didn't realise that it's taken me over seven years to get through the whole thing. Although I must admit that my progress has been rather fitful, with months sometimes passing between reads. That said, Bavinck's work needs to be absorbed rather than skimmed if you're going to get the best out of it.

Reformed Dogmatics is easily the best systematic theology I've yet encountered. It puts Berkhof and Reymond in the shade and is far better than Hodge. Right across the whole gamut of systematics  RD is marked by fresh and insightful exegesis, sensitivity to the flow of biblical revelation, awareness of the doctrinal heritage of the church, and deep theological reflection. The work is an organic whole; a mighty exposition of the being, persons, will  and acts of the triune God. 

In an era of the theology tweet and bite sized books for busy pastors, Bavinck offers something substantial, profound and satisfying. His approach is thoroughly presuppositional. Bavinck begins with God and ends with him. He is presented as the Alpha and Omega of theology, it's self-revealing source and ultimate goal. Here is a work of theology as faith seeking understanding that is designed to shape our minds in the light of God's Word, move our hearts to worship in response to God's Ways, and stir our wills to be about God's Work. If pastors aspire to be pastor-theologians for the sake of the people of God, they would do well to study Reformed Dogmatics. Let the man himself define what he means by dogmatic theology:  
Dogmatics is the system of the knowledge of God as he has revealed himself in Christ; it is the system of the Christian religion. And the essence of the Christian religion consists in the reality that the creation of the Father, ruined by sin, is restored in the death of the Son of God and re-created by the grace of the Holy Spirit into a kingdom of God. Dogmatics shows us how God, who is all-sufficient in himself, nevertheless glorifies himself in his creation, which, even when torn apart by sin, is gathered up again in Christ. (Eph 1:10). It describes for us God, always God from beginning to end - God in his being, God in his creation, God against sin, God in Christ, God breaking down all resistance through the Holy Spirit and guiding the whole of creation back to the objective he decreed for it: the glory of his name. Dogmatics, therefore, is not a dull science. It is a theodicy, a doxology of all God's virtues and perfections, a hymn of adoration and thanksgiving, a "glory to God in the highest" (Luke 2:14). (RD Volume 1, p. 112)
From Volume 1-4 Bavinck unfolds the great drama of creation, ruin, redemption and renewal. He constantly returns to the thought that God in his grace has not abandoned the world that he made in rescuing it from sin. Rather, by grace he redeems, restores, and perfects it. The climax of his eschatological vision is not the believer dying and going to heaven, but the new creation.
The stage of glory will be no mere restoration of the state of nature, but a re-formation that, thanks to the power of Christ, transforms all matter into form, all potency into actuality, and presents the entire creation before the face of God, brilliant in unfading splendor and blossoming in a springtime of eternal youth. (RD Volume 4, p. 720).   
See here for blog posts on various aspects of RD.  My next 'big read' will be The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way, by Michael Horton, Zondervan. Our people bought me this to mark my 10th anniversary in the pastorate in 2013, but I've been keeping it until I'd finished reading Bavinck. It's always good to have a 'biggie' on the go. In my formative years as a preacher I read Preaching and Preachers,  by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I was struck by his counsel,  
Time must be found for reading, and we turn now to the more intellectual type of reading. The first is theology. There is no greater mistake than to think that you finish with theology when you leave a seminary. The preacher should continue to read theology as long as he is alive. The more he reads the better and there are many authors and systems to be studied. I have known men in the ministry, and men in various other walks of life who stop reading when they finish their training. They think they have acquired all they need; they have their lecture notes, and nothing further is necessary. The result is that they vegetate and become quite useless. Keep on reading; and read the big works. (Preaching and Preachers by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Hodder and Stoughton, 1985, p. 177).
You can't get much bigger or grander in scope and scale than Herman Bavinck's great magnum opus. Delve into his Reformed Dogmatics. Don't just take my word for it. It's Doctor's orders and will do you good. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Center Church by Timothy Keller

Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in your City,
by Timothy Keller, Zondervan, Kindle Edition

You've got your fundies on the one hand; right on many things, but also a bit repulsive. Not being very into engaging the culture and that. And then you've got your liberals on the other; wrong on most things, but also quite nice. They don't so much want to engage the culture, as have it tell the church what to believe about stuff. Someone's got to. Between these two extremes is Keller's 'Church of the Third Way', or 'Center Church' as he persists in calling it. Look, I know it's 'Centre', not 'Center', but I'm contextualising my spelling as it's an American book I'm reviewing and spelling isn't their strong point across The Pond. OK?

Anyhow, a 'Center Church' is thoroughly evangelical when it comes to believing and proclaiming the gospel, but is also culturally engaged and socially active. The 'Center Church' vision is especially apt for big cities like New York, where Keller ministers, but other global cities such as London, Paris, or Mexico City would fit the bill. I serve town and village churches. There isn't much resemblance between New York and Westbury. or West Lavngton and Manhattan. We don't have sky scrapers, yellow taxis, or Woody Allen, and they don't have a massive White Horse carved into a hillside. As far as I know, anyway. Despite these drawbacks, there is enough in Keller's work to provide food for thought for those who, like me, are involved in small town-based ministries.

The book begins with a clear, compelling and unambiguous statement of the Gospel that the church has been called to perform and proclaim. Only the gospel can tear down our idols and reconnect us with the one true and living God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Keller is careful to distance himself from those who are so concerned to promote social activism that they neglect or even reject evangelism and disciple making. Above all else church exists to fulfill the Great Commission. That is done as the 'scattered church' goes out into the world, bearing witness to the gospel in everyday life. But Keller also emphasises the importance of gospel preaching in the context of the 'gathered church'. Old Testament revelation held out the expectation that the nations would come to know the Lord as Israel declared his praises. In the New Testament we have indications that non-believers were present in church meetings and that the Word had a saving impact on their lives, 1 Corinthians 14:24-25.

Keller has a lot to say on engaging the culture. While the gospel doesn't change, that essential message needs to be communicated in culturally appropriate ways. We see glimpses of that in the New Testament. Paul's approach in Acts 13 was quite different to the way he went about things in Acts 17. In the USA and UK the culture is increasingly 'post-Christian' and the church cannot simply assume that non-believers are familiar with the basic elements of the Christian faith. 'Defeater beliefs' that stand in the way of faith need to be challenged in a winsome and persuasive way. Do we preachers work hard enough at relating the eternal Word to the concerns and issues of our own day and age? As we marshal arguments for the gospel in our preaching will will not only speak to any non-Christians in our congregations, we will also help our people to be more effective in giving a reason for their hope in personal witness.

We preachers are often quite negative when it comes to speaking about the culture. It's all, 'things are getting worse and worse. Have nothing to do with it'. I've even heard preachers say with some pride, 'We don't compromise by trying to be contemporary.' But that's just silly. Being a bit quaint and old fashioned is not a litmus test of faithfulness to the gospel.  Keller's approach is helpful here. Rather than blanket negativity, he suggests that in any culture there are aspects that the gospel confirms, completes and contradicts.

The gospel confirms the unique value of each individual human being. Our culture by and large (under the influence of Christian teaching no doubt) agrees with that. Hence legislation that outlaws discrimination on the grounds of gender, race or disability. In our culture people are questing for meaning and purpose in life. Some do so through pleasure seeking, others by steadfastly pursuing their careers. But it's only the gospel that can provide complete fulfillment and satisfaction by reconciling us to God. Sadly there are things in our culture that the gospel contradicts. Abortion, for example. And when that is the case, the task of the church is to announce God's shuddering, "No!" and call for repentance.

But by God's 'common grace' the culture isn't all bad and Christians are called to engage with it through artistic pursuits, in the workplace, and by getting involved in their local communities. If all preachers ever do is denounce the culture, that will lead to Christians disengaging from life in the world, rather than seeking to be salt and light in it. The church should help believers understand what it means to put their faith into practice in the whole of their lives. Preachers should apply what the Bible says not only to the life of the gathered church, but every area of life. It's only right that churches and individual Christians should seek to build bridges to their local communities by running parent and toddler groups, contributing to food banks, supporting the sick and troubled, getting involved as school governors, and so on. It's not a matter of either evangelism, or seeking the well-being of the community, but gospel faith working by love.

I reflect on what Keller has to say on the interplay between faith and culture as it touches on the 'Two Kingdoms' view in another post.

The writer has some helpful things to say on every member ministry and what that looks like in practice for both the 'gathered church ' and 'scattered church', or 'organisational church' and 'organic church', as he puts it. His preferred method of reaching cities for Christ is church planting. I'm fully behind church planting ventures. As a fellowship we support the Grace Baptist Partnership. But such strategy isn't necessarily viable for small town churches, let alone village works. In those cases it's more a matter of revitalising existing local churches and reconnecting them with their local communities.

Keller's constant attempt to grab the middle ground can grate a little, You can grow tired of, 'On the one hand this extreme, and on the other that, but the Centre Church will position itself slap bang in the middle'. Some of the stuff he has to say is more relevant to a big city church with an arty, white collar membership. That isn't my lot. But there is thought provoking stuff here that caused me to reflect on my own practice and that of the churches I serve. Two big questions: How effective are we engaging the culture with the gospel in ways that confirm, complete and contradict it as appropriate? And how can we ensure that the 'organisational church' with its leadership structures, meetings and activities is equipping the 'organic church' to serve and bear witness to Jesus in today's world?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan

The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision 
by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, Baker Academic, 2015, 221pp.

Theology is sometimes viewed as a somewhat abstruse body of knowledge, beloved of academic pointy-heads, but of little use to believers in their everyday lives. Or worse. In an episode of the classic BBC sitcom Yes Prime Minister, head of the Civil Service, Sir Humphrey advised the PM on his duties with regard to appointing a Church of England Bishop. He explained that the church was run by theologians and that 'theology's a device for helping agnostics stay within the church'. [See from 9  mins in on this episode]. That was back in the days of the Liberal ascendancy when Runcie was Archbishop of Canterbury, so perhaps the remarks had some justification. But they represent a sorry slur on theology and theologians. At its best theology is not about obfuscating unbelief, but faith seeking understanding of what is in Christ. And understanding what is in Christ and living in the light of that reality is of the essence of the Christian life.

Hence this book, co-authored by Vanhoozer and Strachan. It has long been an ambition in the former's body of work 'to make the pastoral lamb lie down with the theological lion.' (The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, WJK, 2005, xii). The central thesis of this book is that the pastor is a public intellectual; a theologian for the sake of the people of God. That point isn't widely understood, even among Evangelical churches. All too often the church has borrowed its understanding of leadership from the world. The pastor is seen as a CEO, counselor, or kindly social worker. We need to return to the biblical model of Minister as pastor-teacher, whose main role is to communicate what is in Christ to the people of God.   

This vision is rooted in the Scriptures. Strachan devotes a fascinating chapter to the differing ways in which prophets, priests and kings functioned as theologians to the Old Testament people of God. He argues that pastors now function as prophets ministering truth, priests ministering grace, and kings ministering wisdom. Of course, Christ is the great Prophet, Priest and King. In a very real sense all God's people share in these three offices under the new covenant. But Strachan sets out the lines of continuity between the key Old Testament offices and pastoral ministry as described in the New Testament. Indeed, his case may have been strengthened had he made mention of the way in which the Old Testament kings were called 'shepherds' and that pastors have been appointed to 'rule' in the church as part of the eldership team (1 Timothy 5:17, Hebrews 13:17). Strachan also traces the historical development of the pastoral office over the course of church history. 

Next Vanhoozer gets us 'In the Evangelical Mood: The Purpose of the Pastor-Theologian', giving attention to the indicatives and imperatives of the gospel that the pastor is to inhabit and minister. According to the philosopher Heidegger, human life is afflicted with a nagging sense of anxiety concerning our finite condition. The human being is a being-towards-death. But the good news of Jesus Christ transforms believers into beings-towards-resurrection.They have been delivered from the fear of death and look forward in hope to a new creation that has already begun to dawn in Christ, and through Christ, in them. The focus is not so much on ousia (being in general), as parousia (being in the light of Christ's coming). Pastors are called to minister this reality by setting out the grand indicative concerning what God has done in Christ for his people. They help the people of God to grasp what is in Christ and what they are in him by ministering the word, thus nurturing believers in biblical literacy. Being equipped with 'canon sense' will also help Christians to understand, critique and relate the gospel to the culture in meaningful ways. But the pastor's task is not limited to declaring the good news of Jesus in the indicative mood. They must also set out the imperatives that flow from participating in what is in Christ; getting wisdom, walking in love and imitating Jesus. Thus, pastors help the people of God to play their roles in the great drama of God's redeeming grace.

The practical skills that pastors need to accomplish their work are the focus of attention in the next chapter, 'Artisans in the House of God: The Practices of the Pastor-Theologian'. They include building the church as a disciple-maker, proclaiming what is in Christ as an evangelist, teaching what is in Christ as a catechist, celebrating what is in Christ as a liturgist, and demonstrating what is in Christ as an apologist. These differing facets of the pastoral ministry are explored with a good mix of sound biblical insight and shrewd practical application. The use made of Ezra-Nehemiah in the section on building the church made for interesting reading, as I've not long completed a series of sermons on those Bible books. Vanhoozer concludes with Fifty-Five Summary Theses on the Pastor as Public Theologian

Interspersed between the major chapters of this book you'll find twelve 'Pastoral Perspectives', short pieces written by pastors that aim to show what it means to be a 'pastor-theologian' in the context of everyday church life. One of them is by yours truly on The Drama of Preaching. I can't really vouch for that bit, but I'd recommend that all aspiring and serving pastors give this book a thoughtful and prayerful read. If the pastor as public theologian is a lost vision, this well written and passionately argued book certainly makes a grand attempt at reclaiming it. Anything that helps pastors to minister what is in Christ more effectively must be good for us, the people whom we have been called to serve, and the world that so desperately needs to hear the life-transforming message of the gospel.  

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Amy Carmichael: 'Beauty for Ashes', A Biography, by Iain H. Murray

Amy Carmichael: 'Beauty for Ashes', A Biography,
by Iain H. Murray, Banner of Truth Trust, 2015, 168pp

Must confess that I didn't know an awful lot about Amy Carmichael. Apart from what I'd read years ago in psychiatrist Gaius Davies' [no relation] Genius and Grace. Bit of a nutter, apparently. An hysteric with a penchant for melodrama. Cared for vulnerable children in India, which was nice, but set herself as a Protestant 'Mother Superior'. Something of a poet.

Iain Murray's brief biog presents a more rounded portrait of the missionary-poet and her work in founding the Dohnavur Fellowship, which was originally set up as a refuge for children who were in danger of being dragged into ritual prostitution. Hers is a fine story of faith and fortitude, well told by Murray. 

I used some of my birthday money to buy the book with the intention of reading it on holiday. So gripping was Murray's account that I'd finished it within a day or two of our summer break. Admittedly, Carmichael isn't your typical 'Banner Woman'. Her piety was that of Kewsick-mysticism rather than  experimental Calvinism, but she evidently loved  the Lord and had a deep concern for needy children. Murray highlights the value of her devotional writings and commends her example of sacrificial service.  

Murray is critical of Carmichael's take on guidance by spiritual impulse and acknowledges that she could sometimes be headstrong and hot-tempered. But he defends her of Davies' charge that she could brook no disagreement from her co-workers and would send dissenters packing. That is how Davies explains Amy falling out with Stephen Niell, whom the psychiatrist describes as 'the brilliant Bishop of Tinnevelly'. Murray points out what Davies neglects to mention - that Niell rejected the inerrancy of Scripture. Carmichael's disagreement with him was not so much a personality clash, as a serious doctrinal disagreement. Murray devotes a chapter to exposing the detrimental impact of a critical view of the Bible on the cause of world mission. 

Not the author's best biog by a long chalk, but an inspiring little book none the less. Well worth a read. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Out now: The Pastor As Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision

This book to which I made a modest contribution, with a piece on The Drama of Preaching is out now. Download a Kindle sample to see what it's all about, here

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Inside Out: salvation through sorrow

This same memory also contains the feelings of my mind... For I remember that I was happy when I am not happy now, and I recall my past sadness when I am not sad now... Great indeed is the power of memory! It is something terrifying, my God, a profound and infinite multiplicity; and this thing is the mind, and this thing is I myself. What then am I, my God? [Confessions of Saint Augustine, Book X:14, 17]
The other day the wife and I went to see the latest Disney/Pixar film, Inside Out. Our children are all grown up now so there was no need for us to see a kiddie flick, but serious minded Times columnist Melanie Phillips recommended it and that was excuse enough for me.

The film focuses on Riley, an 11-year old girl and her struggle to adjust to life when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Her feelings are controlled by five characters representing her emotions; Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger. Joy is a little bit having John Piper live in your head. A girl one. 'C'mon, cheer up. Be a happy Christian Hedonist.' 

As we've come to expect of Pixar. the film is a visually stunning spectacle, especially as we join Joy and Sadness on a trip around Riley's brain as they seek to recover her personality-forming core memories. Some great visual jokes as the characters transform into Picasso versions of themselves in the Abstract Thought sector.

I won't spoil the plot for you by summarising it here. You'll have to look elsewhere for a proper film review. I'm not Barry Norman/Mark Kermode. Certainly not Claudia Winkleman. But the key message is that core memories, both happy and sad have a deep effect on our personalities. And that's what got me thinking.

Joy keeps trying to cheer Riley up, as she's feeling out of sorts in her new environment. At all costs she wants to stop Sadness touching the girl's core memories. But it is only when Riley is allowed to feel sad that she realises how much she is loved and pulls back from doing something stupid. She's saved through sorrow.

Kind of profound for a kids' film; the deep link between sadness and love. That works on a human level, but it also has theological resonance. God reveals the greatness of his love to us through the person of his Son. Jesus became a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief in order to rescue us from the misery of sin. Surveying the wondrous Cross we reflect, 'Did e're such love and sorrow meet/or thorns compose so rich a crown?' Had the fall not have happened and all its tragic after effects, we would not have known the full depths of divine love for sin-ruined humanity.

In the film Joy comes to learn the healing power of sympathy from Sadness. Jesus' continued love for us is disclosed in that even in his exalted state he is able to sympathise with his suffering people, Hebrews 4:15. See Thomas Goodwin's The Heart of Christ Towards Sinners on Earth.

Some take the words of Revelation 21:4 'for the former things have passed away' to mean that the redeemed in glory will have no memory of sorrow, crying, or pain. But I don't think that's right. Jesus won't greet us with some kind of Men in Black memory wiping device when he gives us our resurrection bodies and welcomes us to the new creation. In John's vision it is the 'former things' that will pass away, not the memory of them. The saints in glory will remember their sins, sufferings and struggles. Were that not the case, how could they sing to the Lamb, 'you have redeemed us to God by your blood' (Revelation 5:9)? With no memory of former events they would have no comprehension of why they ever needed redemption, and would not therefore be moved to worship the Lamb for his saving work.

Besides, as Inside Out suggests, our memories make us who we are, and there is continuity of personal identity for believers in their resurrection bodies. Grace does not destroy nature, but redeems, restores and perfects it. We will not be resurrected to a state amnesia. As Augustine reflects in the words at the top of this post, memory is mind and mind is me. In the glory even memories we would rather forget will not be obliterated, but will be understood in relation to God's purpose. Then and only then will we be able to grasp Romans 8:28 in its full wonder. The rich tapestry of our Father's wise and sovereign plan for our lives will be revealed with all its twists and turns, joys and sorrows. We will hear him say, 'I meant it for good', as he reaches out a fatherly hand to wipe away every tear from our faces. And a joy before unknown will fill our hearts.

But what of the memory of our sins? Even that will serve to enrich our joy in the Lord for redeeming us at such a cost. Overwhelmed by his love for miserable sinners, we will sing all the louder, 'Worthy is the Lamb that was slain!'