Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Advice for rookie pastors: On reading

Yeah, I know. You had to read lots of theology and that when in seminary. Some people will tell you that that ain't enough. Strange, huh? But before you get into any bad habits I'm going to give you some reasons why pastors don't need bother much with books. Ready, kiddo? Then let's begin:

1. Just because God gave us the Bible doesn't mean that reading is important. 

2. What's the point in trawling through long books in search of decorative sermons quotes, when you can just pinch some from a golden book of quotations? That'll make you seem learned without the hassle of really being so. 

3.You consult commentaries for your sermon prep, right? That'll do. I mean, what more do people want, exegetical accuracy and theological depth? C'mon. Anyone would think that preaching was meant to be 'theology on fire' or something.

4. By the way, there's no point in reading more than one commentary on a passage because they'll disagree and then you'll have to make your mind up which one's right. Save yourself some bothersome thinking time and always go with your fave bible commentator, without question.

5. There's no point in reading anything published before 2012 because what we need is the latest bang up-to-date 'how to books', not old stuff that people have been reading for centuries. Augustine, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, what did they know of being missional in a multimedia age? 

6. E-books are best because it's easier to skim read using a screen than a book. Why bother slowly digesting what you are reading, turning pages etc, when you can zip through a snappy 20-pager in a few minutes and then get on to the next one?

7. If you really feel that you must read some stuff outside what's absolutely needed for sermon prep, but can't be doing with books and that, simply follow some blogs.

That's enough. Don't want to strain your eyes now, do you? 

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Cost of Living

Political debate is currently dominated by arguments over the cost of living. Unemployment is falling and there are other signs of economic recovery. But with costs rising and incomes staying the same, people are still feeling the pinch. Things aren’t helped by the fact that some of the big energy supply companies have recently announced hefty price rises. It’s not for me to use this post to sketch out my solution to this problem. Sadly I don’t have one. That’s the job of politicians, not pastors. But talk of the ‘cost of living’ got me thinking of some words of Jesus.

Some charlatan preachers might tell people that becoming a Christian is the route to an easy life, but Jesus made it clear that there is a cost involved in following him, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24). For some that may involve losing their life for Christ’s sake. On Sunday 22nd September two suicide bombers headed for All Saints Church, Peshawr, Pakistan and blew themselves up. Eighty five members of the congregation were slaughtered in what was the deadliest ever attack on Christians in the country.

Thankfully, Christians don’t face such dangers here in the UK, but living for Jesus is still costly. It involves devoting the whole of our lives to his service. Yes, Christians gather for worship on a Sunday, but following Jesus means more than that. Going to church on a Sunday is meant to equip believers to serve the Lord throughout the week. English Missionary to China C. T. Studd had it right when he said, “If Jesus Christ is God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him." That’s the cost of living for Jesus. Are you willing to pay the price? 

* From November's News & Views, West Lavington Parish Magazine

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Perfect (Ofsted) School Governor by Tim Bartlett

Independent Thinking Press, 2013, Print Length, 217pp, Kindle e-book

No, I'm not commending my authorised biography. Hardly. Rather, this book is meant to tell us how to become a Perfect (Ofsted) School Governor. At least that's the idea. I suppose there's no harm in aiming high, but Perfect? Even Ofsted are only after Outstanding at best. Enough quibbling about the title, though. Perfection in governance might be asking a bit much, but following the advice contained in this book will certainly help governing bodies to do their job more effectively.

The book has six chapters:

1. Strategic leadership and how governors provide it
2. Good governance: the importance of self-evaluation and effective policies
3. Governor visits to the school
4. Holding the head teacher and the leadership team to account
5. Oftsed: inspections and governors
6. Appointing a new head teacher

And no less than eleven appendices. I'm not going to list them here. You can check out the book's 'Click to LOOK INSIDE' thing on Amazon if you're interested.

I wish I had read this book when I was first thinking about becoming a governor, or at least when I had just joined the governing body. It would have helped me to hit the ground running. Well, at least walking purposefully rather than wandering around looking a bit bewildered. The book explains the essentials of governance and suggests ways in which things can be done better for the good of the school.

As a new governor I often found it hard to see the wood for the trees. I suddenly found myself in an educational forest that was so densely populated with jargon-laden information that it was difficult to get a sense of perspective. To that end the book includes some useful jargon and acronym busting. Key concepts such as strategic leadership and accountability simply defined. Illustrations are given of how they work out in practice. You won't find all that you'll need to know here, but this systematic overview will bring a welcome clarity to the thinking of the most befuddled new gov.

There are lots of handy tips here on improving governance that I plan to try out on our Governing Body over the coming months. We especially need to do some work on self-evaluation, seeking feedback from governors on the usefulness or otherwise of our various meetings.

Not that I'll be implementing all of the author's suggestions. Having our longsuffering Clerk read out her minutes for governors' approval at the end of every agenda item would slow the pace of meetings unnecessary. Yes, the Chair may sometimes wish to check that a precisely worded statement has been accurately minuted. But usually the gist of what was said is sufficient and the record can be approved at the next meeting.

I'd certainly urge that all wannabe and newbie governors have a read of this book. Battle scarred veterans of many a Full Governing Body meeting might learn a thing or two as well. In addition, it wouldn't hurt for the Senior and Middle Leaders who attend our sessions so we can subject them to Paxmanesque interrogation to give the book a once over so they can familiarise themselves with the principles and processes of school governance.

To return to the book's somewhat misleading title, I doubt whether our or anyone else's governing body will ever achieve an idealised state of Platonic perfection, but that doesn't mean that we can't improve our practice. Governors expect the school they serve to be constantly making progress. As agents of reform, governing bodies need to be perpetually reforming themselves. Perfect? Never. Better? Absolutely. But then, had the title been, The Better (Oftsted) Governor, it probably wouldn't have caught my attention when browsing for something governory to read on Amazon.

A hardback edition is available for any without a newfangled e-reader device (see here).

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

No God Zone by Cristina Odone

On Sunday 22nd September two Islamic terrorists strapped on explosives-laden suicide vests, headed for All Saints Church, Peshawr, Pakistan and blew themselves up. Eighty five members of the congregation were slaughtered in what was the deadliest ever attack on Christians in the country (see here). Writing in The Spectator, John L. Allen Jr. cites evidence that 100,000 Christians have been killed 'in a situation of witness' each year for the last decade. In the light of those harrowing statistics, Cristina Odone's book-length complaint concerning the treatment of Christians in the West seems rather self-indulgent.

However, she is right to point out that as the West has become increasingly secular, expressions of faith are being excluded from public life. In this 'No God Zone', Christian registrars have lost their jobs for refusing to officiate at Civil Partnership ceremonies. Open air preachers have had their collars felt by the police simply for proclaiming a message that people don't want to hear. Whatever happened to free speech?

Part of the problem is a shift in the meaning of tolerance. Tolerance used to mean putting up with views with which we might strongly disagree. More recently tolerance has taken on a new aspect, involving the acceptance of more or less all views as equally valid (see here). The new 'tolerance' is in fact deeply intolerant. Catholic adoption agencies have been forced to close because of their policy of only placing children with heterosexual couples. Odone cites many more examples of this kind of thing affecting both Christians and people from other faith groups.

What to do? Odone suggests that Christians should take a leaf from the the gay rights campaign handbook. As she points out, gay rights campaigners sought to win sympathy for their cause by highlighting the way in which society marginalised homosexual people. They drew attention to high profile figures who were gay in order to remove the stigma of abnormality. By writing this book Odone is trying to do something similar by showing that Christians are now the unfairly oppressed minority. She exhorts believers to be bold in bearing witness to their faith in the public square.  

I can see what the writer is getting at and it is fair enough for Christians to insist that their democratic right to religious freedom is respected. However, that is not the whole story. What is happening to Christians outside of the West is a reminder that following Jesus involves being willing to suffer for his sake. The New Testament could not be clearer on this point, John 15:18, Philippians 1:29, 2 Timothy 3:12. 

Christian values have had a huge impact on Western culture, but we should not always expect to have the upper hand as the moral and spiritual guardians of society. Odone is a Roman Catholic and I sense that what she longs for is a restoration of the Christian cultural hegemony that was Christendon. She references the crowning of Charlemagne by the pope on Christmas Day, 800 A.D. But there can be no going back to the days of Holy Roman Emperors and popes who claimed absolute power over church and state, as did Gregory VII at Canossa.

We should not long wistfully for the restoration of Christendom. The church of the New Testament was a despised minority and yet it had great power. The church will not win the day by following the blueprint of gay rights handbook. Rather we should learn the lessons of the Acts of the Apostles. The early church responded to a hostile 'No Jesus Zone' by fervent prayer, Spirit-empowered gospel preaching and practical Christian living. Have a read of Acts 4.

The historian T. R. Glover has written that the early Christians made such a powerful impact on the ancient world because they 'out-thought, out-lived, and out-died' everyone else. And we need to do the same if we are to see the increasingly 'No God Zone' of the West filled with the presence of God once more. 

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Without the gospel by John Calvin

Without the gospel everything is useless and vain;
without the gospel we are not Christians;
without the gospel all riches is poverty,
all wisdom folly before God;
strength is weakness,
and all the justice of man is under the condemnation of God.

But by the knowledge of the gospel we are made children of God,
brothers of Jesus Christ,
fellow townsmen with the saints,
citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven,
heirs of God with Jesus Christ,
by whom the poor are made rich,
the weak strong,
the fools wise,
the sinner justified,
the desolate comforted,
the doubting sure,
and slaves free.
It is the power of God for the salvation of all those who believe …

It follows that every good thing we could think or desire is to be found in this same Jesus Christ alone.

For, he was sold, to buy us back;
captive, to deliver us;
condemned, to absolve us;
he was made a curse for our blessing,
sin offering for our righteousness;
marred that we may be made fair;
he died for our life;
so that by him fury is made gentle,
wrath appeased,
darkness turned into light,
fear reassured,
despisal despised,
debt canceled,
labour lightened,
sadness made merry,
misfortune made fortunate,
difficulty easy,
disorder ordered,
division united,
 ignominy ennobled,
 rebellion subjected,
intimidation intimidated,
ambush uncovered,
assaults assailed,
force forced back,
combat combated,
war warred against,
vengeance avenged,
torment tormented,
damnation damned,
the abyss sunk into the abyss,
hell transfixed,
death dead,
mortality made immortal.

In short, mercy has swallowed up all misery, and goodness all misfortune.

For all these things which were to be the weapons of the devil in his battle against us, and the sting of death to pierce us, are turned for us into exercises which we can turn to our profit. If we are able to boast with the apostle, saying, O hell, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? it is because by the Spirit of Christ promised to the elect, we live no longer, but Christ lives in us; and we are by the same Spirit seated among those who are in heaven, so that for us the world is no more, even while our conversation is in it; but we are content in all things, whether country, place, condition, clothing, meat, and all such things. And we are comforted in tribulation, joyful in sorrow, glorying under vituperation, abounding in poverty, warmed in our nakedness, patient amongst evils, living in death. This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father.” 

From John Calvin’s preface to Pierre Robert Oliv├ętan’s 1534 translation of the New Testament. Versified by GD.