Friday, December 31, 2021

Favourite Books of 2021

Since so many friends are doing this I thought I would join them. I am a slow reader so I am in awe at the piles of books some people get through. I have read books in the fields of theology, missiology, religion, church history, military history, and horology (yep), as well as a few novels. I read to warm my heart as well as to feed my mind, or just to relax. A few books are re-reads, and one I have now read three times.

Here are my favourites, in no particular order:


The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self
 is Carl Trueman's attempt to trace the development of modern Western culture with its focus on sexuality and identity. He traces the development from Rousseau through the romantic poets, Wordsworth, Shelley and Blake, and the philosophies of Nietzsche, Marx and Darwin, and on to Freud and the New Left. He is a good writer so it is not as difficult as you might think. Well worth the effort.




In Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? Michael Morales gives us a biblical theology of Leviticus. It is packed with insights into the text and connections between the various parts of Leviticus and with other parts of Scripture. I found it very helpful.

I have been reading books on creation since I was a teenager. I started with The Genesis Flood but when I studied geology at university became dissatisfied with its treatment of the evidence.

In Seven Days That Divide the World, John Lennox, professor emeritus of maths at Oxford, argues, convincingly, that the biblical data does not require us to take a young earth position. 






Ray Ortlund's The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ is a powerful little book. It is in the 9Marks series on Building Healthy Churches and focusses on how a local church needs to cultivate a healthy gospel culture that matches and adorns the gospel doctrine that it confesses.

Juicy quote: "The command of Christ is that we love one another. The example of Christ is that we die for one another. The promise of Christ is that our love will show a skeptical world the difference he really makes" (112).

Everyone would benefit from reading this.


I have been following Tom Holland for a short while and am praying for him often. Last year I read his magisterial Dominion. He is on a journey, in his understanding of history and, I hope, in his understanding of the gospel.

This is the previous book he wrote, on the history of Islam. It didn't go down well with Muslims as it casts serious doubt on nearly all the claims of Islam's origins and early development. I met a lovely Muslim Pakistani doctoral student in Leiden last year who said that Holland's book destroyed his faith. Like Holland, though, Mohammed was not yet ready to confess Christ.

It is really important, in seeking to understand Muslims, to both read critical studies and talk with Muslims themselves. This book does a great job with the former.


I have developed a fascination with the history of the Burma Campaign in WW2, probably because it features the Gurkha Regiment so much. 

This is the sequel to Master's first autobiographical book, Bugles and a Tiger. It tells the story of his leading a battalion of Gurkhas and others behind enemy lines as part of the Chindit force. The description of battles and deprivation is gripping. The book is sadly spoiled by the parallel account of his unfolding adulterous relationship with another officer's wife.




This is my favourite devotional book of the year. We read it slowly at the breakfast table each day over a period of several weeks. Dane Ortlund (Ray's son, see above) takes a deep dive into the Bible's portrayal of the person of Christ, expounding especially Matthew 11:28-30, in which the Lord Jesus tells his disciples that he is gently and lowly of heart.

Some in the family did not find the extended quotes from Puritans so helpful but if you are struggling it is not a problem to simply skip onto the next paragraph where Ortlund lays it all out in contemporary language. Much to dwell on and chew over. Worth working through it slowly.


This is the book on horology - the study of time. Really fascinating historical account of how the 'longitude problem' was solved. I won't spoil it for you but it is a wonderful story of patience and persistence in the face of a consensus of scepticism. Clock making may seem not to offer much promise of interest but Sobel is a master story teller. I loved it.







Finally, this great little book by a bunch of pastors, many of whom are friends of mine, on the issue of depression. I have written about it already here.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Seven Criteria for Partnering with Gospel Workers and Organisations


The following seven criteria present a draft check list of questions to help a local church discern where to best apportion support for gospel ministries outside the church. No one criterion should be taken alone but all considered in a balanced way, with some being more important in one situation and others in another.

Let me know if you think I have missed anything out or am muddled in some way!

1.     Gospel Commitment

Does the potential partner have a clear and explicit commitment to the gospel? An affirmation of an evangelical statement of faith or doctrinal basis, such as that of the UCCF or Affinity, is essential.

2.     Relational Proximity

How close, relationally, is the potential partner to the church? One might conceptualise this criterion as a set of concentric circles radiating out from the church, with members themselves being at the centre. A non-member who is well known by many members is closer than one who is known by only a few. A member of a sister church in town may be considered closer than one who is from a distant part of the country.

3.     Ministry Suitability

Has this person or organisation been assessed and endorsed by our church or by a church with which we are affiliated? The assessment process must be judged to be appropriate to the role being envisaged. Someone who would not be considered suitable for, say, youth ministry in their home church, should not be approved for such a ministry elsewhere.

4.     Service Faithfulness

Does the person or organisation have a track record of faithfulness in service? In the case of an individual, there should be evidence of faithfulness in the small things before they are given greater responsibility. 

5.     Strategic Significance

Does support for this partner have a developmental effect on others? Partnership with a leadership training programme or theological college, for example, would be expected to have a broadly fruitful influence through the ministries of those who are trained. An evangelistic work that places a high value on the creation of churches would have a higher strategic significance than that of one that takes a more hit or miss approach, especially if that church is in a community with little previous gospel witness.

6.     Adequate Management

Does the potential partner demonstrate clear and adequate accountability in the management of personnel and the use of financial resources, etc.? In the case of an organisation, good governance is crucial. In the case of an individual or family, there needs to be a clear structure and procedure to care for their needs while in service.

7.     Genuine Need

Is there a particular need that has become known to the church? All potential partners would likely be able to inform us of various needs that they are aware of in connection with their ministry, but some individuals and families, and even institutions may have acute needs. Unforeseen needs may arise, such as for a new car or hospital costs, for which the partner is not prepared. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Let the Earth Be Glad

 


I started a new sermon series at Freeschool Court Church the other day.

My hope is that the series will help the church understand God's ultimate purpose in salvation and our part as a church in joining with him in that work.

I will put links to these sermons here as they get uploaded onto our church YouTube site.




Thursday, May 20, 2021

Pastors Get Depressed Too


Review of The Pastor with a Thorn in His Side, ed. Stephen Kneale (Grace, 2021, 144 pages, £7.99).

Depression is a reality for pastors just as much, it seems, as it is in the wider population here in the UK.

Stephen Kneale has pulled together six other pastors to join him in telling their stories. 

After an introduction by the editor, each of the seven men tell of their experience of depression and share what they found helpful or unhelpful in dealing with the experience. A number of the men are suffering from depression still.

It might seem strange to some readers that pastors suffer from depression. After all, you might think, surely they are supposed to have it all together mentally as well as spiritually. These pastors, however, take the view, which I think is right, that mental illness may be the experience of followers of Christ just as physical illness is, because we live in a fallen world.

Reading the stories of these men is sobering. It is difficult, isn't it, to read about someone harming themselves or even attempting suicide. But that is the reality and we need to face it squarely. This book pulls no punches but tells it like it is.

The authors all write with a very readable style - a product, I guess, of their calling to make truth plain to their hearers and readers - so it is an easy read.

I am a friend of one of the authors and know most of the others in one way or another so I could picture them in their situation. I found their reflections on what was helpful or unhelpful instructive. I never thought, for example, that asking someone suffering from depression "Is there any way I can help?" could be so difficult, but if you are the sufferer it is adding to the burden by giving them one more thing to think about and act on when all their emotional resources are severely depleted.

If I may have any criticism it is that I would have liked to read more analysis of the stories. Kneale's concluding reflections are good but I would have liked more sustained theological, ecclesiological and sociological reflection. 

By theological reflection, I mean, for example, on the mystery of providence and the dimension of spiritual warfare in mental health issues. The use of the Bible in counselling is merely touched on and little is said about prayer. Should they have called their elders to pray for them and anoint them with oil (James 5:13-16)? In many parts of the world, churches would find the silence of these matters puzzling. Is it a cultural blindspot for us in the West?

The multifactorial nature of mental illness comes across clearly and should dissuade the reader from simplistic conclusions. However, I think it would have been good to have more reflection on the role of non-physical causes. There is a recognition that sinful behaviour might be one result of depression but is it ever a cause?

Furthermore, though I am pretty sure there is a Reformed consensus among the authors, it would have been good (if that is the case) to state this explicitly because it has a bearing on the interpretation of one's experience and on the options considered valid for management.

By way of ecclesiological reflection, there could be more discussion of the significance of a plurality of elders in the churches in which these men have been ministering. Some of the authors do mention the important role of elders (or deacons functioning as elders) but more explicit discussion of this would have been helpful.

By sociological reflection, I would have liked to see how each man's story is situated socially. Is their church in a residential suburb or a council estate? Derek French tells us about the fact that his house was overlooked from hundreds of windows. Having, I believe, visited that church, I can tell you he is not exaggerating - the church and manse lie in the midst of several Soviet-inspired high-rise blocks of flats. If that is a sink estate, the manse is the plug hole. If I am not mistaken, the previous minister had also had mental health issues. It seems a neglect of the duty of care that the church should allow that situation to have persisted. Ministers need to be able to relax just like anyone else. To be in a situation where one is perceived to be always available to the community (especially in such a needy one as that) is to load a heavy burden on a gospel worker with a sensitive conscience. 

No doubt the editor will say that if he had included all that it would be a different book. Fair enough. But somewhere we need that sort of discussion.

You can read more about the book here.

 

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Pastor Robert Karthak Has Died

 


(Photo courtesy UMN)

Pastor Robert Karthak has gone to be with Jesus this morning at the age of 95. That is an extraordinary age for Nepal. When I first arrived in Nepal in 1985, Robert was already way past the life expectancy at the time, which was a dismal 45. (That has changed massively - the current life expectancy is 71!)

Robert Karthak was for many years the pastor of Gyaneshwar Church (aka Nepali Isai Mandali) in Kathmandu, which has been called the largest congregation in the country.

I met Robert many times during my first years in Nepal. He was always kind and gracious. He had a lovely sonorous voice that made him easy to listen to and, being from Kalimpong, India (he was ethnically a Lepcha) he had very clear Nepali speech that was easier for learners to follow than some of the more local preachers.

In meetings I became aware of the huge authority he had. A discussion I once hosted had plenty of young men eager to offer their opinions. But then, when Robert cleared his throat, you sensed a hush as people listened intently. And his word carried weight. Once he had spoken, the whole room had a unified opinion!

I count it a privilege to have met this man who worked so hard in the kingdom of God. I appreciated his ministry. But I also had my misgivings. More than any other, I think, Robert defined the culture of the Nepali church. How would I characterise that? It was really the culture of global evangelicalism of the second half of the twentieth century - evangelical, non-denominational and charismatic - with a Nepali twist.

When the Kalimpong band arrived in Kathmandu in 1956, not long after the country had opened up to outsiders, Robert had a clear sense of the way they were to operate. Many of the mistakes that had plagued the churches in India over the preceding century were to be rectified: denominationalism was out, an indigenous approach to leadership, financial support and gospel proclamation was in. All well and good.

But that left so much to be desired. Robert daju went to London Bible College in the 1960 where, among others, he would have had Ernest Kevan as his tutor. I am sure he benefitted hugely from that. But, as with so much preparation for ministry in other contexts there would have been little attempt to help the young pastor to wrestle deeply with Hindu and Buddhist notions and customs, and develop a distinctly Nepali theology.

Consequently, local folk who dropped in to his church to see what was going on (as remains a common feature) would have left with their preconception that the Christian church was 'foreign religion' unchallenged. I could never understand why Robert's wife, who predeceased him by many years, always wore white. White, for Hindus, is the colour of mourning, and typically worn by widows. So imagine the surprise of locals to find she was the pastor's wife!

I think this lack of contextual theologising also left Robert daju open to 'every wind of doctrine': among other innovations, he introduced the Toronto Blessing to Nepal in the 1990s. I don't know how much impact that had. By then I was seeking to identify more thoughtfully with the Hindu and Buddhist community to whom the Lord had led us.

My prayer is that the church in Nepal would honour the legacy of this man of God while seeking to move beyond his limitations.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Living by Grace

I just began a new sermon series at our own church - Freeschool Court Church.

My aim is to consider the words of Romans 5:2 in particular and what it means to stand in grace.

As before, I will add links to messages as they come up.

1. How to Have Peace with God (Romans 5:1)

2. The Foundation of Discipleship (Romans 5:2)

3. Rejoicing in Hope (Romans 5:2)

4. Hope in Suffering (Romans 5:3-4)

5. New Life (Romans 6:1-4)

6. New Lifestyle (Romans 6:1-14)

7. Our Spiritual Conflict (Eph 6:10-24)

8. How to Outfox the Devil (2 Cor 2:11)

9. Understanding Spiritual Problems (Mark 12:28-34)

10. Dealing with Spiritual Depression (Psalms 42 & 43)

11. How to Deal with Failure (Romans 6:15-23)

12. How to Handle Doubt (Matt 28:17)

13. Led by the Spirit (Rom 8:12-13)

14. Sons of God (Rom 8:14-17)

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Should All Missionaries Be Elders?

Phil Remmers has recently published an article - Biblical Eldership and Global Missions A Vital and Necessary Unionon the 9Marks website, on the selection, training, and funding of missionaries, and especially on the relationship between missionaries and their sending church.

Remmers has had extensive experience of ministry in Asia and now is involved in publishing reformed literature in many Asian languages.

He writes many good things in the course of the article, for which I am thankful. The comments on funding are especially helpful, though hardly groundbreaking - people have been saying stuff like this for decades. But it is worth banging on about the broken system that has been developed and continues to be pursued. In fact, in my opinion he could have gone much further. Why, for instance, is a family needing $8000 a month for their salary? I can imagine some situations - ministry in Singapore or Tokyo, for instance, where this level of support is necessary. But if, as I have observed myself many times among certain mission organisations, the family is living in a posh compound with a brand new imported jeep, in a community in which even well off locals can only dream of that lifestyle, further questions need to be asked.

He says that at least half of the missionaries he encountered in his ministry location (unspecified for security reasons) should not have been there at all because they were unqualified for the ministry and in any case tended only to stay for 2-3 years and leave without bearing fruit. And that is not counting 'short-term missionaries'.

Although I can see how he can come to such a judgment, I am uneasy about this. He affirms, in a footnote, that God is sovereign in salvation. But he nevertheless is happy to sit in judgment on the fruitfulness of others in ministry. How can he have sufficient knowledge about the relationships these folk had developed in their short time? And even if he did have that sort of data, real spiritual fruit is often unseen. I hope he is not ashamed on the Last Day for having written that.

The main burden of the paper, though, is to argue that all missionaries should first of all be elders of the local church back home before they are appointed to their ministry overseas. I get the sentiment. After all, as the argument goes, why would we send out people for ministry in hard places overseas if we wouldn't have them be involved in ministry at home? Fair question. He has diagnosed a serious missionary malady.

But Remmers' remedy is unbiblical, naive, and worldly.

Unbiblical

In Acts 13 the Antioch church sent out two of their 'prophets and teachers' - Barnabas and Saul. There does seem to be something of a paradigmatic character to this story, situated as it is in the unfolding story of the expansion of the gospel to the ends of the earth. And yet Paul was happy to have all sorts on his apostolic team: Luke the doctor, for example; Timothy, who, we are told, was a 'disciple' when he was taken on by Paul as a travelling companion (Acts 16:1-3); Erastus, who along with Timothy is called Paul's 'helper' (Acts 19:22).

When Paul left Corinth he was accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:18). Now I suspect (since this is on 9Marks) that Remmers would not be happy with female elders. So what does he do with Priscilla? Is she not a missionary?

Naive

This leads on to the training of missionaries. The best missionaries the author has encountered tended to have been trained at Master's Seminary, where the training is explicitly for elders. Now, as I have said, much that he says here is valuable. Better, he says, to have fewer, better trained, and proven missionaries, than the mess that he has seen.

But he overstates his case. And the reason he does that is this: he has not diagnosed the malady correctly. The disease is much more serious than he realises. It is not just the two- to three-year, untrained, unqualified missionaries who are caught up in the problem. It is a whole lot more, including, perhaps Remmers himself.

Worldly

Remmers is operating out of a paradigm for cross-cultural ministry that has been weighed in the balances and been found wanting.

It comes out in numerous ways and is exemplified in the uncritical use of the term 'missionary'. As I have explained here before, this term, and the notion it represents is seriously problematic. It is not a biblical word and continues to have much baggage that seriously compromises a healthy approach to cross-cultural ministry, including the financial aspect mentioned earlier.

Remmers observes that Master's Seminary has no missions professors but that their graduates are "both biblically qualified and​ are able to use their gifts in a foreign language and culture" - without any training in intercultural communication, or in understanding how other cultures operate, or in appreciating anything about how other workers have fared in previous generations, or in examining the state of churches in the nations to which they are sent. (This is an issue I have addressed frequently, such as here.)

Remmers' seems to have no appreciation of how culture-bound his view of cross-cultural ministry is. This lack of self-awareness is the chief weakness of the article and why I do not commend it.