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.


Thursday, December 24, 2020

Donald Mitchell


A week ago, around this time, my friend Donald Mitchell was cycling home to St Brides Major from his job as librarian at Union School of Theology. He never made it. He was struck from behind by a car on the A48 and killed instantly. 

This is how the BBC reported it.

We got the news later that evening. It was devastating. Donald was a former colleague of mine from when I worked at WEST (as Union used to be called). He was also a fellow church member at FreeSchool Court in Bridgend.

People have stated how they enjoyed his banter. He could take it as well as give it out. Others have also chipped in of how helpful Donald was to students in the library. I think Donald always felt a little frustrated in the library with the lack of resources. With his experience he could have led a team doing the work that he did. As it was, he was the sole librarian, with help from volunteers. He didn't complain but just got on with it.

One thing I really appreciated about Donald was that he always arrived early, I think by a whole hour, in order to have quiet time with the Lord before the work started. 

He was also a disciplined man: he clearly struggled with staying trim so he watched his diet closely and I think twice a week had 'control days' in which he hardly ate anything at all.

But the thing I appreciated most about Donald, along with his widow Sian, was that he gave himself to generous hospitality. Many are the students and church members, and others I am sure, who were invited to their home for a meal. 

Hospitality is a neglected gift in the Western church. We have so much but many of us don't share that with others. Donald was a busy man and could easily have said that he works hard during the week so he needs his Lord's Days to rest. Hospitality doesn't blend with that mindset. Donald never complained about people coming over to his house - he enjoyed it. I think he and Sian simply saw a need and sought to use their energies and gifts and time to address that need.

I am sure many lives have been enriched as a result. And unbelievers have seen faith in action. At least one Korean student came to faith while taking a one-year course at the college. It is in the home that those who don't know Christ see his loveliness tangibly expressed - who will pick up the mantle that fell from Donald's shoulders?

Home - he never made it back to that home. But he did make it home in the truest sense of that word. "This world is not our home, we're just a-passing through." Donald understood that and lived by it. And now he stands in heaven enjoying unbroken communion with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, with the angels and with the rest of that glorious multitude.

To close, I want to add the words that our former pastor, Stephen Clark, wrote a few days ago:

And the stately ships go on                                                                                                To their haven under the hill;                                                                                                        But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand,                                                                                             And the sound of a voice that is still.

     (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)                                                                                              

For the many who knew and loved him, Donald’s death has left an aching void in their hearts. The terrible pain which his dear wife and children feel must surely be indescribable, as is the great loss to his parents and to all of his family, to all of whom he was utterly devoted.

Donald had so many sterling qualities. As his pastor for 22 years, it was always sheer, unmixed joy to spend time with him, whether this was just chatting after a Sunday or mid-week meeting, at the Union library, or in his home. My wife Lynne and I spent many happy hours in Donald and Sian’s home because they were very much given to hospitality and together they were an ideal host and hostess. On numerous occasions we enjoyed a sumptuous Sunday lunch or a Saturday evening meal, sometimes just ourselves and at other times in company with others. The fellowship was always perfectly natural and spiritual: at one moment we could be sharing aspects of our Christian experience, then discussing the meaning of a passage of Scripture or the significance of a biblical doctrine, only to move on to family matters, aspects of gardening, current affairs or world history. The conversation was always interesting because Donald – and Sian – were so interesting.

God’s grace was very evident in Donald’s life. We were in the same home group for some years, a group which I led. He confided in me that he was aware of the fact that he may at times say too much in the study and that if this were so, I should ask him to be quiet. He was at pains to stress that he would not be at all offended if I were to do so but that he would be grateful: he was concerned for the benefit of the whole group. I was struck by his humility in speaking thus.

Donald had taken a course in what used to be called the Glasgow Bible Institute in the days when the godly and scholarly Geoffrey Grogan was its principal. Consequently Donald was more aware of certain theological issues and trends than would otherwise have been the case and he was concerned that he would not, in his comments in a home group, burden others with contributions which they might not find that relevant. I thought that this revealed the sort of sober self-knowledge which Paul commends in Romans 12:3 and which is encapsulated in the ancient Greek adage, ‘Know thyself’. At the same time, it meant that he was able to be of help to other believers who may not have seen as clearly as he that their understanding of a passage might be somewhat off beam. 

Donald was a conscientious information resources manager and librarian who, in the world’s eyes, must have taken a demotion by abandoning his career in secular academia to become the information manager and librarian at what used to be known as WEST and is now Union. It was, however, the opposite of demotion, for Donald had a sense of vocation to serve the students and faculty, as well as the wider church. To have a man of his qualifications and experience was surely a God-send. He worked hard and untiringly and was utterly devoted to the college. I can still see the flash of righteous anger in his eyes and the tone of indignation in his speech when, from time to time, unjust accusations were made that the college had abandoned evangelical truth. It was the more striking because Donald was essentially a gentle person.

Although a serious Christian, Donald did not take himself too seriously and had a great sense of humour and of fun. The fact that both he and I would be quite happy to wear clothes which others would regard as sartorially off the wall became the source of much amusement between us. In explaining to him why I had bought a pair of Italian trousers which others in the church thought to be more like pyjamas, I said that they had been a tremendous bargain. He replied, ‘Some bargains are best left where they are!’ We both roared with laughter. Apparently, given the Austrian blood in him, Donald had once been minded to buy a pair of Lederhosen – the kind of leather shorts which some Austrians wear, as well as being worn by Bavarians at their beer festivals. Sian had put her foot down. Mindful that Donald also had Scottish blood in him and having heard that it was possible to buy tartan Lederhosen, I playfully suggested to him that he should be the man in his house and the next time he went to Austria he should buy himself a pair. Sian said to me that if he did, she would never forgive me for having planted such an idea in his head. Again, there was hilarity all around.

One of the great things about Donald, to which I have already alluded, was that there was no dualism in him. I mean by this that he knew that the God of salvation is the God of creation and that God has given us all things richly to enjoy. This was why he was every bit as much at home in the garden or riding his bike through breath taking scenery, as he was when tracking down an obscure theological article for me or praying in a prayer meeting. 

Donald was a true friend and the Scripture says that faithful are the wounds of a friend. On two occasions he gently remonstrated with me or exhorted me, on both occasions in his capacity as librarian at Union. The first time was when I was explaining something to him on the phone which I had already explained in the past. We were both busy at the time and he felt that I was, therefore, wasting his time and mine. The second occasion related to my having kept a book longer than I really should have: it was Spurgeon who, with his characteristic wit, once said that many Christians were great book keepers but poor accountants! This having been said, Donald would let me borrow books on his card when I had reached the limit on my own. This was but one of the ways in which he served the wider church, for I know that I was not the only pastor to benefit from him being the librarian at Union.

And now he is no longer with us. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Truly God’s ways are inscrutable to us. Who can fathom why Donald should have been taken when he was taken and in the way in which he was taken? Surely the only comfort for dear Sian, the three girls and the rest of the family is to be found in Jesus’ remarkable words to Peter about ‘the beloved disciple’, who was almost certainly the apostle John: ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?’ Ultimately when we die is in the hands of Jesus Christ. Donald had long since placed his trust in Jesus for life, for death and for eternity. He was safe and is safe. He shall be sorely missed. 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Mystery of Godliness


This is my second series for Freeschool Court church, of which I am an elder. I decided to do a series on godliness, a.k.a. spirituality, after we studied 1 Timothy in our home groups over the past year. Godliness is an important theme of that letter and I felt compelled to explore it further for my own benefit as well as for the benefit of others. The more I meditated on this theme, the more I found in Scripture so that I developed a whole series on it, that frankly could go on a long time! Although I had quite a bit more material that I could have developed on this theme, I decided to bring it to a close with 10 messages. The last thing I would want is for people to get bored of godliness! Better to leave people wanting more.

I have found the writings of Jerry Bridges - especially, The Practice of Godliness - helpful, as well as various writings I have been able to pull off my shelves from over 40 years of buying good books. These include works by J. I. Packer, Thomas Watson, John Owen, Tim Chester (Enjoying God), Iain Hamilton. But mostly I have sought to meditate on Scripture and not try to reproduce what others have said. 

You can click on the links below to access the videos: