Reformed Pastor: take oversight of ourselves

Christian ministry is demanding. There are as many needs as there are people in a parish, and most people have more than one need. Church ministries need to be organised and the more we do the more organisation is required. In addition to that inexaustible workload is a personal life, being a husband and father, and so we find there is plenty to distract the minister from feeding himself on the word of God.

In chapter one of the Reformed Pastor, Richard Baxter warns pastors against scimping on their spiritual nourishment.

See that the work of saving grace be thoroughly wrought in your own souls…Take heed of yourselves, lest you perish, while you call upon others to take heed of perishing; and lest you famish yourselves while you prepare food for them…many a cook scarcely licks his fingers, when he hath dressed for others the most costly dishes. Believe it, brethren, God never saved any man for being a preacher, nor because he was an able preacher; but because he was a justified, sanctified man, and consequently faithful in his Master’s work.

To have and maintain a living knowledge of the grace of God, my justification in Christ and the theological and practical sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, this is what comes first as a Christian believer.  Everything else flows from this source. Simple but essential. Chapter 1.1. May my life never be so cluttered and busy that I starve myself of Christ.

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Richard Baxter: Dedication from the Reformed Pastor.

I have just started reading Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor and will blog my thoughts on some contemporary application as I do.

Writing in 1655, Baxter called the clergy of Worcester and surrounding areas to a prayer meeting to confess their sloth and lack of zeal in not making disciples of Christ of the hundreds of dying and perishing souls in their parishes. Baxter was a leader and began by calling leaders to confession and prayer.

He then gives six reasons why personal, private catechism (from the Greek meaning to instruct) is vital to the work of the gospel.  His concern is for the minister to do what God makes clear in scripture, to makes disciples, for the eternal and temporal good of the souls in his care and to be well organised in the giving the majority of his working week to this task. He writes:

The first, and main point, which I have to propound to you, is this, Whether it be not the unquestionable duty of the generality of ministers of these three nations [possibly England, Wales, ans Scotland?] to set themselves presently to the work of catechizing, and instructing individually, all that are committed to their care, who will be persuaded to submit thereunto? I need not here stand to prove it, having sufficiently done this in the following discourse. Can you think that holy wisdom will gainsay it? Will zeal for God; will delight in his service, or love to the souls of men, gainsay it

1. That people must be taught the principles of religion, and matters of greatest necessity to salvation, is past doubt among us.
2. That they must be taught it in the most edifying, advantageous way, I hope we are agreed.
3. That personal conference, and examination, and instruction, hath many excellent advantages for their good, is no less beyond dispute.
4. That personal instruction is recommended to us by Scripture, and by the practice of the servants of Christ, and approved by the godly of all ages, is, so far as I can find, without contradiction.
5. It is past doubt, that we should perform this great duty to all the people, or as many as we can; for our love and care of their souls must extend to all. If there are five hundred or a thousand ignorant people in your parish or congregation, it is a poor discharge of your duty, now and then to speak to some few of them, and to let the rest alone in their ignorance, if you are able to afford them help.
6. It is no less certain, that so great a work as this is should take up a considerable part of our time. Lastly, it is equally certain that all duties should be done in order, as far as may be, and therefore should have their appointed times. And if we are agreed to practice, according to these commonly acknowledged truths, we need not differ upon any doubtful circumstances.

Baxter organised this by appointing the parish clerk to visit each house and book an appoitment to see the vicar for an hour, with the first family booked for an 8am meeting and then one throught the day, on the hour.

I like the way Baxter delegated administration so he could give his energies to teaching and instruction. I also believe that the time for the church to use catechism as an introductory teaching method has returned. The vast majority of people today have little or no biblical knowledge but the classic bible study method assumes a fair amount of basic, Sunday school knowledge, which need to be deepened or corrected. Catechism assumes no prior knowledge. Bible study also requires the new believer to do the work of comprehension of the text before coming to an answer. For the well educated, comprehension is a skill already aquired but for many it is an unfamiliar task and can put an obstacle in the way of knowing the truth.

Baxter continues to urge his clergy brothers to be vigorous, unanimous and united in this work:

And now, brethren, I earnestly beseech you, in the name of God, and for the sake of your people’s souls, that you will not slightly slubber over this work, but do it vigorously, and with all your might; and make it your great and serious business. Much judgment is required for the managing of it. Study, therefore, beforehand, how to do it, as you study for your sermons.

My second request to the ministers in these kingdoms, is, that they would at last, without any more delay, unanimously set themselves to the practice of those parts of Church discipline which are unquestionably necessary, and part of their work. It is a sad case, that good men should settle themselves so long in the constant neglect of so great a duty.

My last request is, that all the faithful ministers of Christ would, without any more delay, unite and associate for the furtherance of each other in the work of the Lord, and the maintaining of unity and concord in his churches. My last request is, that all the faithful ministers of Christ would, without any more delay, unite and associate for the furtherance of each other in the work of the Lord, and the maintaining of unity and concord in his churches.

It must be clear to us all that the Church [of England] today has no less a need for vigour and unity in the task of bringing Christ to the nation.

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Sabbatical Day 82: Reflection time and a sabbatical in numbers

In a scene of one of my favourite films, Gregory’s Girl, Clare Grogan (Susan) asks John Gordon Sinclair (Gregory) why boys are obsessed with numbers. He denies the charge until she shows him what he’s like and then he replies “numbers make the world go round.”

The Robbies didn’t quite go round the world but I am a boy who is slightly obsessed by numbers. So here’s a summary of this sabbatical in numbers. This list is the result of a morning spent reflecting and praying through things God has taught me over the past twelve weeks. The list is the non-personal summary:

84 days
5 different countries
23,400 miles travelled
10 churches visited
4 sermons preached
100+ friends reunited
27 meals with friends
30 blog posts written
15 books and 8 academic articles read
5 Robbie family members delighted
1 God to be forever praised and glorified

The study and family travel have both done huge amounts of good for the Robbies, and hopefully for the many people we met with and for ministry in the next few years. It has been a very refreshing twelve weeks.

I had my final supervision with Garry Williams this afternoon, which we helpful for refining my study guide but also very stimulating. I finished reading Garry’s book “His love endures forever”, which refreshed my knowledge in head and heart of just how God is love.

Someone asked for my reading list, so here’s everything I can remember reading, in the order I read them, and hope this list might be helpful for others

Books on Sacraments and Preaching
Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament
Ronald S. Wallace, (Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, 1953)
Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.
Keith A. Matthison (P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, 2002)
Archbishop Cranmer’s Immortal Bequest. Samuel Leuenberger
Thomas Cranmer. Countenay Library of Reformation Classics
The Covenant Sealed: The development of Puritan Sacramental Theology in Old and New England
E. Brooks Holifield (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1974)
Francis Turretin: Institutes of Elenctic Theology Question 19- The Sacraments
A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God centred worship
Michael Horton (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2002)

Journal articles
Affinity Journal No 68 Spring 2015
Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and its Relevance for Today, William B. Evans
Not reformed enough: critiquing contemporary practice of the Lord’s Supper.
John Stevens
Response to John Stevens, “Not Reformed Enough: Critiquing Contemporary Practice of the Lord’s Supper 39 Robert Strivens Principal, London Theological Seminary
The Lord’s Supper in England: Then and now – a look at how Thomas Cranmer’s eucharistic theology compares with today. Richard Wardman
The Doctrine of Justification in the Church of England: Latimer Studies 3 Robin Leaver Latimer House 1979

Website articles
Holy Communion in Common Worship by David Peterson (http://www.theologian.org.uk/)
Church Society Issues | Liturgy | Holy Communion Order Two in Contemporary Language (http://churchsociety.org/)
A Spiritual Banquet: John Calvin on the Lord’s Supper by Matthew W. Mason (http://www.theologian.org.uk/)
The Prayer Book Catechism by Jim Rushton (http://www.fows.org/)
The Function of the Words of Institution in the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Ros Clarke (http://www.theologian.org.uk/)

Catechisms
To be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism. The Anglican Church in North America (January 2014)
The Book of Common Prayer catechism.

Books on Urban Ministry
Urban Harvest. Roy Joslin
Angels on the Walls. Wallace and Mary Brown
Crossing the Divide by Owen Hylton
William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, In Darkest England and the Way Out

Books for personal growth
Radical Together, David Platt
Shaped by the Gospel Tim Keller
What would Jesus ask? Jim Dixon
Questioning Evangelism. Randy Newman
His love Endures Forever: Reflections on the love of God, Garry J Williams

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Sabbatical Day 81: Project complete

I have finished (woop-woop) the three parts of my study guide, “Why should I go to church?” My aim is is to give people an understanding of God’s part and our part in the service of holy communion. The guide sets out the way God makes and renews His covenant of grace with his gathered people during the communion service.

As I have studied, it has taken me by surprise just how little I knew about the function and structure of communion services. Previous studies focused on the theology of various liturgies, with critical attention to detail, so that I could spot heresy at 50 yards, but I had never given much thought to the whole. Until now, I could see no other function in communion than to remember Jesus’ death for my sin.

But now the answer to the question “why should I go to church?” is first and foremost, in my mind, for God’s people to meet with God to renew His covenant of grace. Communion is a corporate activity but my thinking and practice until now has been heavily skewed by individualistic western culture.

The study guide breaks into two parts.  Part 1 could be used by any church with a reformed (Calvinistic) theology of communion. It teaches about communion through nine questions and answers, which cover a wide range of subjects: there’s a brief bible overview and then a theology of covenants, preaching, signs, seals, the indwelling of Christ, personal salvation and the work of the Holy Spirit in communion, individually and corporately. It ends by introducing people to the basic elements of the Anglican communion service.

Qu1. What is the basic Christian story?
Qu2. What is a communion service for?
Qu3. How does God make promises and speak to his people?
Qu4. What is a sign and how does it work?
Qu4a. What signs has God given his people?
Qu5. What is a seal and how does it work?
Qu6. What does it mean to be “in” Christ?
Qu7. What do I need to do to receive eternal life?
Qu8. What happens when believers gather for a communion service? How does God renew his covenant with his people?
Qu9. What are the different parts of a communion service?

Part one gives the foundation upon which part 2 is built. I envisage that part one might take a term to study. The pace of learning and progress will depend on the group and each question could take two or more sessions to cover properly, especially the questions on preaching and on signs. Part 2 might also take a term, depending how long it takes to cover the ACNA Catechism, which is over 400 questions and answers! It is more easily digestible when broken down.

Part 2 of why should I go to church takes people through the whole of the Common Worship (Order 2) Communion service, so is only really for Anglicans. The aim is to give people a deep grasp of the theology and the purpose of the communion service as a whole, whilst studying the parts in some detail. The structure of the communion service is made clear, I think, and the reasons given for why each part is included. The aim is for people to grasp their part in renewing the covenant of grace with God.

Part 2 is set out in two columns. The liturgy is on the left and a commentary and catechism on the right. When it comes to the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and the 10 Commandments, there is lots to teach and so people are referred to the ACNA Catechism.

The third, and final part, is a double sided A4 laminated service sheet. The headers for each section of the service follow the same format as the study guide part 2, so that the service sheet will not only act as a guide in worship but a reminder of what was studied during the course. We use a projector for the liturgy, so people will have a choice to use the service sheet or the screen.

The ACNA catechism has a service for Admission of Catechumens (people starting the course of study based on the catechism) which I intend to use when we start the first course to publicly mark the point of setting off for the group.

I expect revisions (probably after my final supervision with Garry Williams and as I trial the studies), but my hope is that others might want to use the guide too.

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Sabbatical Day 80: Jet lag in Darkest England

The Robbies got back a week ago from Singapore. My jet lag has just ended so I have the energy to blog. It was far more exhausting coming this way round the world, back to darkest England.

Since returning, we’ve unpacked, got our kids back to school, visited St Matthew’s, Tipton and I’ve been back in the library. My studies are nearly complete. I am meeting with my supervisor, Garry Williams, on Friday in London to wrap things up. Until then I am giving myself to prayer, to be ready to get back in the harness. I only have four whole days left! I’m also reading and tidying up my study guide on communion. I plan to post the drafts tomorrow.

I had an hour or so to kill yesterday afternoon waiting for my son in Birmingham, so I sat in St Martin’s in the Bullring and prayed. I have spent more time with the homeless this week, who seemed to have multiplied over the summer. One lady I’ve met a few times said that a lad died aged 28 from a bad batch of mamba. As she shared her story, a man was sitting on a bench out of his face, apparently from the same bad batch. The young man I met with each day before we left for Asia has vanished. I hope it wasn’t him who died.

There’s now such a massive crowd of the homeless just hanging out in the streets of Birmingham and being moved on or arrested by the police. They are a growing symptom of a wealthy nation and complacent church which have no real awareness of the scale or nature of the problem or a working answer for homelessness.

The words of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, from In Darkest England and the Way Out, which I read yesterday, have have a very contemporary ring. I am now convinced that my work on communion services as the regular renewal of God’s covenant of grace (see drafts of study guides tomorrow) and the needs of the poor on our doorstep to hear and receive the gospel and to grow as disciples of Christ have come together for a reason. I’ll post on this tomorrow. In the mean time, here’s William Booth:

We talk about the brutalities of the dark ages, and we profess to shudder as we read in books of the shameful exaction of the rights of feudal superior. And yet here, beneath our very eyes, in our theatres, in our restaurants, and in many other places, unspeakable though it be but to name it, the same hideous abuse flourishes unchecked. A young penniless girl, if she be pretty, is often hunted from pillar to post by her employers, confronted always by the alternative—Starve or Sin. And when once the poor girl has consented to buy the right to earn her living by the sacrifice of her virtue, then she is treated as a slave and an outcast by the very men who have ruined her. Her word becomes unbelievable, her life an ignominy, and she is swept downward ever downward, into the bottomless perdition of prostitution. But there, even in the lowest depths, excommunicated by Humanity and outcast from God, she is far nearer the pitying heart of the One true Saviour than all the men who forced her down, aye, and than all the Pharisees and Scribes who stand silently by while these Fiendish wrongs are perpetrated before their very eyes. The blood boils with impotent rage at the sight of these enormities, callously inflicted, and silently borne by these miserable victims. Nor is it only women who are the victims, although their fate is the most tragic. Those firms which reduce sweating to a fine art, who systematically and deliberately defraud the workman of his pay, who grind the faces of the poor, and who rob the widow and the orphan, and who for a pretence make great professions of public spirit and philanthropy, these men nowadays are sent to Parliament to make laws for the people. The old prophets sent them to Hell—but we have changed all that.

What a satire it is upon our Christianity and our civilisation that the existence of these colonies of heathens and savages in the heart of our capital should attract so little attention! It is no better than a ghastly mockery—theologians might use a stronger word—to call by the name of One who came to seek and to save that which was lost those Churches which in the midst of lost multitudes either sleep in apathy or display a fitful interest in a chasuble. Why all this apparatus of temples and meeting-houses to save men from perdition in a world which is to come, while never a helping hand is stretched out to save them from the inferno of their present life? Is it not time that, forgetting for a moment their wranglings about the infinitely little or infinitely obscure, they should concentrate all their energies on a united effort to break this terrible perpetuity of perdition, and to rescue some at least of those for whom they profess to believe their Founder came to die?

As Christ came to call not the saints but sinners to repentance, so the New Message of Temporal Salvation, of salvation from pinching poverty, from rags and misery, must be offered to all. They may reject it, of course. But we who call ourselves by the name of Christ are not worthy to profess to be His disciples until we have set an open door before the least and worst of these who are now apparently imprisoned for life in a horrible dungeon of misery and despair. The responsibility for its rejection must be theirs, not ours.

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Sabbatical Day 72: Christ Church Singapore and leaving SE Asia

There are times in the Christian life when various things fall in place and the Lord’s love and will is revealed in unexpected ways. The past week has been one of those times. Through two books, a whole Sunday at Christ Church, Singapore, and this weeks’ memory verse from Desiring God’s Fighter Verses, God has spoken to me about my return to the UK.

The two books were Angels on the Walls by Wallace and Mary Brown and Crossing the Divide by Owen Hylton. Through the honesty of the first God has shown me that pain and struggle are normal in ministry, that my experience is far from unique. Through the vision, theology and wisdom of the second, God has confirmed that working in the context of racial and cultural diversity in West Bromwich is exactly what he has prepared me and Amanda for. Continue reading

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Sabbatical Day 66: Feet up

This is the first day the Robbies have put our collective feet up since leaving the UK. We have either been travelling, sight seeing, eating with people or visiting church projects. It’s been a brilliant, busy and totally distracting trip but now it’s very good not to have to do anything but read, relax and swim at very easy going Melina Beach Resort.

I brought a few books with me, to help reflect on urban ministry: Tim Keller’s Shaped by the Gospel, Roy Joslin’s Urban Harvest and Wallace and Mary Brown’s Angels on the Walls.

Keller’s book was most helpful on “three ways to live” (religious, irreligious and gospel). I’m not convinced that his highly rational, post-modern approach to proclamation works outside the urban elite or suburbia. Roy Joslin advocates a concrete rather than conceptual gospel proclamation for the working class, where reasoning is less linear and more intuitive, anecdotal and observed. Awareness of the difference has been helpful for me.

Wallace and Mary Brown’s book was given to me by a friend back in 2007. I have only just got round to reading it but the timing was perfect. In fact, I am glad I didn’t read it before now. Wallace and Mary Brown tell stories of church vandalism, middle of the night hoax calls, dangerous brick-wielding vagrants and arson attacks which traumatised them and their young children. They tell these stories in a caring, deeply immersed way, but like many tourists tell tales of visits to foreign countries, the Browns assess the culture and behaviour of the locals as outsiders (though the Browns admit that their middle class values influence their view of life on the estate). I know I am guilty of the same slightly incredulous story telling, when with fellow outsiders. The Brown’s stories resonated with our experiences but it was the way that they handled life on the estate which encouraged me.

Wallace is open about the related sense of failure as a vicar, husband and father. He speaks of the distance and greyness of God and of trying to keep going when on the inside he is emotionally drained and feeling isolated. The similarity of ministry, as an outsider and Anglican, made my sense of isolation reduce. Books like Joslin’s Urban Harvest or Mez McConnell and Mike McKinley’s Church in Hard Places are excellent biblical theories of ministry in the estate. The theory, however, can leave the reader with a sense of inadequacy, as reality is often miles from the theory. Angels on the Walls give a healthy and refreshing dose of reality. Through the balance of theory and reality in the books I brought with me, God has given me increased strength to persevere.

Two lessons have emerged from Angels on the Wall. First, Wallace learned though suffering about God’s work in him. Through perseverance in suffering for the gospel, God grows character in his children and character produces hope. I have always been aware that God uses ministry to sanctify the minister, as he does in different ways in all true Christians. God has used the set-backs at Holy Trinity West Bromwich to make me lay down the desire to be successful in the eyes of the world. The duration and pain of the lesson shows what I slow learner I am!

Second, Wallace learned to tell the people their sins (Micah 3:8). Powerlessness and lack of opportunity creates a sense of victimhood for anyone trapped in an estate. Wallace learned to be direct with anyone whose life was a mess so that they would take personal responsibility for the mess. One man was suicidal. He’d been told that his domestic violence, estrangement from his kids and inability to hold down a job were not his fault, but a product of his poor upbringing. This counselling had trapped him. He felt powerless to change. Wallace told the man his sins, that he had been rebelling against the God who made him. Suddenly the man asked what he could do to be saved and to change. The man gave his life to Christ and ended up in full time Christian ministry.

The ministry of a middle class vicar in an estate can be hampered by a sense of privilege. I can tell myself that I have a “better” life because of my upbringing and that I have no right to minster from a position of privilege. But this is a lie. Sin is sin and needs to be named, owned, repented of and forgiven in Christ.

Now, where’s my snorkel and flippers?

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