Joy in the Prospect of Improvement

14 02 2007

I firmly believe that preaching and teaching God’s Word is the highest privilege in the world, without exception. To be charged by God Himself to preach His gospel, and to teach His people, never ceases to terrify and enthrall me. The man-hours required to study the Scriptures are no drudgery, but a delight; meeting with God in His word day by day. At 29 years old I feel so blessed to be called to this work.

While being a young preacher can carry its own difficulties, (perhaps I’ll write about those in the future) to me one of the real benefits of being called so early in life is the joy I find in the prospect of improvement. I know that in coming into the work of ministry I have so much to learn, so much to improve, so much to change -and I find that hugely exciting. For me there is something special about being in the company of other more seasoned Pastors, listening to their experiences, learning from their encouragements and discouragements, taking heart from their perseverance in the service of God. I’m blessed to belong to an Association of churches which actively encourages contact between Pastors, and those times of fellowship mean more to me than I can communicate. I have colleagues who are patient with my questions, sympathetic of my inexperience, and prayerful about my ministry – and I thank God for them. Its so amazing to serve day by day in the prospect and knowledge that God is changing me, God is developing me; showing me my hopelessness and weakness, and His divine sufficiency. One of my prayers is that this sense of wonder will never cease.

I’m also grateful to fellow servants of the Lord who take the time to blog their own ministry experiences, and post their own sermons. This has opened up avenues of fellowship and education that are unique to this generation. This morning I can read about servants of God in California, London, and Craigavon – and every one of them is teaching me something.

Then there is the experience at my age of living with the prospect of reading so many great books. I have a good friend in Peru who has inspired me, not only by his library, but by the depth to which he has read. Speaking with him is at once an inspiration to read, and an education from his reading. Book reviews and recommendations give me a flutter in the stomach as I look at all of the great things which God can use to engage my mind for however much longer I live (or the Lord tarries).

I think the bottom line is: I’m grateful to God for His mercy and grace in calling me. I’m thankful for the prospect of improvement privately, and in my preaching; I’m glad that God has put me into His service not to stagnate, but to grow and develop. I’m also richly blessed to serve in a church which has been patient with my youth, and which has given me space to learn and make mistakes. God really is so gracious!


Devotional Dylan?

13 02 2007

Last autumn I bought Bob Dylan’s latest studio offering ‘Modern Times’, and it’s a testimony to the aging icon’s songwriting skills that I’m still listening to it regularly now that we are almost into spring. It’s always a major event for me when a Dylan album is released, and he is one of the few artists who will inspire me to purchase a copy of his music on it’s release date.

To me, Dylan’s greatest strength in this phase of his musical output is the honesty with which he faces the issues in his life. He isn’t pretending to still be 25 (al la The Rolling Stones), nor is he depending on collaborations with young and trendy bands to buoy up a flagging creative impulse (a la most artists of his generation). Instead Dylan reflects on life, on death and everything in between with the at once cynical, and yet indomitably sanguine eye of maturity. Aside from all of that ‘Modern Times’ is a cracking good album!

One aspect of his albums that fascinates and intrigues me is their recurring spritual motif. Whether it be the firebrand lyrics of ‘Saved’ (‘I was blinded by the devil, born already ruined, stone cold dead when I stepped out of the womb’) in the 1970s, or the amoral defiance of ‘Honest with Me’ from Love and Theft (‘I’m not sorry for nothing I’ve done) in 2001, spiritual issues are never far from the surface. Modern Times is no exception.

One can’t help feeling that images and ideas from Scripture were of importance to Dylan in this album, not only lyrically, but also in the structure of the songs musically, and their arrangement in the track listing. The first two songs pack a hefty Pentateuchal punch with ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ carrying obvious overtones of Sinai, and ‘Spirit on the Water’ making reference to creation, and ‘darkness on the face of the deep’. Musically the album begins with a conclusion and ends with an introduction. ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ opens with a crescendo, and ‘Ain’t Talking’ (the last track) ends, only to open again with hopeful tones.

‘Ain’t Talking’ is a spiritual study in itself. The piece finds Dylan in fine lyrical form, with his dusky, blues-ridden voice slurring out doom laden words against the backdrop of a band who seem to understand and anticipate his every intonation. In the song Dylan is ‘in the mystic garden’, and records a number of episodes and experiences, interspersed with deadly humour – e.g. amidst the pastoral scene of the garden he records that ‘someone hit me from behind’ with the menacing tone of Don Corleone! In terms of reflections on God, the track carries a lot of not-so-hidden meaning. Ezekiel is referenced with ‘it’s bright in the heavens, and the wheels are flying, fame and honour never seem to fade’, and against this prophetic image of God Dylan assures his hearers that ‘the fire’s gone out, but the light is never dying, who says I can’t get heavenly aid?’. An admission of backsliding perhaps, but ultimately of faith. This is corroborated by his reference to devotion ‘all my loyal and my much loved companions, they approve of me and share my code; I practice a faith that’s long abandoned, ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road’. Just what these words mean for a lapsed Messianic Jew is difficult to ascertain.

‘Ain’t Talking’ (and the entire album) concludes with an elusive reference to the Resurrection. Dylan is back in the garden he describes at the commencement of the song, and states ‘As I walked out in the mystic garden, on a hot summer day, hot summer long, Excuse me M’am I beg your pardon, there’s no one here the Gardener is gone’.

With all of its Scriptural and spiritual references, where does Dylan wish to lead his listeners in this album? In the final assessment, nowhere. He has always refused to be set up as cultural prophet (whether in the 1960’s folk movement, or in more modern exchanges with the music press) and this album is no exception. Dylan hints, alludes, and perplexes us with his spirituality and lyricism. Does he still profess faith in Christ after his ‘conversion’ in the late 1970’s? I don’t know, but certainly the issues of faith, life and death resonate strongly in his intellectual world, and in his recordings. Dylan writes about Modern Times in ancient and elusive language, and for that very reason the album is a treasure.

Elijah resources…

8 02 2007

At Church we’re studying the life and times of Elijah in our midweek prayer meeting and Bible study. Last night I reviewed a few books which are helping me in my preparation, and thought that these might be helpful for folks from the Church who wanted to get copies for themselves.

For a book entirely devoted to Elijah’s life, Pink’s treatment is hard to top. It’s written in an accessible and passionate style, and will be of great benefit to anyone who reads it. I’ve found that anyone I’ve given or recommended this book to has been blessed by it without exception. It is published by Banner of Truth(see the sidebar picture for the link)and can be purchased from them, or ICM sell it at a reduced price.

For a broader treatment of 1Kings Dale Ralph Davis’ The Wisdom and the Folly is simply superb. This book was highly recommended to me during the summer, and it definitely didn’t disappoint. Reading Davis is a unique experience in that he manages to combine exegetical integrity, engagement with current criticism, and a quirky sense of humour to make a very readable book. For me, Davis’ book cannot be recommended highly enough, and so fresh are his interpretations on Elijah that it is hard to conduct a series of studies without feeling deeply indebted to the contents of this volume. This is best purchased from ICM, who once again do a serious discount on the RRP (Recommended Retail Price, not Really Reformed Presbyterians!).

I would only recommend this final book if you’re giving consideration to doing some serious study in 1&2Kings. This is partly because of it’s price, it’s relatively small section on Elijah, and also it’s more technical nature. Konkel goes into a lot of detail, with a much less readable style than Pink or Davis, but some of his insights are brilliant. The ‘Contemporary Significance’ section has helped me enormously in applying the text of 1Kings 16-17, with its very helpful analogy of The Market and Baal worship. Not for the faint hearted, but helpful in it’s own way.

I’m using bits and pieces of other books, but those are the main three. I’d love to hear from you on anything that you’ve found helpful on Elijah’s life, whether you belong to our Church, or are simply a drive-by blog reader!

Sermon Skirmish

7 02 2007

This is an excellent article on the battle which takes place when the Word of God is preached. It has helped me this morning, and will be of benefit to anyone who preaches, or listens to the Word of God preached: Voice of Vision: Sermon Skirmish

Pursuing Purity Pt.6 – Hope for the Battle Weary

2 02 2007

This is the final post on pursuing purity (at least for a while). Over the past few weeks I’ve been sharing some gems from John Owen’s Mortification of Sin, seeking to give just a sample of the extraordinary counsel and wisdom of this volume. The blessing I have received from going back over the book is enormous – it is a bit like Polonium 210: once you’re in contact with it it leaves its mark!

For me, Owen strikes a wonderful balance in his treatment of indwelling sin. He simultanaeously leaves no quarter for pride or for dejection, but gives a clear eyed view of our sinfulness while providing comfort and balm to our hearts. His unrelenting focus is Christ, and that is so utterly refreshing. His is no self-help manual abounding in pragmatism, but rather practical vital godliness founded in the character of our Saviour and His work.

A fitting quote to end on, then, is Owen’s note of hope for the battle weary – which he sounds towards the end of his volume. Owen writes with the courage of an infantryman when dealing with sin, but the tenderness of a field doctor when dealing with Christian souls. Listen as he consoles and helps those who are seeking to ‘kill sin’, but are finding the way difficult:

‘By faith ponder on this, that though thou art no way able in or by thyself to get the conquest over thy distemper, though thou art weary of contending, and art utterly ready to faint, yet that there is enough in Jesus Christ to yield thee relief’.

May God give us grace to mortify sin, to realise that we must be killing it, or it will be killing us, and may the utter sufficiency of the Saviour be our focus, our hope, and our victory.

This has just been a sample of Owen’s treatment of sin. For those hungry for more the Banner of Truth publish a paperback version with modernised English which is very helpful.