Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Biography (2)

Though I have read several lighter books recently (including two by Alexander McCall Smith), I was fascinated by another biography. Actually, the title first drew me: The Last Man Who Knew Everything. Andrew Robinson has written about the polymath Thomas Young (1773-1829), who was so brilliant he seemed to know everything! As a physicist he challenged Isaac Newton's theories and proved light is a wave. As a physician he showed how the eye focuses and proposed the three colour theory of vision, only confirmed 150 years later. As engineer he developed the modulus of elasticity. As an Egyptologist he was key to deciphering the Rosetta Stone. A major scholar of ancient Greek, a phenominal linguist, he was authoritative writer of all manner of subjects. I laughed out loud when I read that when he was pressed to contribute articles to a new edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1816 offered subjects: alphabet, annuities, attraction, capillary action, cohesion, color, dew, Egypt, eye, focus, friction, halo, heiroglpyphics, hydraulics, motion, resistance, ships, sound, strength, tides, waves and "anything of a medical nature." In the end he wrote many other articles as well, including a number of biographies. Three entries -Egypt, Languages and Tides -broke entirely new ground.

Yet, the biography shows him to be an attractive modest man who, motivated by curiosity, was never known to boast. Reading the book was hard work, richochetting from the details of one burst of brilliance to another. Celebrating his bicentenary in 1973 the London's Science Museum wrote: 'Young probably had a wider range of creative learning than any other Englishman in history. He made discoveries in nearly every field he studied." Whoa!

It is overwhelming and intimidation to spend time with such genius. At the same time as I was reading this book I was thinking ahead to a Christmas service I have to speak at. It struck me how rarely we think of Jesus as a brilliant mind who knew everything. Of course there are flashes of his prodigy brilliance as a child of twelve (Luke 2:47). But, throughout the gospel record, Jesus rubs shoulders with the most ordinary of people who are captured by his love, actions, integrity and spiritual teaching. When we read that Jesus "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant" (Phil. 2:6,7) it speaks volumes about the humility of Jesus, the greatest mind there has ever been, coming among us. Whoa!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Dr David Russell

We have just been in Bristol for two days visiting family and attending the thanksgiving service for Dr. David Russell. He was 94 so had outlived many of his contemporaries though not his wife Marion, to whom he had been married for 67 years. Sadly, her alzheimers meant she was absent. What was my connection with him?

In 1967, straight from Cambridge University, I took up a newly-created post called: Secretary for Student Work at our Baptist headquarters in London. I was involved in working with 30 Baptist student societies (and chaplains) in universities all over the UK. The very same day I started work, David Russell began too! Except he was at the very top of the tree, as General Secretary of the Baptist Union. His track record even then was impressive. Having been minister in two churches, and college principal in two colleges, he was an academic (focusing on apocalpytic literature) whose eventual output included 13 books, but always a pastor who knew how to lead. And his leadership always had depth with sparkling wit (a rare combination). In the years since, his track record became ever more impressive in his national and international leadership.

You can imagine the service was a long one, as different people paid tribute to various aspects of his life. His family, his ministry beginnings, his principalships and academic life, his Baptist statemanship, his wider ministry especially in the field of human rights and support of E. Europe, and his commitment to the local church. How wonderful it is to live a long life of usefulness to God. At a truly thankful thanksgiving service I find that not only thanks come easily, but you are stimulated to be a better person yourself. A few things particularly struck me:
  • the focus on him as a person - several times speakers commented that it wasn't his books and achievements that really mattered but who David Russell was. Personal qualities are paramount.
  • how much he valued in old age those who kept in touch. Apparently, hearing from his former students was one of his greatest delights. I guess it's true for most of us that relationships are what count most.
  • his witness at the end. Even though he was so ill and needed dialysis three times a week he winsomely shared his faith with others. I am sure few fellow-patients knew his human achievements but they knew his Christian faith.

We were so thankful to be there!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Amos (3)

Because it was Remembrance Sunday, the service where I was preaching Amos took a different form. Held an hour earlier, it required slickness from the preacher to ensure the whole service was over in order for the congregation to walk to the war memorial. As the minutes ticked by I was mentally culling parts of my sermon! I tried to use my 20 minutes (which included the Scripture reading) to do some justice to this extraordinary bold prophet who roars like a lion in judgement on God's own people.

I chose two passages. Amos 1:1,2 to briefly set the scene for the man and his times. A shepherd (and tender of sycomore trees) who was propelled onto the national scene because God called him to prophesy. But I focused most attention on 5:11-24. God's judgement has such a hard edge because it is addressed to his own people Israel who, instead of living for him in holy ways, in justice and love, behaves just like the surrounding ungodly nations.

And how shocking it is to realize that God also expects us to live for him as a holy nation, royal priesthood, offering praise, abstaining from the desires of the flesh, conducting ourselves honorably so that the world notices and glorifies God (1 Pet: 2: 9-12).

Whenever God's chosen people behave like everyone else in ungodly ways they come under judgement ( 2 Cor. 5:10). Does God still roar?! I highlighted two issues in Amos and today:
UNJUST LIFESTYLES when God's people collude with a growing gap between the haves and have nots. Oppressing the poor is very subtle; neglecting poverty and the causes of poverty is very convenient.
SELF-PLEASING WORSHIP - devastatingly God has strong views about our worship. God says he hates their worship, their offerings and their songs (5:21-23). What a shock that must have been to people who were enjoying their worship but had disconnected it from the rest of life. I mentioned Mark Labberton's book: The Dangerous Act of Worship in which he critiques much contemporary worship that is so intent on pleasing people it domesticates God and fails to let him make a difference to them and the world.

I really wish that I hadn't had to preach such a tough sermon. But Amos should be heard today, shouldn't he?

Remembrance Sunday

Today is Remembrance Sunday in England when communites gather for services around war memorials in the centres of their towns and villages. At 11.00 a.m. we commemorate all who died in wars since 1914-1918 with two minutes' silence. It's a sombre day filled with sadness, especially in the light of continuing war and tragic deaths of young people.

Actually, in a town called Wantage not far from where I we are staying in Wallingford, the town war memorial records the names of two of my great uncles who died in the first world war, both very young men. My father took me to see their names a few years ago, and told me of their bravery. 1 out of every 10 men perished in that war. Hardly any family escaped loss.

I think the continuing harrowing war in Afghanistan means far more people are taking part in remembrance than I recall from the 1990's. So twice Carol and I have stood silently. On November 11th. at 11.00 am we were among the hundreds around the town square. Traffic was stopped. Shops ceased trading. Conversations halted. Young and old stayed motionless. Today, Sunday, a much larger crowd gathered with all the dignitaries, the armed forces and youth movements (such as the scouts) to sing hymns, say prayers and hear the names of every single service man killed in the wars from this one town of Wallingford. It was a long list. John 15:9-13 was read too: "Greater love has no man than this that he lay down his life for his friends." Of course, Jesus was mentioned several times in hymn and prayers. His own self-giving sacrifice makes the greatest possible connection with today, and through him alone we have resurrection hope.

I said to a friend: "Look at this large crowd singing and praying. We hear so much about the new atheists and the tide of hostility against Christianity, but just look at how the whole community wants to remember in a Christian service." Of course, many different levels of understanding and commitment were present, but so too was an awareness that when it comes to the deepest life and death issues the Christian faith offers serious comfort and hope. Very serious.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Amos (2)

As I prepare a sermon on the whole book of Amos I am struck again by the contrasting sermons I could give. On one hand I could give a bible study sermon which describes Amos' call from being a shepherd and gives details about his historical setting as he addresses the surrounding nations and then focuses on the northern kingdom Israel sometime around 760 BC. And, most importantly, I could range over the content of his harsh prophecies which utter God's judgement on the greed, corrupted leadership, oppression of the poor and hypocritical worship of his people. Because Amos addresses a nation enjoying apparent prosperity and power, his message was all the more challenging to hear. Such a bible study would give a clear understanding of what Amos is all about and draw out some implications for us today.

On the other hand, without neglecting the historical particularities of Amos, I could preach this as God's living word today recognizing how God continues to call his people to account and roars judgement on injustice, poverty and self-pleasing worship. This becomes a tough message, just as unwelcome as when Amos first spoke! As I wrestle with the preparation task I know that I am being challenged about my easy acquiescence about society's treatment of the poor, and my lacking awareness that God has a view on my worship too! So I am constrained to take the tough path!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Caught Out!

I strongly believe in the value of sequential preaching and urge preachers and churches to plan series in order to nurture fellowship and mission. It can be especially helpful when a church is in an interim period without a pastor. Providing consistency of theme really benefits the church. So I have to be pleased when the Baptist church where I am staying in Wallingford has carefully worked out a preaching plan.

BUT, I find myself down to preach in a series on preaching the prophets. And my first sermon (for next Sunday) is on Amos. I have to choose the text and try to summarize the man, his times and his message in one go. Amos! The toughest prophet in Scripture, who specializes in bad news! Help! I am not sure I want to preach bad news next week.

How much easier it would have been to have freedom to pull out one of my recent sermons and preach good news! But I have to believe the series has been planned prayerfully and thoughtfully so I have to discipline myself to prepare a new sermon this coming week. Maybe I will share some more?

Friday, November 5, 2010

To Do Lists

Unpacking my briefcase here in Wallingford a piece of blue paper fluttered out. It was a to-do list I had drawn up some time before Easter 2010. It had 21 items on it including two sermons to be written, mentoring at the Oak Lawn church, many individuals who needed letters and emails, and a number of heavier tasks relating to conference preparation in Australia and elsewhere.

I often write out to-do lists - its helps keep me on track and with relish I cross out each item as I complete it. I am sure many of my readers do the same thing. However, with this list I was amazed to see how few items were crossed out. Perhaps I had mislaid it early on? It was so disturbing to look at the major commitments that remained undone. It immediately triggered urgency (and some panic) about missed deadlines. Yet, with immense relief , I looked down the list and realized they were all past and (most importantly) all fulfilled. I remembered how some of them seemed daunting at the time.

It was a good reminder how easily worries can dominate our thinking. Yet a few months later we can barely remember them. Jesus talked knowlingly about taking each day at a time. "Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough troubles of its own" (Matt. 6:34). I still think to-do lists are a help (even on sabbatical) but finding this old list puts them into perspective!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


As long as I can remember I have enjoyed reading biographies and autobiographies. There's nothing like engaging with another person's life to throw you into deeper places about your own. The more honest the telling of the story, the more insights you gain. It's sometimes said that preachers should especially profit from reading biographies because they need to be exposed to the full gamut of human personalities, recognizing how gospel has to be expressed for all.

After the last three (very) hectic weeks we have landed in clover. We are staying in a bijou cottage (dating from the seventeenth century) in Wallingford, near Oxford. History is round every corner and beam. At last we can at last breathe more easily, unpack our cases and I can set up my computer for a longer stay and some major writing. One of our first jobs was to sign up at the local library and...yes...I got out a biography to read.

I enjoy reading about all sorts of people - famous and unknown. This book attracted my eye because it was commended as "one of the most tender portraints of a parent I have ever read." It is called Godfrey's Ghost - from father to son written by Nicolas Ridley. It tells the story of Arnold Ridley who was a playwright and actor who hit hard times yet became famous in his old age as Private Godfrey in the BBC sit-com Dad's Army.

Actually it's a book that tells you a great deal about its writer, Arnold's son, who frames his memories of his father as a story for his own son. It is incredibly revealing. He tells about his own anger and even jealousy of his father. He remembers very ordinary conversations with his father that he now realizes he is repeating with his son - often concealing deep emotions and concerns. It made me think of the conversations I have with my boys and of the need (at times) to be more real! Have you read any thought-provoking biographies recently.