Sunday, July 22, 2012

On reading books

Summer time is especially good for catching up with academic reading.  I am always over-ambitious as I select the pile and nearly always end up disappointed that several books are left unread.  But much depends on taking a realistic approach.  Not all those books in the pile should be read closely!  Indeed, some need to be skimmed in order to ensure time is spent on the more significant. (My summer time reading also includes novels but these rules do not apply to them!)

Robert Webber used to advise students that they should not read an academic book word for word, page for page, chapter for chapter. Rather they should read a book like they would look at a picture, study its frame and only at the end examine its details.  Often the first look would give a clear idea how much time to spend. He suggested first reading the back cover, contents page, Introduction and Conclusion with time given over to thinking about the author's stance and books' purpose. Can you sum up in a sentence what the book's point is and how the author wants you to respond? 

To ensure you are not oversimplifying you need also to frame the book by studying the index, footnotes, and Scripture references to gain understanding of the author's sources and interpretation.  Further, the book's  structure requires its chapters to be scanned.  

All this happens to prepare you for the big question:  Is this book significant enough that you need to examine it in detail, making notes of key sections and even of vital quotations.  Some of us have good enough memories to capture the main issues for the future with few notes.  For me, note-taking has to be more extensive to keep reminding me of those distinctive ideas that now help to build up my knowledge.  Because this last stage is time-consuming the early looking and thinking is essential for setting priorities.

So, I find I have three kinds of academic books in my reading repertoire:
Grade A - I have paid critical attention to most pages because of its high caliber challenge.
Grade B - I am aware of the general issues and have given parts of the book some serious attention.
Grade C - I probably have engaged with its main issues already in other reading, or it falls outside my priority concerns.

Do you have a system for sorting out which books most deserve your attention?  Have you engaged with many Grade A books recently?  Care to share?

Thursday, July 19, 2012


Moving house means sorting out what should be kept or thrown out.  On the hoarding scale we are nowhere near the top of the scale (I think) but we have still amassed an amazing amount of material from our lives so far.  In certain moods you can argue for retaining almost all of it.  Your child's finger painting aged four, your Valentine's Day cards, your letters when leaving the UK or at any other time when they mark a significant event or friendship.  To say nothing of the talks and sermons I have been preparing for nearly fifty years (to say nothing!)  Many of you will have shared the tension of sorting out - and tension it is.

I wish we could have slowed down the sorting out process because I also had important lessons to learn. Remembering is an important spiritual art.  One of the most significant moments came from rediscovering some of my old prayer journals.  From Weds. October 7th. 1992 to January 3 1995 covered a dramatic time in my life - leaving the pastorate in Cambridge to becoming Principal at Spurgeon's College in 1993.  I was surprised by the full entries on some days, by the detailed references to the spiritual aids I was using - especially Oswald Chamber's My Utmost and E Stanley Jones' Living Victoriously, and by the painful honesty of my prayers.  At times my spiritual life really was in turmoil and page after page I pour out self-awareness and need.   

Thankfully, overall, my entries show some personal development and shining moments.  For example, on Saturday Oct 10th. I record a difficult tearful pastoral situation confronting a couple who had broken up another marriage in the church.  Then I quote Oswald Chambers: "We read tomes on the Holy Spirit when one five minues of drastic obedience would make things as clear as a sunbeam".  And as I worked on my sermon for the next day I wrote a prayer that the Holy Spirit would grant me:
Desire to love,
Humility to learn,
Courage to live,
Commitment to listen.
It was a sunbeam moment!
I need to keep remembering how God has led me through and to be reminded to keep my journaling up-to-date yet reflect on the past.  How often do you remember?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Nothing really can be said in defense

Yes, we have surfaced after our house move, travel to family in NJ, and staying with friends. Our belongings are scattered in at least five different locations and, in spite of warnings about how easy it is to lose track, certain key documents that should have remained accessible are now at mystery locations. No wonder my blog has been quiet of late!  Before I write anything else I must follow up my last (distant) post.  Michael Duduit wrote (thanks for commenting Michael) that "Nothing really can be said in defense of the annual Call Sunday."  And, oh, what negative experiences I have heard from others. 

One really troubled me.  Like a retired pastor: "I could write a few short stories about the laymen's control technique of humiliating and limiting the pastor's call from God which can too easily be trumped by the laymen's local church accountability technique under the threat of an annual 'vote of confidence'.  I personally lived through three different unpleasant and still vivid memory experiences as a sixth grader, high school youth and college student in three different churches in three different states. When I was a pastor I was confronted with the threat of such a vote in three different pastoral assignments. I negotiated a 'no contest' surrender with the promise that if I did not point fingers at 'the enemy' (I saw that done when I was a high schooler), recruit an army, or do battle - that I promised to move along as quickly as feasible.

One case it tok 13 months, another 18 months and the last one was 8 months.  I am not a fighter. I left with a clear conscience and a clear call to do just what I did - with God's grace to forgive and God's peace to reward.  I have been back or invited to come back to all the churches in question.  I have a clear conscience as I watch the rseponse of those who were responsible. I am at peace even with them.  Time has proved that Romans 8:28 applies in just such a case as that."

Grace triumphs eventually but what an incredibly sad story. I know that we pastors can really fail the Lord and our people, and sometimes mistake God's call on our lives as well as to particular places.  Yes, we can get it wrong. But what a challenge about the destructive power-structures of some of our churches.  There are Christian ways of behaving, but regularly reviewing a pastor's call as an open season for easy abuse is not one of them!