Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Call

Here's a review of one of my favourite books. The review originally featured in an edition of Tron Times, the church news letter of St George's Tron, Glasgow. I think I wrote it in 2003. Everyone should read this book.

Os Guinness. The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of your Life Spring Harvest & Paternoster Lifestyle. 249 pages

At home, in my study, I have a bookcase within reaching distance of my desk. The most important shelf in this case is level with the desk. I can reach anything stored there without standing up. Here, I keep the most important books I have read. Not necessarily the books that changed me most, or those I enjoyed reading. Not even the great books on the Christian faith, written by the likes of Calvin and Owen. But those books I will read again. Books I know I can refer to in times of doubt, when I need to be encouraged, or reminded about the important things in life.

I bought The Call about this time last year, and finished reading it while I was away from home working in England. My first instinct was to keep it in a place that was close to hand and so, on returning to Glasgow, it found a place in my special shelf.

Why is this book special? Well, at first sight it doesn’t seem so. The cover gives little away. Indeed, the title would normally arouse my contempt and suspicion: “Not another book on discovering God’s will…” There is no foreword or introduction. Only a note at the end of the contents page gives a clue about what Guinness has given us. The chapters – 26 in all – are intended to be individual meditations. Yet, together, they guide us through all the channels of working out what life is really about, and what God’s calling means.

Each chapter is not more than 12 pages. However, they are all packed with stories of significance. Each story illustrates an aspect of calling. This theme is further illustrated, discussed and thoroughly applied to the world, and our place in it. These illustrations are meaty in themselves. They are taken from the lives and writings of great men and women of the past. You will learn more about history in this book than you will in most history books.

What is God’s calling? Well, it is not the same as trying to determine God’s will for your life. However, it is related to that search. Here is what Guinness writes in the first of his meditations: “Calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service.” To summarise this argument, everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live, and act entirely for God. All of this is to be through Christ, and for Christ. We are not called to something (job, relationship, role), or somewhere (the inner city, or Outer Mongolia). We are called to Him. Everything else – our work, our relationships, our desires – must rest on this foundation.

Radical and orthodox. That is one way to describe the impact of this book. Protestant and Catholic distortions about calling and vocation are described and ditched as inadequate and harmful to spiritual growth and maturity. The ideologies and trends of modern life are put to the test, and found wanting. But the reader is forced to think about his or her own values. Do we live for ourselves, or have we heard and answered the call of Jesus of Nazareth? Are we prepared for the cost and the pain involved in that vocation?

Os Guinness will not write a more enduring work. If you like good, elegant writing you will revel in its pages. The style is not light, so be prepared to re-read sentences, or think through paragraphs. You will discover truth and insights that should change your life for good. Aimed primarily at Christians, any thoughtful man or woman will enjoy this book by one of the great, popular thinkers in the church today.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Fun with Fivers

The latest on Sheila's fiver from Varwell.

Rumour has it that Simon will be making an appearance at my 'going away to Princeton' party/event. Varwell's people are keeping quiet about the rumours - plans to control the crowd are already being put into effect.

Another disclaimer

In case you didn't read this post, let me say again that I don't agree with everything posted on the blogs that I advertise on itothehills. I'm slowly but surely turning itothehills into my home page on the web. At Princeton, I hope to study full time online. My blogs will become the windows of my learning and my writing. You will be able to follow that learning through Shed on Shedd, Shed on Strong, and itothehills too.

So, in case you read Mark Driscoll, I just want to share with you my concern about the tone of his latest post. Those of you that know me, know that I've got serious issues with the Church of Scotland's law. So, I can understand Driscoll's views.

(I refer to the Kirk's law, because it appears to me that the Kirk is founded on what is effectively a combination of case law and law 'by committee report'. Faith, belief, and practice feel entirely separate from this 'legal' construction. Your attitude to the Kirk in general needs to refer to its law, rather than individual churches or members in the organisation. In practice, ministers have to uphold the law of the CofS above anything else.)

My problem is that Driscoll's post as a whole just plays to his audience, and presumably it aims to attract disillusioned mainliners. It's not surprising that Driscoll jnr agrees with his mega cool, mega manly, mega church pop star Dad, either. Driscoll's continuing success relies on the confusion (and the destruction?) of the mainline churches.

It strikes me that so many preachers and church leaders need some kind of foil. Why is that? Is it some Hegelian thing going on? Or is all just hubris? I used to preach in a style that assumed an opposing side, or an opposing argument, to everything that I was saying. I preached as if I was trying to win a debate - booorrrrrinnnggggg!!!!

I think preaching that majors on undermining or attacking 'error' lacks... well, something. I now try to tackle error and ignorance through the winsome declaration of truth. If people have problems or issues, that will soon enough become apparent in the ongoing pastoral relationship...

'Rev Shedden, I was wondering if you could defend the 4th point of Calvin's Famous Five for me...' Realistic - I think not. More to the point - 'Dave, I'm feeling really crap at the moment...'

This mega church story is hilarious. Poor Pastor Boyd's only left with 4000 members in his church.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Problem solved

I might be able to enjoy leisurely breakfasts at PTS after all. There is at least one combination of worthwhile courses that leaves my mornings free. Of course, I'll be reading theology with my cornflakes and over-easy eggs on toast. Someone's got to do it, so it may as well be me. Read itothehills over the next week or so to find out my study and reading plan for the next year.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Friday, August 18, 2006

National Gallery of Scotland

Today I travelled through to Edinburgh. It was my last opportunity to see an exhibition of Rembrandt etchings.

Alas, there were no postcards of any of these etchings in the gallery shop. I've experienced this disappointment with gallery shops before - I can never get a postcard print of the picture that caught my imagination. Perhaps I've just got a weird imagination compared to Joe Public.

Galleries are great! Lots of families, with parents totally unable to answer questions from kids: 'Mummy, who's that?' 'Lu..ther. Luther.' (The picture was strange, but it depicted Luther's breakthrough on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. I'd say more, but there was no postcard available...) Lots of people saying really silly things: 'I've seen that before somewhere... Aye, I've definitely seen that somewhere before.' (This time, we're talking about Raeburn's 'Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch' - the single most famous Scottish picture, ever, perhaps?)

One highlight today was this: The Trinity Altar Piece by Hugo van der Goes. I'd never seen it before. First thing I thought was: who's that bloke like Jesus holding the body of Jesus? My little head couldn't work it out until I read the title of the work.

No matter how you understand and apply the first two or three commandments, you've got to marvel at the theological understanding behind this image. Almost as much as you've got to marvel at the realism of Rembrandt's biblical etchings and paintings. I don't remember seeing an artisic representation of God the Father that portrayed his likeness to the Son. Or, should that not be the other way about? Therein lies the problem of such art, and the wonder of the triune nature of God.

Who is Simon Varwell?

Find out at!

I had the pleasure of meeting Simon for two or three drinks two weeks ago. It was my first 'blog' date. However, there was at least one connection, so it wasn't entirely blog-random. (I know Simon's brother from my time on Skye last summer.)

Varwell is not only a top-quality blogger, he's also interesting and funny and talented. All these come together in many of his schemes - the Mullet Search, and the Church Search being two classic examples in his career.

But here is another scheme in the making - hilarious, will we ever dare write our names down again?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Wine Wisdom and Song

My latest sermon.

Loosely based on a true text, Ephesians 5:15-20.

From a pulpit near you soon.


Today I received information about my orientation week at Princeton Theological Seminary. The schedule concludes with an entry for Wednesday, September 20:

8.00 a.m. Classes begin

Surely some mistake. That's breakfast time!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Flowers, Fountains and Flatmates

One of the great provisions in preparing for Princeton is my new flatmate. Joyson John hails from Pakistan, and he desires to be an accountant. He's over here studying to that end, and he's moved into my flat for the period I'm on scholarship at PTS.

JJ and I went for a walk this afternoon. We sauntered into town through Glasgow Green, popped into Tescos, and then returned via the People's Palace.

We came upon this:

The Doulton Fountain, the largest terracotta fountain in the world. Sorry about the photo. But, basically, it's a symbol of Victorian Empire. QV stands at the apex, her soldiers just below her, with four lands under her authority: Canada, South Africa, Australia, and India.

Here's India:

JJ immediately recognised the Indian figures. He was sure that the man was the Muslim Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, and that the woman was his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for her.

As Joyson told me the story, I found it difficult to think that these two figures really represented Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. But, I haven't found evidence to contradict JJ's claim. And, what I have read about the fountain suggests that the figures are representative of the lands under Victoria's reign. So, the chronological differences needn't rule out Joyson's story.

Here are the flowers I promised too. The City Fathers know how to brighten up Glasgow:

Reframing the Reformed (or, Turkeys voting for Christmas?)

This post is not for the faint hearted. But, whatever you do, log-in tomorrow for a post - Flowers, Fountains and Flatmates. It will be a little easier, and it will contain pictures from my own private collection!

Sage and onion is the classic combo for a really tasty stuffing. Nothing at all to do with The Foolish Sage, a blogger I discovered early in my blogging career. Mark was, perhaps still is, a student at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. His posts are usually good quality book reviews or thoughts on all things reformed, evangelical, theological, and ecclesiological. I quickly learned loads about evangelical Presbyterianism in the US through reading Mark's posts, and following the discussions that followed.

In a recent post Foolish Sage touches on a subject that has bothered me for a long time. In fact, Mark republishes his review of Mark Strom's Reframing Paul: Conversations in Grace and Community. I've not read this book. But I get the feeling I will need to look at it soon.

Apparently, Strom considers Paul the Apostle's view of church life. You can read the review for yourself (this paragraph is my paraphrase of one aspect). Strom provides a serious challenge to the Reformed view of church as a word centred environment. Currently, meeting as the church means gathering to listen to the preaching of God's word. As a consequence the church has become pastor/preacher centred. Strom thinks that this is actually the kind of thing Paul opposed, because Strom compares typical Reformed models of preaching and teaching in church with the Greek thinkers prominent in the first century. He refutes the notion that modern Reformed evangelical norms find any model in Paul's way of Christian ministry.

Nothing seriously new with these ideas. I've thought along these lines for some time, mostly because of the influence of one or two seriously on-the-ball Christian friends and ex-flatmates.

The new thing that began to bother me was the implication of this line of thinking. I did some research on Strom, and, among other things, I came across this interview with Tony Payne. It's from 2001, and it includes this quote about Strom's unease with modern theological education:

...about what's taught at Moore, or Westminster or wherever. I see a lot of good things taught in these places. The emphasis on biblical theology is a welcome shift. But I also see a social system that remains and that is at odds with that very biblical theology. It makes it even more intolerable to me. If I thought in terms of classical theology, then at least this hierarchical structure could be rationalised. But once I see church in terms of biblical theology, as the assembly of God's people which emerged through Israel's history and culminated in Christ--if we took this really seriously, none of us would end up arguing for the conventions of being an Anglican or Presbyterian or Baptist or whatever.

I'm obviously a fan of biblical theology. I wrote Days are Coming. I studied at Westminster which was largely responsible for its modern revival as a method of doing theology. But I believe the method and its practitioners never fully left the split behind. Now we see a split between redemptive history and so-called 'ordinary' history. Some of the scholars with whom I have interacted operate with two constructs in their minds; ordinary history, the sources of first century social history, which is profane, and redemptive history which is the only pure and proper history. This can only, in the end, reinforce our disengagement from the world.

Strong stuff. But if the way ahead is one without traditional forms of church, what role do pastors or seminary principals or theological teachers fulfil? Is Strom really hoping to do his students out of future employment? Turkeys for Christmas?

This all reminds me of a thought I sometimes share with people. The church as we know it in the UK is full of problems. I am preparing to become a servant of that church, a knight in shining armour to save the day, perhaps? No, just the opposite, it turns out. If Strom is right, the moment I become a minister in the CofS I will become part of the problem. So, either I should vote for Christmas, or I should start a campaign to ban it. Thing is, I really love my sage and onion stuffing...

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Ben Witherington on stuff.

In particular, the last paragraph of this post matched up with some of the questions I've discussed with friends recently. I fear that when Christians become political they too often become self-interested. Much of the current lobbying by Christian think tanks is aimed at defending Christian values and Christian rights to this, that and the next thing.

Freedom of speech in preaching, for example. Or freedom from the meddling legislation about who you can or can't employ as a (Christian) organisation. Can you lobby on particular issues without a statement of general political principles? Would many Christians defend the current constitution of the UK? For example, does Christian Voice believe in democracy? Or, can the Christian Institute really argue for democracy as a basic biblical teaching, while defending the current British Coronation Oath?

Witherington must be able to speed read and write. I was fascinated by his overall positive review of Updike's latest novel, Terrorist. By Updike's standards it took something of a pounding on Newsnight Review. He's probably not too bothered - it's already his best-selling novel in years. Maybe I'll read it on the plane to Newark... Wait a minute, the terrorist threat means...

Glorification through works and toil

What does Paul mean in 2Cor4:16-18? Is 1Cor3:10-15 an appropriate cross-reference?

In the NIV, 2Cor4:17 reads 'For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory...' The ESV (which appears to me very similar to the NRSV) uses the word 'preparing' in place of 'achieving'.

I can only conclude that Paul understood that his (our?) work in this life will be reflected in the next life. As he writes in Galatians 6, we will reap what we sow, and if we sow to the Spirit we will from the Spirit reap eternal life.

What a good reason to do good things in our lives!

Blog research

Some regular readers of itothehills are mentioned in this post, an analysis of a blogging game that entertained us for a few moments. But, how did Kevin have the time or inclination to read 240-odd blog posts on favourite books! What a man!

I was glad that almost all my books were unique - my only book mentioned in another post appears to be Dubliners.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Good news

Liverpool beat Chelsea in the Community Shield, the traditional opening game of the English football season.

My head tells me Chelsea are still too strong, but my heart hopes that Liverpool can return to their rightful place as England's leading team.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Reforming the Reformed

I gave in and bought Always Reforming this afternoon. I had been tempted before today. But I decided to finish off some voucher money to cover half the cost. (It would be a great day if I started getting regular new books to read for free!)

Why my interest? Well, I want to read about how leading Reformed Evangelical scholars actually understand the theological process. All these guys (they are all men) have much in common. But I want to learn the boundaries of Reformed Evangelical theology. In reforming when does a theologian cease to be Reformed? In progressing when does an evangelical become, well, non-evangelical? In fact, to be truly Reformed could mean rejecting evangelicalism.

In his introduction, Andrew McGowan suggests that 'Scripture must have priority over Confessions.' It is time for 'new Confessions, which speak to the issues of today.' All this while affirming his belief in the core theology of the Westminister Confession of Faith.

I would welcome new confessions. But who is going to provide them, and who will subscribe to them? Many people have subscribed to the 'scripture over confessions' principle by abandoning confessions. In fact, confessions of faith are practically meaningless in all churches today anyway. Either they are ignored, or they become the focus for painstaking interpretation which divides and limits church life.

You can read John Frame's Preface here. And here is a 'friendly exchange' between two notable Reformed Evangelical figures, based on one of the chapters in Always Reforming.

I'd welcome any links to reviews or views about this book, or this area of discussion. For example, what does Reformed mean? I assume that readers understand why I use 'Reformed Evangelical' in this post, but is it a useful label?

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Videos of the week

You will need broadband for these gems. (The links go to web pages, though.)

This stunt is fantastic - I'll never think about the journey from Buchanan St to St Enoch Sq in quite the same way again. (HT: Varwell)

Here is a nice short about a very strange affair in the personal life of Karl Barth. (HT: Ben Myers)

I've read Charlotte Von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth: A Study in Biography and the History of Theology, and I've dipped into Busch's biography of Barth. The thing that I find so astonishing about the story is that people argue over the question of 'Did they, or didn't they?' My answer: it doesn't matter!

We know enough to say that Barth's marriage was perhaps not a sham, but it was certainly open. Not open in the conventional sense - but Barth served his own interests rather than his obligations to his wife and family. Emotional adultery. His dedication to theology and Lotte led to inordinate suffering in his family, and it appears that Lotte herself felt some pain throughout her dedication to Barth. I don't think she ever married.

So, is Barth a lesson to us, perhaps? We can do all the theological thinking and writing we want. But dedication to a cause, nevermind another individual, can never make amends for the failure to love our closest family members. We will be judged by our actions as much as our (theological) words.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Student minister-'Pews are rubbish' shocker

Space affects ministry, especially ministry of the word. Unless God’s call is unmistakably clear to the contrary (and that will require some extraordinary sign), I have decided that I will not become the minister of a church that has fixed seating in its main building. Almost all of my better experiences of church ministry in the last two or three years have been in modern church buildings. The outstanding exception to this pattern is a church in Skye, where the minister is working out a culturally relevant and evangelistic church model despite the environmental challenges. My own ideas for church and ministry just do not fit with classic church furniture.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

P.E.P. Talk

Tonight I may have secured a footnote in the history of the church in Scotland, nae the world. This evening one of my friends (Danni) dubbed me a post emergent pastor. A google search found one reference to a post-emergent movement, but I think I can claim to be the first post emergent pastor.

Here’s the historic moment: try and picture the scene. In a modern church building in the south side of Glasgow people have gathered for a short evening service. This is to be a service of worship, praise, prayer and preaching. About 40-50 seats are arranged around a circular table with 5 candles on it. The music is good, the songs are modern, and two men are leading the service. Half way through one of them begins to talk – he sits as he introduces the people to the theme of journeying on the road of life.

The story is the story of Abraham – but Abraham’s story is our story, or something like it. God was with Abraham on the journey, God is with us too. God gave Abraham promises. What were those promises? How did Abraham manage them? As the speaker describes each of the three promises that God gave to Abraham, he brings a juggling ball out of his cool, but un-PC, leather man bag. That’s 3 promises, so 3 juggling balls.

There is a pause. The man stands up. The man asks two questions. ‘Any budding clowns in the audience? Anybody able to juggle?’

The man is now animated like he’s never been before. He feels like he is really communicating, he’s really speaking to people. But nobody volunteers to juggle.

The preacher begins to juggle. As he juggles, he describes how Abraham struggled to trust the promises of God. Abraham had to juggle with all sorts of doubts, issues, family problems, enemies, disappointments – he had to juggle with the promises while his life seemed to deny them. Sometimes he dropped them, sometimes God seemed to throw a curve ball into the mix. We, too, are faced with the same challenges. We, too, learn how to juggle the promises of God in our mixed up lives.

After only 2 minutes of juggling and preaching the preacher returns to his seat. Now, he has the attention of almost everyone in the room. He tries to talk about the grace of God… people listen, he can catch the eyes of almost everyone in the room. He talks about keeping going on the road. He talks about the grace of God as unchangeable love and kindness to those who change too often for the worse rather than the better. Chatting to people after the service makes him think they got the message. Some even for the first time.

Post Emergent Pastor. You read it here first.

Back to baptism

I’m coming to the last section of Jenson’s Systematic Theology, vol 2. I’m looking forward to it in more ways than one because it is on eschatology.

But, I’ve just finished reading pages 304-05, and they got me thinking about baptism again. Jenson basically discusses the catechumenate. This is defined in The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship as ‘a period of formation, prayer and discernment in the Christian life’ in preparation for baptism. The practice goes back to the earliest days of the Christian church. Sources from the late first (Didache) and the mid-second century (Justin Martyr) apparently refer to pre-baptismal formation of converts.

Introducing his short discussion, Jenson notes something that has always niggled me – the New Testament appears only to describe baptisms immediate upon confession of faith. Pre-baptismal preparation or instruction in the New Testament seems to me to be ‘evangelistic’ in the strict sense. Profession of faith/repentance is followed by baptism, usually within hours of believing and accepting the gospel message. No further instruction, no moral guidance, no classes about the nature of church membership, no extended periods of prayer and fasting. (Of course, the command to be baptised is included in the evangelism.)

Why, then, did the early church decide to introduce a third class of person alongside the two basic classes of believer and unbeliever? Where do we find biblical wisdom for the catechumenate?

These questions need to be addressed by credo-baptists and paedo-baptists alike. In baptist circles I suspect that very few children are baptised. Yet, most credo-baptists that I know came to faith as children, and they remained unbaptised until their late teens. Many paedo-baptist churches hopelessly confuse church membership with profession of faith. ‘Church membership classes’ take the form of a soft and liberal catechumenate. Would-be church members are tested to find out if they are credible, and they are told about reading their Bible, praying, and giving money to good causes, especially the church. Baptism is almost a side issue. But the culmination of becoming a member of the church is baptism. If you have been baptised you are a member of the church. As far as I can see, baptism is the only rite of initiation known to the church in the New Testament.

Radical recovery of Christian discipleship requires a radical re-think of Christian beginnings. If baptism signifies and seals our union with Christ (Rom6: 3,4; Col2: 11,12), then no believer should delay baptism. If the reality of union with Christ is not present, then baptism should not be considered. Call me a fundamentalist if you want, but the New Testament does not suggest otherwise.