Monday, December 10, 2012

Three men, two books and lots of bicycles

'Find something you're good at and then do lots of it'

Dolly Parton

A while back I sat drinking a coffee in a bicycle shop in Oxford with my pal Simon as we often do. However, on this occasion we were joined by a very old friend of his called Robin. I had heard Simon speak often of Robin so it was fun to finally meet. We chatted about all manner of things, laughed a lot and chewed the cud on subjects of mutual interest.

We live in times of fashionable Christianity don't we? In my stream, it seems to be all about the skinny jeans, vimeo and sticky up hair and if only we had a budget for some more flashing lights we might be able to see a few more disciples made and souls saved. Simon and Robin, and I include myself in this genre, will never be accused of being 'cutting edge' and we are frankly rather square, perhaps past our physical best (if we ever had such a thing?) and have a 'been there got the T-shirt' look about us. This at best makes us wise, at worst it makes us tut and say 'not that old chestnut again'. Anyway, I thought I might give the books these two dear middle-aged clerics have written an unapologetic plug.

Simon's found out he's a pretty good theologian and not half bad at writing books. 'Loving mercy' is his latest and is a book about grace and the gospel and specifically how this grace softens our hearts to act with greater kindness towards our fellow man. Followers of Jesus should be, to use Simon's phrase and the title of one of his chapters, people 'filled with tenderness'. As he points out with many an example, so often Christian's have not been (and are not) those who 'love mercy' and he happily cites his own struggle to live out a life marked by compassion and justice. To step into such a life what we all need is a 'second conversion' and early on you will read the amazing story about Judson Cornwell which is worth the price of the book.

It's interesting to me that one of Simon's earlier books And the Lamb wins explores all the issues surrounding the second coming and Christian confusion over so many matters of eschatology. This led, in the 20th Century, to the western church and in particular American evangelicalism, neglecting the Bible's clear call to love the poor in favour of its single-minded focus on evangelism. Sadly, this became an 'either/or' issue for many when each of us who have but glanced at Scripture probably know that it must surely be 'both/and'. Why bother though if we are all going to be raptured and everything is going to be burnt to a cinder? The task of the church must just be simply to rescue souls from an eternal Hell. That's important so don't get me wrong but Robin will tackle that one.

The answer is word and deed should fuse together and 'Loving mercy' is a timely corrective and joins Keller's Generous justice as a book calling the church back to it's central gospel responsibilities. This book contains some wonderful quotes, stories and personal insights that anyone wanting to look at issues surrounding justice will be unquestionably blessed by. As an example, 'Billy Graham once visited Mother Teresa ministering in the slums of Calcutta. He asked her what fired her compassion. Saying nothing, saying everything, she merely pointed to the crucifix on the wall.' [p.97] Whilst it's only 182 pages, and so is a comparatively quick read, I think you will find yourself returning to this book again and again. And 'Loving mercy' is frustratingly still niggling my soul long after I read its final page.

Robin's found what he's good at and it's evangelism. To my knowledge, he doesn't own a white shiny suit, doesn't own a mansion and is unlikely to be seen on Christian cable TV near you. He drinks best bitter, is a Priest in the C of E and he lives in Bradford which is not often quoted as a place good things come out of (with the exception of curry). Robin is a very normal and, I don't think he'd mind me saying, unglamorous Vicar. He is one thing though above all else. An evangelist.

His book Jesus the Evangelist is a treasure trove for anyone who would like to be, is or indeed thinks they are not an evangelist. It's a book all about Jesus, as the title suggests and it's rooted in good theology, scripture, decades of experience and has some challenging reflections from a battle-weary warrior who has seen, done and been around most things things that happen in the Kingdom. The book is in some sense a testimony to the place Robin's landed which is wanting to be a man who shapes who he is and the things he does around what he sees Jesus saying and doing. Shouldn't we all be landing there?

This is a practical book and as the evangelist J John often says 'Yes, but how!' there is no lack of that here. It's a very English book too with lots of examples from the C of E down the years from a man who has travelled widely, not to stadiums and Big tops, but to rather damp church halls in northern towns on countless rainy winter evenings. All very Jesus like it seems to me. It also critiques many of the tribes and theologies that those who have been around the church scene and a bit of theology awhile like me will resonate with. The book quotes lots of novels in every chapter which is as it should be as the evangelist's primary task is to be the teller of the story. Clearly, reading a few novels will make you a better one if Robin's ministry is anything to go by.

So many things he wrote had an 'I've thought that too' about them which is why I probably enjoyed reading it so much. I'll quote one just to show you what I mean as it's about a subject I have been pondering a lot recently. There are lots more like this which is why you should read this book.

'The single most helpful experience of the healing ministry for me came when I got involved with the 'Wimber movement' of the mid-80's. More than anything else, this put healing evangelism on my agenda.....Wimber and his team taught me, equipped me and inspired me. Unfortunately, they loaded me with a burden of unrealistic expectation for they seemed to suggest that I and many others could reproduce the signs and wonders of Jesus in our own ministries. This is a common theme or aspiration in the Charismatic healing movement: it is attempting to encourage, but actually goes too far. There is a huge difference between modelling ourselves on Jesus' healings and exorcisms and imagining we can recreate their full scale and impact' [p.154]

That quote, among many others like it, will no doubt be a subject for our next 'Three men in a bicycle shop' musings over coffee. We may even treat ourselves to a mince pie as it's Christmas.

1 comment:

simon said...

Dear Cookie

Thanks so much for the book plug -
however, I must protest - I am not past my physical best - I await my resurrected body ;)