Sunday, 3 March 2013

David Livingstone

At the risk of being over-saturated by references this monthto one of our national heroes (he is buried in Westminster Abbey), I want to make some comments about the life and work of David Livingstone. March 2013 is the 200th anniversary of his birth.

As most of us will know, Livingstone was born into a poor family in Blantyre, into a situation that was little better than slavery. Along with everyone else in his social class, he had to endure from a young age appalling working conditions for a very meagre salary (from the age of ten, he worked in a cotton mill from 6am to 8pm six days a week – he then went to school for two hours every day, after which he continued to educate himself until midnight). He lived with his parents and six siblings in one room. It is not surprising that such areas became hotbeds for socialism, and Livingstone could easily have gone down such a road in order to improve society. Instead he chose to work for social progress through the gospel and to do so in the continent of Africa where even worse forms of slavery existed. Livingstone’s commitment to the gospel did not blind him to the physical needs of his fellowmen and he was prepared to do something about it.

Converted about the age of twenty, Livingstone sensed a call to missionary work abroad and initially thought that God was calling him to China. Despite the difficulties of his education and long hours of work he managed to train as a doctor in order to serve in the Far East as a medical missionary (he also did theological studies). So he applied for service in China, but discovered the doors were closed due to the Opium Wars (another disgraceful episode in British history when we fought with China in order to retain the opium trade). He could have assumed that God wanted him to stay at home, which would have been a mistake, and we can imagine what would not have happened through him in Africa had he returned to Scotland. Instead he accepted the fact that the Lord who had closed one door would soon open another one. The doors that God closes in our lives may not seem as big as going to China, but Livingstone reminds us that a closed door does not usually mean that God will not use us. The closed door is only a test to see if we will look for the open door and get involved in his service.

His decision to go to Africa was guided by a comment he heard from Robert Moffat, a serving missionary in Africa and Livingstone’s future father-in-law. Moffat said to an audience in England, ‘There is a vast plain to the north where I have sometimes seen, in the morning sun, the smoke of a thousand villages where no missionary has ever been.’ His words – ‘the smoke of a thousand villages’ – spoke very powerfully to Livingstone, and so he went to Africa. Each day, I see the lights of a thousand houses where Christ is not known, and so do all of us.

Apparently Livingstone was only aware of a small number of converts through his missionary work. But his work as an explorer opened up large areas of the continent for large numbers of missionaries to follow the paths he trailblazed (in Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zaire, and who can count the number of Christians there today, with some of the strongest churches in the world?). What made him persist, although so little initial fruit? Perhaps these words, written in 1852, tell us why: ‘O Jesus, fill me with thy love now, and I beseech thee, accept me, and use me a little for thy glory. I have done nothing for thee yet, and I would like to do something.’ Or perhaps these words, also from 1852, tell us why: ‘I will place no value on anything I have or may possess, except in relation to the kingdom of Christ. If anything will advance the interests of that kingdom, it shall be given away or kept only as by giving or keeping of it I shall most promote the glory of him to whom I owe all my hopes in time and eternity.’ Twenty years later, in 1872, he wrote in his diary, ‘My Jesus, my King, my Life, my All; again I dedicate my whole self to thee.’ The value of persistence for Jesus is never to be measured merely in terms of visible success. 

It is ironic that Livingstone has been and is analysed negatively by many academics, most of whom spend their lives in comfortable situations and earning high salaries, writing articles and books that shortly will be consigned to the dustbin of history, and whose mission in life is not to promote the Christian faith. I have heard Christians repeat some of these negativisms as if they were all one can say about Livingstone. Of course, no one is perfect and Livingstone had his flaws. But I wonder what Jesus said to him when he arrived in heaven. I suspect it was, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.’ With that commendation, what does it matter now to Livingstone in heaven that people on earth misrepresent him? And that is the commendation we should be looking for as well.

Livingstone died kneeling in prayer beside his bed. As one biographer put it, Livingstone ‘had died in the act of prayer – prayer offered in that reverential attitude about which he was always so particular; commending his own spirit, with all his dear ones, as was his wont, into the hands of his Saviour; and commending AFRICA – his own dear Africa – with all her woes and sins and wrongs, to the Avenger of the oppressed and the Redeemer of the lost.’ I suspect his prayers are still being answered.

Perhaps it is best to let an African have the last word. A missionary once met an old African man who as a child had seen Livingstone. She asked the old man what he recalled about Livingstone. He replied: ‘He laughed, there was love in his eyes, he was not fierce.’ Then he added, ‘He made a path through our land, and you his followers have come, God’s Light-bringers, and more come today.’

Saturday, 2 March 2013

The Renewed Pastor (2012), edited by Melvin Tinker, Mentor

This volume is a collection of essays on pastoral concerns published in honour of Philip Hacking, a leading Anglican evangelical vicar, who served in Fulwood in Sheffield for almost three decades before retiring in 1997. He was well-known for his conference ministry, including his involvement in the Keswick Convention.

The twelve essays explore different aspects of pastoral ministry and invite pastors to review crucial areas of Christian service in their ministries. Melvin Tinker begins with a chapter on the pastor and the Word of God in which he deals with how a pastor uses the Bible to feed his own soul and to feed his congregation in corporate and individual ways. Much of this chapter is based on Richard Baxter’s classic book, The Reformed Pastor. It is inevitable that a pastor must have fresh food for his own soul and for those who have to listen to him.

The next chapter is by Peter Lewis and he considers the prayer life of the pastor. Most pastors would admit that they have a real struggle with prayer and this reviewer was encouraged by reading that even Andrew Bonar, who is generally regarded as having excelled in this discipline, confessed that he never went to prayer without a struggle with the flesh. Lewis mentions some helpful practices connected to personal prayer, both from his own methods and from the writings of others. Among other matters he looks at some hindrances to prayer, the benefits of Trinitarian prayer, and ways of persisting in prayer.  

Steve Timmis and Tim Chester discuss the place of theology in the life of a pastor. He needs to reflect theologically on contemporary issues and also to protect his congregation from false ideas. Yet I found most helpful the comment that he needs to remember that theology in pastoral situations is usually straightforward – those with whom he will interact are sinners needing the grace of the Saviour, and that is not complicated theology.

The fourth chapter is by Peter Adam and he focuses on the pastor as a preacher. His focus is not on preparing sermons but preparing preachers, both on a preacher individually and on how he trains others for future ministry. After all, an individual can prepare a decent sermon but fail to prepare himself for preaching it. He mentions fifteen aspects of necessary preparation from Paul’s instructions to Timothy, but, as you can imagine, there is not space here to list them, so you will need to get a copy of the book to find out what they are.

Three chapters look at aspects of pastoral ministry that have some overlap. Paul Williams explains how a pastor can engage in and organise evangelism in his congregation; Frank Retief writes about aspects of church planting he met with through his own congregation in South Africa; and David Holloway gives some thought to church growth, especially within an Anglican context.

Three other chapters give interesting insights into areas of ministry which will not involve every pastor. John Risbridger gives details about ministering to students out of his experience as pastor of a church in a university city, John Stevens looks at gospel partnerships across denominations, and Gerald Bray reflects on being an evangelical in the Anglican church (which will help those on the outside understand what it is like to be an evangelical pastor in a mixed denomination).

Two chapters that are very helpful are one by Don Carson on the pastor leading public worship and one by J. I. Packer on the pastor and infant baptism. Carson works his way through twelve features of biblical worship, and inevitably a pastor must ask himself if he is helping or hindering those features. Packer deals succinctly with a topic that sometimes Presbyterian pastors are embarrassed about, although I cannot see why. After all, as Packer makes clear, infant baptism is an obvious biblical practice.

This volume covers a great deal of ground. Obviously it does not deal with each topic in great depth; for that to happen, we would need twelve books and not just twelve chapters. The book does not say anything new, but it does bring us back to what is basic in pastoral ministry. It certainly reminded me of my responsibilities and would do the same for any who will read it.