Tuesday Books: ‘Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor’ (D.A. Carson)

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In my study this past week to preach 1 Corinthians 4, I came across this quote from Vaughan Roberts:

“It is much better to sit under the ministry of a faithful plodder with average gifts, who is diligently living and teaching the true message of the Bible, than to attend a church led by a ten-talent star who relies on his own brilliance rather than on the power of God’s word. Very few pastors have exceptional abilities. Most of those God uses are ordinary people entrusted with an extraordinary gospel. Their task is simply to do their best with the personalities and gifts they have been given; God will do the rest” (Authentic Church, p. 53)

The quote made me think about D. A. Carson’s book ‘Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor,’ where Carson tells the story of his dad’s (Tom Carson) life in pastoral ministry. Carson is perhaps my favorite expositor of the Word and his books have been a great encouragement to my ministry as well. I got to hear him share about fatherhood and ministry at the Desiring God conference which marked the publication of this memoir (I think we got the book free for attending). I was a few years into pastoral ministry at the time (read: no longer in the honeymoon phase) and the book was a great encouragement to me. I wept often as Carson quoted from his dad’s journal. Here’s just a few of the sobering lines:

  • Reflecting on those with whom he had been sharing the gospel for years: “Yet I can do nothing to help myself. Every effort to overcome through the years has failed; every effort I make now will likewise fail. If God does not put a new spirit within me I am as helpless as if I were dead. I need relief. I need the way of escape from my temptations. What is it? And where is it?”
  • He tells of coming home from a service that no one attended due to snow: “Home. Read Gen. 1. Played hymns (he played piano). Bed at 12:25. Some prayer, some reading–but how much was vital for God?”
  • One entry begins: “This was a poor day…wasted in many respects.” And then goes on to describe all that he did that day.
  • Carson explains a situation that happened between his parents and a particular doctor. The man had misdiagnosed an illness in their son and when they sought a second opinion found out he needed surgery just to survive. The original doctor was put out by the parents and there was a break in their relationship. When his mother in law dies, the doctor calls at 3:30 am complaining that Tom had not sent a card. He writes: “I had thought he might resent a card from me; now he was furious that one had not been sent. So he proposed to let every one of our people know of my perfidiousness…This has cut deeply.”

D. A. Carson ends that chapter with 9 reflections on his dad’s struggles in ministry. I pretty much highlighted the whole section (5 pages). He closes the section with these words:

“We should recognize that Tom’s journal entries expressing deepest anguish frequently have the texture of biblical lament. Tom never stands in judgment of God; he never curses God. In his gloomiest moments Tom ends with a cry for help.”

It is hard for us to imagine that ministers can struggle in such ways. Yet, as I have read the biographies of Luther and Whitefield and Edwards and Lloyd-Jones, it is hard not to see a pattern of discouragement (even for those ministers that many would call successful). Thinking back on Roberts’ quote, it is hard for a man to be a faithful plodder, an ordinary pastor. But the church needs more of them.

If you are thinking about entering the ministry then you should read this book in preparation for the troubles you will face. If you are in the ministry and perhaps currently facing some of those struggles, then this book will be a great encouragement to you. And if you are a church member of a faithful plodder, then pray for them, encourage them, support them, and maybe even give them a book like this one on occassion! They will be thankful for and encouraged by your concern. I know that has been true in my ministry!

wm

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