Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Book Review: Dangerous Calling

For ministers and pastors, a lot of the time we're giving and serving, caught up in the multitude of things to be done and people to see and sermons to be written. It can almost be a self-perpetuating vicious cycle of doing and doing, with few opportunities to step back and see the bigger picture. If you're a pressured pastor, this is just the book for you. It's not an easy read. I'm not saying the words are difficult, but rather, it's a book with lots of challenges. The issues Paul David Tripp raises are well aimed and make an impact. This book is like looking in the mirror, and seeing some warts and problems, perhaps even for the first time.

In Dangerous Calling, Paul Tripp writes 'to confront the issue of the often unhealthy shape of pastoral culture.' This pastoral culture stands against the gospel of grace, by focusing on performance and comparison with others. As he begins the book, he invites us to deactivate our inner lawyer defense system, and instead revel in the gospel of grace, which makes honesty possible, because our sins are covered by the blood of Jesus.

Part one is an examination of pastoral culture as it stands. It doesn't make for pleasant reading. In the first chapter, Tripp tells his own story. 'I was an angry man... I would wrap my robes of righteousness around me... and remind her once again of what a great husband she had... I was a man headed for disaster... huge disconnect between my private persona and my public ministry life.' It was this spiritual schizophrenia which was so dangerous. Tripp confesses that he was caught up by the underlying themes in so many pastor's experiences: 1. I let ministry define my identity (rather than being a child of God, the focus is on being the pastor / professional); 2. I let biblical literacy and theological knowledge define my maturity; 3. I confused ministry success with God's endorsement of my lifestyle.

Chapter two provides the key question: 'How is the gospel of Jesus Christ forming and transforming the heart of this pastor and his local ministry culture?' For the remainder of the chapter, he gives some indications that a pastor is losing his way and forgetting the very gospel of grace. These include ignoring clear evidence of problems (by being a 'very skilled self-swindler'); being blind to the issues of his own heart; a ministry lacking in devotion (merely downloading information to hit other people with truth); not preaching the gospel to himself; questioning calling and fantasising about another life outside of ministry.

In the third chapter, the focus intensifies on the danger of having big theological brains but heart disease. He tells of a time when he had a notebook to work through Romans analysing the words and linguistics and grammar, yet had entirely missed or ignored the message of Romans. His head knowledge was being puffed up but his heart wasn't impacted. 'My eyes began to open to the dangers inherent in academizing our faith.' There's a danger that we produce (or are) 'theologeeks' - 'the guys who see theology as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end.' The remedy is presented in the form of a devotional reading of Isaiah 55: 'The ultimate purpose of the Word of God is not theological information but heart and life transformation.'

Chapter four looks at another presenting issue - where the public pronouncements of the pastor are not matched by his private life. 'I'm convinced that the big crisis for the church is not that we are easily dissatisfied but that we are all too easily satisfied.' With a variety of dangers and temptations, Tripp writes that 'It is only love for Christ that can defend the heart of the pastor against all the other loves that have the potential to kidnap his ministry.' This theme is further developed in the next chapter, where the pastor's lack of ministry to himself is highlighted: 'Does it seem right and healthy that in many churches the functional reality is that no one gets less of the ministry of the body of Christ than the pastor does?' Again, in the sixth chapter, this lack of community, this feeling of isolation is remarked upon - as if the pastor is an abnormal alien object outside the body of Christ rather than a part of it. Who is it pastoring the pastor?

The final chapter of the first part diagnoses the war zones in a pastor's life - not in the church, but in the pastor's own heart. These battles are unique to or intensified by the pastor's situation, and are the making or breaking of the pastor. The rest of the book takes up this theme of battle for the pastor's own soul, and how to stand and fight.

Part Two focuses on the danger of losing your awe (forgetting who God is). Tripp writes: 'Familiarity with the things of God may cause you to lose your awe.' There is a constant need to be mindful of the blessings God has given, and especially his grace - even and especially when we think we don't need it. Similarly, he focuses on dirty secrets: 'The dirty secret was that much of what he did was not done out of faith but out of fear.' This is intensified by the problem of mediocrity: 'I am very concerned about the acceptance of Sunday morning mediocrity, and I am persuaded that it is not primarily a schedule or laziness problem. I am convinced it is a theological problem.' The remedy is to be in awe of God: 'If your heart is in functional awe of the glory of God, then there will be no place in your heart for poorly prepared, badly delivered, functional pastoral mediocrity.'

Part Three switches to the danger of arrival (forgetting who you are). This covers a ranger of issues including the building of our own kingdom; of always preparing and never switching off; of the disconnect and separation between public and private; all of which issues in a great exposition and application of Peter's instruction to the elders in 1 Peter 5.

As I've said, it's a hard book to read. The heart is exposed, the reality is uncovered, but not in a harsh or vindictive way. Tripp's passion for God and love for pastors is demonstrated in the way he lovingly applies the gospel balm to ragged and ravaged hearts. The places for change and growth are shown clearly. While the book is sometimes slightly repetitive, it is still very profitable, and could well be a life saver and a ministry changer.

Dangerous Calling is available from IVP, Amazon, and Kindle. (IVP is cheaper!)

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