‘Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life & Thought’ by Stephen J. Nichols. A ‘Review’

‘Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Though’ by Stephen J. Nichols, P & R Publishing, 2002.

This is one book among many that are on the shelf and unread. We all have them. Not sure it’s been on my shelf for nearly 20 years but in any case I’ve wanted to read it for a while and as a change of reading matter was needed, here we are.

The ‘standard’ biography on Luther as I understand it is Bainton’s ‘Here I Stand (1987).’ I’ve dipped into an old edition of that but not read it, so apart from articles and the like this book by Nichols on Luther is really a first for me. Bainton’s book is mentioned at the end.

The book is 240 pages (it starts with the preface on page 11) about A5 size with easy to read print and headings throughout each chapter. It’s not complicated and suits me picking it up and putting it down. When I have sat and read it for a while it’s not been wearisome but actually very enjoyable. The book has several illustrations and is divided down into Preface (11 & 12), Introduction (13-20) followed by three main sections: Luther: His Life (21-66); Luther: The Reformer (67-146); and Luther: The Pastor (147-229). At the end of each chapter is a very helpful final section ‘A Note on the Sources.’ The last section (chapter?) of the book Nichols has included is Continuing the Journey: A Brief Guide to Books by and about Luther. At the end of the book there is a Bibliography, an Index of persons, an Index of Luther’s Works, and an Index of Scripture. A subject index would have been helpful. There are no footnotes or endnotes (my usual gripe) that can be a bit of a chore. I must admit the absence of notes helps the reading. The book is very accessible, reads well, and for me at least, was a good introduction to Luther.

On a topical note here’s a section in chapter 7 about Luther’s response to the plague. He wrote a pamphlet in 1527 on ‘Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.’ Given our Covid Virus situation it made me sit up and take special notice. I’ve linked to it so I can read it later. I thought he’d say we had to stay. But he didn’t. He tells us to do what we can. However, Luther stayed and did not flee. Rather, he opened his house as a hospital and cared for the sick with his wife at great personal risk. Almost dying in the process. The guy is unbelievable on every level! Like many Christians I’ve picked up aspects of Luther’s life and teaching, without, if I’m honest, reading much about him. To actually read about him is amazing. It really is.

The downside of the book, and this is no fault of the author, is that it missed the 500th anniversary of The Reformation. So there is probably a truck load of new stuff on Luther.

If you are new to Luther or want an overview then this book will, I think, do the job. You will read about a giant of a man. In the history of the church there are few his equal. What he accomplished is simply extraordinary. With someone like Luther it’s easy to see how we can be so in awe of the man. We so easily venerate such figures. And I can see why. And it’s easy to do. But we lose sight of what it is that’s driving him if we do. He’s driven by a love for Christ his Saviour and a love for truth, and love for his neighbour. So we copy Luther not worship him. Or anyone else.

I apologise if my ‘review’ lacks detail. So, read the book!

Martin Luther quote on The Lord’s Supper

Unfortunately I’ve been reading this book (I will do one of my reviews later) on Martin Luther a bit piecemeal. But this morning I finished the chapter (6) on The Lord’s Supper, which for Luther held a place of great prominence in his thinking. I’ve realised that I don’t regard The Lord’s Supper in anywhere near as high regard as I should. And I’m not entirely sure the Church as a whole does so either.

I should read some more on this vital topic. During the insanity through which we are now living celebrating the Lord’s Supper is becoming a distant memory. This should not be so. This is a means of Grace instituted not by man but by the Lord of the Church. As such it is something that should and needs to be celebrated. Whatever your view of The Supper, on page 129 Stephen Nichols offers the following quotation from Luther that I thought helpful:

The Lord’s Supper is given as a daily food and sustenance so that our faith may refresh itself and not weaken in the struggle but continually grow stronger…. The devil is a furious enemy; when he sees that we resist him and attacks the old man, and when he cannot rout us by force, he sneaks and skulks about everywhere, trying all kinds of tricks, and does not stop until he has finally worn us out so that we either renounce our faith or yield hand and foot and become indifferent and impatient. For such times, when our heart feels too sorely pressed, this comfort of the Lord’s Supper is given to bring us new strength and refreshment.

I had thought this could be done online. After reading this I’m not so sure. It’s an understatement to say that Luther lived through turbulent times, including times of the plague, and yet still maintained the keeping of this vital means of grace. It’s a reminder that the church cannot possibly be a virtual church. The use of the word virtual could be taken both ways. That is as an online church, or as a pretend church.

‘The Creaking On The Stairs’ by Mez McConnell – A Recommendation

This is an absolutely brilliant book – I need to say that right from the start.

‘The Creaking On The Stairs’ Mez McConnell. Christian Focus, 2019.

This isn’t merely another testimony book. Please don’t think of it that way. It’s not a ‘things were really awful, but now  everything is wonderful’ book either. And, be prepared, it’s a harrowing read – in places it is utterly horrific! Mez’s life has been turned round  and ‘upside down’ in the most extraordinary way by the Lord Jesus Christ. But, and this, I believe, is very important to understand – it is NOT a book only about recovering from child abuse. It is about that. And that is amazing. But there’s a wider application as well.

If you have suffered any form of abuse this book will hopefully be very helpful. He writes TO the reader, especially to the abused reader. If that’s you – please read it. And to the abuser as well. And if that’s you – please read it! And if you’re wondering what Christianity is all about or has to offer – then you need to read it. As you can tell, I’m blown away by this book.

A brief word then about the book. There are 49 chapters, which given the content, are mercifully short, Mez doesn’t shy away from stating things as they are (and were). He’s brutally honest. I’m sure things were actually much much worse than he describes them but we, the reader, get the picture full on. He’s also honest about how he feels now.

Alarming perhaps to our Christian sentimentalities, but the honesty is shocking yet devastatingly refreshing.

It’s written really well. I like the way he’s structured it. It works. It’s easy to read as a book (the content is quite gruelling though). The book is full of Reformed theology. It’s not cold and lifeless. It’s warm and life-changing. Creation – Fall – Redemption. The reality, the factualness of sin, of the sinful nature and the cost of Redemption, the love of God in Christ, the Cross is all here. It’s a book of HOPE. Mez has been delivered by Christ the great deliverer. But the fact is we all need that deliverance. Respectable sinners are still sinners and just as lost as the drug addict, the abused, and the abuser.

If ‘The Problem of Evil’ is a problem for you then you may well find this book to be very helpful indeed. If you want an answer, you won’t do any better than to read this book. People are looking for answers. Especially about why the world and their lives are the way they are. Some say there are no answers. But there are. This book is one. The real problem is people don’t like the answers. The answer means handing authority over to another. And we won’t have that at any price, even if that means our own lives suffer. Sin is such an awful master!

In case you wondered, there’s no redemptive merit in what Mez suffered. There’s no balancing of the universe. But, unlike in a humanistic system, it isn’t without purpose either.

I like the way he’ll take a subject based on his awful experience and then contrast it in the following chapter with the suffering of Christ which is redemptive – for and on behalf of sinners, not himself. This, I think, works really well. For example he does this with chapters on humiliation, rejection and pain & suffering. Christ is humiliated. Christ is rejected. Christ undergoes pain & suffering.

Every chapter was either Jaw – Dropping in its description of evil or in the Amazing Grace of God in Christ.

These chapters stood out to me: Hell on Earth; The Glorious Wonderful Reality of Hell; The Terrible Reality of Heaven; The Bittersweet Pill of God’s Sovereignty.

Like I said this isn’t ‘merely’ a testimony book so at the end there is a section of Helpful Resources:

  • Worshipping with the enemy? – Interview with a child abuser
  • Interview with the Pastor of a child abuser
  • FAQs from Child Abuse Sufferers
  • A Response to this Book from an Abuse Sufferer
  • Next Steps

I was going to put loads of quotes in but instead I will end with a plea to read it. If you are a Church Officer, Elder or Pastor / Minister you MUST read it. I hope you will.

Four Christian Books & Booklets on Grieving

There are many many Christian books and booklets on grieving. Some are more helpful than others. I was given seven to review. Having read them I’ve ended with the four below. These are my thoughts.

Reviewing them is difficult because grieving is such an individual thing but most of us are going to go through this process sooner or later to some degree or another. There is no getting round that. The most important thing, it seems to me, is that the grieving person needs friends that know them well. This came out in one of the books:

“After my tragedy, a lot of people wanted to minister to me, and in some cases they were people I didn’t know well. But this just isn’t the time to be making new friends. It’s a time you want to be surrounded by the people you are already close with.” For All Who Grieve, p. 89 & 90.

Booklets can be quite helpful, especially if you don’t know what to say. They let us express our sorrow for the grieving person without having to say anything. Just don’t keep asking them if they’ve read the one you gave them as if it’s the most important one of all. It isn’t. They might never read it but they’ll still appreciate it and remember the kindness.

People mean well. But they don’t always say or do helpful things. Booklets are the same. They won’t all be suitable for everyone and it may be that a combination of books or booklets will be most helpful. No one book can say it all. If you are going to give someone that’s grieving a book then make sure you read it first. For example, I’d appreciate the kindness, but giving me something that was full of things I didn’t believe wouldn’t be helpful, I’d only find it annoying. But then, it might provoke useful thought. There you go. Is there a right or wrong – no idea. Just try not to batter people.

The reality of church life means there will be Christians at various stages of grief. That is true of any church and is true where I’m a member. Death doesn’t come in a neat packaged order. You don’t have to be old to ‘go the way of all the earth’ as Joshua said and is shown so well in ‘For All Who Grieve.’ So there is wisdom in preparing for what all of us will eventually experience. Nothing, apart from God himself, can prepare us for it. That doesn’t mean we should ignore it and just stoically get on with life. No, we are Christians, so we can and should prepare as best we can with the resources God has given us. These, and books like them can help us. There’s a lot of doctrine in the following books. So don’t let anyone tell you doctrine is of no practical use! Here are the four books then, in no particular order.


‘How Can I Grieve to God’s Glory?’ by Ryan M. McGraw, Reformation Heritage Books, 2019. (£2.50) This little booklet of 28 pages is based on Lamentations ch 3 where the sin of Israel has brought judgement. Because of Adam’s sin, and our own sin, we live in a fallen world. But on page 4 it’s not clear if it’s a specific personal sin that causes the death of a loved one. This could, I think, have been phrased differently. It was unhelpful and I nearly didn’t read on. However, by the end I thought the booklet had many good points and in several places is very helpful. For example,

‘Like him (Jeremiah) Christians must walk by faith in their grief (Lam. 3:19-38). We are thinking and believing Christians, and how we think and what we meditate on during our trials largely determines how we bear them by faith in Christ.’ p.9.

Another good point is that the author doesn’t shy away from God’s Sovereignty. If The Lord is truly Lord of all, He’s Lord of what’s happening to us, including the death of our loved ones. This is an important point. The booklet is doctrinally correct but some might think it lacks warmth. That said, it is very well worth reading. There’s a lot in this that we need to hear but in the wrong hands it could be used as a cudgel.

The grieving believer needs these truths but like some medicines they need to be administered with care. I would recommend reading this, but with caution. Would I give it to someone in the depths of grief? I’m not sure.


‘Grief: Finding Hope Again’ by Paul David Tripp, New Growth Press, 2010. (£3.99) This booklet by Paul Tripp is helpful and is the shortest at 24 pages. And short can be really helpful. I would have no problem giving this to a Christian. He’s quite straight, but is perhaps a little more compassionate. For example, this sort of honesty is good to bear in mind,

‘Whether death results from a sudden accident or a long illness, it catches us unprepared. Death is so deeply emotional and stunningly final that there is nothing you can do ahead of time to sail through your moment of loss.’ p. 5.

There are some good, but brief, strategies for dealing with the peculiar temptations grief brings with it. It doesn’t go into much depth, so that alone could be helpful when your grief-stricken brain isn’t working correctly. This booklet is a good place to start.


‘Grief: Walking with Jesus’, Bob Kellemen, P & R Publishing, 2018. (£7.99) This is a 31 day devotional reading plan.

I struggled at first with this book but then I warmed to it. I wasn’t overly keen on some aspects but by the end I was personally glad to have read it, and thought how useful it could be. It’s real and warm but also challenging. I could see it helping to maintain or establish a regular time in the scriptures. I would have no problem giving this away. The three studies each on Lazarus and Gethsemane for example were excellent. At the end of each reading there are items for reflection or things to do. For some, in the midst of raw grief, giving them stuff to do too soon might not be helpful. But then, for others, maybe they need to stop for a few minutes to reflect. It really helps to know the person.

‘Grief is a journey. But you and I know that it’s not a straight line from one point to another. The messy, mixed-up journey of grief that zigs and zags from hills to valleys, from valleys to hills, is not a nice, neat process.’  P.17.

This is the sort of honesty that is so helpful because there isn’t a magic bullet that suddenly makes everything well. There just isn’t. But The Lord Jesus is with us in it. No matter how messy it gets.

One reading was on justice and at first it seemed strange for that to be in here. But if the death of your loved one came about through medical incompetence or violence or a myriad of other issues the desire for justice is understandably going to be very strong. And it might be just to peruse it. The author doesn’t by-pass these emotions but we are helped and challenged to deal with them by bringing them to the Lord.

When is the best time to give it to someone in the midst of their grief? I don’t know. It wouldn’t do any harm even if they didn’t get round to reading it until some time later.

One other use for this could be to read it through as a group or even as a church.


‘For All Who Grieve: Navigating the Valley of Sorrow and Loss’ by Colin S. Smith, 10 Publishing, 2020. (£9.99) Hardback 140 pages. This last one is the longest and looked formidable. Would I have tackled it in the midst of grief? I don’t know. But the text is easy to read with breaks and headings and text boxes that keep it from becoming just a wall of text. I opened it with a bit of trepidation and I was hooked. I didn’t want to put it down.

This book is also based on the book of Lamentations. He (the author) was called out to a couple whose son was suddenly killed and from this he started a group that met to discuss together their grief – some from 18 years previous. The book is made up of shared experiences (testimonies) of (mainly) couples from the group with comments and exposition after each testimony by the author.

The six chapter titles are TEARS, TALK, GUILT, GRIEVANCE, HOPE & HEALING with a Postscript and an Appendix on ‘Children who die in infancy. (The testimonies are mostly about the death of children – one of 27 days.) After each chapter there’s a page of ‘Questions for Reflection and Discussion.’ Scary. There is raw honesty here. We don’t get all our questions answered and even after many years the grief is still painful. I found it helpful. The testimony to the love and faithfulness of God is wonderful. Christ really is the answer. But it’s through many many tears. The chapter on ‘Grievance’ is actually about having a grievance with God. The care of God is unbelievable. So amazing!

‘Why did God breathe out a book filled with complaints and grievances against Himself? Surely it is because He wants us to bring our grievance to Him’ p. 76.

One section in the Grievance chapter is on ‘Did God Cause This or Did He Just Let it Happen?’ The book tackles hard questions.

Would a ‘sharing’ group like this work in every church? I don’t know. Would it work in our church in the UK? Again, I don’t know. I do think ministers and elders should read it though. Or if you want to try and understand grief then you should read it. I found it refreshing and encouraging.

It’s a book with great heartache and sadness but it’s not a gloomy book. There’s grief and there’s hope together.

I highly recommend this book.


There are some topics that are interesting to read but may have little relevance to our lives. Death and grieving isn’t one of them. Frankly, it could do us all a lot of good to read books like these in order to further prepare us and our churches for the difficult days ahead that will surely come.

‘Happiness’ by J. C. Ryle

Happiness’ by J. C. Ryle. Evangelical Press.

As it says on the cover of this small booklet or ‘Tract’ it is ‘Lightly edited & updated by Mary Davis’ so it doesn’t read as a 19th Century text but it certainly addresses a 21st Century issue. It’s nicely laid out with easy to read text and isn’t very long at 51 pages.

Who doesn’t want to be happy? Ryle gives us the essentials of true happiness followed by common mistakes about what will make us happy. ‘To be truly happy, a person must have sources of gladness which do not depend on anything in this world’ (p. 15). He brings out several witnesses to show how wealth, fame, education and several other things will not make a person happy. Well then, how to be really happy? He tells us. Here’s just the first thing, ‘Be a real, thorough-going, true-hearted Christian.’

He doesn’t ignore the fact that Christians can go through much pain and sorrow. ‘Do I say that all true Christians are equally happy at all times? No, not for a moment!’ (p. 35) He goes through several objections before making a final plea. ‘Next, let me beg all readers of this book who are not yet happy to seek happiness in the only place it can be found’ (p. 48). ‘If you want to be happy, Come to Christ!’ (p.49)

As you would expect Ryle is plain in saying salvation is found only through the blood of Christ. The book challenges both believer and unbeliever. As a book it may not suit all but could be a good one to give away.

Ryles original tracts, along with this one can be found here: http://www.tracts.ukgo.com/john_charles_ryle.htm

Review – ‘If God is so good why are things so bad?’ by Melvin Tinker

This is the second book I’ve read by Melvin Tinker. It’s published by EP Books and dated 2019 so it’s a recent book. I like the way he writes. That is just a personal preference. The book is laid out nicely with easy to read type with headings throughout each one of its 8 chapters. At 156 pages it’s not a long book, and that includes several pages of end notes (I prefer footnotes), a foreword (by Tim Chester) and a preface. It isn’t a cheap book for its size with a retail price of £8.99 (what I paid), but you’ll probably find it for less.

Tim Chester describes the book as an invite ‘to walk with Job through the confusion suffering creates (p. 10).’ The author writes that ‘What follows iis a series of expositions which attempt to walk the way of wisdom with Job so that we might learn to think and speak of God aright when hard times come our way (p.15).’ As it says on the cover it’s a discussion of the problem of suffering. I have personally found the book of Job to be a great help. Suffering in some shape, mental or physical, will come upon us all and so books that deal with suffering will continue to be produced. Dealing with the problem and dealing with the suffering might be two separate but connected issues. This book does what it says on the tin and deals more with the problem. But it also deals with the suffering in the sense that it equips us to help others rather than batter them as Job’s friends did

One more minor gripe (the other is end notes – worth reading) is that he sometimes, for whatever reason, doesn’t given a reference. On page 49 & 50 he gives a lengthy quote from John Owen and I really wanted to see where it was from – alas, it was not given. He does this in another book as well as I recall. Maybe it’s just me.

Does he answer the question of the book title? You’ll have to answer that. I think he does, but whether you’re satisfied with his answer is another thing. In the Preface Melvin Tinker compares two men, Primo Levi and Victor Frankl, both prisoners in Auschwitz, who survive with two different views. He quotes Frankl saying, ‘The truth is that amongst those who actually went through the experience of Auschwitz, the number of those whose religious life was deepened – in spite, not to say because of this experience – by far exceeds those who gave up their belief (p. 14).’ That is quite telling. To use modern parlance then, Job is a survivor. And we should listen to what his book has to say. As Jesus said ‘He that has an ear let him hear (Mat 11:15).’

Chapter one introduces us to Job where we see that his ‘religious and moral credentials are established as impeccable from the very beginning (p. 22).’ On page 24 Melvin asks ‘What could possibly go wrong?‘ Job is afflicted as we may know. Satan is given permission to attack Job in the most horrendous manner. And so ‘Here was a man suffering alright, suffering which was heightened, not lessoned, by his faith in God (p. 28).’ Job is set up as one of the good people so ‘how is one to go about explaining what is happening to Job who is one of the good people (p. 28)?’ This is what faces us in the book of Job and what Melvin Tinker seeks to explain in his book.

Chapter two introduces us to Job’s three friends. I believe what Melvin says of them is correct that ‘no matter how crass, misleading and insensitive’ they ‘prove to be, their intentions were nonetheless sincere.’ And then we read ‘In their own way they represent a certain type of Christian today (p.35).’ We may have met that Christian, maybe we are or have been that Christian! The longest section in this chapter has the heading ‘How not to be a ‘comforter’ (p. 43).

Chapter three is a more detailed exposition of Job 9. Here, two profound questions have to be faced. The first question revolves around God’s power and sovereignty and whether he is good? ‘That is the question found lingering on Job’s lips (p. 52).’ The second question is found in Job 9:24 The earth is given into the hand of the wicked; he covers the faces of its judges— if it is not he, who then is it? That is an incredibly powerful question for anyone to ask. If some form of disaster comes into your life ‘if it is not he, who then is it?‘ Melvin discusses this very helpfully, I think, through the rest of the chapter. The materialist really has to face the consequences of how they answer this.

Chapter four sees Elihu step up, Job’s three friends having finished their speeches. Elihu brings a different perspective, suggesting, writes Melvin, ‘that it might be more helpful to look forward to try and identify a purpose in suffering (p. 70).’ it doesn’t mean Elihu hasn’t bought into the retributive principle (p.37), as most people have, but that ‘… it is too narrow a view to think of all suffering as retribution… (p. 70).’

In Chapter five God speaks. The chapter opens with the comment by C. S. Lewis about God being in the dock. Because the book of Job is an ancient courtroom setting Melvin quotes G. K. Chesterton that ‘He [God] is quite willing to be prosecuted (p. 86).’ But ‘God’s defence wasn’t quite as Job had anticipated (p.90).’ The courtroom setting makes sense, and in that context Job’s eventual response fits in with ancient customs. ‘Job finally realised his mistake, which is often ours, namely, to think we are privy to all the facts, when we are not (p. 92).’ Like previous chapters there are helpful testimonies here about how God and His word are known in ways that would have been impossible but for the suffering.

Chapter six explains the Behemoth as death and the Leviathan as the Satan and we are therefore introduced to the reality of death and of supernatural evil. There’s opposition to God and all his works. There’s a war on in the heavenly realm, and we (Christians) are in it.

In Chapter seven I appreciated Melvin’s comment on Job’s end. I mean, it’s a fairy tale ending isn’t it (p. 121, also endnote 3 p. 155). This isn’t a Disney film. Apart from the great loss he sustained materially, all his children were killed. I don’t think it ended with a plastic Christian smile on his face. Why ever do we think it did. There is restoration, but I believe Job’s heart continued for the rest of his life to ache for his dead children. The end is that he meets with God. ‘Job had his hearts desire fulfilled, he met with God. That encounter changed everything, his blessings and his trials, in a new light because he saw God (p. 128).’

In the final Chapter eight Melvin writes, ‘We have been following the trials of one who is ‘victim and hero’; subject to ‘the worst horrors of pain and humiliation,’ the man Job (p. 133).’ We are then taken typologically (and powerfully) from Job to Jesus. As I was reading the book I had confirmed, I think, that the answer to the why of evil has to be found in God himself. I haven’t quite thought all this through but it seems to me that it’s in Christ that we see the why of evil. For me then, the book has been extremely helpful. And the final chapter in particular. At one point I did wonder if I could in all honesty recommend it, but this chapter sold it to me. Here, we are taken to the cross of Christ. This, is where we must all come.

The book is sprinkled throughout with ‘testimonies’ of the suffering that have both rejected God, and those that have found him to be their all in all. I think it would be helpful if you were to read the book (this book, and Job) but most probably will not do that. The question that cannot be avoided though, is where do you find yourself? As the rejector of God? Or the one who finds God in Christ to be their all in all?

This a very helpful book and Christians will find much benefit in reading it. I’m not sure it will answer some of the deeper questions non-Christians might have or even of some Christians (although see above on Ch 8). Some answers will never be found in a book but only in an encounter with God himself. Let’s not forget, that is what happened to Job in the end. His questions – if I can put it that way – weren’t answered by his three friends, nor Elihu, or even Job but by God himself. Books are good, but they aren’t a substitute for meeting with God. There is only one book where God meets us, and that’s his own word The Bible. The book of Job, in the end is in the Bible for that very reason – so we can meet with the living God.

 

‘the heart of the problem’ by Alun Ebenezer

‘the heart of the problem’ Alun Ebenezer, EP Books, 2019. The author is Headmaster at a school in London. The book is primarily an evangelistic book. It isn’t complicated. It isn’t fancy. And it isn’t long at just 58 pages. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn. I enjoyed reading it. This book is written in a style that doesn’t mince words. The one aim of the book is to encourage and persuade you to go to the doctor (The Lord Jesus Christ). He is passionate about the task in hand. ‘Don’t mince your words doctor. Tell me the truth.’ This is what Alun does. You are in good hands. Rarely does an evangelistic book come along that I can unreservedly recommend. This is one of them. ‘Knowing the terror of the Lord we persuade men‘ says the Apostle Paul. This is written in that spirit.

It’s a good book to give away. It might not suit everyone. But if you want to know what the problem is, and the answer, this book does that. Ten of Those are selling it for £1.99.

There are five chapters:

1. The Problem: In just 2 pages he lays out the problem in no uncertain terms saying ‘…. the one thing we can all agree on is that something is wrong with the world we live in (p.1.).’

2. The Diagnosis: When you have a problem with your health you go to the doctor. Why? You want to know what’s wrong. So what’s wrong:

‘To get a diagnosis, …. we need a reliable understanding of our deepest problem. The Bible provides that level of understanding because it is God’s Word …. the problem is not ‘out there’ but rather in us; …. The fundamental problem is not bad parents, bad schools, bad friends, bad circumstances, corrupt politicians or a broken society. The fundamental problem is we all have a bad heart. (p.3.).’

He then. goes on to demonstrate this under eight brief headings, culminating in a Verdict on page 14:

The heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. The symptoms are around us and the diagnosis is that we are sinners, every one of us (Romans 3:23).

3. The Prognosis: ‘…. where does this condition I have lead? What will happen if it carries on?’ ‘…. the Bible goes on to show us the prognosis, which tells us just how serious things are and why the diagnosis cannot be ignored (p. 15.).’

Just now people are scared they will catch the CoronaVirus because they know it can lead to death. Although some might brush it off thinking it only applies to people with underlying conditions. This isn’t something we can brush off because all of us have the underlying condition (the diagnosis) of a sinful nature. The author goes on to briefly show what that means under three heads: Death, The Judgement, and Hell. He says this:

‘All the things we enjoy on earth will be gone forever. It is impossible to imagine how awful it will be…. The anger of God hanging over you forever. There is no escape, no emergency exit, no prospect of getting out (p. 20).’

4. The Cure: The condition we have can’t be more serious. But ‘…. God doesn’t tell us about hell because he is nasty and horrible and wants to frighten us and spoil our enjoyment; rather, out of love and kindness, he warns us about it so that we don’t end up there (p. 21).’ A serious condition then, needs a serious cure. Not the prospect of a cure. Not a ‘What are my odds Doctor’ kind of cure. But a certain cure. Millions of people through the ages have received this cure. The author goes on to explain what that involves.

Remarkably, the cure doesn’t involve something we have to do. Some cures are quite radical and involve a great deal of effort by the patient. Not this cure. All the effort, all the hard work, is done for us by another. Such is our condition the cure cannot come from within. Neither our effort, nor our resolve will do it. Alun, throughout what is the longest chapter, explains what it is the Lord Jesus Christ has done for sinners.

Trying to grasp what Christ suffered for sinners on the cross is difficult to comprehend. Alun explained the suffering of The Lord Jesus on the cross in a way I’d not heard, or at least not quite appreciated before. He explained it by referring to the way time changed in the Narnia books. So while Christ was on the cross for those three hours he somehow entered another (eternal?) dimension where his suffering was of such a nature that here on earth we only get to see a fraction of what Salvation actually cost.

‘On earth it was hours but as Christ went into the darkness he left time and entered eternity and suffered an eternal hell (p. 34.).’

You might think all this is far-fetched, but seeing the things in the world and maybe your own experience convinces you that something is radically wrong. The Bible explains what’s wrong, and gives an answer. Jesus said to his disciples at one stage, ‘Will you also leave me? They said there’s nowhere else we can go, you alone have the words of eternal life (John 6: 66-69).’

Indeed, there’s nowhere else to go. And so to the final chapter.

5. The Doctor: Not convinced? It’s amazing that people, even with a serious condition, will not go to the doctor. There are a few reasons given why they just will not avail themselves of the cure. We are then given some of these are why they are no reason not to come. He gives five reasons and ends with this final heading: ‘Come to the doctor!.’

‘Just come to the doctor! The way you come to him is in repentance and faith (p. 54).’

In the penultimate paragraph he encapsulates the whole book when he writes:

‘The heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. The symptoms are serious. The diagnosis spot on. The prognosis is terrifying. The cure sublime. And the doctor is ready and willing to see you… Come to him now! (p. 58.).’

Just in case you missed it, the doctor is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ. The same Lord Jesus that said ‘Only the sick need a doctor (Mark 2:17).’ Have you seen that you are sick. Not everyone does. Some see it, but do nothing. They don’t come. Don’t be like them. Especially when the Lord Jesus says:

‘All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out (John 6:37).’

 

‘When Christians Suffer’ by Thomas Case

I first came across Thomas Case in Voices from the Past Vol 1, a book of daily readings edited by Richard Rushing. This little volume, When Christians Suffer, is also edited by Richard Rushing and again published by The Banner of Truth. He has made, I think, another valuable contribution to the church of Christ.

Thomas Case (1598–30 May 1682) lived to the age of 84 and was, bar one, the longest surviving member of the Westminster Assembly (Westminster Confession of Faith and other documents). Case knew bereavement, persecution, the confiscation of his property and spent 5 months imprisoned in the Tower of London – though his wife (he remarried) was allowed to be with him. The book is written out of deep personal experience. It’s worth pointing out that Thomas Case doesn’t confine what the suffering is to any specific issue. Bereavement and illness are there of course, but suffering manifests (though sometimes it isn’t even seen at all) itself in many ways. The Corona Virus is with us, so many in the world are suffering right now. Mentally, financially, physically and spiritually. So for Christians especially, though it needn’t be confined to them, is a wonderful little book. Perhaps to give away. The book is an exposition of Psalm 94:12. ‘Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O Lord, and whom you teach out of your law.’

I shall take discipline here in the utmost latitude, for all kinds and degrees of suffering, whether from God, or man, or Satan. Whether sufferings for sin, or sufferings for righteousness sake. p.13.

This isn’t really a review, other than a few notes and a hearty recommendation. It’s a great little booklet. It’s 113 tiny pages (smaller than A6). My copy was a gift, but I’ve since bought another couple of copies to give away. I paid £3.25 at our local Christian Bookshop. The opening letter by Thomas Manton is worth reading on its own. You should know this is a very heavily edited edition of Case’s ‘A Treatise on Afflictions.’ That’s not a criticism as it’s extremely well done and makes the work of Thomas Case accessible to a much wider readership having updated the language making it more readable to a modern audience. Having read this edition I started to read the un-edited version which also contains a brief Biographical Preface, which I have to say isn’t that helpful.

Introductory Letter (slightly edited) by Thomas Manson to Thomas Case

I thank you for your thoughts concerning afflictions. I was pleased to drink from this fountain, and the half was not told me. To treat of afflictions when we ourselves flourish and abound in ease and plenty is more like the orator than the preacher, and the brain than the heart. It seems that when you went into prison, the Spirit of God went into prison with you. When you were shut up to others, you were open to the visits and free breathings of his grace. A prison cannot restrain the freedom of his operations. It would be a prison for sure to be shut up also from fellowship with the Holy Spirit. I begin to see the truth in Tertullian’s discourse to the martyrs:

‘You went out of prison when you went into it, and we’re but sequestered from the world that you might converse with God; the greatest prisoners and the most guilty are those at large, darkened with ignorance, chained with lusts, committed not by the proconsul, but God.’

Sir, I could even envy your prison comforts, and the sweet opportunities of a religious privacy. We that are abroad are harassed and worn out with constant public labours, and can seldom retire from the distraction of business for such free converse with God and our own souls. But we are not to choose our own portion; crosses will come soon enough without wishing for them, and if we were wise we might take an advantage of every condition.

Good sir, be persuaded to publish these discourses: the subject is useful, and your manner of handling it warm and affectionate. Do not deprive the world of the comfort of your experiences. Certainly my heart is not one of the tenderest, yet if heart answers to heart, I can easily foresee much success and that you will not repent of the publication. The Lord bless your endeavours in the gospel of his dear Son. I am, sir, yours in all Christian observance,

Thomas Manton.

The first section is ‘Twenty-One Lessons Which God Usually Teaches His People in a Suffering Condition.’

‘(1.) The first lesson God teaches us by affliction is to have compassion for those who are in a suffering condition.
We are prone to be insensitive, writes Case, when we are at ease in Zion! Partly out of the delicacy of self-love which makes us unwilling to sour our own sweet blessings with the bitter taste of a strangers affliction. Upon this very account God brings a variety of afflictions and sorrows upon his own children.’ p. 14.

‘(5.) God also uses affliction to reveal unknown corruption in the hearts of his people.
He reveals in the heart what pride, what impatience, what unbelief, what idolatry, what distrust of God, what murmuring, and what unthankfulness abides there that you never took notice of!’ p. 21.

One final quote from section 3. ‘How the Instrument of Affliction Promotes the Teaching of God in the Soul’
(1.) Through affliction God tears down the pride of man’s heart.
There is no greater obstruction to saving knowledge than pride and self-opinion. Pride raise objections against the word (The Bible), and disputes the commands when they should obey them. The heart of man stands as a mountain before the word, and cannot be moved until God comes with his instruments of affliction and knocks down those mountains, and then stands on level ground to talk with man. This pride of heart speaks loud in the wicked, and whispers audibly even in the godly. It is folly bound up even in the hearts of God’s children until correction drives it out, and the pride is broken and cries, ‘Lord, what will you have me to do?’ p. 82, 83.

As Manton writes, ‘crosses will come soon enough without wishing for them, and if we were wise we might take an advantage of every condition.’

 

Free Speech – Going, going, gone?

I read this some while ago now at the recommendation of a friend (Thanks Nick!). Having checked the revisions, I first started writing this over a year ago. I’m staggered at how things have moved!

The author, Mick Hulme is an atheist but the subject of Free Speech is something that should unite both Atheist and Christian alike and this book does that. It’s been in my ‘Draft’ folder for a while but the book’s relevance continues. Indeed, the book seems to have more relevance each week. There’s so much to quote you might as well go and buy it. The following extracts will suffice for now. Note especially this line: ‘Free speech means you are also free to talk back as you see fit‘. So talking and talking back. Sounds very much like a conversation – even a heated conversation.

‘If it is to mean anything, free speech has to live up to its name. This is the hardest thing for many who claim to endorse the principle to remember in practice. It means that what others say or write need not conform to what you, I, or anybody else might prefer.

Here is the terrible truth about free speech. Anybody can choose to write, blog, tweet, chant, preach, phone a radio program or shout at a television set. Not all of them will have the purity of soul of Jesus Christ or Joan Rivers, the wisdom of Socrates or Simon Cowell, or the good manners of Prince Harry or Piers Morgan. That’s tough. They still get the same access to free speech as the rest of us, whether we like it or not.

Defending the unfettered Free in free speech is not a question of endorsing whatever objectionable or idiotic things might be written or said. Nobody had to find Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons insightful or hilarious in order to stand by its right to publish them. Nor is it a question of being soft and suffering in silence. Free speech means you are also free to talk back as you see fit.

The Free in free speech does mean recognising that free speech is for fools, fanatics and the other fellow too. Like all true liberties, free speech is an indivisible and universal right. We defend it for all or not at all.’

Trigger Warning: Is the fear of being offensive killing free speech?, Mick Hume (Pages. 12 & 13).

In practice, this isn’t easy for Christians – or for anyone else for that matter. Having our faith and our Saviour ridiculed in public isn’t pleasant but is nothing new. And it’s happening all the time directly and indirectly. (I didn’t say we have to like it) Why other lobby groups expect a free pass on abuse and ridicule is quite frankly beyond me. Welcome to the real world. Christians have been living with this reality for centuries. Christians have been pilloried, abused, imprisoned, made fun of, and even burnt. Now, especially in The West, it’s shaming, losing your livelihood and trial by Media. In other countries, right now, like China for example, it’s another story.

In order to apply the principles of democracy, tolerance and free speech, which the UK is supposed to stand for, and even exports (allegedly), is it unreasonable to ask for the liberty to speak freely? By speaking freely I mean as Mick Hume writes ‘Free speech means you are also free to talk back as you see fit.’ This freedom is disappearing. We thank God for the freedoms we enjoy and we should pray that it continues. But what to do? The temptation is to lie down and simply hope it will all go away and suddenly as if by magic all our liberties will be restored. It’s not going to happen. You might remember when Boris Johnson brought the topic of Free-Speech to the fore (which BTW has come back several times – including ‘Any Questions’ BBC Radio 4).

At the end of the book, Mick Hulme has provided a glossary, if you will, of anti-free speech Trigger Warnings that were trotted out several times over the comments by Boris. Nothing has changed in the intervening period, our liberties, or lack of them, continually slip away. How things change, Boris Johnson is now Prime Minister. Incidentally, ‘Boris’ is a passionate believer in Free Speech (correct me if I’m wrong). Consider the torrent of abuse he receives – including from Christians. Just in the last week a Judge ruled against a Doctor for not referring to someone by their preferred way of being addressed. Again, I’m just amazed at how fast things are moving.

Here’s the first two of Mick Hulme’s Glossary:

‘This is not a free-speech issue.’

‘This is a pretty sure sign that yes, it is.
The first shot fired in the silent war on free speech is often an assurance that the bans or proscriptions on speech being demanded really have nothing to do with attacking freedom of expression. Of course, the fraudsters assure us that they support free speech, but this is about something else – hate or harassment, national security or personal safety.
What they usually mean is ‘This not a me-speech issue’. It is not infringing on their free speech, so it’s not a problem. But free speech is not the same as me-speech, never mind me-me-me speech. It is always about defending freedom for the other fellow, for the one who thinks differently.’

Incidentally, there have a few discussions regarding our freedom to Speak and interesting, and alarming, to note the frequency these warnings given by Mick Hume are used. But here’s another one that you will probably have noticed. One more:

‘Of course I believe in free speech, but…’

‘This is the one most often guaranteed to give the game away that no, in fact, you don’t.
Ours is the age of the but-heads, when almost nobody opposes free speech ‘in principle’, but Principle is seemingly another country and they do things differently there. In Practice, back here on Earth, many have a ‘but’ to wave around in the face of free speech to explain why the freedom to express an opinion should go thus far, but no further, like ‘free’-range livestock caged in a pen.
This might sound reasonable. But (to use the only language some people seem to understand) the problem is that, like all meaningful liberties, free speech has to be a universal and indivisible right. Once you apply a ‘but’ impose conditions or attach a string, it ceases to be a right. Instead it becomes a concession to be rationed by somebody in authority.
Those ubiquitous ‘buts’ don’t just qualify a commitment to free speech, they crush it. To claim to believe in free speech, but … is akin to insisting that you believe in an Almighty God, but you don’t think He’s all that. It might be better if the but-heads came clean and confessed that they don’t really believe in free speech after all.’

Having said all the above, does that mean we can say whatever we like in an absolute sense? By absolute, I mean saying whatever you like without any eternal consequence. I accept that as Christians we ought to weigh our words carefully and I’ll be the first to confess that I may have overstepped the mark on occasion. We should all consider some words from the Bible. Of course, the Bible is itself soon to be labeled Hate Speech (Gen 1:27). The Bible is considered by some as outrageous, and probably to some extent by Mick Hume, but he doesn’t (I assume) want to close me down or have me arrested for having a different view or even for calling him a sinner. The fact is, Jesus said that every idle word we say will be brought into the judgment.

Mat 12:36  I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless (idle AV) word they speak,
Mat 12:37  for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (ESV)

That is serious stuff but I still believe people have the right to call me a nutcase and say what they like about the Christian faith. In this life Jesus said every sin and blasphemy can be forgiven: except a final rejection of the Salvation offered by God. But right now, your sin, no matter how grievous, and no matter how you may have railed against your God, it can all be forgiven.

JACO Biography – A Kind Of Review

If like me you love Jaco’s bass playing but know little about the man then this book could be the book for you. The strapline to the book is ‘The extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius.’ Do realise his life was extraordinary, but it was also very tragic. Just a little bit about the book itself. This is the Anniversary Edition of JACO by Bill Milkowski. The text is really dense. It’s a small font for the size of book and sometimes the pages are just a mass of text. But, it is very well written and very readable with several pictures, plus lots of anecdotes and quotes from those that knew him and played with him. Throughout there are a lot of memories of other musicians that first heard him with Sixty Three reflections (Not all good) on his life and music at the end. To use a colloquialism – they were usually ‘gobsmacked’ by his ability and creativity. There’s a fair bit of fruity language – the F-word and S-word are frequently used. However, I found it to be a page turner. There’s also a fairly decent index (in a very tiny font) and a full discography – most of which I was completely unaware of although I knew he played with Joni Mitchell.

Here’s the first paragraph or so in the acknowledgments (p. vii):

‘It’s a rare privilege to be able to revisit an old work and refine, update, expand, and otherwise sculpt it into a better, more satisfying shape. With a fresh perspective afforded by the passing of ten years since the original printing of The Extraordinary And Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius — along with new information gathered, new insights provided by key figures missed the first time around, and the wisdom and empathy that comes with fatherhood — I was able to “do this thing correct,” as Jaco would say.’

Part of his mission, says Milkowski, was ‘to paint a richer, more detailed portrait of Jaco’s early, pre-Weather Report years in Fort Lauderdale, where he was at his happiest and healthiest — a straight-arrow Family man and dedicated musician at the peak of his powers.’

He also wanted to ‘more closely examine the final 24 hours leading up to the savage beating that put Jaco in a coma for nine days and resulted in his ultimate demise on September 21, 1987.’

I was listening to Jaco Pastorius back in the 1970’s when I started listening to fusion styles of jazz (Chick Corea – Return to Forever; Mahavishnu Orchestra) which at the time led me to buy albums by Miroslav Vitous (Bass), Tomasz Stańko (Trumpet) which was just an extension of the other weird stuff (Henry Cow, Gong, Soft Machine) most people thought I was listening to. I was playing the guitar a bit but it never went anywhere but I did at least have the ear (I think) to know when I was listening to something special. Like lots of people then, it seems, listening to Jaco made me sit up and realise this was definitely someone special.

I actually managed to see Weather Report at The Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, London, but we couldn’t stay to the end as I recall else we’d have missed our train. What a shame. When I only recently saw there was a biography of Jaco it was a no-brainer to get it.

Jaco was blessed with an abundance of ‘natural’ ability. He had perfect pitch, perfect time, a photographic memory and was even physically suited to playing the electric Bass. As if that wasn’t enough he was also an innovator. He had all the attributes of a genius. He also had an obsessive personality that made him want to be the best at whatever he did – and seemed to excel at whatever it was. That didn’t mean he just sat around wallowing in his gifts – he obsessively practiced and practiced and practiced. Even for a genius, there isn’t a short cut. But it seems with genius there’s more often than not a corresponding defect in the personality.

I knew nothing about his early life and was quite surprised at how long he held out with a no-drinking and no-drugs policy. But all the time I’m reading I know things are going to take a tragic turn. The first couple of chapters are upfront and tell of the tragedy. The next few chapters tell of his rise to fame – if I can put it like that – as he reaches the peak of his playing ability and the recognition that went with it. All the while there’s this awful expectation that Jaco’s life is going to turn really bad. There’s a sense of foreboding. As I reach this stage of the book I’m wondering what it was that sent him on a downward spiral.

[This little section I had some quotes to insert here but I’ve misplaced the book so this is from memory: There was mention of him getting drunk but it didn’t seem to be a habitual thing. But, we are told that Joe Zawinul and Jaco would ‘get competitively wasted on a regular basis.’ But Zawinul apparently treated him like a son. You would have thought he would have tried to protect him – but he doesn’t. Not really. Other friends notice a real change at this point.]

Anyway, as far as I can tell, it’s at this time in Jaco’s life where things begin to take a bad turn. On top of the drugs and booze his marriage to Tracy was starting to fall apart. He had a relationship with another woman (perhaps many women) and a relationship with Joni Mitchell born out of their musical / spiritual collaboration.

Ingrid (one of the women) knew it was wrong and she felt Jaco’s Catholic upbringing caused him to feel guilty about what he was doing – and rightly so.

So whether there was already a personality defect and the marriage breaking up coupled with fame, booze, drugs and the pressure of being at the top conspired to form a deadly cocktail that drove him on a downward tragic spiral, I don’t know. But there’s more:

Peter Erskine (Drummer with Weather Report & friend) told his father (As it happens, a Psychologist) about Jaco’s mood swings and without even seeing him diagnosed Jaco to be suffering from Manic Depression – what we now call Bipolar Disorder. It wasn’t until years later Jaco was hospitalised, diagnosed and then treated (with Lithium). In the book ‘Tackling Mental Illness Together: A biblical and practical approach’ by Alan Thomas there’s a section on Bipolar disorder (pp, 168 – 172) in chapter 9 ‘Severe Mental Illnesses.’ In this chapter, Professor Thomas describes what we read about in this biography of Jaco – manic episodes and depression. Lithium is still used with the side-effect of trembling that Jaco experienced – especially in his hands.

Part of the tragedy, maybe the main part, is that instead of hospitalising him, he is idolised and treated as a Cash Cow. He was ill. I recently watched a program on Channel 5 called ‘The Death of Amy Winehouse: 13 Reasons Why.’ There were many sad parallels, especially with drink and drugs. The author brings out quite a few times how life was much simpler, and happier, for Jaco in the early days. Before he became famous, when he wasn’t drinking or taking drugs, when he was happy with his first wife Tracy (‘Portrait of Tracy’).

After reading this I now listen to Jaco’s playing slightly differently. It’s certainly a celebration of masterful playing (a new appreciation for sure)  but it’s tinged with sadness.  

When reading books like this I’m always interested in looking to see what their religious convictions are. And for good reason, there’s a lot hanging on it. But I don’t read to judge. Leastways I try not to anyway. I read with hope. As a Christian, I’ve read biographies with lives that are just about as tragic as it gets in this life but by God’s Grace they have come to know Christ. And so their lives become a testimony to the triumph of grace. Reading these biographies there’s a turn from whatever the darkness might be to the light of Christ and an eternal heritage. There’s redemption. Not so with the life of Jaco. There is no redemption, there is no point at which his life turns around. There is no hope. It does not end well. I do not know if somehow God reached into Jaco’s life at the last moment and we’ll see him in heaven. Maybe. I hope it is so. The night when he was beaten that led to his death, he had talked with Carlos Santana. Santana says ‘…. we talked a little bit about Jesus. That was the last time I saw him. (p. 261).   I have absolutely no idea what ‘talking a little bit about Jesus’ means. Jesus gets a mention a few other times through the book and his ‘spirituality’ is mentioned several times. Again, what that actually means, I have no idea. Jaco was brought up a Catholic and sang in the choir so there was some input. Whether he was saved or not then, I don’t know. I know God is Gracious though, and that it’s He that does the saving, not us.

In summary then, if you’re a fan of Jaco you should read it. But it’s not a fun read. It’s not a fun read because we get to follow, through Bill Milkowski’s excellent book the rise of such an amazing talent as Jaco and then his subsequent destruction and fall, ending in his tragic death.