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Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor

Category Book Reviews
Date April 25, 2008

A book entitled Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson has just been written by D. A. Carson, and published by Crossway Books (2008, 160 pp, pbk, $15.99, ISBN 978 1 43350 199 6). For most gospel labourers, the title of this book will need no explanation. It is the category into which we instinctively know we fit: we feel our gifts to be eminently modest, our charges generally small, our energy evidently flagging, our minds manifestly dull, our hearts perversely cold, our efforts significantly fruitless, our sermons solidly unspectacular, our names known only in heaven, our selves the most unworthy men that the Lord ever called to the ministry. And that is on a good Monday.

This book tells of a man who was not fêted among the great and the good of his day. He was not a prominent author, nor a ‘conference speaker.’ He devoted himself to the work of the gospel among the French-speaking and predominantly Roman Catholic Canadians of Quebec, labouring for years against the cultural and societal grain. He knew the frustrations of tireless sowing and seemingly non-existent reaping. At one particular point, on the point of making a major step forward in the work to which he was committed, he came into what seems to have been necessary conflict with the union of which he was a part. The personal effect was devastating, as he absorbed abuse without retaliation; the financial effect was almost crippling. He pressed on, labouring earnestly at his calling to preach the gospel. He became bitterly discouraged at the apparent stagnation of the work, and a section of the book is given over to tracing his spiritual distresses. He broke ground in evangelising the lost, and then saw others come in and surpass him. A perfectionist by nature, he had an unhealthy tendency to lay all his troubles and trials at his own door. No-one seems to have vilified him quite as much as he did himself. Eventually, he vowed that – should there be a continued absence of any indications of blessing – he would move on. He followed through on his vow, and entered secular employment, although his prayerful efforts to bring the gospel to sinners seem barely to have altered. It was only several years later that he again took up formal pastoral responsibility, at which time his gifts were more effectively employed. His beloved wife fell ill with Alzheimer’s disease, and he faithfully nursed her. He himself followed his wife to glory within three years, and – by a strange quirk of providence – died alone in a hospital bed, although all three of his loving children had been close at hand through his last days. He was Don Carson’s father.

After his death (not least at his crowded funeral) came countless expressions of heartfelt gratitude from many of the hundreds of people whose lives had felt the profound impact of this unassuming man’s faithful and earnest – though in many respects unspectacular – ministry. On earth he was remembered with joy; in heaven, the ‘Well done!’ would have been joyfully heard.

Here, then, is the grit and glory of Christ’s rank and file, his foot soldiers. In one sense, Tom Carson was an extraordinary ordinary pastor, but many ordinary pastors are. Here is a lesson that deep graces are more valuable than great gifts; that genuine faithfulness can mean more than apparent fruitfulness; and, that hard labours are valued even when they do not produce vast returns. Here are also cautions against the despondency that can too often characterise the ordinary pastor, as well as an example of a man whose focus was so much on God and his glory that envy never seemed to reach his heart.

This volume provides a window into the heart of many men serving Christ in our day. Many pastors will find much that rings true, perhaps painfully, but will also find reminders of the grace of the good God we serve. In that respect, it is a fine book for those who feel that they are ever sowing and never reaping. It also provides an insight for God’s people into the lives of the men who love and minister to them, a reminder that even ordinary pastors are Christ’s gift to shepherd the people of God whom he purchased with his own blood. Such men need prayer; this book reminds us to offer it.

Jeremy Walker is one of the pastors of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley, West Sussex, UK.

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