In his wise providence, the Lord has used Christian authors to be among my good friends and trusted counselors over the years. Most of these authors I have not and will never meet until we get to heaven. But reading them has often been the important conversation that I really need to have at a critical time in my life and ministry. Such is the case with the book that I finished on a plane yesterday: Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson by D.A. Carson.
D.A. Carson’s books are often formidable reading. But I have always found them to exalt my vision of God, stretch my understanding of biblical truth, and deepen the roots of my faith and love for Christ. For instance, Carson’s book, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, has been a faithful guide as I have recently begun my journey through the high and challenging terrain of the Lord’s instructions in Matthew 5-7. I may have more than 40 different reference works on the Sermon on the Mount. But Carson’s work is one of the few I would not want to be without.
But Memoirs is different from most of Carson’s books. It is very personal. Yet it is not really about D.A. Carson himself. Rather, it is the story of a great man (his father, Tom Carson), who is gloriously described in humble terms – an ordinary pastor. Most of what is written about pastors today focuses on scandals, strategies, or successes. And the vast majority of us are too, well, ordinary, to have our “memoirs” published. In fact, I would not know anything about Tom Carson if I had not been introduced to this book. But thank God this son and admirer took the time and effort to share with us the life, work, and thoughts of this great man.
Yes, Tom Carson was a great man. He did not author any books. To a great degree, his name and ministry were not know outside of Canada. He never led a megachurch. In fact, Carson writes of his father: “The brute fact is that Tom functioned better as a number-two pastor than the senior man” (p. 116). Yet Tom Carson was, in fact, a great man. And he was a great man because he was an ordinary pastor. That is, He loved and trusted the Lord Jesus Christ. He was humble before God and others. He was committed to prayer and the ministry of the word. Carson writes, “Tom was a workmanlike expositor, faithfully committed to explaining the biblical text” (p. 33). Later he writes, “He was not very good at putting people down, except on his prayer lists” (p. 148). He was unflinchingly devoted to his wife, Margeret, even when Alzheimer years slowly and painfully took her away from him. He was not ambitious to promote his own cause, yet the Lord continued to open significant doors for him. He was a man of principle. He was… he was… he was a man.
Did you know that pastors are human? They are people – with all the good and bad that term implies about everyone else. And Memoirs reveals the humanity of Tom (as his son calls him throughout the book) by recording chunks of his journals, with insightful reflections on them by the author. Tom Carson was a man who had great insecurities about his usefulness to God. He had “a remarkably tender conscience” (p. 94). Thus, he would often blame himself for failings around him that had absolutely nothing to do with him. He always felt that there was more he could have done for God and others, even when it obvious that he had done all that he could. He was a grateful man, rightly praising God for every good and perfect gift. Yet he also had times of despair and discouragement. But these burdens would be offered to God as pleas for help, rather than complaints. Above all, he was determined to be faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ, no matter how he felt or what the circumstances were about him. Is this not a essential mark of true greatness?
God knows, I needed to read this book this weekend. In sports, it is often said that a team is what the record of wins and losses say they are. But this is not true of ministers of the gospel. Our Champion has already won the victory for us, before our ministerial struggle began. And our success is directly tied to our faithfulness to him, not our budgets, degrees, or notoriety. When we get to heaven, the Lord will not ask us the size of anything. Praise God! He will, however, examine our personal devotion to him and our doctrinal fidelity to his word. Praise God for great, ordinary pastors like Tom Carson. May his tribe increase! And may the Lord grant that I be counted in their number.
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. – 2 Timothy 4:6-8 (ESV)