Thursday, 19 November 2015

Zion's Pilgrim

Robert Hawker was the vicar of Charles, in Plymouth from 1778-1827. He was concerned to engage the attention of his flock beyond the church walls with an extensive writing ministry, which is most well known for his Poor Man's Bible Commentary and Morning and Evening Portions. Altogether it ran to 10 volumes when his collected works were first published in 1831. He inventively adopted a different literary form in Zion's Pilgrim to provoke interest whilst instilling sound teaching. It appears his thoughts ran along similar lines to those of John Bunyan, and indeed this composition of his has been favourably compared with Pilgrim's Progress. It has the same theme - tracing out the life and experiences of a pilgrim (cf. Hebrews 11:13). However it must be said that in terms of literature it is far short of Bunyan's standard, although arguably reaching greater heights theologically. Hawker has a style that is quaint, his characters and plot are almost ludicrously contrived, but for the serious and discerning reader there is much meat on the bone here. His Pilgrim starts out and almost immediately encounters a neighbour - the Moral Man. Hawker's familiarity with the methods and reasonings of Pilgrim's antagonists is evident. He does not set up straw men to knock down, but we recognise in them the age-old arguments subtly brought forward. These deepen with the Moral Preacher at church, then shift when entering the home circle of a 'pious' family. But he is helped to progress by meeting a Traveller and through his introduction to a very different kind of prayer meeting and the (inevitable) Poor Man who ministers at it. Here we find a very different kind of religion, and one which begins to enter into Pilgrim's case. There are yet many adventures leading to his conversion, and after to an advanced age, but all are subservient to Hawker's purpose of instruction in the vital principles of a revealed faith. There is a savouriness about these truths which transcends the shortcomings of the form into which they are cast, and well repays persevering reading.
The edition of Zion's Pilgrim still available to purchase new is a paperback volume within Gospel Mission's Select Works set, which sells separately at just £6.95. They are reproductions of the originals, which is short of desirable, as this book could do with some reformatting. Introducing chapters would be helpful for a start!
Zion's Pilgrim by Robert Hawker, Gospel Mission, £6.95

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Not For Crown or Sceptre

We restocked our supplies of Deborah Alcock books over the summer and have just received this really enthusiastic review from a customer of  Not for Crown or Sceptre - A Story of Sweden in the 16th Century...

Despite the incredulity expressed by some about what interest 16th Century Swedish history could hold, I took this 'new in' Deborah Alcock's 'Not for Crown or Sceptre' on holiday with eager anticipation. Already a firm Alcock fan, I expected this little known part of history to reveal some nuggets! And I was not disappointed! Alcock's usual fine literary style is on display, weaving a page-turning masterpiece around the ''scanty historical notices that have come down to us of the hero Gustaf Ericson Vasa''.
The story begins with King Gustaf Vasa, rousing the Dalesfolk of Sweden to fight for freedom from the tyranny of the Danes, and embracing the creed of the Reformation. Within a chapter Gustaf Vasa's glorious 37 year reign has ended in his death, leaving the crown to the murkier and deceitful characters of his family. Gustaf's brother John deposes Gustaf's eldest son Eric on account of his insanity, and dismisses Eric's young son into a planned but failed obscurity.The child is also named Gustaf and the hardships and struggles of his youth in exile, and ultimately his return to Sweden, form the historical backbone of this book.
King John immediately introduces subtle changes, firstly in his 'Red Book', the contents of which departed from the reformation with the suggestion of prayer for the dead, and encouragement to pray to the saints and virgin Mary. When this new liturgy begins to be insisted upon, divisions appear in the churches of Sweden - and in the families of Sweden too.The story is set with the two Nilson brothers: one a university professor with his head turned by the ''king's Romanising changes in the liturgy'', and the other a simple and adored Pastor of Orsa who could not endorse ''the changes that touched the fundamental doctrines of our Reformed Protestant Faith''. The difference between a head knowledge of religion and a heart communication is highlighted remarkably in these two brothers. Extensive discourse between them is expertly used by Alcock to demonstrate the political and religious struggles with Rome of the time. The reader is led on an intricate journey of both heart-rending and heart-warming proportions as we follow the lives of these two brothers and how they intertwine with the child Gustaf.

Friday, 4 September 2015

The Life You Never Expected

Just received this thoughtful and valuable review from a couple who also parent special needs children:

The buckets of sound counsel in this book have been drawn from deep waters: ‘I am come into deep waters where the floods overflow me’ (Psalm 69:2).  Perhaps it is only those floundering in the ‘deep waters that cross life’s pathway’ that will fully appreciate the spiritual and practical wisdom that saturates these pages.

In ‘The life you never expected’ Andrew and Rachel Wilson write candidly about the shock, disappointment and frustration of adapting to a life that not only wasn’t expected, but wasn’t wanted.  As the shock subsides and a ‘new ordinary’ replaces former dreams, so the authors explore the ‘Jobesque’ conundrum of faith in suffering.

The sub-title ‘Thriving while parenting special needs children’ is somewhat misleading and unfortunate.  At best it suggests that this is some kind of lifestyle manual with a spiritual twist; at worst some sort of prosperity gospel tackling life’s most complex questions in a flippant and superficial manner.  The introduction soon allayed these fears as the authors acknowledge that they are ‘feeling for God’s purposes in the dark’, ‘the need to find God and lean on him in the storm’, concluding that ‘for us, nothing short of a Saviour is enough’. Amen, to that!

The real value of this book is the way that the short, punchy chapters shift the focus away from the self-pity, self-indulgence and bitterness that are the natural domain of those feeling the isolation and pain of coping with life with disability. Our thoughts and coping strategies are recalibrated - lifted above the temporal drudgery to the uplifting, eternal realities revealed in God’s word. Perhaps, at times, the book is not telling us anything we don’t already know or have not already considered – but it does crystallise our disjointed musings with its clarity of style and biblical insight.

A few highlights:

  • Thankfulness in a world of entitlement: ‘if what you have is greater than what you deserve, then that’s where thankfulness comes from. If what you think you deserve is greater than what you think you have, then that’s where bitterness comes from.’ And, of course, we deserve nothing – apart from death by sin. ‘Grace, by revealing both how much I have and how little I deserve, helps bring me to a place of humility and thankfulness’.
  • Individualitis and the dung gate: this chapter demolishes the notion that ‘the world is mainly about me’. Malchijah is put forward as a role model – ‘he sits marooned in the midst of an incredibly long and dull list of names in Nehemiah 3....All we know is that he spent a short period of his life doing something very mundane, very smelly and very unnoticeable: he fixed a Dung Gate. Yet in his mediocre, ordinary way, Malchijah, along with all the others, helped establish the kingdom of God on earth....I was always inclined to think that God’s purposes came about through great leaders...travelling preachers, justice campaigners....Mostly, however, they don’t. They come about through millions of unnamed people doing unheard of things, in unnoticeable ways, to the glory of God. Repairing a wall. Teaching a classroom of seven-year olds. Sweeping a street. Running a business. Raising autistic children. Fixing a dung gate.’ 
  • The true battle: ‘the fake battles are a whirlwind of phone calls, government services, websites, more phone calls, forms, applications, more phone calls. And each of these can distract me from the true battle, which more often than not, is not fought that way. Frequently , the weapons of the true battle include silence, prayer, thought, clinging onto a Scripture passage with my fingernails, singing through gritted teeth...reaching for Jesus through the mist of confusion or unanswered prayer....I love my kids most by not loving them the most, but by first loving Him’.

As might be expected from authors of a charismatic persuasion there is a chapter on healing, but, on the whole, this topic is handled in a fairly orthodox manner. Our bodies constantly heal themselves as part of what might be termed common grace; God can and occasionally does still heal miraculously if he chooses; the healing through means such as modern medicine is a gracious gift from a loving God; the healing in the last day when our bodies are raised incorruptible, spiritual, glorious – without affliction, pain or disability – ‘Autism and Down’s syndrome and schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s are swallowed up in victory’.  

We recommend this wise and thought-provoking book to all who ‘sink in deep mire, where there is no standing’ who are ‘come into deep waters where the floods overflow’ (Psalm 69 v 14). It may be part of God’s sovereign purpose that the deep waters last a lifetime – but, as this books underlines, full provision has been made in the gospel for the life we didn’t expect. 

Monday, 31 August 2015

By Far Euphrates - Deborah Alcock

By Far Euphrates, a tale of Armenia in the 19th Century is particularly pertinent in 2015 as we remember the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.  The history of Armenia is a complex one to untangle geographically and politically. This story is set near the Euphrates close to what is now the Turkey/Syria border and relates the details of the Hamidian Massacres in 1894-1896 which preceded the more well known Genocide in 1915. Interestingly it seems that a friend requested this particular book from Deborah Alcock.  This friend had lived through and suffered in the persecution and was desperate for the wider world to hear the truth of the depths that this area of the world had descended to.  Miss Alcock worked to a tight schedule and wrote the book in only 5 weeks.  It was said that the atrocities her friend spoke of had such an emotional impact on her that she was never quite the same again.
Alcock writes with her usual depth and detail but perhaps her direct emotional involvement is what makes this book particularly powerful and gripping. The persecution of Armenian Christians in the late 1800s was truly awful; indiscriminate killing of men and boys, women and children saved alive to be subjected to worse horrors. In a helpful appendix Alcock explains which characters were real and which were fictional.  She also makes it clear that the atrocities described in the book left much detail out - she felt it impossible to depict the worst features of the horrible crimes committed.
Tragically some of the events described seem sadly and horribly familiar in these current times.  Christians are being persecuted in 139 nations around the world.  The news that feeds through to our western society is often biased and secular neither recognising nor understanding the religious elements often involved in the incidents reported.  I recently read this article 'Why don't we hear more about persecuted Christians' which gives food for thought on this subject. It is a subject which at the very least, should be kept often in our prayers.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

View from the Youth

We were amazed and fascinated recently to discover what a bunch of youngsters can do with an iPad and the iMovie app.  We hadn't before considered ourselves entirely technologically inept, but we were forced to admit some deficiencies when it comes to movies!  So we decided to challenge a group of youngsters to take on a summer project of making a promotional video for the shop.  This is the fab result...


Without naming them all, our huge thanks go to all the youngsters involved, from age 4 to 13 - you know who you are!  Please don't all head off to Hollywood.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015


This little booklet was published by Gospel Tidings Publication in 1978, sold out long ago, and has now been reissued in response to demand. 
The preface assures us that this is indeed a true story, which has been questioned by those who doubt the reality or power of the Holy Spirit. It was translated from German in the mid-1800s and gives the account of the remarkable conversion of Thirza, a young Jewish woman and her parents, traced back, as far as the means goes, to the words of Matthew 11:28 and 1 John 1:7. These were brought back to memory from her very early schooldays spent at a Christian school. What a salutary reminder this is that we should never be discouraged in the endeavour of spreading the word of God! Thirza's father, though a devout Jew, had allowed her to go to a Christian school thinking that she was too young to receive any serious impression from it. But these gracious words were planted like a seed not only in her heart, but that of her mother also, and sprang to life at the appointed time. Thirza was immediately disinherited by her father on hearing of her conversion, but even this could not prevent God's working in his soul and he eventually was glad of her help when brought under conviction of sin.
The subtitle of this story is 'The Power of the Cross' and how evident that is here! But there is also much profitable reflection within the account provided by the translator, Elizabeth Maria Lloyd, on true spiritual experience. This has application beyond the pages of this booklet, and is certainly not unique to this family, thanks to the grace of God.
The many scriptural quotations are from the Authorised Version. Recommended.
Thirza by Elizabeth Maria Lloyd, published by Gospel Tidings Publications, £1.95, booklet.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Girolamo Savonarola

It is good to see something in print on this lesser known pre-Reformation figure. Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) was rooted in the Medieval monkish traditions, but he thundered out his denunciations of a corrupt Church and Pope from his pulpit in Florence. He blazed a trail which men like Martin Luther in the next generation would follow and develop. Indeed Luther pays tribute to him:
'Although some theological mud still adhered to the feet of that holy man, [he] nevertheless maintained justification by faith alone without works, and he was burned by the Pope.'
Sadly this was indeed his end, the result of criticising moral corruption too strongly and publicly. He presented a scriptural challenge to the Renaissance humanists and their proud culture in a city where artists of legendary fame were legion. He also grieved over the Church of Rome, evacuated of the gospel of Christ, consumed by worldliness and guilty of tyranny over the consciences of the people. Savonarola spoke boldly, not in Latin, but in the Italian that they could understand. Moreover he extended his reach by a farsighted adoption of the emerging technique of the printing press. Remarkably, he was the most widely published author of the fifteenth century, with editions of his sermons in French and German.
In those days a biblical message of judgment, repentance and grace as the sinner's only refuge could lead to no other conclusion but elimination. Thus Savonarola suffered a martyr's death. Yes, we can see many faults in him, but he has much about faithfulness to teach us, and we delight in his gospel witness in such dark days of church history.
Anything written by Douglas Bond is worth reading, but this book was slightly disappointing. Maybe it is the consequence of a co-authored book, because the material seemed awkwardly arranged in places. Nevertheless it is clear and straightforward as befits a title in this generally excellent Bitesize Biography series.

Girolamo Savonarola by Douglas Bond and Douglas McComas, published by EP Books, p/b,£6.99.