When Ordinary Is Extraordinary: A Reflective Review of D. A. Carson’s Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor

When Ordinary Is Extraordinary: A Reflective Review of D. A. Carson’s Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor March 18, 2008

This is one of the best books you will ever read about the Christian ministry.

That is a dramatic claim. Right now, you’re asking yourself if it’s true. After all, this book written by New Testament scholar D. A. Carson and published by Crossway Books in 2008 is just shy of 160 pages; it doesn’t treat a figure of major historical significance; it doesn’t claim to be an exhaustive primer on the Christian ministry. Indeed, it’s rather paradoxical in nature–it’s written by the preeminent evangelical New Testament professor of the current day, and yet it’s a professedly humble little book. Why, then, the rather breathy claim that the just-published Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor is an excellent book? The answer is very simple: it’s a straightforward reflection on everyday ministry written by a godly critical thinker, himself involved in the work of ministry. Those who read it will come away with a realistic picture of Christian ministry, an accomplishment rarely achieved with such accessibility and clarity.

Tom Carson was a pastor in the province of Quebec in Canada from the 1930s to the 1970s. He spoke at no major conferences, wrote no seminal work, and never pastored even a mid-size church by American standards. Yet it is clear from his son’s profile that he was an exceptional man. He was a faithful husband, a devoted if quiet father, a dogged servant of the church, and a passionate witness for Christ. I never met him, but I know him. He is the man who can be found in countless little towns and hamlets across the country–no, across the world–who labors faithfully for the Lord in an unspectacular but steady fashion. Unlike many of us self-promoters, he’s not in ministry to make a name for himself, but to glorify his God. This is what Tom Carson did for most of his life, and this is what many who are just like him do. Before, this group was overlooked. Now, they have a book. Indeed, Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor is not only Tom’s biography, it is the biography of countless men just like him whose names we will know only in the age to come.

D. A. Carson’s Memoirs walks through Tom Carson’s ordinary pastoral labors as a bivocational minister to both French and English speaking Canadians. Carson the son gives us historical background, comments, and excerpts from his father’s diary to sketch his life and his ministry. I won’t quote material at length here. I will say that the historical background is interesting and does provide the general backdrop of Tom Carson’s life. One can tell that D. A. Carson is not a historian, and I sometimes had to backtrack to get the dates right for sections of extensive length, but this little book nicely illuminates the religious scene of twentieth-century Canada. Though I grew up just miles from Canada, I confess that I knew (and know) very little about it. To most Americans, it is a silent cousin, an unexplored country filled with Catholics, strange accents, and cold air. Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor brings modern Canada to light and shows that it changed drastically over the course of Tom Carson’s life. The country transitioned from a Catholic stronghold in the early twentieth century to a spiritual pastiche by the late twentieth century. Ordinary pastors like Tom Carson struggled to understand these massive cultural shifts, though they never failed to stop preaching the gospel of salvation in Christ.

Of course, it was not merely cultural shifts that Tom (and others) had to contend with. He had the requisite struggles of any pastor–church upheaval, family turmoil, the onset of Alzheimers in a spouse–and he grappled with these difficulties all of his life. Yet it is clear from the text that Tom never walked away from the narrow path. Though brambles hung in the way, and landed some tough blows, Tom walked on. He led tiny churches when no one else had eyes for unchurched areas. He knocked on thousands of doors when policemen harassed him for doing so. He exhorted young pastors when there were no major seminaries or internship programs to prepare men for ministry. His was the life of passionate, almost desperately active faith. Though the results are not startling in terms of their numerical count, they are extraordinary nonetheless.

In the midst of a spiritual wilderness, a land openly and unashamedly hostile to evangelical Christianity, Tom persevered, though his overactive conscience continually condemned him. His portrait reveals to be a flawed man, weak as we all are, but yet a great man of unusual integrity and zeal. As noted, D. A. Carson provides many helpful, if brief, sections of comment on his father’s life. These sections alone are worth the book’s price. Carson has reflected long and deeply on Christian ministry, and the reader will be instructed by his words. His father’s diary excerpts are not particularly unusual in their content or depth of thought, but they are inspiring. The reader is taught through them, for they present a man who has gone before and stayed faithful. The book is helpful as well for its treatment of suffering. Most Christians suffer to some degree in their lives. Tom did, and he wrote about it a bit, and his son fills out his writing with his own considerations on how we handle trial and difficulty. Though it may be more fun to read about wild success and flashy ideas, these things won’t tarry long for most of us. Trial, however, will. Like Tom, we’ll go through nasty church splits, or marital crises, or deep personal or ministerial disappointments, and the quality of our faith will show itself in these challenges.

Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor proves helpful, then, in constructing a balanced and realistic portrait of ministry. You won’t come away from this narrative chronicle of Tom Carson’s life inspired in exactly the same way as you will from reading Spurgeon’s autobiography, but you will be ready, in a sense, for the challenging nature of everyday ministry. That is a precious literary gift. In addition, the section on the way Tom Carson deals with his wife’s illness is quite moving and helpful for husbands. Tom was clearly a model husband in living with his wife in a gentle and loving way. Furthermore, the frequent commentary on how Tom dealt with being a number two man, as he sometimes was, will prove helpful for those who recognize that they are not best fitted for the most prominent ministry positions. It is quite instructive to observe Tom as he deals with jealousy and inadequacy in different seasons. Wisdom for men of varied gifting is readily supplied both by his example and his son’s analysis of this lifelong struggle.

All of the above should not be read as concluding that the book is perfect. Its language can be a bit dramatic at times, and D. A. Carson’s analyses of situations and people is occasionally sharp-edged. The book frequently switches between the present and past tenses, which often refreshes the reader but sometimes confuses him (particularly if the reader is a history geek trained to write about the past using only the past tense). I would have liked a bit more reflection from Carson the younger on his father’s ministry at the end; the book closes rather suddenly, and the appendix material could have been a little more inspiring (though it is helpful). With these minor points noted, though, the book is excellent.

As I bring this reflective review to a close, I note that I connected with this book on a deeply personal level. I am from Maine, where the spiritual “ground”, so to speak, is as hard as it is cold. Maine is much like Canada, and indeed New England writ large is quite similar to Canada in a religious sense. I am from a 40-50 person church from a tiny town, and I have known many of the trials experienced by Tom Carson and his son, Don. Like Dr. Carson, though, I am also immensely privileged to be from a family of faithful Christians led by godly men. My grandfather, Daniel Dustin, was a great servant of his church, Grace Chapel of Lexington, MA (which is ironically a “megachurch” in New England terms, but was not always) and my father, Andrew Strachan, is a great servant of his church, First Baptist of East Machias, ME. Like Dr. Carson, then, I know something of the power of observation of faithful men, and I am grateful as he clearly is for those who have gone before me and shown me how to walk the narrow way.

Indeed, watching faithful men labor on a weekly basis in the work of local church ministry has a transforming effect. It is not fanfare that shepherds such transformation. No, it is faithfulness, rugged faithfulness, the kind of character that can only be forged by a supernatural work of the Spirit of God. In this sense, the ordinary transcends itself. Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor is one account of such transformation. For this reason and all others mentioned before it is, simply put, one of the best books you will ever read about the ministry. It has no new ideas, no revolutionary gameplan. It has only a story, and a humble story at that. But this humble story tells a powerful message, one of an ordinary faith becoming something beautiful over a lifetime’s course. In the end, then, the book is like the man it considers: unassuming, faithful, and–it must be said–quite extraordinary.

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