Recommended Reading: Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor

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D.A. Carson’s writing has shaped the evangelical landscape for decades. His poignant book, “Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor”, exposes another side of Carson’s brilliance. In it he traces the life and ministry of his father, Tom Carson, who is portrayed as an ordinary, no-name pastor who faithfully led God’s people in the church without fanfare or applause. Though Carson presents his father as ordinary, it is clear that in many ways his life testified to extra-ordinary greatness that most would never see. An Extra-Ordinary Faithfulness to God’s Call – Tom lived in obscurity, spending his time caring for a small congregation in French Canada. Other ministers experienced remarkable growth during this time, but not Tom. Yet, his son writes, “Never in our hearing, and certainly not in his papers, did Tom express any jealousy of or malice toward other ministers who seemed to be eclipsing him, but whether he realized it or not the way was being paved to generate in him a feeling of inferiority with which he would wrestle for the rest of his life” (68). Tom’s life testifies to the deep, internal turmoil that confronts most pastors. At times his life was marked by lackluster passion, often bordering on depression but he continued to persevere in his labors. Tom’s journal entries, included throughout the book, reveal a man honest in his self-assessment. On one Sunday in 1961 Tom writes that he “preached (poorly)” only to return that evening to once again “preach from Rom 1:1–17 (poorly)” (82). He lamented “How different my diary is from that of David Brainerd” (106), echoing the emotion many gospel ministers feel in contrast to the supposed spiritual greats. D.A. writes, “Although the zest for challenges had dissipated and the joy of the Lord peeped through only intermittently, not once is there a suggestion that he missed his calling or that he wished to abandon ministry” (77).

An Extra-Ordinary Courage in the Face of Adversity – Tom’s ministry was far from easy. Often he faced external conflict due to the cultural zeitgeist of his day, and internal, interpersonal conflict also plagued his ministry. Tom was willing to courageously confront heresy and hypocrisy, knowing that it would bring him personal harm. He wrote in his journal, ““I am discouraged, but I am trying to put quitting entirely out of my mind” (88). In spite of this challenges, Tom’s daughter writes “As I look back on life with Mom and Dad, perhaps the one thing I recall most vividly is the memory that I don’t have. Try as I might, I cannot recollect one time when either of them spoke negatively about another person” (60). Tom neither postured himself as a martyr or a victim; He simply did what he felt was right and trusted God to sovereignly accomplish his good purposes.

An Extra-Ordinary Life of Prayer – Perhaps the most commendable trait of Tom’s life was his passion for prayer. Beginning as far back as college, Tom’s friends noted his passion for prayer. His son pointed to Carson’s prayer life as a primary agent God used to transform his life. He writes, “While walking away from God, I could not get away from the image of my father on his knees, praying for me. It is one of the things that eventually brought me back” (72). This pervasive spirit of prayer characterized his pastoral ministry as well. D.A. recalls one scene that was forever etched in his memory when, following a Sunday service, he saw his father “on his knees in front of his big chair, tears streaming down his face, as he interceded with God for the handful of people to whom he had just preached” (80).

An Extra-Ordinary Love for His Wife – Tom’s wife, Marg, features prominently in Tom’s life and ministry throughout, yet her final years of life are particularly emblematic of their relationship. Following her diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, Tom took over complete care for his ailing wife. He wrote in his journal, “I could weep endless tears for not having been a better husband when she was so keen and now it is too late, but I want to do everything for her that a good husband will do” (134). He was a good husband, faithfully meeting her needs until she went to be with the Lord three years before Tom himself would follow.

An Extra-Ordinary Hope in the Gospel – Finally, Tom models a life-shaping hope in the gospel of Jesus. In fact, it seems that his ordinariness fostered in him a deeper understanding of and dependence on God’s grace. Though he was often discouraged, he wrote, “I cannot allow that to drive me to despair; rather, it must drive me to a greater grasp of the simple and profound truth that we preach and visit and serve under the gospel of grace, and God accepts us because of his Son. I must learn to accept myself not because of my putative successes but because of the merits of God’s Son” (92). It was on the merits of Christ that Carson would confidently stand before God following his death in 1992.

Tom’s life is a needed testament to the nature of pastoral ministry. D.A. Carson acknowledges this reality at the outset of the book: “Most pastors will not regularly preach to thousands, let alone tens of thousands. They will not write influential books, they will not supervise large staffs, and they will never see more than modest growth…Most of us – let us be frank – are ordinary pastors” (9). As an average pastor, I found Carson’s story bolstered my passion to carry on and faithfully fulfill the ministry God has put before me. Other ordinary pastors like me will find in this short book a story that we will only hope to replicate through our lives. The extended conclusion to Carson’s life, written by his son, stands as the mark of a life well lived.

“Tom Carson never rose very far in denominational structures, but hundreds of people in the Outaouais and beyond testify how much he loved them. He was never wealthy or powerful, but he kept growing as a Christian: yesterday’s grace was never enough. He was not a far-sighted visionary, but he looked forward to eternity. He was not a gifted administrator, but there is no text that says, ‘By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you are good administrators.’ His journals have many, many entries bathed in tears of contrition, but his children and grandchildren remember his laughter. Only rarely did he break through his pattern of reserve and speak deeply and intimately with his children, but he modeled Christian virtues to them. . . He was not very good at putting people down, except on his prayer lists.

When he died, there were no crowds outside the hospital, no editorial comments in the papers, no announcements on television, no mention in Parliament, no attention paid by the nation. In his hospital room there was no one beside his bedside. There was only the quiet hiss of oxygen, vainly venting because he had stopped breathing and would never need it again.

But on the other side all the trumpets sounded. Dad won entrance to the only throne room that matters, not because he was a good man or a great man – he was, after all, a most ordinary pastor – but because he was a forgiven man. And he heard the voice of him whom he longed to hear saying, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Lord'” (147–48).

May the same be said of you and I.

Book ReviewsMatt Rogers