Sometimes, just one word in a Bible passage carries great weight. I’m not suggesting that we should just preach on that one word, but we have to let the word carry the weight in our sermons. This has struck me freshly whilst writing out Revelation as part of my morning devotions. Many of the letters to the churches (though not all), have the word alla in them – often translated ‘nevertheless’ or ‘yet’ or ‘but’.
It’s a word of contrast which carries great weight; It’s not simply this and that, a plain conjunction. Rather, this simple word emphasises a gulf or a gap between what is good in a church and what is worthy of discipline. And the word of contrast (as opposed to say, “also”) makes that which follows – in each case, the negative – stand out more. In technical terms, it’s adversative.
It’s got me thinking two things. One is about preaching. When preaching these letters, it would be easy, in very broad terms, to divide up the positives and negatives as two separate headings and simply move from one to the other. But the fact that they are connected together adversatively has to come through in a sermon. Expository preaching has to be driven by the way thoughts and ideas in the passage are constructed. We’re not cherry pickers. That probably means that in this kind of sermon the transition is as important as, say, the subsection heading.
But it also got me thinking personally. These are letters to churches, of course. But reflect on that word ‘nevertheless’ for a moment. What would Jesus’ letter to you say? “I know….” “Nevertheless….” Fill in the blanks.
Dan Brown exegesis
Jeffrey John, Dean of St Alban’s Cathedral, recently preached a sermon on the Centurion’s servant from Luke in Liverpool Cathedral, arguing that it proves that Jesus accepted gay relationships. It beggars belief. I won’t bother linking to the sermon, but Ian Paul has a characteristically clear response here, including a demolition of John’s exegesis. This is what I want to focus on. For we can, if clever enough, make the Bible say whatever we want it to say. This, says Paul, is the ‘Dan Brown approach to reading a text.
‘There is a secret meaning, which has not surfaced in the history of interpretation, but with some expert knowledge (which I have access to you and which you, the ordinary reader, cannot question), I will excavate the real meaning of this text which has been hidden from you (and is hidden even from Luke and Matthew themselves) which will prove my case beyond any doubt.’
What I value about Ian Paul’s response is not so much this particular demolition but the exegetical lessons he makes in passing. Even if, like me, you’re not (and are unlikely to be) persuaded by John’s Lukan exegesis and arguments, there is still much to appreciate and learn from in Paul’s response. Preaching is not just exegesis. But it is not less than exegesis. May God make us all faithful exegetes.
Do song words really matter that much?
Some Christians can get a bit hot under the collar about song words. I am often one of them, I confess. For, you see, I really believe that song words matter. This is primarily because singing to one another and with one another is a ministry of the word. “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit” (Col 3.16-17). It’s one of the reasons why I value a well-edited hymn book. Some of that hard work has been done for you.
But here’s a question, to which I don’t really have an answer, only a view. How far do we go with precision over song words? In order to protect artistic merit, is some latitude acceptable? Let’s take a working example. At the EMA, we sung Dustin Kensrue’s Grace Alone. I freely confess it’s not my favourite song (“head full of rocks”?). But here’s a theological question.
Are we orphans before we are saved? For that is how the song begins? “I was an orphan lost at the Fall.” There is a sense, surely, in which we were not. It was not that we were fatherless before our salvation. It’s that we had the wrong father! I wasn’t wandering around the spiritual orphanage, I was in my father’s house from where I needed to be rescued, my father being the Devil. The language of orphan actually downplays my status!
Now, you may say I am picking a fight where one does not need to be picked. Fair enough, I take the point. I am rather agnostic about this song (which has some excellent lines and is good in its Trinitarian approach). But if singing is a ministry of the word, we should care about such representations, shouldn’t we?
Yes? No? What do you think?
My summer reading holiday
Yep, that’s not a typo. Summer I take a holiday from reading, Christian reading that is. Before you begin composing that email in your head, I don’t take time off from reading the Bible. I never stop being a Christian, even in the Dordogne. But I do take a yearly break from reading Christian books. It’s all down to the Sabbath. Let me explain.
I’m the kind of guy who finds it hard to take rest. My mind is always whirring with ideas and thoughts. I’m always day-dreaming about things that could be done. I’m always writing blog posts in my head or thinking about training opportunities and content. But if I’m going to serve my people well, I need to be able to switch off and get some rest. That means doing a Ctrl-Alt-Del on my head. I have found that I can’t do that if I’m reading Christian books on holiday.
In part this is because books are part of my job. In the months leading up to the EMA I get through a hundred or so. But even if that were not the case, I find it hard to read a Christian book without marking a passage – ‘that would be an interesting illustration’ or ‘so and so needs to read this’. In other words, I simply can’t get the downtime I need. No rest.
Perhaps you think that’s a weakness. Maybe so. But it is a reality for me nonetheless, and part of learning about myself, my capabilities and (more importantly) limitations, means that I’ve had to make this fast a holiday discipline. So no Christian summer reading list from me: but, if you’re interested I’ve lined up this and this and this and this. And a few more.
Painful goodbyes and lonely ministries
I’m saying goodbye to four colleagues this summer. My wonderful conference manager, Rachel Olajide is going off to have a baby and despite me printing off articles from the Daily Mail about women who return to work 1 hour after giving birth, she is unmoved (rightly!).
Our Cornhill administrator, Becky Hollands is not returning from maternity leave choosing the good option of staying with her newly born son. Good for her! Let not anybody say “she is not coming back to work”. She is working all right. And then some.
My friend Tim Ward is leaving to go to Oak Hill and I will greatly miss his wisdom and contribution. He has kept me on the straight and narrow and I have valued his counsel and input. At the same time Jonathan Griffiths is leaving to go further – Ottawa in fact (a name I have learnt to spell correctly). He has a wise head on young shoulders and our loss is Canada’s gain (where the need is very great).
Partings are always painful. Inevitably one develops working habits where we learn to rely on Christian friends and colleagues. That’s how it should be. We are for each other. And so when partings happen the pain is not simply missing someone, but having to learn new ways of working that will continue to serve others and ensure we are ourselves properly encouraged and accountable.
All of this is not to moan but to observe that this is the nature of ministry in general. People move on. If you are serving in a small church, then the ministry friendships you develop are generally local and even if you don’t move on, others do. In a larger church, there are inevitable changes in staff teams. It means that ministry, in any setting, can be a lonely business. Making and keeping friends requires hard work and investment. It’s too easy to be a loner.
However, there aren’t many people who thrive on being alone. We need support networks and friends, both inside and outside the church. I’m hoping to continue to see my friends, but I have also to be realistic and realise that the decreased proximity means that the nature of the relationships will change. At the same time I need to be building new bridges and friendships to counter the in-built loneliness of ministry.
And you should too.
Just a few more books
To finish off the EMA book discussion, we had a number of titles which we really loved but which didn’t quite make it to the stage – mainly for reasons of space. Here are my personal favourites:
Why the Reformation still matters by Mike Reeves and Tim Chester is possibly my favourite book of the year. I think it is a really important read going into 2017 and the 500th anniversary of Luther and the bulletin board. Get your church leaders reading it and using it to help you assess church life.
Greg Scharf’s Let the earth hear his voice is the best book on preaching I’ve read for some time. It is framed in terms of negatives – why Greg’s preaching is not quite what it could be and what he does to overcome that. I think it is now my follow on book to Dave Helm’s Expository Preaching.
Disappearing church by Mark Sayers is the best analysis of the current state of the church in the UK and an encouraging call to keep the main thing the main thing.
Rachel Jones two books 5 things to pray (for the people you love and for your church) are two of the most helpful books I have read (and used) this year. I’m a great fan of much of The Good Book’s output, but these two are especially classy.
Our day of rest
You’ll excuse us a day off today as we take stock (code for recover) after the exertions of the EMA. We love this conference and love serving, but it does take it out of our small team. Back next week for the Cornhill Summer School.
Thursday’s EMA book recommendations
If we’re going to persevere in ministry, then we must persevere in our faith. We’ve chosen some titles which will help you keep going with an ever-deepening walk with Christ Jesus.
Psalms by the Day is Alec Motyer’s follow up to Isaiah by the Day. It’s a daily devotional based on the psalms which will encourage and teach you. Surveys repeatedly show how dry preachers’ own devotional life has become, and this title will really help.
Barbara Duguid and Wayne Duguid Houk have written Prone to wander, a book of confessional and celebratory prayers. From time to time we all need help praying and whilst we have to find our own words, the words of others can often be a help, encouragement and teacher as we seek to pray faithfully. Given our conference theme, this is an important title.
Thirdly, today we want to recommend an older book but one which is very useful to those in ministry for the long term. John Piper’s When I don’t desire God is one of favourite of his books with lots of practical and realistic help for those dry times.
Wednesday’s EMA book recommendations
All of us are in word ministry of some kind and so we want to highlight some important titles which will help encourage you in this important task.
This year, PT have two new titles in our essential Teaching series. Mervyn Eloff has written Teaching 123 John and Bob Fyall and Robin Sydserff have contributed Teaching Daniel.
Kent Hughes’ The Pastor’s Book is a hugely comprehensive guide for those in ministry containing both theological and practical help for planning pretty much everything that happens in local church life. David Jackman says, ‘it is an invaluable resource for every pastor or church leader.’ We agree! It’s a book to dip into time and time again.
Our third recommendation today is a book that every man should read! Word filled women’s ministry edited by Kathleen Nielson sets out a stall for thoughtful and biblical women’s ministry in the church. It’s a vision that many pastors and leaders need to capture. ‘If only every pastor would read this’ said one of our BookPanel.
Tuesday’s EMA book recommendations
We want to highlight three books to help you get kids reading. This is an area that many in ministry rarely consider, but is essential to the life and health of the local church.
Every child should start with Bible stories and that’s where we’ve got to get the younger members of our congregations reading. There are lots of different options, but we’re particularly keen on The Gospel Story Bible by Marty Machowski which gives faithful renderings of Bible stories together with their setting in the overall Bible story pointing to Jesus.
Everything a child should know about God by Kenneth Taylor is a newly illustrated version of an old classic, helping young children aged 3-6 learn key gospel truths. It’s a ‘great tool to complement children’s Bible stories’. For slightly older children, The Ology by Marty Machowski and Andy McGuire is a wonderfully illustrated book of truth. Importantly, those who use it say that the children are as captivated by the illustrations as adults.