Keep standing, preacher
It's easy, when you're a Bible-believing, preaching-loving pastor to feel that you're one of a dying breed. Statistically, that may even be true. As a pastor, most of the nearest 10 church ministers to me probably thought I was a right wing nutter, even though I only believed what most of them had in their historic creeds. Under such pressure, it's easy to give in to the temptation to let things slip. After all, the accusation that you are 'isolationist' is a hard one to take, particularly when you value true gospel unity with a very high premium.
So, I was encouraged to look more closely this morning at Wickhams. Wickhams is a department store on the Whitechapel Road. It's now faded in its glory and the ground floor (somewhat inevitably) is a Tesco Metro. It is a microcosm of the East End's prosperity. Wickhams started as a little family business and grew and grew until it became 'The Harrods of the East' with food halls and departments galore. Now, it's faded and old, but the most eccentric thing about it remains. I wonder if you can spot it from the photo?
When it was built in 1927 the owners of one particular house refused to sell up. So the architects had to incorporate number 81 into the whole building. The department store is built around this one house. No doubt the residents and Wickham family put all sort of pressure on the householder. After all, it will appear so much more appealing to the outside world, wouldn't it? Perhaps, but the home owners were adamant. They cared more about their own house than how it appeared and weren't prepared to compromise. It was where their entire family had been born. It was precious (you can read more about it here if you're interested). They stood firm in other ways.
In a rather strange way, cycling past this testimony to steadfastness every morning makes me want to keep going, whatever those around may say.
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Simplicity and love in preaching
I have been reading Henry Chadwick’s biography of Augustine of Hippo, and was encouraged by a number of things. One was Chadwick’s observation that, ‘All the masterpieces on which later centuries looked back were without exception written during his busy life as bishop, not while he was a leisured young ‘don’.’ Let’s beware of the idea that long leisurely withdrawal from active pastoral work into the groves of academe is the ideal context for scholarship.
Another is Augustine’s splendidly clear attitude towards teaching the uneducated. Of whom there are plenty. Echoing 1 Corinthians 1 and 2, Augustine wrote to a friend, ‘Educated Christians like myself expect God’s grace to prefer people of greater natural ability, higher standards of behaviour, and superior education in the liberal arts. In fact God mocks my expectations.’
So how are we to preach and teach to ‘simpler’ people? Augustine wrote a short treatise ‘On Catechizing Simple (i.e. less educated) People’ in reply to this question from an intellectual deacon in Carthage. He gently chides his intellectual friend on feeling frustrated at having to teach below his natural level of sophistication. If we really love people for whom Christ died, he says, we will gladly sacrifice our own intellectual satisfaction for the sake of their understanding.
And in fact it will do us good, for just as when we show a visitor around a landscape with which we are over-familiar, we ourselves notice the beauty of it afresh, so when we teach Christian truths to others. In Augustine’s words, ‘Is it not a common occurrence with us, that when we show to persons, who have never seen them, certain spacious and beautiful tracts (i.e. views), either in cities or in fields, which we have been in the habit of passing by without any sense of pleasure, simply because we have become so accustomed to the sight of them, we find our own enjoyment renewed in their enjoyment of the novelty of the scene?’
Chadwick writes about Augustine’s attitude to the arts of oratory: ‘Ciceronian eloquence has three aims: to instruct, to please, to move, and has three styles for doing this – simple, or florid, or pathetic. The Christian orator alters the order of priorities; it is more important to instruct and to move, and only lastly to please. Elaborate language and convoluted sentences will defeat the object, and therefore a Christian teacher should use direct speech, and take the Bible as a model for form as well as the source of his content.’
And again, ‘In his own preaching Augustine … is careful to avoid long sermons with complex sentences. Nothing is said indirectly or ironically, or to entertain. His eyes are not on his script or notes if any, but on his hearer’s faces, and he is ready to stop or to shift the direction of his discourse immediately if he is losing their attention.’ ‘His directness to his flock is a consciously adopted simplicity which knows just what effect monosyllables may achieve.’
Let’s hear it for simple, loving, clear preaching and teaching.
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Confidence in the Bible
It occurred to me recently, talking with several church members, that Christians might say they believe in the Bible but can't actually say why, nor how we can have confidence that the Bible we have is the Bible God intended us to have. I think this is an increasingly important topic for Christians to understand themselves and to engage with their friends and neighbours about. It's worthy of time in small groups, or even an after church evening.
I've used John Dickson's The Christ Files. Made for Australian TV it's slick and watchable but also very helpful. There's also a book.
Also available are Tyndale's House resources on Bible and Church – take a look at their website for more information, or see the clip below.
Both have useful information and provide ideas for illustrations or evidence for use in apologetic or evangelistic talks.
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Dick’s illustration and Tim Keller’s illumination
Justin Taylor recalls one of Uncle Dick's illustrations and helpfully points us towards Tim Keller's answer here. Tim is speaking at this year's EMA on "preaching that connects" – we're very excited about the programme and speakers. Last year's EMA was fully booked, so book in whilst there's still space.
Book review – with a difference
Tuesday night I sat down, made a drink, put Gerschwin on the stereo and read Douglas Bond's The Betrayal. It's a book with a difference (it's not the review that's 'with a difference- – Duh!). Bond's book is published by P&R and is a novel based on the life of John Calvin. It traces his life from birth to death through the eyes of a contemporary who becomes his trusted servant but turns out to be…..no, I don't want to spoil it.
It's an historical novel, so the servant is fictitious – but pretty much everything else is genuine. All the other characters are real and in their proper place and the Calvin's dialogue is largely lifted from his letters and writings (although sometimes condensed). The level is keen teen reader – so it's ideal for most of us – and a great way into the life and teaching of Calvin. It traces the development of his thinking (from 1536 Institutes to later editions) and the situation of the day – showing how his teaching was received, particularly in France where much of the book is set.
It introduces all his key ideas and teaching, but not in a didactic way. I wasn't sure I would enjoy this – but found myself really drawn into the story. I bought the book after a positive book review in Modern Reformation, and now I want to add my commendation. It's a book with a difference, but worth a look. I'm now going to pass it onto eldest Miss R who is 16. It's the sort of thing she'll love to, I think. Here's the preview clip on youtube.
And here's Douglas Bond talking about it
Last chance to book on Logos Camp – 15-16 February 2011
The preacher and his side-swipes
I've just started reading Simon Sebag Montefiore's Jerusalem: The Biography. It's mostly excellent (so far) – very readable and insightful. SSM himself admits that for much of Jerusalem's early history the only historical source is the Bible. He then gives a (sometimes erroneous) summary of the Bible's account of Jerusalem. So far, what you would you expect. What irritates me, though, is that throughout this account, SSM constantly sideswipes at the historicity or authenticity of the Bible – even when the points he makes have nothing to do with his analysis. This is typical:
"There are so many contradictions in the stories of these co-called Patriarchs that they are impossible to date historically"
And, making the point that the account of David bears hallmarks of authenticity, he says,
"The earlier books of the Bible are a mixture of ancient texts and backdated stories written much later."
Or, on the extent of the kingdom, admitting that its size was possible,
"David's kingdom…is plausible too, however exaggerated by the Bible."
Where history provide proof of Bible accounts, it seems that SSM only admits this grudgingly:
"Fortunately, however, the Dark Age [where only the Bible gives an account] was over: the inscriptions of the empires of Egypt and Iraq now illuminate and often confirm the furiously righteous pontifications of the Bible."
Because, of course, the inscriptions of Egypt and Iraq are all together better accounts! One last one, explaining that it was Isaiah who first introduced the idea of a heavenly Jerusalem:
"There were at least two authors of Isaiah, one of them wrote over 200 years later, but this first Isaiah was not just a prophet but a visionary poet….."
And so it goes. I suppose it is not surprising, though it does rather get me cross. The point is that most of SSM's interjections and asides are unnecessary. They are just side swipes. They don't add anything to his description or argument.
But this isn't a rant against what is otherwise an excellent book (so far). It's a blog for preachers. So, here's a question for you. How many times does your preaching contain side swipes. They don't add anything, but any chance to get your little bit in on the topic you feel strongly about (or that you know someone else in the congregation feels strongly about)…..
Brother, it's an abuse of your position as herald of the Word of God. Stick to the text. I realise that I do it more often than I care to admit to myself. It can be especially true on hot topics. For example, I've just preached a four week series on Genesis 1 – trying to focus on the God who reveals himself there. The temptation to have a pop at positions different from mine on creation is astounding! Yet it's not going to add anything. It's just going to detract from the message and leave people feeling angry or misled, certainly not edified.
So, preacher: stop your side swipes!
The vernacular Bible for you
Last week, Mrs R and I went to see the National Theatre's Hamlet with its excellent £10 ticket scheme. It was an incredible evening. I don't mind watching Shakespeare, but it is frankly hard work. Rewarding ultimately, of course, but hard work. I find (and perhaps I'm just a thicky) that you need to interpret as you go along – seeing it helps as you can work out what some of the more obscure or inverted dialogue means.
Whatever else the King James version may have been in its life, it is not now a vernacular Bible. It is not written in a language most of us can speak. It contains occasional words that we would find offensive and not read out in church (e.g. 2 Kings 18.27). It has some passages (especially OT prophecy) which were apparently inpenetrable when they were written, let alone now. A case in point is Micah 1.11:
Pass ye away, thou inhabitant of Saphir, having thy shame naked: The inhabitant of Zaanan came not forth in the mourning of Beth-ezel; He shall receive of you his standing.
Pass on in nakedness and shame, you who live in Shaphir. Those who live in Zaanan will not come out. Beth Ezel is in mourning; its protection is taken from you.]
The King James Bible (1)
Part of an occasional series about how the King James Bible came to be (there are plenty of other people writing about the legacy of the King James Bible – for example, see Glen Scrivener's dedicated blog here).
If you want to know anything at all about the Bible in English the place to go is to one of my favourite books. It is David Daniell's enormous "The Bible in English" – a enormously thorough look at English translation. It's surprisingly readable and not at all "academic" (I mean that as a compliment rather than a slur). Published by Yale University Press, it runs to almost a thousand pages so it is not for the faint hearted nor those on a limited budget. (Although since writing that line I see that there is a paperback version on amazon for £13 which is remarkable value!)
Daniell writes fairly and helpfully about English translation. He is not unduly exuberant about the KJV, praising it rightly where it is due and pointing out its shortcomings (chief of which, in his eye, is that it is too 'high' – it robs the Hebrew text, in particular, of pace and 'roughness' which colour stories; rather ironic seeing as the non-Christian world exhorts the KJV as a piece of high literature – this it its greatest failing, says Daniell).
He also bemoans the fact that since early on its life, the KJV has been published with the dedication to King James bound in (a rather over-the-top piece of royalist propaganda) rather than 'Miles Smith's fine eleven page preface' entitled 'The Translators to the Reader.' It is an important document in the whole story of the KJV and, wonder of wonders, in the world of the Interweb, you can read it online here.
Interestingly, it sets out some of the translators principles which are not all in vogue today (though many are). One of these is that the translators did not pedantically insist on verbal consistency. If a word was translated in one way in one place, the translators did not feel bound to translate it in the same way in another. This is still a point of disagreement. Preachers are sometimes thankful for translations that show consistency in the way words are translated.
Perhaps most interestingly for us, though, as preachers, is the manner in which the translators went about things. In small groups (one at Westminster, one at Cambridge and one at Oxford) a linguistic expert would read his translation out while the members of the groups sat around and followed along in the translations available at the time – both English (Tyndale, Bishops Bible, Geneva Bible) and Latin and other languages (Spanish, French, German). The co-readers would interrupt the translator where they thought the translation they had in front of them differed and a discussion on various merits would follow. So, the KJV often became an amalgamation rather than a translation. Here for example is 2 Corinthians 1.11, reported by Daniell:
You also helping (Bishops Bible) together (Geneva 1560) by (Bishops) prayer for us (Tyndale) that for the (Tyndale words, Geneva 1557 syntax) benefits (Bishops) bestowed upon us (Geneva 1557) by the means of many (Tyndale) persons (Great Bible) thanks may be given of many on our behalf (Tyndale).
Preachers can still learn today from this technique. Reading a passage in multiple translations is still a really good tool for thinking about a passage and what it means. It can supplement (of if you don't have original languages) replace [I say that cautiously] Hebrew and Greek analysis. Try it! Open up Sunday's passage in Bible Gateway with three or four translations you don't normally use and see what light is shed. It can be remarkably rewarding.
Balanced preaching and my quads
As a failed rugby forward I'm always struggling to keep fit. Mostly I do this by cycling everywhere and going on the rowing machine at home. I've begun to notice that I have quads to die for. But sadly this is about the only muscle group that is anything to write home about. Cycling is great for fitness and developing certain muscles, but not all. No wonder track cyclists look so abnormal as they walk along with their over-developed leg muscles.
There is a danger, of course, that we can be great preachers and develop to Olympic standards certain muscle groups of our congregations. We can preach our favourite books, easier books (if I can say that), personally meaningful texts, hot topics. And, let's be honest, preparing such sermons, is relatively easier. There's not the same hard graft in the text nor wrestling in prayer required.
But as preachers we know we must preach the whole counsel of God and perhaps the best way to do that is to preach through books of the Bible. That is the strategy that is most likely to make your preaching balanced. Of course, there's still then the question of how to choose books. Here are some ideas:
- we should be aiming for a mix of genres and parts of the Bible so our people can understand the whole of the Bible's story. If our preaching is dominated by one genre, e.g. epistles (probably 'easiest' to preach?) we will scarcely be helping our people as we might
- we should be aiming to cover a range within a certain period of time. Peter Lewis at Cornerstone Nottingham once said (I think it was he) that he aimed to preach through the whole Bible in 10 years. That may or may not be realistic chez vous. In fact, the turnover of your congregation may demand something else. Tim Keller says (I paraphrase) that when he was in a settled church in Pennsylvania he could afford to preach slowly through books MLJ style. Now he's in NY everything is different. So much for you will depend on your context.
- we should be aiming to preach books that address issues for our people. Knowing what we sometimes call the "melodic line" of a book is a great help. Knowing that Hebrews is a book written to people tempted to give up would mean it is ideal if you find yourselves in a situation where everything seems hard.
- we should be aiming to stretch ourselves. If you're anything like me, some of the best preaching comes not from a book I've hugely familiar with and know almost by heart (familiarity often breeds preaching content). It comes from when I'm freshly in a book, studying and praying hard.
Don't let your congregations get huge quads but have flabby stomachs!