Delighting in the good
A small snap-shot for you of the happy life we try to live in PT Towers: on a warm afternoon recently during a break for Magnums (Classic or Almond), the conversation turned to favourite films. A wide variety of tastes was presented with some vigour, which is of course all to the good. It turned that I share with a certain Mr A.R. of this blog a love of the Coen brothers’ film Fargo (lately turned into a TV series). A certain Miss C. Sandom of this parish fails to share that love, as is entirely her right. I digress, though.
What I love most about the film Fargo is that it makes the good-hearted characters who live ostensibly dull lives seem far more interesting than the evil ones (and one is really nasty). Whenever I watch the film I feel that in some way my self-centredness is shown up as petty and boring and that any goodness in me feels like the really exciting thing about me.
I felt very much the same reading Dickens’ Bleak House, which I have just finished. The vicious and self-obsessed characters are of course painted by Dickens in vivid and often comic ways, but they are in the end essentially dull and monotonous in their unpleasantness. By contrast the morally good characters regularly find surprising new ways to show kindness and self-sacrifice to others.
Now here’s my point: most popular culture that I consume – which for me is primarily feature films and music – works precisely the other way round. It portrays selfishness and evil as essentially more interesting and sophisticated than goodness and self-sacrifice, which are usually more dull. Reading the closing chapters of Bleak House had, I felt, a positive effect on my soul, making me genuinely delight in good and find selfishness abhorrent. It is rather chilling to suppose that the majority of my cultural diet persistently has the opposite effect without me noticing very much.
This is surely one small reason why the NT Gospels present not a series of theological statements about Jesus but snap-shots of him in narrative action. Before us on those pages is the most excitingly good man who ever lived, showing up the evil of human self-righteousness in all its monotonous and destructive bleakness. May and I we be genuinely more excited by that goodness than by anything else. We may become very sophisticated readers and preachers of the Gospels; may we never lose a sense in our hearts and on our lips of discovering the most thrillingly unanticipated fact: the entire goodness of God came as a man and lived out his life, even as far as death, among us.
I wonder what comes to your mind when you think of leaders who are Spirit-filled? It’s almost certainly gifting. That’s our default mode to describe Spirit-filling, especially when it comes to ministry. But what if there’s another paradigm which is the dominant one, or at least a hugely significant part of the Spirit-filled life? What if a Spirit-filled pastor is not just one (or not mainly) one who is gifted, but one who is fruitful? That seems to me to be a legitimate line of biblical analysis, given Galatians 5. Of course, the truths there are not just for preachers, but for all believers. However, we ought to think of pastors and preachers as those who are faithful believers who are especially gifted by God.
In other words, ministry is godliness + gifting. Not the other way around. It starts with godliness and we appoint those to posts who are filled with the Spirit (e.g. Acts 6). Don’t you think that means godliness? Of course it does. It’s trendy to write down equations these days, so this means, quite simply M = Go + Gi in that order.
This was brought home to me this week as I spent a happy afternoon out cycling with two other pastors. They were incredibly patient with me. It takes a lot to get me up a hill (and, frankly, I’ve got a lot to get up the hill) – so I go pretty slowly up the inclines. Descents, by contrast, are straightforward. I was profoundly thankful for their patience. Isn’t that an underrated spiritual quality? Yes. And isn’t it an underrated pastoral quality? Yes, indeed. As are – as it happens – many of the component parts of the fruit of the Spirit.
I think we should all want to be Spirit-filled leaders.
So help me God.
Professional speakers beware
I have come rather late to an appreciation of Charles Dickens. Better late than never, I suppose. At the moment I am particularly enjoying his sometimes biting social comments in Bleak House. One of the central characters is a Baronet by the name of Sir Leicester Dedlock, who through most of the story holds a very lofty view of his importance in society. Towards the end of the novel [*spoiler alert*] a great catastrophe occurs in the Dedlock family and the shock of it causes Sir Leicester to suffer a stroke. Dickens compares his present stricken state with how he used to be:
‘His voice was rich and mellow; and he had so long been thoroughly persuaded of the weight and import to mankind of any word he said, that his words really had come to sound as if there were something in them. But now he can only whisper; and what he whispers sounds like what it is – mere jumble and jargon.’
Here is my confession: as soon as I read those words, images of certain people I know jumped immediately into my mind. I guess that’s because one of my private self-serving judgments on them is that they too have an exaggerated sense of the significance of their own words.
Of course one of the godly response to such thoughts about others is deliberately to turn the searching eye of such a judgment back on oneself. I speak for a living. I preach. I teach. I lead sermon practice classes. I have students regularly coming to ask my opinion on a variety of topics, on some of which I am reasonably qualified to give an opinion that might carry some weight.
Part of the time when I speak, of course, my words do have enormous ‘weight and import to mankind’. That occurs when – and only when – I am preaching, teaching and pastoring from Scripture and have done my text-work faithfully. At such times I must indeed speak as if there were ‘something in’ my words, because in God’s goodness there really is!
I can think of plenty of other times, though, when what’s coming out of my mouth is just my not-very-humble opinion on this or that issue of church politics, general wisdom, or family life. How terribly easy it is then to borrow from the way I’ve learned to speak when there really is something true from the Lord in my words, and to try to build an aura of unquestionable authority around these other words, when the reality is that it’s really only my opinion and is likely to be just as foolish and self-serving as anyone else’s.
It is right for a preacher to learn to speak in a manner that befits someone really uttering the word of God, when in fact that is what he is doing. But what a watch we must put on ourselves, so that we do not speak that way when our words may well be as empty as those of any risible Dickens character.
Five marriage glories
Just to set some balance from yesterday’s post, here are some marriage glories.
1. Marriage. Just marriage. Not everyone is given this gift. Some have the gift of singleness. But to those to whom it is given, it is a glory to be celebrated and enjoyed.
2. Mixed marriage. Not an unbeliever to a believer – but marriages across race and culture. These are glorious. They are not without pressures, of course, but they display in microcosm the way the gospel breaks down all kinds of barriers. Such couples may need more help and pastoral input, but such couples have something glorious to celebrate and the church must celebrate with them.
3. Arranged marriage. Many western Christians have a deep aversion to arranged marriages. Nevertheless, with certain caveats, there is nothing inherently wrong with such marriages. They can be glorious too (and we need to recognise that). Forced marriages are not good, of course. And we need to talk sometime about arranged marriages where Christians are paired off with those who are not believers. Nevertheless, the point stands. Marriage sustains the love, not love the marriage, and therefore arranged marriages can work and – when they are Christian – are glorious too.
4. Long marriage. Most churches I have been in have celebrated significant birthdays of members. I’m not against this – it’s part of being family. But it’s strange that we don’t really take time to celebrate long marriages. They are covenant relationships which reflect deeper glories and so we should make much of those who, in God’s grace, stay the course, encouraging others to do the same.
5. Sex in marriage. Christians have got a bad reputation for being anti-sex. However, nothing could be further from the truth. We’re pro-sex, hugely so. Most cultures recognise that sex is good or bad depending on its context (for example, rightly criminalising some forms of sexual activity). Christians agree. Our context is marriage between a man and a woman and we celebrate sex in this context. It is a good thing (and we might say, God thought of it first!). This is a glory.
Five marriage oxymorons
Two posts on marriage – both of which need careful reading. Everything is in the definition. But I wanted to bust some marriage myths, using the idea of an oxymoron (something that cannot be) and establish some marriage truths, using the idea of glories (that’s tomorrow). Would you agree? Would your church leadership teams agree?
1. Same sex marriage. The high profile one. Whatever the state may call it, a same-sex marriage is not a marriage. It’s not an unwise marriage, that we have to pastor into. It’s not a marriage. Period. That truth raises all kinds of pastoral questions and needs wise, pastoral strategies (which churches ought to be thinking about now). But the reality is unchanged. A marriage is between a man and a woman. Genesis 2.24.
2. Sexless marriage. There are painful and obvious reasons why marriages may be sexless – long term illness for example. But, all other things being equal, the Bible is clear that sexless marriages are not right. Read 1 Corinthians 7! My weekend papers carry articles at least twice a year about couples whose marriages are sexless by choice. But it’s not a Christian position.
3. Mixed marriage. Listen carefully! I don’t mean mixed in race or culture (those kinds of marriages belong in my glory list tomorrow). But mixed marriages in terms of an unbeliever to a believer. Of course, if one of a couple is converted, the marriage should not end (1 Cor 7 again!). But I will not marry a believer to an unbeliever, as far as I can ascertain. Not only is there 2 Cor 6:14, but for those who think this is too vague (and there may be something in this), Paul’s enjoinder to widows makes the point (1 Cor 7.39). Unlike same-sex marriage, I believe such marriages are indeed marriages in the eyes of God, so they cannot simply be left. We have to live sometimes with the consequences of our actions. Nevertheless, the oxymoron stands. (I am aware, of course, that in arranged marriage cultures, this point needs nuancing).
4. Childless marriage. Again, please listen. I am not referring to extremely painful and pastorally difficult situations where couples cannot have children. Nor do the very few exceptions to this situation (often related to health of one or other partner) change the general rule. Rather, I am referring to the situation where a couple choose (in the long term) not to have children. My ex-colleague Christopher Ash has written about this in the shorter of his marriage books: I commend it highly.
5. Open marriage. Recent court cases in the UK have raised the issue of open marriages once again where either or both partners are free to sleep around. No. It’s my fifth marriage oxymoron – read 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 if you’re in any doubt about this and the spiritual thing that is going on when you sleep with someone.
The leadership tension
I love the sport of cycling, whether it’s on the track or road. And I’ve particularly enjoyed the recent success of the Great Britain team, which means I have some mixed feelings about the departure of the senior British coach, Shane Shutton (reported here in the Guardian). For the record, he denies the allegations (of bullying, sexism and other isms). He is also, however, a rather driven man, somewhat abrasive at times. But, first under David Brailsford, and now alone, there is no doubt he has overseen something of a transformation in British cycling, especially track cycling.
So the media response this weekend is not unexpected – we will win fewer medals, but be nicer with it. The team will be a bit more PC, but less aggressive in the saddle. Whether these speculations turn out to be true or not, those on the inside believe that – in general terms at least – this is the way it will go. There is a tension between niceness and aggressiveness. Many top coaches are bullies.
There are exceptions of course. But in the short term, the way to get the most out of people is to beat them up. In a previous life, I spent a secondment at the Serious Fraud Office investigating Robert Maxwell, and then worked for a short time for Mohammed Al Fayed so I know something about larger-than-life bosses and the atmosphere they create.
As always, of course, the church is in danger of imitating the world, and we convince ourselves that good leadership means strong leadership which means (although we never call it this) being a bully. For the record, I have no one in mind, but it is a truism that, in the short term, such leadership will do churches an apparent good. There will be an atmosphere of fear, but we won’t call it that. We’ll call it strong, masculine, even godly.
Conversely, the Bible model for leadership is gentleness and compassion. Such qualities are not to be confused with firmness and conviction (something I sometimes get muddled, I must confess). Nevertheless, we must not swallow the world’s lie that allows bullying into the church and assumes it is this which will win us the spiritual gold medals. It may have a short term effect (convincing us of the rightness of our decisions), but it is neither godly nor wise and we must be clear on this at least.
7 practical things that makes my preaching ineffective
I spent a little time reflecting on 7 practical things that make me ineffective as a preacher. I realise that this kind of post rather lays my own heart bare. Nevertheless, it’s worth posting because we need to be honest about what holds us back. I don’t think you will find any surprises here, but perhaps some things will resonate and you – like me – will be driven to our knees. Of course, all of this is written in the context that (as I said yesterday) it is God who gives the growth. Nevertheless, we are called to be faithful proclaimers and therefore need to be realistic about what holds us back. Neither is this a spiritual assessment. I am only too keenly aware of my pride and vanity which holds me back. This, however, is more of a practical assessment.
1. Sloppy exegesis. We need to be realistic that understanding a text can be hard. Some parts are harder than others (2 Peter 3.16). I’m probably in the glad position to have more of a grasp than most (excepting half a dozen) of my congregation and so I’m always tempted not to do the hard work of exegesis.
2. Too much exegesis. That requires some explanation. I can always study a text more. There is always another commentary to read. Another reading. I like this stuff. I get excited by it. But my preparation time is limited, so it’s quite possible to do too much exegesis and be thoroughly prepared in terms of what the text means, but virtually nothing how it changes hearers.
3. Failure to think of Barbara (name changed). Lovely Barbara is in my home group. She’s a delightful Christian, a long time saint who likes things to be simple. I often think of her when I prepare, but my sermon is always worse when I neglect to do so.
4. Little thought given to construction. Surely content trumps everything? No. For if my speech is hard to receive (and there may be a number of reasons for this), then good content is meaningless.
5. Too many clever sentences. I love words and I am, at heart, something of a wordsmith (you may be surprised!). But the sermon is a spoken word not a written word and clever written sentences almost never work orally.
6. Too little thought given to vocabulary. Conversely, a sermon that wafts around and never really concisely and clearly nails ideas with clear words will be misheard. I need to be able to convey the heart of my sermon in clear, short, well thought through sentences. This is not to contradict point 5. I can craft oral sentences. And in fact, I need to.
7. Generalised application which bears no connection to the text. I love this stuff. It’s application 101 isn’t it? No, because as Bryan Chappell was reminding us last week, people are quickly turned off from generalised application that is forced into a text.
What about your sermon this week?
My name is Adrian and I’m an Arsenal fan. There, I’ve finally said it. Truth be told, now that it’s public knowledge I’m much happier and I feel I can deal with it as I need to do. And – for those who follow the world of Association Football – you will know that it’s not an association which is always happy. True, as my colleague Tim, a Birmingham Athletic fan, reminds me everything is relative. He would give half of St Andrews to be in my shoes (St Andrews is the golf course where Birmingham play).
Nevertheless, it’s another frustrating season and I’m tempted to join the “It was fun, Arsene, but now it’s time to go” campaign. And yet, here is the paradox. Clubs reject their managers if they fail to reach high success, despite the fact that it’s a mathematical impossibility for all but a very few clubs to attain these goals. I guess that is the delight and excitement of sport for many.
However, that desire to be top has crept into all other kinds of walks of life. Mathematically, not everyone can be top of the class, top rated employee, nor top church, top man at the gym, and so it goes. And yet we imbibe the spirit of the age and want to be in the Champions League spots in all these areas and more.
That’s really damaging to the church. Of course, there is a place for godly ambition. I want sinners to be saved and saints to be sanctified. If that is not reflected in my prayer life, then pity me and my people. But on the other hand we understand that God gives the growth and our call is not to excel in a kind of “top four” champions league place of the evangelical world. I’m not measured by conversions, size of church, number of programmes or anything of the kind. My call is to be pastorally and biblically faithful.
And that’s not a call to averageness. That’s not “mid table mediocrity”. It’s a high and glorious calling. It’s real pastoral integrity.
Not to be top. But to be faithful.
Beg, steal* or borrow
One of my favourite times of year is our two ministers’ conferences we hold in the Spring. This year we have 220 guys from all different churches and all different stages over two weeks. Our conferences are both unashamedly working conferences (helping us to grow in our preaching) but also planned to be times of refreshment. We need, as ministers of the gospel, both.
Our time with Andrew Cornes, Simon Medcroft and Bryan Chappell has been superb, but we’re already anticipating next year’s conference with Doug Moo. I’m personally a great Moo fan. A few years ago, a few of us thought that ought to make us “Bovinian” (think about it!).
Doug is speaking on Hebrews (which he is writing a commentary on and which will be very fresh). Hebrews is an essential book. If Romans is our go to book for systematic theology, then surely Hebrews should be our go to book for biblical theology. That makes it even stranger that it is so unfamiliar to evangelicals. Not only is it a great book in its own right, but it opens up the whole of the Old Testament. A great topic, therefore, for preachers.
We’ve been full this year, in fact, someone even brought their own motorhome! Most of us can’t resort to such accommodation, so booking early is essential. That’s why we’ve opened the booking now. Week 1 is for those in ministry 7+ years and runs April 24-27. Week 2 is for those starting out and is May 2-5 2017. Find a way to be with us. Beg, steal* or borrow.
*The Proclamation Trust does not condone stealing 😉
How important is application?
A few quotes are helpful.
John Broadus (1827-1895) was the President of Southern Baptist Theological Centre and was the father of expository preaching in the US (and probably wider as well). He was fighting against the kind of preaching which took a text and ran with it (often in all kinds of directions). Application is “the main thing to be done.” Not the only thing, nor the first thing. But he understood that unless the text was brought home, it was not a sermon.
John Calvin “If we leave it to men’s choice to follow what is taught them, they will never move one foot. Therefore the doctrine itself can profit nothing at all” (2 Tim. 4.1-2).
How though do we answer the criticism that says it is the work of the Spirit to do the application? There is a logical fallacy of saying “on the basis of application, I’m telling you not to do application”! That is in itself an application. Just as we EXPLAIN what the Spirit must ultimately interpret we must APPLY what the Spirit will ultimately apply. This is preaching in all its fullness.