Ministers of the gospel and the EU referendum
There is an old 19th Century English (and Welsh) law called Spiritual Injury. It was introduced to stem the growing influence of (particularly) high church and Catholic churchmen who were telling their congregations how to vote, annoying the government of the time. It has recently resurfaced as, in part, the legislation under which my local mayor Lutfur Rahman was deposed. It’s – as far as I can see, and I’m no lawyer – a tricky piece of legislation, slippery almost. In one particular case, for example, there was a distinction drawn between endorsing a candidate and threatening sanctions if parishoners did not vote the appropriate way. Moreover, it’s all, one could argue, a big nonsense anyway with the existence of Lords Spiritual.
Nevertheless, it is a law, and ministers of the gospel should have a care. In the past I have belonged to a political party, but I dropped it when I became a minister, and I would not advertise which one. Nor do I think it’s right to announce from the pulpit our voting intentions, especially when it comes to the EU referendum. Whether or not we break the letter of the law, there is a real danger in doing so that we breach the spirit.
And is that what preaching is really for? One of the things we misunderstand is that preaching the word of God vests us in an expected authority that we don’t appreciate. In fact, our authority comes from the word preached and there is a world of difference between Adrian the preacher saying “thus says God’s word” and Adrian the preacher saying, “I think that….” But it’s a subtle difference for many people, if one at all, and we must be conscious of the effect we have on others. This is particularly true of the pastor pronouncing on social media.
I think the minister of the gospel does have a duty – but on an issue like this where Christian conscience could go either way it is to lay before congregations the Christian issues at stake – obedience to governments, duty of care to others, compassion, wise leadership, freedom to preach and so on, and then let people make informed choices, but not to tell people what those choices should be. “Oh, I’m not doing that,” you might say, but the reality is – whether you like it or not – that is precisely what you are doing, and that, legalities aside, is a kind of injury.
Marriage and Ministry
Marriage can be tough. Ministry can be tough. Together, they can be an explosive combination. What should be a joyful partnership sometimes turns out to be the very thing on which both ministry and marriage founder. We cannot let it.
So that’s why we run a couple of small Marriage and Ministry conferences. Each conference is a 24 hour stopover hosted for up to 14 couples.
We’re running two of these in October; one is Leicestershire (at Hothorpe Hall), the other in Wiltshire (the Old Bell, Malmesbury). They will begin at 11am on Monday 24th and conclude with lunch at 12.45pm on Tuesday 25th.
There are still some spaces available on each conference. You can click here to book online at Leicestershire, and here to book online for Wiltshire.
The 20th Century’s greatest hymn writer? Not so sure.
Not so long ago, I was reading an article about hymnology which named Sydney Carter as the best hymnwriter of the 20th Century. Remember Lord of the Dance? When I needed a neighbour? And One more step along the world I go? I shiver as I recall those primary school days.
There are certainly some living writers who would challenge for that title. But I want to encourage you to search out the lyrics of someone who is no longer alive – not dear Sydney, but someone with a bit more depth. I’m talking about Margaret Clarkson, a Canadian writer who died in 2008. Look up her page. This is perhaps one of my favourites about the resurrection body – not too many hymns on that subject! It’s crying out for another tune, perhaps. But the words must not be lost.
In resurrection bodies like Jesus’ very own,
we’ll rise to meet our Saviour with joy around his throne;
we’ll marvel at the mercy that bids poor sinners come,
be welcomed at his table and share his heavenly home.
O joy of resurrection, all sin and sorrow past,
to see the face of Jesus, to be like him at last!
Made perfect in his image, complete in Christ the Son,
in resurrection glory we’ll share the life he won.
O resurrection body, set free from pain and death,
sin’s curse forever vanquished by Christ’s victorious breath!
Lord, teach us in our trials your hidden ways to trace,
to walk by faith, discerning your mysteries of grace!
O resurrection body, young, radiant, vibrant, free,
with powers unthought, undreamed of–how rich your joys will be!
Through endless years to marvel, design, create, explore,
in resurrection wonder to worship, serve, adore!
With holy joy, Lord Jesus, we sing the life you give,
the hope you hold before us, the strength by which we live!
Lead on in sovereign mercy through all earth’s troubled ways,
till resurrection bodies bring resurrection praise!
Who put that there?
Don’t you wish sometimes Scripture passages were not written as they are? There are often things I would have included if anyone had consulted me. And with my current preaching project – 1 Kings 18 – a large chunk I wish had been excluded. I’m fine with the story of Elijah and Ahab and the prophets of Baal. I think I’m just about getting a handle on that. But what is it with Obadiah? (1 Kings 18:2-15). Who on earth thought it would be a good idea to include that mysterious story?
Oh yes, it was the Holy Spirit. Hmm. I defer, of course.
My doctrine of Scripture is essential to me as a preacher. It must be; it needs to be. These words are inspired, preserved, kept, and interpreted by the Spirit of the living God. I’m very thankful for that because this truth is our only hope when it comes to listening to God’s voice. Without total and absolute inspiration in both inclusion (what is in) and exclusion (what is out) and even in tone, grammar, vocabulary and focus, where would the preacher be? Nowhere.
And that’s why my perplexing question needs to be knocked back. Obadiah? Who put that there? I did, says the God of all. And my job as a preacher is to communicate the truth that the Spirit of God has already made known.
And that, in this section at least, includes Obadiah.
Praying the Bible
I’m a bit like a scratched record when it comes to encouraging people to pray the Bible. Not a hissy mess – not that kind of scratched record; rather, I keep on saying the same thing over and over. And I’m not sorry. Prayer is a battle for me, as I guess it is for you. It’s also a battle ground for many people in our churches. We battle to find the time to pray, and then we battle to know what to pray for and how to pray for it.
Today’s post isn’t really going to help you with (1) but may be a help with (2) and (3). I find that some of the most enthusiastic pray-ers are also some of the maddest (can I say that?). In other words, enthusiasm is not always matched by content. Does this matter? I’m not going to knock enthusiasm, but I want to say that it does matter. Praying is – at one level at least – aligning ourselves with God’s will. And if we’re going to do that we need to know what to pray for and how to do it.
That’s where praying the Bible comes in. I have tried for many years to link my Bible devotions to my prayer time. The thing I learn in my quiet time I try to pray in for myself and for others who are on my list for the day. Strangely, this means that I’m not always praying for them the things I would naturally think of. But it helps me: it helps me pray in the truth for myself, because I’m thinking about how it might apply to others; it helps my preaching because I’m taking a single truth and thinking about broad application; it helps my pastoring, because I’m not overwhelmed with people’s felt needs.
All of which is to say that I’ve been using a really good new resource to help me. It’s Rachel Jones: 5 things to pray for your church. Frankly, any book that helps you pray the Bible is going to get a thumbs up from me: however, Rachel’s book is unique – it’s not just giving you Bible prayers, it is encouraging you to take Bible principles, name some people and pray the truths in. I’ve found it refreshing and useful and want others to use it too. There’s a quote on the back “brilliantly simple but hugely effective. Trevor Archer”. I’m guessing that is the book rather than Trevor – who is also brilliantly simply but hugely effective 😉
I agree wholeheartedly. Try it. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Motives: “making a thorough search”
Part of putting sin to death is putting sinful motives to death. It’s hard, for we are not always good assessors of our own motives, nor do we want to put in the hard work of addressing this kind of sin. But we must. Otherwise we run the risk of being righteous for the wrong reasons, and we know what God’s word says about that (Matthew 6.1). It counts for nothing at all before God.
These sobering words have got me thinking about how precisely I tackle motives. Here’s what my friend and I are trying. This may seem a bit formulaic to you; but we’re hoping it might help us make progress. Each day, as part of our devotions, we’re taking just one thing from the previous day – one apparently righteous action or one word, and then we’re honestly and prayerfully trying to assess what good motives were at work and what sinful ones. Then we’re committed to confessing our sinful motives and asking God to deal with them.
So, maybe this is a little programmatic – and to be honest, it feels at the moment a little programmatic to me too. But we have to start somewhere and we know the place to start is in the heart. In his great work, The Mortification of sin, John Owen explains the danger of missing this great truth:
“This is a deceit that lies at the root of peace of many professors and wastes it. They deal with all their strength about mercy and pardon and seem to have great communion with God in their doing so; they lie before him, bewailing their sin and their folly, that anyone would think, yea they think themselves, that surely they and their sins are now parted; and so receive mercy that satisfies their hearts for a little season. But when a thorough search comes to be made, there has been some secret reserve for the folly or follies treated about – at least there has not been that thorough abhorrency of it which is necessary; and their whole peace is quickly discovered to be weak and rotten, scarce abiding any longer than the words of begging it are in their mouths.”
The great challenge of pastoral godliness
There are four types of Christian behaviour, it seems to me:
There are, firstly, good things done for good motives. This is what the Bible calls righteousness.
Then there are good things, but done for wrong motives. To all the world, this appears like righteousness, but as we shall see in just a moment, God’s word has a different assessment.
There are bad things done for good motives – in other words, times when acting in good faith, we just get things wrong, a word spoken with good intent, perhaps, but entirely the wrong thing to say.
Then there are bad things done for bad motives. This is what we generally call sin.
And therein lies the issue. Of my list of four, three are abhorrent to God. However, when it comes to putting sin to death, most of our focus – indeed, all of our focus – is on number four. I don’t want to ignore that. But godliness is more than outward behaviour. It involves inward motives – and this is a particular issue for pastors and preachers.
I was thinking about this today meeting up with a friend. We read just one verse – Matthew 6.1. “Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
There’s nothing wrong with being righteous in front of others, but if we do it “to be seen by others” (with wrong motives for example), then Jesus is clear. What reward can we expect? None. Zilch. Zip. That’s a sobering assessment isn’t it? Particularly when it comes to how I act as a pastor and even the words and illustrations I use in my preaching.
The reality is, of course, more complex. I tend to do righteous things for mixed motives. I am somewhere between 1 and 2 on my list. But in so much as I am doing right things for wrong motives, I have to seek out this sin and with the Spirit’s help put it to death. That’s not comfortable nor easy. Frankly, I’m more at ease with number four on my list. But if I’m going to take Jesus’ word seriously, it’s a process that cannot be ignored. For me, or for you.
Pastoring dementia patients
I’m not normally one for simply posting links, but occasionally you come across something which deserves a wide hearing – this is one such post about pastoring dementia patients.
Worth a click and a minute.
Come, Holy Spirit
The parable of the soils (Mark 4) is pretty clear. Not all the soil on which we sow is good soil. In fact, sometimes the sowing of the word actually hardens people who have not been given the secrets of the kingdom. This parable is such a helpful one for preachers on many levels, but let me pick out one particular aspect which is clear. Preaching is a spiritual work. Of course it is mediated through men faithfully exegeting, applying and communicating truths. We must not ignore any of these or get so mystical that we get to the point where none of this matters.
But nor must we be so caught up in the work that we fail to ignore what is in plain view of Mark 4. Unless the Spirit gives life and gives the “secrets of the kingdom” to people there will never be understanding however good the sermon is. I’m reminded of the time William Wilberforce took William Pitt to hear one of London’s finest preachers. Wilberforce was amazed at the sermon and asked his friend Pitt what he thought. He was completely unmoved.
What does this practically mean for a preacher? It must surely mean this – that we need, in prayer, to confess our entire dependence upon the Spirit to bless our ministry. The preacher should be praying before and after his sermon, even during. Like Spurgeon, we should be climbing every real or metaphorical pulpit step crying out “Come, Holy Spirit.”
Faithful exegesis is just the start
What makes a good sermon? Very often, in our circles, we’re obsessed (rightly) with getting the text right. That has to be the starting point. Without faithfulness to the text, the sermon cannot be a good sermon. But it’s the height of naivety to think that’s job done. A good sermon will take the excellent exegesis and apply it faithfully as well. It’s a weak spot for many of us, which is why we’ve asked Bryan Chapell to come and help us at this Spring’s Ministers Conferences – still a very few places available.
But it’s good to be reminded that even then it is not job done, because we have to communicate what we have prepared. To use an extreme example, if we don’t say a word, what we have written on the page is irrelevant – we have to get from the page to the people. This is a softer skill than exegesis – if only there were a ten point plan or a seven step approach. But in reality, the ability to communicate is individual – and whilst there are things we can and should do, each preacher will be different. There is, then, a kind of preaching equation which looks something like this:
PREACHING = FAITHFUL EXEGESIS + APPROPRIATE APPLICATION + GOOD COMMUNICATION
I know things are a little more complex than this – but without (2) and (3) we should not kid ourselves that we have a preached a text.
Oh, and did you know (by the way) that preaching is a spiritual discipline? More of that tomorrow.