Context – aiding understanding
One of the rotten tomatoes that sometimes get thrown at us is that we are obsessed with context. I hope – I really hope – that’s not true. If we’re obsessed with anything, it’s getting the text right, and there is absolutely no doubt that using context appropriately is a key tool in that process. Of course, as with every tool, once it becomes the master rather than the servant it’s a dangerous weapon. Two common errors: one – making context an integral part of the sermon rather than letting it shape the sermon (as though one were giving a lecture); two – letting context so dominate that you end up preaching the surrounding verses and not the passage itself. Both outrageous mistakes.
Nevertheless, context is important. If our heart’s desire is to say what God has said (which surely is the core of expository preaching) then we must consider context. The danger is we simply distort the truth, otherwise. It’s not that we necessarily preach things that are wrong (I hope we’re not that naïve), but if we don’t preach what the text is saying, the sermon is robbed of its power: it’s just us and not the Bible.
Take my passage from last Sunday. It was John 15.26-16.15. I confess to really wrestling with this passage. I found it dense, deep and stretching. Fortunately I was given 60 minutes to preach (!!!!!) which helped a little (though could easily make me a very lazy preacher, not thinking clearly enough what to include and what to discard). At one level, it’s relatively straightforward: Jesus himself gives us three useful headings – the ministry of the Spirit is to testify about Christ (15:26), to convict the world (16:8) and to glorify the Son (16:14).
But it is only when you see these truths in the context that they begin to take on the significance they must have. The ministry of the Spirit is not some abstract concept or general encouragement for those who are saved. No – the Spirit is “another Helper” who both brings aid but also opposition – hence why the passage (and the section) are so interspersed with warnings about falling away (e.g. 16.1). It’s only when we see the context that the passage itself makes sense.
Claiming celebrities (old and new)
There is a growing trend amongst evangelical preachers and pastors to want to make celebrities born again Christians. I understand this and have even indulged in some (unhelpful) speculation myself. For the most part, we hear one or two things that people say and assume this somehow translates into a fully orbed salvation of the kind of which we approve.
It’s a dangerous path that can quickly backfire. Someone who says something vaguely religious today turns out to be heterodox tomorrow on some other key doctrine (no names!). If we hold up someone uncritically, perhaps quoting them to try to appear down with the kids, we can end up doing more harm than good.
I think these kinds of people fall into two camps. There are those, first of all, who just speak about God in very vague terms without any apparent relationship with him in and through Christ. I got that feeling about Ayrton Senna, whilst watching the excellent documentary film about him yesterday (free on Amazon Prime!). It’s not that I’m saying he is not born again or is, I’m not his pastor, and it’s not my place to judge, but I certainly don’t want people following his lifestyle.
Then there are those who speak about Jesus, but it’s never quite clear whether their interest in our wonderful Saviour is personal or religious. A number of public figures come to mind. Again, we can be quick to latch onto any crumbs, wanting to validate evangelical Christianity, forgetting that the best people to validate our faith are those we know and for whom working out faith in action is a daily pursuit – i.e. your own church members!
We do it with the oldies too, of course. I have gained great benefit from reading CS Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and even Richard Baxter. All, however, need to be read carefully and critically. I would not want to give my hearers the impression that everything they said and wrote can be digested without question.
Teaching the prophets to children. Seven reasons why we don’t.
How would your children’s teachers in church react if you told them they needed to do a series on Ezekiel in Sunday School? I bet it wouldn’t be met with universal enthusiasm. Why not? After all. All of scripture is God breathed. Teaching prophecy is not on too many curricula though, I would guess. Here are seven reasons why we don’t do it. And one good one why we should.
1. Kids’ leaders don’t hear prophecy taught well in church and so don’t have confidence to do the same. Their chief learning experience for teaching others is almost certainly your own preaching; if they are too scared to teach prophecy to kids, you need to ask yourself some pretty searching questions first.
2. We don’t have a huge quantity of good material to draw down on. Truth be told, some of our kids material is a bit Ho-hum anyway. And that’s for the easier parts of the OT. A friend ministering in Surrey told me this week that he was using The Gospel Project in their Sunday School. They’ve done a minor prophet a week, he told me, with this material, and both kids and adults love it. Look it up.
3. We don’t have confidence in poetry for kids. I’ve been away at our Women in Ministry conference this week. Almost 100 women, many of whom teach kids: and we’ve been focusing on prophecy. What has been astonishing is how those who are experienced in teaching kids have seen very quickly how the images of poetry actually resonate with youngsters better than they do with adults. We probably imagine the opposite.
4. We don’t know the prophets well enough ourselves. We are purple passage prophet lovers (try saying that with a mint in your mouth!). We know and love Isaiah 53, but not 54. Say no more.
5. We don’t know how to properly teach Christ from the OT, so prophecy is especially difficult. We either ignore Christ and make kids into Old Covenant children or we flatten everything and impose a kind of shapeless Christology which has no bearing on the text.
6. Many of our occasional teachers have got used to preparing lessons on the fly or without adequate thinking and prayer. Most of us have churches where this kind of teaching is voluntary, undertaken by full time workers, mums and dads. Teaching prophecy is just, well, harder, and so we imagine we don’t have time.
7. All of these are perhaps symptomatic of a deeper malaise. We simply pay lip service to 2 Tim 3.16. The ‘all’ is particularly problematic. We are pretty content actually with being selective.
There is of course only one answer to each of these points: it is a resurgence of the full acceptance of the authority, sufficiency, clarity of Scripture. A robust doctrine of the word of God will make us as confident in Malachi as it will in the story of the golden calf. And if these 7 reasons ring true, at least in part, perhaps the first thing we need to do is to teach our Sunday School leaders a better doctrine of the holy Book.
The songword sentimentalists
There’s another curious phenomenon when it comes to the words we sing: it’s that some of us (hmm, myself too, if I’m honest) are curiously sentimental about song words when we’re often not sentimental about anything else at all. Don’t get me wrong, there’s not anything fundamentally wrong with sentiment, but I see in my own heart how often sentimental words (whatever that means for you) can sometimes trump truth. Perhaps, more common is that we end up singing things that we love but don’t necessarily resonate.
Here’s an example. Just to extend my post bag a little more you understand. I minister in the East End of London. Few of us have any kind of daily or even semi-regular experience which sounds like this:
When through the woods and forest glades I wander
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur
And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze
Then sings my soul….
This hymn is encouraging us to praise God, inspired by the nature around us. But what if that is not our nature around us? My middle class sentimentality might like this hymn but will it really serve and resonate with an urban, working class group of people. No. Of course not.
Interestingly, Stuart Hine’s translation of a translation of a translation (it was Swedish, then German, then Russian, and only then English) is pretty loose. Well. When I say, pretty loose, he ignored some verses and added new ones. Including, I understand, this one above, which Hine penned as he crossed the Carpathian mountain range. I might sing these words too if I was a mountaineer. But an earlier translation is probably better, even though it itself includes an archaism in line 2 which needs resolving (see yesterday’s post, suggestions on a postcard please):
When I behold the heavens in their vastness,
Where golden ships in azure issue forth,
Where sun and moon keep watch upon the fastness
Of changing seasons and of time on earth.
Now, living in London, that is something I can see, and therefore, I can sing… How great you are!
The songword bullies
Few things are as likely to stir ire (and lead to an extended post bag) than challenging some of the vocabulary of our best loved songs. It’s extraordinary really. I love hymns and old songs, but I have an equally strong distaste for archaisms. Singing, you see is a ministry of the word (I read that somewhere, in the Bible maybe?) and one, though not the only, reason we use modern Bible translations is that they are comprehensible. If we are to sing the word to one another we need to apply the same criteria.
Why don’t we? It’s in part, at least, because we’ve privatised singing. I’m happy and content singing what I like. It’s not about serving others. If the words mean something to me, then how dare you change them! We had some of the same debates when gradually moving away from the AV and we now need to resist the songword bullies and have the debates again with some of our sung ministry of the word.
I’m still going to sing hymns. Don’t put me down as one of those contemporary music only people. Not me! But in one sense I do want everything to be contemporary, by which I mean understandable. Otherwise we might as well be singing in another language, untranslated. And we all know what the Bible says about that.
Listen. Instead of reading (sometimes).
I’m enjoying some audio books at the moment. Not Christian ones, as it happens, but some Len Deighton 1980s spy thrillers (please don’t tell!). These particular books (a set of nine) are my comfort books. I first started reading them when they were first published and must have read the series 15 or more times since. I know some people never read the same book twice, but I love going back to familiar territory to help me switch off and relax (just for those who are really worried I also read David Copperfield, my favourite book, once a year).
Just for a change I’ve been trying the audio version. It’s more pricey, for sure. But it’s a refreshing experience and the well known words have come with a newness I’ve not really experienced before. Even though I know what is going to happen, it’s almost as though I am hearing the text for the first time. I guess this is, in part at least, because these books are so familiar that I probably skip past some of the detail.
I’ve posted before about using an audio Bible and I continue to do that, it’s a valuable resource in the Christian armoury: ironically (for a modern product) it more accurately reflects how the word of God would have originally been disseminated. But what about other Christian books? Why not put some of these on your phone or iPod? Pilgrims’s Progress? £3. Disciplines of a godly man or woman? £10. Hole in our holiness? £11. Basic Christianity? £12. And so on. Worth a shot? I’ll take all the help I can get.
Stop and wait a while
One of the benefits of my “Month in Philemon” is being able to really get to grips with the detail of the book. I’m really enjoying this: perhaps too much, I have to keep disciplining myself to read the whole letter again and again so as not to get over-immersed in the detail. Nevertheless, detail counts. Paragraphs are made of sentences, sentences are made of phrases, phrases are made of words and words count.
Take verse 6 of Philemon, phrase 1: “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for….” (ESV) and “I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in…” (NIV). Two quite different understandings of a simple phrase. Or not so simple. This is, says Moo, “universally recognised as the most difficult verse in Philemon” – and it turns on how you translate koinonia and pistis.
In this case, both ESV and NIV have gone for the same understanding of pistis – faith as something you believe in. OK (though by no means 100% certain). But they diverge on how to translate koinonia. The ESV picks up the AV “communication of thy faith” – i.e sharing OF. This is also the RSV (which carried through the AV translation). The NIV takes it to mean partnership with Paul – i.e. sharing WITH.
Not a minor point – for it would lead you to two different applications. Obviously the work of the exegete is to ponder and think and pray to work out which is best. For my money, for what it’s worth, the NIV is better here. The ESV takes a translation of koinonia unknown in Paul and relatively unusual in the NT (only Heb 13.16, perhaps?). It is,says Moo, supported by few interpreters (though this in itself would not make it wrong). But you yourself have to work it out and decide.
And for that, you have to go slow, stop and wait a while.
Two degrees of separation
We had an early morning phone call this morning – always, you imagine, the bringer of bad news. “Is this Celia?” Now, Celia, for the uninitiated, is the given name for Mrs R. Most of us call her Mrs R. But occasionally some people do call her Celia. So, what was the call? An early morning sales opportunity perhaps? That darn PPI we had forgotten about? No, the caller wanted Celia Hammond and her cat emergency line.
This was a double error. You see our phone number is very close to that of the PDSA (one digit different) and we often get calls asking how Rover is doing. But this caller had called the PDSA mistaking it for the Celia Hammond Cat Whatnot and THEN dialled the wrong number. Double Trouble.
We had a laugh about it (how those breakfasts in the Reynolds household just fly by!). It was unusual – and it took us some time to work out what had gone wrong. You see, when someone phones for the PDSA we can quickly say to them “you’ve got one digit wrong”.
This was more perplexing.
Preachers strive hard to get everything right. That’s how it should be. And this little incident reminded me of two things: first, we’ve got to be careful at every stage. One mistake, one wrong direction, can often lead to another. In other words, there needs to be a consistency in our preparation which gives the same careful attention to every detail. It’s far too easy, isn’t it, to take one step askew, and then another and before you know it, well…. you can join the dots.
But secondly, it’s worth being realistic. We strive hard to get everything right, but we don’t always. Sometimes an issue in our exegesis is so perplexing that it could go either way. I think listeners will always forgive us one rare mis-step. If we serve them faithfully, they should. And the discerning may well be able to spot the missed digit, so to speak. But two steps are harder to fathom and we’ve got to guard against it. So, if in my preparation I am wrestling with a knotty problem and simply have to choose a path (with a little uncertainty), I will never allow myself to make another assumption on top of that one – I could get too far away, and that’s not good.
Celia Hammond cats can be reached on 020 7474 8811.
Spring ministers conferences
January is the month to start planning the year, so here’s something to put in the diary – our Spring Ministers Conferences. We run two consecutive weeks – Week 1 is 25-28 April and is focused on those who are established in ministry (7 years +). Week 2 is 3-6 May and focused on those who are starting out (up to 7 years). Last year, over the two weeks, we welcomed some 180 people to Hothorpe Hall in Leicestershire, our central luxury venue.
And here’s the reason why I think you should come in 2016: this year we’re focusing on application. We’ve got Bryan Chappell, Andrew Cornes and Simon Medcroft to help us, and boy do some of us need help! Application is one of conservative evangelical’s soft spots. We so pleased with ourselves at our superb exegesis that we fail to draw faithful, appropriate, warm lines to our hearers. Result – not much to be honest!
There are few preachers I’ve heard (and I listen to quite a lot) who need no improvement in this area, and I include myself. I’m personally looking forward to it a lot! As with all our conferences, this one is not just work! There’s plenty of room to catch up, pray, reflect, chill out and just catch breath in the busy ministry lives we lead.
Week 2 books up especially early, so now is the time to put the date in the diary. Why not use this year to bring along a friend? Perhaps someone who has not been before or someone you know who really needs the encouragement and help to keep going in ministry? These few days together would be ideal.
Book of the year! Jesus outside the lines
Jesus outside the lines is my favourite Christian book of this year!
OK, so it’s my only Christian book of this year so far and so wins the title by default, but – nevertheless – it’s a worthy winner. It’s written by a Presbyterian minister in the US (Scott Sauls) who is tired of the angry polemic that Christians are constantly throwing around. He argues that we draw some (not all) lines too sharply and end up, therefore, throwing out true Christian tolerance. Moreover, even when we do hold proper convictions, the way which we present them is not always as biblical as we would like to think.
There is some really good material here and I found some of the chapters very convicting. True, it is written into a US setting, as will become clear in a moment. But it doesn’t take much of a thinking brain to take the US lessons and apply them here, even if the issues are not always quite so sharp this side of the pond.
He starts with politics – which for most US readers is black and white, or rather red and blue. We don’t, of course, have the same political divides. And evangelicals in this country are more likely to support a range of parties. Nevertheless, it feels like things are polarising and so his points are well made.
Chapter 2 applies the same principles to whether we are for the unborn or the poor. Again, this is a particular debate formed in the crucible of US politics where – to simplify – concern for the unborn is often seen as a feature of the right whereas concern for the poor one for the left. And, again, the lines are not drawn so starkly for us, but even so, Sauls’ approach is worthy of careful reading as he tries to steer us the Master’s Way.
Other chapters hit home a little more. Institutional church versus personal faith is helpful (though I don’t think I’ve ever seen Don Carson referred to as Donald before!). Money greedy versus money guilt is also a useful corrective – challenging the assumption that anyone who works in the city and earns a good salary must be greedy (this is essentially a chapter on contentment).
Then part II of the book comes closer to the bone as it deals not with moral hot potatoes but Christian essentials. One of the most difficult chapters of the book comes in the middle – affirmation or critique. The premise of this chapter is a rejection of the kind of Paul Washer relational evangelism where you just tell everyone how bad they are. It’s not – note – a kind of semi Pelagian manifesto. Far from it. But Sauls argues that Jesus affirms as well as critiques, and that this affirmation element has disappeared from our relational activity. I think Sauls is onto something here, but I can already hear the knives being sharpened. It’s a fine line, I think – and one that got me thinking and praying, though I was not, in the end, fully convinced by his arguing which (speaking personally) would rather let me off the hook somewhat when it comes to personal evangelism. I can think of others, however, for whom this would be essential reading.
Chapters on hypocrisy (“I’m a Christian hypocrite!”) and chastity (he’s for it, don’t worry!), suffering and self-esteem are excellent. Overall, this is a needed book, encouraging Christians to retain convictions and yet present themselves and relate to others in a way that is still, well, Christian. I think that even if the touchpoints are different for us in the UK, this is still a message we need, and therefore a book worth reading.