The power of story
I read two very good stories whilst I was away. The first I had not read since I was at school – 30 years ago (ouch, that hurts!). It was George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I suppose studying it at school had put me off. But I enjoyed it second time around, even with such a gap. It’s very simply written, but has pace and flow that grips the reader. Simple, yet very effective.
The second book was Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey. No, not that one! It predates the infamous EL James novel and is another clever, gripping story – not unlike Animal Farm as it describes life in a totalitarian state. It is more involved than Orwell – characters are more developed and the story is more complex. But it is gripping nonetheless. I like Fforde books – they make me laugh and are good holiday fodder. This one is more thoughtful; sadly it was not a commercial success so there is unlikely to be a long promised sequel.
Both illustrate the power of story. When well written and pacy, stories captivate the imagination and carry the reader or hearer along. That’s also how Bible story works – whether Old Testament or New Testament. The stories are well written and captivating.
Which makes it all the more strange that so much narrative preaching robs the text of colour, pace and life. It’s not an easy thing to do to preach narrative well. But – at the very least – we as preachers have to work hard to preserve in our sermons something of the colour and involvement that the text generates. For story is powerful. And whilst preaching is more than story telling – much, much more – it is certainly not less.
This is reality. Be encouraged.
We had a few days away last week staying on the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk (sounds slightly more impressive than it really was). Sunday we headed to a local village parish church, just to the west of Kings Lynn where a couple we know are hard at work for the Lord. It was an encouraging time to be with them, especially as we had a wonderfully faithful and warmly applied sermon from Matthew 15 – not the easiest of passages.
First, a reality check. The church was relatively small – a normal congregation, the vicar told me, is about 40-45ish. His wife works hard running the Sunday School. Whether she wants to or not, this particular vicar’s wife has to be the unpaid curate. There’s music and coffee afterwards, but there are simply not (I imagine) the number of people to put on the programmes and events that larger churches take for granted.
So, here’s the reality check. Many young men going into ministry have attended a relatively well funded University church. They have perhaps done an apprenticeship in a similar church. But those kinds of churches (for which we should all thank God) are not normal. The majority of churches in this country are relatively small, underfunded and (in the world’s eyes at least) struggling. They cannot hope to put on programmes and events like larger churches do. I should know – I ministered in such a church for almost a decade.
And yet here’s the encouragement. God saves unbelievers and builds Christians through the faithful preaching of the word. That’s why I was so encouraged to visit this little parish. You don’t need the razz-ma-tazz and glossy literature. You need Christ Jesus proclaimed. This wonderful village church had it. And if you have it, we need to believe Christ will build his church.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that Trevor Archer, who is the Training Director at FIEC, joined us at the Cornhill+ conference. He has since written an article reflecting on his time at the conference and the contribution of the course to local church ministry. And about the students crossing paths (pretty much literally!) with a professional rugby player whilst on a country walk. As you do.
New Testament ‘controls’
Sometimes a New Testament text sheds light on an Old Testament passage or book. Well, not just sometimes, quite often! It raises the question of how this can shape our preaching of the Old Testament passage. It seems to me there are two opposite kinds of mistake we can make.
The first is the classic academic Old Testament scholarship error of refusing to read an Old Testament text as part of the whole Canon of Christian Scripture. I am sometimes alarmed by how supposedly evangelical commentaries slip into this. For example, Hebrews 1:10-12 make it clear that some of the closing verses of Psalm 102 are spoken “of the Son”. Despite this important truth being ignored in some commentaries, it is both significant and instructive, and will shape the way we preach the Psalm.
The second is to jump too quickly from the Old Testament passage to the New Testament ‘control’ and effectively just to preach the New Testament text, rather than using the New Testament text as a ‘control’, to direct our exposition of the Old Testament passage but not to dominate it.
An example I found helpful was to use James 5:11 as a text to illuminate and shape a concluding sermon on the book of Job. James tells his hearers they have heard of the steadfastness of Job and also the compassionate and merciful purposes of the Lord. I found these two foci made a natural structure for expounding Job 42. I hope they did not dominate Job 42, but helped to open it up so that God’s voice was heard through Job 42. My attempt at this may be found either in Out of the Storm (IVP) or Job: the wisdom of the Cross (Crossway).
Christ our pattern
Some powerful words from the pen of Donald Macleod, in what seems to have been an address to the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland:
‘The Christ whom we are trying to follow and trying to emulate made himself nothing. He became a nonentity. It was not what he was, but it was what he looked like, what he allowed men to think of him and how he allowed men to treat him. He obscured his deity beneath humanness and ordinariness and suffering and even death. He didn’t look great or clever. He had none of the trappings of popularity. Instead, he was despised and contemptible: a non-person. That is a hard road. But for the Christian it is the only road: one on which we are willing to renounce our rights, to be misunderstood, to be damned with faint praise, to serve and yet be deemed absurd failures by those we are trying to help… ‘What upheld Christ? What kept him going? A sense of duty, of course, and love for lost men and women. But there was something else – what the Epistle to the Hebrews calls ‘The joy set before him’. That has become very unfashionable today. But Christ was not ashamed to derive strength and courage from that great prospect – the prospect of glory with the Father – which lay before him. Neither should we be ashamed of it.’ (From Glory to Golgotha, pp.157-58).
Macleod of course has a strong understanding of what Christ has done for us that we cannot do ourselves (see his new book Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement). But in the above quote he challenges me deeply to take Christ as my pattern too. Sometimes I am what Macleod calls an ‘absurd failure’ because, well, I can be a bit absurd and I often fail. But other times we are judged to be absurd failures simply because we are following our Lord. Then he challenge for me is: will I be ashamed to find my joy in precisely the same thing that the Lord Jesus chose to find his joy in?
Better than O Valiant Hearts. Much better.
Better than O Valiant Hearts. Much better.
One of the great non-evangelical Remembrance Sunday hymns is O Valiant Hearts. Not really one to sing in church! All a bit jingoistic. But it’s got a great tune. A really good tune. Not the Holst one, the original (download it here, listen to it here). And there are some great words in Praise! by Fred Kran which fit well and are written just for Remembrance Sunday.
God! As with silent hearts we bring to mind
how hate and war diminish humankind,
we pause-and seek in worship to increase
our knowledge of the things that make for peace.
2. Hallow our will as humbly we recall
the lives of those who gave and give their all.
We thank you, Lord, for women, children, men
who seek to serve in love, today as then.
3. Give us deep faith to comfort those who mourn,
high hope to share with all the newly born,
strong love in our pursuit of human worth:
‘lest we forget’ the future of this earth.
4. So, Prince of peace, disarm our trust in power,
teach us to coax the plant of peace to flower.
May we, impassioned by your living word,
remember forward to a world restored.
Let Chris Idle do the talking:
“Some of the most popular material in demand among prayers and hymns [for Remembrance Sunday] falls far short (in several directions) of Christian standards or biblical norms. Emotions run high, war memories may still ache after 60-70 years or from more recent conflicts, but there is also a longing for new approaches. It was this need and tension which prompted Coventry Cathedral staff to commission Fred Kaan to frame this hymn.”
What kind of book is Acts?
In my morning devotions I’ve just started reading Acts. It’s a great book, isn’t it? But daunting to preach. Especially because we wrestle with the question of whether it’s normative (describing what should characterise the church in this age) or descriptive (describing the early apostolic church). For what it’s worth I think that question encourages us to make a false dichotomy.
There are clearly elements that are normative as we see the gospel of Jesus grow and spread in the power of the Spirit. There are clearly elements that are descriptive as we see the work of the Apostles (who, we all agree, do not continue in the same form, even if they continue in some form). We all agree that the church’s first council and its command not to eat food offered to idols is not applicable to the church today in precisely the way it was then.
In other words, no one thinks Acts is normative (in its entirety) and no one thinks Acts is simply descriptive (in its entirety). There are two better answers.
One is to read Scripture in the light of Scripture. To read Acts apart from assessing it in the light of the teaching of the two main Apostles it highlights (Peter and Paul) seems to be a little naïve. I know the Spirit has inspired Luke to write these words this way – and that counts for something. But do you notice how the Spirit has inspired the whole Scripture too? We have individual books. We have the whole Scripture. We ignore that at our peril – especially in a book which makes so much of fulfilment.
The second is to ask why Acts was written down in the first place. If we can – by careful reading – gauge something of its purpose then we are well on our way to answering the vexed normative/descriptive question. Work that out and you have an interpretative key.
What? You want me to do all your work for you?
Real? Yes. And no.
Last weekend, there was an interesting piece in the Times magazine by über-feminist Caitlin Moran. I’m not normally a fan, but this was an insightful article. In it, she explained how she had immediately googled for the leaked celebrity pictures of Jennifer Lawrence once she heard they were online. “Just a bit of fun,” she argued to herself. The article is her apology: “I’m an idiot. It’s all real. Of course it is.”
Her argument is that we convince ourselves the internet is not real. “Humanity has a weird perception glitch: that the internet isn’t real. In the internet, humans have created an infinite new continent. A limitless, seething megalopolis in which we do everything that we do in a realmegalopolis – shop, chat, meet – but in which we seem to believe the laws that humans painstakingly constructed, for the good of the ‘meat’ world, don’t count.”
In other words, we think the internet is a place of freedom precisely because it is not real. I think Christians increasingly have embraced this concept. We think we can maintain friendships on Facebook alone (I’m on Facebook myself, and it’s not all bad). We can survive in a mediocre church because “my church is online and Piper’s my pastor.” Christians spend more time reading blogs than they do well-argued books. And so on. We prefer to live-chat than pick up a phone.
There is a sense in which Moran is right. It is real. People we interact with on Facebook are real people. Insults (and this is the point she makes) via twitter are real insults. But that doesn’t make it normal. It is real and yet it is not. And for Christians who are Spirit-wired to be relational beings, serving one another, that’s a real problem.
The reality the internet brings is not the reality we need. It may serve our reality, but it cannot replace it. And Christians need to understand this.
Training a church
We did two things at the weekend at church, which in hindsight would have been better separated apart. However, they were both part of an initiative which seeks to see the church trained as well as taught. Our conviction is that our model of ministry is right – consecutive expository ministry Sunday by Sunday allowing God to speak and make Christ present amongst us. However, our conviction is also that ½ hour a week (for most, these days) is not enough to equip us fully to live in and reach the world.
So we train. It’s not the same as preaching. It doesn’t function in the same way. It’s not of the same order. Nevertheless, we see it as an important component of equipping the saints to minister to one another.
I think this is something that our American cousins often have sorted because of Adult Sunday Schools. With the decline of a midweek meeting or a Friday night Lloyd-Jones like session, the opportunity to do this kind of equipping passes us by. So we have a once a month Sunday evening we call Thinking Like a Christian where we spend an hour tackling topics as wide as church history, Catholicism, reaching Muslims, sleep, politics, workplace evangelism – and, last week, sex. These are for the whole church so we know how to put them into practice ourselves and are able to encourage others. It was particularly good to see some of the older singles at the sex evening as we thought through how we engage with the world and pray for our young people.
Then, once a term, we have a Saturday morning. This time around we did a theology of gathering – why we meet as a church: we had a theological session (what the Bible says about gathering) and then a practical session where we tried (in smaller groups) to put into practice the Bible principles.
As I said, we probably could have done these two things different weekends, but in fact both were pretty well attended and – I hope – useful.
And here’s the thing about such training. It doesn’t undermine the Sunday preaching. It enhances it. Saturday’s training helped us see the importance of preaching as a key element of our Sunday services. Sunday’s training (on the Bible’s view of sex) set some important principles which will flow through into preaching when some of these topics arise.
Preaching is still at our heart. It is still our focus. And it not undermined by equipping the saints. Rather it is enhanced. How do your people get trained?
I struggle to speak simply. Although I regularly exhort the Cornhill students to convey their meaning with simplicity, I myself default to complexity in my own homiletic preparatory labours. (Yes, ok, I enjoyed concocting that dreadful sentence!)
I had a little example this morning, when making final changes to my sermon for Christ Church Mayfair, our home church.
I jotted down my opening sentence a bit like this; well, actually it wasn’t quite as bad as this; I have complexified it, even hammed it up a bit to make a point:
“The fundamental subject matter of this Psalm is summarised in the concluding two verses.”
That is true; and it is what I wanted to say. But I stepped back, looked at it, listened in my mind’s ear to what it would sound like, and thought, “That sounds as if it is being read out from a clumsy civil service draft document, or a technical commentary.”
So I tried again:
“What this Psalm is about is summed up in the final two verses.”
That was better. “What this Psalm is about” is colloquial, but gets what I mean across more directly than “fundamental subject matter of…”. And “final” and “summed up” are closer to how most people speak than “concluding” and “summarised”. But it still sounds a bit like a commentary, albeit a more popular one.
How about this?
“The last two verses sum up the Psalm.”
That’s a lot sharper, isn’t it? The shift from passive to active does a lot. I reckon it says in nine crisp syllables what had been twenty-four heavy Latinate syllables. Now I can say this and not feel as if a printed commentary is using me as a ventriloquist’s doll.
Worth labouring to be clear and straightforward, I reckon.