Does anything really beat a hunger for God’s word? Yes, just one.
Every time I visit India I am amazed and humbled at people's hunger for Gods word. It's really very tangible. I see it everywhere I look:
- some business people have given a week's work time up to come and join our class so that they will understand God's word better
- if you set students some homework, they actually do it!
- people actually know their Bibles; they regularly and really read them
- reading the Bible through in a year is uncommon, most seem to do it every six months or less
- Bibles are well thumbed
- no one complains at longer sermons if they're full of biblical truth
- people remember sermons: "Pastor I remember your last sermon 18 months ago…."
And so on. This is a precious, precious thing and we must pray that we ourselves, and our people, will have a similar hunger. But it's missing one vital ingredient. There is one thing better, of course. It's a hunger for Jesus Christ. We love the word because we love the Word. And we must not let our hunger for the Bible become a bookish irrelevance. We love our Bibles because our Bibles reveal Christ Jesus to us. And one without the other is deadly.
So this recent trip has got me thinking about praying for people in our church. I want them to love Jesus and know him more and more. And because I want them to love him I want them to have a real, tangible hunger for God's word.
And, rest assured, I am praying it for myself too….
Doctrine of ordinary means
OK, so this may be a name I have made up myself, but the point is that God works out his purposes through very ordinary means. We've seen that clearly as we've been working through the book of Ezra with students in Asia. Our Cornhill team has been working with a small group of church leaders and the nine members of an expository preaching course to understand Ezra as a Christian book to be preached. We've got to chapter 6 (two more days to go) and it's been wonderful to see the outworking of God's providence (oh, yes, that's the word) as he moves in the hearts of pagan kings, first Cyrus and then Darius, to achieve his purpose – in this case the temple being rebuilt.
In fact Ezra 6.14 is quite clear. The temple gets finished under the decree of God and under the decrees of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes (included here, though his effect will come later in the book of Nehemiah). It's wonderfully thrilling to have this rounded view of God's work in the world.
- It helps makes sense of the cross of course, as Peter makes clear in Acts 2.23.
- It helps us make sense of life today under God's rule. In fact, all that is good in the world comes from the Father of lights and he often achieves his good purposes through ordinary men and women, even those like the pagan kings who refuse to acknowledge him. We visited Gandhi Smriti with the team, the place where Gandhi was shot. Whatever you think of his politics and views on partition, you have to agree that at certain moments in his life God used him for his good purposes. He was not a believer. But he was part of God's work in the world.
I wonder if we preach the Scriptures faithfully enough to convey this awesome truth?
Why learning to be translated could be good for your preaching
Here in India at the moment and our Cornhill team has done some teaching in both Hindi and Nepali. It's not as easy as you might think (we're talking phrase by phrase translation, rather than simultaneous translation). They've done a good job though. Here are some of my translating tips I gave the team before we started:
- speak in whole but short sentences. I call this Readers Digest preaching. Long sentences, half thoughts, subordinate clauses – these are all hard to translate. You make the translation work much better if you use short, full sentences, even if it doesn't sound like the best BBC news.
- speak with simple words. Both Nepali and Hindi have smaller vocabularies than English. Our rhetoric style makes much of synonyms. That rarely works in translation.
- speak slowly. The translation itself introduces a slower pace to your speaking. But don't be so excited about the next phrase that you leave the last one still being translated.
It strikes me that all these tips have relevance to simple preaching in our mother tongue. It's no bad thing to keep sentences simple and short. Long subordinate clauses that look good on paper are much harder to digest when listened to. It's commendable to avoid complex language. It's good to introduce pause to counter pace. Of course, there is an art to rhetoric in our own language but I've heard enough UK speakers who ought to learn to listen to these tips carefully. They would be a nightmare to translate and that may well mean that they hard to listen to, even in their mother tongue.
Rethinking small groups
I'm a great small groups fan. I think they are a necessary part of church if church is to do all we hope and expect of it (see, for example Hebrews 10.19-25). I think there are certain elements of that kind of Hebrews fellowship that are very, very difficult to make work in a congregation only setting. But here's the thing. I wonder if some of us are wedded to a small group model for the sake of it. It's not because we've thought through what's best to satisfy biblical mandates, but because that's the model we've inherited and is expected of our kind of church. Fresh from attending a small group in India last Friday, here are a few thoughts:
- is an interactive Bible study the best way to learn? For some groups it will be. But I am sure that this method works best in a middle class educated background. We have groups at our home church in East London for whom this is decidedly not the best way to learn, and others for whom it is. I don't think there's one size fits all.
- I'm preaching on Matthew 21 this weekend and the quote Jesus uses from Psalm 8 to refute the chief priests who object to the children's singing has got me thinking. If the logic of Psalm 8 is pursued, there is an element of singing that is spiritual warfare (Ps 8.2). That needs some teasing out, of course, but is there a reason why you don't sing in your small groups?
- One thing in my Indian experience struck me very sharply: the willingness to be open about struggles and sin and pray for one another along those lines. (Ironically, afterwards, one member said to me that it was shame that they were not more open!). Does your small group make this kind of work possible? I know it's difficult for us repressed Brits, but if there is not building up and gracious challenge, the group idea seems to fall at the first hurdle. How can you encourage that?
- Is your group big enough? Is it small enough? It's hard planning a small group. There will always be weeks when people are away (though we want to encourage people to prioritise this mid week meeting). Too small and it is less likely to be representative of the church. Too large and there is limited opportunity for close fellowship. Do you have an optimum number in mind that you work towards?
- Do you pray enough? Small groups are not just Bible study groups. They are surely for prayer too, perhaps (arguably) more so. How do you structure your time to make this work? How do you keep prayer time from being about people's felt needs all the time (though there is a place for this?). I'm not sure we've got this right. Time for a rethink.
When, as church leaders, we tend to rethink church small groups, we tend to do so on the basis of size, location, membership, leadership – all important, of course. But perhaps we need to stand back and ask, what are small groups for and how does that answer shape our approach?
There’s always another point of view
Lewis Allen has helpfully picked apart my post on sermon titles. For what it's worth, I think there is real wisdom in some of the points he makes. They're certainly worth reflecting on. It just goes to show that, as with many of these subjects, there is always another point of view and it's rare that a different point of view does not also contain much wisdom. If we've got you thinking then perhaps the objective has been fulfilled….
A good model
I enjoyed reading John Steven's blog post on smacking the other day here. I link to it not so much because of the point he makes (though I do agree with him). Rather, I want to hold it up as containing some excellent examples of working hard to understand the text. Let me pick out a few:
- John has worked hard to understand some of the Bible verses in their context – both in terms of book (Proverbs) but also (importantly in this case) covenant. That has a significant effect on meaning. He has rightly asked the question, "How does this get changed (if at all) by the cross?"
- He has also sought to understand the meaning of words. In this particular case, that means getting to the bottom (no pun intended!) of what 'beat' means.
- Third, John has compared Scripture with Scripture to understand meaning. Again this is an important principle. Scripture is its own best interpreter and rather than taking one Proverbs verse it needs to be read in the light of other similar injunctions
- Fourth, implicitly, he has avoided framework. In this particular case the framework is to start with the assumption that smacking is right and proper and commanded. If you start with such assumptions, you generally end up reinforcing them. For what it's worth, this, I think, is the reason some US cousins find it so hard to think differently about the issue; because their cultural framework on this issue is so very strong (and before we throw any stones, I'm sure we carry similar baggage).
All Exegesis 101. But, as the example shows, stuff that even the most exalted preachers can forget from time to time. Worth a refresher.
Life Jim, but not as we know it
I love working in the PT office. It's a happy, friendly, gospel place where people look out for one another and there is fun and laughter as we support one another in work and in the Christian life.
But it's not real.
I have to keep telling myself this as I minister to others. You may not have the equivalent of a PT office – there's only one! But even if you're a sole practitioner pastor-teacher your working environment is not real. It's not what the majority of your members struggle through Monday to Friday. You need to keep reminding yourself about that as you preach every Sunday.
I worked for 10 years in business rising to the heady heights of middle management in a global pharmaceutical company. I was sworn at regularly, sometimes violently. I was bullied for being a Christian. I was pressured to work long hours without charging clients, sometimes 16 hours a day. I was in a culture where there were few other Christians and sex, sport and drink were the only topics of conversation. I even had to work for Mohamed Al Fayed.
No pastor faces that. And even if we spend time with non Christians (which I hope you do), you must not kid yourself that those relationships are the same as work relationships. They simply are not. They are more gentle, forgiving and so on.
Of course, the argument goes that even if you work with Christians, you are still working with sinners and so you can identify with people in the pews. That's only true up to a point. Christians are sinners, but they are saved sinners, transformed sinners and sinners being transformed. You wouldn't expect anything from my list above, even if there are tensions.
I mention all of this because I am acutely aware how easy it is to be distant from our people and fail to understand the world they live in. I think it's no bad thing if a few more gospel workers lived in the real world for a time. But whether we have done that or not, our preaching needs to connect with people who have vastly different life experiences from us during the midweek – and we, as faithful preachers, need to bear that in mind.
Commentaries on Ezra
I'm posting today from South Asia, considerably warmer than the UK. I'm here with a small team of students because it's our mission week when we send out teams to go and work with churches. I've brought a team over here to sample Christianity in a different culture and also work with 9 students on a year long preaching course modelled very loosely on the Cornhill Training Course. We're going to be studying Ezra which has been my study project for the last 6 months. It's not hugely well served by good commentaries, which is a shame because this is a super book full of exciting stories – a book for our time and one that preachers should definately have on their radar to preach. Here's my pick of the commentaries.
For devotional commentaries (those arising out of sermons or the like), there's nothing to beat Bob Fyall's latest contribution to the written word. He's written the BST guide on Ezra and Haggai and it's simply superb. We've brought out a dozen copies to give away.
For technical commentaries, the best two (in my less than expert opinion) are Charles Breneman in the New American Commentary series and HGM Williamson in the Word Biblical Commentary series. Fensham (NICOT) also deserves a mention. Williamson has also written the entries in IVP's one volume New Bible Commentary. Worthy of note is Old Testament stalwart Gordon McConville who has written both the Daily Study Bible volume and the ESV Study Bible notes.
You’ve got to pick a pocket or two
Our youngest has been learning the musical Oliver as part of a school project. It's good stuff. She's learning and having fun. The music is catchy and clever – a step up from what goes as a musical today. She's particularly fond of Fagin's first number – You've got to pick a pocket or two. The opening lines set the tone for the rest of the song:
In this life, one thing counts
In the bank, large amounts
This words take on added poignancy when you know the story of the musical. A desperate Lionel Bart sold all the stage, television and film rights for £300,000 in the early seventies (they would later turn out to be worth millions and millions). Bart (you can read some of his story here) is a tragic figure. His cocaine and cash fuelled parties became notorious, living off the earnings from Cliff Richard's Living Doll. It's not a nice story, though. Here is a man who once had large amounts in the bank and discovered that it didn't count, it didn't count at all.
I mention this because this is the culture we are preaching to. Most of our members have some kind of delusion that if only they had more cash, things would be altogether better. Many will do the lottery. And those who don't, dream of doing it. It's only their conscience that prevents them. Our preaching has to tackle the prevailing culture and this is it.
But there's a deeper issue at stake for preachers which is that many of us suffer from the same kind of delusion. If only we had the extra cash for a youth worker. If only we could reorder (that seems to be the in-word) our main building. If only we could buy an extra property to house staff. It's tempting to think that large amounts in the bank would solve any number of our church crises. But Lionel Bart proves that to a false hope which we must not only fight against in our people but in our own hearts.
To paraphrase the words of Fagin later on in the musical, "I think you'd better think it out again."
Peter Jensen on marriage
In all the furore over marriage here in the UK, here is an old episode of Q&A from Australia (the equivalent of Question Time) where Archbishop Peter Jensen contributes wisely, graciously and carefully. He doesn't get riled by ridiculous accusations and even takes quite outrageous insults on the chin. I'm sure this as measured and gracious a presentation as I've seen. We've lot to learn from his approach and content. Worth your time.