Sermon illustrations part 3
Where do you get your sermon illustrations from?
If Christopher's approach is careful, then mine can only be described as anarchic. I am blessed (cursed?) with a mind which is only able to remember trivia. Exams were an ordeal for me. Anniversaries? No hope. Mrs R's phone number? Useless? Greek? Always a labour.
Trivia. Ah, that's me. I'm your man. Pub Quiz, here I come. I remember useless stuff I read, see and hear. The stories stick with me. I don't remember the details always, but the kernel of the story sticks. So, I remember a man who cheated in a half marathon and took the bus some of the way around. I remember that the French for candy floss means Grandpa's beard. I remember stuff like that.
20 years ago that would have been a curse that was without alleviation. But now, we have the internet made for trivia nerds like me. And so, with a decent news search engine (BBC or The Times), I can find the stories I remember a little about and use them as sermon illustrations. So, no word file for me. Just a decent website and a kooky memory bank.
But tomorrow, I'll show you a better way…
Sermon illustrations part 2
Where do you get your sermon illustrations from?
Christopher Ash and I are fundamentally different when it comes to storing and accessing sermon illustrations. I thought it would be useful, therefore, to explain our two strategies. The two approaches reflect our nature and the way our minds work.
So this is how it is for Mr Ash. He has a word document and every time he hears, sees or reads a story that makes him sit up and take notice he writes it out in his word file. He then searches the word file for key words when he is looking for illustrations. This word file is (I hope) backed up!
This kind of approach is methodical and anitipatory. You'll see tomorrow that my approach is very different. I doubt Christopher has some of the head scratching moments I do! It enables stories to be quickly and accurately recalled. But is has its drawbacks too. It requires a disciplined mind and care that you don't reuse illustrations too often – you need quite a big bank.
On the whole, I'm rather envious of this approach. My scattergun technique will be revealed tomorrow….
Sermon illustrations part 1
Where do you get your sermon illustrations from?
That's a common question experienced preachers are asked by inexperienced ones. So, I thought it may be useful to give a few answers. First though, it's worth asking what sermon illustrations are for? Sermon illustrations are stories or similes or pictures which cast light on something that is difficult to understand. It may be difficult because it's new, outside of the culture, hard – for many reasons. But illustrations are there to be a window onto an otherwise darkened room.
That means they are not always necessary. Some preachers are slaves to illustrations, feeling that the congregation will be very bored with this particular passage unless there is an illustration to help along. I fear that says more about your preaching, dear brother than it does about the congregation! Sometimes, little breathing spaces are useful in sermons: that's not an illustration and nor should it take time and energy away from the message. But if you feel that your preaching is simple enough not to need illustrations, but you must have them anyway to keep people with you….well, perhaps you need to go back to the drawing board!
Nor should illustrations often be negative. For example, tell a long story and then say "and this is what God is not like…." It's tempting to pursue that line. It's always easier to find 100 things that don't illustrate what you want to say, then one that does. By definition. However (and also by definition) it's hard to build up a proper picture of what you are trying to illustrate but telling people what it is not. I fall into this trap often, and Mrs R thankfully reminds me of my own counsel (often). Sometimes they work. But less often than most preachers think.
For example. Imagine you are trying to illustrate the dependability of God's word. You could use the illustration of a weather forecaster, who only gets things right some of the time (perhaps using that famous moment when the hurricane of 1987 was not predicted). "That is not what God is like" you could say. But what have you proved. Very little.
However, with only a slight tweak you could turn this round. "What if there were a weather forecaster, you might say, who always got things right. Every time. No mistakes. 100% record. Everybody would tune in to him or her. No one would bother with any other channel. He or she could command any salary they wanted. Everyone else would be out of business! Imagine a forecaster like that!" And so it is with God…. See the difference?
Tomorrow, where Mr Ash gets his sermon illustrations from….
It was a joy to include Lloyd-Jones' story on being wedded to three points in my Numbers book. Here's my footnote, with some added analysis…
This text (Numbers 22:21) gives rise to one of the best known stories about preaching. D Martyn Lloyd-Jones recalls hearing a preacher who was wedded to three headings. So, for this text he took (1) A good trait in a bad man, as Balaam rose early. (2) The antiquity of saddlery for the passage demonstrates that it is ‘neither modern or new, but an ancient craft’ and (3) A few remarks concerning the woman of Samaria. The preacher could think of nothing else to say. So, says Lloyd-Jones, headings should be ‘natural and appear to be inevitable.’
We might add that preachers need not be slaves to having three points, nor should they take such short texts that they lose sight of the setting and main point being made.
See D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1971), p.208
So, I want to coin the phrase donkey preaching to describe preaching:
- which takes a short text (not wrong in itself) and completely rips it out of context, or
- which is wedded to three points where this is unjustifable, or
- where the points do not 'naturally and inevitably' arise from the text
Introducing The Proclamation Bible
The Proclamation Bible is an exciting new initiative from Hodder, publishers of the NIV in the UK. It is not from us (as the youtube clip seems to infer) but we are pleased to say it is both inspired by the work that PT has done over the years and it counts as contributors and consulting editors many PT luminaries. The idea is to produce a study Bible with a difference. Lee Gatiss was tasked with putting together a set of helps for a Bible which would be a boost for any preacher or Bible teacher. This is not a verse by verse analysis, like some very good study Bibles already on the market. Rather, we wanted an introductory article to each book of the Bible which tackles some PT classic questions – what is the melodic line of this book, what is its message and intent and so on. As such, any preacher or teacher is given a really good foot up ready for study.
Alongside these book-related articles are a set of introductory articles on reading the Bible. You'll find contributions from Christopher Ash, Graham Beynon, Gerald Bray, Simon Gathercole, David Jackman, Karen Jobes, Dick Lucas, Douglas Moo, Peter O’Brien, me (!), Vaughan Roberts, William Taylor, and Chris Wright …oh, the list goes on. You can pre-order here.
Summer reading: Behind the beautiful forevers
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo is the first novel from the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. I say novel, but it is based largely on interviews and her experiences from life in a Mumbai slum. Not even the names have been changed. I love India and I love reading books about India, but this one left me feeling queasy. It's not an easy book, nor does it have a happy ending. I know that some Indian stories can be prone to exaggeration, but even allowing for this, the stories of the two or three families in the book are sobering at best, depressing at worst. Nevertheless, I found I couldn't put it down. I was put onto this book by journalist and travel writer Oliver Balch whom I found myself sitting next to at a recent wedding. We discovered a shared interest in India and he recommended this book.
What did it teach me as a Christian?
- First, it taught me that I should be grateful for a myriad of things I enjoy in the UK and on which we often grumble. Financial security. Pensions. Benefits. State Education. Uncorrupt police and government officials (in comparison). A superb NHS. The list goes on. Why do so many Christians grumble about these things? God forgive me if I ever do. I don't think I will now…
- Second, it taught me of the need for the gospel. The culture of Mumbai represented in the book is corrupt to the nth degree. Rich people have stopped voting, says the author, because they have found quicker and more sure ways of getting what they want….. it's only the poor who vote. Corruption is presented at every level – but is not thought of negatively. There is no immorality in corruption. No, it's just the most efficient way to get on. This corruption is so endemic at every level, that there is no hope for India apart from the gospel. I truly believe that India needs a Great Awakening. Only then will there be a difference.
- Third, it presented a view of social action which is entirely useless. In the book, Christian money is funneled into the slum through education and social programs. But those who have responsibility for administering the programs (even Christians!) are siphoning off the money before it gets to those who need it. This is their 'right'. So, a local leader set up twelve or thirteen 'schools', gathers some children together and takes a picture which she then sends off to some well meaning US supporters – those who consciences are no doubt assuaged by what they are supporting. If I didn't think it already, it would make me very skeptical about programs which aren't delivered at the end point through those we know. Moreover, it reinforces the second point. The gospel is not social action – that much is clear in Katherine's book, because there is no social action to speak of.
So, hardly a laugh a minute. But a sobering, well-written, thought provoking read.
Who’s in control?
We're preaching through Ecclesiastes in the autumn, and this quote from Iain Provan in the NIV Application Commentary is helpful. He is describing how many commentators struggle to understand the book and therefore end up re-interpreting what the text actually says:
A possible response to our problematic book might be to find ways of reinterpreting what it has to say – perhaps by resorting to the kind of allegorical, spiritualising approach to biblical interpretation that was so popular amongst ancient and medieval Christian commentators. As the long history of biblical interpretation has itself shown, however, this approach makes it simply to easy to force the text to say what one wishes it to say and thus simply to subvert its authority in a different way. Such an interpretative method may increase the reader's comfort level, but it can do great violence to the text.
When, for example, Jerome interprets Ecclesiastes as a treatise aiming 'to show the utter vanity of every sublunary enjoyment, and hence the necessity of betaking oneself to an ascetic life devoted entirely to the service of God' it seems obvious to us (although presumably not to Jerome) that the text is not in control of Jerome, but Jerome of the text. His method of reading enabled him too easily to shape the text in his own image and disabled him from hearing anything in it that might challenge his own assumptions and beliefs.
What are you working on at the moment. And who's in control?
I'd love to welcome you to the autumn ministers conference held at Hothorpe Hall from 11-14 November 2013. The autumn stretch, as you will know, is a long old one and by the middle of November, a chance to catch your breath is very welcome. That, in part, is what we plan and pray for at this autumn ministers conference. Yes, it has all the ingredients that are essential to a PT conference, but there's planned breathing space too. Do come and join us. If you've not been before. here is what you can expect:
- preaching for preachers. Our speakers are briefed to preach to the hearts and minds of preachers with appropriate application and some help for preachers in their preaching
- plenary sessions addressing particular ministry and life issues, again focused on the life of the preacher
- preaching workshops with both specific and general groups (e.g, Christmas preaching or last sermons). We want to recognise that the task of preaching is one we all need to work hard at.
- opportunities to pray and talk through particular ministry issues
- good food and relaxing surroundings at Hothorpe Hall
I wasn't able to go last year because of a family illness…. and I really missed it! This year it's in the diary and I hope to see you there.
But here's another idea. Many of us live near other evangelical ministers who could do with our friendship and encouragement. Why not make the time investment to invite a local colleague along? Perhaps he's never been to something like this? It would be a great way to build and cement gospel partnerships to come with someone… Some have used the conference in the past in that way. Why not you?
Revised EMA trailer
Is the Bible sufficient?
That's a rather pejorative question! Of course, we believe it is. But if the question is phrased slightly differently, we may find some diverging opinions. Is the Bible self-sufficient for its own understanding? In other words, do we need to go outside the Bible to understand the Bible correctly. We had an interesting time with John Dickson at one of our recent ministers conferences where we explored just this theme (the videos are shown below). More recently, it was the subject of a useful blog post from over the pond. I don't normally link to other posts, trying to avoid the constant merry-go-round where millions of bloggers all reference the same 10 blog posts. Nevertheless, this one from the Gospel Coalition is worth some time and thought. it specifically addresses whether outside information is needed in order to be able to understand the Bible correctly.
Connected to that is a second issue. Is the Bible sufficient for all of life? For what it's worth, the reason this second point is so controversial is, in part at least, due to a redefining of what we mean by sufficiency. We used to mean what the Westminster Shorter Catechism means: "The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man." In other words, the Scriptures are sufficient for a particular purpose. That has become, in certain circles, unhelpfully broadened so that Scripture becomes a straightjacket on matters of which it simply does not speak.