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.
Some war books (yawn)
I’m a great believer that Christian leaders should read non Christian books. There’s no particular theological reason for that. I want to be careful in saying Christians have much to learn from the world. Rather, reading about the world in which we live is a way we train ourselves to understand that God is sovereign over all things and uses not only weak Christian vessels – but even those who reject him to achieve his purposes. A broad reading does – if nothing else – help us grasp, understand and rejoice in common grace.I particularly love reading military books. I know, at this point that is enough to send people off to sleep. But there’s more. I particularly like reading military biographies. I like biographies because understanding how people think, act and relate is definitely helpful when it comes to sharpening our preaching. War is a good background to such realities as it tends to bring out extremes in people, helping you understand fallen humanity even more closely.
I was once told that pastors should read military history because it’s the closest thing to pastoring. There’s some truth in that, though once again, I wouldn’t want to push it too far, but here are two books I’ve just finished which I’ve loved. I have to confess they were easy to read because they concern two of my heroes.
First up is Alan Brooke’s diaries from WWII. He was Chief of the Imperial General Staff and Churchill’s right hand military man. He had the guts to stand up to Churchill and they had a kind of love-hate relationship. His war diaries are fascinating. There’s also more than a hint of Christian faith, though it may be residual Northern Irish Protestantism talking. Here’s an example when he writes about his second wife (his first had died in a car crash):
I never realized that such happiness could exist on this earth, and even now when its magnitude makes parting all the harder to bear it has this compensation: that the memory of such happiness is in itself an inspiration which eases the burden. Through you I have been able to realize better than any other time in my life the perfection of God’s works. And I thank God from the bottom of my heart for having brought us together.
His clear thinking and glory-avoiding manner made a significant contribution to winning the war. Possibly one of our best of men.
He’s not wholly different from the man I think may be the USA’s greatest WWII general – Omar Bradley. His autobiography has to be read in the same way as Brooke’s – these are not peer-reviewed thoughts and words. Nevertheless, the GI General was truly a man of the people and had a resonance with the ordinary soldier which moved me greatly.
If you’re not yawning yet (and many of you may be), both of these are worth some time.
Kingdom Come Revisited
Sam Storms’ Kingdom Come has been around now 18 months or so. Not everyone is going to be persuaded by his arguments and conclusions (for amillennialism), but I have found the book truly useful. It’s useful for those wishing to understand this particular viewpoint, especially as it is written from the point of view of someone who grew up in a situation where such a view is truly cutting against the grain. That sharpens Sam’s thinking.
But this week I had cause to turn to it again for his excellent chapter on Romans 9-11. I have read a lot on this chapter, from all different point of views, but I think Sam’s chapter is a super analysis, clear and well argued, not dismissive of other views (he correctly shows that it’s possible to make too much of the achris hou in Greek).
I know it’s a cliche, but the price of the book is worth it for this chapter alone.
Week by week
We always need to make a case for consecutive expository preaching. We’re not so naive as to say that all preaching must take this form, but that we believe that the normal diet of a flock of God’s people is best served by this approach. Tim Trumper, a good friend of PT and a pastor in the US has recently written a short book about just this subject. It’s – in part at least – in response to some well publicised comments about how this kind of weekly diet is not what the church needs. It is therefore timely and focused. You can buy the volume here, but here is a taster:
The completed canon allows for [consecutive expository preaching], the profitability of all Scripture encourages it, and the history of Reformation preaching supports it. Consecutive exposition is the true heir of Reformation preaching.
Just a great hymn
Just saying. Even if you don’t want to sing it, you could at least use it in your devotions. Some authors have a way with words…
See, the conqueror mounts in triumph,
see the King in royal state,
riding on the clouds, his chariot,
to his heavenly palace gate!
Hear the choirs of angel voices
joyful hallelujahs sing,
and the gates on high are opened
to receive their heavenly King.
2. Who is this that comes in glory,
trumpets sounding jubilee?
Lord of battles, God of armies,
he has gained the victory;
he who on the cross once suffered,
he who from the grave arose,
he has conquered sin and Satan,
he by death has spoiled his foes.
3. He has raised our human nature
through the clouds to God’s right hand;
there we sit in heavenly places;
there with him in glory stand:
Jesus reigns, adored by angels:
Man with God is on the throne;
mighty Lord, in your ascension
we by faith behold our own.
4. Glory be to God the Father;
glory be to God the Son,
dying, risen, ascending for us,
who the heavenly realm has won;
glory to the Holy Spirit;
to one God in Persons three,
glory, both in earth and heaven,
glory, endless glory, be.
Christopher Wordsworth (1807-85)
Learning to pray in public
Here’s a thought: how many pastors of churches lead their church not just in preaching the word, but in public prayer? I don’t mean the intercessory stuff that’s become the meat and drink of church praying. I mean the (and I use this word very carefully) prophetic or even priestly praying where the whole church is taken up to the throne of God with carefully chosen words and phrases dripping with Scriptures.
I think that used to be a feature of evangelicalism which is fast disappearing. It’s not a Free Church/Anglican thing: when I started talking to colleagues about this all of us were able to name names of those from all kinds of denominations who prayed in this way.
Put it another way. If, in 200 years, people wrote down our prayers in a little black book, would it look anything like Valley of Vision. Are we even able to pray in this way publicly? And if we’re deficient here, are we really that surprised that people are deficient in their own prayer life.
This isn’t an argument for long prayers. Nor for complex prayers. But it may well be that pastors need to learn to pray publicly. It’s an area of leadership we don’t really exercise.
Valley of Vision is a good place to start, as are some of Cranmer’s collects. Spurgeon’s prayers are very long, but have great power. I plan my praying, just as I plan my preaching. I use notes – not only because I want to make sure my theology is right, but because I believe that leading God’s people in prayer is no little thing.
How about you?
Delighting in Orthodoxy 101
As Christian ministers, we need to constantly fight the battle to find delight in the most basic truths of Christianity. Without this battle, we become immune to the wonders and awe of the gospel and in all that it means. Take Christmas: every year I preach on the incarnation and its wonder: Jesus as fully God, fully man. There I’ve said it. Pretty basic and fundamental – yet so familiar to us that it loses its shine. How did you feel when you read out that sentence? Did you heart leap as you read once again the mystery of God made man? Did you feel your mind stretch at the concept that is beyond understanding? No? Me neither. And that’s the problem.
It’s not that we don’t believe these foundational truths. It’s that they cease to move us as they should. They cease to prompt a right response in us. And if that is the case, how can we preach them to others?
For evangelicals, this is particularly pressing. Let me suggest three signs that we may be losing this battle, or not even engaging in it. They are three areas that we particular delight in.
- Hunting heresy. It’s good to contend for the faith, necessary. But it’s a serious sign when we start delighting in finding heresy rather than in the truth it is an aberration of. There’s lots of this about. I can’t speak for others, but I always want to ask myself if I’m finding more joy in uncovering such mistaken truth than I am in the truth itself.
- Minutiae pleasure. I love detail. And I love thinking through hard issues and working them out. That’s well and good. I’ve been doing that recently with republication. But there’s a real danger that I find joy in this working out of the detail. Like solving a mathematical problem, there’s a delight in getting to the answer. For myself, that kind of joy is always a danger sign.
- Disputable delight. Some matters are disputable. There’s no doubt about that. Disputable is not just a pragmatic category, it’s a Bible category. That doesn’t mean there’s not a right or wrong answer. Take baptism. Paedo Baptists and credo Baptists cannot both be “right” I don’t think (although that’s perhaps an unhelpful category). But we recognise that there’s a biblical case for the other side, even if we don’t fully agree with it. For myself, I want to be wary of finding too much delight in the disputable matters. I think there’s a danger in that, because the fundamentals of the faith are indisputable.
All of which is to say, we need to constantly fight the battle to find delight in the most basic truths of Christianity. How you do that will depend on you. I take a subject (like the incarnation) and try to write out a prayer in a notebook: not for public consumption, but to train myself to delight in these things. I also pray with a hymnbook. I struggle to choose some old hymns to sing congregationally, but they are great fodder for my prayer time as the poetry is so emotionally engaging.
But however you do it, fight you must.
Why should the Big Idea govern the main point of a sermon?
Suppose a pastor, knowing the state of his congregation, sees that in Sunday’s bible passage there is some truth he judges they badly and urgently need. OK, it is not the main point of the passage, but he is sure it is what they most need. Is he not justified in making this subsidiary point in the passage into the main point of the sermon? Indeed, is this not his pastoral responsibility, to use his God-given intuition and knowledge of his congregation in this way?
Such an argument is plausible but dangerous, at least for regular week by week expository preaching. There is nothing wrong with selecting a topic for a one-off sermon and applying this particular bible truth because it seems to be timely and appropriate. But we must not pretend it is exposition. One of the great benefits of exposition is that we let God set the agenda, we give God the microphone, we trust that God knows best what we need to hear, that if we give our congregations a balanced diet of systematic consecutive exposition working through bible books, we and they will over time be built up in godliness and faith. So let’s not lose our nerve; let’s have the courage to make the main thing in the passage the main thing in a faithful expository sermon. Apart from anything else, it will save our churches from having too often to endure the bees buzzing round in the pastor’s bonnet.
Must there be a Big Idea?
Along with many others seeking to train in expository bible ministry, we at the PT Cornhill Training Course make “the Big Idea” one of the key pillars of our training strategy. For every bible passage, we ask our students to work hard to express the one central truth of the passage in a clear and concise sentence. If you come across one of our students on a bad day, you may well find them tearing their hair out trying to find the wretched Big Idea!
But are we right? OK, so it’s often a helpful exercise trying to find a Big Idea; but what if there isn’t one? Must there be a Big Idea for every bible passage? Or, to put it another way, is the whole “Big Idea” thing an arbitrary creation of Cornhill and other like-minded training methods?
It’s a fair question and a good one. What lies behind it is the whole business of coherence. If you, as a sane and rational person, say something to me, I will generally make the assumptions, first that you intend to say something coherent to me (rather than whimsical or random “Alice in Wonderland” speech) and that you succeed, at least approximately, in saying something coherent. Suppose I have had a ten minute ‘phone call with you, after which a mutual friend asks me what you said. She is not asking or expecting me to repeat what you said verbatim; what she wants is the main content of what you said, put more briefly (“I got the job,” “I have been promoted,” “She said yes” or whatever it may be). If this is so with fallible human beings, how much more ought we to make the assumption that God intends, and succeeds in conveying, a coherent message in his word. In which case I may reasonably expect to be able to find the main point of what he says.
We must be sensible about this. It does depend on wise divisions of passages in a bible book; some divisions fit better than others with the underlying structure. And some passages may have a tighter Big Idea than others. But it is a reasonable assumption that God is not making random disconnected statements, but rather speaking with coherence. That’s what the Big Idea idea is about.
Making Job less impenetrable
Job is Holy Scripture. I know that. But I also know that some things in Scripture, by its own admission, “are hard to understand.” I put Job in that category. Not that there aren’t wonderful truths which I know well (and recite at funerals). But understanding these truths in the larger sweep and answering quite basic questions (“what are we to make of Elihu?”) are not straightforward. And as I long to see Christ in every book, I have to confess that Job is one of the hardest.
That’s why I love Christopher’s new commentary on Job in the Preach the Word series. He’s written on Job before of course, but this new volume is substantial. I’ve been using it to help me as I read through Job very slowly in my personal devotions – and what a help it’s been in understanding the Scripture. Looking back, my notes in the margin are copious and full of exclamation marks. There’s nothing to be ashamed of using other people’s learning and study to benefit your own. And whilst I don’t plan preaching Job right at the moment (it needs more studythan a devotional reading can give it), nevertheless, I’ve found it both personally and pastorally helpful. Christopher’s is a really first class volume worth having on your shelf and using. This series was patchy at first, but is getting steadily better and better.