Friday, January 31, 2014


I greatly enjoy any opportunity to reflect on preaching.  Talking with a couple of colleagues this week one of them summed up how some churches view preaching by making this contrast: some churches focus on giving input, while others focus on output. 

Input churches see themselves as preaching centres which offer the excellence of their preaching staff.  Come to their churches and you will be sure to hear a high standard of preaching within their own church culture.   If it is verse-by-verse preaching you can be certain of clear teaching with worthy exegesis;  if it is more narrative in style you can be guaranteed excellence of content, and so on.   These churches concentrate on providing the best input they can.

However, other churches are concerned about output which focuses less on product and rather more on the outcomes of the preaching in terms of whole-life discipleship.  They ask: "Can you discern a process of change so that as people gather for worship they 'embrace the prospect of God using them for his purposes on their frontlines, the places where they already spend most of their time.'? How much are worshippers involved in the outworking of proclamation as they scatter to work in God's kingdom' ?

Input preaching encourages solo work from the preacher and tends towards a more individualistic approach, while output preaching calls for community collaboration and worship beyond church walls.

Obviously this contrast oversimplifies matters.  Apart from anything else, you need well-prepared input in order for there to be output, but as soon as I heard it I recognized its appropriateness in my experience!  Does it ring true for you? 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Next preach (4)

Last night I appreciated evensong in the Caius chapel with the highly-regarded choir in full voice right next to me!  Though preaching time was limited I wanted to bring something of Jeremy Taylor's seriousness to shape the sermon's conclusion.

I confessed that his most famous work - Spiritual helps to holy living and holy dying -makes for far too intense reflection for most of us today.  I struggled through some of the pages these last few days. He begins his helps for holy living with Section1: The first general instrument of holy living – care of our time. He warns us about wasting time and not giving serious thought to God. In typical fashion he then presents 23 rules (yes, 23!) for ensuring we do not waste time, beginning:
1. In the morning when you awake, accustom yourself to think first upon God…and at night also, let him close thine eyes.
2. Let every man that hath a calling be diligent in pursuance of its employment.

The call to focus every moment on living effectively for God with such extensive practical details sounds extraordinarily demanding in our age of lightweight spiritual discipline.  But for him it really matter because:
‘ God hath given to man a short time here upon earth, and yet upon this short time eternity depends…for we must remember that we have a great work to do, many evils to prevent, much danger to run through, many difficulties to be mastered, many necessities to serve, and much good to do'.

I know this was a tough way to end a sermon, but I am finding it even tougher on this Monday to think of the immediate implications this fresh week.   Praise God that we have a living hope and Holy Spirit to inspire us on our way.   

Monday, January 20, 2014

Next preach (3)

I have little opportunity to collaborate on my sermon for Caius, but I can report its great challenge of preaching two set lectionary readings.  Elsewhere (in Preaching as Worship) I have listed some pros and cons of following the lectionary's prescribed Scriptures, but here I have met an inspiring contrast between Old Testament and New Testament texts.  

Ecclesiastes 3: 1-11 describes human life dispassionately setting within time two contrasting parts:  , recognizing how positive events are (inevitably) accompanied by negative. One positive- being born, planting, healing, building up, laughing, dancing, mending, times for love and peace. And each is accompanied by its counterpart: dying, plucking up, killing, breaking down, weeping, mourning, hate and war. These are unavoidable in human life – on one side great beauty is possible and on the other the burden of being human. This is how God orders human life. There is some bleakness here: What gain have the workers from their toil? V9 I have seen the business that God has given everyone to be busy with v 10.  

Yet, the most critical aspect of this analysis, the most troubling verse of all, concludes the set reading: He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end NRSV v11).    Made in God’s image humankind has a capacity for eternal things, we sense there is a bigger picture than going round in circles;  that there is a big story which had a beginning in creation, which has suffered in the Fall, yet still has purpose.   We sense this but we cannot find it out, says Ecclesiastes. There is resonance with Augustine later:  You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find peace in you.   We cannot know.   If only it could be clearer.  A time to be born and a time to die;  a time to kill, and a time to heal.

And we cannot, of course, ever know the bigger story, unless the God who created humans in time breaks into human life.   This seems utterly unlikely.  In fact, if you even open your mind up seriously to consider how a creator God outside time might communicate it would seem impossible that we might witness a baby in a manger and hear;  today for you in the city of David is born a saviour.  That God enters time  and humanity to save the world in Jesus Christ.   

The reading from 1 Peter 1:3-12 is as big a contrast with Ecclesiastes as you can imagine.   While Ecclesiastes is dispassionate and impersonal,  Peter lets rip with praise language on fire with conviction that he has seen the Christ,  no, experienced him, as new birth, living hope, inheritance that cannot perish, spoil or fade because of the Saviour who has a died and risen from the dead.  And in a world of dying, plucking up, killing, breaking down, weeping, mourning, hate and war where people suffer all kinds of trials – in this world  he testifies to a new reality - living hope.   The bleak words:  God has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end are met with radiant new faith in a God who encounter us, who  from the beginning loved creation and in Christ has redeemed creation and will not give up on it until the end in glory.  This testimony changes everything. No longer cyclical living but straight line purpose with all the demands of serious thinking and living this makes. 

We can recognize the contrast between texts. Ecclesiastes invites us to a realism about human life where most people find themselves, caught in a cycle.   Peter blazes the trail of the God who is writing a big story that if it is true challenges us to the core, for we now know. 
I have preached on Ecclesiastes several times and you can certainly emphasize the responsibility that God gives within human life to discern and act wisely and to recognize his order.  But when you put the other NT reading with it, you really hear it preach!  Keep praying as I work on!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Next preach (2)

Whenever you preach in the University there is history underneath. Each college is proud of their past famous students and because of my interest in preaching I am always particularly keen to remember great preachers.  It twangs my historical antennae.

At Gonville and Caius,  Bishop Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) stands out as one of the 'greats'.  Its extraordinary to think that in the era of Shakespeare, Milton and Bacon this man was deservedly rated in the top rank of communication.  With grandeur of diction and style, with effortless inclusion of multiple classical quotations, he is marked by many elements of great preaching.  As one writer puts it: He had a very definite message to deliver, without which the most eloquent preacher will be futile; and there was a spirit of piety about him which gives his sermons an unction, a sweetness, and a tenderness which commend them to the heart as well as to the head.

I have now reconnected with some of my library that I left here in storage before embarking on my US adventure.  It contains many old books which I found in my favourite used-book shop in Saffron Walden - a town south of Cambridge. (Someone mentioned that a large number of clergymen have retired to this town which probably explains the large theological section in this shop, as well as the cheap prices).  So, I have been re-reading both Taylor's biography (which claims he is England's Chrysostom!)  and an old copy of his most famous spiritual writings:  The Rule and Exercise of Holy Living and The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying

Much strikes me.  There's the wonder that at a golden time for English literature God raised up Jeremy Taylor.  His preaching would not communicate well today (well, of course, he wouldn't preach like that!) but was profoundly effective in the seventeenth century.   How God sends powerful preachers appropriately into changing cultures!  But, also, he demonstrates a spiritual seriousness far removed from the froth of some contemporary spirituality.  He believed: 'Theology is rather a Divine life than a Divine knowledge' and you can particularly see this devotional concern in his prayers.  Who today could imagine publishing helps for 'holy dying'?

Re-connecting, even briefly, with Jeremy Taylor challenges me yet again to remember the crowd of witnesses around me as I  prepare a fresh sermon in 2013.   So humbling!  Actually, that crowd is true for all Christian living and dying, isn't it?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Next preach (1)

Since preaching on Christmas Day, I have enjoyed a quiet period (which perhaps is just as well as we continue to unpack and sort out our new home).  This preacher has been in the pew!

My next commitment is at Gonville and Caius College for their evening worship at the end of January. It is a joy to be reconnecting with the Cambridge scene.  Past experiences of preaching in different University college chapels (always followed by dining on High Table) stand out in my memory. 

Occasionally, my Baptist principles and practice have shown up very obviously! On one occasion, I was given permission by the Mistress of Girton College to hold a believers' baptismal service in the college indoor swimming pool.  Several students were baptized and it seemed that the whole community turned out to stand several deep right around the edge of the pool.   A reporter and photographer from the local paper, the Cambridge Evening News, hovered to record the occasion. I guess the great majority of people had never witnessed such an event before.  Indeed the reporter attached himself to Carol and with insistence and minimum sensitivity plyed her with questions throughout the entire service: 'What's he doing now?  Why is that happening?' (Apparently this article was recently reprised in the paper's column: ' Twenty Five Years Ago'.) 

On a personal note I also need to record that the pool was unheated and as this took place early Spring I turned blue as I entered the water.  Each candidate gave testimony at the pool edge and was mercifully only in the water briefly, but I suffered in my role that night! 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

It's Wednesday. It's table tennis!

Someone asked me whether we had settled into any routines now that we are back in Cambridge (and, I think they were hinting about our plod towards retirement). Well, yes!   On Wednesdays we often go to play a (gentle) game of table tennis at a local Methodist church which hosts a community time for the over 60's.  (Do we really?  Honestly, yes!)

Yesterday turned out to be a corker of a day.  En route to the community time, we visited a friend who is mightily disabled by Parkinson's Disease and currently in a care home.  Her brightness and humour is radiant.  She has become a poet, gaining ever wider recognition through many published poems.  Extraordinarily, she shared how grateful she is that in her severe disablement she has been given such a gift to be creative.  Thoughtfully she commented as we spoke about her condition: 'If I had to choose between being disabled with this opportunity to be creative and not being disabled yet without creativity, I would choose the former.'  Isn't that amazing?

Arriving at the community session we found ourselves talking and listening to a colourful range of people.  One couple have a daughter who, with her husband, works in the slums in Kenya with heroic stories by the yard.   Another lady came in wearing biker leathers for her first visit;  her job was a 'coder' in the National Health Service making sure all treatment was properly coded for payment.  She had stories too.  Another man came in who said he worked with the Armed Forces in the Middle East.  I asked him whether he had seen the movie 'Captain Phillips'  about the Somali pirates and eventual freeing of the sailors by the navy.  Quietly, he told us that he was part of the network responsible for dealing with such intelligence but he couldn't say much otherwise he would have to kill us. Actually, the table tennis game was something of an anticlimax - close but Carol won again.  

Afterwards we popped over to a Salvation Army Resale Shop to congratulate a lady we have only recently got to know who was awarded 'The Carer of the Year 2013' by the Cambridge Evening News because of her sterling work caring for the elderly.  In her modesty she had told us nothing about this award but the stories of her devotion are now out there to challenge us all.

Later that evening we met up with the couple whose daughter works in Kenya and shared more stories.  As the day wound down Carol said to me: 'You should blog about this.  Just an ordinary day but if you are listening to people there are such interesting folk everywhere you turn.'   Not every Wednesday is like this but it's not too shabby a 'routine' is it?

Friday, January 3, 2014

New Year Resolutions

All good wishes for 2014!  As we turn the page and anticipate what may fill up our calendars in the next 12 months, we often acccompany this new beginning by fresh promises.  I read today that over a quarter of men in the UK who made a new year's resolution to lose weight had already given up by the third day. Apparently, 31% give up within the first week!

Taking me to a deeper level in my devotional reading yesterday, Oswald Chambers focused on Ecclesiastes 5: 4, 5.  "When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it".

He comments that vows can be perilous because when people achieve a moral victory by sheer force of will they are much less likely to want to become Christians than those who face the moral frontier of their own needs and know they cannot fulfil it. 'Jesus Christ bases the entrance to His Kingdom not on a person's vowing and making is coming to God exactly as we are, in all our weakness, and being held and kept by Him.  Make no vows at this New Year time, but look to God and bank on the Reality of Jesus Christ.'

Chambers gives (as so often in his devotions) a warning about the limitations of sheer will power and an easy way to be foolish in God's sight.  Yet, will-power is a gift of discipline in the Spirit and thought-through resolutions committed in Christ's strength  are really worth saying aren't they?   One of mine is to read through 'Daily Thoughts for Disciples from Oswald Chambers' in 2014.  Now that has some chance of fulfilment, doesn't it?!